by Ron Harris Iron Man MagazineA thought occurred to me the other day—and not for the first time. As the years go by, however, this thought becomes more pronounced and meaningful to me:
“Thank God I never quit!”
At the front of each of my books I inscribe this brief phrase: “Train hard, train smart, and never give up!”
It’s the never-giving-up part that resonates the loudest with me. Some bodybuilders were always big and strong. If you look at photos of Jay Cutler when he was 18 and had yet to start training, you can see that he was already a size some guys would need years of heavy lifting and eating to reach. A year of training later Jay was a solid 260 pounds at just 5’9”, bigger than most bodybuilders ever get no matter how many years they train or how dedicated they are.
When I started fooling around with weights at 12 to 13 years old, I was not consistent. I would work out like a madman for a few days, and then quit for months. I quit because I failed to see any results, and that led me to believe I never would. The real issue at the time was that I had not yet hit puberty, and without that burst of hormones there was just no way my muscles could grow. I was still a child—but I knew that I wanted to be a big, strong man someday. By the time I started high school in ninth grade, I had made up my mind to stick with lifting no matter what. I had no expectations of ever being able to put on much size, though I desperately wanted to. I was just under 5’ tall and 95 pounds.
As high school went on, I kept my promise to myself and continued lifting: at home, in the attic of my friend Paul’s house for the year we trained together every day after school and at the weight room of the Boys Club in Waltham, Massachusetts. I was gradually starting to become more athletic and muscular looking. I hoped to get a lot bigger eventually, but I still didn’t believe it was possible. The couple of kids I knew who were much bigger and stronger than the rest of us had gotten that way very fast. It was clear to me that there was something different about those kids and that they responded to training in a way that most people just didn’t. Nutrition and drugs were not in any way part of this equation. These kids ate the same crap food we all did, and nobody back then was using steroids at that age in my city.
By the time I started college in the fall of 1987—at the University of California at Santa Barbara (a long, long way from home)—I had read my first bodybuilding magazine, and it was like a light bulb went off over my head. Staring in awe at photos of the stars like Rich Gaspari, Lee Labrada, Lee Haney, Gary Strydom, Mike Quinn and Mike Christian, I knew that I wanted to look like them. I cut pictures out and taped them to the walls of my room, which my two roommates found hilarious. They found it even funnier that I thought I could look like that someday. So did everyone else who heard my plan. I was discouraged at every turn and told not to get my hopes up. The next summer my girlfriend in L.A., a B-movie actress named Linda, thought I was delusional, as did Dr. Ellington Darden of Nautilus fame, to whom I sent photos for evaluation, and countless more.
Rather than believe what they said and get discouraged, I got angry and decided I would prove them all wrong. That “I’ll show them” attitude changed over the years as I matured and gained more self-confidence, a quality I had been sorely lacking throughout my entire early life. Eventually, I began to enjoy the process of challenging myself to train harder, eat better and experiment with different workouts and pretty much every new supplement that came along.
Despite not dominating in competition, I kept doing that too, really because I loved it. Team sports had never been my thing, but I enjoyed wrestling my senior year of high school, and bodybuilding was more like that.
Bodybuilding is all about the strive for self-improvement. You can always be a little bit better.
Long story short, here I am today at 41 years old, having been training consistently for 27 years. The people who told me I would never stand on a Mr. Olympia stage with the best pros were right, because my genetics were not at that elite level (and you can forget drugs—without the right genetics all the drugs in the world won’t take you to that level). Still, I’ve won a couple shows, and I’ve had not one but five photo shoots for IRON MAN with Mike Neveux, one of the greatest physique photographers of all time.
I am so glad I never gave up. As I tell people, you just never know how good you can be until you try. I gave it my all and continue to do so, and the physique I see in the mirror today is one the 14-year-old me would have been stunned to know was coming his way. If the younger me had known what I would look like in the future, it would have been a huge boost of motivation, but none of us can do that. When we start out, we have to operate on faith.
You really won’t know what your ultimate potential is until you have put a lot of time and effort into training hard, eating right and resting—and I mean years. After almost 30 years of training (!), I can honestly say I am still improving. If at any point I had given up or even decided that there was no way I could possibly get any better, I wouldn’t look as good as I do now.
Do I look as good as Jay Cutler or Phil Heath? Nope—but so what? And you should not worry about what you look like compared to Jay, me or the guy at the other end of the gym doing curls. Measure your success by how you look next to the previous you, and there’s no way you can fail. Bodybuilding is all about the strive for self-improvement. You can always be a little bit better. The gains don’t come quickly for most of us, and the longer you’ve been at it, the slower they’ll come, but you can’t ever quit. As long as you don’t quit, you are a winner.