When bodybuilder Richard Bagdonas was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 45, he set out to design a new fitness regimen to help him fight that battle, one that would keep his mind and his body strong enough to win. After beating stage four cancer and then COVID pneumonia, Richard started sharing his workout story and building a dedicated community of fit, fab warriors.
In Fit for Any Battle, you’re going to learn how to train your mind to conquer any worry and build resilience, how to unlock the full hidden potential in your muscles, what you should always bring to the gym for the best possible outcome, how to stretch, hydrate and recover, and how to minimize your risk of injury and maximize your results — and there’s so much more. Here’s my conversation with Richard Bagdonas.
Welcome to The Author Hour Podcast, my name is Benji Block and today, we’re thrilled to be joined by Richard Bagdonas. He’s just authored a brand-new book. The book is titled Fit for Any Battle: Train Your Body and Mind for Life After 40. Richard, welcome to Author Hour.
Richard Bagdonas: Thanks, Benji. I appreciate the time.
Benji Block: Absolutely. For listeners who could be new to you and your work, Richard, could you just give us a little bit of your background and your story?
Richard Bagdonas: Sure. I was an early weightlifter and bodybuilder back in my teens because I played football. I played — well, I was a wrestler and I really got into weightlifting and that transcended my entire life. Of course, after 40, the body doesn’t work the same way as it did when we were in our 20s and so I realized that something had to change for me to reduce my injuries.
This book is really 20, 30 years of documented evidence of how I worked out and how I should work out over 40.
Benji Block: Amazing. Why work on the project right now? Or, what prompted the beginning of writing this book?
Richard Bagdonas: It started right around 40. I realized that weightlifting was continually causing me injuries. In fact, I had bicipital tendonitis in both arms and there was a point in which I couldn’t even lift a can of soup and I realized, it was the workout regimen that we had been drilled through when I was in high school, when I was in my 20s and 30s and that was the thing that was actually causing the injuries.
It caused me to look for a solution where I could stay in the gym and workout and reduce the injuries, or if not, completely eliminate the injuries.
Benji Block: Yeah, it’s so crucial too, right? Because over time, your body’s like the wear and tear of just doing the same thing over and over again and you got to get more tactile and try to think through, what do I actually need to be doing to make sure my body stays at this ultimate pinnacle health-wise, right?
Richard Bagdonas: Absolutely. If you’ve ever been to a gym and you’ve seen older people working out — a lot of times, people refer to it as old man strength.
Benji Block: Yup.
Richard Bagdonas: That old guy in the gym who’s just crushing it and I realized, I’d like to figure out how to build that old man strength because I had been building the young man strength all along.
Benji Block: I’m excited to get to dive into some of that with you over the next few minutes. Let me ask you this, when you’re working on this project, obviously, you’re talking to those over 40. Who are you kind of imagining in your head as your ideal reader?
Richard Bagdonas: My ideal reader is somebody who had worked out at a gym at some point in their life and they need a sherpa to help guide them through the gym when they go into the gym after 40. A sherpa is a lot different than a coach because a coach just tells you what to do, a sherpa does it with you.
Benji Block: You did effectively do this where you’re writing sort of for yourself, right? This is the formula I’m going to use but then you’re also giving it away and saying “Hey, join me on this as we do this together.”
Richard Bagdonas: That’s correct. The idea was to use myself as a guinea pig to find and fine-tune what worked and what didn’t, and then incorporating a lot of other things along with the workout. Stretching, hydration, meditation, and recovery techniques.
FitFAB: Body and Mind
Benji Block: Let’s jump back to when you first kind of fell in love with weightlifting and working out because this really has been like a lifetime journey, right? When did you first really think like, “Man, I love doing this and I love the effect, maybe it has on my body or the way that I feel”?
Richard Bagdonas: I was 14 years old, there was a sporting goods store in Huntington Beach California, called Big Five Sporting Goods. I went and I bought a weight lifting bench and weights. They were concrete weights that were covered in this bronze-ish colored plastic and I took it home, I put it up in the backyard and I must have been lifting three times a day.
Benji Block: Wow. Good for you, that’s awesome.
Richard Bagdonas: My background is that my father was born in Lithuania so we have this very northern, eastern, European frame and it was just natural for my body to really perk up when I started weightlifting. Some people go in and they weightlift and all they feel is pain and or discomfort. I would weightlift and my muscles would just pop up and I was just captivated.
Benji Block: Wow. Okay, so we can read about your background a lot in this book. You’re eating healthy, you’re not smoking or drinking, you’re prioritizing seemingly all the right things as you’re aging yet somehow, out of nowhere, you’re diagnosed with cancer.
I would love to maybe walk through some of that because that is — I’m sure, extremely hard for you here. I would love to know what was happening internally in that moment when you’re diagnosed and just sort of, what are some of the emotions that you had to walk through as that process begins?
Richard Bagdonas: Oh man, that’s taking me back to October of 2018. I had, over the summer, gone to Mexico with my family — and I love fruit. Papaya in Mexico was amazing, and every once in a while, it has Cyclospora in it, which is something that causes Montezuma’s Revenge.
Benji Block: Yeah, yup.
Richard Bagdonas: I brought Montezuma’s Revenge back home to Austin, Texas. Unfortunately, it didn’t go away and the doctor sent me to a gastro and the gastro, they’re typically a hammer looking for a nail or in this case, a camera looking for somebody’s — for a lack of a better term — butt. Unfortunately, two weeks later I got a call from that gastroenterologist, saying that I had won the lottery and I had cancer.
As you can imagine, that’s when the world gets really small. Things start closing in and there was something that was driving me to know that I was going to be okay. We reached out to my healthcare network, we tried to find the right doctor. We found the right doctor, he met with me, he had the opportunity to run all the tests and figure out that not only did I have cancer, I had stage four cancer.
Benji Block: Goodness, wow.
Richard Bagdonas: We have two boys. Now they’re nine and six, back then, they were seven and four and that was a lot for a small family to handle.
Benji Block: What internally — is it your boys that are the first thing you think about, is it your wife? What were some of those first emotions that you’re battling as you hear it? Because I know, my mom had breast cancer. I had — not anywhere near stage four, the level that you had but I had skin cancer and I remember when I was even told that, the room – exactly like you’re saying, the room just shrunk in, right? When you hear that. Just talk me through what were some of those first thoughts and emotions that you were feeling.
Richard Bagdonas: Well, the first thought brought me back to my childhood. My father passed away when I was 12, just about to turn 13. The first thing I thought was, “I’m not going to make it to see my boys turn 12 and 13. I’m failing as a parent because I wasn’t able to do more than what my father did for me.” That was a really difficult realization.
Oftentimes, those realizations can either spiral downwards and become very negative or they can be that little bit of gunpowder that just fires and pushes you upwards. For me, it pushed me upwards.
Benji Block: How did that process begin? Where does that momentum, that push in the right direction, where does it start? Because you first have the thought like, “Oh man, I might not make it to see this birthday, this date” but then, what’s that push in the right direction?
Richard Bagdonas: Man, I walked up to my wife’s office, we both were working [at the] home office and I walked up to her and I said “Hey, I see you’re sitting down, that’s great. I just received notice that I have cancer.” And we sat there, mouth agape, looking at each other going, “Whoa, what just happened?” And the agreement that we had was, I’m going to focus on keeping positive, using my brain to make sure that if there is any sort of placebo or other effects that it can have on my body through recovery, I’m going to focus on the positives and anything that needs to be worried about, my wife Tina, will worry about.
Benji Block: I love that agreement. It’s an interesting conversation I’m sure to navigate but that is a good space to enter.
Richard Bagdonas: Well, it’s leveraging the opportunity ahead of us. We can either use this to get sad, to drive ourselves into a negative space where she can worry about making sure that we’re getting to the right doctors. I’m getting the right treatment, we’re doing all the right things, eating and exercising and I had to focus and meditate every day on the fact that the cancer was no longer in my body.
Benji Block: Yeah, I actually would love to read just the last sentence of the first chapter. You said that, “During those few months, I got so strong that my mind, body, and soul were all working together. Since mental health has such a strong effect on physical health, I was able to meditate myself into thinking that I was already cured of cancer and my body just needed to catch up.”
Walk me through what that meditation process looks like for you and I would even ask, what was your meditation process like before all of this began? And then what was it like during the process? Does that make sense?
Richard Bagdonas: Yeah, I had started working on the FitFAB book, just occasionally, I was taking notes and things from myself in my early 40s. When cancer treatment started, I realized I needed to document it in a more worthwhile fashion, to share my experience with others because I was just going into cancer treatment. The meditation I had used previously was meditating away pain.
There’s two types of pain; you can either be injured or you can be hurt. If you’re hurt, you’re sore, you can get back in, you can keep playing the game but if you’re injured, you have to go to the hospital, you need medical attention. And so I had trained my body to turn off pain receptors that were firing for small soreness, so that way, I could focus myself on the pain to look for injuries because I needed to make sure that injuries were addressed right away and I wasn’t continuing to throw fuel on the fire of the injuries.
When I went into cancer treatment that changed. What I meditated on every day was that I envisioned myself and my body as this filter, a filter for an HVAC system in the house. The HVAC system is collecting all of those dust particles and dog hair and everything else and it’s keeping it from going into the system.
Every day I would meditate and breathe in through my nose, clear, fresh air, and then I would let it circulate in my body and I’d blow it out through my mouth and I pictured with my eyes closed. I pictured little bits of dust going outside of my body from that breath as I exhaled. What I imagined was those little bits of dust were little bits of cancer that were just leaving my body and so my brain was telling my body, it’s okay to get rid of this.
Getting Your Body Ready For The Future
Benji Block: I guess I have a couple of follow-up questions there because I love that process. One of the things I’ve thought quite a bit about over the past few years is along the lines of seemingly what you’re doing, which is ultimately you’re building resilience in that moment, right? By meditating, you’re contemplating what you want to see, that cancer leaving your body.
How would you say one does that? Are you spending hours meditating, is it just like a brief session? What did that look like for you time-wise?
Richard Bagdonas: Well, at the time, I was working out at the gym five nights a week and so what I would do at the gym was instead of keeping my eyes closed and looking around at stuff. I kept my eyes — I’m sorry, keeping my eyes open and looking around and stuff. I kept my eyes closed and I would put on music that didn’t have lyrics so that way I didn’t have to pay attention to what was being said into my ears. It just drowned out the background noise and I meditated while I lifted weights.
Benji Block: Nice. Do you think that as you’re — because one of the things this book really does a good job of addressing is like, building resilience, right? Even this meditation process is one of the ways you’re doing that. Do you think it’s possible for us to gain and build that resilience without resistance? Because it feels like cancer actually ends up being this big catalyst for you and it is really encouraging and hopeful in some ways when we go like, “Okay the biggest seemingly obstacles in our way can be catalysts for extreme growth.” But how would one maybe that is not facing a cancer diagnosis also try to build resilience maybe without that same level of resistance?
Richard Bagdonas: Yeah, so I was pushing against cancer and I was trying to push it out. However, after I was cured of cancer, I still kept up my regiment of working out and meditating, and the meditations that I was doing, and still do today, are about clearing out the clutter in my head to reduce the amount of things that my brain had to focus on so that way, it could focus on my body and its strengthening because, at the core, FitFAB is about building strength before we have to go into a medical battle.
I happened to build the strength just before I started my medical battle and I kept going through it and I realized it actually works really well taking it all the way through there. However, if you are somebody that is not currently facing a medical battle, that doesn’t mean that one isn’t on the horizon and we don’t know how far on the horizon it is. FitFAB is all about getting our body ready for that future battle.
Benji Block: Yeah, I love that. Walk us through FitFAB, the creation process, and then what made this something you not only wanted to create for yourself but something you started to see could be useful for many.
Richard Bagdonas: The process started when I was at the gym one evening and I realized that my bicipital tendinitis was flaring up and trying to crank out ten reps was just not going to make it for me and so it was very humbling. I had to set my ego aside. I had to forget that people at the gym might look at me and might see what I’m doing and I lowered the weights, I dropped them to five pounds, and then what I did is I just went slowly up as I lifted the weights.
As I needed to have my arm return back to the normal position, it went slowly down and I realized that felt pretty good and so I kept doing it and over the course of about seven months, I fine-tuned that approach of going slow and methodical and not counting. It’s all about time.
Benji Block: How did you come to that conclusion because that was a really interesting piece for me that it’s more about time. What made you kind of aware of that?
Richard Bagdonas: Well, in my previous weight lifting career, I had workout partners that were there to count for me because at that time, I was lifting extremely heavy weights and my brain was so focused on lifting the weight for that one repetition that I could not count to ten because I was so singularly focused on each repetition. When I went to the gym after 40, I didn’t have a workout partner and so it was difficult to keep the count and focus on my muscles at the same time.
I realized that there had to be a better way. There had to be a way, that there was a method that could get us what we need going slow, low weight and timers seemed like the most appropriate way to handle that. So, I incorporated a speaker clock just used by public speakers to know how much time they have felt when they’re presenting. I used that in my workout and that was eventually incorporated into it to use that time aspect.
Benji Block: It’s so interesting, I love the development of that and even just thinking through like a timer app is just a nice little additional piece there that I wouldn’t have thought of. Richard, what are the key components? There are five tenants that you mentioned in the book, right?
Richard Bagdonas: Yeah, absolutely. It turns out that there is five basic structures that we have to adopt with the FitFAB workout. Number one, the first one we do is we track the number of minutes of weightlifting rather than the number of repetitions performed. As I said earlier where I really had a hard time counting to ten because I didn’t have somebody counting for me so I could really focus and keep my brain and body in sync.
It turned out that tracking the minutes is a much more acceptable and easier thing for folks to do. And then the second tenant is we go slowly. We do these exercises with perfect form and we go slow. Now, the other thing, the third, is that we perform both the positive and the negative movements at the same speed. We’re not in a rush to push weight up, we’re not in a rush to pull weight back. We’re in the process of going slow and letting our main muscle group and the supporting muscles build strength together.
Negatives are the return to the first position in a workout, so if you could imagine somebody on a bench press and they have a bar across their chest — which by the way we don’t use in the FitFAB exercise but most people can contemplate someone lifting on a bench press. You’ll normally see an explosive push up, where the bar is pushed their arms or extended fully and then they just let it drop onto their chest and sometimes we see it bounce.
Benji Block: Yeah, I can picture that perfectly in my head right now.
Richard Bagdonas: Perfect, so from the period of time where the arms are fully extended until it touches the chest again, that movement is referred to as the negative and most people will just give up when they hit the top. They stop and they just let it drop it on their chest and then they boom, they power it up again. That’s a missing time in the workout where we can actually get some extremely good gains of strength.
The book talks about leveraging these negatives, this negative movement for muscle gain. One of the most important tenants, and this is number four, is we hydrate our bodies before and after each set. Rather than counting to 10, our sets are based on time and in between those sets, we’re going to drink a lot of water because that’s how our bodies flush a lot of the toxins that build up and cause us pain.
Then the fifth, it’s an obvious but many people forget this, that we’re going to stagger the muscle groups in a specific order because some people go in and say like, “Oh I just want to do arm workouts today” and then they’ll come back the next day and they’ll be like, “Oh, I am going to do chest today” or they’ll work on their legs or what have you. What’s really important is to stagger the muscle groups and work them out in a specific order because it allows us to maintain the balance of competing muscle groups.
You know your back and your stomach are competing muscle groups. Your back, upper back, and your chest are competing muscle groups, they are on either side of your body and it’s important for us to work them out in a particular order so that way we allow them to build strength together rather than pull strength away from a future workout.
Knock Down the Fear and Ego Barriers That Keep You From Having a Successful and Healthy Workout.
Benji Block: I wonder, knowing what you know now Richard, having written this, thinking about your younger self to those that are under 40 that are listening, what would you say? What would you have done differently or what would you tell people to maybe incorporate earlier?
Richard Bagdonas: I would definitely incorporate more stretching and hydration when I was earlier in my career. I do believe that part of the injuries that just amassed overtime were because my ego got involved and I got into the gym and I just wanted to go and lift weights and feel strong and it is humbling to go into the gym and say, “The first thing I’m going to do is I’m going to spend 20, 30 minutes of stretch.”
That in itself is a workout and we’ve incorporated that stretching into each of the days of the FitFAB workout, so you don’t have to go in and spend 30 minutes stretching all at once. In the case of FitFAB, we stretch throughout the workout and we stretch specifically for each exercise that we do. So, if I was talking to my 20-year-old self or my 30-year-old self, I would say do a lot of stretching, drink a lot of water, clear your head and then start working out.
Benji Block: Let me ask you one more kind of focused question as it pertains to rest. I’m primarily a runner who is intrigued by lifting but not as much of a lifter and I know in your plan, you have the two days of rest back to back. Is that flexible or why you prioritize rest in that way specifically?
Richard Bagdonas: There’s a little flexibility to the two days of rest. You could actually put the two days of rest with one workout; shoulder workout in the middle, that’s the only one that you could put in between the two days of rest because of the way that we build the muscle groups together on a weekly basis. The two days of rest typically for me are spent biking for three to four hours or in most cases, I’ll take one day of rest and I’ll do one day of biking.
Benji Block: Nice, it’s a good switch up I feel. I like that clarification for people as well. There is so much practical content in this book; how much to life, how to lift, the equipment to use, I mean, proper form, you go into so much technique and I love the story that you have in this book as well as the practicality. One of the things that you couldn’t have foreseen because and then we talked about cancer but then you actually also ended up with COVID last year.
This workout was a part of the — I guess, walk me through how this actually helped in your recovery from COVID as well.
Richard Bagdonas: Sure, yeah. Talk about a punch to the gut a second time.
Benji Block: Right.
Richard Bagdonas: You know, I got through cancer. I was clinically cured of cancer and I was ecstatic. I was happy, you know. I had passed this massive milestone and then in June of 2020, I caught COVID and on my birthday a month later, I was admitted to the hospital for the second time and I didn’t think I was going to come home. This was a time when most people were coming into the ICU next to me and they were going to be intubated.
I was lucky, I used the diagnostic tools that they had at the hospital to not be intubated but I learned how to breathe with 30% lung capacity and they let me go home. Well, they let me go home with pneumonia and they said it would take about six, maybe eight months for me to fully recover from the pneumonia and after my COVID had passed and after I was able to walk again because it took me a couple of weeks before I was even able to walk a few steps. I started putting goals about incorporating the biking, incorporating the lifting and building that strength back in my body as my body recovered.
Our immune system is unique, unlike our blood and our heart where you have a pump that pumps all the blood around our body, our immune system requires our body to move to push this fluid around. If we are laying on our back and we’re not doing anything, we are healing but really slowly, and by getting into the gym and lifting low weights and doing it very slowly, it didn’t put too much pressure on my body but what it did do is it allowed me to recover in about two months compared to the six to eight months that they had recommended.
Benji Block: That’s amazing. I mean, if that doesn’t give you a reason to buy the book and really believe in this program, I don’t know what will but I absolutely love that story. I’m so glad for you in your recovery from cancer and from COVID, congratulations there and I mean, congratulations on the book. That is a big project and now, your story gets out there but also this is going to help so many others.
As we wrap up, when readers are done with this book and they apply the things here, what do you hope that they feel and experience because of applying this to their lives?
Richard Bagdonas: Yeah, for the majority of us that are going back to the gym after not having been there for a while, whether it’s due to COVID and having been locked out of the gym for a while or if we are starting to think, “Okay, I’m getting into my 40s, I need to think about my health. I need to start acting healthy,” the FitFAB workout is an excellent way to go in and break down those ego barriers that block people from going in and having a successful workout at the gym.
Oftentimes, people feel confused about which equipment to use, what’s the right form, how do I know I’m doing the right thing without trying to drag a personal trainer around with you. Well, this book is meant to be the personal trainer, that Sherpa, that you bring with you to the gym and it explains which exercises to do, how to do them, how to stretch. So the outcome that I’m looking for from folks is to reduce the fear, the uncertainty, or the doubt they have about being able to go back into the gym.
Benji Block: I love that. Richard, thank you for taking time to chat with us today. For those that want to connect with you further, where can people find you and maybe reach out?
Richard Bagdonas: Oh absolutely, Benji. Fitforanybattle.com is the website that’s tied to the book. In there, we have downloads for the iOS and the Android apps, so that way rather than going and grabbing that speaker clock app that I used, we actually built an application that manages your entire workout at the gym, keeps track of any injuries and is the FitFAB workout in your pocket.
Benji Block: That’s great. That’s a great resource that people should go checkout. Well, the book is called, Fit for Any Battle: Train Your Body and Mind for Life After 40. Richard, congratulations on the book and thank you for talking to us here on Author Hour.
Richard Bagdonas: Oh, it’s my pleasure, Benji. Thank you so much for having me on.