Over the years, I have experimented with a number of different styles of training. I have done lower-volume templates (eg. Doggcrapp, Max-OT), powerlifting templates (eg. Sheiko, DUP, Westside), higher-volume templates (eg. Layne Norton’s PHAT, Cliff Wilsons’s Power Block Periodization), the traditional “bro” split, and many others I’m probably forgetting about.
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From this experience, what I have learned about my body and my recovery abilities are that I tend to make more progress on higher-volume programs, tend to get injured more on higher frequency programs (even when properly periodizing), tend to get more injured doing powerlifting-type programs and tend to get injured more while following very specific templates.
Injuries have plagued the past few years of my training despite the fact I worked with strength coaches, have my technique checked by people I trust, had training programmed by people who know more than me, worked with mobility experts, etc. It honestly got to the point last fall/winter where I didn’t even enjoy training anymore because everytime I tried to follow a certain style of training, template, or periodized program I would injure something new and need to modify.
At that point, I decided that if I wanted to continue doing this long-term I needed to just get back to the point where I enjoyed doing this again and stayed injury-free. Since then, my training has been a bit more bro-ish than I would typically recommend and a lot looser in terms of a template. However, I have gotten back to the point where I enjoy training again, have been primarily injury-free, look my best ever at around 180lbs currently and am planning to step back onstage next spring for my first pro show following a 4 year offseason plagued with injuries.
This approach is something I would not recommend for everyone because I think there is still value in more programmed training and provided programmed training to my clients. However, I have really encouraged clients to do more listening to their bodies and modifying within the the training programs I provide for them.
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At the moment, I am doing a 12-day rotation that has me training legs every 4 days and upper body parts every 5-6 days. I’ve found this helpful for keeping me injury free and progressing:
Day 1: Back
Day 2: Legs
Day 3: Chest/Shoulders
Day 4: Off
Day 5: Arms
Day 6: Legs
Day 7: Back
Day 8: Off
Day 9: Chest/Shoulders
Day 10: Legs
Day 11: Arms
Day 12: Off
Depending upon my schedule and how I am feeling I may train all 4 workouts prior to an off day rather than 3 on 1 off.
I generally go into the gym each day having an idea of what the first 1-2 lifts I want to hit are; however, I am flexible and adjust based on how I am feeling. For example, if I am deadlifting on a leg day and I start warming up and it feels terrible, I will scrap deadlifts and try either another variation of them or another lift. If it is feeling great, I may end up going heavier or hit more volume than I was planning.
Since I am training with a lower frequency than I have in the past, my volume per bodypart per workout is higher. I generally hit 20-30 working sets/workout depending upon how I am feeling. At the moment, most of my training is in the 8-15 rep range; however, I incorporate rep ranges from 3-20 into my training.
For lagging bodyparts, I generally focus more volume on that area at the expense of stronger body parts. For example, my chest is a strong point and my back is a weak point. If I were to train chest/back in the same day, I would do roughly 2x as much back work as chest work to try to bring my back up. In addition, my shoulders are not as much of a strength as much chest so if I were to train chest/shoulders, I would hit more sets of shoulders and I may even do my shoulder pressing first even if it will affect my performance on chest movements just to prioritize weaknesses.
With clients, I take a similar approach. For example, if a figure client wants to bring up their back and shoulders, I may have them do 2 upper body and 2 lower body workouts week and then throw in a 5th day to hit more back and shoulders.
I would also focus on progressive overload over time with weak points just as I would for strengths.
I generally prefer HIIT cardio because it has been shown to interfere less with strength, size, and power gains. It is also a shorter duration and a more similar training stimulus to lifting weights.
I will add in HIIT preferentially when working with clients; however, there are times I will use steady-state. For example, if I have a client who is dieting for a show and the addition of more HIIT will impair their recovery for lifting (which is the focus), I will add in steady state. In addition, if someone has a history lower body injury issues (eg. multiple knee surgeries) that tend to flare up we will either do upper body HIIT or won’t do HIIT at all because I want to keep their lower body healthy for lifting rather than beating their joints up with HIIT.
I try to keep cardio as low as possible while still making progress. However, different levels of cardio will be required for different individuals at different points.
I normally try to hold off on cardio as much as possible and get away with as little cardio as possible along the way, but will add some in when food starts getting lower to help the client be able to eat a bit more while still making progress.
I generally start with HIIT preferentially; however, as I discussed above there may be situations where steady-state cardio is warranted.
I have clients doing a number of different types of training; however, in general I am a fan of higher volume, higher frequency training that is primarily sub-failure. Most of my clients are training bodyparts more frequently than once weekly because research has shown this is likely more effective for gaining muscle size and strength.
The number of days a client is training a body part and the program they are running depends upon the individual and their goals. I have clients running 3-day full body splits, clients doing a basic 4 day split training upper and lower workouts twice weekly, others doing DUP powerlifting programs that have them in the gym 6 days/wk training certain movement patterns as frequently as 4x weekly and many others somewhere in between.
Each program is based on the client and their goals, schedule, what they have been doing in the gym, injury history, and things they enjoy doing in the gym.
I generally don’t alter training a whole lot during contest prep because what built the muscle is what is going to keep it there. I think one of the most common mistakes many competitors make is purposefully training lighter during prep than in the offseason. This is a good way to lose muscle while you prep which is not what you want to do.
With that being said, if someone is deep into prep with food low, cardio high, and very lean we may pull back volume slightly to help them recover. I also generally emphasize avoiding as many grinding reps (especially on compound free-weight movements) deep into prep to help them stay injury-free and be able to recover.
I think there is still a place in the bodybuilding community for things that have traditionally be done. What I have stumbled on through trial and error for my own current training is evidence for that. I do a lot more blasting of body parts traditional bodybuilding style than I used to.
I do think that higher frequency training is beneficial, still train body parts more frequently than once weekly myself, and recommend it for clients as well.
I think that focusing on progressive overload is important and even with the looser training program I am following currently I am focused on bettering the loads I am moving and hitting more volume with movements over time.
Overall, I’m on board with most of the shift in training philosophy (higher frequency, progressive overload, variety of rep ranges, not always training to failure, etc.). However, one thing I think some people fall victim to is that they overthink and over complicate things. Sometimes I think certain individuals worry too much about small details and not enough about just getting in there and getting after it which still does have merit in my opinion. If you are getting in the gym, training hard, making progress in terms of progressive overload through, and enjoying what you are doing so that you want to come in and keep doing it consistently you will make progress.
One thing I have learned through my years in the gym is that if individuals enjoy what they are doing in the gym, they will make more progress. As a result, I try to combine a science-based approach to training with what my clients enjoy doing to get them the best results possible.
When I came into this sport in 2002, nobody tracked macronutrients, bodybuilders only ate certain “clean” foods, meals were eaten every 2-3hrs, a shake was consumed immediately after training, carbs weren’t eaten at night, etc. so this is what I did leading up to my first competition in 2004.
I didn’t place well at that competition so I began doing research on what I could do to get better and stumbled across articles by successful natural bodybuilders like Dr. Joe and Layne Norton (who now has his PhD also). I started tracking macros; however, I was still pretty much doing them with “clean” foods and very concerned about all of the meal timing details.
As I’ve done more of my own research over the years, my approach has become much looser and as a result I enjoy doing it a whole lot more. I do track macros and try to eat a majority of my foods from nutrient-dense sources for overall health reasons; however, I also fit in foods I want (eg. low-fat ice cream, sugary cereal, etc.) in moderation and really don’t worry all that much about meal timing anymore.
If my 2002 self would look at what my 2015 self is currently doing I probably would have said I’m not longer serious about this. However, I have honestly made my best progress using a looser approach.
I also use the same approach with clients and for many of them it makes the sport a whole lot more enjoyable and much like training I think that if you are enjoying what you are doing nutritionally, you will make more progress because you will be more willing to be consistent.
I take the same general approach with bodybuilders during the gaining phase or contest prep. No foods are off limits and clients are encouraged to eat primarily nutrient-dense food while fitting in others things they would like in moderation.
With that being said, the ratio of nutrient-dense to other food usually changes during contest prep because when someone is hungry they may not be as willing to fit in some of the other stuff and therefore eat mostly nutrient-dense food to stay full. For me personally, roughly 80-90% of my food comes from nutrient-dense foods and the other 10-20% from other stuff I want in the offseason. However, deep in prep it may look more like 95-100% nutrient-dense foods, 0-5% other stuff just because I want to try to pack as much volume down as possible and stay full when food is low.
This is another area that I used to be very concerned and stressed about. I would make sure I was evenly distributing protein from high-quality sources every x number of hours to maximize protein synthesis rates. However, as I’ve read more literature and experimented more on my own, I’m less convinced that this is a make or break variable.
I absolutely think that high-quality protein should primarily be eaten to meeting daily protein requirements and for someone who is vegan that is not getting a whole lot of high-quality protein I would recommend a BCAA supplement.
However, I’m not as sold on there needing to be a perfect meal frequency with an evenly distributed protein distribution as I used to be. Yes, acute studies measuring protein synthesis do suggest this; however, many of these studies don’t also take into account protein degradation rates because they are really difficult to measure. Moreover, recent studies have suggest that changes in protein synthesis may not actually be good markers of long-term changes in muscle.
When looking at practice (which I think also needs to be taken into consideration with research in order to get a true answer), there are individuals who eat very frequently or very infrequently who do make significant progress.
I generally recommend to clients that they find a meal frequency that allows them to be consistent with their total daily intake because they are not enjoying what they are doing, they will not be consistent, and will make less progress.
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I have clients who start prep the day we start working together and others who do an offseason prior to starting contest prep.
In terms of assessing an individual, there are a number of things I look at. I assess how much muscle mass they currently have to see if they are in a place where they have enough muscle to step onstage. I also look at where their current body composition is to make an educated guess at where their stage-weight will be and how long it will take to get them there. In general, I like to diet clients slowly (less than 1% of body weight/wk on average) so that they hold onto more muscle mass while getting lean. This often results in contest prep being longer than they originally expect prior to working with me.
One other thing I take a look at is what they are doing currently. If someone is doing multiple hours of cardio a week and fairly low calorie to start, I generally will not prep them for a show because while they still will be able to lose weight assuming we get food low enough/cardio high enough, it will likely need to be miserable from the start in order to create a deficit. In addition the low-food/high-cardio will likely result in more muscle loss and we may end up having to go to levels of food/cardio that may not be in the best interest of long-term health. In this situation, I would have them reverse diet to work food up/cardio down as much as we can get away with prior to starting contest prep so that we have more room metabolically to work with during contest prep.
This may sound funny coming from someone who did his dissertation studies on a supplement (HMB); however, I am honestly not a huge supplement guy because I think many people try to use supplements to make up for a lack of proper nutrition and training.
With that being said, when nutrition and training are on point, there are several supplements that have been scientifically shown to work. If I had to narrow it down to 3 supplements I would reccomend, it would be the following:
Protein Bars or Powders - I generally recommend this, as needed, to hit your protein numbers for the day. You could absolutely get enough protein and make progress without; however, protein bars and powders make it a heck of alot easier to get adequate protein in daily, especially for individuals leading busy lives with hectic schedules.
Creatine Monohydrate - This is the supplement that has been shown by the largest number of scientific studies to help increase muscle size and strength. It is pretty affordable and I generally recommend taking 5g/day, no loading phase necessary.
Multivitamin - I do normally recommend eating food over taking supplements for vitamin and mineral requirements because there are compounds in foods we have yet to figure out what they do/bottle up that are likely beneficial. I also recommend eating a variety of foods from all food groups to meet daily vitamin and mineral requirements. However, during contest prep when food starts getting lower, it can be hard to fit in a variety of foods. It can also be hard to fit in a whole lot of fruit when carb intake is low during prep. This is where a multivitamin can be very helpful in preventing vitamin and mineral deficiencies and keep you healthy in the late stages of contest prep.
There is no such thing as a “clean or dirty” or “good or bad” food. However, I generally recommend getting a majority of your food from a variety of nutrient-dense foods while fitting in other things you like in moderation. I have noticed with many clients who have switched to this approach from a previous dietary approach that was more restrictive that their relationship with food improves and disordered patterns of eating are reduced.
As a result of being able to be more consistent with this approach, their physiques usually change in a positive direction due to their increased consistency.
I am not a fan of cheat meals or cheat days. To me, cheat means you are fitting in something you couldn’t have. However, if you are following a flexible dieting approach there are no foods that are off limits so there is no such thing as a “cheat” food.
Additionally, many people use cheat meals or cheat days as an excuse to binge. Many of these individuals are also very restrictive during times they are not cheating and this pattern of eating begins to resemble an eating disorder.
Moreover, individuals who have cheat meals or cheat days have no idea how many calories they are taking in during that meal or day. Even if they are not counting the calories during a cheat period, the calories still count towards energy balance and progress with weight los.
Instead, I prefer refeed days where individuals shoot for a higher calorie and carbohydrate intake. As with the other days of the week, no foods are off limits and they can have anything they would like so long as it fits into their daily allotment; however, it may be easier to fit things in during a refeed day since the allotment is larger.
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I use reverse dieting after a contest for both myself and clients. However, I do not think there is an “optimal” rate of reverse dieting that is appropriate for everyone.
For individuals coming out of a show that got stage-lean, are taking a longer offseason, can lose weight more easily, and/or are having a more difficult time staying on track with their macronutrient numbers I will generally reverse diet quicker.
However, for individuals who may not have gotten all of the way to stage lean, tend to have a more difficult time losing weight, and/or may struggle psychologically with gaining weight I typically reverse slower.
In general, the slower you increase the smaller and slower the weight gain.
With that being said, the purpose of a reverse diet should not be to stay stage-lean. It should be to help get you back into a good spot metabolically to set you up for a future diet while preventing rapid regain. Ultimately, the goal for a majority of competitors show be continue increasing food/letting weight drift up slowly until they find a spot where they are feeling more “normal”, are strong, not obsessing about food, aren’t hungry all of the time, have more energy, etc. Where this place is will differ from person to person in terms of distance from stage weight.
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The first time I stepped onstage, I knew that bodybuilding was something I was going to do for a long period of time (despite the fact I placed poorly). I went to college and studied things related to bodybuilding (Biochemistry, Physiology, Nutrition).
I started helping a few friends with diets and contest preps while working my masters. Over time, I started getting inquiries from individuals I did not know and I generally turned them away because I didn’t have any legal protections in place. I was also in graduate school, had limited time, and expected I would work a more “traditional” job with my degree.
However, while working on my PhD my wife and I decided to incorporate our business and begin working with people we did not know rather than turning them away. Over the years, being a prep coach turned into something I thought I would just do on the side of my more traditional job to something I would do part-time while doing a more traditional job part-time to what it is today, my full-time job.
I would say the the biggest challenge for me when getting started was the fact I have 0 business background so I had to do a lot of learning on the fly. I definitely may some mistakes along the way, but through trial-and-error I have learned quite a few things and am where I’m at today.
Over the next 5 years, I hope to build my client-base now that I am done with PhD and have time to take on a few more clients. I plan to do this by continuing to provide a quality service to my current clients because client recommendations and progress are the best type of advertisement.
I also plan to my put out high-quality free content such as science-based articles, talks, and podcasts.
Many of my clients enjoy learning about the science behind this sport so one thing I am planning to do is to put together an online class on the science of physique transformation. I hope to run the first class this winter once contest season winds down as long as all goes well. However, I will likely cap the number of people in the class to keep it small so I am available to answer questions as well.
I have a PhD in Nutritional Science from the University of Illinois. I also have a BS in Biochemistry with a Nutrition Minor and MS in Biology with a Physiology Concentration from the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse. In addition, I am a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
I have a number of searches set up on pubmed for a variety of topics related to bodybuilding so each day I receive emails with any new studies that come out related to these topics. I also receive emails on a regular basis from the National Strength and Conditioning Association linking to new strength and conditioning research.
I also subscribe to monthly research reviews such as Alan Aragon’s Research Review and the Examine.com Research Review. In addition, I read articles, watch videos, and listen to podcasts from experts in the field.
I played baseball throughout most of high school and am a big Minnesota Twins fan. I also enjoy playing fantasy football and watching Illinois college football/basketball.
I am planning to do my first series of natural pro contests in the spring of 2016.
One thing I am doing differently this time while prepping is breaking my prep up into stages rather than dieting down all at once. The last time I dieted for a show, I prepped for 26 weeks, had to get my food low/cardio high, and lost a lot of strength/muscle mass.
See published case study on my prep HERE.
This time around I started dieting around a year out and cut from low 190’s to upper 170’s. From there, I reverse dieted and got my food as high as possible while staying at 180lbs and am currently dieting again from there. My hope is that this will allow me to not have to push quite as hard at the end and hold onto more muscle mass as a result; however, we shall see what happens.
I currently work with a good number general population clients as well as individuals who compete in bodybuilding, powerlifting, and strongman. One major difference with general population clients is that I tend to be much looser on my plans with them because they may not be willing to track macros +/- 5g daily and/or spend a lot of time in the gym. Many of them may be shooting for calorie ranges with a protein minimum, lifting only a few days weekly and just trying to increase daily activity rather than being in the gym 5-6 days/wk. However, there are general population clients I am working with who want to train and prep like bodybuilders, but not necessarily get stage-lean or step onstage so I generally treat them the same as a competitor.
Ultimately, with general population clients in particular it is about finding a sustainable approach they are willing and able to do long-term, even if this differs a bit from what I may have a competitor do.
The most important thing I have learned in my years in this sport is that the key to success is consistency and in order to be consistent you need to find approaches that you enjoy doing or you aren’t going to be able to be consistent for a long enough period of time to be successful.
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