What do you get when you ask some of the world’s top strength coaches and nutrition gurus to share their most powerful tips for dramatic physique changes? You get one hell of an article series!
In this installment of the “Top 10” series, it’s John Berardi’s turn to bat. Read on as JB lays out ten lessons he’s learned during his 14 year relationship with the iron. If you want to see some jaw-dropping, holy-cow changes in your body in the next few months, then you better listen up!
JB’s Top 10 Lessons and Tips
I’ve been at this liftin’ thing for over a decade now. During this time I’ve been a junior national sport athlete, a national level bodybuilder, a physique model, a personal trainer, a strength and conditioning coach, a nutrition consultant, and an exercise and nutrition scientist, recently earning my Ph.D. (Of course, I had to plug that in there – the novelty of the whole Dr. JB thing still fires me up.) While all of that experience should make me feel like a veteran, come to think of it, I think I just feel old.
But hey, in some societies they actually revere the old for their experience and wisdom. So let’s pretend ours is one of them and humor me for a few minutes while I lay out ten of the most important lessons I’ve learned during my 14 years in the game.
1 – Everybody Needs More Protein
That’s right, ya heard me. And I’ll say it again, so brace yourself:
Okay, okay, perhaps I’m exaggerating. Certainly renal patients don’t need more protein. Nor do those guys who eat Low-Carb Grow! with a spoon (come on, don’t tell me I’m the only one). But for all of you weight trainers interested in being lean and muscular yet still stuck at that invisible one-gram-per-pound barrier, it’s time for a protein increase.
What’s with this universal 1g/lb stuff anyway? So many people have been parroting that recommendation lately I almost started to believe it’s true. But a good dose of Pubmed convinced me otherwise.
First of all, if we’re looking at protein “need,” then regular weight trainers technically only “need” 0.8g/kg (perhaps even less). That’s only 0.36g/lb, folks. Sure, I know what you’re thinking. My PhD advisor (Dr. Lemon) has suggested more like 1.2 to 1.6g/kg, but that suggestion is only for those starting a brand new weight training program. Besides, break that down and it’s still only 0.54 to 0.72g/kg. So where did this 1g/lb thing come from?
Someone made it up, that’s where.
As I’ve discussed before in my Protein Prejudice article, there’s a difference between need and optimization. As a weightlifter I hope your goals are loftier than preventing death by protein malnutrition. Rather, I hope you’re trying to find the right amount to optimize your body composition.
Since ingesting more protein carries with it scores of body composition benefits, including more lean mass and less fat mass, it stands to reason that we should be playing around with the numbers a bit to find out what’s optimal. And that’s not just for the weight lifting community. Heck, if non-active people replaced a bunch of their crappy, refined carbs with protein, they’d have less body fat and a better cardiovascular risk profile.
So, in the end, if you’re looking to seriously improve your body composition and are still stuck on a lower protein intake, heed this lesson and eat more protein!
2 – Wanna Get Huge? Train Heavier – Much Heavier
This is a lesson that’s been fundamental to my own training and the training of my clients for the last ten years. My motto: When in doubt, add more weight to the bar.
My muscle building brethren, our muscles are designed for lifting heavy. In fact, when some people ask me why I’ve lifted weights for over a decade, my typical response is “because I can.” In other words, lifting heavy stuff is what the body is designed to do.
Did you know that for every square centimeter of skeletal muscle cross sectional area, we can produce 3-4 kg (6.6 – 8.8 pounds) of tension? For a 154 pound man, that means over 48,400 pounds of tension can be generated. Did you know that there are guys in the world who weigh 165 and can deadlift 640 and squat 775? So what the heck is wrong with you? Hell, what’s wrong with me?
Often, when clients call me with a body composition goal in mind, the first thing I do is translate that goal into strength numbers. For example, when a 5’9″ client comes to me at 160 and 12% fat hoping to get to 200 at 12% fat, I ask him how strong he thinks he’ll need to be to achieve that goal.
I then mention that most 5’9″ 200 pound guys I know can bench press at least 300, deadlift at least 450, and squat at least the same.
If you want to get bigger, you’d better start picking up heavier loads – today!
(Now, I know that some strength coaches don’t believe the same thing. And they’re entitled to their opinion. I’ll just avoid asking their clients for a spot next time I’m under a 400 pound bench press).
3 – Skinny Guys, If You Want To Get Big, You’d Better Eat Big!
This lesson is one I learned the hard way, being a former skinny guy. Of course, it’s not necessarily applicable to everyone out there trying to gain muscle mass, but if you’re a classic ectomorph, lean and lanky, the story below is the most important you’ll ever hear.
Once upon a time, there was a scrawny kid named John. After two years of training, at 5’8″, scrawny John had only managed to hit an embarrassing 150 pounds at 10% body fat. With a goal of bench pressing his body weight, scrawny John toiled away for two years without reaching this achievement. Cursing the gods, believing he was doing “everything in his power” to gain muscle mass, scrawny John was about ready to give up and take up an endurance sport or something.
But just before exchanging his weight lifting belt for some cycling tights, he had an epiphany! A friend of scrawny John’s went away to a football training camp for a month and came back 15 pounds heavier. Begging for the secrets produced nothing. The friend told scrawny John that there weren’t any. Simply, he and the other guys at camp were taught to eat five or six big meals per day. Angry, scrawny John told him that he already did that.
But when scrawny John realized that he’d need to eat breakfast meals that consist of 12 whole eggs, four packets of plain instant oatmeal, and four slices of rye toast; lunches that consisted of three whole grain bagels, a pound of lean beef, and a huge salad; and dinners that consisted of a full pound of pasta, a few cups of broccoli, and a half pound of lean ground beef, he understood where he was going wrong. And not only did he adopt these breakfast, lunch, and dinner strategies, he began eating five whole grain bagels slathered with natural peanut butter and drinking a couple of liters of protein drink throughout the rest of the day.
Sound absurd? Well, not only does it sound absurd, it looked absurd. But, after two more years, scrawny John wasn’t so scrawny any longer.
As you can imagine, scrawny John was me. Utilizing these feeding techniques, I went from a 5’8″ 150 pound guy (at 10% body fat) aspiring to bench press my own body weight, to a 210 pound guy (at 12% body fat) bench pressing 315 for multiple reps.
If you think you’ve “tried everything,” think again. You’ve gotta eat big to get big.
4 – Stand On the Shoulders of Giants
As Issac Newton once said, “If I’ve seen further, it’s because I’m standing on the shoulders of giants.” Of course, he was implying that his accomplishments were built on the backs of his previous mentors and the great scientists that came before him.
My first mentor, and the one who had the most impact, was a guy named Craig Bach. When I met him at the tender age of 18 years, he was a successful entrepreneur, an excellent national level bodybuilder, and a man wise beyond his years. At the time he took me under his wing, teaching me how to train like a madman, but that wasn’t all. He also taught me how to manage my finances, how to set goals, and how to focus on success. Without his encouragement and counsel, I might still be cooking home fries for the breakfast crowd at my dad’s restaurant.
Jim Dolan, my university Exercise Physiology instructor, also made a big impact. This guy was a no-nonsense educator who always challenged me to do more and to learn more. Every time I responded to his challenges, he gave me more. On top of that, he was just a cool guy, riding his Harley to school in the spring and taking a sabbatical every few years to drive his VW bus across the US.
Two other guys that have made a big impact on me have been Dr. Tim Ziegenfuss and Dr. Lonnie Lowery (fellow T-Nation nutrition studs). While these two are more like nerdy frat brothers, they have both made meaningful contributions to my work and view of this industry.
Who are your mentors in life and in the gym? Do you have any? If not, you’ll never reach your full potential, I promise you.
But be careful. When I say mentors, I don’t mean heroes or internet gurus. I mean real people that you can sit with, observe, model and ask questions of – people you respect, guys who take pride in living their lives according to a higher standard than most. Mentor with these individuals (whether it be under the iron, in academia, or in “real life”) and expect to leapfrog over previous pre-conceived hurdles.
Stand on the shoulders of giants now and you’ll be the giant later.
5 – Expect Corrective Phases of Training
It makes me sad to walk in many gyms nowadays. It disheartens me to see trainees lifting so light yet expecting serious progress. The question races through my mind, why does this generation of lifter avoid serious, fearless, heavy loading?
Perhaps it’s because so many S&C coaches have taken to mocking injured lifters for their “training indiscretion.” It’s as if the coaches believe that athletes should be able to train without ever so much as a strain, sprain, or muscle tear. Uh, guys, training injuries are inevitable. The man who’s trained hard and heavy for over a decade without any injuries is a lucky man indeed.
So what’s one to do when the inevitable occurs? Well, for starters, keep training. Let me clue you in on my basic training philosophy: I never take extended periods of time off from the gym. Sure, if I’m overtrained, I’ll be sure to take a week off and ease back into the gym, working systems of the body that will allow me to expend energy without taxing my recovery resources. For example, if my CNS is fried, I’ll take a week off and then ease back into the gym with hypertrophy type training or, if it’s really bad, some lighter aerobic work that won’t overload the nervous system.
This philosophy is in place because, like most of you, I love being lean and muscular. So fatigue, injuries and overuse aren’t excuses for staying completely out of the gym and, as an effect, letting my conditioning slip away.
So what can you do in order to keep training while strained, sprained or torn? First, seek a competent manual therapist. Find a guy who does Active Release (ART) or functional integrated therapy (chiropractic + fascial work + acupuncture + Active Release type work) and start getting treatment right away.
Second, in the gym, find movements that don’t hurt the injured body part or lighten up the load on movements that do bother it.
Third, consult an expert to figure out the root of the problem (many times, muscle imbalances are to blame) and train to correct it. For example, many shoulder problems are the result of an anterior-posterior imbalance in strength and flexibility. As a result, it’s wise to spend your corrective phase doing three times as much posterior work as anterior work.
So, in the end, it’s important to keep training heavy. However, expect a few corrective phases here and there. These phases are a great opportunity to focus on physique balance. There’s no excuse for staying out of the gym during such a phase.
6 – When Trying to Improve Your Body, Use Outcome Based Decision Making
Outcome based decision making is a fancy phrase describing my use of the scientific method in helping people achieve body composition changes. How do most trainees do it? Well, here’s an example:
Bob wants to get big – real big – by next summer. So he picks up a workout program from Flex magazine (after all, Jay Cutler does it and he’s real big) and follows it for a while. Every so often Bob checks his body weight and, of course, he’s constantly looking in the mirror to see if he’s any more “buff.” Once Bob finds he’s not progressing, he picks up some other program from Flex and repeats this process over and over again until he gives up on the weight training thing. Sound random and haphazard? You bet. Is this how most trainees do it? You bet.
I don’t recommend this approach. Rather, real progress comes from setting discrete, measurable goals, choosing regular measurement intervals to see if the goals are being met, and pre-planned strategies in case they aren’t. For an example of how Bob might use this approach, see below:
Starting at the lower right hand corner, you’ll notice the box labeled “Follow Plan.” At this point you can assume “Follow Plan” to mean following a baseline nutritional intake complete with good food choices, a moderate to high protein intake, good post-workout nutrition, and few meals that contain lots of carbohydrate and fat. (For a better idea of what this entails, “Follow Plan” means eating according to the seven rules laid out in my previous article HERE.)
Now, once Bob’s adjusted his diet to conform to these seven practical habits (because he’s probably way off base nutritionally) and followed them for a few baseline weeks, he can start thinking about appraising his success and making necessary changes.
Here’s how: After two weeks of following the new nutritional plan, he assesses his progress objectively (i.e. makes body weight and body fat measurements). If Bob is closer to his long term goal then he simply continues to repeat the plan until, of course, the answer becomes “No.”
If the answer is “No” then he needs to eat more food. To begin the adjustment process, Bob increases his food intake by about 250kcal. After adding 250kcal into his diet, Bob follows this adjustment for two more weeks. At the end of these two weeks, it’s time for another reassessment. And so on.
Looking over the process above; it seems pretty simple, right? It is. The process is really nothing more than a systematic way of testing your program for effectiveness. It need not take more than a few minutes every few weeks.
If you can patiently follow this process systematically (i.e. make an adjustment, wait two weeks, reassess, adjust again) you’ll find your patience is rewarded by steady progress and very few “unexpected” results. After all, by adjusting on a bi-weekly basis, there’s very little risk of packing on too much fat when trying go gain mass or of losing too much muscle when trying to get lean.
7 – It’s Sometimes All Right To Not Have Training Goals
After lesson #6 you might be all “goaled” out. That’s good because the next lesson I want to share with you is the following – it’s sometimes okay to have no training goals. Blaspheme? I think not!
Train for long enough and you’ll come to realize that sometimes in life you need to consciously slip one set of goals onto the backburner of your priority stove and place another set of goals on the front where it’s hot.
For some, that means slipping their custom birdhouse construction hobby on their personal back burner so that they can focus on their health, physique and muscle strength. For some, they need to go in the opposite direction. Since it’s impossible to put all the important things in our life on the hottest burners, it’s important to give ourselves permission to juggle which things go where.
But make no mistake – putting something on the back burner doesn’t mean rank neglect. When I say that it’s sometimes okay to have no training goals, I’m not saying it’s okay to stop training and morph into a pudgy, hypercholesterolemic slob. Rather, I’m saying that it’s acceptable to simply maintain your physique while focusing on something else for a while.
For me, I’ve spent this year with training on the back burner. Again, I’m not neglecting my physique (as you’ll see in the pic below), but instead I’m simply maintaining what I’ve built while focusing on other things.
As with most things in life, building something from the ground up is much harder than maintaining it. Whether you’re “maintaining” your professional life in order to grow your physique or “maintaining” your physique in order to grow your profession (as I am now), be conscious of how you’re allocating your resources. Don’t get stuck in the “zone of mediocrity” where you’re always dabbling yet never committing.
I can afford to “back burner” my training now for the very reason that I expressly committed to it in the past and reaped the results of my intense efforts.
8 – Have 10% Foods
It’s unfortunate that most trainees expect perfection from themselves. Perhaps it’s because in athletics we’re told stories of certain individuals giving 110%. As the great coach John Wooden says, “You can only give what you have and you only have 100%. No one is an overachiever. We’re all underachievers to a different extent. I prefer to judge individuals on how close they come to 100%, knowing that no one can ever achieve perfection… “
If some trainees miss a single meal or eat one food not on their plan (regardless of the circumstances surrounding these less-than-perfect decisions), their failure to achieve that impossible 110% effort sets in motion a psychological chain of events that leads to frustration and the inability to get right back on the plan. It’s as if once a single sub-optimal decision is made, the all-or-nothing mentality sets in and BAM, they’re back to nothing.
But here’s the rub. It doesn’t have to be this way. In my 14 years as an athlete, weightlifter and coach, I’ve come to realize that 100% nutritional discipline is never required for optimal progress. The difference, in results, between 90% adherence to your nutrition program and 100% adherence is negligible.
So allow yourself the extra 10% wiggle room. Do you like frappuccinos at Starbucks? If so, have some during your 10% allotment. (Also, if you’re a man and admit to liking frappuccinos, either get off the Clomid or take some TRIBEX immediately!) My favorite 10% food is pizza. Once or twice a week I allow myself to have some.
This 10% wiggle room will allow you the freedom to eat a few extra things not on your menu without the guilt and subsequent psychological crash that usually accompanies such perceived transgressions.
9 – Unleash The Beast (No, not that beast!)
Lately I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend on the weightlifting related web sites and message boards. Men and women everywhere are spending so much time talking about training and nutrition that they hardly have any time left to train.
And when they do train, they’re so busy counting time under tension numbers and rest intervals – following exercise plans by the numbers – that they never really focus on unleashing the beast and pushing up big weights.
I’ve heard people talk about finding inner balance and peace while training. Inner balance and peace is for yoga. Mention those words during a deadlift session and I’ll beat you with a 45 pound plate.
To train hard and develop an outstanding physique, you must “find the anger” within and unload it on the bar. Not only will you feel better when you’ve done the workout, having activated your lower, reptilian brain centers, but you’ll also have stimulated the body to improve through brute acts of force and strength.
Unleashing the beast, though, is tough work and many find this work far too hard to do. So rather than going into this zone, they try to replace raw, hard lifting with the acquisition of knowledge; the more they learn the better they feel about their wussified lifting protocol. Next time you hit the gym, unleash the beast. It’ll change the way you do things in the gym – hopefully forever.
Although it was originally my goal to share ten lessons today, I’m going to heed my own advice in lesson #8 and stop at nine. See, I practice what I preach!
Perhaps you’re more of a veteran than I am and these lessons are old hat. Perhaps you’re a novice and picked up quite a few distinctions in this article. Regardless, drop a post below and let me know what lessons you consider the most important in your quest for a bad-ass physique that you can maintain for the long haul.