You've probably never heard of him, but you've definitely seen his work. Those "in the know" have recognized his talent and sought out his hardcore nutritional guidance, including Dave Tate and many top-level competitive bodybuilders.
So what do they know that you don't? They know that his nutritional strategies can make dramatic changes to their body.
Want to know more? We did too, so we tracked down bodybuilding nutrition expert and new T-Nation author Justin Harris for this exclusive interview.
Testosterone Nation: First off, what's your educational background?
Justin Harris: I have a bachelor's in exercise physiology and have worked extensively as a cardiac sonographer. I now run my website, Troponin Nutrition, and work with bodybuilders at all levels.
T-Nation: When did you first pick up a weight yourself and where has that lead you?
JH: I've been training consistently since I was 15 years old, but I remember wanting to join a gym as early as age nine. I actually asked for and received a weight bench for Christmas when I was nine.
I got a lat pulldown when I was 10 or 11, and my father welded me a squat rack around that time as well. I didn't have the dedication or understanding of training at that age to be anywhere near consistent, so I'd just goof around.
It wasn't until I was 15 that I first joined the gym and began figuring things out. It was a small racquetball club, and there were no actual "bodybuilders" there, so I pretty much had to fend for myself.
Around the age of 17 I began training with another guy from my high school and we've remained best friends ever since. We had no idea what we were doing, but loved training and were motivated and stubborn enough to push each other to the edge every session.
We both went on to play college football, and both still compete in bodybuilding and powerlifting to this day. It was definitely lucky for both of us to find someone who'd remain dedicated at that time. I think so many kids get into weights, but quickly drift toward "normal" activities.
I played college football at a Division III school called Alma College. I was a two-time All-American and the 2001 pre-season small college MVP. I really had a great time with football, but in the end, being a 5'10" defensive end pretty much limited my football days to the small college level.
After school I was kind of looking for something to focus on, so I
decided to get into bodybuilding. Up until that point, I was just a
"fat guy who liked to lift heavy weights."
I did my first contest in 2003 in Indiana and was hooked. I then moved back to Michigan in 2004 and won the heavyweight and overall at two Michigan shows that year.
I did my first national level show in 2005, placing 15th at the Jr. Nationals, and then went on to win the super-heavyweight class at the 2006 Jr. USA's. I recently placed 9th at the 2007 USA's.
Justin (center) at the USA's.
I also did my first powerlifting meet this past spring. I won best lifter at the 2007 APF Michigan powerlifting championships with a total of 2,149 pounds with a 876 squat, 573 bench, and 700 pound deadlift.
T-Nation: Those are some impressive numbers. Now, you're known for your nutritional expertise and are sought out by a ton of high-ranking athletes. If you had to sum up your nutritional philosophy in one short paragraph, what would it be?
JH: For bodybuilders I believe in cycling your carbohydrates and eating a different amount each day. When dieting, this allows you to keep your metabolism high, maintain glycogen stores in the muscle, and lower carbs drastically from time to time to accelerate fat loss without subsequent muscle loss.
In the off-season this allows you to add size, remain anabolic, super-saturate glycogen stores, and keep body fat levels lower.
T-Nation: I know you specialize in taking competitive bodybuilders to the next level, but who's your ideal client?
JH: My ideal client is someone who's truly interested in learning and improving. Oftentimes, you run into a client who wants a magic potion or a client who doesn't really want to listen. But when you find a client who's eager to learn, trusts and follows the diet 100%, and really wants to improve, it can be a lot of fun to work together.
I've had a few people who've gone from either never competing or never winning a show to being national level competitors in a very short time. Those are the ones that you love to work with.
I recently had a client – who was frustrated with his inability to nail his conditioning – win back-to-back shows with the best conditioning in the show both times. To help someone improve on the thing they thought they couldn't improve on, and then watch them win two shows in a row, is very rewarding.
So, it's not really the level of competitor; it's being open to new ideas and really working with me that creates the best client.
T-Nation: What's the top mistake competitive bodybuilders make when preparing for a show?
JH: Hands down, the most common mistake that competitors make (that will never allow them to move past the local level of bodybuilding) is lack of conditioning.
Most competitors worry too much about weight, and they think they carry more muscle than they do. This prevents them from ever actually getting into contest shape and relegating them to also-ran status at show after show.
When I hear a local competitor telling me they're going to weigh in the 240's on stage, I cringe. Ronnie Coleman won his first Olympia in the 240's. If anyone out there getting ready for their first show thinks they're as big as Ronnie Coleman they're flat-out delusional!
Interestingly enough, the mistake many top level guys make is being overlyobsessive with conditioning. They diet all their muscle away.
While the average local level guy is afraid to get in shape because he'll be too light, many top guys diet too hard and lose more muscle than they need to. When I see someone who walks around in the off-season at nearly 280 pounds with a decent set of abdominals diet down to the heavyweight class, I know they lost a good amount of muscle in the process.
T-Nation: Okay, let's say you get a regular guy or girl who doesn't necessarily want to get up on stage but just wants to look damn good naked. What are some steps they can follow immediately to make sure they look better?
JH: The first step is holding themselves accountable for everything they eat. "Wanting" to get in shape isn't going to get you there.
Getting in shape isn't as hard as people think. It's actually very simple. Focus on a few good, clean foods (chicken, fish, rice, oatmeal, healthy fats) and don't overeat. But, while the diet is very simple to follow, sticking to a diet of little variety is hard for people accustomed to being able to eat whatever they want at any time.
Most people can get in pretty decent shape by just focusing on eating "good" foods and not overeating. But to get leaner and surpass the 10% body fat mark requires a bit more work. At this point, they'd probably want to follow some sort of carbohydrate rotation diet where their carb intake varies from day to day, with some days going very low in carbohydrates.
T-Nation: Speaking of that, what are your thoughts on the amount of protein and carbohydrates consumed while trying to lean out? What is it dependent on and how can you tell how a client will react?
JH: I'm a bit different than most people in that I don't count calories. I have a base idea as to how much protein a person will need and how many carbohydrates they'll need based on a pre-diet questionnaire I give them.
For the most part, I utilize a higher protein intake and a lower carbohydrate intake than I do in the off-season. Protein and carbohydrate intake should vary inversely to each other. The more protein you eat, the less carbohydrates you'll need since much of that protein will be converted to glucose by the body.
Conversely, the more carbohydrates you eat, the less protein you'll need, as carbohydrates, and more specifically the insulin secretion caused by the carbohydrates, is very anti-catabolic and protein sparing.
But, insulin also blunts fat loss by decreasing the amount of fatty acids shuttled to the mitochondria to be oxidized, so carbohydrate manipulation becomes more important when attempting to shed body fat.
The vast majority of my diets are set up in a carbohydrate cycling approach, where the amount of carbs ingested will vary each day. Some days will see carbohydrate intake be very high – some clients as high as 1,500 grams in a day. Then, some days will be very low and other days will be in a more moderate range.
T-Nation: Most people still follow a typical cut/bulk cycle. What do you prescribe in the off-season for your clients?
JH: I never understood and never will understand the "bulk" cycle. I just can't see purposely adding fat for any reason.
Most studies done on the subject seem to show the body is most anabolic in the 10-12% body fat range. That is the range when natural hormone production is at its highest, insulin sensitivity is at its peak in the tissues, and cardiovascular fitness is generally better.
Adding fat to add muscle is just spinning your wheels. This is especially true when you take a competitor into consideration. I don't think anyone can truly expect to lose 70 pounds of fat and not lose muscle. So, any muscle you may have added by overfeeding will probably be lost when you have to lose the fat you've gained.
My off-season approach is the same as my pre-contest approach. I utilize a carb cycling diet, where carbohydrates vary in amount each day. The carbohydrate and overall calorie intake is going to be higher than in the pre-contest phase, but the food sources are generally the same. We'll focus on a few key anabolic ingredients around weight workouts, but otherwise the diet isn't much different than in the off-season.
In fact, my off-season and pre-contest diets are extremely similar. The only thing that changes when I prepare for a contest is the slow decrease in calories as the weeks progress. Food timing and choices remain the same.
My general feeling is saturated fat and sugars aren't key components to creating a bodybuilder's physique.
T-Nation: Okay, Justin, break it down for us. How much of a problem is losing muscle mass while dieting down?
JH: If done correctly, losing size shouldn't be a problem at all. I typically gain size when dieting. This past year, I began my pre-contest diet 16 weeks out and 265 pounds, and was 266 pounds at two weeks out. Much of this is probably attributed to being more diligent with nutrition, less traveling, and more focus on recuperation, but if done correctly there's absolutely no reason to lose muscle when dieting.
T-Nation: You have a unique take on the difference between muscle size and fullness. Which is more important for the competitive bodybuilder or the person who just wants to look great with his shirt off?
JH: It's interesting you mention muscle fullness, because that's a very large factor in how you look. Actual contractile tissue is a relatively small portion of muscle "size."
Much of the appearance of a muscle is due to intracellular and extra-cellular water levels, electrolyte levels, glycogen levels, blood vessel and capillary size and density, and other things that contribute to the cross-sectional area of a muscle.
So, losing muscle is entirely different than being "flat." In fact, a very large bodybuilder can technically gain or lose as much as 20 pounds of muscle without a change in actual contractile tissue.
I know that in my past contest diet, I could drop as low as 250 or soar as high as 270 in a matter of days, depending on my sodium intake, fluid intake, and carbohydrate intake. Now, obviously this isn't a gain or loss of 20 pounds, but just a variance in my level of fullness.
This is something first-time competitors don't understand, and often something experienced competitors don't even understand. Being flat is different than losing muscle. You're most likely going to have to become flat at various points in a diet. Understand the difference between this and muscle loss and you'll become a better competitor.
T-Nation: Very interesting. Now, since you're also a competitor in the sport, what are your thoughts on the current state of bodybuilding physiques? Where do you think bodybuilding is going and where would you like it to go?
JH: I have mixed feelings about what's going on right now. I really enjoy seeing the mass monsters. Bodybuilding really has very little chance of ever becoming mainstream. There's just too much stigma attached to it, and it appeals to a very narrow spectrum of people. So, I really don't see much point in attempting to make it mainstream. I honestly feel that too much of a push in that direction will only alienate its core audience, with little additional mainstream acceptance.
Unfortunately, people just don't grasp the effect of genetics in bodybuilding. People can certainly understand genetics in other sports. I mean, the average basketball fan can fully understand that no matter how much he practices or how bad he wants it, he'll never be as good as a Kobe Bryant if he doesn't have Kobe Bryant's genetics.
But for whatever reason, people refuse to see that concept in bodybuilding. Many people who don't have the genetics to excel in the sport think they can reach whatever level they desire as they plan to step on stage. This leads to excess in all areas of bodybuilding, which then leads to many of the "odd" physiques you see at all levels of pro and amateur bodybuilding.
I think bodybuilding is going to continue to go in the direction it has gone since day one. People will continue to try to get bigger and more shredded. That's just how things are.
The type of person who excels at the upper level of any endeavor is the extreme type of person that will always attempt to push the boundaries of what's current. People who don't have that mindset may never understand it. I'm not sure I always understand it, but it is how it is.
It's the same across the board. The medical student who's intent on being a top cardiovascular surgeon will spend years alienating friends and family, depriving himself of sleep and recreation, and doing whatever else is necessary to reach their goal. That's not much different, although much more profitable, than how many bodybuilders pursue their goals.
T-Nation: So what are your personal training goals and aspirations? Going pro?
JH: I think that anyone who competes as a bodybuilder has dreams of becoming a pro. I'm no different in that respect. I'd love to eventually become a pro-bodybuilder and will continue to compete and improve as I work toward that goal.
Whether or not I ever reach that level I'll still be involved in bodybuilding and strength sports as much as I can. I'll always be interested in learning and writing about nutrition and training, and I'll always be involved with my nutrition business.
T-Nation: What's your current training routine look
JH: I know I'm a bit different than many people whot consider themselves bodybuilders in that I also enjoy powerlifting and include it in my training. I'm fresh off my training for the 2007 USA's, so I'm not fully into off-season mode yet.
I'm not on a definite training routine, but here's what I've been doing since the show:
Day 1: Chest
Day 2: Back
Day 3: Legs
Day 4: Off
Day 5: Arms
Day 6: Hamstrings and Deadlifts (powerlifting day)
Day 7: Shoulders and Bench Press (powerlifting day)
My future plans are to do a few powerlifting meets this winter and spring, and then get ready for either the 2008 USA's or Nationals and another attempt at my pro card in bodybuilding. And, of course, I'll always be trying to make a difference in my clients' lives.
T-Nation: Great stuff, Justin. Thanks for the interview!
JH: No problem. It was my pleasure.