Meet Lonnie Lowery

An Interview with the Warrior Nerd, Lonnie Lowery, PhD

I met Dr. Lonnie Lowery for the first time in person at a weight-training symposium in Canada. Three things were very apparent:

1) This guy was scary smart.

2) Unlike many other scary smart guys, he could communicate. He could deliver a complicated message in an entertaining and understandable manner.

3) He walked the walk.

Because of these qualities, Lonnie soon became a valuable member of T-Nation. I sat down with the Lonman recently to get to know him a little better. Here’s how it went down.

T-Nation: Thanks for talking with us today, Lonnie. Let’s start with some background.  Where’d you grow up and what was your family like?

Lonnie Lowery: I grew up in the Midwest. Basically, we were a single-mom type family. Maybe that’s how we all got our fighter instincts. Mom worked both day and nightshift jobs so that we’d have enough food and stuff for Christmas. I don’t know how she pulled it off. She didn’t know it, but even in third grade I recognized her sacrifices.

I was the first boy born into a family with three girls – two were much older. My brother, the Yeti, came a year or so later. (We kept him shaved down so the zookeepers wouldn’t take him away.) We were all basically good in school and sports – some better at one or the other. I suppose my sister, the genius surgeon, was 80% academic (she’s literally maxed-out every exam she’s ever taken: ACT, GRE, MCAT, whatever) while my brother was 80% athletic but still pretty good in school.

T-Nation: How’d you first get interested in bodybuilding and training?

Lowery: My interest in muscle building started when I was 12. It wasn’t about improving my other sports; it was for its own sake. Memories are dim but somehow it started via casual discussions with my dad on weekend visits. Something just clicked with me.

Soon thereafter, I shelled-out 20 bucks at K-mart for some plastic and cement weights that I “benched” flat off my bedroom floor. Bodybuilding started when my oldest sister bought me a Flex magazine in ’83 as a joke. Samir Bannout was on the cover, roaring for the first and last time in his career.

I consumed every page. Gasoline on a flame. I have mixed emotions remembering my naïve enthusiasm.

T-Nation: Yeah, I think we’ve all been there! When did you decide to pursue this stuff further and make it a career?

Lowery: In my sophomore year of college I sat down one evening and asked myself: what do you like to do? Writing, painting and drawing, and lifting were immediate thoughts. I officially chose exercise science as a major but continued doing the other things as well.

T-Nation: How about today? Besides contributing to T-Nation, what do you actually do for a living?

Lowery: Before even finishing my doctorate in 2000, I started teaching in the nutrition department at my university. It evolved into a professorship for a couple years but it became clear to me that nutritional biochemistry and theory weren’t enough. I was only two-thirds formed as a sports nutritionist.

I left in 2002 to complete the dietetics side of my background and start my own business to make ends meet while doing so. The second Masters and other credentials only just recently became a wrap. Being enrolled in two academic programs while composing lay articles, textbooks, and doing local seminars through my company, N.E.W. Associates, has filled 70-hour weeks.

I’m only now starting to work formally with professional athletes, actors, and so forth. I hope to bring in a partner or two because the client load is an avalanche! It’s a very exciting time and I hope to merge it with T-Nation in some regards! 

T-Nation: How about family? Have you passed on those brainy genes yet?

Lowery: Yep! I’m married and have two boys and a very bright but often spazzy chocolate lab. I get to relive all the cool aspects of my childhood – athletic things like soccer and Tae Kwon Do, and nerdy, creative things like Dungeons & Dragons, comics, drawing, and sci-fi flicks. Even the Labrador!

With my writing and speaking these days there’s not much time for anything more. Family time is important and sometimes I combine it with other interests like art, fantasy books and flicks, TKD, etc.

T-Nation: You must be busy between your professional and family life. Give us a peek into your daily schedule. What’s a typical day like?

Lowery: I’m only now restructuring my schedule. Much less time will be necessary at the hospital now that my additional schooling is complete.

I get up about 6:30, make my oats and berries, then plug-in and boot-up. After a few hours of email, calls, PowerPoint stuff and writing, I eat again, then I have to get out of my home office.

I’ve found that a walk to the coffee shop gets loads of work done while getting me ready for the gym. I eat lunch and usually hit the weights in the early afternoon. I’m strongest then and can take advantage of my unusual hours – that is, the gym is relatively empty (not just the squat rack!). I’ve always been one to follow the solitary way when it comes to bodybuilding; training isn’t just “fitness,” it’s a meditation – and at risk of sounding cheesy, a kind of battle in this era of softness.

After gym time and a post-workout drink, I sometimes practice martial arts, alone or with my youngest son. At that point I do chores or work further on whatever lecture or book that’s due. Dinner with the family is next. I then read to my sons for a while or hang out with my wife. I’m fortunate in that we can be around each other pretty much all day without her killing me. (The reattached arm is even working fine now.)

After the kids are asleep, around 9:30, I work some more until 10:30 then sometimes meditate until 11:00 PM. I’m really Type A and need to relax and “reset” before bed.

T-Nation: Cool. I don’t know who came up with the term, probably TC, but you’re kind of a “warrior nerd,” that odd combination of iron warrior and academic geek. Is that a fair label?

Lowery: I am a nerd in many ways. I only became a barbarian because I thought it was a cross between a barber and a librarian. Seriously, yes, it’s a fair label. TC’s pretty astute there. I actually once wrote – only half jokingly – that the two persons who’ve influenced me the most are Conan the Barbarian and Albert Einstein.

I’ve never much cared that most Westerners see incongruities between intellectuals and strong, muscular people. This wasn’t always so. Think about the samurai and Eastern culture. Sun Tzu was real, of course. Or what about the ancient Greco-Roman empire, or any ancient myth where courage and intellect were exemplified? Fighting is a metaphor for self-improvement against obstacles. Then again, maybe I just read too many comics as a kid.

T-Nation: No, I think you nailed it there. The combination of a powerful body and a keen intellect is the true T-Nation ideal. Now, let’s talk bodybuilding. You’ve done some shows, correct?

Lowery: Until recently, I’d only competed twice, long ago: one ANBC (natural) show when I was 20 and another, the NPC Pittsburgh in ’96, I think. I got my butt kicked!

Then about two years ago I asked a colleague why he continued lifting. His reply was so vague and weak that it helped finalize my competitive thoughts. He said, “I just want to get my arms a little bigger and maybe get a little leaner.” No quantification, no timelines, no aggression in his face. He even looked a bit embarrassed.

Comparatively, my buddy Rob, who was contemplating his first powerlifting meet at the same time, flatly recommended that I “just pick a date.” We had a long talk about facing the unknown – facing other men. So few of us do so seriously as grown-ups, long after high school sports. No matter how courageous or determined one may be, it’s important to be surrounded by other strong men. Maybe that’s the biggest advantage of the T-community.

I’ve never been one for excuses so I just picked a competition date. That’s how it all starts. I competed twice in 2003 to prove to myself that I could commit fully, get shredded, and feel great about my effort on stage for the first time. I actually had a little discussion with John Berardi that I could replace milligrams of androgens (the guys I was competing agasint) with years of education in physiology and nutrition (me).

Knowing that I was “hormonally challenged,” I simply wanted to place in the top five of a regional-level show and get some “hardware.” It’s not the trophy that mattered, but the accomplishment of knowing I could compete successfully.

My 20-week effort paid off. I was runner-up at the NPC Mountaineer cup (which was just a small show) and fifth at the NPC Mr. Midwest. The latter show was very large, with tons of huge, nationally-qualified guys in a light-heavyweight class of about 20 competitors.    

T-Nation: What did you get out of doing the shows?

Lowery: Proof that I can do some damage on a regional-level stage against nationally qualified competitors – without being gassed out of my skull. (Not that I belittle any of my competitors for their use; it’s a serious part of the subculture.)

Despite my longstanding education, I had to walk the walk if I’m going to presume to tell others what they should be doing. I think we all need to walk the walk on a fairly regular basis in some way to stay warriors.

T-Nation: Well said. Let’s hear some numbers now. What kind of weights are you tossing around these days? How about weight, body fat, etc?

Lowery: I’ve always been a squat-a-holic, but I know too many guys with multiple ruptured disks and disintegrating vertebrae to keep me really pumped up about squat weights anymore. Although I used to do 495 pounds routinely, I’m now realizing that I’m experienced enough to get great growth with less weight.

In many ways, I’m returning to bodybuilding per se, as opposed to power training. I’m a big believer that some big legs can result from more volume with just 225 to 315 pounds.

T-Nation: That’s very interesting. You better blog about that topic further! How ’bout your bench?

Lowery: My bench has always sucked, so I focus on dumbbells. On heavy days I worked up to sets of eight reps with the 110’s or sets of five with the 120’s. Other movements, like seated pulley rows or calf raises, often involve the stack (whatever that may be at various gyms, perhaps 250 pounds). I usually curl 40 to 60 pound dumbbells, nothing tremendous.

I currently weigh 202, down from 207 about a month ago. After my competition, I got too fat for my liking – which isn’t uncommon. I don’t plan to get up to 215-220 pounds anymore; my blood pressure starts screaming and I just look too fat. I hope to stay a hard 195 and continue becoming more “functional” until I choose another big competitive goal. I don’t know what my body fat percentage is, probably about 10% right now.

T-Nation: I’ve noticed a lot of your nutrition articles have gone from super technical to more everyday practical. Were people getting too caught up in the minutiae?

Lowery: Partially. I’ve always known that an article should be applicable to the reader, or as TC says, “Readers need to hit paydirt.” As a long-time teacher, like I know you are, Chris, I feel it’s important to remind everyone what’s most important – like whole foods. I’ve really come full circle in my own thinking in this regard.

There are still plenty of fascinating facts and topics to share. I’ll no doubt swing back towards technicality at times. Too many mags provide a three-page article based on a single new study and dwell on protocol minutiae. In the long run, one study means little and those articles are “filler”. Readers deserve a more balanced look at the literature and an education.

Additional classes in nutrition counseling skills and exposure to actual patients have also affected my writing. I’ve always liked to pick a topic (not a study per se) and tackle it comprehensively with a decent reference list – now I just do so even more applicably.

Truthfully, technical or practical, I often joke that I’ve come to actually write term papers for a living!

T-Nation: Well, at least you get paid for these “term papers!” Here’s a fun question: If people could only change one thing about their dietary habits, what should it be?

Lowery: My recommendation, from each half of my training, is: 1) Get off your arse; just pick something and make it habitual – nobody moves anymore, and 2) Eat more whole foods as a staple – lean meats, fruits, and vegetables instead of processed crap and modified “health foods” that are rearranged versions of junk foods. Those shouldn’t make anyone feel much better about themselves. We’ve forgotten where we came from.

T-Nation: Okay, these next few questions are just for grins. What’s the single worst food a person could eat, a real physique killer?

Lowery: [Laughing] I used to ask my students that. It’s always a hoot. Corned beef hash immediately comes to mind as a disastrous food. I think French fries and pastries have to be a tie for worst food overall, though. Still, I try not to demonize any one food; the collective diet is what matters.

T-Nation: What’s the single best exercise?

Lowery: The squat.

T-Nation: Single best form of “cardio?”

Lowery:  For specific fat loss and muscle preservation among bodybuilders, the answer is walking. For maximal whole body aerobic conditioning, probably cross-country skiing.

T-Nation: I like a weekly cheat meal. What are your thoughts on planned cheat meals?

Lowery: I don’t plan them really, but I will loosen-up during weekend visits with family? and go all-out on holiday meals. (That’s on the holiday, not all holiday season!) This is more for balancing life enjoyment as opposed to glycogen repletion or metabolic rate restoration, which takes longer than one meal or one day.

T-Nation: Cool. What’s the future hold for you? Anything interesting coming up?

Lowery:  Professionally, I have a scientific paper, a book chapter, two book proposals and at least one sports nutrition lecture coming up in Las Vegas. Not to mention the new T-Nation! I’m honestly very stoked over its possibilities; community is sorely needed in bodybuilding these days.

Athletically, I’m motivated to start Kendo classes this summer; it’s been a long time since I practiced martial arts formally (since shortly after being granted first Dan in TKD in the early 90’s). I’ve also just formalized a plan to lean out dramatically? perhaps to get within striking distance of another competition next year.

Personally, a family vacation to GenCon (the geeky D&D and comic convention) is coming in August; we love all that fantasy and sci-fi stuff!     

T-Nation: I may have to find my old Cloak of Invincibility and join you for that one! Thanks for the chat today, Lonman. Look forward to checking out your T-Nation blog!

Lowery: Thanks, brother!

For more Warrior Nerdniness, be sure to read Lonnie’s articles and daily web log, exclusively at T-Nation!