The Bodybuilder's Diet Coach

An Interview with Justin Harris

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

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.

Justin Harris

Testosterone Nation: First off, what's your educational

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JH: No problem. It was my pleasure.