It's Alive!

Let's say you're a mad scientist with a laboratory in an old castle. You have a great dungeon that would make a fine gym, but you need a trainer. Being a mad scientist, you're quite good at building monsters out of spare parts, so you decide to construct the ultimate strength coach. What "parts" do you need?

Well, the ideal strength coach would be formally educated. We want a brain to go with all that brawn, after all. He'd demonstrate all that book knowledge on himself too – he'd walk the walk as well as talk the talk. (After all, you don't want an arm-chair strength coach!) He'd be open minded, positive, tough, articulate, and perhaps even have his ego under control, which is always nice.

While there's probably no such thing as the perfect strength coach, there are quite a few who come close. Christian Thibaudeau is one of them. We decided to sit down with Christian, pick his brain about a whole bunch of topics, and get to know the man behind the beast a little better.

Testosterone: Christian, you've made a big impact on T-mag readers since you joined the staff, but we don't know a lot about you personally. Give us some history, big guy.

Christian Thibaudeau: I come from a rather large family by today's standards. I have two brothers and a sister. My older brother is a practicing physician and my sister works in recreology, organizing leisure activities for mentally challenged children. She's also one of the top female basketball coaches in the province, if not in Canada. My younger brother is a student in communications and cinema. He used to be a bruising 6', 270-pound football center who turned into a 190-pound golfer for his university's team. As you can see, there's a fat loss pattern in the family!

Both my parents are psychologists, which explains a lot about my occasional off-the-chart behavior! My father even worked as a sport psychologist for some time, working for his brother who was the coach for the university's basketball team. He was even named the best coach in Canada in the 70's.

My father spent some time as a university professor before devoting all his time as a human resources specialist. In fact, my mother was one of his students! She hooked up with him to raise her grades and it looks like it stuck!

T-mag: Looks like it! What interests do you have outside of training?

CT: I'm a die hard philatelist who also collects old Backstreet Boys posters. No, I'm kidding, I much prefer New Kids on the Block. Seriously though, I'm a huge movie buff. I love everything about movies, which is why I'm looking forward to producing my training video. In my ideal world I'd be the world's most renowned strength coach and an academy award winner!

T-mag: Well, you were great in The Fast and the Furious. (You knew I'd have to work in a Vin Diesel joke here somewhere!) Anyway, how'd you first get into training and athletics?

CT: Well, as you can see, my whole family was into sports. My brothers, father and uncle all played football and my sister was a great basketball player. So I was brought up in a sport loving family.

I started playing sports at a young age. I began baseball and ice hockey at around five or six years old and switched to football when I turned twelve. The sad thing was that I had absolutely no athletic capacities whatsoever! So I turned to strength training to make my dream of becoming an athlete come true.

I intuitively knew that getting stronger would make me a better athlete. When I was nine or ten years old I'd do push-ups, sit-ups and "the chair "(ski squats) while watching TV. When I started high school I entered the weight room, which only had a few dumbbells, barbells, and a universal machine we called "The Big Bertha."

At first I only trained my legs as I was playing tight end and believed that only legs were important. Then I was sucked into the biceps and chest world where I stayed for a few years. It wasn't until I was 17 years of age that I began truly productive training.

T-mag: Still, not a bad start. At what point did you decide to make training a career?

CT: Basically when I realized that despite all my efforts I'd never be a professional athlete. I knew I wanted to play an important role in the sport world, but didn't know exactly how. I started reading bodybuilding magazines and right away the old Muscle Media 2000 format stuck with me. This was back when TC was editing that magazine.

There was this guy named Poliquin writing for him, which made quite an impression on me, mostly because he was a French-Canadian. Understand that historically French-Canadians have always been conservative when it came to fame and making money. Poliquin made me realize that it was okay to try to make a good living from my strength training expertise.

Basically, strength training is the thing I love the most in the world. I wouldn't want to do anything else. In fact, I couldn't! I'm the kind of guy who'd miss work just to go to the gym and train, so I might as well work there!

T-mag: Makes sense to me! What mistakes did you make in the beginning of your coaching career?

CT: Focusing too much on numbers. I think that all beginning strength coaches make that mistake. We want to prove our worth so bad that we're willing to do anything to make our athletes lift more, including putting them at risk and letting them use bad form. Lift numbers in themselves should never be an end goal with athletes.

Another mistake I made (also quite common) was to use super advanced training techniques with beginner and intermediate athletes. These guys don't need the fanciest modern techniques to get strong. An advanced lifter will need them because his progress potential is lower, thus he needs "shock" methods. But using such methods with beginners is unnecessary and will prove counterproductive to long-term development.

T-mag: Good point. What's your average day like? Give us a rundown of what a day in the life of "The Thib" involves.

CT: It depends on the season. In the summer I'll wake up at 6 A.M. and have my breakfast. I'll work on articles or training plans until 8:30 then head up to the gym. I catch a short workout from 8:45 to 10:15. My first group of athletes will come in at 11:00 and stay until 12:45. I then get to eat a real meal and get back to the gym at 2:00 P.M. for my second group of the day. This group will stay until 3:45.

On my busiest days I'll have to leave at that time and travel 70 minutes to go train my figure skating groups, which normally end at around 6:30 to 7:00 P.M. I then travel back and if I'm lucky I'll get to train a few football players who can only make it at that time of "day."

In the winter months things are different since all my hockey players are away for their respective seasons. I still have a few athletes. I'll be at the track at 8:00 A.M. to supervise a sprinter on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I also train two local football teams; one team trains from 3:30 to 5:00 while the other one trains from 6:00 to 8:00, sometimes up to 9:00. Winter is easier for me because I basically have from 12:00 to 3:00 to do anything I want, although I always end up catching a workout with my girlfriend.

Obviously my regular schedule is compromised when I have a seminar planned or some other project. Lucky for me I do have an intern right now (Alain Watier, a kinesiology student) and will have another one this summer (Nicolas Roy, also a kinesiology student).

T-mag: Got any famous clients right now?

CT: Well, I can't divulge any names, mostly because it would start an open war with their teams' strength coaches! I once made the mistake of giving one of my books to the football coach of one of the players I train. Long story short, the team's strength coach (quite a well known name in Canada actually) didn't speak to the player for a few days out of spite!

Well, I trained this player in 2001 and he was named best lineman in Canada. He trained with his team's strength coach in 2002 and badly injured a hamstring! He got back to me this year and was once again named All-Canadian, won the best lineman award, and got drafted by the Canadian Football League!

I'm not looking for any wars or conflicts, but some strength coaches are somewhat insecure (understandably so considering the limited market) so I'd rather keep my mouth shut!

T-mag: Understandable. You really burst onto the scene with your Beast Evolves article. That transformation captured everyone's attention, probably because your "after" pics represent the kind of physique most T-mag readers are trying for. What made you decide to do the transformation?

CT: It was actually an e-mail I received from a T-mag reader. No kidding! It was shortly after I published my "Power Look" article. I received an e-mail from this guy who basically said, "Why should I take you seriously? You don't look muscular at all!" At first I shrugged it off and replied that I was a strength athlete; strength was my domain of expertise, not bodybuilding.

I then got injured in an Olympic lifting competition, which is sad really because at that time my training was going very well. I partially tore my left biceps. Nothing too serious, but it prevented me from doing any form of snatching for three to four months. Somehow the e-mail got back into my head and I decided, what the heck, I can't train for Olympic lifting, might as well use this time to build a good body. And the rest is history!

Before: 230 pounds, 18% bodyfat.
After: 204 pounds, 5% bodyfat. The pics were taken 14 weeks apart.

T-mag: You know, I read on some internet message boards that your transformation was faked by T-mag to help them sell more supplements. How do you respond to attacks like that?

CT: I'm actually ashamed that I posted my "after" pictures because I'm at least 10% better now! I'm leaner and bigger!

Was it faked? Heck no. I do admit that the "before" pics weren't very flattering, but I wasn't trying to make myself look bad. It was for a biomechanics class in which we analyzed our posture. Those pictures were taken before my injury and at the time I had no intention of undergoing a body transformation, much less write an article about it. These pics did make me realize how bad I looked though.

In all honesty, I understand reactions such as this. There are so many disreputable companies out there who use fake transformations to sell their products that you really can't blame readers for being cautious.

T-mag: Very true. Now, the typical bodybuilding magazine reader is more likely to follow the advice of someone who's in great shape. In fact, more people started following your advice after you made your transformation. Is that fair of them to judge the coach by his physique?

CT: You see, having a good body is much like being rich. You can become rich many different ways: you can be born into a rich family, you can become rich by working hard and making good business decisions, or you can choose the easier way and make money illegally.

Developing a good body is the same thing: you can be born with great genetics (like inheriting a fortune), you can work hard at it and make good training and nutritional decisions, or you can go the anabolic steroid way (though that still requires you to work hard to get optimal results.)

Back to your question, yeah, I do believe that it's fair that a coach be judged on his physique or strength if these are the result of hard work and applied knowledge. If you want to make money you go ask someone who's been there, someone who knows how to reach the top, right? Well, same goes for developing a good physique: if you want to attain a certain physique goal you should ask someone who's been there the hard way.

Obviously some big guys at the gym are born with great genetics. In most cases these guys aren't the best source of information because, in most cases, they got where they're at in spite of their training, not because of it!

I'm not saying that the quality of the physique is directly proportional to the knowledge of the coach. But if someone claims to know a lot about getting in good shape, he should at least be able to get himself into good shape! Would you ask a virgin for sex advice? I hope not!

T-mag: Interesting topic. Can you give us some examples? Not of virgins, but of coaches!

CT: A good example is my current intern. He's not really an Adonis yet; some people would call him "big boned." However, the fact that he's lost close to 30 pounds of fat without losing muscle or strength validates his knowledge in my view. There's a guy who took the theoretical knowledge he's accumulated and turned it into real life results. In the future he'll be a very effective body transformation coach because he's been there and done it the hard way.

My future intern Nick Roy was at the opposite end of the spectrum. Tall, slim, and with the muscle mass of a coat rack. He took the knowledge he accumulated and turned himself into a muscular guy, power cleaning 275 pounds, bench pressing 285 and full squatting 330 for reps at a bodyweight of 175 at 6' and with less than 7% body fat. This is the kind of guy who'll be able to take a twig and turn him into a strong and powerful athlete.

Same goes for strength. You don't need to be a Dave Tate, but if your business is to make athletes strong you must possess strength yourself. On a related not, I do believe that a strength and conditioning coach should be able to do anything he asks of his athletes. Maybe not with the same results as his athletes (don't ask me to run the 60m in 6.41 seconds!), but he should be able to do the workouts he asks of his athletes.

That's one of the reasons why I'll sometimes go train with my guys: seeing their coach go to war with them gives them confidence in the program. To quote Richard Marcinko, leaders lead from the front, not from the back.

T-mag: What are your stats right now?

CT: I'm 217 now; I was around 200 in the "after" pics. I'm still at 5'9" (haven't found a way to improve on that one yet!) My strength lifts are way up right now. I bench pressed a personal best of 425 pounds, raw of course, and squatted 555 with only a belt. I'm still going slowly on the Olympic lifts to avoid getting re-injured, but I can power snatch 115kg any day of the week quite easily. I'm also doing sprints three times per week.

My body fat is lower than it was at 200. I attribute this mostly to HOT-ROX, which wasn't available at the time of my transformation. No, this isn't a plug, it really is that damn good!

T-mag: You're known as a training guru, but what general diet advice do you offer your clients?

CT: I feel that nutrition is the weak link for most good strength coaches. I personally use recommendations somewhat similar to John Berardi's in that I'll use protein plus carb meals and protein plus fat meals. Depending on the degree of fatness of an athlete, the number of protein plus carbs meals will vary.

If the athlete is over 18% body fat, his diet looks like this: four to five protein plus fat meals, one small protein plus carbs meal (post-workout with 50 grams of carbs). If he's 15 to 18% body fat, I'll use the same strategy but include a during-workout shake containing 25 grams of carbs. If he's 12 to 15%, he'll get three or four protein plus fat meals, two protein plus carbs meals (post-workout and two hours post-workout, both with around 50 grams of carbs). Finally, if he's 9 to 12% body fat, I use a 3/3 strategy with the three protein plus carbs meals coming within six hours of the workout.

T-mag: How about supplements?

CT: As for supplemental support, good fats, Tribex, low-carb protein powders and vitamins are what I use in most cases. Most of my athletes like Tribex a lot. I've been using tribulus for a long time, even before Tribex hit the market. I've always believed in it. A few are low responders, so with them I found that adding maca and now RED-KAT really potentiate the effects of Tribex in those individuals. And, as I said, I really like HOT ROX.

T-mag: Sounds boner-ific! Okay, here's a question I throw at just about every person I interview because the answers are always informative. Where do you see most weight trainers screwing up? Where do they go wrong?

CT: Consistency and implication. Few people are willing to really do what's necessary to be a success story. I see countless souls going to the gym and doing their workout without putting too much effort into it. Then they have no idea what post-workout nutrition is (much less pre- and during-workout nutrition) and live an unhealthy lifestyle. They expect their body to turn into a masterpiece simply because they go lift some weights!

If you want to succeed you must make it a point of honor in doing everything right. The smallest mistake can undo what it took you months to build. Just lifting weight isn't enough; you must pour your heart and soul into it. You must learn about the best post-workout strategies and apply them. You must eat good food consistently and get your eight to ten hours of sleep per night, and you must do all this systematically.

Some people reason that if they do two-thirds of the things right they'll get two-thirds of the results, and they claim that it's enough for them. In real life it doesn't work that way. If you do two-thirds of the things right you might screw up the whole training process and gain nothing at all. As they say, the most important leg of a three-legged chair is the fourth one!

For example, how hard is it to take a few minutes out of your life to prepare a good shake to carry to the gym? Not very hard and it can make all the difference in the world!

T-mag: Good info! What do you think is the biggest idea you have about training that most other coaches disagree with? In others words, what's the biggest criticism you get about your training protocols?

CT: I don't use enough gadgets! I rarely, if ever, use any form of proprioceptive training. Swiss balls are an exception, not a rule with me and functional training isn't my cup of tea. It's not that I'm against all that, but I just don't see it as being all that effective and transferable to sports.

Many coaches use these methods blindly. For some it's a marketing ploy to get their name out. These guys chastise me for not jumping on the bandwagon. They should be happy though; I'm leaving the gizmo-seeking market to them!

T-mag: So you don't like what I call "alternative" training stuff: kettlebells, clubbells, balance training, balance balls, etc.?

CT: Some I like, some I don't like. I like kettlebells as a supplementary method. I feel that when properly used they can offer some unique benefits. But the key word is properly used. I don't believe in balance training with unstable objects that have nothing remotely specific to any sports. It sure is impressive to look at (hence the appeal), but I don't believe in it.

T-mag: What's more important when it comes to adding muscle, simply adding weight to the bar, or doing things like accentuated eccentric training, isometrics, auto regulated clustering, and all that other fancy stuff?

CT: It depends on where you're at! For the beginner, it's using proper lifting form, working the big muscle groups with compound movements, and learning to train with consistency. For intermediate lifters, it's adding weight to the bar while keeping a relatively high volume of training (either via more sets or more reps) and maintaining good lifting form. For advanced lifters, advanced methods become a very important factor.

T-mag: Okay, cool. What's the most important exercise for an athlete to perform?

CT: Alternate unloaded hip flexion-extension... or, in other words, dragging your big butt in the gym! Being there is half the battle and it's a good start. As for exercises, for most people I'd say pulling (snatch-grip deadlift, clean-grip deadlift, Romanian deadlift) and pressing exercises (bench press, push press, incline press) are still your best bet. My own program revolves around these basic exercises plus squats, but the way I perform these basic exercises will vary a lot.

T-mag: Okay, I'm going to name a body part or muscle group and you tell me the most effective (or perhaps the most neglected or overlooked) way to train it. Let's start with chest.

CT: It depends on the individual. If someone has very strong shoulders and triceps, like I do, pressing exercises will do little to improve pectoral development as most of the load will be handled by the delts and triceps. In such cases weighted dips with a full range of motion is the best possible exercise you can do.

If your chest is on par or superior to your delts and triceps, the bench press and its variations will be superior to dips. I'm not a big fan of flies, although I'll use them from time to time. However, I found that including an isometric pause on every rep (three to five seconds), two inches from the chest while performing bench presses will improve pectoral development.

T-mag: Cool tips. How about the back?

CT: I believe that the two best ways to develop the upper back are heavy pulling (barbell rowing, seated rowing) in the three to six reps range for many sets (five to ten), and isometric holds. For example, with seated rowing you'd hold the load on the chest for thirty to sixty seconds while flexing the back hard. This is one of the reasons why the deadlift is such a great back builder–you have heavy load pulling and isometric hold in the same movement!

T-mag: Biceps?

CT: Intra-set contrast training, doing sets of eight reps. It would look like this:

Reps 1-2: 604 tempo

Reps 3-4: Explosive

Reps 5-6: 604 tempo

Reps 7-8: Explosive

Isometric hold (elbows 90 degrees) for max duration at the end of the set.

T-mag: I think we're going to need a whole article on that one! How about triceps?

CT: Triceps are best trained with either heavy loads or explosive movements. So we're talking about heavy lying extensions (barbell or dumbbells), heavy pressing exercises, and high-speed reps for time (as explained in my "Superman Sets" article).

T-mag: Quads?

CT: Heavy front squats or back squats with an upright torso using a controlled (but not too slow) eccentric tempo. I also love isometric one-leg squats (back leg on a block) held for three to five sets of 45 to 90 seconds per leg (working leg at 90 degrees).

T-mag: Hamstrings?

CT: A mix of any form of explosive hip extension (one-leg back extension, reverse hyper, explosive good morning, power clean, power snatch, sprinting) and accentuated eccentrics leg curl (explosive lifting with two legs, slow lowering with one leg). Quads and hamstrings also respond very well to electromyostimulation (EMS). I personally use the Compex Sport model.

T-mag: Shoulders?

CT: A mix of heavy pressing exercises (military press, seated press, dumbbell shoulder press), explosive overhead pressing (push press, push jerk) and slow eccentric raises (lateral and front raises).

T-mag: Abs?

CT: The best way to train the abs is to use a wide variety or exercises and external loads (see my recent abdominal article for a good example.)

I've also recently been toying with a fantastic variant of the Roman chair sit-up. I perform six reps per set with an isometric pause at the mid-point of all the reps:

Rep one: 12 seconds pause

Rep two: 10 seconds pause

Rep three: 7 seconds pause

Rep four: 5 seconds pause

Rep five: 3 seconds pause

Rep six: 1 second pause

T-mag: You masochist! I'll have to try that one! Now, you have a new book and a video coming out, right? Feel free to plug the snot out of those.

CT: No problem! My new book, which will be called Theory and Application of Modern Strength and Power Methods, will focus more on strength and power training, compared to my first book which was equally about strength and bodybuilding.

I'll discuss isometric, eccentric, concentric and plyometric training, and give all the possible methods to use with these types of training. EMS is also discussed as well as various other subjects. I'll present over thirty power exercises and will show the reader how to periodize his training.

The video will show the most effective exercise variations I use with my athletes. A second part will focus on special bodybuilding techniques to build muscle mass rapidly.

T-mag: Sounds good. Thanks for the chat, Christian. We look forward to more articles at T-mag!

CT: No problem, Chris. It was great talking to you, as always!

Chris Shugart is T Nation's Chief Content Officer and the creator of the Velocity Diet. As part of his investigative journalism for T Nation, Chris was featured on HBO’s "Real Sports with Bryant Gumble." Follow on Instagram