Lou Schuler has been around…and around and around. He started out as a copy editor for Weider Publications in 1846 (okay, I could be exaggerating) and later became an editor for Men’s Fitness and the fitness director for Men’s Health. Along the way, he was certified as a strength and conditioning specialist (C.S.C.S.) and racked up a few awards for excellence in journalism.
T-Nation readers probably know Lou best as the guy who co-wrote Ian King’s Book of Muscle, and you may have seen him on Entertainment Tonight, Fox News Channel or VH-1 spreading the gospel of weight training and healthy eating.
Lou agreed to let me pick his brain if I promised not to make any jokes about his lack of follicles. It was a done deal.
T-Nation: Lou, how’d you get into the fitness journalism biz as opposed to, say, the lingerie model journalism biz?
Lou Schuler: I couldn’t get a job waiting tables! That’s the honest-to-God truth. It was the fall of ’91. I’d just started grad school for creative writing at USC, and all I wanted was something mindless to do for a living that would pay the bills. But a recession hit L.A. just when I got there, and nobody was hiring.
So I answered a blind ad in the L.A. Times for an editor at a health and fitness magazine in Woodland Hills, California. Turned out, it was Men’s Fitness. I’d never heard of it.
I’d written some newspaper articles about fitness back in St. Louis, my hometown, so I used those to get in the door.
I didn’t actually get that job, although to this day I consider myself just unbelievably lucky to even get an interview. The editor of MF passed my resume on to the editor of Muscle & Fitness, who gave me a part-time copyediting gig. Both magazines gave me freelance work, and then MF hired me as a full-time copyeditor in early ’92. I later became an editor for Men’s Fitness and Men’s Health
T: T-Nation readers know that most pro-bodybuilders don’t know much about training and diet because with their genes and drug use, well, they don’t have to. How about these purdy male models on fitness mag covers? Do they know their stuff?
LS: Some do, some don’t. The ones who do are the ones you see in magazines over and over again. They know how to do the technically more complex exercises, they have good balance and range of motion, and they tend to be nice guys that you don’t mind hanging out with for a day or two.
A great example is Jason Cameron. He did 400-some exercises for the Home Workout Bible, which took more than a week [to photograph]. He’s an NSCA-certified trainer as well as a model, so we sometimes hire him to supervise photo shoots if we can’t be there.
Some of the pretty-boy models are exactly like the bodybuilders you mentioned–they have the genetics, and they’re good at pumping up and leaning out, but they may know less about exercise than the average reader. Most of the guys in that category can’t squat. No range of motion, no control over their hip muscles, horrible flexibility. I think my friend Adam Campbell (at Men’s Fitness) still has nightmares about trying to get some of these guys to achieve a neutral spine.
One more thing about the photo shoots: It’s really hard work. The models aren’t pumping out reps. A lot of the time they’re holding weights in one position while the photographer clicks off an entire roll of film. The weights may look light in the photos, but I think anyone reading this can imagine how heavy a 35-pound dumbbell gets when you’re holding it that long.
And most of the shoots are shirtless, so these guys not only have to hold the weights, they have to flex every visible muscle at the same time. And a lot of these guys are pretty depleted when they walk in the door at nine in the morning. Imagine how they feel at four in the afternoon.
T: You know, the hardcore crowd has always poked fun of the popular fitness mags. I’m guilty of this myself. But then I got to talking to the various editors and writers and found out that most of them really know their stuff. Problem is, that “stuff” doesn’t always make it into the magazines. Is there a higher-up at these mags squashing the more advanced stuff or demanding that the info be watered down?
LS: Well, of course we know our shit! We read T-Nation!
There’s no conspiracy to squash advanced information. I think we have three issues:
First, of course, is the formatting. We’re biased toward showing more pictures in the allotted space, so that leaves less room to explain the nuances of the workout. And without explanation, you just can’t get into some of the most advanced stuff.
Second, the readers themselves tell us what they want and don’t want. I think it’s safe to say that Men’s Fitness works hardest to help the advanced beginner or intermediate move up a level, while Men’s Health probably assumes that the average reader is more in the beginner/advanced beginner stage.
Third, I think the top editors see themselves as the target reader, the everyman. So if they look at a story proposal and it’s beyond their interests or abilities, they’ll usually say, “Let’s bring it down to the level of the reader.” And that’s really not a criticism. These guys got where they are by following their instincts, and they tend to have a pretty good feel for what’ll work and what won’t.
T: Fair enough. Now, I know you probably didn’t have anything to do with this when you were at Men’s Health, but do you know why every single cover is a black and white shot of a 30-something year old dude with great abs? I haven’t been able to tell one cover from the next for the last several years!
LS: They’ll keep doing it till it stops working. MH has a fantastically, unbelievably profitable business model, and much of their branding is based on those black and white images of shirtless guys.
Right now they have a brilliant photo editor, Marianne Butler, and they’re getting the best images they’ve ever had, and newsstand sales are better than ever. Still, they are shifting the formula a little. They’re using celebrities on the cover, which they hadn’t done since the magazine’s earliest days. There’s some risk in that, since MH readers couldn’t care less about celebrities, and since MH now competes with everyone else for the same pool of cover guys who’ll help your sales more than hurt them.
But it does address the problem you talked about. Now it’s easier to tell one cover from the other. If all the people at MH still have their jobs a year from now, we can assume it’s working.
T: Okay, let’s get into the training and diet stuff. I have a theory that those who’ve struggled with fat or have a tough time adding muscle make the best fitness writers and trainers. I don’t want to hear advice from genetic mutants and guys who can eat anything and not gain fat. Do you agree and have you struggled yourself?
LS: I couldn’t agree more. I know you’ve struggled with fat, and for me it was the opposite. I don’t know why, but I was very skinny, weak, and uncoordinated as a kid. Genetically, I was really the odd one in my family. I have six brothers and sisters, and a couple of them were terrific athletes. One brother was the best at everything he did–football, baseball, track.
And I really, really cared. I thought about sports every waking hour. I couldn’t believe I could want something so badly and be so bad at it. I started lifting when I was 13, and even though I had no idea what I was doing, I was able to put on enough muscle to at least feel better about myself–as long as I was doing something about it, I could deal with sucking.
T: What does your typical training week look like these days? How about diet? Any general guidelines you try to follow?
LS: My main diet guideline is, I loosen it up when I’m trying to gain strength, and then I tighten it up again when I feel I’ve gone as far as I can with that part of the program.
My diet overall, probably isn’t that different from most in what I call the Hypertrophied-American Community. Lots of lean protein, one or two meal replacements a day, lots of fiber and as few processed carbs as possible.
If I had to take off my shirt for a photograph, I’d be a lot stricter and more systematic about it. But I think the residual effect of all my years of lifting, in combination with my genetics, is a fast metabolism that allows me to stay in the 180 to 190-pound range with some fairly simple adjustments.
My training week is based on Westside ideas right now, primarily from Dave Tate’s “8 Keys” series here in T-Nation. Max-effort bench, max-effort squat, dynamic-effort bench, dynamic-effort squat. (By the way, I want to throw a shout-out here to my friend Craig Ballantyne, who turned me on to Westside workouts more than three years ago.)
I make some adjustments to accommodate the fact I’m 47 and don’t recover as fast as I used to. I don’t always do the second lower-body workout, for example.
T: Cool. Let’s talk nutrition. Diet foods are selling like low carb hotcakes, people are spending millions on fat loss supplements, and everyone I know is on a diet. So why are Americans getting fatter and fatter?
LS: A paleontologist friend of mine, John Williams at SMU, told me something I’d never heard before: He said that humans are by far the fattest and least muscular primates, and the theory is that this is because of our brains. They’re so much bigger than other primate brains, and require so much more fuel to keep them working. Thus, our bodies need to store fat, and they’re damned good at it.
Looking at it that way, it’s a wonder anyone is thin, given that food is so cheap and abundant. This is kind of my soapbox issue, so I’ll throw this in here:
I think we’re making a huge, huge mistake in this country by talking about the obesity epidemic as a disease that people catch because they’re lazy. If I could single-handedly change the tone, I’d start by saying that fat happens. For some people, it’s perfectly natural to overeat when food is available.
But, because we all now understand how dangerous it is to have this excess weight, we have to work together on a solution. So let’s collectively find ways to eat less and exercise more. Let’s get the Coke machines out of schools and make PE a bigger priority. Let’s make it easier for kids to walk to school. Let’s change the work culture a little, build more corporate gyms, encourage people to take workout breaks.
And on the diet side, let’s focus on the positive instead of the punitive. Instead of telling people to eat less, let’s focus on eating strategically. Every guy reading T-Nation knows how important it is to time meals for the effects he wants. We need to get that message out to everyone else.
T: I don’t know. While they may not know about frequent small meals and timing issues, I gotta think that most people know what’s bad for them and what isn’t. My guess is that conflicting diet info confuses the lay person and he just says “screw it” and eats a doughnut. Or maybe we’re all just genetically programmed, opportunistic pigs when it comes to food? If so, then isn’t the key simply self-control?
LS: I think it’s more genetic programming than self-control. We’re made to eat the food in front of us, and we live in a time when it’s always in front of us. And most of it is crap.
We can’t change our genetics, so we have to teach ourselves, on the behavioral side, to steer clear of the foods we shouldn’t eat, and make sure we always have a supply of the ones we should.
I tend to agree with the first part of what you said. I do think 99 percent of us know that doughnuts are bad. And if anyone doesn’t know they shouldn’t drink Coke or Mountain Dew, they just aren’t paying much attention.
But the average person has no behavioral skills to help him avoid that stuff. I don’t think it’s willpower so much as planning and organization. If you have no power to resist the doughnut, then you have to make sure you never come across it. And if you do, you have to make sure you aren’t hungry enough to eat it.
That may be the most important lesson of all: The best defense against junk food is real food. Eat it early and often. If you’re hungry, you’re doing something wrong.
T: Sounds like good advice. Now, I remember when I was a kid there was only one fat kid in every class. (I think I was that kid in the 5th grade!) These days half the class is fat and there’s only a couple of fit looking kids in each grade. We know more about health and fitness than ever before in history, so why are kids getting so damned fat?
LS: It’s partly socioeconomic. About 12 percent of kids are overweight in the U.S., but in poor neighborhoods it may be two or three times that high. And there’s no single way to tackle it. Their circumstances are creating a perfect storm for obesity.
Say you’ve got a single-parent household. Say that parent works a night shift, so you’ve got someone else watching the kids most of their waking hours. Maybe that person is too tired at the end of the day to cook up vegetables or slice fruit. Maybe that person lets the kids watch a few hours of TV every night, doesn’t enforce a consistent bedtime, and then doesn’t give them a good breakfast in the morning.
I’m generalizing and stereotyping here, but I live in a pretty middle-class school district, and you hardly see any overweight kids. On the sports teams, you see mostly skinny kids.
T: There was a survey conducted a while back in Australia that showed that girls whose parents “deprive them” too much of junk food as kids often rebel later in life and get chubby. So what’s the solution here? How do we keep our kids fit without giving them “issues?”
LS: I’ve always been an 80-percenter. In life, you figure out what you want, and then you go for 80 percent of it. I figure that people who get everything they want turn into Elvis or Donald Trump–either miserable, or making everyone else miserable.
Same with diet. If you make kids play by your rules 80 percent of the time, then they still get plenty of treats, and they don’t grow up thinking a Big Mac must be the coolest thing in the world because their parents hate it so much.
My wife and I, without ever codifying it, have taken that approach with our kids across the board. We don’t even try to be perfect.
T: Sounds like a good compromise. Now, what’s the most disturbing trend you’re seeing in the health/diet world right now?
LS: I think the rise of fake experts is pretty disturbing. You can call it the Dr. Laura Syndrome. She has a Ph.D. in physiology, but passes herself off as a fully credentialed psychotherapist, which she isn’t.
In the fitness world, I’d run out of fingers and toes counting the people claiming to be experts who have trumped-up, misrepresented or nonexistent credentials. That doesn’t mean a non-credentialed person can’t become an expert–I mean, I’m a journalist who studied his ass off to become a C.S.C.S. A lot of good trainers and fitness authors started off in other professions.
But in my twelve and a half years as a fitness journalist, I’ve seen the bar getting lower and lower, and I don’t really see any end in sight.
T: Kinda scary. You’re becoming known as a media watchdog on issues dealing with health and fitness. Does the media do a good job presenting this kind of info?
LS: The media does a fucking horrible job, especially when they’re writing about scientific studies. First off, you can’t report accurately on a study without seeing the entire thing. But journalists rarely see more than the press release, and then they interview the study’s author, and then they interview someone who represents the opposite point of view. The result is more than worthless for the reader who actually gives a shit.
So let’s say you have a review study, and it shows that in weight-loss research lasting a year or more, low-carb and low-fat diets aren’t much different–the success rates are about the same, although the dropout rates are lower for the low-carb diets. And let’s say, as an aside, the study notes that some people doing Atkins-type diets experience some unpleasant side effects–irritability, headaches, constipation.
Now, out of all that information, what reasonable person would say the most important conclusion is that the Atkins diet is dangerous? But maybe half the stories used that in their headlines. In their fucking headlines!
I understand that broadcast journalists and newspaper reporters don’t have the lead time magazine guys like me have. But there’s something to be said for putting aside your preconceived ideas about certain diets and letting the readers know what’s important and what’s not.
As a simple matter of logic, how many people are going to stick with a diet if they’re constipated and getting headaches? Maybe I’m a little unusual, but if I went two days without a good dump, I’d try something else.
T: If I went two hours without… never mind. Let’s not go there. Speaking of low carb diets, has this trend been positive or negative?
LS: I’m going to go out on a limb and say positive. A lot of people still don’t understand that they have to buy the books to learn how to use the diets, but the ones who do come away with more knowledge about nutrition in general than they had before.
The big drawback I see is the magic-bullet fallacy. People think it’s the super-duper diet that’s giving them results, when in reality they’re losing weight because they’ve started thinking about the food they eat, they’ve started planning meals, and they’ve finally taken charge of their diet, instead of eating whatever the hell the world throws on their plate.
T: Excellent point. I’ve often said that keeping a food log alone is a great diet, because people tend to avoid eating junk they couldn’t log anyway–like a pizza buffet.
Let’s talk training. It’s easy to spot where newbies are screwing up in the gym, you know, like never training their lower bodies and sitting backward in the pulldown machine. But where do you see experienced lifters messing up? What mistakes do “advanced” gym rats make that hinder their progress?
LS: Three big ones come to mind. First, they stop learning. They haven’t tried a new exercise or technique since before Joe Weider and Arnold Schwarzenegger had receding hairlines.
Second, they don’t plan or periodize their workouts. You’ll see newbies strolling around with their clipboards and workout charts, but you hardly ever see an experienced lifter with a training log.
Third, they stop listening to their bodies. You know, if your back or your elbow or your shoulder hurts, that’s a problem, and you have to fix it. You can’t train around it and hope it goes away, because then you’re creating muscle imbalances that, at best, don’t help, and at worst might create a new set of problems.
Of course, a lot of these guys are bigger and stronger than me, so maybe I should just shut up.
T: What about dietary mistakes among experienced trainers? See any common problems among “advanced” guys?
LS: Here’s where my relative isolation works against me. I work at home and eat most of my meals at home, so I’m rarely around other lifters when they eat. Most of the questions I get from readers, traditionally, are things that my coauthors and I answered in The Testosterone Advantage Plan, which came out two and a half years ago.
Just observing guys in the gym, I see people who look like they’re on a perpetual bulking cycle. But maybe they don’t mind. It’s kind of hard to start that conversation. “Hey, your arms look great! But are you planning to do something about that gut, or are you okay with it?”
I haven’t been punched out in years, and I can’t imagine how I’d explain a broken nose to my kids. “There was this guy at the gym who looked a little fat, so I asked if he was happy about it.”
That said, I think it helps to look at the big picture. When so few of us exercise at all, why bust a guy’s chops because he doesn’t train and diet the way we would? At least he’s doing something.
T: Good point. You once said that a motivated exerciser or dieter can make just about anything work. You described this as a “dirty secret of the body-changing business.” What do you mean by that?
LS: I got that from a friend. He said, “Weight loss is easy,” which is about the most counterintuitive thing you can say about the subject. It took me years to figure out what he meant, and why he was right.
Alwyn Cosgrove also said something similar to me. He said that a guy working his ass off on a terrible program will get better results than someone just going through the motions on a well-designed plan. People want to imagine that their plan gave them some sort of magical benefit, but really the benefit came from their application of the plan.
That doesn’t mean a well-designed plan, especially one that presents novel, challenging elements, won’t help people find the motivation. But at the end of the day, in my experience, it’s really all about effort and consistency.
T: Are there any secrets to staying motivated when it comes to exercising and eating right? In your years in the biz, have you noticed any patterns among those who stay with it for life compared to those who can never stay with it for more than a few weeks?
LS: I think the secret to consistency is there is no secret. It has to be something you enjoy, and it has to be something you’ve hardwired into your daily and hourly routine.
Two of the most common figures you see cited are that 95 percent of all diets fail, and that 50 percent of people starting an exercise program will drop out in the first six months. Any number of issues could affect a specific case, but I think in general the failure is one of organization and structure. It’s just not something the person cares enough about to integrate into his or her life–into every waking hour, in the case of a diet.
T: Any other dirty secrets of the body-changing biz out there? I’d like to hear a few “things you can’t say in a fitness magazine” statements, if you have any.
LS: The main thing to remember when you pick up a fitness magazine is that it’s very tightly formatted. The workouts we put in usually start as something we’re excited about, and we usually end up with something pretty close to the trainer’s original idea. But there’s always some compromise when we work it into a format.
I’d say that was the hardest part of my job at MF and MH. You want to capture the best elements of a trainer’s program, but you also have to manipulate it to fit the format.
T: I guess that’s the advantage here at T-Nation: It’s easier to crank out detailed, more complex articles on the Internet.
Now, you seem to be a political junkie like many of us around here. Any thoughts on what the government can do for health/fitness issues, if anything?
LS: You know something I’ve always found interesting? We’ve had one fit, active president after another, and yet, as long as anyone has been keeping track, we have the same percentage of the population exercising. It’s been about 20 percent of us since around 1980.
So leading by example doesn’t work. And, as we learned from the Food Guide Pyramid, nagging doesn’t work very well, either–especially when the people doing the nagging aren’t even pointing in the right direction.
I guess I just want to see the best information get the best possible dissemination. More science, less ideology. Let’s stop pretending that global warming doesn’t exist, let’s stop giving credence to creationism, let’s stop treating fiction as fact and fact as one side’s biased point of view. Once we have the information, it’s up to us to work with it. But damn it, let us have the information.
T: What’s next for you, Lou? Any cool projects in the works?
LS: I’m fully independent for the first time in my fitness-journalism career, so it feels like the beginning of a great adventure. I’m updating my web log every weekday, and having a lot of fun with that. I have a couple more web projects I hope to execute with some colleagues this fall and winter, and I have a lot of projects out there waiting for a green light.
My big goal now is to communicate with readers in my own voice, in whatever formats are available. So far, I’m in heaven. I’m talking to the most interesting people in the business, learning more every day, and trying to find new and better ways to put it all together so readers can get as excited about it as I am.
T: Sounds good, Lou. Thanks for the interview!