When it comes to muscle and performance, Charles Poliquin is so far ahead of most of the non-Testosterone pack it's scary. He's not only on the cutting edge, he's the guy who sharpens it. We're glad to be reviving his famous Q & A column here at T-Nation.
Box Squats for Athletes and Bodybuilders?
Q: What do you think of having athletes do box squats? What about bodybuilders?
A: I never use them. With athletes, you want the most bang for your buck, the highest return, because you only have eleven weeks on average to train them during their off-season. So the choice of exercises becomes really important.
The problem I have with box squats is that their application is limited to powerlifting. The reason being is the goal of powerlifting is to lift the highest amount of weight for the shortest amount of distance within the rules. Essentially in the box squat, your shins don't travel forward. Now I don't know of any sport where the shins don't travel forward for propulsion. So the mechanics of the box squat aren't found in sport.
Do you think all the Westside people are up in arms yet and have me on their hit list? But it's the Bruce Lee principle again: use what is useful and reject what is not. Box squats are the only thing in the Westside system I don't agree with. They only have applications for powerlifting.
Also, any sort of restricted movement pattern tends to change soft tissue integrity. One thing you'll find with people who do a lot of box squats is that they're abnormally tight in the piriformis muscle, for example. In sports where you have to change direction a lot, the box squat will actually decrease your power because you won't be able to use those muscles efficiently.
Finally, most of the athletes I have are highly paid. There's a risk when doing box squats of the athlete bouncing on the box due to lack of concentration. The trauma that can result on the sacral vertebraes could be tremendous. There are just better alternatives. If you're a powerlifter, they're great. If you're any other type of athlete, stay away from the box squat.
Now, as far as bodybuilding is concerned, you can inject box squats sparingly into the training process. They will hypertrophy the thighs and glutes. But bodybuilding isn't an athletic endeavor. Most bodybuilders can't walk and chew gum at the same time. They're not known for coordination!
Q: I've heard you mention the concept of doublé training for rapid improvements in certain lifts or with body part specialization. What is doublé training exactly?
A: Doublé is a French term that means to do something twice. I learned it from Pierre Roy, who's probably Canada's best weightlifting coach. Basically it involves doing the same exercise twice in the same workout.
Obviously Roy first used it in the sport of Olympic lifting, but it can be used in athletic training as well. Whatever lift you want to improve, you do it twice. So for example if your squat is weak, you squat at the beginning of a workout, then you squat again at the end. It's a great plateau buster that can work for strength specialization or hypertrophy specialization.
Let's say you have shitty calves. You can do ten sets of calves at the beginning of the workout, then train chest and back, then do ten sets of calves at the end. Great plateau buster.
Are You Made for Low-Carb Nutrition?
Q: You've written that you use low-carb diets for 75% of your athletes, but said that it's not right for every genotype. So, how does the average guy tell if he's "right" for low carbs?
A: We use the subscapular skinfold as a genetic indicator. If you have a very low skinfold in the upper back naturally, you'll be more likely to be able to handle a lot of carbs in your diet.
But if you're a lean guy and your subscap is 15mm, then you're not "gifted" for carbs; you should stay away from them. If you get very lean and your subscap measurement doesn't go down that much, then you're not gifted for carbs.
Your suprailiac skinfold measurement is what I call your environmental carbs. In other words, the more you eat the more it goes up. so even if you're gifted for carbs, if you eat too many of them, then that site will go up.
But the most simple field test for carb tolerance is eating carbs for breakfast. You wake and you rate yourself on a scale from one to ten for energy, ten meaning very good, one meaning you feel like shit. Then have a high carb breakfast, say pancakes and maple syrup. An hour later, if you feel sleepy and want a nap, then carbs aren't for you. If you feel more energetic and ready to climb walls, then carbs are for you, you lucky bastard.
One thing people have to distinguish between is neo-carbs vs. paleo-carbs. With paleo carbs the simple rule is: Were they available to a caveman? Would he have access to grapes and raspberries? Yes. Bagels and pasta? No.
So when I talk about people adapting to carbs, I'm talking about neo-carbs. If they've adapted to pasta then they can eat it and feel great. They can eat any source of carbs. I've trained a lot with Milos Sarcev. That guy can eat French bread for breakfast and feel great. If I were to eat like him I might as well go on welfare and sleep all day. I can't do it.
Usually, people who are gifted for hypertrophy are gifted for carb intake as well. They can eat a boatload of carbs and feel fine. Also, if you're white, fuck it. You've got to come from a region where there was a lot of agriculture for a long time to be able to handle carbs. If you're from German or Norwegian extraction and come from a line of meat eaters and hunters, then neo-carbs are not for you.
I can keep a body fat of 5-6% year around if I eat only paleo-carbs. Other guys, like Berardi, can suck up two kilos of pasta for breakfast and it won't bother them. You'll find though, that nutritionists tend to recommend what works for them, not what works for everybody. That's why I prefer to individualize diets.
Keith Klein and others used to recommend rice cakes as a carb source. If I ate rice cakes I'd fall asleep at the wheel! It doesn't work for me. I even hear people recommending Pop Tarts too, a classic example of neo-carbs.
Basically, our genes have only evolved .02% over the last 40,000 years. So we're mostly made for paleo-carbs. But 25% of the world population has actually adapted to agricultural-type carbohydrates. But I'd still recommend that those people stick to paleo-carbs over Pop Tarts, Cocoa Puffs, and all that shit. They need to look at nutrient density. It's not just about glycemic index or insulin load index, it's about the PI – phytonutrient index. How rich is that food in nutrients?
So, for example, blueberries. Blueberries are very thin skinned, and any thin skinned fruit is going to be richer in antioxidants because it has to protect itself against the sun. That's why blueberries have far more antioxidants than bananas. So when I reintroduce carbs into the diet, one of the first things I reintroduce is berries.
Basically, the darker and richer the color of the food, the healthier it is. Compare blueberries to rice. But then I'd rather have a guy carb up on rice than Pop Tarts.
The Natural Academy of Science medical board has established that the safe level of trans-fats for humans is zero, so why recommend a pastry that's full of trans-fats as a carb? It'll create lesions on your arteries, make your brain age faster, and double your risk of cancer! Why would anyone recommend Pop Tarts?
The Rep is King
Q: Charles, you've written that the first step in designing a weight training program is to decide on the number of reps to perform. That's even more important than exercise selection!?
A: Yes, the rep is the mother of all loading parameters. All loading parameters are a function of the number of reps you choose to perform. It dictates the rest intervals and the amount of sets you're going to do. Once you've decided that, it limits which exercises you can do. For example, the power clean should never be done for high reps because that's a high coordination lift.
The Single Best Supplement
Q: What's one supplement that every athlete, weekend warrior, and basically any active person should be taking daily?
A: Fish oil. I was first introduced to fish oil twelve years ago by my friend Mauro DiPasquale. I was over at his house and he had fish oil on the counter. I asked him what he used it for and he said, "Charles, this is the most important supplement ever."
He told me to go to Medline and punch in any disease known to man and the words "fish oil" beside it. He challenged me to find a study that didn't show how fish oil could benefit in the treatment of any disease. I gave up after 86 studies!
Why is it so beneficial? It's in our genes. Humans used to consume 300-400 grams of omega-3s per week. If we consume more than two grams a day now it's considered a lot.
There was a study published four years ago that showed that if the US government issued three grams of fish oil per day to American citizens, then the amount of cancer and heart disease would go down by 50% within one year. Most readers don't care about cancer and heart disease, but they may care about this: the biggest limiting factor in naturally training people to getting lean and adding muscle is the consumption (or lack thereof) of omega-3s.
Looking at the body structure of cavemen, they had a lot of muscle mass compared to modern man. They got their omega-3s through the meats they ate. Now, they often ate what the predators left. For example, a lion will eat an antelope from the gut on, so what's left is the skull and long bones. Primitive man would break the skull open and eat the brains. Brains are 60% fat, and 60% of that is DHA, the omega-3. What they've found is that the more brain-sucking was going in those populations, the faster the IQ went up.
Primitive man would also break the bones of the prey and suck the marrow, also rich in omega-3, DHA particularly. DHA is the omega-3 most responsible for brain development while EPA is most associated with reducing inflammation.
My athletes would often recognize each other when sitting around a table because those I'd be training would break out the fish oil during the meal. That's how I got the nickname "the fish oil guy" among athletes. But that's also how I get people so lean so fast.
Anyone who wants to put on muscle and lose fat should be on 30-45 grams of fish oil per day. That's just three tablespoons of fish oil. It would be a pain in the ass with capsules though because that's around 45 capsules per day, but it's easy with a straight oil.
Flameout is also a great product. I like the addition of CLA to the EPA and DHA because most of the population is deficient in CLA. When I travel abroad I bring four or five bottles of Flameout instead of my liquid fish oil and take four or five capsules a day.
For those of us interested in positively and optimally altering body composition and maximizing our training efforts, fish oils offer thirteen possible advantages:
- Cell membrane health: EPA and DHA insure that cell membranes remain healthy. This means that the membranes are flexible and contain larger numbers of insulin receptors that are more receptive and responsive to circulating insulin. This results in decreased fat storage in the adipocytes (fat cells).
- Fish oils turn on the lipolytic genes (fat burning genes).
- Fish oils turn off the lipogenic genes (fat storage genes).
- Fish oils diminish C-reactive proteins, a newly identified risk factor associated with various inflammatory diseases, including atherosclerosis, angina, coronary heart disease, heart attack, stroke, congestive heart failure, and diabetes. The DHA fraction of the fish oil seems to be one most responsible for that protective effect. DHA also has the best ability to reduce blood pressure.
- Increase utilization of fat stores from the adipocytes.
- Preferential utilization for energy production once stored in the adipocytes.
- Reduced inflammation from physical training.
- Pain management from the reduced inflammation.
- EPA regulates blood supply to the brain which is essential in maintaining focus in weight training sessions. DHA is important in brain membranes, memory, and cognitive function.
- Fish oils increase serotonin levels (the happy neurotransmitter). Therefore, fish oils will decrease incidence of depression, anxiety, panic attack, and reduce carbohydrate cravings.
- Fish oils will improve your cardiovascular risk profile by lowering VLDL, triglycerides, homocysteine, fibrinogen, and increasing HDL levels. Combining fish oils with plant sterols will improve lipid levels even more than either alone.
- Fish oils can also decrease blood pressure by several mechanisms. These include increases in the vasodilatory compound, nitric oxide, reducing vascular inflammation, blocking the constrictive elements in the vascular wall such as the calcium channels reducing blood viscosity, and inhibiting a blood vessel constrictor (thromboxane). Lipoprotein (a) is another CVD predictor that can be lowered by fish oils (a 19% reduction was seen with natural, stable fish oils and just 4% with a highly purified fish oil).
- Fish oils are a great stress fighter. Supplementation with n-3 fatty acids inhibits the adrenal activation of steroids, aldosterone, epinephrine, and norepinephrine (catecholamines) elicited by a mental stress, apparently through effects exerted at the level of the central nervous system. Therefore, for the same amount of stress, one will produce fewer stress hormones if consuming fish oils on a regular basis.
In short, fish oil is my number one supplement recommendation!
Q: A lot of trainers and coaches these days say not to use forced reps, drop sets, and other intensity-boosting methods unless you're on drugs or have great genetics or both. But do these techniques have a place in the training program of a natural, normal guy?
A: Well, those methods don't actually increase intensity; they increase time under tension. Don't confuse pain with intensity. Those methods are more painful, but they're not more intense. Intensity, when talking about strength training, is a straight percentage of max.
Now, these methods do work for hypertrophy. I think there's two ways a natural trainee can use them: once every third workout, or he could do it three weeks out of twelve. During those three weeks, expect to lose six to eight pounds of lean tissue. Then go on a recovery cycle where you just do a few sets per body part for two weeks. You'll gain that weight back plus interest – another four pounds.
The problem is I've seen a lot of guys who are very motivated, so motivated they abuse those methods. And that's why they're skinny. They think pain equals growth. True sometimes, but not all the time. Look at weightlifters who have thighs the size of tree trunks, and they never train to failure.
Still, I don't agree that you should never do drop sets, forced reps, etc. Think of training as a recipe. An omelet tastes better if there's heavy cream in it. But if you put eight ounces of heavy cream in the omelet, then it's not an omelet anymore – it's something else. The point is that people have to use the right ingredients with the right ratios in their training.