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An Interview with Casey Butt, Part 2

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Discussion includes exercise selection and the use of compound and isolation lifts, bulking for maximum muscle mass, and daily protein consumption.

Steve ReevesDr. Casey Butt is one of the most controversial figures in bodybuilding. He is a life long natural lifter, but more then that, Casey Butt is a student of natural bodybuilding. His study on natural bodybuilding potential is the definitive measuring stick for the sport. More information on Casey Butt can be found at www.weightrainer.net.

In Part 2 of our interview with Casey Butt, we explore the topics of exercise selection, bulking, and protein consumption.

Muscle and Strength: So, if a full body routine is the way to go, and a natural has about a one hour training window, that would imply that there are limited exercises a natural will use each week. What exercises should be at the core of every natural full body routine, and should the same exercises be performed during every workout?

Casey Butt: It very much depends on the experience level of the trainee.  Most people tend to look at weight training as something that impacts only the muscles when, in fact, the picture is a bit more complex than that.  Anytime a weight is lifted the major systems stressed can be broken into five main categories:

  1. The muscle fibers themselves
  2. The connective tissues (i.e. tendons and ligaments)
  3. The nervous system (central and peripheral
  4. The biochemical systems (anabolic and catabolic hormones both locally in the muscles and systemically throughout the body)
  5. The bones

Bones are not stressed by training to the point where they require significant recovery so they can be essentially disregarded from consideration.

The fundamental flaw in HIT logic is that the founders considered training only from the perspective of Seyle's General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS).  That is, it was based on a single factor model of the training response - you stress the muscles then you must wait for them to recover and get stronger (i.e. grow) and only then can you train again.  It is quite logical, but incomplete because many systems are stressed by training and they all don't recover in the same time frame.  For instance, after even intense training of 16 sets to failure per body part muscle protein synthesis has been shown to return to baseline within 48 hours.  Beginners, because they are far from their potentials and the loads they lift do not significant disrupt and stress the connective tissues and nervous system, can train again, practically full bore, 48 hours after their last session.

As trainees become more advanced, however, they gain the ability to better recruit the muscle fibers (motor units) as the nervous system improves it's neuromuscular coordination.  At the same time, increased hypertrophy further makes the muscles stronger.  The result is that now the trainee starts to become strong enough to significantly stress the joints and connective tissues and also can recruit motor units 'efficiently' enough to tax the nervous system as well.  Now, he cannot train again, full bore, on the same exercises again in 48 hours - the nervous system and connective tissues will typically require longer than that to fully recover and allow full strength to be demonstrated again.  Don't forget that the nervous system is the master controller of all muscular contraction and if it 'says' you're not recruiting the muscle fibers at full force (i.e. maximum rate coding) then it's not going to happen no matter how 'good' you might feel.  Similarly, the connective tissues contain sensory organs that relay information about joint integrity back to the central nervous system - if the surrounding muscles and connective tissues cannot hold the joint sufficiently stable the nervous system will not allow the major muscle groups to be fired at full force.

Reg Park, natural bodybuilder

Typically, the 'solution' to this, based on a single factor training model (the GAS) has been for the trainee to simply wait until he's fully recovered, without considering which aspects of his physiology are really requiring the extra recovery time - the muscles or nervous system and connective tissues?  The shortcoming of this approach is that growth in the muscle is actually complete within 48 hours of training and the rest of the time is simply waiting for other systems to catch up - time that could be used to stimulate the muscles again.

For beginners, none of this is a problem because, as I said earlier, they don't have the ability or even need to impose heavy training stresses on their bodies systemically to illicit a training response.  The more advanced the trainee gets, however, the larger the training stress must be and the more recovery of the different systems involved becomes an issue.  Most advanced trainees know they simply cannot pound the same exercises heavily three times per week. This is somewhat intuitive because advanced trainees' bodies are very accustomed to the stresses of lifting and no longer respond as easily to training as beginners.  They need more loading to cause the cellular disruption that stimulates growth, and this high loading also imposes longer recover times on the other systems (nervous system, connective tissues, etc.).

The currently standard approach to this is for intermediates and advanced trainees to simply perform more volume, both more sets and more exercises, per body part.  This also has the advantage of allowing the advanced trainee to use a variety of exercises and train different aspects of each muscle group.  And it does work because many fine advanced physiques have been the product of it.  However, this does not address the reality that if you take seven days between training muscles, growth only occurs for two of those days.  Wouldn't it be much more ideal to take advantage of the other five days as well?

In order to do that the intermediate and advanced trainee has three options:

  1. He or she can train the same exercises three times a week but use different loading patterns (sets, reps and total volume) on the different days so as not to repeat the stress that the nervous system and connective tissues 'see' more than once a week.
  2. He/she can use completely different exercises on each of the training days, achieving essentially the same effect.
  3. A combination of the first two. 

In each case the goal is to stimulate muscle growth three times per week instead of just once, but vary the training stress each time so the same loading pattern is not repeated on the nervous system and connective tissues, and thus not disrupting their timely recovery.

The first step into the intermediate stages would be to perform the same exercises three times per week, one exercise per major muscle group, with the same rep count, but simply vary the load.  Monday could be heavy day, with the trainee going to near maximum on his/her sets, Wednesday may be a light day with only 60-80% of Monday's weights used, and Friday would be a medium day consisting of 85-90% of Monday's weights.  This is Bill Starr's classic approach to weekly periodization for lifters.  It is common for trainees to underestimate the importance of the light and medium days in this scheme.  In this case the light day serves as what was referred to as a "feeder" workout in the 1970s - the lighter weights bring fresh blood through the muscles, "massage" the joints and foster faster recovery from the heavy day.  Without the light day, overtraining is actually more likely to occur.  The medium day, while not maximal, still employs weights heavy enough to provoke a growth response (training to only 90% of the failure point can be theoretically argued to be as effective as actually hitting failure in terms of muscle stimulation).  In addition, medium day is a perfect day for trainees to perfect their form and use very strict lifting cadences - this in itself makes 85-90% of maximum seem much heavier.

Marvin EderThe next evolution would be to perform different reps on the different training days, but still just one exercise per major muscle group.  For instance, Monday might be heavy sets of five, Wednesday lighter sets of 15 with shorter breaks between sets and Friday moderately heavy sets of 10 reps.  In this way the trainee performs a variety of rep counts throughout the week, stressing the muscles, nervous system and connective tissues in different fashions.  A further evolution would be for the trainee to perform different exercises on each of the three weekly full-body sessions.  Using the chest as an example, dips could be performed on Monday, flat dumbbell presses on Tuesday and incline presses on Friday.  The nature of these exercises and rep counts are chosen so that the heavy, light and medium scheme is preserved. 

For instance, heavy sets of 6-8 reps of dips may be performed on Monday, whereas Tuesday would see lighter sets of 12-15 reps on flat DB presses.  Friday may consist of moderate sets of 10 reps on incline presses.  Although the stress on the body would fall in the heavy, light and medium ranges, the trainee would actually be training hard on all three days and therefore effectively stimulating growth three times per week.  If a trainee wishes to stick to a single rep range the exercises themselves must be used to impose heavy/light/medium days.  For instance, bench presses on heavy day, DB flyes on light day, and incline presses on medium day - all for the same number of sets and reps.  In this case the very nature of the exercise enforce different magnitudes of loads - a trainee will use the heaviest weights for bench presses, the lightest weights for DB flyes and 75-85% of his bench press weights for incline presses, thus maintaining a heavy/light/medium pattern across the week.

At some point during the advanced stages the trainee will begin performing two exercises per major muscle group, particularly on the heavy day.  This might start with the introduction of lighter dumbbell work after the major exercise for each body part.  Now the 60-minute training session rule no longer rigidly applies.  Advanced trainees may need more disruption to the system than can be produced in one hour - particularly on heavy days.  The hormonal response to training is a function of the severity of the disruption caused by the training stress, so advanced athletes may not fit the 45-60 minute rule at all.  For them it may logically take a longer period of more severe loading for the cortisol:testosterone ratio to go sour.

Advancing further, very experienced trainees need more training load to elicit further gains, and now the training effect may not even be effectively stimulated in one session.  The standard approach would be for the trainee to split his routine so more work can be performed for each body part per session and the training stimulus achieved that way.  However, it is not the only viable option and does not have the support of the body of scientific research or the training of elite strength and power athletes. 

Now the trainee may need several heavy sessions in a row to produce improvement.  At this advanced stage the first evolution would be for the heavy/light/medium pattern to morph into a heavy/medium/light pattern.  The total weekly loading remains the same, but following the heavy day with a medium day instead of a light day, just 48 hours later, does not allow for full recovery and further cellular disruption is caused.  It is crucial that the next day, however, be a genuine light day.  As the trainee advances even further the weekly load might become heavy/medium/medium.  Then heavy/heavy/light, heavy/heavy/medium and finally, if the trainee poses truly superior recovery abilities all three days heavy.  It is around this time that the trainee may even begin training more than three times per week.

At such an advanced and extreme stage of loading however, it is very unlikely that the trainee could maintain such intense training for periods of longer than a few weeks - even though a very large weekly load is required to disrupt this trainee's homeostasis and produce a training response.  At that point it becomes imperative that the trainee start implementing the heavy/light/medium scheme over the weekly load rather than just daily.  In other words, the trainee may train medium for one week, heavy for two weeks and then a light week.  This is advanced periodization and has been the cornerstone of practically every great Olympic athlete's training of the past 40+ years.

So, as you can see, it isn't just as simple as, "Everybody should do this routine."  The sad part is that with the introduction of steroids into bodybuilding the science and art of drug-free training entered a stagnate age with very little advancement being made into the proper evolution of drug-free training.  Split routines, while they do have their place even for drug-free trainees - particularly for refinement and pre-contest - work most effectively in conjunction with steroid use.  In order to make the fastest possible progress, most typical drug-free trainees trying to get bigger and stronger simply need the hormonal cascade caused by working the whole body at one time and then allowing sufficient rest for improvement to manifest itself.

Heavy Compound ExercisesGoing back to the question of exercise selection, there is one over-riding truth that applies to all levels of drug-free trainees:  For maximum productivity, training must revolve around the free-weight compound movements.  This has been verified time and time again both in the scientific research and in-the-trenches gym experience.  For beginners and intermediates, very few isolation exercises should be included in the routine and only to address muscles that absolutely do not get sufficiently targeted by the major exercises (Squats, Presses, Rows, Pull-ups and Deadlifts).  Examples might be direct calf, ab, forearm and neck work.  This holds true even at the advanced stages, although then free-weight isolation exercises may be added to heavy days and/or chosen on lights day to better allow the joints to recover from the preceding heavy and/or medium days.  Having said that, if an advanced drug-free trainee wishes to address a perceived weakness, he/she is still much better off doing that by proper selection of an appropriate compound exercise than an isolation.  Going back to the chest example, V-bar dips would be a much more productive way to bring up lagging outer pecs than DB flyes.

The basic rules are:

Beginners

Intermediates

  • Cycling of poundages via various implementations of the heavy/light medium scheme.  Different intensities, rep ranges and/or exercises may be used on each of the training days.

Advanced

  • Additional exercises are added to the routine (particularly on heavy days).  The trainee begins arranging training in periods of medium, heavy and light weeks rather than just days.  The 60-minute training session rule no longer rigidly applies.

Again, a long response but it was hard to briefly address the question without being vague and incomplete.

Muscle and Strength: On to the next controversial issue... diet. I'm sure that you're aware of the study regarding sumo wrestlers, revealing that they have an incredible amount of muscle mass despite not lifting weights. There are also numerous studies which reveal that the human body appears to be very anabolic when over-eating in short-term durations.

http://www.biomedexperts.com/Abstract.bme/8780332/Changes_in_macronutrient_balance_during_over-_and_underfeeding_assessed_by_12-d_continuous_whole-body_calorimetry

http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/content/abstract/49/4/608

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4061637

What is your take on these studies, how much of a factor is diet in the gaining of muscle mass, and how would you recommend a typical hardgainer eat if they have a difficult time adding any weight? And to throw in another question: is dirty bulking "evil", as some make it seem?

Casey Butt: I think all experienced bodybuilders have observed the phenomenon of rapid gains during short periods of overfeeding, particularly when people go on vacation or end a long low-calorie diet.  However, the key thing to keep in mind here is the time frame over which the body reacts 'favorably' to the increase in calories.

Very simply, the body exists in essentially two states:  energy surplus or energy deficit.  In an energy deficit the body will decrease its expression of enzymes responsible for fat storage (lipoprotein lipase, etc), while increasing fat release from adipose cells.  This is to provide the body with the energy it needs to maintain metabolism under a calorie deficit (after all, the major purpose of body fat is to provide a source of stored energy).  At the same time, in the absence of high insulin levels in response to blood glucose, insulin receptors will uncover on the surface of muscle cells, increasing insulin sensitivity - with little glucose and protein available, the muscle cell will increase it's efficiency of uptake and utilization of these now very much in demand substances.  Likewise, growth hormone, IGF-1 and testosterone levels, all of which increase metabolism and lean body mass, decrease when dietary calories are low.

Under these conditions the body has become a very efficient machine at releasing and burning fat from the fat cells and shuttling glucose and nutrients preferentially into the muscle cells (I'm simplifying the situation by neglecting the over-riding needs of the major organs, nervous system, etc).

In a calorie surplus, however, the body will go into a storage mode.  In the presence of constantly high insulin, insulin receptors on the surface of muscle cells will "retract" into the cell membrane and become less "sensitive" to the presence of insulin ("insulin resistance").  High levels of fatty acids and glucose in the bloodstream will cause fat cells to up regulate enzymes responsible for fat production and storage.  You are now a fat storing machine.

Classic muscle buildingThe key to the preferential deposition of lean body mass, as shown in the above studies during over-eating, lies in the short term nature of the response.  Insulin sensitivity and fat storage enzyme activities don't suddenly change dramatically in a few hours or overnight.  If the body reacted that quickly to changing environments it would bang back and forth constantly in a never-ending oscillation of metabolically costly adaptations.  Evolution isn't that stupid (or perhaps it was but those species never lived that long) and so the adaption to sudden over- or under-eating takes time.

In one of the studies you mentioned (G. Forbes, M. Brown, S. Welle, and L. Underwood, "Hormonal response to overfeeding", Am J Clin Nutr, 1989; 49: 608-11) it was found that elevated testosterone, IGF-1 and insulin levels in response to over-eating all peaked at around 14 days and began to decline thereafter.  Perhaps even more importantly, in the presence of high blood sugar and insulin levels fat cells start to increase insulin transporter expression at about two weeks, and that also corresponds with the time it takes for muscle cells to start exhibiting insulin resistance - after a few weeks of over-eating things are starting to go sour.

So, as you can see, the happy situation of preferentially putting on muscle just because you're eating like a pig simply can't last - if it did, formerly obese people would be cleaning up in bodybuilding competitions, but it just doesn't work that way.  I over-ate for 18 years and it didn't do anything for me.  As I mentioned earlier, bodybuilders often experience quick "rebound" muscle gains when they start eating "normally" again after a long cutting period.  In such a circumstance they're coming out of a situation where their muscles are very insulin sensitive and their fat cells are metabolically "geared" to release fat, not store it, and so gains come fast and relatively easily for as long as that situation lasts.  A person can experience something similar, though to a lesser degree, by simply over-eating for a few weeks after a period of eating maintenance level calories.  However, like I said, you've only got a few weeks to play and then you must pay.  If a bodybuilder wants to exploit the anabolic effects of over-eating then I suggest they do it for two weeks or so and then either go on a cut or eat maintenance calorie levels for at least an equal period of time.

As for "dirty bulking" I'd have to say that it's basic macro-nutrients that are most important - calories, carbs, proteins and fats - so "quality" is secondary to "quantity" in this instance.  Having said that, it is a known fact that certain dietary components influence testosterone levels and, therefore, could be expected to affect the results of a "bulk".  To maximize testosterone levels I'd recommend 30-35% of daily calories from fats with 2/3rds of those being saturated.  I'd avoid partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (trans fats) under any circumstances.  I'd also recommend at least daily meals of red meat and eggs for the cholesterol, which is crucial to testosterone production in natural athletes.  I wouldn't go overboard with protein as excessively high protein intakes decrease testosterone levels.  As for carbs, I can't think that it would matter much as to whether "fast" or "slow", "clean" or "dirty"  carbs were consumed because with such a high calorie intake, insulin levels would be elevated practically all of the time anyway.

The only significant adjustments I'd make as a long-term eating plan for a natural trainee, other than lowering the calories back down to a sustainable level, would be to limit quick-digesting carbs to breakfast and immediately after training.  I'd also try to take in a quick-digesting protein at those times as well.  At practically all other times, slow carbs and proteins are the way to go.

Muscle and Strength: Speaking of protein intake...do you feel it's important for a natural lifter to over-eat protein as we have a tendency to do? I see a very wide daily protein recommendation, depending on which guru is speaking. I've seen recommendations as low as 70-100 grams per day, and recommendations of over 400 grams per day. What are your thoughts on this?

Casey Butt: Most credible scientific research that's been done has concluded that hard training bodybuilders and strength athletes need up to 1.76 to 1.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight per day (g/kg-bw/day) as an optimal protein intake, on a long-term basis.  At the same time, it's been found that 1.41 g/kg-bw/day is required to achieve neutral nitrogen balance in strength training individuals.  So the research-supported optimal amount of protein comes out somewhere between 0.64 to 0.82 grams per pound of bodyweight per day (g/lb-bw/day).  Considering that the average person is about 15% body fat, it's roughly between 0.75 to 0.96 grams per pound of lean body mass (g/lb-lbm/day).  To cover the bases, I'd tend to err on the high side of that and aim for 0.96 g/lb-lbm/day - so 1 gram per pound of lean body mass per day is a nice round number to work with.

When protein intake goes above that, the body will increase it's protein oxidation rate and will convert the additional protein into glucose and possibly then body fat (if calories are above maintenance).  So if a bodybuilder habitually consumes too much protein it won't be forced into the muscles causing "extra" growth, it will simply be converted and eliminated by the liver and kidneys.  In the end, the muscles won't see any more amino acids if a person eats 10 g/lb-lbm/day than if he eats 1 g/lb-lbm/day because the body will simply "deal" with the extra amount.  In fact, it appears that under such high protein intakes a person is actually more likely to have a negative nitrogen balance than if he just ate less protein.

However, there are a few other downsides to such a high protein intake.  For one, if the body up regulates enzymes that are responsible for protein oxidation, then you will always need that high protein intake to break even.  In a sense, your body has become a protein burner, and if you don't take in a huge amount of protein day-in-day-out, then you'll slip into a negative nitrogen balance every time you let your protein intake drop for a few hours.  You're not getting anything out of it, but you're now forcing yourself to habitually need a high protein intake or you'll go catabolic.  Another significant downside is that high protein intakes have been shown to lower testosterone levels - obviously something of critical importance to avoid for a natural bodybuilder.

Protein IntakeBut just as the body needs time to adapt to a sudden dramatic increase in calories, protein intake is the same.  Your body won't become a raging protein-burning furnace just because you had a high protein meal.  If so, a steak would set you off.  Similarly, if you go a day or so with low protein intake, your body won't lose all its muscle - luckily the liver acts as a buffer, has a higher protein turnover rate, and absorbs a portion of daily protein intake fluctuations.

At the same time, studies into the phenomenon of "catch-up growth" in underfed animals suggest that the enzymes responsible for increased protein oxidation seem to take two-to-three days of high protein intake in order to be up regulated to the point where they catch up with the increased protein.  Until that time the increased amino acid levels in the blood will promote muscle protein anabolism.  During such periods it has been shown that protein intakes as high as 3.3 g/kg-bw/day (also stated as 1.5 g/lb-bw/day  or 1.76 g/lb-lbm/day) can promote maximum growth.  This has been suggested as one of the factors responsible for the rapid increase of lean body mass in the early stages of protein and calorie over-feeding during "catch-up growth".  After three days, however, the body simply gets better at eliminating the extra protein to the point where you're no farther ahead.

Similarly, if you suddenly start consuming less protein, it will take several days for the urea-cycle enzymes to be down-regulated and the body to lower its rate of protein degradation.  The body will also get more efficient at "recycling" amino acids by salvaging them from the urea cycle.  Before that happens, protein synthesis will be lowered in the muscle, while degradation continues at its normal pace - you'll won't grow and you'll probably atrophy somewhat.  When the urea-cycle and urea-salvage pathways get up to speed, however, the situation will normalize as the body becomes more efficient at how it handles its amino acid reserves.

As was discussed earlier, the muscles are only in an anabolic state for 36-48 hours following training (incidentally, muscle protein synthesis appears to peak at about 24 hours after the training session).  So, accounting for digestion transit times, I recommend that bodybuilders consume most of their dietary protein in the several hours before training to roughly 22 hours afterwards.  Between 36-48 hours after training a trainee doesn't need any higher protein intake than a sedentary individual - which is about 0.80 g/kg-bw/day or roughly 0.43 g/lb-lbm/day.

My advice for natural bodybuilders is to either keep protein intake fixed at roughly 1 g/lb-lbm/day or, if they wish to take advantage of any potential growth benefits of short-term protein over-feeding, take in up to 1.76 g/lb-lbm/day in the 2 hours before and 22 hours after heavy training sessions. The day after that, protein intake should be lowered back down to 1 g/lb-lbm/day.  To avoid adaptation to habitually high protein intakes, I then recommend at least one day of lowered protein intake of roughly 0.43 g/lb-lbm/day at least 48 hours after a heavy training session.

This type of protein cycling is most practical on full body routines.  For instance, if you train Monday/Wednesday/Friday, with Monday heavy, Wednesday light and Friday medium you could eat high protein on Monday (1.76 g/lb-lbm/day starting about 2 hours before the heavy workout and continuing for the next 24 hours), then on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday you'd go back to taking in 0.96~1.0 g/lb-lbm/day.  On Friday (medium day) you'd up it to 1.76 g/lb-lbm/day again (similar to Monday).  On Saturday and Sunday, in order to stave off adaptation to high protein intakes during the week, you'd lower protein intake to 0.43 g/lb-lbm/day - this could also serve as carb-up days for Monday's heavy workout and the rest of the week.

At the more advanced stages, when training is arranged as several heavy days in a row, followed by several lighter days to allow for nervous system recuperation, then protein cycles could become deeper, with up to three days of high protein intake followed by three days of lowered intake.

This is all assuming that calorie intake is sufficient.  When calories go down, protein requirements go up.  But there is very little scientific research available concerning protein requirements of bodybuilders in calorie deficits.  In any case, experience and common sense would have to be the discriminating factor - as it should be in all training and nutrition related considerations.

I've probably made it sound overly complicated above, but it really doesn't have to be - the simplified version is that your body isn't stupid, it likes to preserve homeostasis, and it needs more protein in the day or so following heavy training.  Eat more protein after you train hard and then eat less around the days that you're not training heavy so your body doesn't adapt to constantly excessively high protein levels.

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Alex Wiggs
Posted Tue, 07/09/2013 - 23:11

Muscle and Strength and Mr. Casey Butt,
Thanks so very much for taking the time to put to paper the information a 56 year old man, trying to get into body building, needed to hear to get him pointed in the right direction. I am very excited to see the gains I am making using your methods and my increased feeling of well being. Best of luck Mr. Butt and thanks again...

VR,

Alex Wiggs

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