A look at the myths and realities surrounding what it means to be a hardgainer, the importance of strength training, and the use of supplements.

Testosterone Levels and Muscle MassDr. 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 3 of our interview with Casey Butt, we explore the topics of hardgainers, the supplement industry, and the importance of training for strength.

Muscle and Strength: Switching gears...you've written for Hardgainer magazine. Do you feel hardgainers exist? And what are the key mistakes that naturals make that lead them down the path to zero gains? I see so many young lifters on the Internet who can't seem to make any gains. Is this merely a patience issue, or is there more to it then that?

Casey Butt: There is clearly a continuum of trainees' abilities to make gains.  It doesn't take much observation in the gym to realize that some people gain quickly and relatively easily while others' gains are painfully slow or even non-existent.  And I've been around the "scene" long enough to realize it can't simply be explained by some people following more effective training routines, diets, taking the right supplements, etc.  The fact is, were all these things optimized for each individual there would still be a huge difference between the extremes of how people's bodies respond to training.

There are a myriad of factors influencing how much and how quickly a person can build muscle, strength and power.  Top of the list are things such as natural anabolic hormone levels such as testosterone, GH, IGF-1, cortisol, insulin, glucagon, etc.  Also, how these are affected in each individual by training and nutrition plays a huge factor.  The average male testosterone level varies from 3 to 10 ng/ml.  It is completely out of touch with reality for a person, no matter how well-intentioned, to believe that someone whose average daily testosterone level is 3 ng/ml will make gains as quickly, or have the potential to achieve an equal level of muscle mass, as someone whose average daily testosterone level is 10 ng/ml.  A given amount of testosterone will only allow the development and maintenance of a certain amount of muscle mass and that's that.  If this were not true, then steroid use wouldn't result in a sudden jump in muscle mass for natural trainees who've already maxed out their natural potentials - yet we see this all the time when advanced naturals finally give in and take the plunge into anabolic drug use.  Similarly, drug-using bodybuilders, once they reach the limit of muscle mass allowed by their existing drug schedule, won't get any bigger unless they increase the amount of steroids they take or switch to steroids that are more anabolic in nature.

Some people's body chemistries respond to food intake by building more muscle than others.  Some people quickly get fat when they overeat, others just get more energetic and their body temperature increases to burn off the excess calories.  I've known natural bodybuilders who can eat like horses and not gain fat, they just keep getting stronger and more muscular.  Me, on the other hand, can get fat just watching them eat.  How the body responds to meals with regards to insulin, glucagon, growth hormone, thyroid hormones (notably T3 and T4), testosterone, etc, all factor heavily into whether a person is going to build comparatively more muscle or more fat.  Of course, general biochemistry and physiology applies to everyone, and general guidelines apply, but there is huge variation between people's responses to food intake even on identical programs.

So far these are all hormonal factors - structural considerations bear heavily as well.  Large, robust-jointed people have a huge advantage over small, more fragile-jointed types.  How much training stress can be imposed on a muscle is directly related to how robust it's connective tissues (tendons) are and how secure the joint is across which it acts.  Sensory organs in the tendons and joint capsules relay information back to the central nervous system regarding connective tissue tension and joint stability.  The moment either of these is compromised the nervous system will limit the contracting force of the muscles involved.

Larger, more robust-jointed trainees have a distinct advantage over smaller-jointed trainees in that their sturdy structures give them the capacity to lift more weight and deliver greater training stimuli to the muscles each session.  Loads that these people can easily tolerate will be unliftable by smaller-jointed people, not necessarily because of the strength of the muscles themselves, but because their nervous systems and joint structures simply will not allow the weight to be lifted.  For this reason, smaller-jointed people typically cannot keep up to their larger-boned counterparts on free-weight compound movements, but will often display impressive strength on isolation movements that impose less joint capsule deformation.  For instance, experienced small-boned trainees are usually comparatively weak on pressing movements but may equal the larger-structured guys' strength on flyes and lateral raises - that's usually a sign of joint/connective tissue/nervous system inhibition rather than muscle weakness.

Food for Muscle GrowthAsk yourself this:  When is the last time you saw a small-boned elite-level Powerlifting, Olympic Weightlifting or natural Bodybuilding champion?  It is becoming increasing rare in natural bodybuilding, particularly now that drug-free Bodybuilding seems to be gaining popularity and the competition is getting higher, but it practically never happens in strength sports.

Occasionally a trainee comes along who seems to have all the gifts - high natural anabolic hormone levels, excellent hormonal response to training and eating, a robust structure that allows heavy loads to be lifted and great stress to be delivered to the working muscles.  Given desire and diligence, these are the trainees who go on to be legends of their sports.  In bodybuilding, examples which always come to mind are the old-timers Reg Park and John Grimek.  Both were robust-jointed, trained extremely heavily and had metabolisms that allowed them to assimilate incredible amounts of nutrition and grow from their training (in reality both heavy training and hearty eating must go together to allow each other to take place).  Reg's wife Mareon told of him eating six bowls of borshch on their first date - that was the appetizer.  John Grimek's wife said there was no way of filling him up yet his waist remained small and "trim".  Park's waist, despite his 230 pound off-season bodyweight, never went above 33".  If many other people tried eating like that they'd expand like balloons - particularly the fragile jointed types who have difficulty stimulating the muscles without frying the nervous system.  Men like Park and Grimek were supremely gifted in that their bodies well tolerated heavy, hard training and the growth stimulus delivered by that was satisfied by their heavy food intakes.

Such gifted individuals are usually not difficult to spot, even as beginners.  I've seen photos of four-time Mr. Natural Universe Mike O'Hearn when he was just 15 years old and even at that age he already had a physique superior to many experienced drug-free trainees.

So my answer has to be, "Yes, there is such thing as a hardgainer."  But more than that there is a vast continuum of how people respond to training and eating.  For hardgainers to finally stop looking and lifting like hardgainers they have to assess their own situations and adapt their training accordingly - with the knowledge that fragile joints, heavy loading and nervous system overtraining are all intertwined and can't be ignored as so many training "authorities" seem to do.

As for the second part of the question, I'd have to say that the number one mistake naturals make is one of priorities.  What the vast majority of natural bodybuilders want most is to get bigger, yet they fail to understand the over-riding necessity of getting progressively stronger, for reps, on the major free-weight compound exercises in order to achieve that goal ...and failing to give that fundamental tenet its proper magnitude is what leads to 90% of the other common mistakes most trainees make.

In light of what I said above about small-boned trainees' joint structures not accommodating the use of heavy weights on the free-weight compound movements it might be easy to conclude that these types should train mostly on isolation movements, but this is not the case either.  Even though small-boned trainees tend to overtrain more easily on the compound movements (especially when training to failure with heavy weights), for maximum training stimulus all natural trainees simply must have maximum muscle fiber loading across the mid-range of the fibers range of contraction.  This is where the potential for greatest growth stimulus lies and what the old-timers referred to as training the "belly" of the muscle.  The basic compound exercises typically apply maximum loading across this range.

What most trainees reactively do when their strength gains on the major exercises eventually come to a halt is start throwing in additional isolation work in an effort to spur further growth - but all this is usually doing is giving an appeasing distraction that fools trainees into thinking they're progressing, when in reality they are just as stagnant as they ever were.  It's simply smoke and mirrors.  Big loads are necessary to stress the fibers at the points of maximum cross-bridge overlap and to cause the local and systemic release of anabolic hormones such as prostaglandins, GH, IGF-1 and testosterone.  Although it should just be common sense, it needs to be pointed out to many people that little weights and isolation exercises do not build big muscles.

The "secret" is to learn to continue to make strength progress on the basic exercises, for reps, at the advanced stages.  Even for large-boned trainees this is a task, but for the small-boned it is especially challenging.  In any case, the more experienced a trainee gets the more variety he needs in terms of sets, reps, training intensity (both in terms of weight and how close one trains to failure) and even exercise selection to keep training performances improving - but it is CRUCIAL that the experienced trainee masters this if he/she wants to make further progress.

John Grimek

What most naturals need to do is stop concerning themselves with every new flashy training theory that comes along and just devote themselves to simply getting stronger for reps on a few basic exercises for each major body part - even to the point of ignoring practically everything else and allowing no distractions from that goal.  And if muscle proportion and balance is a priority (which it really always should be) the solution almost always lies in the selection of the proper free-weight compound exercises, not more "exotic" isolation work.

Now, I have to seemingly contradict myself and say that isolation work does have a place in an advanced trainee's schedule - particularly for competitive athletes addressing weak points or any trainee who may be rehabilitating an injury or trying to prevent one.  But my point above is that for anyone trying to boost overall muscle mass, strength gains on the basics are the route to success.

Muscle and Strength: You just referenced flashy training routines. Speaking of "flashy," Recently, I've noticed a spike in outrageous supplement claims. We're also seeing two major bodybuilding websites promote diets that rely heavily on supplements as food. What is taking place in the industry? And do you feel it's business as usual?

Casey Butt: Anytime there's a population desperate for something that isn't easy to achieve, and there's an unregulated industry allowed to profit from the situation, it isn't difficult to predict what's going to happen.

The basic premise the supplement industry thrives on is the concept that, through modern science, products can be made that are more effective than food for building muscle and strength.  This probably started in the bodybuilding community with Irvin Johnson's protein powders in the early 1950s.  At that time Johnson (who later changed his name to Rheo H. Blair) was using a mixture of essentially casein, milk powder and whole egg powder to produce what was probably one of the best protein powders ever made, including the mega-hyped powders of today.  Shortly after that the magazine publishers realized that it was much more profitable to sell supplements than barbell sets because supplements must be re-purchased on a regular basis whereas a barbell set is a one-time deal.  There's a famous story of fitness crusader Paul Bragg telling York chief Bob Hoffman, who up to that point was reluctant to sell supplements, that once he realized the money that could roll in from supplement sales he'd quickly change his mind about selling them.  Shortly after, York switched its advertising focus from barbell sets to supplements and the entire industry hasn't looked back since.

By the 1960s all the major magazines owned supplement companies and were selling supplements.  This corresponded with a journalistic shift in the magazines from focusing on training and nutrition, to focusing on training and supplements ...and increasingly often just on supplements.  The FDA was watching at the time, however, and didn't let the supplement advertisers have free reign as they do nowadays.  In fact, Peary Rader, the original publisher of Iron Man magazine, stopped selling his own supplement line because he said it wasn't worth the hassle from the FDA watchdogs.

The supplement industry was quite healthy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but I think at that time they had little credibility because they hadn't produced anything effective in 25 or 30 years since the introduction of protein powder and desiccated liver tablets.  Carnosine, l-carnitine, boron, dibencozide, beta ecdysterone, smilax, chromium, etc, were are popular in those days, but none of them really did anything significant so they weren't capable of generating much public attention.   I think that all changed with the introduction of ephedrine and creatine monohydrate in the early 1990s.  Those were two supplements that had noticeable effects - ephedrine would have you bouncing off the walls and killed your appetite and most people got (still get) a few percent strength-endurance increase with creatine.  The magazines of the day were still trying to imply that creatine directly built muscle though, rather than acknowledging that it allowed mild strength increases by replenishing ATP stores in muscle and was not "anabolic" per se.

Steve Reeves Natural BodybuilderI think it was shortly after that when manufacturers really got an idea of the potential money involved and the supplement marketing claims started getter bolder, falser and more ridiculous.  By the late 1990s one company was outrightly claiming that their product was as anabolic as a cycle of deca-durabolin.  In fact, they claimed a typical gain from their product would be 17 pounds of muscle in 8 weeks - quite impressive considering the "active" ingredient was simply a combination of zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6.

By the late 1990s I thought it would all come to a boil and there would be a backlash against such blatant advertising lies, but I was woefully wrong on that count.  The situation has gotten unbelievably worse.  It's to the point now were advertisers can make any ridiculous claim they like with no repercussions whatsoever.  Supplements today represent a 20+ billion dollar a year industry in the U.S. alone.  One bodybuilding supplement website recently claimed that their new, yet unreleased, supplement and training "protocol" put 27 pounds of muscle on an already experienced lifter and increased his overhead press to 375 for 5 rest-paused reps.  Only the most inexperienced and naive person would believe such preposterous nonsense.

For one, the guy was claiming to be roughly the same height, weight and body fat percentage that Mike Mentzer competed at in the late 1970s - that's five pounds heavier than Serge Nubret and at least ten pounds more that Larry Scott at his peak.  And not only were these guys anabolic steroid users, they were also some of the world's best in the sport.  In fact, no competitor of this guy's height stepped on the Mr. Olympia stage until the late 1980s carrying as much muscle as was being claimed of him ...and that was before he supposedly gained 27 more pounds of muscle.  Now he's bigger than Lee Haney was at his best ...without steroids of course ...it was all due to the new protein powder.  Oddly enough though, his pre-new-gains photos showed that, while displaying a good physique for a non-competitor, he wasn't carrying anywhere near the level of muscle mass as a Mike Mentzer, or Larry Scott, or...

The overhead pressing claim was perhaps even more ridiculous.  In 1969 Bill March shocked the Olympic Weightlifting community by performing a strict-form 390 lb overhead press at 224 pounds bodyweight.  Up to that point no lifter, so light, had lifted so much weight (and certainly without excessive lean-back).  In fact, even to this day March's lift stands as one of the all-time great feats of pure pressing strength (there have been much heavier presses but not under the 242+ lb weight class and not without form looseness such as driving with the legs and leaning back on the press, i.e. the "Russian Press").  Oh, and March was a dedicated Olympic Press specialist and on Dianabol for ten years before he reached that level.  Yet a popular supplement manufacturer would have us believe that their lifter, who once competed in Olympic Lifting and won no major or even minor titles, can press 375 x 5 with rest-pauses.  Even March couldn't have done that ...and he was one of history's best.

I think it's a sad, sad state of affairs when physical culture has degenerated into such a circus that crooks like this can influence young, impressionable trainees and take their money.  It's even worse considering that some of these kids are so deeply brainwashed and in awe of these phony heroes that even after they get ripped off they won't admit it because they want to be cool and one of the "in" crowd.  It's also a little sad because the person I spoke of above truly does seem to have an impressive knowledge of training, a good physique and a respectable level of strength.  He could be a positive role model, but instead the lure of the dollar and self-promoting BS appears to be too strong to resist.

As for manufacturers promoting diets that rely heavily on supplements as food, that's taken a little longer than I expected actually.  But I guess there had to be a certain level of tolerance amongst consumers before they pushed it that far.  Now some are saying that the routines they recommend won't work without their supplements and vice versa.  That's just setting up a safety net for themselves so when the program doesn't work they'll say you didn't train properly, or if the training doesn't work it's because you didn't take enough supplements ...you should buy more next time.

What's taking place in the industry is simply greed.  It has been there all along.  But like most things, a little is nice for awhile, but then a little doesn't do it and it needs to escalate.  Now it's to the point where, for some reason, the FDA has allowed things to spiral out of reason and the supplement manufacturers are making false claims and telling blatant lies in their ads.

For the record, there is no legal supplement that is any more "anabolic" than food.  No known legal substance can significantly alter the actions of the testosterone receptor or protein translation at the ribosome - period - only natural and chemically altered androgens can do that.  Likewise, you cannot trick your body into dramatically increasing testosterone levels by taking some herb found in some exotic corner of the world (where, by the way, the people are probably smaller and weaker than you despite having consumed said herb for centuries).  Next year there'll be a new rash of these supplements because the ones we have now won't live up to the hype and money will have to be made from something else - it's been going on that way for years.

Having said all that, let me also say that there are useful supplements - particularly the ones which provide the body with the building blocks it needs to grow and get stronger or to preserve muscle when on a diet.  The granddaddy of these are the various quality protein powders but others, such as some carbohydrate powders and creatine, deserve honorable mentions as well.  Bear in mind, though, that none of these will make your physique dreams come true ...only you can do that.

For hard training bodybuilders it is often difficult to take in enough protein, at the right times.  Good quality protein powders, such as those made from milk and egg ingredients can fill that gap.  Likewise, multi-vitamins/minerals and select vitamins and minerals act as nutritional "insurance" against deficiencies that can diminish the training response.  Some organ and glandular extracts can even have quite powerful physiological effects (such as desiccated thyroid or even liver).  But none of these will ever come even remotely close to putting 27 pounds of muscle on a person in 6 weeks - even Dianabol won't do that.  It is simply an advertising lie and, to be quite honest, is probably crossing the criminal line.

People need to stop putting their hopes in bogus supplements that are designed first and foremost to get their money.  I can't count how many times I've seen guys in the gym wimp out on a set of squats and put the bar back with good reps left in them (if they even do squats), yet those same guys will whip out a bottle of some useless, overpriced capsules of God-knows-what when their workout is finished and think they're accomplishing something.  Let me tell you, there isn't a supplement on Earth that's as anabolic as that one extra squat would have been had they been man enough to do it.  But they'll sit on the bench with their hopes in a little bottle of pills of ground up weeds from God-knows-where and not supported by a shred of peer reviewed scientific evidence.  These people need to wake up!

Drug Free Natural Bodybuilder

Drug-free physique success comes from hard work, proper nutrition and adequate rest - nothing else.  If trainees have those bases covered then, and only then, should they start considering the few extra percent that selected quality supplements might give them

Muscle and Strength: Is it possible to separate strength from mass? I know we've touched on this slightly. But so many young lifters put supplements and diet well above the importance of strength. Just how important is it for a natural to focus on getting stronger? Can you get big without getting strong as a natural?

Casey Butt: People always seem to confuse strength and mass gains and try to separate the two by comparing different people to each other.  For instance, the argument that bodybuilders are bigger than powerlifters, but not as strong, is often used to "prove" that strength and mass are not related and that you can get big without getting stronger.

However, that argument is terribly short-sighted and doesn't convey any knowledge of how the body responds to different training protocols at all.  For one, successful powerlifters tend to have certain mechanical advantages - leverages, robust joints, tendon insertion points, etc - that allow them to demonstrate a high level of strength.  Because of mechanical advantages two people can have muscles with exactly the same strength but one person would be able to lift more weight because of better leverages and more robust joint structures.  Therefore, you cannot compare two different individuals and draw conclusions about strength vs. muscle mass based on their performances.

Additionally, powerlifters train in a manner that maximizes their neuromuscular "skill" at performing the three powerlifts.  Not only is their technique optimized for strength demonstration (for instance, on the bench press - arching the back, holding the elbows in during the initial drive, flexing the lats at the bottom, lowering the bar to the lower pecs, etc), but they also train the nervous system to become better at generating high forces for short periods.  In other words, yes, you can appear to get stronger and actually get stronger by training expressly for that purpose.

The fact is that it isn't just the muscles that make you strong, it's also how the nervous system controls those muscles and your natural birth-given leverages.

Muscles adapt differently to different loading schemes.  If you perpetually do low reps, train to improve neuromuscular coordination and perfect lifting technique, then you will likely gain strength faster than muscle size.  That type of training is designed to preferentially increase maximum strength.  However, if you train with higher reps and a higher total volume (as determined by weights x reps x sets) then you will be training to increase muscle mass because that is the adaptive response the body has to such training.  Of course you will get stronger as well, because a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle, but also because of neuromuscular adaptations to a degree.

So, essentially, strength is composed of two trainable components - the muscles' capacity to generate force and the nervous system's ability to efficiently recruit the motor units of those muscles to lift weights.  You can train each aspect individually to degree, but you can never completely separate the two.  Strength athletes cannot lift maximal weights unless they have both of these qualities in sufficient quantities - strength is the product of both.

Bodybuilders focus on the first quality - muscular capacity.  It also happens that the biggest muscles are created not only by increasing absolute strength but also by increasing endurance in roughly the 5 to 15 rep range.  So bodybuilding training is, in essence, strength-endurance training.  But make no mistake, aside from the large increase in neuromuscular coordination that all beginners experience and the small continuing "improvements" that occur from there, the only way to continue to significantly increase strength-endurance - in other words the ability to lift weights for reps - is for the muscles to get bigger.  It is a simple physiological fact that cannot be disputed.  If you will notice, in my previous responses I was always careful to say that trainees must increase their "strength for reps", not simply their strength or their one-rep maximums.  This is why.

Bodybuilders who think they can go to the gym day-in-day-in and lift the same weights for the same reps (assuming they are performing sets of about 5 to 15 reps) and get bigger muscles are simply deluding themselves.  The only ways you can improve your strength in the 5-15 rep range is for the muscles to get bigger or for the nervous system to refine its recruitment patterns (which happens only to a small extent past the beginner stages while performing sets of 5-15 reps).  But perhaps more clearly and easily understood is the fact that if a person does not get stronger in the 5-15 rep range (assuming technique is unchanged) then he/she is not increasing muscle size.  Over the long term it is not possible for neuromuscular coordination to decrease while regularly performing an exercise, so if your strength-endurance is not increasing then it means only one thing - you are NOT growing.  It's as simple as that.

Trainees simply MUST increase the weights they can use for sets of approximately 5 to 15 reps in order for the muscles to get bigger.  Of course, it would be possible to focus on strength to a degree by performing lower reps and perfecting technique, but that is not applicable to the point at hand.  Muscles respond to work in the low-rep ranges by getting stronger through means other than great visible hypertrophy (although they will get bigger in response to this type of work also).  But muscles adapt to work in the 5-15 rep range primarily by getting bigger - this is the physiological response that improves their ability to do that type of work and it's why sets of 5-15 reps have traditionally been the bodybuilding mainstay.  Quite simply, if they aren't getting bigger they aren't adapting.

This is why I say it is crucial for natural bodybuilders to focus on strength increases for reps, though not specifically increases in their one-rep maximums (even though, again, the two are inter-related to a degree).  The most fundamental thing a natural can absorb into his consciousness that will put him on the road to success is, "I must get stronger for reps (5-15) on the basic exercises."  And each day in the gym he should ask himself, "Am I getting stronger?"  If the answer is "no" then he is simply wasting his time and living in a fantasy.

Of all the things in the bodybuilding world, the tendency to ignore this fundamental and all-governing fact (and the over-hyping of ineffective supplements) amazes me the most.

1 Comment
Posted on: Wed, 03/28/2012 - 14:29

Nice article!
One question...whats the name of the guy on the first picture?