Stu Yellin is one of the most popular natural bodybuilding personalities on the net. By day, he is a professional animator and storyboard artist, but in the gym and on the forums he becomes "The Mighty Stu." In part one of our interview with Stu Yellin he talks about training nuts and bolts, how he got involved with bodybuilding, and the factors that lead to a successful physique.
Muscle & Strength: Let's get started with an introduction. Tell us about yourself Stu. When did you start lifting, why did you choose bodybuilding, and what are you up to currently?
Stu Yellin: As much as I’d love to say that I had an attraction for the weights at an early age, I didn’t. It wasn’t until I was half way through my undergrad studies, maybe 20 years old, that I found the weight room. A good friend of mine needed someone to tag along to the college gym one afternoon, and I was the only person around who didn’t have class at the time. Long story short, I ended up going every day, mostly just to hang out with my friend, but as I slowly started noticing changes, I got hooked. Sports were never my thing, and at 5’8" and a skinny 150 pounds, the few new pounds of muscle suddenly gave me reason to spend more time in front of my dorm room mirror (“I gonna look just like Batman!” –lol).
The training aspect just became a part of my everyday life. When I went to grad school, and even years later when I worked in Manhattan, I would get home late in the evenings, walk my dog, go to the gym, and then fall asleep fully content to repeat the same routine the following day. It was the only time I felt like I could just cut loose, just push myself physically in a way that my daily activities didn’t allow for. Acquiring little bits of nutritional and supplement information was a pretty slow process though.
I don’t think I really discovered the Internet until about ’99 or so, and hanging around in the NYU gym didn’t really give me much exposure to trainers who really understood what they were doing. At one of my earlier jobs, where I sat at a desk all day, I was able to first take advantage of having food constantly on hand. Simple things like tuna, cashews and protein bars, which could be stashed in a drawer, allowed me to actually ingest food at frequent regular intervals throughout the day, as I had long heard that I was supposed to be doing, but was just always too inconvenient a process.
So I kept up with my training, and eating, with no real intention of ever stepping foot on an actual bodybuilding stage. I learned more and more from the Internet, discovering people like Charles Poliquin, John Berardi, and Christian Thibaudeau. I reached a point where I just needed to know everything. My room was filled with piles of articles printed out from online and then carefully highlighted and stickied with post-it notes. I would research completely conflicting approaches to training, or nutrition, and then try things myself, taking careful notes to assess whether they would work for me or not.
Then one day, I stumbled upon a bodybuilding magazine in Penn Station that claimed to cover ‘Natural’ bodybuilding. I had never seen any publication that even acknowledged that most of the huge bodybuilders within their pages were making regular use of chemical ‘assistance’. The articles within specifically seemed to be aimed at someone with much more common genetics, with an actual 9-5 job, and more importantly, someone who was opting to forego such ‘assistance’. I continued to read these natural magazines for a couple of years, always underlining the listed heights and weights of the champions profiled within. I think realizing that these levels of development were actually attainable gave me an extra bit of motivation in my own training.
In one particular issue, I noted that there was going to be a seminar offered nearby in New Jersey, and that it would cover many topics, from training, to nutrition, to kinesiology and biomechanics. I decided to take the trip, and see what I could learn and apply to my current methodologies. It was at that seminar, in October of 2008, that I met Jim Cordova and Steve Downs, both of whom I recognized from the magazines, and both of whom appeared a little surprised that I hadn’t ever competed before (I was 35 years old at the time, and figured it was something you needed to get into earlier if at all). Steve and I emailed a few times, with him saying how he believed I could do “some real damage” should I ever enter a show. It was with Jim though, that I began more of a correspondence with him really shedding light on a lot of things, and always sounding very encouraging.
I eventually decided to try my hand at a show the following spring. As was my usual approach, I researched as much as I could. I pilfered every online forum with a ‘contest prep’ section and printed out anything I thought might be even remotely helpful. I sent emails to a couple of natural pros who I admired, hoping to get some feedback and suggestions (Brian Whitacre was amazingly helpful during this time). It was during this first prep that a simple thread asking suggestions morphed into a full blown blog on the T-Nation web site (a site I have been a frequent member of since about 2000). The support I received from other forum members was amazing. Even when Christian Thibaudeau himself offered advice, encouragement, and even compliments, I was taken aback. I really felt like a member of a community there, and to say that it underscored my mental focus would be an understatement.
The actual day of the show was almost surreal. I stood backstage with my training partner, looking at all of the other competitors and thinking that I had made a huge mistake. No way did I belong in this company, these guys looked like real bodybuilders, I was just some guy who loved training but had now probably dieted away to nothing. Having decided to play the odds, I entered in all three categories available to me; the novice, the masters 35+, and the open middleweight. My plan was that if I could make a top 5 placing in just one class that I could go home, knowing I had done everything I could have done, and with something tangible to show for it.
Well, without boring you with the particulars, I walked away with 1st Place in the Masters, 1st Place Heavy and Overall Novice, and 3rd place Open Middleweights (4 Trophies!). I made sure to quickly update my T-Nation blog via my cell phone so that I could share the news of my victory with my full support team, and then promptly headed out to a local Outback Steakhouse with my family and friends for a much needed celebratory dinner.
Currently, I’m mid-prep for a few shows this April and May. Although there were many other opportunities to compete since the May 2009 show, I knew full well that there were areas I needed to work on. I guess I could have done some other shows and just tried to just collect more trophies, but bodybuilding to me has always been a personal journey of trying to continually better yourself. The last year I’ve probably had more focus in my training than I ever had before, simply knowing that I was working specifically towards something has served as a constant source of motivation.
Muscle & Strength: Let's talk some training nuts and bolts. Along this journey, what conclusions have you come to about which training approaches/philosophies work for natural lifters, and which don't? I know this is a rather vague question, but there is so much information on the Internet based on the lifting habits of steroid users. What works for you as a natural, and what doesn't?
Stu Yellin: Years ago I heard the saying "everything works, but nothing works for very long" in regard to bodybuilding training. It has been my experience that in most instances, taking into account each person’s individual physiology, this is true. The human body is an amazing machine, and tends to adapt to whatever you throw at it. The very nature of bodybuilding though, is to be able to keep the body in a state of continually trying to adapt to the stresses placed on it. I didn’t quite understand this when I started out and would read about a notable IFBB pro singing the praises of high reps one month, and then switching to extolling low reps the next. What I eventually realized though, was that it’s not the method of the stimulus, but actually the fact that it is an unaccustomed stimulus that is forcing the body to try to adapt.
In my many years training, I have had periods where I focused on low reps and heavy weights, as well as periods where I used higher reps and lower weights; times where I trained very low frequency and volume, and times where I trained with very high frequency and volume. I believe that the bottom line in regard to training will comes down to two very important elements. The first is the notion of intensity. Your muscles do not know how much weight is on the bar, they merely know how hard they have to work to achieve what is being demanded of them. Intensity can be generated by increasing the load of the weight, by attempting to increase the number of repetitions with a given weight, or even increasing overall volume or frequency (density) of your sessions.
The second notion I feel is most important is that of balancing your recovery with the demands you are placing on your body. If you are training every day for 2 hours a day, all the while undereating and not getting enough sleep, gaining muscle will be the very last of your body’s priorities. When I started training in college, I would go to the gym 7 days a week, eating far less calories than I needed, and probably nowhere near enough protein. As I learned to back off a little in my training frequency, I made some progress. When I later improved my diet I made even more progress. These days I train with a much greater volume than I used to (my joints aren’t what they used to be!), but have adjusted my diet and supplementation program to much more optimal levels accordingly. I feel this is what has really allowed me to reach the level I’m currently at, and continue to make progress even after 17 years in the gym.
The issue of recovery is of paramount importance for the unassisted trainer. He/she cannot expect his body to handle the same levels of stress unless everything else is in order. When people doubt that it is possible to achieve competitive levels of muscle and leanness without assistance, my response is simply “sure it is, but you have to be willing to do the ‘little things’ that most people can’t be bothered with.”
Muscle & Strength: What is the single greatest factor that has determined your progress and success in bodybuilding?
Stu Yellin: I think the ability to be objective and analytical has probably helped me more than anything else. I’ve seen instances where one a person achieves a modicum of success, and then they start thinking they know it all. In this game, there’s always new things to learn, and new approaches that you’ve probably never thought of. My training partner for the last few years is 12 years younger than I am. He’s only been training seriously for short while, but I value his opinion more than most of the more seasoned trainers I’ve met. There’s absolutely no ego involved when he shows up to train with some new articles he found online or a printout of a study he found in his college library, and presents me with something he thinks we should try, or even when I want to alter something in my prep and he disagrees with me about it. We try to approach every aspect of our training very methodically.
My journals recount any detail that could possibly be of use down the line, from daily macro breakdowns, to notes on when certain levels of vascularity appear in individual body parts. I think it’s really impossible to know if specific elements in your overall program are working if you can’t step back and examine them from afar. We also put everything into spreadsheets (which usually gets us some odd glances at the gym when we’re pouring over them), always paying careful attention to when any change was implemented, and what the effects (if any) were. An understanding that bodybuilding is a marathon and not a sprint has also probably been a big factor in my progress. When you realize that no matter how genetically gifted you may be, that it takes time to achieve what you’re going after, being consistent with your diet and training comes a bit easier.
Muscle & Strength: Some young lifters look for "magic supplements" that create growth. And some seasoned vets are so frustrated with the "magic pill" mentality that they tend to label every supplement as a "magic pill" and dismiss it. What can you tell young lifters about "magic pills"? And what supplements do you believe are effective as a supplement to quality training and diet?
Stu Yellin: I remember when I was still in college, and the first protein bars starting coming to the market. I also remember trying to force down that horrible tasting soy protein powder that came in the cardboard canisters in hopes that I’d wake up one day magically looking like Arnold. What I didn’t realize back then, was that as brilliant as portable shakes and bars were, all they were addressing was the issue of convenience. They were certainly no better (and most likely a bit worse) than if you had chosen to carry a few chicken breasts and handful of cashews around in your pocket.
The mentality though, was that these items you saw in the ads, being touted by the latest and greatest pro bodybuilders, were not the real reason behind their incredible physiques. I’m not going to say that it was the drugs that solely allowed them to reach such levels, but the supplements were regarded as they should be, as a supplemental addition to a diet that’s optimal for muscle growth and recovery. Am I as guilty as the next guy of trying supplements that claimed to be the next creatine? Sure, I think deep down everyone would like to believe that there is just one piece of the puzzle that once they discover it, everything else will fall into place. The reality is that the ads are targeted at the younger audience that doesn’t really know any better.
These kids aren’t eating enough to gain weight no matter what magic pills, or workout drinks they take. Then you find the kids who pop into a burger king, and throw down a cheeseburger thinking that they’re getting their protein in. I’m not saying that there aren’t quality supplements out there, because I honestly believe that there are, and rely on several high quality ones myself on a daily basis. What I’m saying is that most people need to stop worrying about the latest testosterone booster, or something that will give them a better pump in the gym, and instead focus on the supplements that will assist in the actual building of muscle in the first place.
When young kids ask me what supplements they should take, I first make sure that their diet is in order, otherwise they’re just going to be wasting their time and money. Then I usually suggest a simple whey protein powder to make use of right after they train. I tell them that they can use it throughout the day so long as they’re eating every few hours (I don’t go into the whole fast proteins vs. slow proteins discussion). If they push for more, usually I’d suggest a decent multivitamin, and sometimes creatine, although I always explain the water weight gain to them. I make certain they realize that they will be able to train harder, thereby possibly building real muscle, but understand that those initial few lbs they’ll see in the mirror aren’t going to be real. If someone is a bit more advanced, then we can start getting to peri-workout stuff, like BCAAs and beta-alanine, fish oils and other goodies that have actually been studied and shown to have a real effect (and don’t claim to put 10 pounds on you in a month).
I do understand how some of the older lifters have become almost jaded into thinking that everything on the market is a scam. It really is a matter of being informed, and taking most things you read with a grain of salt. Obviously most supplement company’s goals are to make a profit. I’m not trying to sound negative though, because this motivation has actually led to some discoveries that have actually proven to be highly effective. Trying a supplement you think might work after reading up on it is certainly understandable, but constantly looking for the one magic product that will make up for a lacking diet and sound training program will keep you in a constant state of confusion, and possibly even believing that everyone else who makes progress must either have better genetic than you, or must surely be on steroids.
My own supplement regimen has always been really just focused on the basics, protein supplements, and fish oils. During the last year, I began making use of BCAAs during my training to prevent possible catabolism while in such a depleted state. There’s nothing magical about what I use, and I’ve researched enough to be able to explain how they work, and why I’m taking them (ask the kid in the gym with the free t-shirt from a supplement company and the shaker bottle why he’s drinking what he’s drinking, and you’ll rarely get a very educated answer).
- Biotest Flameout – a high dosed omega 3 product that not only makes my joints feel a hell of a lot better, but actually seem to allow me to maintain a much leaner body comp year round, whether I’m dieting or not.
- Biotest Metabolic Grow (Low Carb version) – a casein/whey combination powder that I use pre-bed due to its slow digesting nature (casein), and even throw into a bowl of oatmeal with some natural peanut butter for a tasty breakfast.
- Biotest Anaconda – I was completely sold on BCAAs until I tried this. It’s essentially casein hydrolysate, (which absorbs even quicker than straight BCAAs), with beta-alanine, and citrulline malate. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so fully recovered (and not sore) from my workouts before, and I have to actually stop myself or I can just keep going and going.
None of these products are magic, and to be honest, maybe I’ve put on 5 pounds of muscle over several months of using them (and this is with a very meticulous diet and well thought out training protocol). Certainly nothing you’d expect to sell millions of products to kids, BUT, all are honest products that I feel are contributing to the long road that is bodybuilding progress. Anyone who tells you to take this supplement from this company and you’ll put on 10 pounds in a month is either lying, misinformed, or doesn’t differentiate between fat gain and muscle (putting on 10 lbs of fat in a month is easy!)
Muscle & Strength: I'm sure in your time with the iron you've ran into a few "juiced" lifters. How do the "unnatural lifters" look at you? Do they respect you for what you've accomplished without assistance?
Stu Yellin: Obviously if you spend any amount of time in gyms, you’re going to meet people who train both with and without chemical assistance. I’ve certainly had many friends over the years who have decided to go the assisted route, whether they actually compete, or simply want to look better for spring break. I’ve never been one to issue any sort of judgment though. Yes, anabolic steroids are illegal, and that may be all that dissuades some people from using them. Others seem to take a moral objection to using something that may not be considered ‘natural’. Now if we were to start discussing what is considered ‘natural’ and what isn’t, well that opens a whole other can of worms.
Personally, I don’t necessarily think that steroids are the horrible evil that the media loves to make them out to be. Still, whether possible health issues are a concern, or not, there is a pretty sizable stigma attached to them, which I am obviously aware of as I work with high school kids on a daily basis. The way I like to look at the use of anabolics in regard to the competitive side of bodybuilding is simply as if you were playing in different federations of the same sport. If you decide to play in one federation, you must abide by their rules; it’s just as simple as that. It doesn’t diminish the amount of work put into training for such events.
Think about it, so many young natural trainers are quick to dismiss the level of development of the pros you see in magazines as solely the result of chemicals. If it really were that easy, don’t you think everyone with access to steroids would be walking around looking like Ronnie Coleman? I can’t even count the number of gym rats I’ve seen over the years, especially in my current gym, who are always taking some form of anabolic steroid, and yet they still won’t be mistaken for ‘bodybuilders’ by anyone. Whether you decide to play in the ‘natural’ or ‘assisted’ sandbox is up to you, but they both require the same application of solid training methods, and nutritional support. Sure those who put all the pieces together in the assisted camp will stand to be larger overall than the natural guys, but the elite athletes in both camps have to bust their respective asses to achieve their goals.
I think it’s this level of understanding that allows the intelligent and usually more advanced individuals in each camp to have a decent level of respect for each other. There are several ‘juiced’ trainers in the gym I currently train at who know I compete unassisted. In fact, they’re usually the first ones to check on my progress each week, ask when the next show is, what I’m doing diet wise, even ask me training questions. They obviously realize that it’s a bit more difficult to get to a lean 200+ pounds without some chemical ‘help’, so I must have some clue what I’m doing –lol.
Muscle & Strength: While surfing on bodybuilding forums, it doesn't take long to find out that there are swarms of young lifters spinning their wheels who look at muscle growth like it was rocket science. Is bodybuilding rocket science? Or are there simple, key elements to building muscle that they're not "getting" that could help them make progress?
Stu Yellin: Ah, the Internet forums. I do agree that in most cases, a lot of the message boards are a sad state of affairs. 16 year old kids debating which prohormones to use, or just regurgitating things they’ve read in the various musclerags without actually understanding of what they’re talking about. The best thing about the Internet, is also the worst thing; there is so much information out there, and it’s all very, very accessible.
There are a lot of different ways you can train; there are also a lot of different approaches to nutrition and sports supplementation. The problem initially is that new trainers don’t know which approach to try, and even if they do pick a reasonably well thought out choice, few will stick with it long enough to gauge if any progress is even being made.
Is bodybuilding really that difficult? Well, the basics of what to do aren’t, but first understanding what they are, and actually applying them with all out gut busting intensity day after day for years on end is what eludes most. Dr. John Berardi was quoted in an old issue of Testosterone Magazine with: “to succeed in weight lifting [or bodybuilding] you have to do shorter workouts than the magazines typically want you to, train heavier than your muscles want you to, do more reps than your mind wants you to, and eat more food than your stomach wants you to.” This really sums things up nicely.
It’s all about forcing the body to accomplish tasks that are just outside of its comfort zone, that’s what fosters the adaptive response which is the real basis for any sort of athletic improvement, especially muscle growth. Add to this the actual ability to make the muscle ‘do’ the work, and not just move a weight from point A to point B, and ensure a diet and sleep pattern that will allow for the muscular adaptation (not just neurological adaptation) to occur, and you’re set. Unfortunately, with the constant barrage of ‘special ad reports’ from supplement companies telling you how you’ll never look like Mr. Olympia unless you make use of their latest cutest edge breakthrough, it’s easy to think that bodybuilding can’t really be that simple.