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 2 of out interview with The Mighty One, Stu Yellin tells us what he has learned from his training injuries, talks about pre, post and peri-workout nutrition, and weighs in on the subject of natural muscle growth potential. Read Part 1 of Muscle & Strength's interview with Stu Yellin.
Muscle & Strength: The topics of carb cycling, PCF ratios while bulking and cutting, and the dirty vs. clean debate are all popular discussions. What's your take on food intake and nutrition for growth and cutting?
Stu Yellin: First, I’d like to say that one of the most confusing aspects of training, which seems to elude most of the people you see in the gym, is the nutritional part. I was guilty myself early on of not eating in accordance with the demands I was placing on my body, let alone to achieve the gains I was searching for. Something I’ve found myself repeating quite a bit, is that if you’re not going to worry about the nutritional side of the puzzle, then why bother going to the gym at all. You’re essentially just wasting your time because nothing can come of it.
What you’ve got the majority of the time are people trying to lose weight, who underestimate how much they’re eating, and people who are trying to gain weight, who overestimate how much they’re eating, and with neither group actually having any idea of the actual specifics involved. Whether you’re a bodybuilder who’s bulking or cutting, or simply someone who wants to lose a little fat, the best things you can do are a little leg work, and then somehow make yourself accountable. The problem though, is that it’s always seen either as an inconvenience, or simply as being too much work. No one wants to do the research and figure out the macronutrient breakdown of their favorite foods, or sit down and calculate their BMR, let alone start playing with Met Coefficients and worrying about glycemic index values.
The general discussion of bulking vs. cutting has a lot of different opinions, from the ‘calories in vs. calories out’ proponents, to the ‘food combiners’, to the ‘targeted’ nutritionists. In my opinion, all have a certain degree of validity. The bottom line though will always be that your body will not be able to create new tissue unless it has some amount of abundant nutritional support. It’s just that simple. Someone who is eating to maintain a 180 lb body will never grow to 205 if they keep eating 180 lb amounts of food.
Conversely, someone who is morbidly obese, and has been ingesting 7000 calories a day for years on end will never start losing weight (allowing the body to plunder its stores of body fat) unless they start eating less. Does it get more complicated than this? Of course, but most things being equal, this is the simple premise that seems to get overlooked a lot (usually in favor of “let me cut my carbs, but keep eating too much” –lol)
As far as ‘dirty’ bulks vs. ‘clean’ bulks, I really think the term ‘bulking’ has gotten muddled over the years. Sure the old school bodybuilders used to get a little out of contest shape, but they didn’t walk around 50 pounds overweight for most of the year. I’ve read tons of the ‘old’ books on bodybuilding, and you’d routinely hear about Arnold and others of that era putting away a couple of steaks, along with eggs and a side of cottage cheese at one sitting. Obviously a sizable amount of calories designed to support the tremendous strain they put on their bodies, but you really didn’t hear about guys eating a few slices of pie as well in the name of ‘bulking up’.
Sure, for those of us with amazingly quick metabolisms, the use of food that would be considered less than ‘clean’ isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, sometimes getting a little ‘dirty’ is the only way some trainers can even make their caloric goals each day. The problem, as I see it, is when you go overboard. I’ve gotten as heavy as 220 lbs before, but to be completely honest, I wasn’t as lean as I like to be, and I felt sluggish to boot. Should I try to stay within 10 pounds of my contest weight year round though? Not if I want to actually make some sort of gains in the long run. When I’m heavier (usually around 205), my joints feel better, I can lift heavier, and at risk of sounding like a kid, I just feel more powerful (which probably influences my training on some psychological level as well).
I see young kids in my gym day after day who are so scared of losing their precious abs that they barely eat. The problem though, is that they’re not ‘ripped’, or ‘jacked’. They’re just skinny, and in their obsession with maintaining their current appearances, they’re missing out on the years when it’s far easier to put on quality muscle size than it will ever be. I had the pleasure of meeting Mike Francois many years ago when I was in grad school. At the time, there were so many different theories circling in my mind that it was almost numbing. One thing he said to me, that I will never forget, and which I’ve repeated time and time again was “if you want to be a ripped 200 lbs, you have to first get to a soft 225 lbs”.
When it comes to cutting diets, without a doubt I’m in the carb cycling camp. It’s not just the carbs though; it’s a complete caloric rotation on a daily basis dependent on your body’s specific energy requirements for that given day. Too many people think that all you need to do to lose weight is simply lower your calories. Now from an energy expenditure based view, they’re correct, but it’s a little more complicated than that. When you lower your caloric intake, your body, amazingly adaptable machine that it is, will slow itself down, essentially requiring less than it did before. So after the initial weight loss, it halts. What next? Obviously lower your numbers more. Result? The body again adjusts itself. See where this is going?
Nutrition is like weight training in that you must give your body some sort of stress if you want to get a reaction out of it. If the body expects a certain number of calories, it will adjust to work within that amount. However, if it expects a certain amount, and you give it either less, or even more, well then you will have succeeded in giving it something it has to react to. As simple as it sounds, if you were to fluctuate your daily intake every day for the week, but ultimately end up with the same number deficit at the end of the week as someone who had the same intake every day, you would find yourself not only losing more weight, but with a less slowed metabolism in the process.
To prescribe an actual ratio of macronutrient breakdowns though becomes more of an individualized issue. Everyone’s specific levels of insulin sensitivity, as well as their natural levels of lean muscle mass have to be accounted for. A few key points that should be noted though would be:
- You must have adequate calories as well as quality protein in order to support either muscle growth, or when in a deficit state, maximum muscle retention.
- You must adhere to some sort of feeding cadence where your body never falls into a state of having to scavenge for nutrients.
- Carbs are not the evil macros that some people would have you believe, and can be magic for muscle growth as well as sparing muscle when dieting. Understanding a targeted approach to carbohydrate ingestion will not just allow you to make better gains in the off-season, but to maintain a greater quantity of your lean mass when cutting down.
- Dietary fat and body fat are not the same thing. While saturated fat isn’t good for anyone from a general health standpoint, a diet excessively low, or even devoid of any dietary fat will not only lead to poor gains, but poor health (low hormone levels, brittle hair and nails). If you insist in dropping your carbs to extremely low levels, you have to fill in the caloric gap with something, and too much protein will only lead to your body making glucose from it (so you can turn to healthy fats as an alternative!).
No matter what your goal though, bulking or cutting, and despite how much knowledge you think you have, the nutrition game will always have some element of assessment and reassessment to it. If you’re smart, you will keep careful track of what you’re doing so that you can isolate whether something is working or not, and learn more about how your own body responds accordingly.
Muscle & Strength: Have you had any noteworthy lifting-related injuries, and if so what did you learn from them?
Stu Yellin: I don’t think it’s possible to train with weights (whether actual weight lifting, or bodybuilding) over the long term and not have at least some aches and pains. We’re intentionally going out of our way to perform tasks that are well outside of our body’s natural comfort zone, the risks are always there. I do like to think that I’ve been pretty careful for the most part, but let’s face it; we’re all young and stupid at some point in our lives. I have had a few issues with my wrists over the years, which have really led me to just be very meticulous about my form. I had to forego a lot of clean/press work by my mid 20’s because it just felt to awkward once I was getting up there with real weights. Partial tears in both biceps, some scar tissue build up in my shoulders from all the heavy pressing… in the last few years though, and this is certainly notable, I’ve had a chronic inflammation issue in my right forearm, which seemed to puzzle the Orthopedists and PT’s I’ve been to.
This is what actually led to my researching of omega 3’s and their effect on inflammation within the body (and ultimately getting my PT hooked on Biotest Flameout! –lol). I did have to make changes in my actual training program because of this. Straight arm barbell curls aggravate the area quite a bit, as do overhand pull ups. Learning from this, I had to get a bit more creative with my back and bicep training, and can probably attribute a lot of the smaller details you see in my back to the methodical approach as I’ve had to adopt.
Also of note is probably my most serious injury which I suffered in the summer of 2007. Having entered into a local strongman contest, I eventually realized, in hindsight of course, that sometimes bodybuilding geared training can actually set you up with muscular imbalance issues down the line. Let’s face it; we’re training for the most part with an aesthetic in mind, not always about improving actual performance by our body as a single unit. Long story short, I ended up torqueing my sacrum, tearing my rectus femoris, my hip flexor, and herniating a couple of discs. I was pretty much unable to sit up in bed for a while, or even stand or sit very long without excruciating pain. Luckily it happened over the summer, and I was able to see my brother (a Doctor of Physical Therapy as well as a CSCS and certifiable gym rat) four times a week to put myself back together as quickly as I could. Despite the small bit of pride I felt knowing I was in 2nd place going in to the event finals (I dropped out after nailing a successful deadlift, only to have my right leg buckle under me while exiting the platform!), my brother and I realized that my training had to undergo a few changes.
They say that mistakes aren’t a bad thing if you learn from them, and I‘d like to think that I’ve learned a lot from mine. Too many trainers focus solely on their strengths, ignoring what really needs work, and in the process, make the discrepancy between the body parts even worse (and the likelihood of injury even greater!)
Muscle & Strength: What topics or issues push you into the "rant zone", and why?
Stu Yellin: Let’s face it, most young guys get into bodybuilding to either look big and scary, and hopefully add a bit of intimidation to their appearance, or just to appeal more to girls. Not a negative thing in either case, but there’s almost always a certain level of dissatisfaction at the onset. I hate, hate, hate it when someone puts on a few pounds of muscle and then begins to see themselves as better than anyone else. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been in gyms with young kids, but while I have no problem with anyone being proud of such their accomplishments, it doesn’t make them better in any other facet of life and it’s certainly never a reason to be an ass towards other people. Hell, I have a lot more respect for the guy who’s not making any real progress but who pushes himself day in and day out, asking questions and trying to learn, than I do for the guy who is a bit above average, but struts around like the king of the gym, usually wearing a ‘wife-beater’ tank top, or a t-shirt that’s obviously a size or two smaller than it needs to be.
I think its people like this that give most bodybuilders a bad rap. The way I see it is that everyone’s in the gym with a common goal (for the most part), and unless you’re ‘that guy’ who everyone else knows is gym kryptonite (you know, that guy who talks and talks, never actually trains, quotes every single muscle magazine, but understands none of it, and when you politely engage him, before you know it, you’ve wasted 2 hours in the gym!), there should be a certain degree of helpfulness if not camaraderie. Friendly competition is a good thing, but some people just don’t get it, giving anyone with better physique dirty stares in the mirror any chance they get. Maybe I’m just getting to be one of the older guys, but it just eludes me where this all comes from.
As much as I admit to being a gym rat, I certainly don’t go out in my everyday life in need of attention. On the rare instances where I have to run an errand right after the gym and I’m wearing a sleeveless shirt, I’m almost embarrassed in public. I guess there’s just a fine line between pride, and narcissistic attention seeker. As far as I’ve come with my own physique goals, there’s something to be said about being able to blend in with ‘normal’, non-gym folks. I do have a real job, a real social life, and real friends that have nothing to do with anything even remotely fitness related. The majority of people you meet couldn’t care less about proper protein utilization and nitrogen retention –lol. You don’t have to look for every possible excuse to talk about yourself, and I see this lot.
Muscle & Strength: I want to ask you about pre, peri and post-workout nutrition. This can be another heated topic to discuss. It seems like everyone has an opinion...eat big post-workout, eat normally post-workout, drink milk post-workout, don't drink milk post-workout. And then we factor is carbs, protein, BCAAs, pre-workout supplements, and the nutritional possibilities surrounding workouts can look like a 2000 piece puzzle. What are your thoughts on pre, peri and post-workout nutrition?
Stu Yellin: Again, we have an issue where things probably get much more complicated than they really need to be, and the amount of misinformation circulating around most gyms doesn’t really help matters. You’ve got overweight kids drinking their sugar loaded energy drinks because they’ve been told that they won’t make their best possible gains without them, the older crowd being overly concerned with their test boosters so they don’t accidentally fall prey to excessively high cortisol and estrogen levels, and then every young kid reading their magazines and popping or downing whatever they’re being told is the flavor of the month supplement.
The first bit of training nutrition advice I ever heard was in reference to the 20 minute post-workout window. By all accounts, this is when your body will uptake nutrients at an accelerated pace, and should be maximized in an effort to make continually gains. When I first started going out of my way in a concerted effort to ensure a fast digesting carbohydrate source with a quick protein following my workouts, I definitely noticed a difference, and to be frank, I still recommend this approach to most people who find their way into the weight room. Taking advantage of this critical period is also crucial when someone is dieting, as muscle preservation should be their prime focus.
Some people however, may eschew the idea of quickly getting nutrients into your system via liquid sources in favor of solid food after training. While the occasional trainer will no doubt be able to progress just fine with this approach, it is my thinking that more will derive benefit from a fast digesting liquid feeding followed by a solid meal approximately an hour later. The rationale being that the whole foods take longer to digest and process. This becomes a negative thing following a stressful training session when your goal is to begin the recovery process and supply nutrients necessary as quickly as possible.
Pre-workout nutrition and supplementation is something that only seems to be getting attention in recent years. Despite the huge focus by supplement companies on nitric oxide products, or pre-workout stimulants (both wastes of money in my personal opinion), the general consensus amongst the gym going regulars seems to be just eating a decent source of protein and complex carbs about an hour before training and you’re good to go. I followed this approach myself for many years, usually sticking to some protein powder in a bowl of oatmeal, or a shake with some natural peanut butter if I wanted a little less carbs at the time. I always needed some space of time after eating though, as if I ate too close to my session, I’d feel like my blood sugar levels would crash out on me halfway through.
Last year was the first time I began supplementing my diet with BCAAs in any regularity. I had always been a bit skeptical, as BCAAs were present in most protein sources (whether food or powders), and it just seemed a redundant expense. During a contest prep though, I became a bit concerned with possibly occurring muscle loss, and found myself not only sipping 20g while training, but spiking my usual gallon of water and crystal light that I lugged around all day. Not only did I not experience any large degree of muscle wasting, but I noticed a definite spike in my ability to handle a greater workload as well as decreased soreness each day. As further studies came out pointing to the protein synthesis signaling effects of leucine, I also began adding an extra 5g to my pre-bed shake as well as even throwing some into my morning oatmeal, hoping for any extra little anabolic edge I could find.
This past fall I had a lot of my thinking about peri-workout nutrition altered after talking to Tim Patterson from Biotest. Having developed performance based nutritional support for competitive cyclists; Tim was trying to devise an approach where bodybuilders would be able to maximize their performance during their actual sessions, while minimizing the usually associated depletion that occurs during strenuous training. Essentially trying to shift the focus away from just on the recovery aspect afterwards and more on not needing such ‘tidying up’ after the fact. Such a focus on maximizing performance would be ideal to not only stimulate actual muscle growth, but in giving the body a better reason to maintain muscle mass during a cut.
Again, I was never able to eat too much close to my training, but the primary carbohydrate source, rice oligodextrins are slowly absorbed without any discernable bloating (an issue in the past for me). An added bonus was their ability to actually pull more water into muscle tissue (osmotic effect), which as anyone who has read up on the science behind creatine, or glycerol, knows, creates a much more anabolically favorable environment. This, coupled with the addition of casein hydrolysates during my sessions (essentially predigested proteins which absorb even faster than BCAAs!), has led to much more aggressive workouts, practically no muscle soreness, less overall fatigue, and a greater degree of muscle retention when cutting. The amazing thing is that I no longer leave the gym feeling completely destroyed. As much as the BCAAs were a step up from nothing peri-workout, the casein hydrolysates have been a similar improvement over the BCAAs. The basis of all of this, I should note, is nothing magic. It’s really just finding protein and carbohydrate sources that allow you to perform and recover better.
Does every young gym rat really need to run out and spend their allowance on these hard to pronounce supplements though? Of course not. Simple whey powder and a Pop Tart were my staple post workout supplements of choice for years. Are they worth the extra expense? If you really are more of an advanced lifter, and have already established an optimal training methodology as well as quality nutritional support, they can only help. Obviously some people are searching for every advantage they can get, and I certainly wouldn’t be wasting my own resources on them if I believed otherwise.
There are always going to be conflicting opinions on every aspect of training and nutrition though, and while I can recount studies and research, the final convincing for me has always been in my own experiences in the gym, and what has worked for me personally. The acid test for nutritional approaches is basically the same as it is with training – try something with an open mind and see if it works for your distinct physiology.
Muscle & Strength: Many young lifters believe that you can get as big as you want as a natural, that it only takes longer. What can you tell us about your gains over the years? How hard is it for an experienced natural to gain even one pound of muscle? And do you believe you could add another 30 pounds of muscle at this point in your lifting career, or is there an "end game" to natural potential?
Stu Yellin: I don’t feel the question should really be one of natural vs. assisted lifters, but more of a ‘how big can you get as an individual?’ Everyone’s genetic makeup is different, and too many people rush to issue blanket statements that are supposed to explain everything. One thing that any intelligent person should realize is that there is a hugely varied spectrum of possibilities in regard to any trait or characteristics. Even when we think we’ve set the boundaries on a well thought out range, something new can come along that exists well beyond our scientifically conceived borders.