Sean Sullivan is passionate about the sport of bodybuilding. Not only has he competed over 70 times, but Sean is also a student of bodybuilding training and diet. In this interview, Sean Sullivan shares stories about Vince Gironda and Arnold Schwarzenegger, talks about training, and hints at a possible comeback.
Muscle & Strength: You've competed in over 70 natural bodybuilding contests. Has the sport of bodybuilding changed at all since you first began competing? And do you believe it's become a more selfish sport?
Sean Sullivan: Oh, yes it has changed! In some ways for the better and other ways its far worse. Bodybuilding has lost its roots; lost its soul. Back in the 70's when I first met Arnold and started going to the gym, it was a totally different feel. Everyone was there to help, and bodybuilding was about self-fulfillment and had a more Zen-like quality. I was into marital arts at the time and bodybuilding had that same feel. It was a discipline that transferred over into every other aspect of your life. Before I got into the gym scene my grades stunk, I had no confidence and no purpose in my life. Bodybuilding showed me discipline, hard work and accomplishment, but not just for the sport but for all aspects of your life.
Bodybuilders were still ego driven, but it was not all about bodybuilding. As the years went by I noticed bodybuilders became more selfish and the ego rose to unprecedented scales! Back in the day I could go to Gold's, World's or Vince Gironda's in California and talk to Don Ross, Joe Gold or Robbie Robinson and the conversation would be about almost anything from world events to good TV shows. Everything was so open and fun. Talk to the latest NPC stars or - god forbid - an IFBB pro and what do you get now? I approached one top IFBB pro a few years back and he told me to "shut up and come back when I had 20" arms" and then stalked off after some fitness girl. That is what's bad about today's scene. The drugs and the ego killed it.
A few years ago I won my class at a non-tested show in a popular organization. On stage, I went to shake hands with the other place winners and the third place guy knocked my hand away, said I sucked and he was cheated and he walked off. In fact, at the whole show no one was friendly. The following week I was at the USBF Pro Am and had a great time. I was making new friends and we were helping each other back stage. A group of us even helped on competitor pose better because he had torn his pec in the off-season. We showed him how to pose around it and it helped him place much better. That is what is better, the natural movement. Natural shows have a different feel, a different quality that is more like the old days. And natural physiques are evolving. Look at Tim Martin, Doug Miller and Rico! That is why I am still involved in bodybuilding, I have hope for the future of the sport.
Muscle & Strength: Let's talk about another aspect of bodybuilding that has changed since the era of Robinson, Mentzer and Arnold...training. The Internet era provides a young lifter with a thousand different training approaches and philosophies. In what way is this good and bad for younger lifters?
Sean Sullivan: It is a doubled edged sword all right! In one sense you have information that it took years to acquire decades ago at the click of a button, but on the flip side there is almost too much information and lots of bogus info. I read the forums all the time, but rarely post anymore, and see so much misinformation taken as fact that it's a wonder anyone ever improves. A few common mistakes I see are people changing what they do every time they read something new and following systems that will not work for there body chemistry or for naturals.
The first issue is change. Change is good, when made at key points, and is necessary for progress. However, changing you whole meal plan, supplement schedule and workout style every few days based on the latest Internet search is a recipe for failure. You need to find out what works based on your individual make up. How can you find your destination without knowing your starting point! You can have the best GPS in the world but if it does not know your start point you will get no where. Training volume, intensity and load are all individual.
On the diet side diet macronutrient intake and ratio is also individual. Rest is another big factor. Once you find your parameters, find new information that falls in line with what works for you and you will progress. The other factor is naturals following what their hormonally manipulated counterparts do. You can not train, diet or peak like someone using enhancement drugs. It is not possible to do the diet and training of a Mr Olympia without being on anabolics, insulin, thyroid and IGF1. The drugs alter the endocrine system so the methods you see work, but if you're not using the drugs, the techniques discussed WILL fail 100% of the time! Diet and training alter the endocrine system and the drugs counteract that effect.
I get so many clients who fail badly at a spring show following this advice, but by the fall they are winning championships. They just needed the right information in that sea of advice. The final problem is the Internet expert. I have one warning on them, as soon as someone says I have all the answers, or this way is the only way, log off! No one has all the answers because no two people have the same body chemistry. So in essence many people are right, but only for a few individuals. Do high carb diets work? Yes. Do low carb diets work? Yes. High volume training? Yes. HIT training? Yes. It all works, but not for everyone and not forever. So read widely, but wisely.
Muscle & Strength: The fact that natural bodybuilders and "enhanced" lifters need to train differently is generally ignored. Can you give a natural beginner some basic parameters for how to approach a training routine. How many days a week should they train? How long should they train? Do you recommend a certain split? And what exercises are must haves?
Sean Sullivan: Well that is a big question with a long answer so I'll attempt to keep it as basic as I can. Short answer is, when on drugs you change the hormonal system so recovery is less an issue. When you train you affect several things that need recovery. First the muscle, next the nervous system and last the endocrine system. Everyone has heard that a muscle can recover in 48 hours. This is true for natural or enhanced bodybuilders. That is the similarity. Now the two big differences, nervous system recovery and the endocrine system. Naturals saturate the nervous system and can NOT recover a muscle in 48 hours.
IN FACT the nervous system takes up to five times that to recover. If the nervous system does not recover the muscle fibers do not fire at optimal levels so less fiber recruitment and less ultimate growth. That is why one of the signs of overtraining is lack of a pump. Also, the muscle is less adept at waste removal, so overtraining and DOMS is related, but DOMS is not an indicator of overtraining or growth, so that needs to be taken in context. Last is the hormonal system. Training affects hormones!
Heavy weights with long rest raises testosterone. Supersets have a link to growth hormone. Slow negatives to IGF-1 and super high reps to insulin. So depending on how you train you can optimize hormonal profiles, BUT when you go over a certain point the system shuts down! Now add drugs to the mix and you circumvent the CNS and prevent endocrine problems. So now you don't have to worry about changes in insulin sensitivity and affinity for muscle cell or fat cell transport because you taking insulin. Testosterone is not and issue because your taking that so why stop at 40 minutes? Lots of negatives are no problem because you're on IGF-1 and add some GH and recovery is a breeze.
So now you have a natural who watches the local drug champ in the gym, or goes on a message board or God forbid Flex or Muscle and Fiction (yes Fiction) to get programs that their body could never handle naturally! So the program needs balanced volume, frequency and intensity for naturals. Load, or weight is not a concern, so lift heavy for whatever rep range you're using, but you need less sets, exercises and fewer days per week. How much of a reduction varies on another set of variables.
First of all volume in a program is individual and also changes with a bunch of variables for each individual. Examples are outside stress, caloric intake, macronutrient composition, sex, age and training age. The first few are self-explanatory. The last three I need to elaborate on. Sex is first. Females and males have a slightly different way they need to train. Women have fewer nerve endings in the muscle cells so they need slightly higher reps and a extra set or two to get the saturation necessary for growth. I am talking 1-2 reps on the norm and 1-2 extra sets. This will make more sense when I cover training age, but the better the neuromuscular efficiency the fewer sets and reps you need. Women have fewer nerve endings so they need more sets. So natural women need a few more sets and reps but no where near what you see some IFBB pros recommend.
Next is age. Younger and older athletes have different volume needs. Older guys need less because of recovery, and the 18 year old can do a lot more work. Now for the 18 year old, you do not need 20 sets per bodypart and 6 days a week, ever! Most respond on half that so even less for a 45 year old. Now training age, the longer you consistently lift the less volume you need. Why? Because of neuromuscular efficiency. I can link my mind muscle connection in 2 sets per exercise. I also use high loads so I need less volume to get there. At 44, I can warm up in three sets and throw 335 to 365 on the incline and do 4-7 reps. I don't need more then 2 sets and I am fine.
At 25 I needed 3-4 sets and responded better to 8-12 reps. So as you can see it's varied and individual for the natural. The enhanced athlete has none of the above concerns because they can artificially create the ideal metabolic environment. Every client I get adds lots of muscle fast, no matter how long they have been at the game. The reason is I almost never have them train more then 4 days a week, sometimes only 2-3, and are in and out in 45-60 min tops! To do that we need proper exercises and techniques and good form. Core exercises are essential, but there is also a place for isolation movements. Again too complex an answer for here but a general rule is a 60-40 mix of complex to isolation movements is best for the natural.
Muscle & Strength: Sean, I want to ask you about the impact bodybuilding has had on your life. Any clue as to where you would be if you hadn't found the iron?
Sean Sullivan: I am not sure exactly where I would be, but I know where I was. I have told this story many times, and to understand my path I have to tell it again. I was 13 living in Columbus, Ohio. It was 1979, late fall. I had some family problems and my mother was struggling with alcoholism. She worked nights as a nurse and days at a nursing home so I was alone most of the time. I was not very popular and had few friends because we moved quite a bit. At some point a fell in with a bad crowd and was getting into things I shouldn't have and ended getting caught breaking into a funeral home.
When I got caught I was also skipping school so it was a two for one deal. Anyway, it was a Friday morning and I was suspended from school waiting for a JV court date and wondering the streets. I came across a store and there was a large group of people watching these two huge and muscular men work out. I walked in and was smack dab in the middle of a seminar given by Boyer Coe and Robby Robinson, and hosted by some big guy who talked funny. I watched the seminar and the big guy with a funny accent kept talking about workouts and sets, and reps and all kinds of other stuff I didn't understand. The guy was memorizing and had the audience at the edge of there seats.
I stuck around and after the seminar I approached him. Everyone was asking about workouts when he turned to me and in a thick accent asked, "And vot voud you zlike to know?" I simply asked him how he got everyone to like him? At that point he must have summed up who I was and the path I was going down. He told me to "stayz zar" and went to another guy. The two talked a moment and he came back with an envelope. He told me he was Arnold Swartinsomthing and he and his friend Jim were promoting the Mr. Olympia that Saturday. Inside were two tickets to the show and passes to the banquet after. He thought I should go and had someone he wanted to introduce me to.
I remember running home and waking my mother and telling her the story. It must have stuck because she sobered up and the next night I watched Frank Zane win Mr. Olympia number three. After the show at the banquet, Arnold approached me and sat me and my mother next to Mike Katz. Mike told me he was a school teacher and we talked about his childhood and how bodybuilding saved him. How it taught him dedication and perseverance and that he could accomplish anything. About how it helped him find himself. That Sunday my mom took me to Sears and bought me a bench press and weights.
Within 6 months I was getting almost all "A's" and making friends. I went on to a tour in the Marines, college, became and officer, went to flight school, fought in a war, became a police officer and am now a supervisor in my department and a SWAT team leader. Oh, I also managed to win my fair share of titles, promote one of the largest natural bodybuilding shows in New England, wrote a few books and trained at least 37 bodybuilders and 20+ figure athletes to their pro cards. The last statements are not to blow my own horn, but to point out where I am now. So where would I be without bodybuilding? I don't know, but I was not exactly on life's fast track when I found bodybuilding. This story illustrates what I mean by the Zen of bodybuilding, the real meaning. It's not about titles or how big your arms are, its about inter-perspective, change and development inside as well as outside.
Muscle & Strength: With regards to the "Zen of Bodybuilding" and physiques from the late 70's era...Arnold, Lou, Mentzer, Franco, Zane, Platz...they each looked different. Each physique seemed to have its own personality, and each bodybuilder seemed to take "his own path". A very Zen-like quality. Is that missing from modern bodybuilding, natural or otherwise? Has "enjoying the journey" been lost?
Sean Sullivan: Yes, to some extent it has. Less so in natural bodybuilding, but it's not the same as back in the day. I don't think I would have gotten as involved in the sport if I had been exposed to it after say the late 80's. Now as far as natural bodybuilding goes, the message is slightly distorted but not lost. There are many, many bodybuilders who get it. Look at Rico, he is a Zen master of bodybuilding. There are quite a few like him. A few that come to mind; Dave Goodin, Dr. Joe (actually there are two, Joe Demarco is the other), Remo, Earl Snyder, Mike Uzar, Doug Miller, Damon Gillis, Chad Auston, James and Katie Carron.... now that I think about it, lots of naturals, lol.
Yes, some just don't and spoil the sport. I quit competing in 2006 because of a bad experience from someone I thought was a friend. He is a well known bodybuilder and we were always quite friendly and he was someone who I thought got it. Anyway, we did a show and I won, he was 2nd. He just couldn't take it and acted like a child. I lost all respect for him and the whole incident really took the wind out of my sales that season and I never went back on stage after that. But, that is one bad incident and there is still so much good in the natural movement.
As for the untested shows? I turned my back a decade ago after Craig Titus almost jumped me and beat the crap out of me at the Arnold Expo because he overheard me say that I did really care for his physique. He went ballistic, caused a scene and the police responded. After the dust settled I was asked to leave by a certain IFBB big wig. At that point I knew the IFBB was dead to me. I can't even tell you who the Mr. or Ms. Olympia are, and I really don't care. However, I can tell you that Doug Miller is the current IFPA Yorton Cup champion and Rico is undefeated in IFPA competition. And the two men are the most modest, selfless and successful people I know. That is the Zen of bodybuilding!
Muscle & Strength: I believe you've competed in over 70 shows. Have any good stories you would like to share from those competitions?
Sean Sullivan: I have more great stories that don't involve being in a contest. Not to say I have not had some really great times in shows, but 99.999999% of bodybuilding is off stage. One of my favorite memories from off stage was my first trip to Vince's gym when I was in the Marines and stationed in California. I had won the teen Mr. Cape Cod a few months before and Vince Gironda was the best trainer and most innovate mind at that time (and his work is still spot on and relevant).
Anyway, I go into the gym and Vince was behind the desk. So I approached him and told him how much I respected him, and was now in California and wanted to learn as much as I could. Well Vince was less then impressed as he eyed me up and down. He gave me a kind of scowl look and said I was fat and had big ears, now you know something about yourself. That was classic Vince, but I had done my homework and knew he did things like that when you first approached him. I guess he just wanted to drop a bomb on you so he could check your character. I just looked him in the eye and said I may be fat but you're ugly, and I'll just go on one of your diets. As for my ears, guess I better not stick my head up my rear or it will get stuck.
I trained there for several weeks and we would just shoot sarcastic remarks at each other. Then one day he just started giving me information. I remember him telling me all I do is follow him around and write down everything he says, so let's cut to the chase. The kindest thing he ever said to me was that I get it, what all this lifting and eating was really about. He was my first mentor. One of my favorite show experiences was at the USBF Baltimore Pro Am. There were like 25 guys in the pros and we had such a fun time. My friend Earl Snyder was competing in his last show (but he has sense un retired, lol) as was Kent Berly, Mike Uzar and Damon Gillis. The five of us are great friends and we were all in the top five together.
We we were having such a good time on stage. They split the line and when the second group was on line we were helping them with there posing and giving them encouragement handing them towels and water. It was a blast! When it was all said and done, Earl won and we had this kind of group hug thing on stage. It was great. At a Musclemania, Bob Morton and I had so much fun on stage the head judge actually gave us a couple's trophy. Man, the audience was cracking up, but Rob and I had a blast. That is what a competition should be about. At every show I promote or head judge I always reiterate the importance of networking and sportsmanship. I mean bodybuilders are like gladiators from Roman times. Gladiators would train, eat, sleep, drink and party together before the arena. Ok, we don't kill each other, but the point is the same. We are unique in our sport and should share a fellowship at shows and not make it about beating someone.
Muscle & Strength: A couples trophy. That is priceless. I want to switch gears. Prior to the steroid era, full body routines were the norm. In the modern era, they are rarely used. Do full body routines have any value for naturals, or should a natural stick with split training?
Sean Sullivan: I use them all the time and find them ideal for natural bodybuilders. Look at programs like HST (Hypertrophy Specific Training) or some of the HIT programs that are out there. Lots of coaches are moving back to full body programs. I find that naturals respond best to less intensity and more frequency. Look at some of the greats from the 50's and 60's. Most of Steve Reeves' physique was built on a full body program. Not big enough? Ok, how about Reg Park? Then Larry Scott, who only did split workouts after he was Mr. America. Chuck Sipes only did splits for powerlifting, never bodybuilding.
Want more? Ok, back in Venice in the 80's I noticed all those star bodybuilders that had those long, incredible programs in Muscle and Fitness were only in the gym 3 times a week in the off-season. I once asked Don Ross about it and he told me it was for two reasons, one you grow better, and two, when you're off steroids you can't recover or grow well on the other programs. Back then cycles were 8-12 weeks, three or four times a year - unlike today. I was never into any drugs so it just seemed like the best way to go. In fact I did almost all full body or an "A"/"B" split rotation through most of my training years.
We naturals just seem to follow whatever is on the message boards or in the magazines and expect it to work. It does for some, and yes the one workout per week/bodypart works, but other programs work much better. I don't always use a three day full body split, but at least 4 months out of my training year is done full body style. It is also the best way to train when calories are lowest, like pre-contest. It never makes any sense to me to see people increase weight training to 60 minutes, five or six times a week after dieting 12 weeks, cutting food volume by up to 50% and increasing cardio by as much as 500%. How can your body recover! The CNS shuts down, endocrine system gets loopy and the hypothalamus (organ that controls metabolism and fat burning) halts. So what do we do? INCREASE TRAINING AND CUT CALORIES! Just move to a 3 times a week or even 2 times a week full body program, and you will start shedding fat and retain muscle. The need for once a week high intensity/volume programs is a myth for naturals. I have had so many clients who have seen no results for years suddenly start to grow on reduced calories and a good full body program.
Muscle & Strength: What are the best ways for a beginner to maximize their gains?
Sean Sullivan: Stop getting workouts off the magazines! Novice trainers have different needs and can't use the high load and varied programs with success. Here is how a novice should train for the first 1-2 years; three to four workouts a week maximum, use one or at most two exercises per bodypart, use only compound movements and do moderate high number of sets and reps. Moderate as in the 5-6 set range and reps in the 8-12 range. The reason is because of neuromuscular efficiency, or lack there of. The greater your training age, the greater the load you lift, the fewer sets and reps you need.
Here is an example, when I started out I could only bench about 80 pounds. At my peak, after around 15 years of steady work, I could get 405 for reps. Now when I started I did 5 sets of 10-12 reps, but there is no way I could get 405 for that, and no reason to do so. After 15 years my muscles could connect with the weight so well I could do 2 sets of 4-6 reps and get a better workout. A novice can't do that because the fibers cannot fire properly in those ranges. A novice needs to spend years training there muscles to respond to loading and the only way to do that is by doing higher reps and more sets.
Another problem is form, the form must be correct. Full range reps are the #1 priority! And core movements, squat, bench, dip, chin, row, press, curl and tricep extensions are all good. Anything on a cable, smith machine or even hammer strength should be out for at least the first year. In fact, if I owned a gym I would forbid the smith machine all together! More long term injuries are created on the smith then any other apparatus. The smith will kill your knees, lower back and shoulders and create all kinds of imbalances.
I remember going to a Poliquin seminar and he covered the smith with a sheet and said "No one goes near that thing"! I see so many newcomers doing cable this and pulley that, and 1/4 rep squats on the smith, all for maximum sets of 4-6 reps with high loads. I almost never see good progress. I had a client come to me three weeks into his training. He followed everything I gave him and added 35 pounds in one year. In his first show he won the novice and open titles. The five other guys he started with all did the latest Flex workout and are still spinning there wheels in the gym and say I must have given him steroids. Back when I started, I was coached well and not allowed to do anything but full body workouts using 6-8 exercises for 5 sets of 10-12, increasing the weigh every time I could. I transformed my body in 6 months. I see people look almost the same year in and year out because they never started properly.
Muscle & Strength: What are you up to now that you've retired from competition?
Sean Sullivan: Thinking about a comeback, lol. Actually my plate is full! I promote three shows, one pro show: the IFPA Pro Masters in June, a pro qualifier; The Spirit of America in April and the Maine event in Maine in September. I write articles for Fitness and Physique, wrote a book and an e-book that has been really well received, and I train clients. In the last five years I have worked with 117 clients, 102 of them went on to at least win there respective class, 37 won overall championships, 22 won pro cards and 11 of the 22 pros have placed top five in pro shows.
I live for my clients now, and actually feel so much more pride watching them succeeded. It's like a father watching his child win an Olympic gold medal. It's just so gratifying seeing someone work so hard and then succeeded. I also judge almost every show in New England and travel as far as upstate NY and DC to head judge or help promoters. I also have a full time job as a police officer and SWAT team member and to top it all off I am in the National Guard. So my plate is kind of full, but I still make time to get to the gym four days a week.