Jos has a passion for natural bodybuilding. True natural bodybuilding. And he has a body that backs up his passion. Though he has never competed in the sport, Jos knows his stuff.
His personal website, www.true-natural-bodybuilding.com, is one of the most informative natural-only sites on the Internet.
Muscle and Strength: You have an amazing natural physique. What are your primary training philosophies, and did you ever consider yourself a "hardgainer"?
Jos: My training routine resembles pretty much a standard classic bodybuilding routine that most successful bodybuilders have been using for decades. I typically train every muscle group once per week. For each muscle group I typically perform 3 or 4 exercises of 4 sets. I do about 8 to 12 reps per set using as much weight as possible without scarifying good form.
I keep the rest between my sets as low as possible (around 45 seconds) in order to get a solid pump and to progressively exhaust my muscles as I go through my exercises, but long enough to avoid cardiovascular failure. My goal is always to have my muscles totally exhausted at the end of the last exercise.
My key word for an effective muscle building workout is “intensity.” The higher the intensity of your workout, the more the muscles are stimulated to grow. I believe that many inexperienced bodybuilders focus too much on lifting heavy weights. In order to be able to lift heavy they take too much rest between the sets, do not enough reps per set, and often use sloppy form.
Instead of worrying about the amount of weight, one should worry about the intensity load that is put on the muscles. My advice is to concentrate on intense muscle contractions, good exercise form (continuous tension and full range of motion), firm training pace (not too much rest between sets) and sufficient volume (total of 12-16 sets of 8-12 reps per muscle).
Furthermore, I believe it is very beneficial to build in some variation every week in the workouts in terms of which exercises are performed or at the least by varying the order in which the exercises are performed.
I don’t consider myself a "hardgainer", but I also don’t have any reason to believe that I am exceptionally gifted. I guess my genetic potential for bodybuilding is somewhere in the middle of the favorable half of the genetic spectrum.
When I started bodybuilding I grew rather fast. By the age of 24 or 25 I had reached about 95% of my total muscle mass. Not bad knowing that I had only trained in a gym for about 4 years at that time (because of a back injury I didn’t train from age 18 till 21). Yes, I used to workout at home since I was 14 years old, but having only some dumbbells and a chin bar (no bench, barbell, or whatever other training equipment) available that was far from optimal. It did, however, provide me with a solid basis to start from.
At the age of 25 I kind of hit the wall regarding my maximum natural potential. Since then my gains in muscle mass have been very minimal no matter how hard I trained, and how well I ate. When you train without chemical assistance you have to accept that the sky is not the limit. Only steroids can push you beyond that natural limit.
Muscle and Strength: I've been at my natural limit for 12 years myself, so I understand what you mean. A good percentage of young, natural lifters believe that you can obtain results like that of steroids users...but it just takes longer. Why do you believe that so many of these trainees are resistant to the idea that natural training has a "ceiling”?
Jos: When I was 18 years old I believed that one day I would win the Nobel Prize for Physics, drive a Ferrari, marry a model, and become Mr. Olympia being natural. Some years later I had to downgrade some of these expectations. (laughing)
Having high expectations in life is part of being young. Young people are healthy and full of energy and motivation. They see themselves growing every day, mentally, intellectually and physically. Their natural testosterone levels peak, giving them the feeling they can rule the world. Their parents, trainers and teachers tell them they can achieve any goal as long as they work hard enough. No surprise that some inexperienced, young, natural lifters have unrealistic expectations.
On top of this you also have of course what I prefer to call the “Natural Illusion.” While it is public knowledge that lots of performance enhancing drugs are being used by competitive and amateur bodybuilders, most of them still consistently deny it (using steroids is illegal, not accepted by society, and a huge taboo). Because of this, people who are new to the sport get a false image of what can be achieved naturally.
People who are a bit more mature, have some sense of reality and some experienced with the sport will look through the Natural Illusion pretty fast and realize that if today’s professional bodybuilders would be completely drug free they would rather look like Frank Zane than Ronnie Coleman.
Nowadays you won’t find any serious medical doctors or scientists who claim that you can achieve drug free the same muscle mass, strength or speed as with steroids. No matter how long or hard you train. That’s simply a scientific fact. And especially in bodybuilding the difference between using or not is huge.
Muscle and Strength: Have you ever been tempted to experiment with steroids?
Jos: I have never seriously considered using steroids in my life because if I compare the pros and cons of steroid use from my personal viewpoint the balance goes very strongly against steroids.
First of all I’ve never had any interest in competing in bodybuilding contests. Standing in a tiny posing trunk being judged in front of an audience doesn’t sound very appealing to me. So bodybuilding was for me never more than a competition against myself in which I try to get as close as possible to my dream physique (something near to Arnold or maximum Lee Haney).
By using steroids I think I would reach my bodybuilding goals too fast and too easily and therefore lose most of the challenge, motivation and fun that the sport gives me every day. Having that unreachable goal keeps me hungry and motivated. I also don’t believe in doing a little bit of steroids. It’s not my personality to do a bit of something. I’m someone who goes all out or not at all, especially in sports.
I also find using steroids a way of cheating yourself and the others, even if you admit using them. For me, steroid muscles are as fake as breast implants. They hide your true genetic potential and achievements as a sportsman. Yes, using steroids will improve your physique dramatically, but does the fact that you inject yourself everyday with steroids make yourself a more respectable sportsman? I don’t think so.
Personally, I find it absurd to stick a needle in the ass everyday. It has nothing to do with sport and I don’t want it to be part of my hobby. I don’t want to degrade bodybuilding to some kind of beauty therapy in which all means serve the goal. Bodybuilding for me is a sport and hobby that give me lots of fun, not a frustrated obsession to reach some beauty ideal or to win a contest title.
Last but not least, I don’t want to spend my money buying illegal drugs on the black market that will jeopardize my health. I’m not prepared to get severe acne, liver damage, testicular atrophy, elevated blood pressure, high cholesterol, gynecomastia, impotence, prostate enlargement, boldness or any other health complication for a few pounds of extra muscle. I also don’t want to be known as a steroid user nor do I want to lie about it. So the only option is never to use steroids.
Muscle and Strength: I want to ask you about diet. Do you use bulking and cutting cycles, or does your diet stay consistent year round?
Jos: I never did bulking and cutting cycles. I believe you can make the same gains in the same period of time by staying around a constant calorie intake and body fat level. At least if that body fat level is not too low. Otherwise your calorie intake will not be high enough to allow muscle growth.
Since I don’t compete and don’t spend much time on the beach or other places where I have look at my best I personally feel comfortable with a body fat percentage of about 12% year round. This is sufficiently low for me to clearly see my abs, while it allows me to eat enough food so that I have sufficient energy and strength to train very hard in the gym.
I always try to eat as much as possible without going over 12% body fat. I weigh myself everyday and monitor myself carefully in the mirror. As soon as I observe a slight increase in body fat I cut down my calorie intake a bit for a few days or weeks till I’m back to baseline. When you know your body very well and have done this for several years, you can easily do this even without having to count all your calories.
Muscle and Strength: I'm not sure how closely you follow forum debates, but the most heated battle is always over HIT (High Intensity Training) vs. High Volume training. What are your thoughts on these schools of training, and do you believe either is viable for a natural lifter?
Jos: While muscle hypertrophy is not completely understood yet, continued muscle growth is best obtained by subsequent cycles of muscular overload followed by overcompensation. Intense resistance training results in glycogen depletion and micro-tears in the muscle fibers. After the workout, the body recovers and weapons itself against a next overload by overcompensating: growth in muscle fiber size and storing more glycogen in them.
An effective bodybuilding workout must deplete the glycogen stores in the muscle and cause a significant amount of micro-damage to the fibers. The best way to achieve this is by training to complete muscular exhaustion by flirting long enough with total muscular failure. With total muscle failure, I mean the point where the muscle is no longer able to contract strongly enough to move the weight up or even hold it in its position due to exhaustion of the neuromuscular stimulus and local energy (glycogen) depletion.
I believe that any training system that leads to complete muscular exhaustion through complete glycogen depletion and significant micro-tears in the muscle fibers, followed by a long enough period of rest to allow the muscle to recover and overcompensate, can induce continued muscle growth. Complete glycogen depletion can only be reached through a minimum of training volume (i.e. “time under tension”). In order to get enough micro-tears in the muscle fibers you need to flirt long enough with total muscle failure.
Variables such as number of sets, number of reps and amount of weight are not the critical parameters themselves, but merely the means to get to the same goal: intense muscle overload leading to local energy depletion and neuromuscular exhaustion resulting in total muscular failure causing fiber micro-damage which accumulates into a state of complete muscular exhaustion.
The amount of weight must be high enough to be able to reach neuromuscular failure, while the total time under tension (sets x reps x rep duration) must be high enough to be able to reach local glycogen depletion. A typical powerlifting style of training (few reps with maximum weight) will lead to neuromuscular failure long before glycogen depletion, a state I call “partial muscular failure”, and therefore is not optimal for inducing hypertrophy. Endurance training (very high reps with light weights) leads to another type of “partial muscular failure” in which local energy supplies are depleted before neuromuscular exhaustion is reached.
When comparing a HIT routine with a classic training routine, they may seem very different at first sight in terms of the training variables: sets, reps, weights, and rep duration. However, all critical aspects are present in both routines: complete muscular exhaustion, training to total muscular failure. Even the total time under tension (TUT) is comparable for both. HIT would typically have 2 sets of 10 reps of 10 seconds (TUT=200 s), while a classic routine would have like 12 sets of 10 reps of 2 seconds (TUT=240 s).
The correct question is not “which of both training routines is the best”, but rather “which of both training routines suites you best.” And the answer is very individual depending on your personal mental and physical capabilities and preferences. In practice we see that most nowadays bodybuilding champions chose for a classic training routine (15 sets) that lies somewhere between Mike Meltzer’s HIT (2 sets) and Serge Nubret style High Volume training (30+ sets).
My advice for a natural bodybuilder is to shoot in the middle and start out with a classic routine. If you don’t feel good with this, shift a bit towards the extremes and test how well this works for you. Not very many people will find themselves to get the best results with any of the extremes.
Muscle and Strength: What are your thoughts on isolation exercises. Where do they factor into the equation with relation to glycogen depletion and micro-damage? Can a natural lifter use them effectively in a routine, or are they a waste of training time?
Jos: Compound exercises and isolation exercises both deserve their place in bodybuilding. Compound exercises involve multiple muscle groups and more closely resemble natural, “real world” movements, and are therefore excellent for developing overall body strength and muscle mass.
With only a handful of well selected compound exercises you can assemble an excellent routine to train your complete body. This is especially interesting for the beginner lifter, who needs to develop core strength and muscle mass, when choosing for a full body workout or an upper body/lower body split that can be completed a couple of times per week.
While compound exercises are the greatest power builders, they also have some disadvantages for the advanced bodybuilder. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link is literally applicable to compound exercises. While many different muscles are used simultaneously in compound exercises, the failure of only one will cause the lift to fail. It’s only that failing muscle (target muscle) that gets the full growth stimulation (i.e. maximum glycogen depletion and micro-damage). The other muscles that assist the lift (synergists) don’t reach total muscular failure and therefore only get limited growth stimulation.
The limited growth stimulation that synergists get during compound exercises may be all a beginner needs to grow. But an advanced bodybuilder may need more to maintain continued growth. That’s where isolation exercises come into play. With an isolation exercise, you can focus all your mental and physical energy into one single target muscle at a time in order to deliver the maximum possible growth stimulation.
A simple example is the biceps. You can give them quite a good workout by doing compound back exercises such as barbell row, chins, lat pulldowns etc. However, if you want to get your biceps fully developed you will have to add some isolation exercises (e.g. curls) at some point in time. That’s because your biceps function as synergists in these exercises while the main growth stimulus goes to the back muscles (lats and trapezius).
As you get more advanced as a bodybuilder, I believe that targeting your muscles individually becomes increasingly important because this really is the only way to enable maximum growth in all those muscles. I believe that even compound exercises should be performed in a way to guide the intensity as much as possible into the target muscle rather than letting it dissipate towards the synergists. It’s better to target afterwards each of the synergists individually with their own dedicated isolation exercise.
A nice example of the importance and extend of targeting and isolation by advanced bodybuilders are the use of incline, flat and decline dumbbell flyes. These not only isolate a single muscle (the pecs), but even target separate parts of that muscle (upper, middle and lower, respectively).
Having synergistic muscles involved too much in compound exercises might be even counter-productive for advanced bodybuilders. A muscle should be trained completely to failure or not at all. Having a muscle trained partially is a lost opportunity, a waist of energy, and possibly a disruption of its recovery period.
Muscle and Strength: What do you believe a true natural bodybuilder is?
Jos: For me a true natural bodybuilder is someone who has build his physique through effective training and a targeted nutrition without ever having used performance enhancing drugs or supplements that differ from the nutrients that naturally occur in our daily diet such as proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, creatine, etc.
Note that this is quite a strict definition and that many athletes who call themselves natural bodybuilders don’t fit within these conditions. True natural bodybuilding has in my opinion nothing to do with using exotic plant extracts or chemical substances that can boost performance, increase muscle growth or accelerate fat burning. A true natural bodybuilder should be able to say that his physique is 100% the results of effective training, appropriate nutrition and good genetics; not improved by capsule X, ampoule Y or vial Z.
This, however, doesn’t mean that there is no place for supplements at all in true natural bodybuilding. Supplements like milk protein powders and creatine monohydrate are very useful supplements for bodybuilders who are not able to or do not want to eat large quantities of meat and fish throughout the day. They are inexpensive, low in saturated fats and cholesterol, and don’t take much time to prepare and drink. Omega-3 fatty acids, multi vitamins/minerals, and dextrose are a few other examples of supplements that do not violate my vision of true natural bodybuilding.
What doping products such as anabolic steroids concern, these of course have no place at all within true natural bodybuilding. These are not only known to be very effective in boosting performance and muscle growth, but they also have many harmful side effects. As steroids are able to push a physique permanently beyond its maximum natural limits, fair play can only be guaranteed in natural bodybuilding contests if there is a zero tolerance for such products. Unfortunately, drug testing is very ineffective, especially in detecting prohibited substances that have been taken months or years ago. Because of this, many athletes that participate in natural bodybuilding contest are not as clean as they would want you to believe.
Muscle and Strength: What would you say to a young trainee who is strongly considering making the switch from natural bodybuilder, to "enhanced" bodybuilder?
Jos: I understand that the temptation to start with steroids can be very big for some people. However, it is not a decision that should be taken lightly, as it can have far-reaching social as well as health related consequences in the short term as well as the long term. Steroids come with a big promise, but they also can have a significant price tag attached to them.
Adolescents…I would always strongly discourage to make the consideration because at their age it’s simply very unwise from a health perspective to experiment with steroids. There is also no reason to hurry because most bodybuilders still have their best physique in their late 30’s. It’s better to give your body some time to grow naturally. Maybe it will turn out that you don’t need any “assistance” to reach your dream physique. Imagine how much more satisfaction and self-confidence it will give you if you can say that you reached your goal all by yourself without any chemical assistance.
For those who still believe they are a candidate for the big step, it is very important to fully understand all possible consequences before starting their adventure. Therefore they should get as well informed as possible on the subject. There is plenty of quality information from reliable sources available on the internet, in books, and even documentaries that can be used to make your personal analysis.
What the outcome is of that analysis can be very different from person to person as it depends from your personal view on life. Most important is that you do your analysis thoroughly so that you feel comfortable with your decision and are sure that you will never regret it. As long as you are prepared to deal with all its consequences you will always be able to stand in front of the mirror and say to yourself: “Yes, I’ve made the right decision.”