Today I have the absolute pleasure in talking to Prep Coach Stu Yellin. For those who don't know Stu, he is a world renowned Diet and Training coach that has had clients ranging from physique athletes right through to NFL stars and NPC competitors. He also walks the walk taking Pro cards in the Natural WNBF and USBF federations over in America.
Now I personally love talking with other coaches and athletes from all sports as their is nothing better than sharing ideas and tips that can help each other (we are all one etc). So after following Stu's career and writings on forums I was over the moon when he agreed to have a chat with me.
Hi Stu, firstly thanks for taking the time to chat to me! Lets jump right in!
- 1. As a Pro body Builder and someone who has been asked to prep a number of athletes, what things do you think that bodybuilders are doing in their prep that athletes are missing or over looking?
I think it’s safe to say that with bodybuilders, there seems to be more of an understanding of the importance of just how much of a role your adherence to proper daily nutrition, even in the ‘off season’, will affect your results on game day. Now before people starting slamming me for possibly disrespecting performance athletes (I always refer to bodybuilders and figure women as ‘physique athletes’ by comparison), let me just explain my thinking, and why both groups can benefit from utilizing the latest sound strategies
In terms of body composition, performance athletes simply have a little more leeway because of the nature of their sport. Yes, no one wants to carry around extra bodyfat if they don’t need to, but the best MMA fighter doesn’t need to be the guy with the shredded intercostals in order to be acknowledged as the best in their sport. Similarly, a few extra lbs of adipose weight aren’t going to negatively impact a linebacker’s performance on the football field.
Physique competitors preparing for a contest are essentially putting their bodies in a position that goes against every biological survival impulse we have. Like performance athletes, they have undergone brutal training in preparation for their task, yet the physique artists have done so while in a climate of inadequate calories and nutrients.
No sane performance coach would ever restrict his athlete’s nutrients for such an extended period, least their performance suffers. It’s more about skills than visual aesthetics when you’re discussing improving performance. Sure improved body composition is an added benefit for any athlete, but with the bodybuilders, it’s the be-all-end-all, and as such it gets a much higher percentage in the ‘what do we focus on?’ pie chart.
So what we’ve got is the performance athlete whose performance is all that matters, with bodyweight and composition as only a secondary at best focus. If you’ve got a boxer who rightfully feels that he fights better at a heavier weight, then despite the fact that he may have an obviously protruding gut, how can you argue with his success in the ring?
This is why you will constantly hear gym rats and even professional calibre bodybuilders discussing concerns such as peri-workout nutrition, nutrient timing, and all sorts of tiny little tweaks that can possibly be made within the strict guidelines and daily limits of a pre-contest diet. When I design nutritional programs for amateur and even professional athletes, I’ve always tried to finesse these approaches into their plans. All athletes, whether performance or physique oriented, should use every tool at their disposal if they truly desire to reach the optimal levels of their capabilities.
2. As weight manipulation is an important part of cutting for athletes and bodybuilders alike. What approach do you take with clients that that have to adhere to weight classes?
There’s a saying in bodybuilding that you should “step onstage at whatever weight you look best”. Often times people get a number in their heads of what they feel they’re supposed to weigh. This more often than not results in a very sobering instance of realizing that you’re not carrying as much muscle as you previously thought. With a first time client, there’s always a degree of uncertainty. From having spent considerable time onstage myself, as well as been seated at the judges’ table many times, I like to think that I can make a fairly educated guess as to what weight class a physique competitor will end up in. Usually, it’s easy to call. Sometimes though, you get a competitor who will fall right on the cusp of two classes. This is where you need to weigh the aspect of being the largest individual in the lighter class with the amount of suffering and time constraints required to make that drop.
When dropping bodyweight (fat weight), there are a few guidelines I like to do my best to adhere to:
1- Seek constant progress. Something unexpected will always throw a monkey wrench in the works, so always be pushing for movement.
2- The more time you have and the slower you can do this, the less drastic things have to be. Experience shows that this allows for better muscle retention, and with athletes, much less possible reduction in performance.
3-Expect little hiccups. Sometimes progress may appear to halt, or even completely cease. Always have options available for adjustments, but at the same time, don’t jump the gun. I’ve had many clients’ weight hold steady for 2 weeks straight and then suddenly, without any changes in our program, yield a very substantial weight drop overnight.
4- Keep your eye on the desired outcome. For a bodybuilder, you need to look a certain way. That means values on the scale are of no concern at the end of the run. For an athlete, the outcome is to perform at peak levels. Anything that will inhibit training leading up to an event, as well as during the event itself needs to be properly addressed.
3. I’m a big advocate of a solid peri workout protocol and I know that it is something that you have used in your past preps. What approach do you use for clients, and does it vary or do you stick with rough approach and manipulate macros?
I think every hard training individual can benefit from some degree of nutrient timing. Essentially, that’s what a good peri-workout approach is, targeting certain macros at a time when your body can benefit the most from them.
How I approach placement of certain nutrients in a diet plan has to do a lot with specific goals for the individual, as well as what the daily #s will allow. Obviously fuelling athletic performance and trying to strip the most body fat possible are going to give you different guidelines to adhere to.
My own thinking has evolved over the years from the basic gym dogma of a ‘magic 20 minutes window’ where you supposedly must race home and get your carbs and fast absorbing protein to a more performance supported approach. The “old school” method, while definitely a worthwhile and productive protocol, is based more on addressing issues after the fact. What I mean by that is that while the uptake of glycogen and aminos are indeed accomplished at accelerated rates post training, it does nothing in terms of improving your actual workout for that specific day. Yes, topping off your body’s stored glycogen will influence your next training session somewhat, but some might argue that anything you can do to improve that day’s training will result not only in greater growth, but greater muscle retention when dieting to strip away body fat.
This is why we’ve seen such an influx of pre-workout products, as well as a staggering variety of drinks designed to be ingested during your actual training sessions.
My personal approach when dieting for contests was to provide the majority of my carb intake for the day before my training, with a smaller amount (depending on my #s for that specific day) sipped during with various other ‘goodies’ that I felt would most benefit my goals.
When I have a basic client who merely wants to drop a few pounds, obviously I’m going to give them a very different protocol than a serious competitor, or even more different than a professional performance athlete. Still, my basic application of nutrient timing and maximizing performance, whether in the gym or on the field, is fairly standard.
4. Intermittent fasting is now creeping into Combat sports and many people want to know how best to structure this for multiple training sessions. Do you ever use this approach with clients, especially ones that do AM cardio?
Ahh, the old fasting question. This seems to be the big thing that people either love, or think is just the latest gimmick. First, let me preface my opinion by saying that I haven’t tried it myself, so those who are fans can take my opinion with a grain of salt if they choose.
Whatever one’s goals, whether purely physique based, or a muscle for improved performance perspective; the bottom line is always either muscle growth, or optimal muscle retention. This being the case, the underlying support for dietary protocols should always be to create an anabolic environment in order to maximize protein synthesis. The reason you can read about bodybuilders and athletes engaging in the usual frequent feeding schedule for the last 50 or so years is due to the situation it creates within the body. Needless to say, fasting does not have the same effect. While some people will point out recent studies indicating a degree of heightened reaction to nutrients after a short fast, until someone actually produces a champion level physique utilizing a fasting approach, I will hold my judgement on it being a worthwhile approach and I certainly won’t risk using it with clients who pay me based on my track record of proven results.
With regard to AM cardio, you’re always going to have a lot of conflicting opinions simply due several variables upon waking. Yes, your body has been running off of a greater amount of fatty acids during your sleeping hours. Yes your blood sugar levels are considerably low. However, as much as these issues sound like everything you need to know in order to reinforce a belief in fasted cardio, there have been too many studies pointing to the fact that it doesn’t really make a difference. As I’m a big fan of interval work with my clients, I like to think that you get more out of a well fuelled (that means some carbs!) interval session than you would from an unfuelled lengthy bout of steady state work.
I will note though that there is always the added convenience benefit of AM cardio to consider. Simply ‘getting it out of the way’ is something we can all appreciate. Additionally, I have read many respected coach’s theories on how any morning exercise can potentially improve your insulin sensitivity for the rest of the day, which is an added plus for anyone. If someone chooses to make use of morning work, I would suggest that even if you eschew carbohydrates beforehand, a simple bit of BCAAs, and a good thermogenic can prove be worthwhile.
5. Do you consider any of the approaches you use unusual? Or have things that you believe strongly in but isn’t backed up yet by studies (I don’t like the term ‘broscience’.
Well, I don’t think I do anything that any other coach or competitor might find especially odd, however the average person would certainly look at my food choices, selection of coolers depending on how long I’m going to be out, or even my habit of using a baby-spoon to eat certain foods (peanut butter for instance) and definitely make some judgements. As far as things that aren’t backed up yet by studies, I can’t really think of anything that would really stand out.
I’m certainly not someone who clings for dear life to his research journals and shouts down anyone who believes in any approach that hasn’t been scientifically studied. There have been many instances where gym rats have been several steps ahead of the guys in the white lab coats. Anecdotal evidence isn’t completely useless; it’s sometimes all you have to go on in the absence of clinical studies. I like to think that the guys at the top of their respective sports are the ones who are willing to listen to all suggestions, irrespective of their source, and then objectively weigh their value.
6. A lot of the readers of this blog read it for insight into how to recovery from surgery and injury. Could you give us some details into your own recent injury and the following surgery and recovery?
My own recent injury involved a torn labrum (grade 6) with additional tearing of the spinatis and fraying of my biceps tendon. It certainly was a shock to me, as I had never really had any shoulder issues. If anything, I figured that with so many gym goers constantly lamenting how much their shoulders hurt after a day of bench pressing, the fact that mine didn’t meant that I was going to escape any serious training related injuries. Unfortunately, after 20 years of hitting the iron, even the most careful trainers can shows signs of wear and tear. As the surgeon explained it to me, I must have had the injury for quite some time, but due to the extreme amount of compound musculature I had built around what is normally a fragile joint, I never even realized what was going on. All it took to finally break the camel’s back was fighting to remove a shirt on an especially hot summer day by pulling it over my head!
Following the actual surgery, I was informed that it was one of the worst cases they had ever seen, and that in addition to what they’d already told me, I had no cartilage left in the joint at all. So while so many people go in for shoulder surgery and have torn muscles or connective tissues reattached, reinforced, or debrided, due to the lack of blood blow to the labrum, my injury was not ever going to really get “better”. It was simply a matter of letting the body knit itself back together around whatever the surgeons had done, and see what I was capable of, both in and out of the gym.
I didn’t want to get ahead of myself and tell people I was done competing, or say for certain what show I was going to ‘come back’ at because to be honest, I really didn’t know what to expect. I had never been in so much pain, and even the simplest everyday movements were a painful ordeal.
The one thing I figured that I MIGHT be able to have some effect on, was the extreme level of muscle loss that I knew to expect. I had never been one to be able to hold onto my size during prolonged layoffs, so I knew I had my work cut out for me.
Diet wise, I did my best to maintain some regularity of an eating schedule, ensuring that I was getting decent levels of protein, carbs, and healthy fats throughout the day. I even made sure that the few supplements that I knew would help my body maintain as anabolic an environment as possible remained mainstays; creatine, BCAAs/CHY, Fish oils, and even some extra minerals at night.
In terms of training, for 6 months I was in physical therapy 3-4x/week. All upper body work was out aside from the few exercises work with very humbling weights that the DPTs incorporated into helping me regain full ROM and some semblance of every day strength. Lower body though was a different story. I was equipped with a sling for a while, but it wasn’t uncommon to see me training legs 4x/week, even using my one good arm to secure myself into various leg training machines! Squatting was out, but man did I spend a lot of time doing leg extensions and curls.
After such a schedule of PT, I eventually found myself on my own in the gym doing what I could for upper body. Obviously certain exercises are pretty much off the table for me these days, but aside from the very limited work I can do for my chest, I’ve at least gained back enough muscle that anyone who had never stood onstage with some of the best competitors in the world would be very happy seeing my reflection in their mirror. The hardest thing though was not feeling completely beaten upon seeing how much I had lost. Sure I may never look as good as I did at my best, but I busted my butt in the gym every time I walked in long before I ever thought about stepping foot onstage, and nothing about that has changed.
7. What top 5 tips would you give to someone who was recovering from an injury/surgery?
1-Don’t get ahead of yourself. Doctors don’t know it all, and everyone is different. Listen to what they tell you. Despite not always giving you the news you want to receive, they are always going to tell you what they believe is the truth in terms of getting you healthy.
2-Control what you can. If like me, you can’t train at all, you’d be amazed how much damage control you can do simply by staying on top of your diet. Don’t be the guy or girl who just rolls over feeling sorry for yourself, and later looks back wishing you had taken more initiative.
3-Pushing too hard too fast can set you back more than you can ever imagine. Do everything you can to regain range of motion and strength levels, but don’t be an idiot.
4-Research, research, research! Read up on other people’s experiences, what helped them and what didn’t. You never know what magic tidbits you may stumble across that you may never have thought of on your own.
5-Eyes on the prize. Setbacks don’t mean your journey is over.
8. You mentioned that sometimes clients stall at a certain weight for a while. While this is rare that it happens with combat athletes, it can occasionally happen. How do you help reassure physique athletes when this happens?
I forget which strength coach originally used the Hard Boiled Egg analogy for changing body composition, but I find myself repeating it quite a lot lately. The explanation is that when boiling an egg, to all outward appearances, nothing is occurring. Inside the shell though, there is quite another story transpiring. Too many people focus solely on the bathroom scale as an indicator of “progress”. Unfortunately this is not merely only one of many pieces of data that can be useful to a trainer, but very often it’s the least important.
Something that I feel helps quite a bit though when a client stalls, is to remind them that I’ve not only worked with so many different individuals over the years, but I’ve actually walked the walk myself. During those contest preps, there have been many times when I wouldn’t lose any scale weight for a couple of weeks, only to suddenly drop 3 lbs the next week as if by magic.
At a certain point though, especially if you’re working with someone who is more experienced than you, you have to have a little faith and trust the process. The human body never works as perfectly as we want it to in terms of changing our body composition. Variables as seemingly mundane sounding as water levels can have a considerable impact on what the bathroom scale or even the mirror is telling you. So far, as I’ve been able to explain concepts in simple enough terms to have an athlete understand what’s happening, and what we’re actually trying to do with our approach, none of my athletes have completely freaked out and lost their minds. At least not yet anyway –lol.
9. Biotest products. These are very hard to come by in the UK, I am personally going to be reviewing a few for my clients. What would you recommend? Are there any that you advise your clients to take?
I guess that living in the States, I never really think about various supplements being difficult to come by, but I have heard this before from people living over seas. The most basic staples of my nutrition plan has been a quality protein powder, and high dosed fish oils. Long before so many people recognized me as “that guy who’s always on T-Nation” I was using Biotest’s Metabolic Drive powder as well as their Flameout gel caps. Not a month has gone by in the last decade where I haven’t still relied on them in my daily diet.
Having gotten into bodybuilding in the early 90’s, I really got to see the supplement industry grow from just general health and snake oil products into actually turning out items that had a profound effect on an athlete’s performance. Now that doesn’t mean that everything out there is cutting edge and must have, but for the most part, it usually means that the basics are certainly of a higher quality.
If we’re discussing Biotest products though, I’ve certainly tried and made use of many of them over the years. Instead of rambling a bit, let me just list a few of my favorites that I’ve recommended on many occasions:
-Metabolic Drive Protein Powder – To me, a quality protein powder is one of the most basic staples for any athlete of trainer. Finding one that has as excellent a breakdown of macros, as well as being comprised of multiple sources (whey and casein), means a truly excellent all-purpose product. Not to mention that Met-Drive mixes quite well and tastes great when thrown into typically boring foods such as oatmeal or cottage cheese.
-Flame Out & Curcumin – To me, the combination of these two supplements has truly allowed me to deal with beaten up and aging joints while still banging away in the gym relatively pain free. To say that I live on them would be an understatement. Having tried getting away with store brand fish oils in the past, I learned that sometime you’re just better off paying for quality in the first place.
-Finibars – These I typically just refer to as carb-bars, or even performance bars. Every good athlete understands the roles of carbohydrates in their diets, however, for someone who has difficulty in reaching specific numbers each day without feeling overly bloated, these truly save the day. When I would be dieting for a contest, and really trying to cram in what many would consider a fairly good amount of carbs each day, there was no way I could do it all from oatmeal, Ezekial bread, potatos, or any of the usually expected dieting sources without feeling unable to move, yet alone train. Even on my lower carb days, when I would do minimal weight work and some cardio, I’d still eat 3 of these before hitting the gym. Never did I ever even feel like I had just eaten. Try that with a Cliff bar, or a Granola bar and see how you feel about hitting the weights for a few hours.
-Plazma – I used to use something called Anaconda, which, in my opinion, was the perfect workout drink in terms of its basic component (CHY) as well as the various scientifically proven “goodies” that went into it as well (Beta Alanine, Citruline Malate, Creatine etc). This is the updated and improved product that has taken its place. I relied on this all through my years competing, and with the beatings I subjected myself on a daily basis, it’s amazing that my strength never lagged, nor did I become one of those guys who always dropped a ton of muscle from dieting. I credit intelligent eating and supplementation with that. There’s a ton of BS products on the market these days that do nothing for muscle growth, and yet people waste their money on them in hopes of finding that one magic supplement. If you ask me though, a quality approach to getting nutrients during your training can make a huge difference in someone who is pushing their body to the limits.
Now, do I recommend them to all of my clients? You have to remember that I have quite a varied client base. It’s completely possible to make progress with just good quality foods. Of course I’m not going to lie and say that I don’t feel they can make a difference. When I started out, I was really using much in the way of supplements, especially higher quality stuff. I was broke, and paying my rent, food, and other expenses pretty much cleaned me out. As I progressed as a competitor, winning a good number of shows, my girlfriend (now wife) agreed that as I had potential, I should do everything I could in order to see just how far I could go. Luckily things panned out, and I’m not the guy who blew all his money on crazy products, never winning a show, or even coming close to turning pro. So for me, it was definitely a worthwhile investment. For someone else, you have to ask yourself if it’s an investment that can pay dividends for you. Are you going to drop money on expensive products but then eat like crap and half-ass your training? If that’s the case, save your money.
10. The pump. I have a theory about using the pump for athlete recovery. What are your opinions on it when it comes to clients and your own training?
I think the ‘pump’ is a concept that can be useful, or simply misunderstood. As I interpret the question, I assume you’re alluding to the increased blood flow to aid in nutrient delivery and waste product removal. This can certainly be helpful in terms of recovery, whatever your sport. In terms of bodybuilding over the last few years, it’s as if people suddenly started considering the concept of facial stretching in an effort to improve potential muscle growth by expanding what might otherwise be a constraining sheath. While both of these reasons are not the be-all-end-all of anyone’s training progress, I will give credit to trying to use any approach at your disposal to make progress.
As full muscular recovery is not fully accomplished in the few hours post training, making use of pump movements, even the day after an intense session can have positive effects in terms of both possibilities I’ve mentioned.
There’s an often forgotten old school technique called a ‘feeder-workout’ that entails training a body part again the day after an intense session. Now while I believe 2 hard sessions for the same body part in a row can be counterproductive, having the second one as more of an easy, pumping, recovery focused approach can prove to be quite beneficial.
Too many athletes are quick to overlook how much the body must do to fully recover and make progress between training sessions. In my opinion, that’s where even an advanced trainee can always seek to optimize their approach.
Thanks for that Stu!
If anyone would like to chat to Stu or see what he has been up to, you can catch him over at his WEBSITE.
Got any thoughts or comments? Post them below and lets have a chat!