Dr. Mike Isreatel

by on April 8, 2014

JOHN: It’s our pleasure to have Dr. Mike Israetel back for another round of questions! Mike welcome back! Tell us what has been going on in your world since we last spoke?

MIKE: Thanks John, the pleasure is all mine. Well, I’ve settled into my position as a professor here at UCM, and I just finished my first semester of teaching which went great. One of the courses I taught was “Intro to Personal Training,” and the two biggest components of the course were basic nutrition for body composition alteration and basic training principles and approaches for hypertrophy and strength. I’m getting to train and do diets for some very serious raw powerlifters with some serious potential, and that’s always so rewarding; to see the scientific principles actually make people stronger. And on the personal front, I’m just holding my bodyweight at 245lbs right now before I start my diet for a BBing show in early June. My cardio is coming from Jiu Jitsu practice, which I must tell you, beats walking cardio by a MILE lol.

JOHN: You mean cardio isn’t fun? Ha – I believe I believe! Ok so I have to ask, did you get any text books that were to be used for teaching, where you thought oh boy, this is silly? Are the text books pretty up to date now? Back when I was in school we were taught gems like stop eating butter and eat margarine.

MIKE: Yeah, that tends to happen on occasion, but the textbooks are getting much better. What sticks out most is how little attention is paid in most nutrition texts to strength-training related nutrition (for athletes such as throwers, weightlifters, powerlifters, bodybuilders…). Almost all of the recommendations cover endurance athletics, because that’s historically been the only group that bothered to read and write most of the texts. There’s TONS of data on nutrition for us “muscle people,” but not nearly as much formal organization of it into the academic texts. When teaching, I end up having to adapt a lot of materials to fill this void.

JOHN: Yep, I remember all the carb replenishment ratios and such for endurance, fun times. So let’s talk about this as it pertains to powerlifters since many of my members are powerlifters. When you structure a plan for a powerlifter, what are the basic tenants of it?

How would it differ from say a bodybuilder training with much higher volume?

MIKE: The biggest difference between diets for powerlifting and bodybuilding is the carb intake. Because the volume is usually lower in PL (especially during the strength and peaking phases), the carbs are concomitantly lower as well. Additionally, powerlifters do not disrupt homeostasis as much as do bodybuilders (also volume related), so they usually need fewer calories to maintain their weight at any given bodyweight. With the lower fractional synthetic rate and fractional breakdown rate curves compared to bodybuilders, powerlifters also likely need a bit less protein. So basically, less carb intake, less protein, and maybe even a bit less fat so that calories can be modulated. Otherwise, the timing and other structure tends to be very similar.

Of course timing around cardio has to be a concern with bodybuilders but not powerlifters, so that’s an additional (albeit small) difference. The cardio-timing question has been getting a lot of attention lately, and there’s a lot of confusion there from some camps.

JOHN: So do you think cardio is beneficial to powerlifters if done a certain way or no?

MIKE: That’s a very good question. Cardio has the effect of interfering with strength gains and (via the same mechanism) temporarily converting fiber type to more slow-twitch. This can result in a short-term strength loss, even if no muscle is lost. Slower twitch fibers don’t produce as much force, so doing lots of cardio (even with no muscle loss) can reduce force production and strength, but can still allow very good or even better high-rep results.

Additionally, cardio (particularly lower-body cardio) burns up glycogen and thus further interferes with recovery, adaptation, and workout performance.

That being said, we can understand when PLers should and should not be doing cardio. If they take a dedicated phase in which they train to lose fat while keeping muscle, they can do plenty of cardio and be ok. They will get weaker, but if they do things right, it’s just the temporary glycogen depletion and fiber conversion. They still keep all muscle and lose a lot of fat. Training at this time should be for high volumes, so like many sets of 8-10.

Once this phase is over, the PLer can begin training for strength (sets of 5 or so), but the cardio MUST be stopped or greatly reduced, as it’s now time for fibers to convert back to faster twitch and glycogen to refill, giving back the PLer his old strength but now at a much lower weight! By activating AMPk (and several other aforementioned reasons), cardio directly inhibits strength development, so when you’re training like a normal PLer, cardio should be minimal or nonexistent.

JOHN: AMPk also shuts off mTOR correct, and kills hypertrophy as well?

MIKE: Indeed! But if you don’t overkill the cardio and diet, even low levels of mTOR activity can sustain current muscle. Once you’ve lost the fat, you drop off the cardio and free up mTOR for its beneficial effects!

JOHN: Is it possible to free up mTOR to a large degree when in a caloric deficit? I am thinking pre-contest.

MIKE: That unfortunately seems highly unlikely. mTOR has been demonstrated to respond to glycogen levels and other anabolic regulators (AMPk, for example), so that when glycogen stores are down and all other regulators are pointing in the catabolic direction, mTOR is gonna be experiencing some significant downregulation. That’s one of the main reasons why all of us who have been in this sport for a while know it’s foolish to expect to gain muscle during a contest diet. What you CAN shoot for is elevating mTOR as much as possible, and more to the point, preventing its falloff as much as possible. This means of course that nutrient timing becomes more important in pre-contest phases, as well as hard training, as all of those tend to upregulate mTOR. So that if you keep mTOR as active as possible during your diet and save as much muscle as you can. To sum up, the most prominent ways to do that are:

– Timing carbs around your workout.

– Preventing long periods of starvation by spreading out meals.

– Not over-doing cardio or carb depletion

– Training hard with high volumes in the weightroom

– Taking the right supplements

– Intelligently managing cumulative fatigue

– Taking planned cheat meals (possibly)

JOHN: Excellent practical advice. I think these things, are some of the hardest to teach many competitors, as they tend to think of things in terms of “hardcore” or not. The reality is not going overboard on low carbs, an occasional cheat meal, etc. only serve to enhance results not lessen your manly status.

In terms of cheat meals, free meals, refeeds, or whatever the hell is the correct word, do you typically have people focus on extra carbs, fats, both, etc? How do you structure these?

MIKE: There is absolutely a good reason to have extra carbs. Glycogen replenishment has all sorts of documented beneficial effects. Fats have some hypothetical effects, but I wouldn’t bet the farm (or the stage result) on fat-loading. So any general advice I can give on cheat meals would be to up the carbs.

As for the structure, I think the best time to use cheat meals is when training a lagging bodypart, or one that really takes a hit when dieting. Some guys can diet right into striations without losing any leg mass, while their pecs just seem to shrink down to nothing when dieting gets serious. Others may have the opposite problem, or with still other muscles. Whatever you want to lose the LEAST during your diet, I’d recommend a bit more carbs BEFORE and DURING training, so that the workout for that bodypart is higher intensity and volume than usual, and, along with the post-workout extra carbs, is super stimulative, in that more hypertrophy is triggered for that bodypart than usual.

So if legs are your trouble spot and seem to be fading, while conditioning is ahead of schedule, eating more carbs pre-, during- and after- training can get you more pumped, more sore, and more anabolic, especially in the days after that session as your fractional synthetic rates run their course. That way, you don’t lose as much muscle in your legs and you can come to the stage with fuller legs. So long as conditioning is there, you might be up some placings!

I have to mention here that I’m very much in the Shelby camp on cheat meals. You get them ONLY when you’re on track or ahead. If the conditioning is not there, you need LESS food, not more. Cheat meals are unlikely to boost the metabolism so much that fatloss is highly escalated. I think only a slow, well-structured diet can do that. Cheat meals might ease the psychological difficulties of diet and save you muscle, but I doubt they make you leaner. THUS, they should be used only when conditioning is not the issue. If it is an issue, I would not recommend cheat meals with my current understanding of the subject.

JOHN: How about depletion or low carbs days? Specifically, if you are running someone on lower carbs, what signs do you look for to pullback and put some carbs back in?

MIKE: Bodyweight is the BIGGEST guiding factor. If they are getting lighter than you’ve calculated for that point in the prep, then you might want to up the carbs. Otherwise, keep plugging along with the low-carb days (outside of workout times, of course).

If you are in already very impressive conditioning and ahead of schedule, you can up carbs a bit if bodyweight is just on track (not ahead). But I still think that bodyweight should be the primary anchoring variable of most contest diets. I can expound on this if you’d like.

JOHN: Yes please expound on that!

MIKE: No problem. I think a lot of bodybuilders tend to get away from quantitative measurements in some areas like bodyweight, and I can’t figure out why. For example, most bodybuilders would never in a million years say they “go by the look of the plate” for food serving estimates, but many say they “go by the mirror” for conditioning. And I think that’s how many bodybuilders get caught in one of two unfortunate places. First, if you don’t look at the scale, you can end up behind schedule. You’re having great workouts, looking great, the supplements are kicking in, and everyone around you says you’re amazing. But you take a hard look at yourself 4 weeks out, and you’re really about 7 weeks out in appearance. Then you cut HARD, and end up losing muscle and looking flat to get conditioned. On the alternate side of the problem, you can go by the mirror and keep looking shredded, and you keep dieting. You looked phenomenal at 210, phenomenal at 200, and amazing at 190… but wait, how come you weigh 190!?!?! Turns out you’ve only been looking in the mirror ALONE and not compared to other competitors. You crapped away 20lbs of stage weight for 2 extra striations! Maybe you should have re-introduced some food at 205lbs and seen how that affects your physique!

To avoid such problems, you should get a reliable bodyfat percentage test done (DEXA is great) or just estimate your lean body mass from your last stage appearance. Once you know your LBM or close to it, you can set that as your goal bodyweight for the next show (with body water alterations this is what most of the well-conditioned and muscular competitors end up weighing). Dividing the weight you have to lose into the weeks, you can have a goal weight to hit every week, and adjust your diet up and down to stay on that line. About 4 weeks out, you can start to make the finer adjustments based on the mirror, but if you dieted right and training right and took supplements properly, you’re almost certainly on track anyway! So unless you’re close to a weightclass (and then you monitor weight to the last hour), I think that at least up until 4 weeks out, your bodyweight should be an important part of the equation.

JOHN: I actually use the scale a lot, even though everybody now says to stay off it. The reason why I do is to look for drastic changes that need addressed. I guess that makes two of that still use the scale!

How about during the last week before a contest? Do you like to use a depletion and load protocol?


Last week before the contest, there are two VERY important ingredients:

1.) A GREAT level of conditioning before the week starts.

2.) A moderate level of nutrient change.

Point one is a MUST because no water pulling and glycogen loading will make you look like a god if you simply have extra fat to lose! I know this from painful personal experience, as well as from client work and science. No way around this one. Point 2 is a general truism because (again) more painful experience has shown a large volume of competitors over the years that radical changes carry with them the potential to cause radical mishaps in appearance. Yes, once you get to know your OWN body very well, you can push the water down more and the carbs up more, but I would start VERY conservatively and simply double carbs in the 3 days before the show while cutting water intake the last day (usually Friday) by half, and drink no water the morning of prejudging. The timing of all of this can get rather complicated, especially if salt is thrown in the mix. But I’d recommend keeping things VERY simple before the first couple of shows with a client.

Now, what also helps is to experiment. I’d do a couple of trial runs before the show… especially during deloads, to see how the person responds to a couple of basic alterations.

JOHN: Do you find that some people need to increase water as opposed to decreasing it (I do)?

MIKE: You know, John, I just don’t have the experience as either a coach or competitor to call that one. I do know that the same “drying out” protocol will have one athlete stripped and full, but have another one looking super flat. A BIG part of this side of the sport is just plain old experience. Science is a great guide for the general approaches, but after that, only hard-won experience (and sometimes even just luck) must take over for the smaller decisions. One thing I can say with good certainty is that both science and experience greatly caution against taking extremes. That almost never pays off.

JOHN: Absolutely. I have learned the hard way that going to extremes to look 5% better just never really worked for me. If you are ready two weeks out, no reason to blow it the last day.

So let me wrap up with this question, as I know you are a busy man, how would you recommend anyone looking to maximize hypertropgy with turning into a slob run their off-season nutrition?

MIKE: Ok, so lately there has been sort of a flurry of YouTube vids coming out in which people are claiming that “massing and cutting” are a waste of time, stupid, counterproductive, or all three. Most of the time, the people making these videos are small, but that’s of course not enough to refute the concept. As you and I well know, dedicated massing and cutting phases are the bread and butter of bodybuilding, and have been around for like… decades? And there is a VERY good set of scientific reasons WHY bodybuilders mass and cut, even if they don’t know all the details themselves, but just see the process working.

In reality, the BEST FRIEND of muscle growth is a hypercaloric diet. Added calories and carbs provide the nutrient influx, positive hormonal effects, and cellular signaling that all favor added muscle gain. So we know, and the evidence is quite clear on this, that gaining weight is THE BEST way to add muscle.

We also know something else. Muscle is much harder to gain than it is to hold. I’m sure we’ve all known guys who didn’t train very hard for months on end, but maintained almost all their size. Once you gain muscle and hold it for a while, it becomes quite more difficult to lose than it was to gain.

Knowing the last point, we can take advantage and do a cutting phase, knowing that if we do things right and don’t go to extremes, we can get rid of most new fat gains at a very small price of muscle gain. And interestingly, cutting bodyfat has a profound effect on potentiating muscle gains, which helps us with the next mass phase. Thus, the cycle of massing, holding, and cutting re-potentiates itself.

The thing is, if we say “well, let’s just mass super slow so we don’t get fat to begin with,” then we are giving up literally the most powerful weapon of muscle gain: the hypercaloric (and noticeably so) diet. And if we say “let’s just get to a certain weight, stay there, and get leaner,” then we’re claiming that we can add muscle and burn fat at the same time to any meaningful extent. And unless you’re pretty untrained or have a couple of other special circumstances going for you, that’s VERY unlikely, and if it happens, it will take SO LONG. Because the hypercaloric environment is so powerful and muscle is harder to gain than fat is to lose, it’s very much a good idea to go through dedicated massing and cutting cycles.

Now of course this must be done within constraints. Massing 50lbs and then cutting 40 possible, but might only get you 10lbs of muscle… which is terrible for health and also a waste of time. I think for the 200-250lb bodybuilder, massing phases of 20-30lbs and cutting phases of about the same size (closer to 20 if it’s for building, closer to 30 if it’s a cut for a show) are probably a good starting point, and the entire phase of massing, holding, and cutting should take between 6-12 months depending on the specifics.

JOHN: Thank you Mike once again. I find your philosophies to be so refreshing. They are rooted in science, but your intuition and problem solving skills are off the chart.

Talk again soon!

Mike can be reached via email at the address below!

Mike Israetel, PhD

[email protected]