July 2011: Scott Stevenson, PHD

by on July 24, 2011

JOHN: I am excited to bring you guys one of the brightest minds in the industry for this month’s interview. As you will see, Scott brings a great combination of “in the trenches” knowledge, and advanced formal education.

So without further ad hue, please introduce yourself and tell the readers what you do, your background, and what you are most passionate about!

SCOTT: Wow – why is that the hardest question to answer, each and every time it’s asked? Well, I’ll try to keep my verbosity under control here and start by saying that part of me is sort of a nerdy guy who, instead of straying into fantasy role playing games, computers or something else almost purely cerebral, oddly poured his geekiness into bodybuilding and exercise physiology. I grew up playing sports, compensating for lack of talent with “work ethic” (and a few loose screws), reading the “muscle magazines” and earning my stripes at the local gym. I figured out after college that I’d like to (facetiously) “be the world’s greatest personal trainer.” I had studied Physics and German and wasn’t quite sure I wanted to be a German Physicist…

I went to grad school to study Exercise Physiology where the geek and platehead merged when I started training more seriously and competing as a bodybuilder, and somewhere along the way managed to earn a Ph.D. (www.uga.edu). I also found out I loved to teach, and the tinkerer in me really dug the exploratory nature of research. The hands-on activities of these school years had me working with “regular” folks as a personal trainer, doing strength and conditioning with college athletes, testing exercise interventions with older individuals, “weight training” the calf muscles of research rats and the quads of humans with electrical stimulation (and seeing if creatine helped make them grow), assisting individuals with traumatic spinal cord injuries to learn to walk again, pushing firefighters to their physical limits (and testing ergogenic aids to bring them beyond these limits), drawing blood as a phlebotomist and taking muscle biopsies from my own an other’s legs, and dabbling here and there with a smattering of things in between. I landed a professorial position in California in 2000 (www.csupomona.edu) and, as I began to entrench myself in academia, was luckily able to decide between focusing on community outreach or research. Through a twist of fate and the natural tendencies of the son of a physician and social worker, I found myself drawn to helping people and ended up leaving Cali to go to Arizona to study Chinese medicine (acupuncture, herbs and bodywork), where I have lived for the past 9 years now.

In Tucson, I’ve worked as an acupuncturist in private practice, taught and been the Academic Dean at the school where I was educated (www.asaom.edu), personal trained at several gyms in town, and owned and operated a gym for about four years. I’ve competed in several national qualifying NPC bodybuilding contests here in AZ, training most of the time with my friend and IFBB Pro Dave Henry. After a string of 2nd place finishes, I finally won the AZ state title in 2009 and decided to test the waters at the national level, most recently placing 4th at last years Jr. USA’s (Heavyweight class). A few years ago Dave and I decided to put me at the reigns of his training and nutrition, and not long thereafter, I decided that there seemed to be enough interest that I should formally start doing online bodybuilding coaching. Because Dave and I had been doing Doggcrapp (DC) Training (www.intensemuscle.com) most of this time, a program created by Dante Trudel who also owns the supplement company True Protein (www.trueprotein.com), Dante has officially enlisted me to handle the bulk of new DC trainees for him. Between online training (www.ScottStevensonPhD.com), writing assignments (e.g., for Muscle Mag www.emusclemag.com), teaching, seminars and house calls as an acupuncturist, I manage to keep busy.

Hmmm. “Passionate,” you say? (Here comes a big ole can of worms!) In short, I’m passionate about exploring and understanding the nature of human potential, as well as realizing it: Everything from musing on the capabilities of our species (ranging from extreme capacity to love, as well as destroy each other) to philosophical and spiritual inquiry into what it means to be to “human” and integrating this into my daily life. Obviously, this could get us way out of range here, so I’ll focus a bit. Bodybuilding, as I see it, is an extreme exploration of the limits of our bodies to adapt, through exercise of course, that also puts a premium on applying the human intelligences of intuition (knowing ourselves and bodies) and intellect (science and the geeky stuff), as well experience (time in the trenches) and even the support of loved ones and coaches who form the bodybuilder’s support system, toward expressing our potential in physical form. Testing oneself in the gym fearlessly and often courageously epitomizes passion expressed in a salient, crystallized moment in time (e.g., that one rep that truly tests you), and this passion manifests as a developing physique, crafted rep by rep, meal by meal, day by day, week by week, year by year. I think I’m passionate about exercise physiology and holistic medicine because they are about our potential to respond, adapt and heal as we’re challenged by life in various ways (old age, physical challenges, disease, etc.). I honestly feel I’m really very fortunate to work as an exercise consultant and practitioner of Chinese medicine because in doing so, I get to tie together these passions with my root belief that we (humans, animals, the whole shebang) are “in this together” by helping others.

JOHN: The things that jumps out about you to me, is your desire to help others selflessly, in an industry of people who can suck the life out of you.

The whole acupuncture thing intrigues me. Can you share with our readers what you see as the primary benefits of it, and what made you a “believer” in it?

SCOTT: Yeah, I do hear you about the energy vampires, and they can tend to prowl as clients in just about any kind of service industry. Naturally, you have to have boundaries and not get trampled on, but I try to realize that often, whatever I’m not liking in that person I’m working or interacting with may be something I see and don’t like in myself. When I’m working with someone who is frustrating in this way, I try to imagine how I would behave if that person were a loved one and use that notion to gauge my actions. A good example the readers might test out in day-to-day life is the tendency many of us have to get a bit of road rage at older folks or anyone who drive “too slowly.” If that person were your beloved grandmother, you might ask yourself whether you would be so quick to lay on the horn, flip the bird or tailgait? Naturally, a little tough love is needed now and again, too. It doesn’t help most people to let them get away with being selfish.

Chinese medicine (acupuncture, herbs aka internal medicine, bodywork and Qi Gong) has been around for about 5000 years in one form or another. (Kaptchuk’s “The Web that Has No Weaver” is a great read.) The modern research (only a small percentage of which is available in English, unfortunately) most strongly supports its effects on pain management and I’ve noticed its applicability there, as well. However, it’s a “complete” form of medicine and as such, equipped to treat a variety of maladies, ranging from acute traumatic injury to long-standing chronic illness. For example, as a clinician, I’ve personally seen Chinese medicine resolve acute headache and nausea practically instantaneously (these are kind of an easy ones, actually, most of the time) and even “cure” acute blindness (due to a fall), relieve seasonal allergies and the side effects of chemotherapy, treat skin disorders that Western medicine was not effective for, substantially relieve the symptoms of menopause and “fix” a variety of musculoskeletal pain and weakness issues. I became a “believer” after I read some of the scientific research in Chinese medicine, but in particular by experiencing treatments as a student, especially early on when taking classes in California, and pestering clients, fellow students and instructors about their personal experiences. I was quite the doubting Thomas and Devil’s advocate for quite a while, given my training as a western scientist, but I also kept a very open mind. Naturally, I was not interacting with a random sample of people in this regard and I’ve spoken to many for whom “acupuncture” was not effective, which is entirely possible. Like Western medicine and personal training for that matter, there are good practitioners and well-chosen plans of attack and some that are not as good. How many stories have you heard of dissatisfaction after a visit to an M.D., or failure to progress despite working with a trainer? On the other hand, Western medicine saves lives every day and everyone reading this probably knows a good trainer or two. The precepts of Chinese medicine are a highly effective treatment paradigm in many circumstances, in my experience, and it’s effects do have a Western biological basis, be it endorphin release (acupuncture), biologically active herb components, neurological / reflexive and skeletomyofascial adjustment (bodywork), anxiolytic or activity related adaptations (Qi Gong Exercises), the all-powerful placebo effect, or some combination thereof.

JOHN: For people like me with no education at all on acupuncture, what should we look for in trying to find a practitioner?

SCOTT: John, I think for most of the readers of your site, which I’m assuming are bodybuilding, physique, fitness and health enthusiasts, as well as strength and power athletes of various kinds, I generally recommend trying to find a practitioner who understands the rigors of being a high level athlete and better yet, with a background in weight training of some sort. Especially when it comes to musculoskeletal problems and injuries, the practitioners who are also martial artists are often really good at fixing you up, especially with bodywork. Martial artists often learn Chinese medicine from the perspective of treating the injuries and side effects of combat so that they can continue to practice their combative art.

If looking for treatment for issues not directly training related, I’d suggest finding an acupuncturist who specializes in the appropriate area, much as you would seek out a specialist in Western medicine. I would also interview a prospective acupuncturist before starting treatment to make sure there is a good match. I would ask what his / her rule of thumb is for knowing how long to treat you before referring you out. Some practitioners unfortunately will continue to take your money indefinitely despite not resolving your symptoms. Be aware though that many practitioners of Chinese medicine are staunchly against heavy weight training because of how stressful it can be on one’s musculoskeletal system. Finding someone that understands that this is “what you do” and, in the grand scheme of things, is what makes you happy, will keep you from butting heads with your acupuncturist. Also, a practitioner who works with M.D.’s, D.O.’s, chiropractors, massage therapists, etc. may be important, too, if you need a referral, another form of medicine may be more suited to your difficulty, or Western medical treatment or evaluation is also needed (e.g., to image a damaged joint or manage prescriptions).

I usually use www.acufinder.com as a starting point to help people find an acupuncturist in their community, but asking around locally may reveal a gem with a thriving, long-standing business based on word of mouth advertising. Calling the martial arts centers and local acupuncture schools can turn up very skilled practitioners, too. Acupuncture schools almost always have discounted clinics where you can be treated by a student under the supervision of a licensed practitioner. You can also find a list of licensed acupuncturists in your state government website (or by using this link as a starting point: http://www.acupuncture.com/statelaws/statelaw.htm). I have not found that either Chinese or Asian trained acupuncturists are consistently more skilled than acupuncturists trained in the states. In some cases, a language or cultural barrier may prevent hurdles to effective treatment. However, because much of the diagnosis of Chinese medicine is non-verbal, I have heard numerous accounts of remarkably effective treatment without any verbal communication whatsoever, e.g., when neither acupuncturist nor client speak the same language.

JOHN: I want to also touch on recuperation too. For those of us who subscribe to higher intensity programs like Mountain Dog Training, and DC training, you know that you just can’t push hard 7 days a week. You need to be on top of your game recovery wise. What are some key things that you have noticed over the years that help in this regard?

SCOTT: What a phenomenal question, John! I think the most important thing here is simply recognizing this point and, like many other things in the endeavor of bodybuilding, knowing that we’re all different in our recuperative abilities as well as other lifestyle factors that impact recovery. I learned this the hard way when Dave and I started training together years ago. Initially, Dave being the IFBB Pro, I automatically deferred to Dave’s current high volume training style (before we began DC training) and, in a matter of months, found my body riddled with tendonitis, arthritis and chronic, nearly debilitating muscle soreness. In retrospect, Dave was attuned to how hard to push during each of his sets and, being weaker than Dave on most every exercise those days, my hearty ego made sure I did my best to keep up with him, i.e., taking every work set to excruciating muscular failure or even beyond. I paid a price but did not progress measurably physique-wise.

Bodybuilders by their very nature are very often hard-driving, dare I say, obsessive compulsive creatures and it can be a constant (literally lifelong) effort to stay conscious of one’s tendency to ignore recovery issues. Ironically, from the standpoint of training as the stimulus for evoking progress (rather than just an end unto itself), it’s actually the period of recovery that’s the payoff and “purpose” of the exercise. As it’s said, “You grow outside of the gym.”

There are many ways to ensure that recovery occurs and overtraining is avoided, as I’m certain most folks reading this already aware. Obviously, keeping careful training records to assess progress is a barebones necessity. When training progress halts (unless this is a planned period of overreaching), something needs to change. Physiological overtraining symptoms like elevated resting heart rate, sleeplessness, getting sick quite often, or even blood work (e.g., testosterone / cortisol ratio) can be helpful, too, beyond just listening to what your body is telling you, so to speak.

Planned periods of de-loading may be necessary for those who simply cannot tune in to what their body is asking and do this intuitively. Thankfully, we also have excellent examples of bodybuilders like Dorian Yates who found that reducing training volume over the years, as training efforts get more focused and training loads increase, may be needed to ensure progress. Pre-contest, when focus and drive are at all time highs for most competitors, is maybe the most important time to recognize that recovery may be greatly compromised by diet and extra cardiovascular work.

On the other hand, our bodies can indeed endure and adapt to tremendous exercise stresses and some individuals may have not bumped up hard enough against their limits to discern being “out of shape” from overtraining. John, I believe you have built into your training system a deloading period and this is where your trainees often realize gains from the previous weeks of all-out training. Within the all-out “blast” periods of DC training, Dante suggests that trainees skip a day of training if / when needed to let recovery catch up, and thus prolong the blast. Bumping up against one’s limits in these ways, and then catching a “rebound” or overreaching effect is something that can be harnessed to spur growth and is one of the finer aspects of walking along the fine line of recovery and overtraining. The mindful bodybuilder, perhaps with the help of a training system like yours or Dante’s or even with the watchful eye of a bodybuilding coach, learns where this line is for him / her individually. Diet, work, sleep, supplementation, recovery techniques such as massage, chiropractic or acupuncture, as well as the parameters of the training program all shift the balance of recovery. As I said before though, beyond knowing which of these factors needs adjusting, the most important step to ensuring that a bodybuilder recovers is recognizing this, and planning for overtraining before it actually happens. To borrow from Benjamin Franklin, you might say that, “An ounce of (overtraining) prevention is worth a pound of muscle.” (Not all that catchy, but you get the idea. )

JOHN: It’s funny, the more I read now, the more I hear you don’t need to deload, you don’t need time off, you don’t need to train really really hard. It bothers me to be honest with you. People do not push themselves hard at all, and then wonder why someone would be silly enough to take a planned break or a reduction in intensity. It’s kind of funny. I just don’t see how someone at an advanced level, especially a natural athlete, can progress without pushing their limits, even if it means just progressing a tiny bit.

Ok, off my soapbox. One thing I have noticed over the years is that poor post workout nutrition means really crappy recovery for me. I am curious as to some of your experiences on post workout recovery nutrition practices?

SCOTT: Preach away, Brother John!!! Perhaps you should put in a standing offer to some of the proponents of non-periodized, kinda-hard training to do a round or two of Mountain Dog Training under your supervision and see what happens?

I’ve recently written an article about “recovery supplements” that was published in Musclemag last month covering not only post-workout, but also peri-workout (including intra-workout) nutrition. I should have it up on my website in a month or so, once it’s cleared the shelves. In that article, I run through research that supports what you’re saying, John, most voluminously in the several acute studies of protein metabolism, but also in a couple nicely done training studies. I think about the “workout” also from the perspective of the muscles (groups) being trained: On a day when chest, for example, is trained first, followed by other muscle groups and then even perhaps cardio, there could easily be over an hour of time, extended by gastric emptying time delays, before the pectoral muscle cells see a recovery nutrient consumed in a post-workout meal. Start taking in that recovery supplement just before and during exercise and those nutrients are bathing the muscle cells immediately after they’ve been trained.

I recall first reading about this idea a short book or pamphlet written probably over 20 years ago by Dr. Thomas Fahey, EdD. I started experimenting with drinking protein shakes during my workouts just around then, which, the research now confirms, has benefits for protein turnover and even restoration of glycogen if a carbohydrate source is included. There is also a practical advantage in that, especially after getting used to large intra-workout “meals,” this becomes a way multi-task (eat and train at the same time) for someone who has difficulty taking in enough food to grow. At one point I was even able to take in a 2000kcal shake during my workouts (including leg training) and still train hard without nausea! This removed the necessity of an immediate post-workout meal, and allowed me to fit in more food over the course of the day. I would probably never suggest such a large intra-workout caloric and protein load to anyone these days, but it does show what’s possible if you progressively adjust to larger and larger intra-workout shakes over time.

The most important nutrient for post-resistance exercise recovery seems to be protein, at least in terms of protein metabolism, in particular essential amino acids (EAA). As little as 6 grams of EAA’s have a substantial effect, so this can be applied in a dieting / fat loss situation (even when eating a ketogenic diet) for those not looking to gulp down meal-sized supplement for gaining weight. Beyond macronutrients, other supplements that are typically taken post-exercise could be added to such a pre/intra-workout shake (barring gastric upset). For those who simply would rather have only pre-workout recovery supplement (more thoroughly studied than intra-workout strategies and certainly very effective), this can also be the delivery system for pre-workout supplements such as fat burners or metabolic agents such as citrulline malate.

JOHN: I have always felt EAAs are one the most underrated supplements out there. My mentor Dr. Serrano has me take them preworkout, and if I am not lazy, and actually doing it, it works really well. One thing I have been doing lately is the citrulline you mentioned and casein hydrolysates at a “whopper” of a dose intra-training. My recovery is really good… to the point where I am wondering if I need to train harder..haha!

Ok, so next question, how would you use BCAA’s if you had an endless supply of them?

SCOTT: John, from what I’ve seen of you in video (and of the methods you employ with your clients), training harder is not much of an option! I’m glad the citrulline is working well for you, too. It’s interesting that you would be finding that effective about the time I would uncover some research (e.g., Ososkwa, et al. 2004) supporting it’s use for those with gastro-intestinal “limitations” such as yourself.

As far as the BCAA’s, with an unlimited supply (and zero cost I’m assuming), I would probably find a way to distribute this endless supply to researchers and medical institutions involved with treating wasting syndromes (cachexia) in individuals suffering from cancer, liver disease, HIV, etc. Thereafter, I’d likely involve my clients in a “come and get it!” fashion to make use of my BCAA gold mine. Given that the source is certified to be of high purity and low contamination, I’d especially want to make this endless supply known to researchers so that supplement quality and source as a confounding factor could be minimized in future examination of the effects and underlying mechanisms of BCAA’s on skeletal muscle protein metabolism and immune function.

As far as using the BCAA’s for bodybuilding purposes, I’m thinking big here, so I can imagine flood of interested parties coming at me looking for a BCAA “loan” since I’ve just won the BCAA lottery. I’m not sure if simply having free BCAA’s would be motivation to re-enlist into academia as a researcher (supplement material is a small portion of total study cost most often). However, this does bring up the possibility of a long term, placebo- and diet-controlled study of, for instance, the effects of high dose BCAA supplementation (e.g., ~60g / day or ~10g with each meal) on muscle mass and strength gains with resistance training. The scientific literature suggests a refractory period whereby leucine or other infused AA’s fail to further stimulate muscle protein synthesis after just a few hours or less. On the other hand, I’ve heard anecdotal evidence often enough that BCAA supplementation throughout the day (e.g., in a flavored drink between meals) benefits exercise recovery and muscle mass. One hell of a resistance training study would be to compare diets equivalent in macro-and micro-nutrients (to the extent possible), but differing in BCAA content (e.g., placebo, peri-workout BCAA only, BCAA’s with each meal, BCAA’s between meals and/or even BCAA’s with AND between meals) with a enough subjects to statistically detect meaningful effects in muscle or muscle fiber size and resistance exercise strength and performance. Naturally, the matching of dietary protein intake among groups would depend upon whether the root scientific question(s) surrounded BCAA as a “supplement” (consumed beyond normal protein intake), as a dietary component (a percentage in the diet) and/or whether BCAA timing (peri-workout vs. other times of the day) was where it’s at as far as their use. So, in actuality, when thinking big here, I’d probably use my unending supply to perform a series of comparative studies, following up on previous findings as I went along, comparing various levels of dietary enrichment with BCAA’s, likely with a focus on the importance of nutrient timing around exercise and between meals, including during the night.

JOHN: Do you think there would be more benefit to doing the BCAA’s between meals, or with meals? Same with Leucine. Do you think adding say 5 grams to meals would enhance the anabolism of the meal, or do you think it would work better for anabolism in between meals?

SCOTT: That’s another great question. An average meal for your 220lb bodybuilder might have 60grams of protein, so some research would suggest there’s plenty of Leucine there to maximize its effect on protein synthesis (e.g., Moore et al., 2009). There is a study from 2005 (Koopman et al.) where adding leucine to protein and carbohydrate improved protein balance beyond carbs or carbs plus protein. However, their subjects were taking in

  1. Koopman, R., et al., Co-ingestion of leucine with protein does not further augment post-exercise muscle protein synthesis rates in elderly men. Br J Nutr, 2008. 99(3): p. 571-80. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&dopt=Citation&list_uids=17697406
  2. Tipton, K.D., et al., Stimulation of muscle anabolism by resistance exercise and ingestion of leucine plus protein. Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism = Physiologie appliquee, nutrition et metabolisme, 2009. 34(2): p. 151-61. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19370045
  3. Greenhaff, P.L., et al., Disassociation between the effects of amino acids and insulin on signaling, ubiquitin ligases, and protein turnover in human muscle. American journal of physiology. Endocrinology and metabolism, 2008. 295(3): p. E595-604. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18577697
  4. Moore, D.R., et al., Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 2009. 89(1): p. 161-8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19056590
  5. Tipton, K.D., et al., Postexercise net protein synthesis in human muscle from orally administered amino acids. The American journal of physiology, 1999. 276(4 Pt 1): p. E628-34. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10198297
  6. Paddon-Jones, D., et al., Amino acid ingestion improves muscle protein synthesis in the young and elderly. American journal of physiology. Endocrinology and metabolism, 2004. 286(3): p. E321-8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14583440
  7. Koopman, R., et al., Combined ingestion of protein and free leucine with carbohydrate increases postexercise muscle protein synthesis in vivo in male subjects. American journal of physiology. Endocrinology and metabolism, 2005. 288(4): p. E645-53. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15562251
  8. Manninen, A.H., Hyperinsulinaemia, hyperaminoacidaemia and post-exercise muscle anabolism: the search for the optimal recovery drink. British journal of sports medicine, 2006. 40(11): p. 900-5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16950882

However, I like to keep something in mind about acute studies of protein metabolism. The point I’ve noted on various occasions over the years is that only a very SMALL shift in daily protein balance is needed to cause a LARGE increase in muscle mass over the long haul. Someone who, for instance, takes in 200-300 grams of dietary protein per day and, day in and day out, and manages to accrue just 2-3 grams of that as newly acquired skeletal muscle protein per day (only 1% of that consumed) will end up gaining ~10grams (muscle is mostly water) of muscle tissue per day. This net positive protein balance of just 70g per week equates to 3.6 kilos or 8lb of muscle mass in a year. For an advanced trainee, this is a great gain. From a scientific perspective, the measures of protein balance would need tremendous precision (in lieu of a ridiculously large number of subjects) to detect a 1% shift in protein balance as a statistical difference over a 24hr post-exercise period. (The astute reader might be interested in examining Figure 2 of the Moore et al., 2009 study referenced above in this regard. Is there really a “plateau” in that plot?) A long-term training study examining body composition would much more easily demonstrate that kind of hypertrophic effect.

Whether or not Leucine or BCAA’s would be effective when added between or with meals (ignoring the post-workout period) might also depend upon nutrient status too, generally speaking. An important note here before I go on is that the scientific literature is pretty complicated here – for me at least. For example, there are differences in the effects of Leucine vs. EAA’s on protein synthesis, and rat and human skeletal muscle seems to respond differently to Leucine, so if I’m being wishy-washy, its on purpose.) A high protein, calorie loaded diet might already contain 40+ grams of Leucine / day, rendering additional Leucine overkill when consumed during or between meals. However, if someone is on a low carb diet and really pushing fat loss, or needs to space meal far apart for some reason, Leucine, BCAA’s or an EAA blend (my preference) between meals could elevate insulin and create an meaningful anti-catabolic effect, even if skeletal muscle is somewhat refractory to the effects of amino acids. Taking in amino acids between meals in such a case would be a low calorie way to improve protein balance. Guys who have long days at work and can’t afford the time or the sleepiness of a large meal, for instance could use EAA’s (or BCAA’s) to prevent negative protein balance. This is one of the suggestions of those in favor of intermittent fasting, and there is support for this stance, in my opinion.

Similarly, there’s a rationale for using essential amino acids during the night to stave off negative protein balance. However, in the case of periods of fasting or at night, consuming a whole (complete) protein source is more prudent in my opinion. I’ve seen Layne Norton make the important point that maximizing the rate of protein synthesis (or accrual) is of crucial importance, and the amount of protein needed to stimulate the muscle synthetic machinery appropriately far exceeds the amount actually deposited as new muscle protein. In other words, there is plenty of protein (blood born or intra-cellular amino acids) available in most cases and the focus should be on optimizing what muscle cells do with it. This is where protein synthesis triggers like Leucine come in, of course. On the other hand, my concern (theorizing here as I haven’t seen this examined in the literature) is that after, say, a 12hr plus period of fasting, the amino acids available are those being freed from body tissues, so stimulating protein synthesis with EAA’s may be for naught if a whole protein source (“building blocks”) is not also provided. It is in the fed state (awake during the day), between meals when amino acids are freshly bathing the muscle cells from the previous meal, cranking up the protein synthetic machinery with EAA’s alone makes the most sense in my opinion. Again, this is all speculation scientifically speaking, but worth testing, in my opinion, given the prevalence of these strategies in the bodybuilding community.

As an aside, I also suspect that this saturation effect of EAA’s on protein synthetic rate that occurs with chronic hyperaminoacidemia (lots of amino acids in the blood) is modified by exercise. Even a slight adjustment, either in the extent to which there is a refractory effect (lessening it) on protein synthesis or the time course of such an effect (delaying it) could create small shifts in protein balance that add up over time and make the use of an amino acid trigger more effective. We obviously know that a resistance exercise stimulus, applied over time, results in a hypertrophic adaptation, so it’s logical to assume that the shift in protein balance that brings on such muscle growth might lie in part in altering this refractoriness.

JOHN: Another one for you, what has been your experience eating preworkout vs. taking in a shake or liquid preworkout? Anything stand out to you?

SCOTT: John, if by pre-workout you mean immediately preceding the workout (

If by pre-workout, you meant simply the meal, say 2 hours, preceding the training session, then having a whole food meal that digests slowly would be my general suggestion. I say this especially because that timing would allow for an intra-workout shake. If the meals before and during training (and sometimes the next meal for many people) are all shakes, this amount of successive powder-based nutrient intake can in and of itself cause GI distress. Again, I’d prefer to see my clients eating whole food as much as possible. Even beyond the micronutrients that you typically find in a multi-vitamin / mineral, whole food has other components with health benefits not typically found in dietary meal replacements. The extent to which most of these thousands and thousands of components of whole food (e.g., phytochemicals) contributes to athletic performance is largely unknown. However, I suspect there’s an ecological relationship between the human body and its natural food sources that is worth taking note of. Perhaps the best example of a once “undiscovered” food component with ergogenic effecs is creatine. Most readers probably shudder at the thought of not getting in their daily creatine. For the individual whose job or lifestyle simply does not allow anything other than a series of shakes, the post-workout period would be a good time to supplement with a food-based multi-vitamin or a even “superfood,” in my opinion.

JOHN: True story. When I was training at Westside barbell in the 90’s (no air conditioning – middle of brutal hot summer), I would drink a half gallon of chocolate milk mostly before and some during training. I loved it. A few other guys tried it and vomited during squats.haha. I have always been able to eat RIGHT before training, but I am 100% with you on judging this by how you feel.

In terms of whole food selections preworkout, I like to add fat to provide a more steady level of blood glucose and insulin response. For example, a shake and Ezekiel toast with organic butter, or a shake and oats with almond butter mixed in. What are some of your favorites?

SCOTT: I’m guessing if those guys had not vomited from the milk, they would have paid later with a copious amount of gas or worse. (Not for everyone, I agree!)

JOHN: I haven’t attempted that in years, but hey I have a great raw milk supply now that digests very easily, so maybe I’ll throw some chocolate in there and try it again before summer is out!

SCOTT: My personal pre-workout meal would depend highly upon where I was in my overall diet. If at the peak of off-season gluttony, I might be eating nearly 1000kcal per meal including an intra-workout shake, so that pre-training meal would be low fat just to aid in rapid digestion. I might have chicken breast with spelt noodles and a (very little amount of) tomato sauce or some sea salt. If I were doing a pure keto diet, I might have something like grass-fed beef (I love that you’re such a proponent, John) or salmon and some flax enriched peanut butter. In more recent years, however, when dieting, I have not been removing the intra-workout carbs and really shifted my caloric intake towards that intra-workout and post workout period, so a protein (usually meat) only meal would precede the workout. This way, I could take in and easily digest the large caloric load during the intra-and post-workout period but still ensure a caloric deficit.

You bring up a good point about unstable blood sugar, however. This can be avoided by spreading the intra-workout shake over the course of the workout. (Reactive hypoglycemia is not fun.) Some people I know can VERY easily become hypoglycemic, whereas others have never had much problem there, regardless of the meal preceding the workout. For my clients, I always try to weigh the importance of diet for body composition goals versus what food is needed to allow them to train the hardest. If clients can’t train well with a large intra-workout shake, need to be bumped out of ketosis with a few pre-workout carbs to get a clear head, or, as you said, find that a nice blend of fat, protein and carbs before training means they totally kick ass in the gym, then shifting food and meal time may be entirely worth it, I think. I’d rather see a client hoisting the same kinds of loads pre-contest as off-season because he / she feels good in the gym rather than stick to a dietary regimen that seems perfect on paper, but leaves the trainee weaker and with less muscle in the long run.

JOHN: Ahh, another use common sense, no one size fits all answer, I like it!

Ok, so we have talked about nutrition around training, the need for recovery, acupuncture, and more. Here is my last question. What are your top 5 (could me more) supplements and why?

SCOTT: I may sound all fancy schmancy with this science talk I like to sling around, but when it comes down to it, much of bodybuilding does boil down to common sense. The twist there is that we’re making use of biological mechanisms to respond and adapt with extremes of (high amounts of) muscle mass and (low amounts of) body fat using to what you might even call an “unnatural act” in the form of weight training as our major stimulus.

So, top 5 supplements (for a competitive bodybuilder), in no particular order:

  • Food-Based Multi-Vitamin/Mineral. Even the best laid out diets can have holes nutritionally, and given the rigors of eating in a modern lifestyle or manipulating macronutrients for a contest diet, variety sometimes goes out the window. As I noted above, a food-based vitamin (or even a superfood) contains nutrients very close to being in their original form, balance and synergy, including nutrients not found in a traditional one a day vitamin. (This reall is an impressive technological feat of food science when you think about it.)
  • 3 – 6 – 9 Fatty Acid Supplement. These fat supplements are sold using “3 – 6 – 9” in the name because they contain omega-3 (I prefer the ones including DHA and EPA), omega-6,and omega-9 (monounsaturated) fats. The health benefits are numerous here as the standard American fare is sorely lacking in this department. Farm-raising fish on corn or grain-feeding (or just grain-finishing grass-fed) cattle skews the natural fatty acid balance in the meat, making a fatty acid supplement like this very useful, especially on a budget. I often compare raising our food sources on these kinds of feed to a human being living out of a vending machine – not a healthy critter. I (jokingly) picture flesh-eating alien zombies invading earth, taking a chomp out of a “typical” American and immediately spitting out the sour, unhealthy flesh. Sorry if that was a bit gruesome, but I’m sure you get the point.
  • Fiber Supplement. I find that the dietary manipulations that bodybuilders put themselves through, ranging from extremes of caloric intake off-season to ketogenic diets to even the regrettable post-contest binge, can put a massive strain on gastric motility. I’m cheating here, John, because I’m referring to several possibilities as far as a fiber sources, as in my experience, some folks do better with fiber in food (e.g., oats, various vegetables, nuts or even whole fruit), whereas a psyllium husk based fiber supplement may benefit gastric motility for some, but in others, may tend to cause constipation, especially if taken in excess. I could probably start a religion based on the praise I’ve received when recommending a wheat dextrin (soluble) fiber, which seems, in my experience, to have a nice regulatory effect, effective for both diarrhea as well as constipation. The key here is finding the amount and timing for the individual, based on his / her diet. As a side note, one common use for my clients for fiber supplements is including them as an ingredient in large intra-workout supplement to prevent gastric upset or diarrhea. If your GI is not working 100%, as you well know, John, this can wreak havoc on your dietary and supplement strategy and thus affect recovery, training and the whole ball of wax.
  • Protein Powder. Again, I’m being squirmy here and not nailing down a specific supplement, but I think this one will make sense to anyone reading this. This could include choosing a protein powder that is faster digesting (like a high quality whey isolate) post-workout, or slower digesting one (e.g., casein) before going to bed, as well as using protein powders that suit a persons need for a non-dairy or a vegetarian protein source. Again, each of us is a tad bit different and our choices of supplements may very well need to be as well.
  • Creatine. I had a tough time picking a fifth to this list, but given that I spent a good deal of my academic career studying it, I feel confident that I can give creatine a nod here. While there are non-responders to creatine supplementation, its potential ergogenic, anabolic and/or anti-catabolic and even anti-inflammatory effects make it a winner. Creatine will also help with glycogen synthesis and, conveniently, carbohydrates (and insulin) aid in creatine loading, so the possibilities for carb-up’s during, say, cyclical carbohydrate dieting and/or before going on stage favor creatine use. (Be wary, however, as it can make some individuals hold water, so cutting it out before you need to be dry on stage makes sense.) All in all, I’d consider creatine a supplement staple for these reasons, especially considering how cheap it is nowadays.

So, those are my top five, John. Interestingly these are all food components, so despite the advanced technology of today’s supplement industry, I still like to fall back, first and foremost, on making sure the diet itself is in order and using supplements to make use of Mother Nature’s basic mechanisms before adding “icing” in the form of fancier supplements. Had you only asked for a top 6 supplement list, I would have told you about a synthetic super-nutrient I’ve been engineering in my secret laboratory / lair that I believe will revolutionize bodybuilding, eliminate the obesity epidemic in the U.S. and eradicate all forms age and disease-related muscle muscle wasting when I launch it into the supplement market, in just the next few weeks. (Unfortunately, I’m just kidding. )

JOHN: Scott, thank you for your time and the knowledge you have shared with us. Let’s talk again soon! Scott can be reached at www.ScottStevensonPhD.com and [email protected].