MY BIG FAT GREEK INTERVIEW: Untold Bodybuilding Stories and Secrets

This was NOT your usual interview. This was a super fun and very interesting interview and it was compiled in a very unique way. Not that I haven’t enjoyed being interviewed by all sorts of folks in the bodybuilding and fitness world over the years, but the person who sent me these questions this time was different than my usual interview requestor. He was my own training partner, friend and business colleague Kostas Mar, whom I like to call “The Greek Statue.”That’s actually an abbreviation of Kostas’s surname, because you know those Greek last names go on for pages and end in opolopolopolopolopolopolopoulos.

Just teasing, of course. I love the Greeks. They have such great culture and art and architecture… and FOOD… ah the food – fuggetabout it – the food?

The Greeks have great food. (when in New York, Try Periyali!). And hey I’m Italian, so putting Greek food above my own ethnicity could be taken as sacrilege by my fellow paison’s. Of course, I don’t have one of those ‘right off the boat’ Italian cooking moms. My grandfather was 100% full blooded Italian… New Yorker… Queens, and that’s where I got the last name, but I’ve been, uh, “diluted” a bit over the two generations, so maybe I’d feel differently if I’d been raised on real home-cooked Italian… not that mom my can’t cook – she’s a whiz in the kitchen – it’s just not “straight from the old country” Italian.

Did you know that out of all the diet books you see on the shelves today in a mainstream bookstore, if you grab one on the Mediterranean diet, you are far less likely to go wrong than with any other choice? It’s true (well, excepting my new hardcover, The Body Fat Solution. That one you can’t go wrong with either, of course, as bookstore fat loss books go, and it should be on every health conscious person’s shelf. (hint: you can get a copy at Amazon dot com! )

Where was I? Oh yeah, Mediterranean diets are good. Seriously, check out The Omega diet by Artemis Simopoulos for example. It’s healthy and there’s no fad diet BS in there. Mediterranean… Greek!

There was even a study recently published in the scientific journal Obesity Reviews which said that the traditional Mediterranean (including Greek) diet – you know that diet with all the olive oil and fresh vegetables and fish and other good stuff – is very healthy, and far less likely to lead to obesity than our typical Western diet (our diet is SAD: Standard American Diet).

Anyway, I’m getting off on a tangent, and suddenly getting hungry and strangely craving some feta cheese, so let me wrap up this intro and get to it. There’s one other thing Greek’s are known for: Bodybuilding.

Yep. Surprise, surprise. You usually think of bodybuilding as American. Venice Beach, USA. Of course there’s that Austrian dude, but even he became Americanized. I didn’t really realize the popularity of bodybuilding in Greece until I started training with a Greek who also happens to own some of the most prominent Greek bodybuilding websites online, both in English and in the Greek language. That’s Kostas. And he grilled me with over 20 questions in this two part interview.

Actually Kostas didn’t ask the questions, he just delivered them. Apparently, I have some readers (and even “fans”) in Greece, so Kostas surveyed his subscribers and forum members in anticipation of this interview. So, this interview is a compilation of many questions from many different people. So to all my friends in Greece – thanks so much for asking them. It was a blast answering. Enjoy!

1.) What do you think is more important in bodybuilding? Training hard or eating correctly?

Vince Gironda, the late, great bodybuilding trainer from Hollywood, used to say, “bodybuilding is 80% nutrition.” That must have been back in the 1960’s and people have been repeating that quote ever since.

I can understand why Vince said nutrition is most important, because there’s some truth to that. For the average person on the street and for the average bodybuilding beginner, their diet is a mess and putting the most focus on the weakest area is the most efficient strategy that will produce the most improvement for the effort invested.

Also, if total calories aren’t controlled, no training program in the world will get you leaner. If you’re overeating, even on clean food and even with a 100% perfect training program, you will still gain fat. Period.

However, as important as nutrition may be, I prefer to say that bodybuilding is 100% nutrition and 100% training. You need to get them both right and give them both 100%.

2.) I would like to know how Tom got started with bodybuilding and why he loves the sport.

I must have been about 8 years old or so when I saw a picture in the Guinness Book of World Records, which I loved to read when I was a kid. Inside the newest edition of the book was an entry for “the world’s most perfectly developed man.” That man was Arnold Schwarzenegger. That must have been the late 1970’s because I remember I was living in San Jose, California at the time and that was also about the time Arnold was at his Mr. Olympia Peak.

I think I was too young to appreciate it, but I suspect that image of Arnold’s physique made an impression on me and was planted in my subconscious that far back.

Years later, when I was 14 and living on the East Coast, I saw Conan The Barbarian in the movie theaters. I didn’t go to see Arnold, specifically, I went because I was into Conan stories, Dungeons and Dragons, swords and sorcery books and art from Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo.

But when I saw Arnold on that screen I was awestruck. I had seen the art, but couldn’t believe a real live human being could actually look like that. Little did I know that the art was imitating life, not the other way around.

The next day I bought a Magazine off the newsstand which had a picture of Arnold as Conan, in full warpaint. As I flipped through the pages, I saw pictures of guys like Danny Padilla, Boyer Coe, Bill Grant, Mohamed Makkawy, Samir Bannout, Roy Callender, Robbie Robinson, Casey Viator, Dennis Tinnerio, Franco Columbo and Tom Platz and that was IT. I was hooked.

I then bought Arnold’s autobiography, The Education of a Bodybuilder and started the workout programs from that back of that book. I never stopped since.

I fell in love with bodybuilding because I loved the look of the physiques, I loved the way the training made me feel and the way the results made me feel and I loved it because it was an individual sport.

Unlike soccer, which I had played since I was 7 years old, I was now the only person responsible for my success. I couldn’t blame a teammate if I failed and if I succeeded, I got all the credit. It was all up to me.

3.) What advise would you give to a beginner who is trying to become a bodybuilder?

The first piece of advice is to simply go for it. Bodybuilding is a fringe sport and the average person will never understand bodybuilders or their mentality or their motivations, so damn the critics – even well-meaning friends and family – and just go for it.

Second is find role models, but pick them carefully. When I started, I had no clue about the difference between tested and untested competition; natural and not natural.

I will always admire Arnold and I will always have respect and appreciation for the open divisions, because those guys got me started, but my role models changed over the years when my eyes opened to the realities of the sport.

My advice to a beginner in this day and age is understand that bodybuilding and natural bodybuilding are completely different sides of the sport and set your goals and choose your role models accordingly. Also choose your role models based on a person’s character as much as his or her physique and list of titles.

I’m serious about finding role models with character. There’s a dark side and a sleazy underbelly in parts of bodybuilding. More than one bodybuilder who was idolized by many fans ended up in jail and not just for steroids, but for worse things.

Fortunately, in bodybuilding, we also have some of the most positive and inspiring people you will ever meet, and bodybuilding can give you some of the most life-enhancing and health-improving experiences you will ever have. It’s up to you which side of bodybuilding you want to be involved in.

Unless someone has the genetics and the true desire to go all the way to the top of the open division pros, I would advise bodybuilders to stay natural and choose natural role models. You can build an amazing physique naturally. Bigger is not better. Better is better.

4.) Have you ever thought of competing in a Natural Olympia show?

I’m actually not very familiar with the details of that competition, I’m more familiar with NPC and INBF and WNBF, but Natural Mr. Olympia would be an amazing title to hold for sure.

5.) What is your opinion about Ronnie Coleman and Jay Cutler?

As I said before, I have respect for all levels of the sport and I appreciate and am completely in awe of what these guys have achieved at the top level of their side of the sport.

Regardless of the genetic gifts that are obviously there, you have to appreciate the sheer mass, strength and training intensity.

Cutler’s mass simply boggles the mind and Ronnie Coleman – he’s as strong as almost any strength athlete in any strength sport. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw him training on video. Unreal.

That said, I do prefer the more symmetrical and slightly smaller physiques.

Even if I could look like Ronnie or Jay, and with all due respect to them, if I could look like any IFBB pro, past or present, I’d prefer to look like a Lee Labrada circa 1988 or a Mohammed Makkawy circa 1983 or a Frank Zane circa 1979.

6.) We would like to know whether Kostas has what it takes to follow you in hardcore training or whether he sits in a corner crying with pain.

Are you trying to start a fight or something? I don’t know if I should say anything because if I do, then the next time Kostas is spotting me on skull crushers he might just “forget” to spot me and I’ll walk out of the gym with a barbell wrapped around my head.

Well, let’s just say that I’ve never seen Kostas crying in a corner in pain, but he does have a few sneaky tricks he uses if he wants to weasel out of the last rep or two or even an entire set (Tell me it aint so Kostas, buddy!) But in his defense, he also has this “intensity switch” and when he flips it, his intensity can be off the charts and he’s hardcore to the last rep.

7.) What is the necessity of bodybuilding supplements on a muscle gain phase? Where does natural nutrition stop and the necessity for supplementation starts?

I don’t think ANY supplements are an absolute necessity. If your diet is meticulously put together, you will get great results just with whole food, especially on a mass building diet when you have more calories to work with.

I think the supplements, even the basics like multi vitamin/minerals, are more important when your food is restricted. If you’re taking in fewer nutrients because your food supply is limited, it makes sense to pay more attention to supplementation at that time. When food is plentiful, why do you need to supplement with nutrients that are already in your food?

8.) Which supplements have you used and what has worked and how?

I use protein powder almost daily, but that’s as much for convenience and flavor as much as anything. I stir a vanilla protein into my oatmeal every morning. I use a lot of whey protein, but also protein blends that have casein. I don’t consider protein powder to be anything other than powdered food, by the way. There’s nothing magical about it.

Creatine is a staple and in fact one of the few strength and muscle enhancers you can always count on. I also use a Multi vitamin and mineral and fish oil (still flax oil sometimes, but fish oil wins out if you compare flax and fish oil head to head). Also vitamin C – about a gram after workouts.

In a mass-building phase I use post workout drinks, not just for recovery but as an easy way to get all the calories I need. I have no problem with continuing to use recovery drinks in cutting diets, but in smaller amounts of course, although I usually prefer all whole food when my calories get low.

I do keep an eye on the studies about pre, during and post workout nutrition as this is an interesting area of research. But when you eat 6 times a day, I think worrying about nutrient timing around workouts is less relevant than most people think. If you bracket your weight training with two of your largest meals out of your 6 meals, I just don’t see how or why the drinks are necessary.

Some of the new pre workout energy and mental focus enhancers look interesting. I think anything that can improve your intensity, mental focus and energy in the gym is worth looking at because it’s not about any magic in the supplement pills you pop or the drinks you take, it’s really about how hard you can work in the gym.

On the other hand, there’s good old caffeine. A Starbucks red-eye (shot of espresso in a coffee) does the job quite nicely! (I read that natural bodybuilder Dave Goodin has a black eye before every workout (two shots!) How’s THAT for a pre-workout drink?

9.) What is your strategy when you want to go “super low” with your body fat % ie from 5% to 3.5%? What is your ultimate “secret” as far as training and nutrition are concerned?

What I would recommend for someone overweight to get down to average body fat would be different than a bodybuilding contest diet, but there’s no difference between what I do to get from 5% to 3 or 4% body fat.

The entire final phase of a pre-contest cut is definitely high protein and low carb for me, although it’s not zero carb and I don’t like ketogenic diets which are actually higher in fat than protein, which most people don’t realize. I tried them years ago and even though I know keto diets work for other people, I just didn’t like that style of eating or the way they made me feel.

Instead, I go very high in protein, about 45-50% of calories from protein, which is probably close to 300 grams or so, which is about 1.5 to 1.75 grams per pound of bodyweight. The protein intake remains constant and I cycle calorie levels by cycling the carbs. I use a 3 days low carb and one day high carb rotation.

This approach works perfectly for me and any time I try to experiment with other approaches it usually just messes things up, so I come back to this tried and true contest diet every time when I want to get cut. This is the exact competition diet system I explain in my ebook, Burn The Fat, Feed the Muscle

As for “secrets.” Well, if you take the average guy on the street, he doesn’t know anything about bodybuilding diets with high protein, carb cycling and so on, so if you want to call that a secret for that reason, you can.

But the truth is, there are no real secrets except things like hard work, discipline, consistency, believing in yourself and making up your mind to reach a goal and staying laser focused on it.

10.) What in your opinion is the role of fruit and dairy products during cutting periods?

I include fruit in my pre-contest diet, but because it’s a low carb diet, there’s not a lot of carbs in general and that means there’s not a lot of fruit. I eat more green vegetables and fibrous carbs than starches or fruits on a contest diet. But you shouldn’t interpret that as meaning fruit is fattening; that is absolutely not true. You can get shredded with fruit in your diet, no doubt about it. The reduced carbs helps on many levels, but getting cut is still mostly about the calories.

Same goes for dairy. Dairy is not fattening, in fact the latest research says the opposite – there are dozens of research papers saying that something in the dairy products is important for fat loss, whether that’s calcium or vitamin D or something else, the researchers are still trying to hash it out.

Most bodybuilders cut dairy because they say it makes them smooth and or bloated, and that’s probably true when you consider how many people are lactose intolerant. But “causes bloating” and “makes you fat” are two different things.

I don’t eat much dairy on my contest diet, but again that’s not because I think it’s fattening, I just choose to allocate my calories to protein, fibrous carbs, essential fats and then I rotate in the starchy carbs based on my carb cycling schedule.

11.) How much can you bench/have you benched? What are some of your best lifts as a natural bodybuilder?

I was never powerlifter material so I don’t have much to brag about here. My best bench was 335 for 3. I partially tore my left pec a few years ago so heavy benching days are over.

My best full squat was 405 for 6 with belt and knee wraps but I had a ruptured disk at age 19 so that has always been a limiting factor. I turned to high rep squats partially for that reason. I also got interested in high rep squatting because Tom Platz was an idol of mine in my early bodybuilding years, and he built the worlds best developed, freakiest legs by using a mix of high rep squats and heavy squats, not just heavy training.

My best high rep squatting is 225 lbs for 54 reps, 275 for 32 reps and 325 for 20 reps. I probably won’t squat 4 plates again, too risky for my lower back, but I think I still have it in me to beat some of those repping PR’s. One of my training partners “PWNED” me years ago when I did 50 reps with 225 and he did 75. That pissed me off so much I remember it to this day. I’m going to beat that rep record yet.

12.) Do you think dextrose and post workout drinks are overrated?

I think post workout drinks with simple sugars and whey are fine and they serve their purpose. In fact, since these are cheap ingredients, I think you can make a good case for making your own or buying inexpensive whey and simple carb drinks, and get pretty good results while saving yourself a small fortune.

These “everything but the kitchen sink” formulas that are being promoted lately are expensive, but the additional benefit of a lot of the added ingredients is questionable. I think post workout nutrition is pretty simple and people overcomplicate it. If I think drinks are “overrated,” I only think so in that I believe you can get equally good results with food if you eat a bodybuilding diet with 6 meals a day.

13.) Should there be changes in a bodybuilder’s training style between high volume and high intensity training or is it someone’s choice?

Training volume is one of the variables that’s going to be different from person to person based on individual preference and choice as well as one’s genetics. An extremely high volume is generally unwise for the natural bodybuilder, but I’m convinced that an extremely low volume program as a default style of training is equally unwise in most cases.

I never got good size from a one set to failure program, unless that was like 3-4 exercises, each with warm up sets and then one all out set to failure (but that’s still multiple sets isn’t it?) What I noticed from the very low volume training was more strength than size. On the other hand, I never argue with results. If you do low volume training as your year-round method and it’s working, keep it up.

14.) What in your opinion is more important? Food selection, food quantity or nutrient timing?

That depends. Most important for what? Fat loss? Health? Happiness? For fat loss nothing is more important than calories in versus calories out. The reason I say this is because you could select the best foods and have perfect nutrient timing, but if you’re in a caloric surplus, you won’t lose fat, it’s that simple – you have to get the food quantity right.

You also have to get the food quality right for good health. And for the athlete or bodybuilder, nutrient timing is also clearly very important. But all these factors need to work together in synergy, I don’t think it makes sense to try to put them into a hierarchy where you say that it’s all nutrient timing or it’s all about which foods or macros you eat and not calories. It’s everything together.

15.) How do you imagine yourself at 60?

Still living the bodybuilding lifestyle. Ripped, jacked and looking at least 10-15 years younger than my age. As I get older I want to be a role model to other people who want to be in great shape in their golden years and I want to stand as a counter example to anyone who says it can’t be done. All you need is ONE person who has done something that others say is impossible and that blows excuses and generalizations about age and fitness/physique of the water.

When I was a teenager, I was introduced to guys like IFBB pro Albert Beckles, a masters champ who competed in IFBB pro shows in his 50’s. He was the talk of the magazines in the 1980’s, not just because of his amazing, peaked biceps and ripped condition, but because he appeared to be getting better into his 50’s and was actually winning the pro shows. (Below: Beckles training in the 1980’s at World Gym in Los Angeles):

Thanks to guys like Beckles, the idea got planted in my head that a great physique was totally possible after age 50. As I look back now since I’ve hit the big 4-0, I see how valuable it was to have that kind of idea given to me at a young age.

It’s unfortunate, but some people think it’s all downhill after 60 or even after 50. But this old paradigm, like the idea that you can’t build a great physique without drugs, is slowly but surely dying as more people are maintaining tremendous physiques into their 50s and 60s.

16.) In bodybuilding there is a time for bulking up and a time for cutting up. Do you think the body and our system gets stressed in a negative way if you keep alternating between the two? Is it beneficial for a bodybuilder (who doesn’t compete) to bulk up and cut down? What are the benefits, if any?

How do you define “bulking up?” If you mean getting fat and gaining as much weight as you can in the off season, then sure your body gets stressed in a negative way.

It’s not all that different than the weight cycling that obese dieters go through and we know from research and medical studies that yo yo dieting has many negative effects on your health.

Sure, you’re going to gain weight and body fat in the off season, but that’s like going from ripped to normal not from ripped to fat.

I wrote an article about that here:

Getting fat in the off season is dumb and serves no purpose. Even if there’s no negative effect on your health, you’re just making it harder on yourself when contest time rolls around – you’ll have to diet longer and harder to get it all off.

It’s better to do a slow steady lean gain and put a limit on how much fat you are willing to gain. For me that’s double digits – If I hit 10% body fat, I tighten up the diet and add cardio. It’s a matter of personal standards as much as anything.

17.) Can you go into a few tips for female bodybuilding? Do you think the program or a competitive woman should in any way different from that of a man? (nutrition & workout wise?)

There’s almost no difference in training. The only real big difference between men and women is in the daily energy requirements. Women almost always need significantly fewer calories than men, so if a female tries to follow the nutrition program of a man, or if she tries to follow a diet program that gives the same amount of calories to all men and women, she usually will not lose weight and will sometimes gain.

The rest of the differences between men and women have more to do with personal goals than with gender per se. If women should train differently than men for example, it’s mostly because they have different goals for their physiques than men in general. If a man and woman had identical goals, I would train them mostly the same.

There are some other female-specific concerns, but the training program is mostly a function of a person’s primary goals, not gender. I think female-based workouts are more for marketing purposes than anything.

18.) What is your opinion of the natural bodybuilding physiques that are competing these days?

Awesome and getting better. Look at guys like Jim Cordova. AMAZING! I think there’s a “3-minute mile” effect occurring in natural bodybuilding. Every year, we’re seeing better and better physiques in the natural federations. What people once believed was not possible without drugs is now being achieved, so the physique improvement perpetuates more physique improvement as the bar keeps getting raised.

It’s like when Roger Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes. Before that, everyone thought it was impossible. But once a single person had broken the barrier, we realized it was not a physical barrier but a mental barrier. Within one year after Bannister broke the three-minute mile, 37 other runners did it too!

How do you explain this? Nothing changed in the runner’s bodies; nothing changed in the laws of physics; there were no new breakthroughs in running techniques. It was simply the runner’s beliefs of what was possible that changed – the mental barrier was broken – and this is now happening in natural bodybuilding.

This is why it’s so important to work on mental training as much as physical training and I gave so much attention to goal setting and mental reprogramming in my bodybuilding and Fat Loss programs.

19.) Recently, watching for the millionth time the movie pumping iron, I saw that the purpose of bodybuilding was symmetry, good posing and body parts flowing with each other for a complete beautiful physique. Nowadays, with the help of new equipment, workout programs, advanced supplementation and new age pharmacology, mass is what is most important in bb shows. What in your opinion is the future of bodybuilding? How long can the harmony of a good body withstand the continuous demand for more and more mass?

I don’t think we have to look to the future, the mass monsters arrived a while ago and they’ve already pushed the limits to the max. Unfortunately, it’s hard to go backwards once a new standard is achieved or declared and the fans and judges are every bit as responsible for this as the athletes are.

A symmetrical, ripped and big bodybuilder will always beat a symmetrical, ripped and small bodybuilder. But the harmony is lost when the symmetry is lost. When symmetry is sacrificed for size, and that is rewarded, that’s when I think the future of bodybuilding is in jeopardy.

The fans need to show an appreciation for the Reeves’ and Zane’s and Labrada’s of the current era and a dislike for the distended stomachs and size for the sake of size. At the same time, the judges have to reward symmetry, cuts and classical body shapes.

Size is a part of the bodybuilding judging criteria and always will be – as it should – but we can’t expect this sport to go in a positive direction if we reward size at the expense of symmetry and shape.

20.) Where do you see bodybuilding as a sport going in the short term and in the long term?

Open, professional bodybuilding is probably always going to remain a subculture indefinitely because mass monsters with freaky physiques are always going to be perceived by the public as freaks or at best, as fitness extremists.

However, I think that natural bodybuilding could get more mainstream publicity, recognition and appreciation than anyone realizes.

The reason I say that is because my second book, The Body Fat Solution, was published by a mainstream New York City publisher and was written for a mainstream audience. It’s NOT a bodybuilding book at all, like Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle.

As I was on the promotional tour for my new book when it was first released, I did dozens of interviews on mainstream radio like WCBS, ESPN and even Martha Stewart on Sirius satellite radio. I was also featured in the Wall Street Journal, Oprah Magazine, First for Women magazine and other mainstream publications which are as far removed from bodybuilding as you can get. Well, something really interesting happened…

I thought I was going to steer away from talking about bodybuilding when doing my media tour, because I didn’t want to intimidate potential readers or scare anyone away in the mainstream weight loss market, but the exact opposite happened. The newspaper reporters and radio hosts kept asking me about bodybuilding, and especially because my bio says I’m a natural bodybuilder. Although the average person has no idea what bodybuilding is all about, they’ve heard about steroid use in mainstream sports like baseball, so when they hear that a bodybuilder is “steroid-free” it’s actually very newsworthy right now.

I think this creates a tremendous opportunity for ambitious natural bodybuilders who are well-spoken, to get out into the mainstream and educate the public about the virtues of bodybuilding and weight training the natural way. In fact, it’s a totally untapped area, but so many bodybuilders just think about getting their picture in a muscle magazine or on bodybuilding dot com, they are completely oblivious to the bigger opportunities.

Just to give you an idea of thinking out of the box here, I was brainstorming with my new publicist last week and she was talking about approaching magazines that are read by moms and booking interviews on how to help them keep their teenage sons off steroids.

If more natural bodybuilders would do this kind of thing, they would be making a great name for themselves and for the sport of bodybuilding, while at the same time, helping other people. You’d be a hero, and yet bodybuilders are usually very narrow-minded when it comes to this kind of thing.

Think BIGGER and you’ll make yourself a better and more successful person and you’ll make bodybuilding a better sport for us all.

21.) When will you come to Greece and do a seminar?

When will you guys invite me? (And what are you going to feed me when I get there?!)

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Interview is courtesy of

Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural bodybuilder, personal trainer, gym owner, freelance writer and author ofBurn the Fat, Feed The Muscle(BFFM): Fat Burning Secrets of the World’s Best Bodybuilders and Fitness Models. Tom has writtenover 140 articles and has been featured in IRONMAN magazine, Natural Bodybuilding, Muscular Development,Muscle-Zine, Exercise for Men and Men’s Exercise. Tom is the Fat Loss Expert for and the nutrition editor for and his articles are featured regularly on literally dozens of other websites.