The Hugo Rivera Mega-Muscle Interview

A few months ago, I ran an interview on Bodybuilding Secrets dot com with natural bodybuilding champion Hugo Rivera. The story, titled “Introducing Hugo Rivera” brought in so many questions and so much positive feedback, that I decided to bring Hugo back a second time and share his muscle-building knowledge with Tom Venuto Dot com readers.When I read Hugo’s replies to all my questions, I was blown away! He must have spent hours answering everything in great detail. In fact, Hugo shared so much information that we had to split up this “mega” interview into three parts! He practically wrote us a book! (and I’m not complaining, either – wait til you read this!).

Tom Venuto: Thanks for your last interview Hugo. I really appreciated it and so did our readers. In fact they asked for more and that’s why we’re back today.

Hugo Rivera: You’re welcome Tom and thank you so much for having me again. It’s both a pleasure and an honor.

Tom Venuto: Today I want to cut straight to the chase and get some specifics, so forgive me for jumping right in without any more introductions or preliminaries. Dude, your back double biceps shot is other worldly! How did you develop so much thickness AND detail in your back? I’m sort of hoping you won’t say genetics or you’ll be liable to send me into a depression. But seriously, give us some training secrets! Good genetics or not, you don’t get a back like that by accident!

Hugo Rivera: Wow…thanks for the compliment!

To answer your question, no it is not genetics so no need to get the Prozac. While I do have my lats attached pretty low (which gives me more growth potential than a person with high lats), I do have a “secret” to my back development. I have used this “secret” on men and women alike and no one fails to gain at least an inch and a half of circumference in their back area.

The “secret” to my back development is… (drums rolling) Pull-ups! Different variations of pull-ups, especially when performed with weights attached to a weight belt, are the best exercises for both back width and thickness. I perform wide, medium and close grip pull-ups to front, reverse grip medium and close grip pull-ups, and neutral grip pull-ups. I do use dumbbell rows, t-bar rows and low pulley rows for my back routines but the bread and butter of my back workouts are the pull-ups. I don’t do bent over barbell rows nor deadlifts as these exercises hurt my lower back.

In regards to how a typical back routine may look, here are a couple of examples:

Back Routine #1: (Using the 10 sets x 10 reps training method)
Wide Grip Pull-ups to Front 10×10 (1 min rest in between sets) Low Pulley Rows 2 sets of 12-15 reps (1 min rest in between sets)

Back Routine #2: (Using a more multi-angular approach)
Wide Grip Pull-ups to Front 3 sets of 8-10 reps (1 min rest in between sets)
Reverse Close Grip Pull-ups 3 sets of 10-12 reps (1 min rest in between sets)
Neutral Grip Pull-ups 3 sets of 10-12 reps (1 min rest in between sets)
One Arm Rows 3 sets of 12-15 reps (1 min rest in between sets)

Hugo RiveraNow, I do vary my routines between loading and growth phases as I have discussed previously so a growth phase routine may consist of a pull-up movement and a row movement using lower reps and heavier weights.

Tom Venuto: I’ve always said that how much you weigh doesn’t matter for the most part, because bodybuilding and physique development is such an illusion. You are a perfect example. In some of your photos standing by yourself, I swear you could pass for 210 lbs. I was stunned when I read that you were a welterweight. I was thinking top of the light heavies in contest condition. Could you give us your stats, height, weight, any measurements? Do you have any tips for other people on enhancing that illusion of making yourself look bigger than you really are?

Hugo Rivera: Thanks Tom!

I agree with you 100%. Weight does not mean much…the way one looks does.

For the USAs I weighed in at 158-lbs believe it or not at a height of 5 feet and 4 inches. I lost some mass (around 12lbs mostly on my legs unfortunately), but in order to achieve that ultra shredded look and make it to the welterweight class that was a sacrifice that I was willing to make.

As far stats go, for the USAs I had around a 50 inch back, 27 inch waist, 17.5 inch arms and calves and around 25 inch quads.

The key thing Tom for enhancing that illusion of size is to do the exact opposite of what most people do: stay lean and not get fat! When one maximizes growth in all areas while staying lean you are just bound to look bigger than what you are, especially with tight clothes or when the shirt comes off at the beach. The reason for this is because your muscles will be much more delineated and your waist will stay small, giving you then a nice V-taper that also adds to the size illusion.

If on the other hand you bulk up and go way past 10% body fat, then your back to waist ratio will not be that different (in addition to having little definition to show) and thus you will not look as big (nor nearly as good) as you would if you weighted much less.

Tom Venuto: You competed in the NPC USA championships. Based on our previous email correspondence it seemed to me that you were kind of nonchalant about it like it wasn’t any big deal. Personally, I was blown away by that achievement. Most naturals wont compete in any show that’s not drug tested. I’m not afraid to compete in open non-tested NPC competitions myself, if they’re local, state or regional shows, but to be honest, competing in an open, national level NPC show where people are vying for an IFBB pro card has always been completely off my radar. What led you to choose that competition and how did you feel about it before, during and after?

Hugo Rivera: Well Tom, I used to have that same philosophy of just sticking to tested shows but in reality there are not many. At the NPC level, only the Team Universe is a tested pro qualifier.

Since earning a pro card is one of those things for me that if it happened it was most welcome but it was far from being a life goal, I stopped caring about whether the shows were tested or not and simply cared about competing against myself and enjoying the journey of getting ready for a show.

In addition, since I was going to be competing at the lower weight classes, I figured that the steroid issue was not going to represent as much of a problem as if I were to want to compete as a light heavyweight but with the same definition that I displayed at the USAs. A good light heavy should show up around 195-199 so if I wanted to compete carrying that much weight with the same definition I had at the USAs then I would need around 30 lbs of extra muscle. That is a completely different ballgame as you can see and in order for me to accomplish that, then either I need to be reborn again knowing all I know today or chemically induce puberty at my 33 years of age. This is not to say that someone who is natural at my height could not weigh that and be absolutely shredded but such person would need to have some pretty amazing genetics in order to do that.

As far as how I felt before the contest, I felt pretty awesome. At first, I was not sure if I was going to actually be able to compete at the USAs since I had to qualify for it first, so my main goal was the Southern States. Leading to it I was already in good shape since I keep my body fat pretty low anyways and that year I stayed at around 7-8% through the off-season. So when I started preparing it was just a matter of tightening things up 12 weeks out and cruising into the Southern States. I was highly motivated as my son did great in school that year and I had promised him that I would compete again if he would get straight . In addition my friend Mercedes Khani (IFBB Figure Pro) was preparing also on the other side of the world (Amsterdam) so we supported each other (misery loves company). On top of that, this past year I was 110% determined to achieve my best shape ever so I did not mind the preparation at all.

After I won my class at the Southern States, which was a thrill and a half, I celebrated that night with a gallon of water, a steak and 2 baked potatoes. Next morning I was back at the gym and re-focusing for the 2 week prep leading to the USAs. Believe it or not, I trained even HARDER (as a matter of fact, I even overtrained which is why I ended up at 158-lbs) in preparation to it. All I wanted was to show up in the best shape EVER and let the judges decide what to do with me. When I stood on that stage at pre-judging and they called me out for the first round comparisons (which means I am top 5) and placed me in the middle (which means someone in the judging panel feels I am a contender for first place) I was in shock!!! I don’t think I have ever posed so confidently. Next day at the evening finals I had a blast doing my routine to music and getting my 4th place. I ended up 4th as even though I had 3 first place votes (including that of the head judge) other judges felt my lower body needed more size to match with my upper and they ended up giving me 5th place. So when all the scoring was settled I ended up I think 1 point below 3rd place. At any rate, to me it was as if I had won. Especially when I got compliments from long time idols of mine like Shawn Ray, Bob Cicherillo and Lee Labrada. I mean, what more can you ask for!!!

Initially, I was looking forward to competing again this year but then again, I felt that I had such an enjoyable and awesome last year that I should instead hang up my posing trunks and call it a day in a very high and positive note. I have nothing further to prove.

Tom Venuto: You said something to me in a private email last year so I hope you don’t mind me mentioning it, but I think it’s an important thing to share with our readers because I think it will be encouraging to the naturals. You said, “At the lower weight classes, I don’t think steroids can make much of a difference. They can provide hardness, yes, but so can dieting year round for years on end, which I enjoy doing anyway.” Hugo, could you elaborate on that and on your feelings about natural vs assisted training, if you don’t mind, and in particular, is there anything else you could say to encourage the natural bodybuilders to stay natural.

Hugo Rivera: The key for a natural bodybuilder with average genetics to be successful in competition is to spend years training and dieting correctly so that they can gain enough muscle mass to shred down once a competition comes about. Care must be taken also to gain the muscle methodically while staying lean. Why? Because average natural bodybuilders cannot afford to get fat and then trim down. The reason for this is because in the process of trimming down from a large body fat percentage a lot of muscle gets sacrificed (since naturals lose muscle much easier than an assisted athlete). So it is imperative that a natural athlete always stays lean (never more than 10% body fat). Assisted athletes can bulk up and trim down successfully (since the drugs help to prevent the muscle loss), but in my opinion, even they would benefit from staying leaner at all times as even with drugs some muscle gets sacrificed anyways in the process of losing 60-70 lbs as some bodybuilders do.

So again, if you are a natural bodybuilder who wants to compete successfully, then my advice to you is to stay lean. Most local shows (tested or not) are easier to win than most people think. If you show up conditioned enough (meaning with very little subcutaneous body fat) chances are, you will place high. The good news is that conditioning has little to do with steroid use. You can seriously abuse steroids (even those that are considered pre-contest ones) and not be conditioned at all. The reason for this is because dieting is the main variable that affects conditioning, not drugs. So if you stay lean year round and then take 12-16 weeks to lower your body fat from say no more than 10% to 3% then the odds will be in your favor at this level of competition.

Now, for national level shows, like the USAs for example, you also need to have good symmetry in addition to good muscle and conditioning. Depending of how good a job you have done over the years at keeping symmetrical from day 1, you may or may not be able to compete successfully at the national level. That being said, if you are a teen who is just starting out their bodybuilding journey with aspirations of competing one day, then make sure you pay equal attention to all your body parts (not just the chest and the arms) and make sure you stay lean.

In terms of staying natural Tom, here is what I have to say:

Based on all the research I have done, I feel steroids may have a place in a man’s life as anti-aging therapy to replace hormone levels back to those of a younger person. Other than that, if you are looking at them as a “shortcut”, you may be very disappointed at the results you will get and unless you are an expert at knowing how to properly use them, you are playing Russian roulette. And I am not even talking about the legal ramifications of using steroids for performance enhancement in the US today.

Most people think that if they take steroids they will become the next Mr. Olympia or Arnold Classic Champion. If this were to be the case, then there should be a whole lot more people on those two competitions based on the fact that there are millions of Americans (per what the statistics indicate) who at one point in their life have tried anabolic steroids.

The guys at the top are there not only because of the enhancement but also because of their insane training throughout the years, the diet and most importantly, the way their bodies respond to all of the above which is a variable controlled only by genetics. To look like a top level male IFBB Pro you need to have favorable genetics and that is something that not even steroids can give you; you either have them or you don’t.

The good news however is that for the physique goals most of us have, there is no need whatsoever to take any steroids, especially with all we know about training and dieting. Also with supplements like creatine, glutamine, and nitric oxide boosters, an advanced athlete who has trained with none of these supplements for years can reach a new level of development by adding these to their program as all of the supplements I just mentioned offer many of the benefits that steroids offer but through non-hormonal pathways. So you can get the benefit of faster recuperation and more performance in the gym but without the side effects caused by hormonal manipulation.

Again, no matter how you look at this, training and nutrition always be the mainstay of your bodybuilding program. If your training and nutrition are impeccable, you will achieve a much bigger physique that is nicely defined and which will generate attention from others…..and possibly questions like: “what are you on?”

Tom Venuto: Hugo, you seem to have a very solid knowledge base about training and nutrition science and you’re a champion. But there are a lot of bodybuilders who don’t bother to read all the science and they become top champions as well. You could say they’ve become “street smart” but they’re not book smart. For example, they could tell you what they did to get big, but they couldn’t explain hypertrophy in scientific terms. Do you think it’s better or even a necessity for bodybuilders to do research and make the effort to learn exercise physiology or do you believe that a bodybuilder can become great just by listening to his body and following his instincts?

Hugo Rivera: Tom, I think that there are bodybuilders who are just really good at figuring out what works best for them as they really know how to listen to their bodies. They are far and few in between, but they exist. Others simply have great genetics and even by doing silly routines and really dumb diets that would do nothing for you nor I, they still look better than us. However, in my experience most people are not like this. So what are the average bodybuilders to do?

While I don’t think one has to become an exercise physiologist nor a molecular biologist to gain muscle, I do think a certain amount of education is necessary simply to do things in a safe manner, avoid the mistakes that we did at the beginning and thus gain muscle as quickly as possible by doing things right. So the solution then is to get a good bodybuilding guide and MOST IMPORTANTLY stick to it. You have an awesome one, so does Will Brink, so does Lee Labrada and so do I (shameless plug for Body Re-Engineering…LOL).

I think it is important to know however that while some education is necessary, I have seen guys that know a TON about the science behind muscle growth yet don’t look like they have ever picked up a weight.

These are people who spend more time debating muscle growth theories and the science behind them than putting them into practice at the gym or at the kitchen. One thing that I learned back in my engineering days is that sometimes the lab results will tell you one thing and the real world another. So you always have to put theories into practice in order to fine tune them and make them work.

Having said that, if you feel compelled to know what happens at the molecular level when you train, then by all means do so but just don’t forget to do what you need to in terms of training and dieting as otherwise only your knowledge of muscle growth will get big but not the muscles you want to grow.

Tom Venuto: Let’s shift gears a little bit from muscle building to fat loss. How do you see the difference between going from overweight or obese to normal weight, and going from normal weight to single digit body fat and going from upper single digit body fat to contest ready?

Hugo Rivera: Great question Tom. There is a HUGE difference between these three cases and since I have been at every body fat level you can imagine, I certainly know about these differences. So to answer this question I will cover each case in detail:

Case #1 – Going from obese to normal weight: This is the easiest transformation by far. In this case, it is very easy for the body to start dropping body fat since there is so much of it that once any sort of diet starts, the body responds by burning the excess fat. At this level, any sort of diet that provides some sort of caloric restriction will drop weight. However, since we are interested in just losing fat weight while preserving or gaining lean muscle, the best results happen when a sound program consisting of multiple meals (5-6) spread out every three hours and consisting of complex, low glycemic carbohydrates (like brown rice, oatmeal, yams), vegetables (broccoli, green beans), lean proteins (like chicken, tuna, turkey, egg whites), and good fats (like the ones found in salmon, olive oil, flax seed oil) is implemented. Take 1 serving of each of those nutrients that I just mentioned to make up each meal, drink plenty of water (0.66 times your body weight in ounces), weight train with weights 3 times a week (like Mon/Wed/Fri), do cardio the other 3 times (Tue, Thur, Sat) and voila, you will lose weight.

Case #2 – Going from normal weight to single body fat: To do this, you still implement the same strategy as the one for case 1 but now you need to be a bit more precise. While you can get away with portion control by using the “eye method” if you belong to case #1, for case #2 you need a bit more precision so measuring your food intake with a scale and measuring cups is a must. In addition, more frequent weight training (4-5 times a week) and more frequent cardio (5-6 times a week for 30-45 minutes) will be needed. In terms of nutrient intake, one needs to pay closer attention to the types of carbohydrates consumed, and depending on how carbohydrate sensitive the person is, the last meal may or may not have any starchy carbs. In addition, it is of utmost importance that except for EFAs, all other fats be minimized.

Case #3 – Going from upper single digit body fat to contest ready: This case is really what separates the men from the boys. Except in the exceptional case of those with great genetics, most of us who wish to get contest ready will need to restrict carbohydrates significantly and also practice carbohydrate cycling (having a high carb day at least once a week). Precision of nutrient intake is IMPERATIVE in this case and more frequent training will be needed. Weight training routines that go 3 days on, one day off or 4 days on, one day off work best and most of us will also need to perform double cardio (yes, you heard me right). One session before meal 1 of 45 minutes will become a must and if more cardio is needed, another one of 30-45 minutes performed either after the workout or later at night will help the cause tremendously. Missing meals as well as not measuring your food are not options and you will also have to restrict any sort of artificial sweetener as well as watch your sodium. Water intake also needs to be in 1-2 gallons per day. Getting into contest ready condition is no walk in the park and will require the most Spartan discipline to get through it. The nutrition required may be considered extreme by some people but that is what it will take to achieve this level of leanness. Also, the use of supplements like glutamine, creatine, flax oil, extra vitamin c, and a great multiple vitamin formula are a must. Also, I should add that I have never been able to get through a contest prep without some extra caffeine to help me get through the day as contest prep dieting is EXTREME!

In a nutshell Tom, I always say that the more extreme you want to look, the more extreme your bodybuilding lifestyle will need to become.

Tom Venuto: For serious contest level dieting, what is your opinion on the ideal way to diet for reaching low single digit body fat?

Hugo Rivera: What has always worked well for me is to methodically lower the carbs and increase the cardio. I don’t recommend zero carb diets so when I say lower the carbs I am not saying eliminate them. Usually, my starchy carbs come out to be around half my bodyweight and the rest of the carbs come from vegetables like green beans. The green leafy vegetables I don’t count…to me they are free foods as they have negative calories (takes more calories to digest them than what they take in 100 calories from green beans and it may take 120 calories to digest it so you have a deficit of 20 calories). However, every 6 days I then increase my starchy carbs to around 1.3 times my body weight. That high carb day will prevent the body from adjusting the metabolism downward.

For contest dieting I also believe in eating as much real food as possible. As a matter of fact, this past year all I did was real food for the Southern States and the USAs. Two good reasons for this:

1.) Real food has a bigger thermogenic effect than shakes.
2.) You get more satiated with the real food and I also found that you get way less cravings if you just have a solid food diet.

In addition, EFAs are a must so I made sure to consume 2 servings of salmon per day plus an extra tablespoon of flax oil and Labrada Nutrition EFA Lean Gold. The flax was spread over 3 teaspoons that were added to my veggies on meals 2, 4, 6 and 8. The Labrada EFAs would be consumed on meals 1, 3, 5, and 7 and I would take 3 of those softgels.

For carbohydrate sources I stuck to brown rice, sweet potatoes, and oatmeal. I would have grits also at times. For vegetables, mainly green beans and lettuce. Proteins were simply chicken and salmon.

I would also make sure not to consume any starchy carbs after 1 pm (after 1 pm only veggies were consumed with every meal). My weight training would be performed around 12 so that as soon as I was done I would have my last serving of starchy carbs. In addition, I would perform a 45 min walk before meal 1 and a 45 min elliptical around 6pm.

I should also mention that I did 8 meals per day of 32 grams of protein each…even though this was inconvenient, I feel that having extra meals like this during pre-contest helps to keep the metabolism operating more efficiently and also curbs appetite a bit better.

Needless to say, as far as beverages is concerned, spring water was all I consumed. I used no seasoning other than Mrs Dash for the meats and I had zero artificial sweeteners.

Tom Venuto: Wow, that sound uncannily close to what I do before competitions. Hey, great minds think alike! I want to come back to that comment you made earlier about dieting year round for years on end providing hardness. Could you elaborate on that? Do you mean eating clean and keeping tight control over your body fat level and food intake is a better approach than bulking up and getting lax with your off season diet?

Hugo Rivera: Exactly Tom. There is no reason to get lax in the off-season; getting lax is not bodybuilding. To me, bodybuilding is a lifestyle of consistent proper eating, training, cardiovascular exercise and rest. So whether competing or not, one should always be on top of all these variables. I am not saying never ever have a small cheat, but you must always exercise self control and common sense.

For those who choose to compete, it is IMPERATIVE that in the off-season you prevent yourself from going above 10% body fat, you will not only grow better, but your muscle maturity will increase over time tremendously. There is a chemical reason for this. At above 10% body fat your estrogen levels begin to increase and the more body fat you accumulate the more estrogen you will have. Therefore, now the extra calories required to gain muscle have a higher probability of getting stored as fat.

However, between 6-10% your testosterone levels are pretty optimized. As a result, you grow better because the extra calories can be better utilized to gain muscle. In addition, your skin always stays thin and close to the muscle which over time provides for better hardness and muscularity. Also, the problem of loose skin due to loss of elasticity caused by getting fat and then trimming down is no longer an issue.

I believe one should always stay between 6-10% body fat. Bulk up phases should be “clean bulks” as I call them where one eats a slightly higher amount of calories to support muscle growth. Once 10% body fat is reached, then one should go on a fat burning phase and get back down to 6 or 7%. Going up and down in this manner systematically will give you better muscle and much better definition over time. I have tested this principle over and over again in athletes that I have trained for competition and it never fails to yield results. And the beauty of it is that I find athletes year after year just getting better and showing up bigger and more defined show after show.

Tom Venuto: If you were giving advice to a serious, hard core competitive level bodybuilder, what would you tell him about the pain barrier in training?

Hugo Rivera: I think that hardcore bodybuilders need to learn how to use whatever mental tactic is needed to go past the pain barrier and keep those repetitions coming (as long as they are performed with good form). This is particularly true of leg training as it is way too easy to give up once the burn on the quads start to creep up during a high repetition squat for example.

As “sick” as it sounds, I have learned to enjoy the pain and feed off from it. I explore it as I perform the set and stay in tune with it always differentiating good pain vs bad pain. The sooner you embrace the pain encountered during hardcore training, the sooner you will see your gains skyrocketing.

Tom Venuto: You “explore” good pain. That is very, very interesting, and I hear similar comments from all bodybuilding champions at the high end of the sport, as compared to people who train recreationally and don’t need to push that far. On this topic of mindset, when you’re getting ready for a competition, I have to believe that unless you’re a cyborg or your nickname is “iceman”, that you have periods of self-doubt in some shape or form. I know the mind can play tricks on you especially in those final phases of contest prep. What do you do or say to yourself to re-focus and stay motivated when self doubt pops up.

Hugo Rivera: Great question Tom. I think that to be a successful competitive bodybuilder, not only do you need to be awesome with all the bodybuilding variables of training, dieting and rest, but most importantly you need to know how to handle the mind games that can play tricks on the competitor, and these games get worse and worse as the weeks go by.

Ever since my first competition back in 2001, I hired a great coach, Tim Gardner, and thanks to him I was able to deal with these issues much better. What I do is that I just let him take over the diet and dial me in. In this manner, even though my mind is playing all sorts of games on me, I just remember Tim’s words on how much I am progressing and simply disregard the thoughts. In addition, I like to take weekly pictures as these serve to give me great feedback and also motivate me to look better for my next photo shoot on the following weeks.

I have also noticed that as one does more competitions, one learns how to better tune out the voices inside the head. However the first competition is the most challenging one by far as one goes into it with no idea of what will be encountered. My advice for at least the first competition is to hire a good coach.

Tom Venuto: I found your book Body Re-engineering very interesting because you did something that most trainers and strength coaches have not done, you applied periodization to bodybuilding. Most of the information published on periodization today is focused on sports and on leading an athlete up to a competition or season that has nothing to do with physique and cosmetic appearance. I remember attempting to write an article series years ago about periodization for bodybuilding and I found it challenging to capture on paper what could be a very complex system of planned variation. I think you did a great job with that. One thing I was curious about though is whether you follow the exact training programs from your own book, or if you wrote that book for a more mass appeal audience that’s in a different place and has different needs than you do.

Tom Venuto: Great question and thank you for the compliment Tom!

Believe it or not, the routines you see in Body Re-engineering are the exact routines that I used with great success in the past. Today, after tons of years practicing such methods, I am pretty instinctive and though I still use loading and growth phases, the workout themselves I create as I am on the gym (so every workout is different). For a loading phase I follow a quicker pace and higher reps while for a growth phase I go heavier and use modified supersets in order to get extra rest in between sets. Also, these days I may follow a loading phase up until I start encountering overtraining symptoms and then cut back to a growth phase.

So to answer your question, I still follow the principles laid out in Body Re-engineering but the training routines are created instinctively…always using the most basic exercises, of course, so nothing fancy.Hugo Rivera

(Note: Sometimes I do look through the book if I don’t want to go through the effort of creating something unique for the day so if I am on a loading phase, I choose one of the many loading phase workouts and if I am on a growth phase, then choose one of the many I offer).

As far as the split routine, except during pre-contest, I do the same split presented on the book (for pre-contest I like to split my body parts over 5 days actually). However, since my chest and back are my most powerful body parts, I have started to do delts and arms on Day 1, legs on day 2, and chest/back/abs on day 3. On day 4 I just rest.

Tom Venuto: Do you think there is a place for very short, abbreviated training protocols for an advanced competitive bodybuilder, or do you belong to the camp that says you need a certain amount of volume to grow optimally? How does the volume change over time in your periodization system? Is there any particular time that you should lower the volume?

Hugo Rivera: I think that unless the athlete using the very short, abbreviated training protocol is an athlete who just got seriously overtrained by a training protocol of 2-3 hours of intense training 6 days a week, abbreviated 1-2 sets per exercise/high intensity protocols will yield very little results.

I do believe that a muscle requires a certain amount of volume to grow. Research and real word results prove that. In my Body Re-Engineering periodization, I increase the volume over a period of 3 weeks. Then when the body is almost at the point of overtraining I cut the volume by reducing the amount of repetitions and increasing the weight (this is the Growth Phase). After 3 weeks I dramatically reduce the volume by only doing two full body routines over the course of a week (Active Rest) before going back to the next high volume phase (Loading Phase). In this manner I use volume as a means to cause stress to the point that overtraining becomes a possibility, then allow for adaptation to happen (since I am lowering the volume and allowing the body to catch up and grow), and then I emphasize rest by taking an active rest week (as this is more beneficial than just taking a week off since in this manner endurance, size and strength are not lost).

Tom Venuto: I think that’s pretty interesting to note that you still use full body workouts sometimes, even as an advanced competitive bodybuilder. On a related note, what are your thoughts about hard gainers?

Hugo Rivera: Hard gainers are mainly a victim of undernourishment. The problem with this type of people is that their metabolism burns through nutrients with the efficiency that desert sand swallows water. Therefore in order for growth to occur, hardgainers need to have a much higher carbohydrate base than most of us. For them I recommend a nutrient ratio of 55% carbs. 25% proteins and 20% fats. Calorie wise, multiplying the body weight times 18 yields a good start. If results are not achieved with this strategy then I would suggest slowly increasing calories to bodyweight times 24 but we will modify the nutrient ratio to contain a bit more good fats; so now the ratio will look like the following: 50% carbs, 25% proteins and 25% fats.

Because of the volume of food that hardgainers have to ingest, I recommend that half the meals be solid and the other half liquid in order to facilitate digestion. In addition, digestive enzymes are a must and should be taken with every meal. For liquid meals a good weight gainer that is low in sugars and high in protein like Labrada’s Lean Body Mass 60 is a good choice. Stay away from high sugar high fat weight gainers as we still need to focus on quality calories, not garbage ones.

In addition to the above, there should be 2 days where the hardgainer lowers his caloric intake in order to give the digestive system a bit of a rest and also to prime the body again for maximum nutrient intake.

In terms of training, recovery needs to be maximized so cardiovascular activity should be at a bare minimum and sometimes none. In terms of training, a routine like day 1 – chest/back, day 2 rest, day 3 – delts/arms, day 4 legs, day 5 rest, and day 6 start over will work great for a hardgainer. Other than this, I still recommend the same loading, growth and active rest phases to the hardgainer than I would recommend to anyone else.

Tom Venuto: Darin Steen, the WNBF pro is 43 this year and placed top 6 at the worlds last year. Dave Goodin is 48 and he placed 2nd at the Team Universe last year. You know that saying, 50 is the new 30? Well, most bodybuilders believe that they will peak by age 40, some even say late 30’s which I know is not true based on Dave and Darin alone, but do you think we’re going to start seeing champion bodybuilders still holding their own on stage in their 50’s in the near future because of the “three minute mile effect?” What I mean is, when mature bodybuilders see guys like Dave and Darin kicking butt, do you think the realization that “Wow, it really is possible to look like that at 48 years old” will result in more people looking like that due to the belief factor?

Hugo Rivera: Absolutely Tom. I think that with all we know about training, nutrition and supplementation today we will continue to see great physiques at ages that we would never have dreamed it’d be possible to look like that. This is especially true of athletes that started training early in their life and that have consistently followed the bodybuilding lifestyle through their whole life staying in great shape whether competing or not and not abusing anabolic steroids. Another good example of what I just mentioned, in addition to the two examples you just provided, is Lee Labrada. If you look at him today, it is very hard to accept that he is 48 years old. He weighs around 185-lbs, a bit lighter than when he used to step onstage at the Olympia, but I can tell you that he can easily hold his own on any bodybuilding stage even today. His “off-season” is way better than what some amateur competitors call their competition shape. Again, this is a look that happens after years of consistency, good nutrition, smart training, proper recovery and no drug abuse (whether recreational drugs or anabolic ones).

Tom Venuto: Yeah, Lee was incredible during his competitive career and he’s still amazing. This next question may be too personal or sensitive for you to answer, and if it is, just skip it. But do you think that an older bodybuilder who takes testosterone replacement therapy and or growth hormone, prescribed for “anti-aging” purposes by a doctor can still call himself a natural? Do you think they get a steroid-like advantage?

Hugo Rivera: Oh no worries Tom. Like yourself, I believe that we should be able to share the truth to all of our readers out there so I am more than happy to answer this.

Research clearly indicates that as a male ages, testosterone declines. It declines to the point that it not only becomes detrimental to your bodybuilding efforts, but also to your health as you will have less energy, less sex drive, less immunity and many other ailments that scientists are beginning to now find out about (like a possible link to Alzheimer’s disease for example). That being said, once blood work clearly indicates a testosterone deficiency that is significant and was not caused by overtraining or lack of nutrition, then I think the bodybuilder (or any male for that matter) should consider hormonal replacement.

The goal of HRT is to bring levels back to normal or high normal levels, not the insane levels that most enhanced athletes have due to abusive dosages and combinations of several drugs; so I’d say that the only advantage the bodybuilder will encounter is the great growth experienced during puberty but not the dramatic transformation (the steroid like advantage) that someone who is abusing these drugs will get. So since we are just substituting something that the body is no longer producing, I’d say that a male who is only using tiny doses to get him back to where he should be can be called natural. That being said, should such bodybuilders be allowed to compete at natural shows? Well, I guess here is where it gets tricky. Even though I do consider someone doing PROPERLY SUPERVISED AND ADMINISTERED HRT natural, if it’d be me the one who is 48 and doing HRT, I would solve this problem by just competing in an open non-tested over 40 show. Unless of course natural federations would allow over 45 year old bodybuilders to compete using HRT as long as they have a doctor’s slip. Again, it is a different ballgame to do HRT than it is to abuse the drugs. Bodybuilders doing HRT will not see the gains (nor the side effects) that someone who is doing 7 different drugs (to be conservative as I know that some competitive athletes do way more than this) all at high dosages will experience.

Even though I give a thumbs up to HRT, I must caution that there are a lot of doctors still who are not educated enough on this subject. For example, my business partner who is over 40 was prescribed some testosterone the other day and the things that the doctor told him almost gave me a heart attack. For example, the doctor claimed that taking the testosterone would not have any adverse effects in terms of estrogen increase as “only athletes going way above high normal levels experience aromatization”. This is just not a true statement. Aromatization happens to anyone who takes testosterone and whether an anti-estrogen will be needed ot not depends on the person’s genetics. Most people will need an anti-estrogen. The doctor also said that because my partner was not going to be using a dose that would place him above teenage levels the drug would have no impact on sperm count nor on testicular size. Again, way off the mark; testosterone will shut down the pituitary axis if the appropriate measures are not taken and thus bring your sperm count to zero.

Please understand that I am not trying to take a shot at the Medical profession; my grandfather was a surgeon and I have the utmost respect for the people who practice medicine. However, I do want to point out that there are very few physicians at this moment who have a good grasp or training about how to perform HRT so if you are planning on embarking in such a therapy my advice is to do as much research as possible on the subject and to try to find a doctor who is an expert on this subject. HRT does not come without risk nor side effects so it is imperative that it’d be performed properly and under the supervision of someone who absolutely knows what they are doing.

Tom Venuto: I don’t know your age Hugo, but I know you have clients of all ages, so I’m wondering what advice do you have for the over 40 natural bodybuilder? I will be joining that group before long and I’m just getting started with competition, so I’m listening!

Hugo Rivera: I am 33 now Tom, turning 34 on December 5th.

For the over 40 natural bodybuilder, and even over 30, I would recommend training smart. No longer are we 16 year old kids who load up the bar with 225-lbs and bench press it without a warm-up, living to tell about it. Our joints can no longer handle that. So here are some recommendations that I want to make to the more mature of us for joint health:

Now that we know the common causes of joint problems, here are some guidelines on what you can do to prevent them:

Training Guidelines

* Use The Right Training Routine: a well periodized routine that alternates between periods of higher volume/higher repetition (10-15 reps) work with periods of lower repetition/heavier weights (5-8 reps) will work best. Active recovery phases where training volume is dramatically reduced should also be incorporated. The training routine should not be more than 60 minutes long and frequency of body part training will depend upon individual recovery. Generally, teens and those in their twenties can train a bodypart every 48-72 hours (so twice a week). Thirty year olds and those in their fourties benefit more from once every five days. Fifty year old and older, once every seven days.

* Use Proper Warm-Ups: warming up is extremely important, and it becomes more important as we age. While in my opinion, we only need to thoroughly warm up for the first exercise of a body part, not doing so puts you at the risk for injury. To properly warm up, if you know you will be doing 225-lbs on the incline bench for 10 repetitions, the first set I would just do 135-lbs for ten controlled slow repetitions. Then I would increase the weight to 185 for ten reps and only after that second set I would go up to 225-lbs and that would be my first work set. However, if working out on a cold climate, besides wearing warm clothing, I may ride a stationary bike first for 6-10 minutes, not in search of aerobic conditioning but with the goal of increasing my core body temperature. Alternatively I’ve also used abdominal training as a way to increase my core body temperature as well.

* Perform The Right Exercise Techniques With The Proper Weight: Proper execution of exercise and proper lifting speed is crucial. The exercise form should never be sacrificed in the name of adding weight. Nothing good has ever come out of that combination. In addition, jerking the weight up and down not only affects how much the muscle is actually stimulated (so your muscle building results will be less), but also puts much of the stress on the joints, leading to unnecessary micro-trauma. So always choose a weight that allows for full control of the weight and a lifting speed that is steady and controlled on the way up and slower on the way down. Contracting the muscles at the top position also helps to provide maximum stimulation without unnecessarily having to use super heavy weights.

* Ensure Rotator Cuff Health: One of the most common injuries in weight training is that of the rotator cuff. The reason for this is that as the shoulder muscle gets stronger, the rotator cuff gets weaker unless you train it directly with 3 sets of 15-20 repetitions of rotator cuff exercises. Some external rotations at the end of your chest or back workout will do the trick.

Nutrition Guidelines

* Having The Right Diet With Sufficient Amounts of EFAs: Of utmost importance is not to disregard the intake of good fats, emphasizing the fish and flax oils which are high on the Omega 3 essential fatty acids (EFAs). Turns out that these fats play a huge role in anti-inflammation and also on hormonal production. Another good way to get these fats is through a serving of wild atlantic salmon a day or mackerel.

* Sufficient Calories Even When Dieting: Many people cut their calories too low when embarking on a fat loss phase. This leads to loss of bone mass and also poor joint health. Therefore, when dieting, keep in mind that only a slight caloric deficit is required in order to lose body fat. (in the order of 300 calories less than one burns every day or so).

Supplementation Guidelines

* Take Your Multiple Vitamins/Minerals: Many trainees do not realize the importance of taking these micronutrients. However, these are essential to insure that your body will operate at maximum efficiency. Vitamins are organic compounds (produced by both animals and vegetables) whose function is to enhance the actions of proteins that cause chemical reactions such as muscle building, fat burning and energy production. Minerals are inorganic compounds (not produced by either animals or vegetables). Their main function is to make sure that your brain receives the correct signals from the body, balance of fluids, muscular contractions and energy production as well as for the building of muscle and bones. Therefore, on a very simplistic level, without vitamins and minerals it is impossible to covert the food that we eat into hormones, tissues and energy. So as a result, joint health, amongst many other things, will suffer.

* Take Extra Vitamin C: Some research indicates that increased consumption of Vitamin C lowers cortisol (catabolic hormone) levels and improves joint health as Vitamin C is required for connective tissue formation. 2-3 grams of this vitamin split in 1 gram doses at different times of the day will do the trick.

* Gelatin: Believe it or not, gelatin is a source of two very important amino acids that are required for collagen formation: glycine and praline. Several studies (Adem et. al. Therapiewoche, 1991) have shown gelatin providing improvements by reducing joint pain and improving cartilage health.

* Glucosamine/Chondroitin Combination: In a recent review of clinical trials on glucosamine and chondroitin, researchers from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, in Cleveland, Ohio found that of 13 studies reviewed, all were classified as demonstrating positive results. The dosages used in the studies were 1500mg of glucosamine sulfate and 1200mg of chondroitin sulfate.

* MSM: At the Oregon Health Sciences Center in 1997, researchers showed that MSM provided relief equal to a popular non steroidal anti-inflammatory drug. MSM expert and medical reviewer for the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Stanley W. Jacob, M.D., suggests that MSM actually blocks pain signals from traveling along a network of C fibers from the site of damaged tissue to the brain. MSM also appears to reduce inflammation, enhance blood flow, and reduce painful muscle spasms.

* Essential Fats: As stated on the nutrition tips, if you do not consume wild atlantic salmon or mackerel, it is suggested then that you supplement your diet with 1-2 tablespoons of fish oils and/or flaxseed oil in order to get the very important essential fatty acids that your body needs. Carlson fish oils and spectrum flaxseed oil are great products to get these fats from.

Note: A good and convenient product that contains Vitamin C, Gelatin, Glucosamine, Chondroitin and MSM at the right dosages in a good tasting drink is called ElastiJoint ® by Labrada Nutrition.

Rest/Recovery Guidelines

* Use Periodization And Provide Enough Rest Prior To Training A Bodypart Again: As mentioned in the training guidelines, periodization and the right amount of time before training a body part again are of utmost importance to joint health and recuperation. Overtraining leads to overuse injuries.

* Get Your 8 Hours Of Sleep Each Night: Sleep deprivation leads to depressed hormonal production which at the end of the day affects your recovery and prevents full recuperation from training. So make sure that you get your ZZZZZsss.

In addition to all of the above, I recommend regular blood work to keep track of one’s health and hormonal status.

Tom Venuto: OK one last question. The dominating sentiment with most strength coaches and mainstream personal trainers today is that bodybuilding training, with its use of bodypart split routines and isolation exercises and so on, is not ideal for the average Joe, or even “utterly worthless” depending on which expert you listen to and depending on their strength and conditioning background. Do you think there is any truth to this, or do you believe that ordinary folks can benefit from the type of training that bodybuilders do?

Hugo Rivera: While I do believe that the competition routine of a champion bodybuilder is totally worthless for the average Joe just looking for some fat loss and muscle gain, bodybuilding training is by far the quickest way to cause someone to re-engineer the way they look. Why would someone not use the principles and routines that provide the most dramatic gains in the shortest time possible? Of course one would need to adapt such principles and routines to the more modest goals of the average Joe, but still the principles remain the same. For example, for people who are just interested in fat loss and some moderate muscle gain I recommend that they only train 3 days with weights using the BRE program and 3 days with cardio. This is a great example of how a hard core bodybuilding routine can be adapted to the more moderate goals of an average Joe.

If the statement that bodybuilding routines are worthless for ordinary folk were to be true, then how come if you look at the transformations of some movie stars today and find out the type of training and nutrition that they have followed to achieve the look of a super hero role for instance, you will find out that the basis of their programs is bodybuilding. The look achieved by these stars (who are not in competition shape nor champion bodybuilders) is typically the look that most people want anyways. So I am not sure where these strength coaches and personal trainers are getting their ideas from but it obviously isn’t from real world results.

Tom Venuto: is there anything else you want to say to our audience of natural bodybuilders and bodybuilding fans or anything you wished I had asked but didn’t?

Hugo Rivera: Tom; I just want to sincerely thank you for interviewing me again and also want to urge you to continue doing the fantastic job you are doing in reaching people out there and sharing your vast knowledge to help them get in shape.

I also want to thank all of my fans out there who have always supported me and who have provided me with the motivation to keep going through hard times like the last few weeks before a contest. Also special thanks to fans who have inspired me by sharing their success stories with me and thus have given me the motivation to continue to write material on how to get in shape.

I guess that I will leave by sharing a few tips that bodybuilders from all levels can use:

a.) Never sacrifice form to lift more weight. We are in the business of stimulating muscle so weights are just the tools we use to induce stimulation; we are not powerlifters. Also, focus on really squeezing the muscle you’re training. The way I see it, focusing and squeezing is much more important than the amount of weight used, and with that manner of execution you can’t use really heavy weights.

Hugo Riverab.) You need to practice goal setting: Without goals we are like a ship in the middle of the sea, just drifting away with no sense of direction. It just goes with the flow, so to speak, and if it ever gets anywhere it is just by mere accident. In order to achieve success in our bodybuilding program, our goal should be clearly defined and engrained in our brains. Otherwise, like the boat on the example above, if you get anywhere it will be by mere chance.

c.) Follow a sensible and well periodized training program: Unfortunately, many bodybuiders who are just getting started make the mistake of either choosing a bodybuilding routine that is too advanced for their level, or simply go to the gym without any training plan. Too much too soon leads to injury and just going from machine to machine without any set routine just leads to marginal bodybuilding results at best. The cure to this problem is to grab a sensible bodybuilding routine that fits your training level and execute it day in and day out.

d.) If you want results, do not neglect the nutrition component: Without a bodybuilding diet to go along with your training program you will fail to lose body fat and gain muscle. Nutrition is what gives us the raw materials for recuperation, energy, and growth. Therefore, it is important that you get familiarized with the characteristics of a good bodybuilding diet and apply those principles in order to ensure getting the bodybuilding gains that you are looking for. And along these lines, if you are looking to have abs, nutrition is the main component that needs to be tweaked in order to get those. Why? Because ripped abs are a function of low body fat and low body fat is attained through following the proper diet.

e.) Don’t rely on supplements to do the work for you: Supplements do not make up for improper training, or lack thereof, and/or a low quality diet. Bodybuilding supplements only work when your diet and your training program are optimal. Keep in mind that supplements are just additions to an already good nutrition and training program. Once all of those aspects of your program are maximized, then you can start thinking of adding bodybuilding supplements to your program.

f.) You need to get proper rest: Muscles do not grow as you work them out. They grow while you sleep. Therefore, sleep deprivation will cost you valuable bodybuilding gains. Ensure a good night sleep every night and avoid staying up late if you don’t need to in order to keep cortisol levels low. Seven to ideally eight hours of sleep each night will not only keep you healthy and more energetic, but also will ensure that bodybuilding gains keep on coming.

g.) Consistency leads to bodybuilding success: Remember that consistency of execution will lead to ultimate bodybuilding success: If you consistently apply a sound training system, nutrition, supplementation and recovery plan you will achieve your fitness goals.

h.) If you fall off the wagon, lift yourself up and get back on it! Too many bodybuilders focus on perfection. Therefore, if they miss a workout, a meal, or cheat on their diet, they get all frustrated and toss the whole program. As my good colleague and worldwide nutrition expert Keith Klein says: “That is the equivalent of getting a flat tire and puncturing the other three plus the spare!” Remember, this game is won through consistency of execution, not through perfection.

i.) You control what you put in your mouth: Remember that only you control what goes in your mouth. Food does not control you!

j.) Believe in yourself: Last but not least, and as funny as it sounds, there must be NO DOUBT in your mind that you can make this transformation a reality. If not, you won’t be able to achieve your desired results. Believing in yourself is really the first step. If you don’t believe in yourself, who will?

Tom Venuto: Thanks a ton Hugo. One of our website visitors left a comment on the blog that you are an inspiration to them and I just want to second that. Thanks again

Hugo Rivera: Well Tom, the feeling is mutual my friend. Thank you so much for such an awesome interview and best of health to you!

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