Q: I’ve been training for about 20 years and have competed in a few shows—generally placing first or second. I just recently won the Natural Mr. Minnesota show and got my IFPA pro card. At my very first show, back in 2001, I weighed 162 pounds. At my most recent win I was also 162 pounds. I’m stronger than I was and look at least 15 pounds heavier just for muscle development and maturity. As most people know, a number of factors determine “good” or “great” genetics in bodybuilding, like muscle mass, symmetry and proportion. I don’t believe I’m a hardgainer, as I seem to have good genetics and look a lot heavier than I am. My question is, Is it possible for a true natural bodybuilder—I’m not talking about a brand-new weightlifter in his teens; I’m talking about an intermediate-to-advanced bodybuilder—to put on muscle mass at that stage of development? I know of a so-called natural bodybuilder who goes through the same testing as I would—polygraph and urinalysis—and he says he’s natural. I’m thinking that man is the most gifted natural bodybuilder I’ve ever seen. Then I look at photos spanning two to three years, and he goes from an okay, subpar presence to a phenom, like a 20-to-25-pound gain. Is that possible? I’m one to be optimistic about people, and I could understand if this individual was a heavily muscled kid—but he wasn’t. What’s your opinion?
A: It’s hard to say whether the person you’re talking about is really natural or if he is taking performance-enhancing drugs. When a person starts training, it is possible to add 20 pounds in the first few years. That’s especially true if that person is young and responds well to training.
After an individual has been training for 10 years or so, however, it becomes much harder to add more muscle. It’s not impossible, of course, but the more advanced your physique becomes, the more difficult it is to add more muscle.
You mentioned that you compete at the same weight that you did nine years ago but look 15 pounds heavier because of your muscle maturity and development. That could be the same situation with the person you mentioned. He may not actually be 20 to 25 pounds heavier; he may just look as if he’s gained that much weight because he looks so much better.
In the natural-bodybuilding world, qualities like symmetry, proportion, definition, separation and muscularity help create the illusion of a bigger bodybuilder. As a natural-bodybuilding promoter, I’m often quite surprised by how little some of the bodybuilders who win my events actually weigh. They may look as if they’re 190 or 200 pounds, but in reality they weigh only 160 to 170.
As your physique becomes more advanced, adding even a few pounds of quality muscle can make a tremendous difference in your appearance. I remember competing in the ’95 Natural Mr. Universe weighing 204. After watching the videotape of the competition, I thought I looked very good and had made improvements from the last time I stepped onstage, but I also thought I could be even bigger.
During the following off-season, I worked very, very hard to add more muscle size to my already advanced development. I increased the number of calories and carbohydrates I was taking in every day. Eventually, I got up to eating approximately 5,000 calories a day with 700 grams of carbs.
In order to compensate for that tremendous number of calories, I made sure that I trained as heavy and as hard as possible. I trained four days a week in the off-season, concentrating on the basic exercises, such as barbell rows, bench presses, incline presses, squats, stiff-legged deadlifts and military and dumbbell presses. I found that the more calories and carbs I took in, the more I was able to lift during my heavy workouts. When I was at my heaviest bodyweight, I was also my strongest. That verified that I wasn’t just adding fat to my physique but real muscle.
I often took measurements, even in the off-season, to compare myself to where I was at the same time last year. Here’s the comparison from the same time in the off-season from 1995 to ’96:
Weight 230 pounds
Bodyfat 17.9 percent
Chest 50 3/4 inches
Waist 36 inches
Arms 19 1/4 inches
Thighs 27 1/4 inches
Calves 17 1/2 inches
Forearms 15 1/2 inches
Neck 17 3/4 inches
Weight 242 pounds
Bodyfat 16.2 percent
Chest 51 1/2 inches
Waist 36 3/4 inches
Arms 19 7/8 inches
Thighs 28 inches
Calves 17 7/8 inches
Forearms 15 1/2 inches
Neck 17 3/4 inches
You can see what a difference I made in a year by dramatically increasing my calories and also training very heavy and hard. Although I weighed much more and my waist increased, all my other muscle groups increased in size too. That was very satisfying because I knew that I’d added more muscle and that it would make a difference when I dieted down for the competition.
When I did my contest diet that year, I gave myself enough time to slowly lose the fat without sacrificing any of the valuable muscle that I’d worked so hard to acquire. I dieted for 20 full weeks and slowly brought my calories down along with eventually adding cardio to my routine.
When I competed in my next contest, I weighed 208 pounds. That was only four pounds heavier than the previous year, but my physique looked vastly different. I was much thicker and rounder all over my physique. It wasn’t just the four pounds that made a difference; it was the overall look that my physique had from training so hard at a heavier bodyweight all year.
My advice for natural bodybuilders is to work hard during the off-season in order to make some significant changes to your physique. It may take a full year of eating a lot of high-quality bodybuilding food along with heavy training using the basic exercises to get the job done, but the results when you step onstage again will be worth it.
Editor’s note: John Hansen has won the Mr. Natural Olympia and is a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Check out his Web site at www.NaturalOlympia.com, or send questions or comments to him at John@NaturalOlympia.com or at P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561. Look for John’s DVD, “Natural Bodybuilding Seminar and Competitions,” along with his book, Natural Bodybuilding, and his training DVD, “Real Muscle,” at his Web site or at Home Gym Warehouse, www.Home-Gym.com. Listen to John’s new radio show, “Natural Bodybuilding Radio,” at www.NaturalBodybuildingRadio.com. IM