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Lean Dean Tornabene

You hear the echo of clanging weight plates as you cross the street from the parking lot—ringing out like Tibetan sound bowls and stimulating an adrenaline surge. The silhouettes of the greatest bodybuilders in the world come into focus as you approach. Now you’re fired up and ready to tear the gym apart.…

Training at Gold’s Gym in Venice, California, during the ’80s was a fantastic experience. The atmosphere was electrifying and certainly the most hardcore at the time. The cast of characters included the who’s who of bodybuilding, sports, wrestling, powerlifting—even Hollywood. Contest season brought world-class athletes vying for the Nationals as well as pro bodybuilding.

Over the years they’d come and go, but some names and faces stand out. Dean Tornabene, a former Mr. America and National Powerlifting champion—the only athlete ever to achieve both titles—is one such name. His desire for a comprehensive knowledge base so he could effectively construct fitness and nutritional products led him to complete a national chiropractic curriculum and study under a master herbalist. Dean’s education and career give him a unique perspective that he’s exploited with unprecedented success.

Though Dean started as an athlete, his competitive drive, vision and disciplined business practices equipped him to capitalize fully on his ideas. His inventions have generated more than $500 million in sales, and the supplements he’s formulated have generated billions for numerous industry leaders.

Now past 40, Dean recently whipped himself back into photo-ready shape to celebrate the launch of his latest venture.

DY: How did you get started in bodybuilding and fitness?
DT: I competed in a number of sports growing up, but I was really into boxing and powerlifting as a teen. I was even an Olympic hopeful in lifting, believe it or not. My interest in training got me reading all the training books, articles and magazines I could get my hands on. Growing up in Pittsburgh, the East Coast’s mecca for bodybuilding at the time, I met and befriended Jim Manion about the time he was putting together the NPC. We trained together, and he gave me pointers and helped with diet, nutrition and training.

Not too long afterward, I started competing and won a number of local and state titles, including Teenage Mr. Pittsburgh, and placed in the top three at the Mr. Pittsburgh the same year, when I was only 19. I ended up moving to Los Angeles to attend college in 1981 and placed second in 1982 at the NPC Nationals. That put me on the map, and I started writing for Weider publications and began personal training at Gold’s in Venice. Things took off from there.

DY: I remember you as the first or one of the first personal trainers at Gold’s, Venice. What’s the story behind that?
DT: I was working out at Gold’s in Venice, and it was exactly like it’s been described—hardcore and crazy. Personal training was in its infancy because there were a lot of misconceptions about weight training, I had managed to pick up a number of clients at an exclusive private club, but inevitably they’d ask me what I was doing and where I trained. So I told a couple of them I’d take them to Gold’s. I remember asking the management at Gold’s if I could bring in people to work out. They were kind of perplexed by what I was asking. I explained that the people I brought in would buy memberships but that they wanted to pay me to show them how to work out.
Frankly, they didn’t think anyone would pay for that, so they didn’t care and let me do it. I remember a lot of other guys who worked out there shared that view until they saw how many people would actually pay. Next thing you know, all these guys were “personal trainers.”

DY: You had a pretty impressive list of clients: Pierce Brosnan, Sylvester Stallone, Peter Strauss, members of the Jackson family, Dolly Parton, Thelma Houston and Mickey Rourke. Tell us about some of the celebrities you trained.
DT: I’ve been fortunate to train a lot of very talented and, in most cases, really good people. I have a number of great stories. One I can share involves Pierce Brosnan. After he was picked to be Bond, it was my job to get him in shape. It was a big deal, and he worked really hard. We had a grueling schedule, but he was never late to a workout and expected the same of me.

One day, though, I came home right before I was supposed to train him, and I found my 10-foot pet Burmese python had escaped from its tank and, worse, appeared to have eaten my neighbor’s dog. He was lying in the courtyard of my building, unable to move with this huge lump of whatever he was digesting bulging out. So I grabbed him and pulled him into my house. I explained to Pierce why I was late, but it took us another 15 minutes before we could train because he laughed so hard he was winded. I felt bad a few days later when my neighbor came by and asked if I’d seen her dog. I ended up donating the snake to the zoo because he got too big.

DY: You’ve been involved in developing and promoting many fitness and bodybuilding products. How did that come about?
DT: I was still attending college, competing and personal training, and I started formulating supplements for my own use to improve my training and performance. I didn’t have a proper lab, so I tested most of my early formulations on family members. It’s crazy when I think about it now; they were pretty brave. You have to remember, at that time “supplements” meant vitamins, and there weren’t a lot of people or companies exploring herbal supplements for weight loss, performance enhancement or anything like that.

DY: So you used your family members as lab rats?
DT: [Laughs] Well, now that you put it that way—yes! When I hit on formulations that worked, it wasn’t long before my clients and even friends I was competing against began to notice and wanted to know what I was doing.
One of my best formulas was probably the first thermogenic product created, and people couldn’t get enough of it. At the time I was handing out supplements in ziplock bags. That’s really how it began. It grew from there organically and predominantly by word of mouth, and I made the tough decision to give up personal training.

I started getting calls from Rick Hilton—of Hilton Hotels and Paris Hilton’s father. He was calling on behalf of Mark Hughes, the founder of Herbalife, but I kept hanging up on him because I thought it was a joke. Well, it wasn’t, and I ended up formulating Herbalife’s first thermogenic product. It became one of their best-selling products, and they still carry a version of it. I formulated a number of very successful products for many of the top supplement companies.

DY: You went on to invent a lot of successful products like the Ab Rocker, Bun & Thigh Roller, Ab Swing, Bun & Thigh Rocker and the Tone N Glide. How did you get into inventing products like that?
DT: I was approached by the former president of Weider, who at the time was working for a prominent infomercial and marketing company. He asked me if I’d thought about making fitness equipment for TV. Next thing I knew, they’d signed me to a huge contract. It was exciting, but the only problem was, I had no idea how I was going to make any of it. I wasn’t an engineer, and I didn’t have a shop or know how to weld. I tried thinking of people I knew who could help, and I ended up partnering with the only person I knew who could weld, a friend I’d competed against who was at one time a maintenance person at Gold’s.

Miraculously, we weren’t laughed out of the building or thrown into the streets when we presented our first prototype. Instead I started developing products for Jake Steinfeld, of Body by Jake, and other well-known fitness personalities. Several of my products were some of the biggest hits in television history and won three “Infomercial of the Year” awards.

DY: As Jake would say, Gang, that’s abadaba-solutely wild. Tell us about your latest project.
DT: With the ballooning obesity problem, it’s no surprise that more than 10 million people a month are searching the Web for weight-loss solutions. Until now, they would mostly find false promises, gimmicks or fads, conflicting advice and a whole lot of noise. There’s been no trusted source for weight-loss help, just a lot of pitchmen with a history of endorsing products and not creating them. I should know. I invented a lot of their products, as well as those for a variety of other large companies.

As audacious as it may sound, I wanted to create that place of authority and elevate the standards for what people should expect and receive on the Web. So I developed a site that would use not only my 25 years of education and experience, but the cutting-edge research, experts and tools that would help people achieve permanent change. The site is, and it’s already one of the top weight-loss sites on the Web. I’m optimistic because of our mission and methods, and I honestly feel we can and will change a lot of people’s lives. In addition, I’ll be featured on Lifetime’s television program “The Balancing Act.”

DY: How can readers capitalize on your expertise?
DT: The best way is to go to There’s a lot of great information about nutrition, training and supplements, as well as some pretty cool things, including a patent pending Visual Eating Exercise Plan.
Essentially, you input personal information based on your goals—gain weight, lose weight, supplement program, etc.—and using that and other information, the program can determine your needs and completely customize an eating and supplement plan and workout program that will display all your meals and exercise programs, showing the foods in their correct portion sizes. It’s pretty sophisticated stuff that took years to construct, but it’s a powerful tool for people trying to reach their specific diet, fitness and health-related goals.

DY: It sounds like it gives people some great tools. You’re still formulating supplements then, aren’t you?
DT: Yes, you bet I am. And though it’s not the focus of the site, you can purchase supplements I’ve formulated there as well as those from a variety of other companies. I’ve formulated hundreds of products, but I have a selection of only my top, most effective products available. The focus of my products has always been mainstream weight loss and energy products, though I help plenty of pro bodybuilders who swear by my products with their nutrition and supplement programs.

DY: What are your future goals regarding bodybuilding and fitness?
DT: I’m competing in this year’s Olympia—just kidding. I will always bodybuild, but I’m not interested in competing anymore. Those days are long gone. I want to continually refine my training and nutrition for myself, but also so I can continue to improve my products for the benefit of others. I hope I can keep researching and learning so I can share my expertise with people looking to improve themselves.

DY: Do you have hobbies?
DT: If you count reading and researching as hobbies, then that’s where most of my time is spent. I’m a huge fan of mixed martial arts— just watching, though. I do enjoy fishing, bowling, pool, chess and, of course, cars and motorcycles.

DY: What keeps you motivated for your training and diet?
DT: I find it mentally, physically and spiritually stimulating. It’s not just training, it’s a lifestyle. That’s enough to keep me motivated. I do what I love, love what I do and function best when I feel the best.

DY: Agreed—you have to love it, and when you do, therein lies the motivation. Then it’s not “I have to do this” but rather “I get to do this!” What’s your diet strategy?
DT: I generally eat clean year-round. If I have a photo shoot or TV appearance, then I do basic food manipulation to improve my conditioning. I increase my proteins and good fats and reduce my carb intake.

DY: Do you have a cheat day to keep your sanity?
DT: Because I eat so clean, I can eat whatever I want. If I see something I want to eat, I just do it. I don’t go overboard. If I’m dieting for a shoot or appearance, usually I work in a cheat day to bump up my metabolism and curb cravings.

DY: Can you describe a typical day’s diet?
DT: My diet is a little more structured right now because I have a number of photo shoots and appearances, but it doesn’t vary a whole lot from my typical diet.

Morning Meal
6-8 eggs, one whole, the rest whites
3 pieces turkey bacon
8 ounces steel-cut oatmeal mixed with flaxseed and CLA

Protein shake, 40 grams protein
BodyGlo (my antioxidant superfood)
Some mixed nuts
Piece of fruit, such as an apple or banana
Steak or fish

Protein shake with some kind of carbs, like an apple or carb powder mixed in

Isolate-based protein shake, using some nuts tossed in

Fish or steak
Small carb source, like potato or rice

Before bed
Two to three tablespoons hydrolyzed protein

DY: What are you favorite supplements?
DT: My supplement regimen is crucial, and I usually take products that provide recovery and energy. A lot of the supplements I take are my own products. Some I’ve formulated specifically for my use and are not available for sale, and others I’ve been persuaded by others to release. One product that I take every day is BodyGlo, which is my premier superfood with an ORAC value of almost 8,000 per serving. It’s amazing for antioxidant protection and recovery, and it’s my insurance policy in case I don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables.

For energy and fat burning I just completed what might be my most effective fat-burning and energy products to date, Cocotrim and CST Boost. They’re very sophisticated formulations, and everyone I have let use them begs me for more. Using them with BodyGlo helps keep me lean and nutritionally balanced.

Products I take that aren’t mine include whey concentrates and isolate, beta-alanine, glutamine, BCAAs, omega-3s and CLA from fish oil and flaxseed, and ribose.

DY: How do you overcome training plateaus?
DT: I never do the same workout twice, so I never have plateaus. I’m a big proponent of the muscle-confusion principle, and I implement it by changing up my sets, reps, exercises and sequences whenever I train.

DY: How did you develop that system?
DT: The only way you really can: trial and error. I also do lots of research and then apply what I have learned to see what works for me. You find out through listening to your body what works and what doesn’t.

DY: What about mental preparation? Do you practice any principles like that?
DT: I always look at something from the end, not at the end. I’m not a goal setter per se but instead always perceive things as already completed. The mental imagery works like a script, and once you write it, it takes you there. You still have to do the work, but by locking the result in your mind, you can work back from there to achieve it.

I employ that technique in all facets of my life, whether developing my products or improving the way I want to look. I find it a much more positive and fruitful approach than dwelling on what-ifs or entertaining negative possibilities, because then they become reality.

DY: Any philosophies about life you’d like to share?
DT: Love what you do, and do what you love. Maximize and then capitalize on your skills, and then pay it forward. That is a successful life, especially if you can help other people along the way. It’s easy to say but hard to do. You have to look at life like every moment is an opportunity.

DY: I like that. And your training strategy?
DT: Simple. Go hard or go home.

DY: Okay, you’re plugging along with your day-to-day training and eating and then “the itch” sets in. You pick a contest or a photo date, the competitive drive takes over, and the next thing you know you’re in full-bore, sweat-dripping, adrenaline-inspired contest-training mode. Describe how that transition takes place.
DT: It’s a pretty easy transition for me to get in top shape. The only real changes I have to make are slight diet and cardio modifications. I clean up my eating and do more cardio. That’s pretty much it.

DY: How many weeks out do you start your preparation?
DT: I stay relatively lean and in good shape year-round, so it doesn’t take much. Usually six to eight weeks is more than enough time.

DY: Do you use supersets, forced reps and so on?
DT: I use forced reps, giant sets, supersets, partial reps. I use it all to change it up and keep it new and fresh. What is consistent is that I train heavy and hard. Most of my workouts are a hybrid of bodybuilding and powerlifting, with an emphasis on heavy compound movements.

DY: How do you organize your training week?
DT: I train six days a week—old school. Monday, legs, including calves; Tuesday, chest, biceps; Wednesday, calves, cardio; Thursday, back, triceps, abs; Friday, calves, lower back, cardio; Saturday, shoulders, traps, abs.
If I’m preparing for a photo shoot, I do cardio four to five times a week—after weight training.

DY: What kind of sets-and-reps patterns do you use?
DT: They always vary. I use low reps, high reps and everything in between. I usually perform eight to 10 sets per bodypart, and the majority of the time I do six to 10 reps, depending on the muscle group.

DY: Go into more detail on your cardio work.
DT: Before a photo shoot or appearance I do cardio five times a week—and always after my weight workout. If I don’t have photo shoots or other commitments, I do cardio only twice a week. I normally do 45 minutes to an hour and always mix it up. I use pretty much everything in the gym, including the treadmill, upper-body bike and elliptical. Sometimes I jump from machine to machine doing 20-20-20 on three separate pieces of equipment, or 30-30 on just two, or I spend an hour on one piece of equipment. It just depends on how I feel that day.

DY: Can you describe a typical week’s worth of your training, bodypart by bodypart?
DT: There’s no typical week, as my workouts always change, but I do follow a few key rules. I always warm up before working out with one to two light sets on the first exercise. I also use strict form—slow, deliberate movements with a hold on the contraction.

Chest: Four sets of incline barbell presses, with a descending rep scheme of 12, 10, 8, 6 while increasing the weight; three sets of flat bench flyes, with descending rep scheme of 10, 8, 6 while increasing the weight; three sets of 15 on standing cable flyes, increasing the weight—even though the reps stay the same.

Back: Two sets of standing pulldowns for 15 reps. Incline dumbbell rows performed with both arms at same time for four sets of 10, 10, 8, 8 reps, increasing the weight; three sets of wide-grip pullups for 12 reps. Reverse-grip pulldowns, two sets of 12 reps.

Shoulders: Seated dumbbell laterals, three sets of 12, 10, 8 reps; two sets of rear-delt bent-over raises, 15, 12 reps; Smith-machine close-grip upright rows, two sets of 12, 10 reps; two sets of seated machine shoulder presses 10, 8 reps; four sets of 12 reps on shrugs, increasing the weight on every set.

Biceps: Three sets of standing curls, cambered bar, for 10, 8, 8; seated machine preacher curls, two sets of 12, 10 reps; two sets of machine hammer curls for 10, 8; two sets of concentration curls for 10, 8 reps.

Triceps: Three sets of standing rope pressdowns for 15, 10, 8 reps; three sets of lying triceps extensions, or skull crushers, for 10, 8, 8 reps; reverse-grip one-arm behind-the-head dumbbell extensions, two sets for 10, 8 reps; one set of dips to failure.

Forearms: Reverse curls with a cambered bar, two sets of 12 reps; grip/flexor machine, two sets to failure. Barbell wrist curls, two sets of 20 to 25 reps.

Quads: I squat only twice a month; when I do, I perform eight sets and no other exercises. Two warmup sets, two sets of 10, two sets of 8, and end with two sets of 15.

Hamstrings: Three sets of lying leg curls, 12, 10, 8 reps; two sets of seated leg curls to failure.

Calves: Three sets of seated raises for 8 to 12 reps with varied weight; three sets of standing raises for 10 to 15 reps with varied weight; three sets of donkey raises to failure with varied weight.

Abs: Ab crunch machine, three sets for 15 to 20 reps with increasing weight; Roman chair, three sets for 15 to 20 reps; side crunches on Swiss ball, three sets for 15 to 20 reps per side.

DY: How is your rep cadence? I’ve noticed that a lot of pros surprisingly use a fairly fast rep speed as opposed to Mentzer’s or Arthur Jones’ recommendations for slower movements.
DT: I go three seconds down, three seconds up with a one-to-two-second pause at peak contraction.

DY: What about rest periods?
DT: I move as quickly as possible, keeping rest periods as brief as possible, generally 30 to 60 seconds.

DY: What is your overall philosophy about bodybuilding?
DT: Bodybuilding is one of the most beneficial, positive and transformative activities a person can participate in. It’s not a hobby or pastime but a lifestyle. The changes you can make will benefit your appearance and overall health, and its principles and lessons can be applied to life, work and relationships with incredible results.

DY: What do you think are the key elements of training, nutrition, supplementation and cardio that lead to building a great body?
DT: Variable training to keep the body guessing and improving. Staying consistent and current with nutrition and supplements, and incorporating cardio on a permanent basis.

DY: Do you have any role models?
DT: Reg Park and Muhammad Ali. Both are exemplary athletes, champions, humanitarians and goodwill ambassadors. To me, it’s not just about a person’s physique or abilities but the whole person and how someone has used his or her gifts to enrich the lives of others.

DY: Great thoughts, Dean. In your opinion, what is the toughest thing about bodybuilding?
DT: Bodybuilding is very physically taxing, but I believe the toughest thing about it is the mental strain, especially when dieting.

DY: What is the best thing about being a bodybuilder?
DT: Empowerment and respect. Not in an egocentric way, such as wanting people to look at or admire your physique, but rather in a personal way in redirecting the principals and traits that have been learned and applying them to life. Bodybuilding can be used in all avenues of life to improve one’s own life or motivate and help others. It is very powerful.

DY: Tell me your proudest achievement.
DT: My proudest achievement is that I’ve been able to parlay my passion for bodybuilding into a successful business and, more important, a way to help and transform the lives of others. I can’t count the thousands, maybe even millions, of people I’ve helped lose weight and change their lives over my 25 years as a trainer, inventor and supplement formulator. I’ll continue to do so as long as I am able, which with the help of bodybuilding, will be a long time to come.

Editor’s note: To learn more about Dean Tornabene’s products, visit IM

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