It’s a dark, rainy Friday the 13th, but there’s only good luck following Moe El Moussawi as he enters Gold’s Gym, Pasadena, for a scheduled 1 p.m. appointment with yours truly.
Three weeks earlier El Moussawi had finished second at the IRON MAN Pro to qualify for the ’09 Mr. Olympia; in another 21 days he’d be making his second straight appearance on the Arnold Classic stage.
In case you hadn’t noticed, he’s gracing this month’s cover, along with Figure Olympia champion Jennifer Gates, and now he’s about to speak into my tape recorder for his first in-depth interview. He’s married to a lovely lady, Johanna, and is a devoted father of two girls, Meriam, five, and Reyhana, 18 months. Things are bright for one of bodybuilding’s latest stars.
LT: After you won the Cal in 2000, you begged me to let you compete in my Cal Collegiates contest [now the Junior Cal] so you could get some publicity. Now I’m doing a cover story on you. Life is good.
ME: [Laughs] Yes, it’s still hard to believe.
LT: You used to live in Monterey Park, California, but moved to New Zealand in 2002. Why the drastic relocation?
ME: A Kiwi friend of mine was in the World Wrestling Federation and was the World’s Strongest Man at one time—Paul Kingi. He convinced me to go to New Zealand for a vacation. I asked my wife about it, we took him up on his offer, really liked it and decided to make the move. We live in Auckland, and I now consider myself a Kiwi.
LT: You turned pro by winning the Mediterranean Championships in 2004 but finished only 14th at the ’06—your pro debut—and ’07 IRON MAN Pro shows. It seemed you were going to be a mediocre pro, but in 2008 you became the biggest surprise of the contest with a shocking third-place finish. How did the amazing transformation come about?
ME: I was too stuck on size, size, size, thinking I had to be bigger to stand next to the other pros. Every time I looked at myself, I thought I was too small to be successful on the pro level.
I weighed around 244 [at 5’9”] the first two times I did the IRON MAN. When Mark Dugdale took second in 2007 to Toney Freeman, though, I looked at Dugdale, who was only 205 pounds, and he was hard as a rock. He looked much bigger than he actually was. He taught me a lesson without my even talking to him. When I left the contest, I had only one thing in mind—I had to have a Dugdale look if I ever wanted to be a contender as a professional. Not necessarily Mark’s physique but that look—a hard look.
LT: Did you change your training methods, your nutrition or both?
ME: Both. I incorporated a lot of supersets and drop sets into my workouts; I cleaned up my nutrition in the off-season, which I hadn’t done before. When I started dieting for the ’08 IRON MAN, I was already lean.
LT: What did you weigh when the dieting began?
ME: I don’t know. One thing I didn’t do was step on a scale. When you weighed me at the press conference [the day before the contest, fully clothed], I was 239. I had no idea what the scale would say; when I got onstage at the prejudging, I was 231.
A man who supported me a great deal and who passed away last year, Joe Valdez, always told me not to look at a scale. Look at a mirror; that’s your best friend. I said to myself in preparing for the show, “If I don’t have that Dugdale sharpness, I’m not stepping on that stage.”
LT: The previous two years I didn’t get to call out your name when we trimmed down to the top 10. How did it feel when you heard me announce you as the third-place finisher?
ME: I can’t express my feelings at that moment. The first thing I thought was, “Wow, I’m going to be in the Mr. Olympia!” That was my dream when I first started bodybuilding almost 20 years ago [El Moussawi turned 34 in March]. Then I found out shortly after the show I’d been given a special invitation to compete in the Arnold Classic two weeks later. What had seemed almost impossible was now a reality. I learned a big lesson: You have to keep working hard to get what you want.
LT: You placed 11th at the Arnold, then bounced back at the Australia event to finish third behind Dexter Jackson and Melvin Anthony. You defeated Toney Freeman twice in a month along the way [Freeman was seventh at the IM]. Then you proved you were here to stay with a ninth-place finish at the Olympia. You also earned the “Most Improved” award in my News & Views column, where I hand out yearly honors.
ME: I tried to carry the same mentality into my preparation for the Olympia, but I did have my ups and downs along the way. It was really tough with the change of weather; it was very cold in New Zealand and extremely hot in Las Vegas, and my fluid balance was off. I was really happy to place ninth, but I could have done better.
LT: When did you finally take time to sit back and smell the roses because you’re recognized as one of the best bodybuilders in the world at last?
ME: It wasn’t about smelling the roses—it was time to get back to my office in New Zealand [Moe runs the supplement company Extreme Nutrition, based in Auckland, which includes 12 stores. The warehouse is appropriately titled Moes Muscles]. That’s when it finally hit me. People were coming up to me all day long, offering their congratulations. Then it became real.
LT: For a guy who was frustrated by a lack of publicity, you’ve also come a long way. This is your second Michael Neveux cover.
ME: When I got a call to shoot my first cover a couple of years ago, I couldn’t believe it. Especially since I had just finished 14th in the IRON MAN. To top it off, he shot me with one of the most beautiful females in the world.
LT: I saw the video at IronManMagazine.com. You looked as if you were having loads of fun, tossing that hot babe up in the air and into your arms. Was your wife there watching the action?
ME: No, but she certainly viewed it on line. [LT and ME crack up]
LT: After the ’08 Olympia you shot this cover with Jennifer Gates, another supersexy lady.
ME: Yes, Jen is one of my athletes [representing Pro Fight, another family company]. She is someone my wife knows already, so it was okay. [LT and ME bust up]
LT: Where were you born?
ME: Beirut. I came to California when I was 17. I went one year to Alhambra High School [near Los Angeles], then attended East Los Angeles College for two years.
LT: Where I teach. I never saw you in class.
ME: On another subject, you have given almost everyone a nickname over the years, like “Abzilla” for [Ahmad] Haidar and “The Freakin’ Rican” for [Gustavo] Badell. When are you going to honor me with my own?
LT: More pressure. How about the “Beirut Beast?”
ME: [Pauses] Not that many people know Beirut as a city. Flex Wheeler has a nice one: the “New Lebanese Lion.”
LT: Let me work on it. Getting back to this year’s contest, with the event held on January 24, six weeks before the Arnold instead of two, a lot of people felt the lineup would be emaciated, void of top-level guys. Of course, they were wrong—starting with you and Silvio Samuel. Five of the guys were already in the Arnold. When did you decide to compete?
ME: The latter part of 2008. We actually increased the size of the business in New Zealand. Then my father got sick, and I went to visit him twice. He’s 81 years old and lives in Lebanon. The trip from New Zealand is almost 24 hours, and you’re on three planes.
LT: Along with everything else on your plate, you also promoted a pro show last year.
ME: Yes. A week after the Australia I put on the New Zealand Elite Grand Prix. I really wanted to do the IRON MAN again. It’s a show I love to do. Even if I win it, I’ll continue competing in it. Los Angeles is still my hometown in many ways.
You could tell at this year’s show that a lot of the fans were my family, my friends and my clients. When I looked at myself 10 weeks out, though, I felt I was too far out at too short a notice. Then, when I started reading all the precontest hype about the show, it hit me: “This is my show—I have to do it, no matter what.” I got ready, the best I could, in only six weeks.
I was back to 244 pounds onstage again, as heavy as I’d ever been—I’d say I was about 80 percent of my best. I wasn’t as good as I was last year, not even close to it, but the goal was to give it my best shot. You never know where Silvio will be [conditioningwise]. Silvio shocked me, and I learned my lesson with that guy—he will always be in top shape. I did add more size to my back and my quads. Some people told me I gave up symmetry by adding the weight, but you can’t judge a physique onstage that’s not really ready. The car is not polished. You can’t judge the color.
I thought I looked much better in the evening [Moe trailed by 12 after prejudging but lost the final two rounds by only three points], and that made me happy—80 percent, and I’m this close. I knew if I’d been ready, I would have taken the show.
Silvio deserved to win. Second place at the IRON MAN is a great honor, and I qualified for the Olympia. Plus, I will have a rematch with Silvio in three weeks and at the Olympia, so we’ll see how things turn out next time.
LT: Anything different in your Olympia prep?
ME: I’m thinking about having Tamer El Shahat [pro bodybuilder and another IM cover man] come to New Zealand—he works at one of our stores in Los Angeles—to help me with the business and also train with me.
Training with another pro would help me a lot. I hope to be around 245 pounds on the Olympia stage—but with the 2007 IRON MAN conditioning. Same look, 14 pounds heavier.
I’m definitely aiming at a top-six finish, getting in that final posedown. This Olympia will be tougher than last year—Victor Martinez, Kai Greene and Branch Warren were out with injuries and will be back. So I need to be better than I’ve ever been.
LT: What type of precontest training regimen do you follow?
ME: I train every day. One thing I wanted to mention that played a big role in my look in 2008 is, I started a 1,000-reps-per-bodypart routine.
I do one bodypart a day, unless it’s closer to a contest, when I may work one bodypart in the morning, one at night. The format is basically the same: three to four exercises per bodypart.
Day one is chest. One time I do barbell bench presses, dumbbell presses, cables and Smith-machine presses. I may use all machines the next time I hit chest. I do four exercises; each exercise has to be 250 reps, with 50 reps on each set. I do my first set as a warmup, 50 reps. The next set is not 50 reps at one time but a drop set. I go to the heaviest I can, then do five drops, counting it as one set. If I have somebody spotting me, there is no rest time at all.
Day two is shoulders and traps: military presses, lateral raises to the side and rear. I finish with behind-the-neck presses.
I do back on day three—upper and lower. Pulldowns to the front, cable rows, T-bar rows and at times one-arm dumbbell rows.
Day four is legs—quads and hamstrings. I do leg extensions, leg presses, hack squats and sissy squats. Between sets I work my hamstrings: standing leg curls and stiff-legged deadlifts as well as half-range-of-motion leg presses, really squeezing at the top. I work calves two to three times a week.
I train biceps and triceps on day five. Mostly on my arms, since size isn’t a concern anymore, I do a lot of cable work. I don’t feel the squeeze with dumbbells [although he does use them at times] or barbells that I do with the cable; I hit the muscles from different angles.
With triceps I do behind-the-neck extensions and kickbacks with dumbbells. The rest are pushdown movements with cables. I then start over again with day one. When my body tells me I’m not recovering enough, I take a day off. I do abs at night with the family. We do our crunches and other movements on the ground.
LT: How about cardio?
ME: To be honest, I don’t do much. I’m already moving continuously with my type of training, and I also do a lot of physical work back home. The day I flew to Vegas for the Olympia I unloaded a container that had 1,000 boxes. Me and my employees—took us about three hours. When I do cardio, it’s usually on the bike.
LT: What is your precontest nutrition like?
ME: I eat seven or eight meals a day and have around that many protein drinks to go along with them. My first meal is around 7 a.m., usually oatmeal with a scoop of protein. At 9 a.m. I have my first protein shake. Then an hour later I have chicken breasts and broccoli, getting about 150 grams of protein. At around 11 a.m., or 11:30, I eat a filet, taking all the fat out of it, with some potatoes.
I have another protein shake an hour later and chicken again at 3 p.m.—I always have two chicken meals a day—then another protein shake up to 90 minutes later.
Most of the time I eat fish for my last meal. Anytime after 6 p.m. I try to go as clean and lean as I possibly can. I usually have two meals and two protein shakes after 6 p.m.
LT: What are your favorite brands?
ME: I use a couple of different protein products from MuscleTech and BSN, depending on how much carb the product has, and amino acids and fat burners from Pro Fight. I really like to try and burn my fat from training and eating right, though. Fat burners, for me, are more useful as a source of energy because of the caffeine. At night I have an isolate protein, with no carbs or fat.
LT: This year’s IRON MAN Pro/FitExpo really had an El Moussawi flavor to it. You competed in the contest, and Pro Fight signed on as title sponsor for 2009 and 2010.
ME: We find it to be beneficial to the company, since most of our stores are in the Los Angeles area. IRON MAN is a great company; I’ve known John Balik for years. I was blessed by doing the first cover of my life for IRON MAN. The expo was beautiful; we gave thousands of samples out and are getting a lot of business back.
LT: One last question: Who should the Swami pick to take the IRON MAN Pro next season?
ME: Are you kidding? You’re looking him right in the eye as we speak!
Editor’s note: To contact Moe El Moussawi for guest posings, seminars or to give suggestions for the nickname he’s been longing for, write him at [email protected] IM