Quick update: Pro debut results

pro debut medal pic

Just giving a very brief update here, not a full “season in review.” I turned pro about 3 weeks ago, and I decided that I wanted to go ahead and make my pro debut immediately. I figured it would be fun to hop on stage since I was still in shape, and I felt it’d be a great learning experience that might dish me a well-deserved dose of humility and highlight what I need to work on moving forward. I was correct across the board.

To make things easy, I’ll split this into 3 sections: My placement, Positives, and Areas for Improvement.

 

My Placement

As the picture indicates, I took 3rd place. But before you get too excited, there were only 3 pros in the bodybuilding division, so 3rd place = last place. I’ll need to see stage pictures to verify, but I’m fairly certain that I was the leanest competitor in the class, and I was very pleased with my conditioning. Unfortunately the two other competitors were seasoned veterans with a TON of muscle. My leanness simply was not enough to make up for the difference in muscularity, and I wholeheartedly agree with how the judges placed us.

So, cliff notes: 3rd place out of 3, probably the best conditioning, not enough muscle. I had three weeks to prepare for the jump to the pro level, so there wasn’t much I could do in terms of gaining size. As a result, I’m pretty happy with my look and my ability to maintain the conditioning I achieved in my first show a few weeks ago.

 

Positives

  • I’m pretty sure I had the best conditioning in my class
  • I didn’t win, but I certainly didn’t feel out of place on the pro stage
  • I had a ton of fun
  • Standing up on the pro stage really helped highlight my weaknesses, which is always both humbling and informative
  • I learned a lot about my strengths, my weaknesses, some different peak week strategies, and approaches to maintaining shape for multiple weeks between shows (including the additional curveball of traveling for a conference in-between shows). As a result, this ended up being an extremely valuable and educational experience

 

Areas for Improvement

  • My posing has been good enough to slide by at the amateur level, but it needs to get better
  • I need to add a whole bunch of muscle
  • I look way better from the front and the side than I do from the back. Part of this can be alleviated by posing improvements, but most of it is going to require some deadlift therapy

 

In conclusion, I had a great time and learned a lot. I have a ton of work to do, but this show brought a very comfortable mix of positives and areas for improvement. My season is now over, and I walk away happy about the look I achieved and the goals I reached, and motivated to work on my weaknesses and hit the pro stage with a drastically improved physique in the future.

I want to extend some serious gratitude to Alfonso Gillon and Kent Bierly. This was the perfect show for my pro debut- competitive, well-run, and tremendously fun. I highly recommend this show, and the ANBF in general, to all competitors. I also want to thank my parents, who came out to support as they always do. It was very cool to have them at my shows to share all the memories this season.

Time to apply the lessons learned and start making some improvements!

New article: Using fat-free mass index to guide your off-season

ffmi trexfit picture

My primary goal of this website, and my career in general, is to highlight and apply the symbiotic relationship between research and application. I find joy in using observations “from the trenches” to guide research questions, and in translating research findings back to applicable, real-world training and nutrition recommendations.

My newest article, “Using fat-free mass index to guide your off-season,” is an excellent example of this. The article, featured on BioLayne.com, translates my recent publication into some practical tips that help you use this valuable metric to guide your mass-gaining goals. Moreover, the BioLayne staff went above and beyond and put together a nice FFMI calculator to accompany the article and make life even easier.

As always, it’s an honor to be featured on Layne’s site, so I want to thank him and the BioLayne staff for their help and support in getting this article up. I’m about 4 days away from a nice, mass-filled off-season, so the timing couldn’t be better!

Check out the article, and please share if you like it.

Do you need to compete to coach physique athletes?

 

This question gets brought up in fitness circles all the time. In fact, I was presenting a research poster at the 2017 ISSN conference this afternoon, and it came up again during a great conversation with my friend Jay Woith, who was kind enough to stop by. I am currently two weeks out, and both Jay and his wife are competitive physique athletes, so we were discussing some of the “weird” side effects of prep that only competitors (and their spouses) really know about. I suppose we should have been talking about the content of my poster, which compared the validity of a variety of body composition testing methods, but the ISSN crowd sure loves to talk bodybuilding. Anyway, I figured I would put my two cents down in writing, since this topic is so commonly discussed.

I tend to lean libertarian in all matters regarding the trade of goods and services, so my first thought is, you don’t need to do anything- your value as a prep coach is exactly what someone will pay you to prep them for a show, whether you’re a seasoned veteran or you’ve never stepped foot on stage. Having said that, it’s common to see people jump into prepping athletes very, very quickly. Some people seem to become a coach the second they step off stage for the first time, and others begin prepping athletes having never done a prep themselves. On the surface, I’d say this probably isn’t ideal, and I would be very hesitant to trust them with my prep (and my money).

Nonetheless, I think categorizing an individual as “has competed” or “has not competed” is overly reductionist. For example, let’s not ignore the obvious: Just because an individual has competed, doesn’t mean they’ve competed well. If they technically have competed, but have never showed up in great shape, that’s not helping me hire them. On the flip side, just because they have a great physique and have had great showings on stage, doesn’t mean they can take you to that level, or even maximize your potential. There are some genetic unicorns out there who get in really great shape doing some really stupid things.

There are a lot of factors to consider when evaluating a potential coach. Do they have the basic “textbook knowledge” in exercise, nutrition, and physiology? A degree or certification in a relevant field can be reassuring here, but isn’t necessarily a must. Do they stay on top of the relevant research as it emerges? Do they have the practical experience? This could mean personally, as a competitor, or this could refer to their previous track record as a coach. Are they prompt, organized, and responsive? Are they passionate about teaching you the process as you go? Do they have an appropriate client load that will allow them to devote sufficient time to your prep? Is their personality and communication style compatible with yours?

As you can see, there’s a lot to consider, and the relative importance of each factor will vary from client to client. There are coaches who have never competed that check off plenty of these boxes, and there are seasoned competitors that check off very few of them.

Having said that, contest prep can bring you to some strange places, both psychologically and physiologically. It’s a unique experience with unique challenges, and there is tremendous benefit in having “been there” if you’re hoping to coach others through it. Personally experiencing the rigors of contest prep equips the coach with a level of knowledge, understanding, and empathy that, in my opinion, cannot be obtained by any other route. I would never claim that a coach must have competed prior to prepping others, but this is one of the primary reasons that I would never personally hire a coach that had never driven themselves to obtain a stage-ready level of conditioning and put it all on the line in a competitive setting.

I have always planned to coach some physique athletes one day. However, I intend to wait until I have accomplished some things that my future clients will appreciate, just so they can be certain that they’re in good hands. A few years ago I was thinking about when it would be the “right time” for me to begin coaching, and I decided that I wanted to conduct laboratory research in the bodybuilding population, prep myself through a few full competition seasons, earn my pro card, and finish up my PhD in a related field before I thought about bringing on clients. Admittedly, these are excessive barriers to entry and by no means represent necessary coaching prerequisites; this is just the path I chose for myself. But with all the highly qualified prep coaches that are out there at this point, I think consumers deserve to hire someone who has put in the effort to acquire both the educational background and the practical experience to support an effective coaching service.

So, bottom line, hire whoever you want. Just remember that you are the employer in that relationship, and the coach is your employee. As such, you’re well within your rights to demand that the prospective coach has put in the work necessary to develop a strong skill set and continuously makes an effort to provide an acceptable level of service. And if people want to hire you to prep them, more power to you, whatever your background may be. But, if you’re thinking about getting into coaching or want to take your coaching skills to the next level, I do believe that there is tremendous value in the experience of competing.

Three new podcast appearances

mydnacoach podcast ep 96 Eric Trexler

Greetings from Phoenix!

The 2017 ISSN conference just wrapped up, and I’m at the airport to catch a red-eye back to Chapel Hill. After a fun and information-packed conference, I finally have a minute to post a quick update.

A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of being Jonny Deacon’s guest on three episodes of the “My DNA Coach” podcast. We discussed a few ingredients that I have previously done some research on, including creatine, caffeine, and nitric oxide boosters.

Check out the links below and give them a listen!

Episode 96: Creatine

Episode 97: Caffeine

Episode 98: Nitric oxide boosters

 

 

Post-show update

Trophy picture

I’ll write a more in-depth summary of this contest prep/competition soon, but I wanted to provide a quick update while the emotions were still fresh. The show went remarkably well last night, and I won the men’s bodybuilding overall, the men’s classic physique overall, and pro cards for each.

There were some amazing competitors at the show, and I want to congratulate them for their effort and success. I also want to thank Kent Bierly and the ANBF for an incredibly positive experience. Their shows are a lot of fun for the spectators, very athlete-oriented, and they run smoothly and quickly. I really support the format of their shows, and I’m excited to continue competing with the ANBF at the pro level.

It’s impossible to separate my bodybuilding interests from my academic interests- I love learning, teaching, and applying the convergence of physiology, exercise, and nutrition. Frankly, that’s a big part of why I recently started this website- I was tired of feeling the need to categorize my activities or assign them to independent “silos,” when I consider my pursuits as a bodybuilder, student, researcher, and teacher to be inherently interconnected. This website is the outlet where I can put them all together in a big, delicious stew. Anyway, I want to extend a big, open “thank you” to all the people who have directly or indirectly inspired, motivated, or supported me in my endeavors as a bodybuilder, student, and researcher.

Finally, I want to thank my family and friends for their continuous support. Contest prep is rigorous for the athlete, but these rigors also tend to impact the friends, families, and colleagues of the competitor as well. Ideally, the athlete does their very best to minimize this impact, and the athlete’s social circle does their best to accommodate and support (within reason). I am incredibly fortunate to have a group of friends, colleagues, lab mates, and family members that are unbelievably supportive, and I am very thankful for all of you.

In a nutshell: I’m thrilled about how the show went, I’m surrounded by supportive, motivating, and inspiring people, and I’m pumped to make some big time improvements and start my journey as an ANBF pro!

Pre-Competition reflections on show night’s eve

My first competition of the season is tomorrow, so I figured it’d be a good time to jot down some pre-competition reflections while I’m “in the moment.” Here goes.

1) There’s never a perfect time for contest prep

The last few months have been wild. I don’t even know how many weeks I technically prepped, because it just kind of happened over time. I was in the middle of a whirlwind of teaching, research, and taking courses simultaneously, and I decided I wanted to clean up my diet a little bit. Then a little bit more. All of a sudden, I accidentally slid into a contest prep- still not really sure how that happened.

Anyway, the time felt right, so I went for it, and I’m glad I did. All things considered, I feel good about what I’ve accomplished over the last few months. Academically things have been fantastic, and I achieved my best conditioning ever this prep. I also learned a ton from this contest prep, mostly by breaking a bunch of my own rules out of necessity. I’ll write a more thorough article in the future discussing some of those rules, and what breaking them taught me, but that’s for another time.

In hindsight, I would’ve loved to have a more focused “bulk” prior to cutting so I could bring a little more lean mass onto the stage tomorrow. But conditions for prep are never perfect, and sometimes you just kind of roll with it, even if you don’t feel “100% ready” for it. All in all, I’m really excited to hit the stage, and very content with the process and the results of this particular contest prep.

 

2) You don’t necessarily need cardio for contest prep

I didn’t do any formal, structured cardio this prep. At all. The reason? I kind of hate doing it, and with all my current academic responsibilities, I found it unrealistic to set aside the time for it. Overall, I think the decision was great. I achieved my best conditioning ever without the need for cardio, and it came with the benefits of less gym time and better recovery from resistance training. There are no hard rules in contest prep- there’s plenty of freedom to “pick your poison” when it comes to creating a caloric deficit.

 

3) It’s really important to practice good sleep hygiene, especially during contest prep

I had to slash my calories really low to get away with abstaining from cardio. Oddly enough, this prep was fairly smooth with regards to hunger and food cravings. Aside from a lingering back issue, my primary adversity to deal with was disrupted sleep.

I was very able to fall asleep, but staying asleep was next to impossible. However, I did find that a focused effort on “sleep hygiene,” or proper pre-sleep habits, helped out to a meaningful degree. This topic may end up yielding an in-depth article down the road, but there are some quick tips that are generally suggested (see a few resources for further reading here, here, here, and here). The habits that were particularly helpful for me were:

  • Blocking out all light and sound at night (sleeping mask, ear plugs)
  • Trying to maintain consistent times for going to sleep and waking up each day
  • Minimizing artificial light/screen time before bed
  • Finding ways to relax and unwind before bed
  • Restricting caffeine intake to the morning hours

The worst part about sleep issues during prep is that they exacerbate the “usual” prep problems. Prep tends to make you lethargic, sluggish, hungry, and stressed, and sleep issues just turn these problems up a few notches. So I highly recommend paying attention to sleep hygiene during prep- it’s not magic, but a few minor changes to your daily routine can go a long way.

 

4) You need to find ways to enjoy prep

I had a football coach that always stressed the fact that we played 10, 48-minute games per season. This meant that our overall time commitment was virtually all training and practice, with actual competition making up a comparatively tiny fraction of the season. Bottom line: You better find a way to enjoy practice!

Bodybuilding is an even larger discrepancy. I’ll spend less than an hour on stage tomorrow, and it’s been four years since I last dusted off the old posing trunks. Parts of contest prep are just awful, and there’s no avoiding that. Hunger, lethargy, and sleep issues certainly come to mind. But it’s really important to find ways to enjoy the process, despite your body’s generally unpleasant physiological state.

It’s really cool to watch your body change, and to give yourself some credit for making it happen. When you wake up and check your weight changes and take a look in the mirror, you should enjoy the small, daily “wins” comprised of incremental improvements. As a physiology student, I find joy in simply observing the changes, both good and bad, and connecting them to the biological basis behind them.

I’ve also found a lot of joy in the support component of this contest prep. It’s been fantastic to have friends check in to ask about my progress, how things are going, how I’m feeling. Most importantly, my family will be with me at the show, and their support means the world to me. Win, lose, or draw, it’s going to be a really exciting day that I can share with family, and that’s priceless. On that note, I’m going to relax and enjoy some family time tonight, and tomorrow it’s game time! Stay tuned for post-competition updates and reflections.

Higher education in exercise science: Why and how to pick the right program

I completed an undergraduate and master’s degree, and am currently working on a PhD, in the field we’ll call “exercise science.” I define this operationally, because various programs will file it under any of the following terms:

  • Exercise physiology
  • Kinesiology
  • Sports science
  • Human movement science
  • Some branch of “health,” “medical,” or “biological” sciences

As a result, I frequently get contacted with two questions from aspiring students:

“Is an undergraduate degree in exercise science worth anything?”

“How do I pick a graduate school program for exercise science?”

This article will address both, so let’s get into it.

 

1) “Is an undergraduate degree in exercise science worth anything?”  

Whenever you evaluate the value of a degree, it’s important to consider what the degree can set you up for, and which positions it sets you apart for. For exercise science, the former is its great strength, while the latter is a potential weakness.

Exercise science can set you up for a great deal of exciting and lucrative careers. As I have discussed in a previous article, most curricula will include a strong base in the “hard sciences,” such as biology, physics, chemistry, and so on. In addition, the more degree-specific course work will direct you toward courses in psychology, behavior change and counseling, exercise physiology, nutrition, pharmacology, research methods, statistics, and athletic training, among others. As a result, it’s common to see individuals with majors and/or minors in exercise science advance toward a variety of paths. Sure, you could go the strength coach or fitness professional route, but based on the broad base of coursework you could also pursue medicine, physical therapy, nursing, clinical exercise physiology, dentistry, and a long list of health-related professions. This also gives you the ability to work with a variety of populations, ranging from children to the elderly, and from the ill to the physically elite.

The only downside is that having an exercise science degree doesn’t necessarily set you apart for many positions. To explain what I mean, consider a dietetics degree. In many states, legislation mandates that certain roles and duties must be carried out by a registered, licensed dietitian; anyone performing such tasks without the proper degree (and licensure) is in violation of the law.

If a job opens up for a clinical exercise physiologist, which typically involves cardiac rehabilitation or other health-oriented work in injured/ill populations, this employer will probably require some kind of exercise science degree. However, the situation is quite different from the previous dietetics example. We don’t really see a lot of legislation in place that requires certain roles to be filled by degree-holding exercise scientists, or jobs requiring any type of state licensure. Some professional organizations are working on changing this, but it remains a work in progress that is hotly debated within the field.

But, in the meantime, this means that there are plenty of people filling jobs in the fitness and performance sectors that do not hold an exercise science degree. So, individuals that want a fitness or performance-oriented job may not necessarily need an exercise science degree, and obtaining one doesn’t necessarily give you a legally required credential that sets you apart from applicants without the degree. The employer is likely to view the degree very favorably, but they’re not mandated to put you ahead of candidates without it.

 

2) “How do I pick a graduate school program for exercise science?”

Dr. Rick Petosa gave me some great advice when I was an undergraduate student. I’m paraphrasing, but it went something like this:

“An undergraduate degree teaches you to be a good consumer of knowledge. You learn the basic fundamentals, learn to separate the good information from the bad, and learn to apply it. Graduate school teaches you to produce knowledge- to identify gaps in what we know, to form connections between ideas that haven’t yet been connected, and to make original contributions to the body of knowledge.”

With this in mind, you need to find a graduate program that has two things:

 

A) A research advisor who will be a good “fit.”

This means you can get along with them both personally and professionally (there is a difference!), they share you research interests, and they share you expectations regarding research productivity.

There are faculty members that literally live for their research, and expect students to do the same. They tend to be a great fit for students that are equally driven to pursue a highly productive research career, which often corresponds with countless hours spent in the laboratory. On the flip side, there are advisors who perform very little research activity. They tend to be a great fit for students who are more interested in working as teachers or practitioners; their research productivity may not be as high, but there is more time for development in other areas of focus.

When I was searching for graduate programs, I reached out to numerous people to solicit recommendations. I was very fortunate that both Jeremy Loenneke and Layne Norton told me to check out the work being done by Abbie Smith-Ryan at UNC Chapel Hill. She was just starting up as a professor, and until they recommended her, I was not familiar with her work. I ended up going to UNC to work with Dr. Smith-Ryan, and 4+ years into the experience, I couldn’t be happier with my decision. Dr. Smith-Ryan is an excellent researcher and mentor, and I’ll always have a tremendous appreciation for everything she has done (and continues to do) for me. Finding the right advisor is the single most important factor that can make or break your grad school experience, so take your time and choose wisely.

I eventually plan to do a series of “Sports Scientist Spotlight” articles, in which I outline and celebrate the work of some exercise science researchers that I respect and admire. In the meantime, I included a list of some resistance training and sports nutrition researchers at the bottom of this article to help aspiring students begin their search. Some of them may not currently work as professors in departments with graduate programs, but people change jobs and new programs start up all the time. I’m bound to be missing plenty of fantastic names, but at least it’s a starting point. If nothing else, you can look up their papers and find the names of other colleagues they publish with or cite- one of the best ways to search for advisors is simply by figuring out who is producing the researcher papers that capture your interest.

 

B) A department with appropriate resources for your needs.

Certain departments will have a very clear focus on developing researchers, teachers, and/or practitioners. In many cases, it will be clear where their priorities lie. If their campus is full of lab space and students are primarily funded through research assistantships, a research-focused student will thrive. But if there are no teaching assistantships available and minimal emphasis on developing hands-on skills, this may not be ideal for the aspiring teacher or practitioner.

This is part of why an on-campus visit is VERY helpful for the graduate school search. A phone conversation, brochure, or webpage often fails to tell the whole story. But getting on campus to see how busy the labs are, discuss how graduate student funding is arranged, and assess the overall vibe of the environment will tell you exactly where the department’s priorities lie. My current department is very research-oriented, which is a tremendous fit for me. UNC has equipped me with everything I need to achieve my academic goals, and the faculty, staff, and facilities are truly fantastic. But I want to be clear that this isn’t a good vs. bad thing- again, it’s about finding the right fit for you.

 

Conclusions

Exercise science makes for a great undergraduate degree that can lead to a wide variety of career paths. However, depending on the exact job you want, it may not be entirely required. While your degree will typically be viewed quite favorably, you might still have to compete for that dream job against candidates who don’t hold one.

When it comes to graduate school, it’s all about finding the right fit. Schools and advisors will interview you, but you’re also interviewing them to make sure that you’re selecting a program and an advisor that will suit your goals and personality.

 

 

Appendix: A very incomplete list of researchers who study resistance training and/or sports nutrition topics, just to get you started

Last Name First Name
Antonio Jose
Arent Shawn
Baar Keith
Bellar David
Burke Louise
Campbell Bill
Cholewa Jason
Craemer Joel
Cronin John
DeFreitas Jason
Earnest Conrad
Eckerson Joan
Focht Brian
Fry Andy
Galloway Stuart
Galpin Andy
Greenwood Mike
Hamilton Lee
Hoffman Jay
Jeukendrup Asker
Jones Andy
Kerksick Chad
Kraemer Bill
Kreider Richard
Loenneke Jeremy
Ormsbee Mike
Philp Andy
Roberts Mike
Ryan Eric
Phillips Stu
Schoenfeld Brad
Smith-Ryan Abbie
Stock Matt
Stone Mike
Stout Jeff
Taylor Lem
Tipton Kevin
van Loon Luc
Volek Jeff
Wax Benjamin
Wilborn Colin
Willoughby Darryn
Zourdos Mike