We interview Dr Layne Norton, renowned natural Pro Bodybuilder and industry expert, to see what his tips are and what we can learn from him.
Hi Layne. Please can you explain to our readers a little bit about yourself, your background in the industry and about your competitions?
When I was a teenager I got picked on a lot and didn’t get much attention from girls so I started lifting weights to gain some muscle and improve my confidence. I continued lifting for a few more years and when I was 19, I decided I would like to compete in a bodybuilding show. I managed to win the teen division and fell in love with competing. I also started posting on internet message boards at that time. Nowadays, some message boards have millions people posting on them but back then there were only around a few thousand people. It was a very small community and I just started answering people’s questions and talking to people on there. I became known as a guy who could answer questions with insightful and helpful answers. I was actually contacted to start writing articles for websites and even in the first year, I would get about a dozen emails a day from people with questions about my articles and other areas of training or nutrition.
The interest seemed to snowball as I released more articles and videos on various websites. I was doing my BS in Biochemistry and really enjoyed the nutrition parts of what I was studying. I decided to go to graduate school to do a PhD in Nutritional Science, specifically in protein metabolism because like all the meatheads, I like talking about protein! Around the same time, Scivation was just in its infancy and the CEO at the time, Marc Lobliner, contacted me to ask if I wanted to work on their booth for the Olympia. I went out and worked for them and they offered me a sponsorship contract. I’ve been with them ever since and actually now work as a paid consultant. I just love bodybuilding, fitness and anything to do with muscle and metabolism. I like to dip my hands and feet into all kinds of areas and that’s really how I got into it. It wasn’t a carefully planned out thing but I love what I do. I love the whole deal!
When did you finish your PhD?
I finished in May of 2010
One of the pieces of research that drew us to interview you was the slideshow I have seen online about bulking for muscle mass. I think the information there would contradict what most bodybuilding magazines have been preaching for years. Could you explain a little bit about that research?
One of the things we found with our first experimental research was that we thought people were eating too frequently. I expected that taking lots of meals a day and keeping a constant stream of nutrients would be the most beneficial method but what we found over the course of time was that it actually isn’t. You actually need to vary things and you need the rise and falls in amino acid concentrations to really prime the system. Some of the information in the slideshow is very theoretical and a lot of it hasn’t been proven by research. It is basically based around what I believe to be true after studying protein metabolism for the better part of a decade. We postulate that instead of 6-8 meals, around 4-5 meals a day is probably more optimal for protein synthesis. 4 or 5 bigger meals per day and then putting a free form branched chain/leucine amino acid dose in between those seems to extend protein synthesis, and our lab actually showed that in a research study. A lot of people like to go to extremes in this industry. They’ll say eat 10 times a day because it stokes your metabolism, but that’s actually completely false. There’s absolutely no difference in fat loss between eating one meal a day and 10 meals a day. This has actually been shown countless number of times even in people that exercise.
You will always get people who will say that those studies were done with sedentary people so it doesn’t matter and I think that’s a really weak argument. Your meal frequency doesn’t matter for fat loss. However, I do think that eating multiple meals per day is superior to eating one meal a day in terms of maximising muscle mass and protein synthesis, and we actually have a study that I am about to send off right now to be published that supports that. Hopefully it will show that stimulating protein synthesis multiple times a day compared to 1 or 2 times a day is superior so for optimising muscle mass, it does take multiple doses of protein to stimulate protein synthesis multiple times a day. I think you can get extreme on both sides of the argument but in general I’d say bodybuilders eat too frequently and I think it can be counterproductive for fat loss and the idea that eating more frequently increases your metabolic rate is completely false, one of the biggest myths out there.
A lot of our readers question us about meal frequency. Is there any specific research you can refer them to in regards to the number of meals on a diet?
I know a group in Sweden compared three meals a day and six meals a day and actually found that people who eat three meals a day had better body composition at the end of it. I think that the overriding factor is the total macronutrient intake. I think that covers 90-95% of things but if you are a bodybuilder trying to maximize things then you do worry about the extra 5-10%. In general, I think that people eat too frequently and by the same token, I don’t recommend eating once a day because it won’t optimize muscle mass as I discussed earlier. I’m quite moderate when it comes to nutrition stuff and I don’t like extremes. I think people that use the words ‘always’ never typically understand metabolism as it is a very grey area. People often think about pathways and the classic example is insulin. People say “I don’t want to release any insulin because it will totally block fat burning.” These people don’t want to eat 10 grams of carbs because it will release insulin. I have spoken to someone who was very concerned because they had heard that BCAA’s cause insulin release. If BCAA’s caused a significant insulin release then you would become hypoglycemic every time you would take BCAA’s and that doesn’t happen. The idea that if you release any insulin at all then the body totally shuts down all fat burning is completely false. It is a graded response. Metabolism isn’t a case of using on and off switches; it’s more like dimmer switches. For example, even when you are burning fat, you are actually both losing and storing body fat simultaneously. Both processes run at the same time and one is never completely on or off. It’s just that the emphasis dramatically shifts so your overall net is fat loss. Just as if you are building up muscle proteins, as you are synthesising new proteins you are also degrading them at the same time. The body is always doing both at the same time, it’s just the ratios change and the emphasis shifts. You can’t think of metabolism as simply on and off!
You referred to some research where you used BCAA’s every two hours in between a meal, so where did that idea come from?
I don’t want to say it’s too complex and act like our readers are stupid, but it really is complex to try and explain without a graph. Essentially we thought that having a steady stream of nutrients was a bad idea as it causes the muscle to become refractory. We wondered what would happen if we give a big spike in between meals. If it was just a case of eating another meal then it probably wouldn’t even make an impact because your amino acid levels are already elevated from the previous meal. We wondered if we could extend the length of protein synthesis from the meal by putting BCAA’s in-between it. We actually used free leucine or carbohydrates, and we showed that either one would extend protein synthesis. You can actually use carbohydrates between meals to do it, but obviously if you are using 40, 50, 60 grams of carbs between meals that could add up calorie wise, whereas if you were just using 4 or 5 grams of BCAA’s its inconsequential calories almost. Basically what happens is, when you feed a meal that stimulates protein synthesis, protein synthesis is so powerful that it actually causes a depletion of ATP in muscle. It causes you to become energy deficient in muscle, and that activates a kinase called AMP kinase which will actually shut down protein synthesis. Protein synthesis is so energetically expensive that it doesn’t make sense from an evolutionary survival standpoint to activate it and keep it activated as long as nutrients stay up because it would basically deplete your body of energy. If you were talking about the caveman days then you would die because you have no energy. It’s an ATP issue. You don’t have enough ATP to keep protein synthesis going and it activates this kinase that shuts protein synthesis down, so that explains why the carbohydrate only treatment kept it going because you are providing glucose as a substrate for ATP synthesis. The reason branched chains keep it going is because they are the only amino acids that muscle can directly oxidized to make ATP. They are a more energetically friendly way to keep your ATP levels elevated and keep protein synthesis going, as opposed to eating another meal or taking a large dose of carbohydrates. I realise that was a really long winded answer, but it’s really tough to give a quick explanation to that.
One thing that occurred to me there is that if you look at a large meal, one with a slow digesting protein source such as casein or animal protein, you do find that the actual digestion of the meal can take several hours. Given that context, I’m assuming there is going to be an ongoing release of amino acids from the protein sources in that meal so in the situation when you introduce a BCAA is there not already protein synthesis going on at the same time?
Yes there is but the point being that the BCAAs are going to cause a really rapid rise in plasma BCAAs compared to eating another meal or a steady release of amino acids over time as with casein ingestion. Even if there are amino acids going in, as we’ve shown before a steady influx of amino acids is not sufficient to keep protein synthesis elevated, BCAAs are going to spike it even more which will increase BCAA oxidation in muscle, replenish ATP and keep protein synthesis going. It’s not an amino acid availability issue that limits the duration of protein synthesis in response to a meal, it’s an ATP issue.In the study I keep referencing we gave whey for the meal protein sources, which people see as a ‘fast’ digesting protein source but when you feed it in the context of a whole meal, we still had very high amino acid levels three hours post meal and that’s when protein synthesis had already fallen back to baseline. You have an elevated amino acid level even though protein synthesis is falling off and that was pretty shocking to us, which is again why we suggested eating another meal wouldn’t do it. Branched chain amino acids are not really touched by the gut or the liver and get into the bloodstream rapidly so we postulated they would act differently to simply eating another meal. The research seems to support our theories thus far. BCAAs are digested so rapidly, they cause a rapid spike and they act differently compared to eating intact protein. People will say ‘well there’s already BCAAs in the food you eat, in whey protein etc.’ Yes, that’s true but those are peptide bounded. They are bound to other amino acids and you would have digest and release those, whereas when taking a free-form BCAA there is no digestion required. It goes straight through the digestive tract and into your bloodstream pretty rapidly and that’s why it tends to have a differential effect compared to eating another meal.
In terms of the branched chain amino acids, obviously you are affiliated with Scivation but there is a trend in the industry now for higher leucine content BCAAs. USP Labs have brought one out and so have MuscleMeds. What are your thoughts on this kind of product?
It’s funny you bring that up because I have just got into a real heated debate with somebody about that who basically accused me of being a hypocrite. Essentially, leucine is the amino acid that is responsible for jumpstarting muscle protein synthesis so people suggest adding more leucine and wonder why we include the other two aminos at all. What people don’t realise is that the metabolism of leucine requires the other two amino acids in a 2:1:1 ratio, if you give leucine along you will actually deplete the blood levels of the other 2 BCAAs. Our experiment supported this and actually showed that even though we gave leucine, we actually saw a depletion of the other two amino acids because we gave leucine by itself.The levels of the isoleucine and valine started to be decrease and we believed that over time that it could actually short circuit protein synthesis because you’ll have a lack of substrate, something my advisor Dr.Layman actually showed a long time ago back in the 80s. We think that having a balanced BCAA blend may be superior because you are providing it in a 2:1:1 ratio which is going to prevent that depletion of isoleucine and valine. Additionally, the studies in humans that have shown beneficial body composition effects of BCAA supplementation use a 2:1:1 ratio and Scivation always wants to put out products that are supported by research.Now, could I be wrong on this? Does 4:1:1 cause depletion? Does 10:1:1 cause depletion? We don’t know because they haven’t been used in studies. I’m sure if new evidence emerged that these blends were superior, they would reconsider things, but as of now, 2:1:1 is supported by research.Of course I’m not badmouthing these other companies at all and I understand why they are doing a higher ratio leucine, the idea that it’s a larger stimulatory effect. It’s just that those amounts have never been supported by research. They are kind of basing them on a theory as opposed to the research that is already out there.
Turning our attention to training, I believe you are associated with a high volume training approach in most people’s minds. What led you to this approach?
Beginners get by on very little volume because they have never stimulated their muscle before. A lot of people will say that high volume causes overtraining. Overtraining is the most over-used, over-diagnosed term in fitness. Yes it occurs, but it occurs very infrequently, and not in the way that most people think of. The idea that you can train to the point where your performance drops off, I absolutely believe that can happen. Can you train to the point where you actually become catabolic, which is what the muscle magazines have defined it as? That has never, ever been shown to my knowledge. The Bulgarian weightlifters, who have some of the best squats in the world, train every single day. Sometimes they squat twice a day up to a max! They do that every single day and they have some of the best squats in the world, and you’re telling me they got to squat 800lb raw by overtraining? I don’t think so. Then again, some people will say they are on drugs so of course they can do that.But the fact of the matter is, most of the low volume, each bodypart once per week routines... were also developed by people on drugs, so that argument is weak.
That’s a point that Lyle McDonald makes. I don’t know if you have read his work. I think we were discussing an article by John Broz who I belive is an American weightlifting coach now, and he was talking about really high frequency, around 5 hours a day in the gym. He was talking about performing maximal squats. Even if you define a max as a non-psyched max without any stimulants, most people would assume that would require some anabolic assistance. What are your thoughts on that?
I know people who train that way and don’t take anabolics who have got really good results from high frequency training. People think of going into the gym and it’s so ingrained that you have got to go max effort everytime. It’s got to be all out or it’s worthless and that’s just nonsense, it’s great for feeding your ego, but not great for maximizing your gains. The type of training John Broz uses is very, very reserved. Basically they squat to a 1 rep max 5-6x per week where their definition of a max is when the bar speed decreases then they stop going up in weight and they do not psych up at ALL, so their true all out max squat may be 800lb and they may only get up to 650lb during training. This is still heavy but it’s not going to fatigue them like squatting up to an absolute one rep max can.Training to failure, while it can be a useful tool, must be properly implanted, constantly training to failure will ensure burnout and stagnation and limit or overall volume and overload you can employ in your training. Essentially, my retort to people who say ‘you can’t train that way, you’ve got to be on drugs’ is that pretty much every training system out there was developed by people on drugs. I always find it funny because people will say certain regimes are overtraining but then some of the lowest volume trainers in the world are guys in the IFBB so how does that work? You need drugs to train high volume but the guys in the IFBB are training lower volume than some natural guys? Actually there was a study that has just come out that compared squatting three times a week versus squatting once a week with the total volume held equal. What they found was that there were far better hypertrophy and strength outcomes seen when squatting three times a week. I personally made some of my best gains ever on routines that people swore I was going to over-train on. The main reason people think overtraining exists is because at some point they have tried a higher volume routine and tried a higher frequency routine and after two weeks they have felt like crap. Their strength was going down and they felt sore all the time and thought ‘Oh my God, I’m overtrained!’ They are not overtrained and they are actually undertrained because they are not in shape enough to train that that frequently with that volume. You can’t just throw it on yourself that fast. You have to introduce it slowly and work up to it. What I will tell people is if you push through those initial 2-4 weeks then you will start having almost linear increases in strength after that. This happens a lot with people who try out my Power Hypertrophy Adaptive Training system (PHAT).They feel like crap the first 2-4 weeks but if they push through that and they introduce themselves into the routine properly their strength and hypertrophy adaptations start skyrocketing.Most people I talk to who don’t get results from this kind of training make one of two mistakes: One, they start training to failure immediately, which I advise not to do, or two, they go three weeks and they stop instead of pushing through it. So, again, a long winded answer but there’s no easy way to answer the question. My retort to people who say you need to be on drugs is that you can actually train less frequently on drugs because you have an artificially elevated rate of protein synthesis anyway. The anabolic response to exercise in people who are not on any anabolics is about 48 hours max so if I train my back on Monday, and I don’t train it again until next Monday then I’ve got 5 days sitting there when my backs not being stimulated and it’s not growing. Tie this together with a recent meta-analysis (compilation of the data from hundreds of studies) of hypertrophy where they found the number one corollary factor to muscle growth was not weight used, not intensity, but it was volume.
Certainly what you say echoes my own experience. My background is in sports and you definitely had to train multiple times a week and you just got used to it.
If you’ve never run before, then after the first time you go out and run three miles you are going to be sore the next day, but are you overtrained? No! You are simply not conditioned for it. The same thing applies when someone goes out and works a hard labour job, swinging a hammer or drilling something. He can hardly walk to the next day but does he quit? No, he goes back to work and pushes through it and then after a week or two he is no longer sore. So what happened? His body adjusted. It’s called the repeated bout effect and your body basically accommodates these repeated insults and repeated challenges by becoming more adept at repairing itself. You actually increase your rate of recovery whereas if you only train each body part once a week, then you are doing the exact things to prevent making those accommodations. I’m used to training body parts 2-3 times a week, if I went back to training once a week then I would be sore for 5-6 days after a weight training session because that’s how long my body knows it needs to repair itself. If you start training each body part two times a week, at first there will be a lag time before your body ramps up the systems involved in recovery, but once it does, you get faster at it so you make those accommodations. Again, if you are only training each body part once a week, you’re basically doing the exact thing to prevent making those changes your body needs in order to recover faster.
I read something about the Kenyan long distance runners, who clearly have no anabolic assistance. They gained adaptations over years that meant Western athletes went over there and simply couldn’t keep up. The problem with bodybuilding that I see is that most guys are so ingrained in their mind that you have to train to failure, you have to do forced reps, and anything short of that is not training properly in their opinion.
This idea that if you don’t take a set to failure then it’s a wasted set is completely incorrect. Actually, training in that way undertrains the muscular system and overtrains the neuromuscular system, and in order to progress muscle wise you need progressive overload. You need to keep increasing your overload through increases in weight, volume or frequency but when you do one set to failure once a week, it is completely dependent on your ability to gain strength in order to progress. You can’t get stronger forever, otherwise we would all squat 1000lb. So low volume routines like HIT are completely dependent on getting stronger in order to make more overload, and it’s the type of routine that’s going to minimize strength and hypertrophy gains in the long run. It’s a really sub-par routine on a lot of different levels and I’m sure I will get a pile of hate mail from people who love HIT, but typically the people who have got results from HIT are people who tried a higher volume routine or a higher frequency when they started lifting younger in their lifting career. They were sore in the first two week, were losing strength (like I talked about during the adaptation phase) and felt like crap so they don’t push through it. They think they’re over-trained and they cut back on their training. Now they are reducing volume while their body has been getting its recovery systems ramped up in the first couple of weeks of training higher volume and higher frequency so they can easily recover from this newer low volume routine and they start seeing some gains. It’s like a snap back, like a rubber band. It’s actually a well documented training technique called overreaching. You overreach for a certain period of time and then you cut down your volume. You get these gains that didn’t come through before and that’s what people are experiencing. They think it’s the low volume HIT that did it, and it’s actually the routine they were on beforehand that caused the adaptations that made the HIT ‘work’. Unfortunately they end up sticking with a low volume routine for a long period of time because of these initial gains and end up stuck in a rut for months and years trying to push through it.
In the UK there will be some Dorian Yates fans who will argue that it worked very well for him.
Dorian Yates didn’t do HIT traditionally. He only counted his very last set which was to all-out muscular failure as his set. He did a lot of non-failure ‘warm ups’ before that but those submaximal sets still count. From what I have read, he actually did a lot more volume than people think so I would argue that his was not a traditional low volume routine. If you want to train to failure, that’s what you want to do. You want to do your submaximal sets beforehand and if you are going to do a set to failure then make sure it is your last set because after you take a set to failure you get a marked decrease in performance afterwards. I think we’ve all done it. If you can bench press a weight all out for 10 reps and you got to absolute failure on that 10th rep then what are you going to get on the next set? Probably around five reps of that same weight? It will almost be in half.
Which people in the industry do you admire?
This is always a tough question to answer because if I leave somebody out then I will probably get hate mail, but first off I would have to say Dr. Joe Klemczeski. He was my first prep coach when I was younger and he helped me out a lot. He’s an ethical guy who does great work for clients and is extremely intelligent. I admire him in a lot of ways and he did a lot more for me than he had to. Marc Lobliner, the old CEO of Scivation, also did a lot for me. Mike McCandless and Chris Lockwood, the current CEO of Scivation, are great guys too. There are probably some other people that most people won’t even know about like my good friends Jeremy Loenneke, Chris Fahs, Ben Esgro, Dr Jacob Wilson, soon to be Dr Gabe Wilson. I have conducted research with all these guys. They are all professors, PhDs, or Masters, or on their way to getting their PhDs and they are all going to change the world with their research. I was talking to Dr Jacob Wilson, who’s a good friend of mine and lives here in Tampa. He teaches at the university and we have got some research we are going to start doing on different things. We were talking about all the young, up-and-coming researchers who have contacted us both saying they have been influenced by the stuff that we have done. Now they are doing their own research and I think in the next ten years the fitness industry and what we know about bodybuilding and fitness is going to completely change. I think it’s going be a revolution. An unbelievable amount of information is going to get released over the next 10 years.
What are the most important things you’ve learnt during your time in the sport and research field?
Patience and tenacity. Everybody tries to look for the exact amount of protein or how many reps and sets they should do. You can do a lot of things ‘wrong’, but if you work really hard for a sustained period of time then you are going to get results almost regardless. I think people get paralysis by analysis. They think that if they don’t have the perfect routine or the perfect nutrition then it is not going to matter. I was telling someone the other day that when I get accused of using drugs, I just tell them to go out and work their butt off for ten years and see if they don’t get results, then come and talk to me about drugs or genetics. You can’t imagine going in and killing it every single day for ten years. The longest break I have ever taken from training is four days and that’s because I tore my pec and I was still in the gym doing single leg extensions because I love training. I think the most important thing is to find a way to enjoy what you do because if you hate it and it’s all a burden then you won’t work hard at it. Find a reason to fire it up every time you go to the gym. I love training and even if you told me I couldn’t gain any more muscle no matter how much I did, I would still hit the gym every day because I love training. If you find a way to love it then it will lead to much better gains over time because you will stay motivated.
Your point paralysis by analysis, I think that happens a lot. We get guys asking question after question and you reach a point where you have just got to do something and train. Do you agree?
Guys will try to dissect every single thing down to the finest hair and at a certain point the stress you are causing yourself by overthinking this is actually way worse that doing the routine wrong. Just get in there and do it. There’s no substitute for learning about your own body, for getting in there and seeing how you respond. I don’t mean to sound cheesy but the Nike slogan is right – just do it! People worry about genetics. People ask me what I think about my genetics and my response is always ‘I don’t care.’ I can’t change it so why would I spend five minutes worrying about it? I can promise you that the best bodybuilders in the world never spent much time worrying about their genetics or what their talent was. They just worried about going out, putting the work in and getting it done.
Finally, for people who are looking to learn more about you and the services you offer, how can they contact you?
If you are interested in coaching and you have questions then you can contact me through my website and I’ll be happy to hear from people. I am always looking to meet more people within the industry and I’m available for interviews and appearances etc. I’ve just spoken at a few universities so feel free to contact me and if anyone has general questions I don’t mind answering those. I do my best to answer all my emails as fast as I can.
Thank you very much for the insightful conversation, Layne.