Natural pro bodybuilder and industry expert Layne Norton has revolutionised the way we think about protein intake and meal frequency in the pursuit of bigger and better muscle gains. Here we interview him to see what tips we can glean.
Hi Layne. Please could you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and your background in the industry?
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 years and when I was 19, I decided to compete in a bodybuilding show. I won the teen division and fell in love with competing.
It was at around this time that I started posting on internet message boards. Nowadays, some forums have millions of members but back then they were very small communities. I just started talking to people and answering their questions, and I became known as a guy who could give helpful and insightful answers.
Next I was invited to start writing articles for websites. Even during the first year, I would get about a dozen emails a day from people who had questions about my articles and other areas of training and nutrition. As I continued to release more articles and videos on various websites, interest seemed to snowball.
I was doing my BS in Biochemistry at the time and really enjoyed the nutrition parts of my studies. 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 in its infancy and Marc Lobliner, who was the CEO at the time, contacted me to ask if I wanted to work on their booth for the Olympia. They were impressed with what they saw and offered me a sponsorship contract, and I’ve been with them ever since - today I work for them 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 how I got into it. It wasn’t a carefully planned-out thing but I love what I do. I love the whole deal!
One of the things that drew us to interview you was the slideshow you released about bulking for muscle mass (see below). This seems to contradict what most bodybuilding magazines have been preaching for years. Could you tell us a little bit about it?
The main thing we found with our first piece of experimental research was that people seemed to be 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 for bulking, but over the course of time we found 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. Much of it is based around the patterns I have observed during the best part of a decade’s worth of protein metabolism study.
We postulate that instead of 6-8 meals a day, around 4-5 seems to be optimal for protein synthesis. Eating 4 or 5 bigger meals per day and adding free-form branched chain/leucine amino acids in between 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 eat, say, 10 times a day because they have heard that it ‘stokes your metabolism’, but actually that’s a complete myth. There’s absolutely no difference in fat loss between eating one and 10 meals a day.
You will always get people who 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 and this has actually been proven countless times, even in people who exercise.
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.
This demonstrates that stimulating protein synthesis multiple times a day is superior to doing so once or twice a day. 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 that bodybuilders eat too frequently and I think this can be counterproductive for fat loss. The idea that eating more frequently increases your metabolic rate is completely false; it’s one of the biggest myths out there.
A lot of our readers ask us about meal frequency. Is there any specific research you can refer them to?
There was a group in Sweden that compared three meals a day with six meals a day and found that those who ate three had better body composition at the end of it. The more important factor seems to be the total macronutrient intake. I think that covers 90-95% of things, although of course if you’re a bodybuilder trying to get the best out of your natural bodybuilding diet then you do worry about the remaining 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 who use the word ‘always’ typically don’t 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 BCAAs cause insulin release. If BCAAs caused a significant insulin release then you would become hypoglycemic every time you would take BCAAs 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 shifts dramatically so your overall net is fat loss.
Just like when you are building up muscle proteins, as you are synthesising new proteins you are 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 BCAAs every two hours in between meals. Where did that idea come from?
I don’t want to say it’s too complex and act like your readers won’t be able to understand, 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 provided 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 adding BCAAs in between this and the following meal.
We used free leucine or carbohydrates, and we showed that either one can extend protein synthesis. Obviously if you are using 40, 50, 60 grams of carbs between meals that could add up calorie-wise, whereas if you are just using 4 or 5 grams of BCAAs the calorie intake is virtually inconsequential.
Basically what happens is, when you eat a meal that stimulates protein synthesis, the process is so powerful that it actually causes a depletion of ATP in muscle. It causes the muscle to become energy deficient, 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 for as long as the nutrients stay up because this would basically deplete your body of energy. If you were talking about the caveman days, you would die because you would 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 oxidize to make ATP. They offer 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 on 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 BCAAs are going to cause a really rapid rise in plasma BCAAs compared to eating another meal or experiencing 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 will cause a spike, 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. Fed 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 that 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 a whole 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 are 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 to digest and release them, whereas when taking a free-form BCAA there is no digestion required. It goes straight through the digestive tract and into your bloodstream and that’s why it tends to have a different effect to a whole 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 BCAAs with higher leucine content. 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 many people suggest adding more leucine and wonder why we include the other two aminos (isoleucine and valine) 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 alone you will actually deplete the levels of the other two BCAAs in the blood, as we found in our experiment.
Isoleucine and valine levels started to decrease and we believe that over time this could actually short-circuit protein synthesis because you’ll have a lack of substrate, something my advisor Dr. Layman actually showed way back in the 80s.
Studies in humans have shown beneficial body composition effects of BCAA supplementation in a 2:1:1 ratio. But what about the other possible combinations? 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 that if new evidence were to emerge suggesting that these blends were superior, brands like Scivation would reconsider things, but for now the 2:1:1 ratio is supported by research.
I’m not badmouthing these other companies at all and I understand why they are doing a higher-ratio leucine: because this is thought to give a larger stimulatory effect. It’s just that those blends are based on theory as opposed to the research that is already out there.
Turning our attention to training, I believe that most people associate you with a high-volume approach. What led you to this?
Beginners get by on very little volume because they have done little to stimulate their muscle in the past. 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.
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.
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.
Some people will argue that such prowess comes down to drug use. But the fact of the matter is, most of the low-volume, each-body part 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 believe 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, and they have got really good results from high-frequency training. When people think of going to the gym it’s so ingrained that you have got to go max effort every time, that it’s got to be all out or it’s worthless. That’s just nonsense: it’s great for feeding your ego, but not great for maximising your gains.
The type of training John Broz uses is very, very reserved. Basically they squat to a one rep max five to six times 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 implemented, as constantly doing so will ensure burnout and stagnation and limit the overall volume and overload that 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 is a study that has just come out that compares squatting three times a week to squatting once a week with the total volume held equal. Far better hypertrophy and strength outcomes were seen amongst those who squatted three times a week. I personally made some of my best gains ever on routines that people swore I was going to overtrain on.
The main reason people think overtraining exists is because at some point they have tried a higher volume or frequency routine and after two weeks they have felt like crap. Their strength was going down and they felt sore all the time and they thought ‘Oh my God, I’m overtrained!
In fact they are not overtrained, they are actually undertrained because they are not in good enough shape to train that frequently with that kind of volume. You can’t just throw it on yourself that fast. You have to introduce it slowly and work up to it. What I tell people is if you push through those initial two to four 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 for the first two to four 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 anabolic supplements is about 48 hours max so if I train my back on Monday and I don’t train it again until next Monday, I’ve got five days sitting there when my back is not being stimulated and it’s not growing. Tie this together with a recent meta-analysis of hypertrophy where they found the number one corollary factor in muscle growth was neither weight used nor intensity but volume.
What you say certainly 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 the first time you go out and run three miles you are going to be sore the next day, but have 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 challenges by becoming more adept at repairing itself. You increase your rate of recovery whereas if you only train each body part once a week, you are actually preventing your body from making those accommodations.
I’m used to training body parts 2-3 times a week, so 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. Again, if you are only training each body part once a week, you’re basically preventing your body from making those changes that it needs in order to recover faster.
I read something about Kenyan long distance runners, who 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 is that it is so ingrained in people’s minds that you have to train to failure, you have to do forced reps, and anything short of that is not considered to be proper training.
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 career. They were sore in the first two weeks, were losing strength (as I discussed during the adaptation phase) and felt like crap so they didn’t push through it.
They thought they were overtrained and they cut back on their training. Now they are reducing volume while their body is 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, but 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, spending 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. 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 and 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 fields of sports and research?
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 they are not going to succeed.
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?
People 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 spend much time worrying about their genetics or natural talents. They just go out, put the work in and get 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, you can contact me through my website (www.biolayne.com) and I’ll be happy to help. I am always looking to meet more people within the industry and I’m available for interviews and appearances etc. – for example, I’ve recently spoken at a few universities. Feel free to contact me and if you have any 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.
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