For years now, there has been a divide in the weight training world. On the one side are those who lift for strength and power: the athletes, the powerlifters, the Olympic lifters. And on the other side are those who lift for looks: the bodybuilders.
And to put it mildly, it hasn’t always been a peaceful co-existence.
So when one of the best strength coaches in the world crosses that divide, and trades the Olympic platform for the bodybuilding stage, people take notice.
And that’s precisely what Christian Thibaudeau has done.
Christian has long been one of the most respected coaches and writers in the business. He’s written three books and hundreds of articles, trained countless athletes in 26 sports and competed himself as an elite-level Olympic lifter. But a few years ago, when an injury put a halt to his competitive Olympic lifting, he decided to completely transform his body, training and eating purely for aesthetics and competitive bodybuilding.
Very few know what it’s like to trade the lifting platform for the posing stage, and fewer still can teach the lessons learned from both. And so when Christian offered to design a bodybuilding program to mesh with the Precision Nutrition principles, obviously we jumped at the chance.
And not only did he come through – he blew any expectations we may have had right out of the water. Christian provided a full 24-week off-season and pre-contest training program, covering all facets of bodybuilding contest preparation.
Check out the table of contents:
- Off-Season / Mass Gaining Phase 1: Neural Potentiation (3 weeks)
- Off-Season / Mass Gaining Phase 2: Isolation Activiation & Pre-Fatigue (4 weeks)
- Off-Season / Mass Gaining Phase 3: Triphasic Hypertrophy (3 weeks)
- Pre-Contest Phase 4: Low Volume / High Intensity (4 weeks)
- Pre-Contest Phase 5: High Density / Loading Conjugate (4 weeks)
- Pre-Contest Phase 6: High Density (3 weeks)
- Pre-Contest Phase 7: Peaking (1 week)
Suffice it to say, it’s awesome.
Last week, I caught up with Christian by phone at his home in Quebec, and I was able to pick his brain about the art of coaching, the politics of bodybuilding, and what prompted the change of focus in his own training from strength to aesthetics.
Q & A with Christian Thibaudeau
Precision Nutrition: Hey Christian, what are you up to?
Christian Thibaudeau: Actually I’m just typing an email to a friend of mine. The guy is a bodybuilding coach and he’s upset because one of his athletes placed lower than he thought she should have. He’s mad and thinks that the judging was “fixed” or something like that. So I’m trying to calm him down.
PN: He thinks his athlete got robbed?
CT: Well, he thought so. She’s a figure athlete and placed 4th out of 12 or something like that. He thought she should have placed higher as she had more definition than some of the other girls who placed ahead of her. He thought she should be in the top three – even first or second. He thinks that maybe because the other girls were friendlier with the judges, his athlete was placed lower.
PN: How much of a part do you think that plays in all of this? Do you have to befriend the judges to get ahead in fitness and bodybuilding competition?
CT: Well, that’s what I’m emailing him about. I don’t think it’s a huge part of winning, but it does exist to a certain extent. I don’t think judges favor an athlete because they’re personal friends, or because the coach is a friend. What I think happens more often is that a judge knows a specific athlete is coming, and so they might pay more attention to them. For example, if a specific athlete or athlete’s coach trains where a judge trains, they might chat about the upcoming competition. And it’s just human nature, on contest day, the judge looks for that athlete and pays more attention to them. And especially when there’s a big class of athletes, that can help someone stand out.
PN: Have you ever experienced that yourself? People in bodybuilding – more than other sports – seem to think there’s a lot of politics involved.
CT: Well, I think there are some politics there – especially on the women’s side of things, because the judging criteria are always changing. Some years the judges choose more muscular girls, other years more “feminine” girls. Some years “softer” women are chosen and some years “leaner” women are chosen. And when the standards are always changing, any judging decision can be justified. So specific judges could play favorites for sure, and get away with it.
So yes, I do see more politics on the female level. But there’s a bit of it on the men’s side too. The bodybuilding federations are interested in the growth of the sport and, by extension, more money. So they’ll often want to see certain people win, people who can make the sport more marketable or popular.
For example, Arnold Schwarzenegger won a few Mr. Olympia titles that perhaps he shouldn’t have. But of course, he was a charismatic guy and his victories were always good for the sport. So I believe some politics were involved in those decisions.
PN: Speaking of bodybuilding, you’re now training bodybuilders and even competing yourself. You’re also a former competitive Olympic lifter. Has it been hard for you to shift from an objective standard – you lift the weight or you don’t – to these more subjective standards?
CT: Personally, it doesn’t make a difference to me. I’m mostly in this for the fun of it and for changing my body. For me, winning or losing doesn’t really matter all that much. But I know how it is. I’ve been involved in subjective sports before. In fact, I’ve trained a lot of figure skaters, and there’s no sport more subjective than figure skating. So I’ve coached and participated in both types of events, and I understand the frustrations involved in subjective assessments. In Olympic weight lifting, there’s no subjectivity. You either lift the weight or you don’t. It’s clean. Cut and dry. Subjective sports are so different and leave a lot of room for argument and even error. So I look at subjective events less as “sport” and more as “competition.” But really I enjoy both, they both offer something to me as an athlete.
PN: I want to chat a little about your books. You’ve written two very highly regarded books: The Black Book of Training Secrets and Theory and Application of Modern Strength and Power Methods. Also, your latest book, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Body Transformation from Both Sides of the Force, is causing quite a splash. What inspired you to become an author and write about training?
CT: I think I got into writing more because of my creativity than my desire to be a strength coach. Training wasn’t even my first passion. My first passion was film. When I was 17 or 18 years old, I actually wrote 2 screenplays. One was for a movie and one was for a play. Now, I never ended up submitting either of them but I obviously loved and still do love the creative process. When I got more serious about my weight training, I found a way to combine both the training side and the creative side. That’s when I started writing books and articles on training. So it was the creative process that got me into writing in the first place. It just kind of grew from there, and now I’ve got three books published and a few more on the way.
PN: Tell me a little about your last book, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Interesting title.
CT: Well, the book covers training for body transformation from a few different perspectives. And, to be honest, I think the training material in there is the best I’ve ever written.
PN: Really? Given the excellent quality of your previous work, I’d say that’s saying something.
CT: Well, I really delve into the science of gaining size and strength in there. Also, the programs in the book are likely my best. But basically I wrote the training component of the book, the “good” side of the force, so to speak. Anthony Roberts wrote the other component, the “dark” side of the force: anabolic steroids. Now, I’m a strength coach first and foremost and don’t really want to be associated with anabolic steroids. But when Anthony pitched this idea to me, I decided to do it anyway, because I know that lots of bodybuilders do use steroids, often knowing nothing about them, and often in very harmful ways. So as steroids get more and more popular, I think it’s important to help people avoid some of the dangers associated with using them in an uneducated way. Most guys who end up using steroids just blindly follow the “big guy” at the gym. So Anthony’s idea was basically to make good, credible information available to show the people who are going to use this stuff anyway how to use it without killing themselves.
So that’s his side of the book. My side is the training side, and this book goes into much more depth than the Black Book of Training Secrets. It’s more scientific and really explains the process of muscle growth. It talks about what’s going on in your body to make your muscles bigger. And it also covers what you can do in the gym to stimulate those changes. In that regard, it’s much more thorough than anything I’ve ever written about hypertrophy.
PN: I know you’re a busy guy and always have a bunch of new projects on the go. Tell me something about what’s coming up next?
CT: The book I’ve almost completed is a body transformation book in written in French, so it’ll be sold in Quebec and in France. I have a lot of contacts in both places, and I work with many French bodybuilders as well, so this is a fun project for me to work on.
But I’m also working on a series of books I hope to finish next year all about body part training, and I think they’ll eventually be my most popular books. They’re kind of like what Charles Poliquin did with his arm training book, but I’ll have a different book for each segment of the body.
The first book is going to be about arm training, biceps, triceps, and forearms. The second will be about torso training, chest and back. The third will be about leg training, and the last one will be about training shoulders.
These books are more practical than theoretical. They’ll have two or three chapters on the science of hypertrophy, and there will be a couple of chapters about the muscles specifically and the role of each muscle in the segment you want to train. But the meat of the book will be the specialized programs – there will be about 20 or so – and readers will be able to chose the programs best suited to their level of development, body type, and goals. So they’ll be very thorough, and very practical.
PN: Those sound fantastic! You mentioned Charles Poliquin, another great coach originally from Quebec. What’s going on there, what’s that industry like in Quebec right now? Are there a lot of talented coaches in that area?
CT: Well, the environment is still a bit like Siberia in terms of training. Especially in smaller towns. In Montreal, there are some good trainers who are charging a lot of money ($50-60/hour) for training. But then again, to do that you have to rent space in a big gym, which can be costly. For example, the Pro Gym in Montreal, which is one of the biggest gyms in the world, rents space to coaches who want to train clients there, and I think it costs about $800/month for a small office. And in the smaller towns, if you charge more than $15/hour, you’re considered a crook. [Laughs.] So it’s hard to make a decent living as a personal trainer or strength coach here. But it’s a little better as a strength coach, and that’s an advantage I have, because although I’m writing a lot about bodybuilding lately and coaching a lot of bodybuilders, my biggest clientele is still athletes. I work with a big sports study program, training athletes from 26 different sports. So most of my income here in Quebec comes from being a strength coach and working with athletes.
PN: That’s interesting – if most of your work is still with athletes, why have you shifted your writing toward bodybuilding? It seems like lately a lot of your writing is moving in that direction and you’re working with more and more bodybuilders through your coaching. What prompted that change?
CT: Well, to be honest, personally I’ve always liked bodybuilding more than performance training. Even when I was a football player, I always did more arm training than anyone else on the team, just to look good in my jersey. [Laughs.] And even before football training, I was using the old Weider plastic barbell set to build my body for aesthetics. I’d even pump up before school in the morning because of course you can’t go to school without being pumped up. [Laughs.] And then I’d train during lunch. And when I got back from school I would be training again. And I always liked muscular bodies. But even training three times a day, I never built the body I wanted. And even after over a year of training, I was what you would call “skinny fat.” And I kind of gave up on my goals of having a lean aesthetic body.
But the thing was that, even though I was training 3x per day, I wasn’t eating well. I would eat chips and candy bars, I would eat pastries, I would skip meals. It was a mess. So with all that exercise, I got maybe 2,000 calories all day long, and most of that was junk. [Laughs.] So it’s no surprise that I didn’t look good. No amount of training could make up for my diet. But rather than learn about and improve my nutrition, I was stupid. I just blamed my genetics and assumed I was just built for strength and not muscle size. So I decided to concentrate on training for strength. And after some success in Olympic weightlifting, I became pretty strong.
It wasn’t until after an injury to my biceps retired me from that sport, that I decided to learn how to diet properly. And when I did, I built a pretty decent body. Funny how that works. [Laughs.] It takes both good training and good diet to build a great body. So after seeing that my body had some potential, I decided to learn all I could about training and nutrition for aesthetics. And that’s what I’m teaching now.
PN: Do you think a lot of people make the same mistake? Do you think they confuse poor genetics with poor nutrition?
CT: Oh yeah, definitely! I’d say that 95% of the people who say they have bad genetics simply don’t eat what they need to eat to improve their bodies. I see it every day – hundreds of people of all ages who train pretty hard but don’t look like it because they eat poorly, stay out all night, and ignore 2 parts of the training puzzle, nutrition and recovery. So these people think that they’re “hard gainers,” and they end up either giving up or going on steroids because they think their genetics are to blame. But really, if they slept more than 4hrs per night and ate more than 1500 calories per day, they would see better results. I think that nutrition is the biggest problem for most people.
And not everyone is built the same way. I don’t need the same amount of carbs that JB does. And we probably need different amounts of total calories, and so on. So even if people try to cut and paste a good nutrition program that a friend or expert uses themselves, they won’t get the same results. So again they figure that it must be their genetics. They figure that they’ve got poor genetics, while all their friends must have got the good genes. But that’s not it at all. It’s that they simply aren’t using a nutrition program built around their own needs. So identifying what your body needs to grow or lose fat is the key to great results. And that’s what I think Precision Nutrition does so well.
PN: Okay, let’s go the next step from being lean and muscular to actually stepping on stage and competing. When someone wants to make that step, how does their training have to change? Or does it?
CT: Training probably shouldn’t change too much when leading up to a contest. I think the biggest mistake that most people make is that they change their training drastically leading up to a show. I actually made that mistake myself leading up to my first competition. I figured I had to up the volume, do more drop sets, do more reps, things like that. But the body actually has a reduced capacity to recover from training when dieting down with lower calories and carbs. So that needs to be taken into account.
I think your volume should actually go down when you’re getting ready for the stage. But, then again, if you decrease volume and intensity, then you’re going to lose muscle mass, no question. So I think the first priority is to maintain or gain strength, that’s the best way to stop muscle loss during a dieting period.
Now, let’s be clear on one thing. When we’re talking about serious bodybuilding, there’s a big difference between looking “jacked” and training for the stage. If you just want to look good naked, during the off-season you can train all muscle groups the same way. But when you really want to be competitive on stage, your training needs to correct weaknesses, or at least hide them. If any body part is lagging, you have to focus on making it bigger and in proportion to the rest of your body.
So the biggest difference between serious bodybuilding and just training for looks is emphasizing what the judges what to see and being able to identify your own weaknesses and work on them. And these things should be considered year-round.
PN: How do you identify your own weaknesses? Do you write your own training and nutrition programs or do you have other people help you?
CT: I write my own training programs with the help of a friend, who’s also a bodybuilding coach. He doesn’t tell me what exercises to do, but he does tell me what parts of my body to work on – whether I need more deltoid mass, or lower lat size, or whatever. Then I take that advice, and I select the exercises I think will best work on these areas. Because I don’t think you can be 100% objective with yourself, you’ll end up focusing more on what you want than what you really need. So you need an external eye keeping you honest.
Now that’s training. But when it comes to nutrition – you cannot do your own nutrition plan! [Laughs.] You will always freak out as the contest approaches. You’ll look at yourself in the mirror and start fearing that you’re not lean enough or big enough or whatever. And then you’ll cut calories or carbs or make some dumb decisions and ruin your physique progress. You step on stage, place poorer than you should have, and then all that time you spent is out the window and you have to start again. So ideally you shouldn’t be your own coach for something like this. It’s possible, you can be your own coach and get decent results, but you’re unlikely to get peak results without someone else helping along the way.
PN: We’ve talked about training and nutrition for competition. How about lifestyle, attitude, etc? How does that have to change when getting ready for the stage?
CT: You become egotistical – there’s no way around it. [Laughs.] It’s very important to have either no life at all or a very understanding life partner – especially in the last few months, because you can really become an asshole. [Laughs.] I know I did. And actually my relationship was in danger at one point, and I had to take a break because of it.
When you’re cutting calories you get freaked out about getting into shape and you always want to do more. Lower calories, drop carbs, cut fat, etc. So it’s very difficult mentally. Further, if you get invited out to the bar or the movies, you often say no because people will be drinking and eating popcorn and you can’t – so you stay home to avoid the temptation. So there are some mental and social things that have to change leading up to the show.
The truth is, though, that the leaner you stay in the off-season, the less impact it has on your lifestyle. If you stay 8-10% body fat or less during the off-season, you can still go out, still have the occasional cheat day, etc. You won’t have to do cardio twice a day to lose the fat because you’re staying pretty lean. And the mood swings can be minimized when you stay in better shape, because your diet doesn’t have to be as severe, the carbs can stay higher, etc. So not going to extremes is key, and you have to start off lean to avoid these extremes. The biggest problems arise when people get way, way out of shape in the off-season. When you have to lose 50 lbs or so to get in shape for the stage it’s a miserable pre-contest period.
See for some people, bodybuilding is life. They want to be professionals, and so they have to live like a professional should live. Training and eating becomes their job. But for most people, bodybuilding is just a fun hobby. And I think that if you want it to stay fun, you’re going to have to have a life outside of your preparation.
PN: Now that you’re both a coach and a bodybuilder, how do the two affect each other? Does being a good coach make you a better bodybuilder or does being a good bodybuilder make you a better coach?
CT: Being a good bodybuilder makes me a better coach. But I think that being a good coach actually hurts me as a bodybuilder. I think that sometimes being a good coach, having a good reputation, and getting good results tends to make me believe my own crap, you know? [Laughs.] I start thinking I don’t need to go look for outside help. And that leads to mistakes and problems. So I always remind myself to keep an open mind.
But I think that on the other hand, competing, stepping on stage, feeling the pains of preparation, all that stuff, that’s helped me with my athletes. Some athletes have eating disorders, some athletes have to make weight for their sport, some athletes are stressed about competition. And my own preparation helps me understand what they’re going through.
For example, when you’re on stage or during the period leading up to it, you look fantastic. You’re lean, there’s no fat. You look the way you always wanted to look. But of course, there’s no way to hold onto that year round. So after the contest is over, you gain fat and pretty soon you start to dislike your body, and that can be really hard. And I think that’s similar to a figure skater who thinks she’s fat even though she’s only 90 pounds. So you start to identify with what causes eating disorders and body image problems in young athletes – especially females.
PN: You mentioned that sometimes coaches need to keep an open mind and look for outside help when needed. What else makes a great coach?
CT: A great coach is someone who’s not self-centered, someone who doesn’t think that one piece of advice is the only way to go. It’s interesting to me that many complaints I receive are based on my advice changing over the years. Sometimes I hear things like, “That program is different than the one you wrote 2 years ago!” Or, “What’s with the carbs? You used to recommend low carbs!” But, I think those changes highlight my strength, which is keeping an open mind. And I think most coaches should strive for that. We have to understand that we don’t always have all the answers. So if I read a book or article by a coach, like say Chad Waterbury, someone with different methodologies, I’m looking to learn something. I like to try out what they say. And if it works, I try to incorporate it into what I do. So I think a great coach is open to changes, is always learning, and is willing to adapt his methods in order to get the most out of his athletes.
Take a sport like football, for example. The difference between the good football coaches and the great football coaches is this: the great coach builds his offensive or defensive system around the athletes that he has. So if a great coach has a great running back and a mediocre quarterback, he won’t use a run and shoot offence, he’ll use a ground-based attack.
Well the same is true with training. You have to work with the athlete’s strengths and weaknesses. So as a coach, you need to understand what your athletes need, and train them accordingly. Your long limbed athletes will have to train differently than your short limbed. Your ectomorphs need to eat differently than your endomorphs. There are all kinds of differences. So the great coach quickly assesses the needs of the athlete as an individual and changes his program accordingly.
PN: Over your career you’ve worked with a large spectrum of clients and athletes and have probably observed certain characteristics that most successful athletes share. What do you see as the common denominator between those who succeed and those who don’t?
CT: Cockiness. I think the common factor is that those who succeed, whether it’s in bodybuilding or sport, are very self-confident. But it’s a very strong self-confidence, it’s unshakeable. And it’s not really arrogance. Successful individuals are just very confident that they’ll succeed. Like in football, the cockiest guys on the field are the defensive backs. They have to be, because even if they’re burned for a long touchdown pass, they have to come back on the field with the same confidence they had before. That’s the mindset that most top athletes have. Nice guys are fine and well as teammates, but if you want to reach the top, you have to believe that you’re never going to fail.
PN: Okay Christian, I’ve gone through most of what I wanted to ask about. Now, I know you do a ton of these interviews and I know that often times the guy doing the interview is asking the wrong questions. So, if you were in my shoes and had to ask yourself one question, which would you ask yourself and what would the answer be?
CT: How do you look so good? [Laughs.] Actually, one question I get from a lot of people is, “Where did you get your knowledge from? What sources do you have?”
A lot of strength coaches base their information and methods on the Russian literature. Others will base it on what they learned in college. Others on some coach they’ve interned with. Me, I’ve accumulated knowledge by learning from everyone. Everyone can teach you something about training. Even the smallest guy in the gym may have some method that can be used successfully. This is where keeping an open mind comes into play. But beyond that, I think you have to read everything you can get your hands on. And if you learn only one new thing in a book, that’s one more thing that you knew yesterday, so the book was worth reading. You do have to be able to understand what’s going to work and what’s not, so that means developing your critical thinking skills. But reading helps with that too. So as a coach, or even as an athlete, you can never stop learning and can never be satisfied with your current level of knowledge.
One thing that always impressed me about the Soviet system was that they also trained their athletes to be coaches, even while they were still just athletes. After coaching sessions, they got physiology lessons, periodization lessons, biomechanics lessons, this great education. So they learned about why they were doing what they were doing, why they were training so hard, and more. And they learned about the differences and similarities between theory and application. Well, no surprise, those athletes made great coaches because while they were building their bodies, they were learning the fundamental knowledge that training is built upon. So anyone with coaching aspirations should do the same.
PN: Christian, this has been awesome. Thanks so much for taking the time out of your day to talk with us, and thanks again for the great program you’ve designed for our Precision Nutrition members!
CT: No problem!
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