December 2011 - Eric Helms’ Bodybuilding Science Blog December: Interview with Alan Aragon

Eric Helms: Alan, you've been a huge influence to so many with your level headed, scientific approach to nutrition for bodybuilding and body composition improvements. Couple that with an approachable, down to earth personality and it's no surprise that you've seen success. So, establishing that; for the folks who don't know who you are, could you introduce yourself? And for your fans Alan, give us an update on what's going on in your life these days.

Alan Aragon: First off, thanks for the compliment. It's good to hear that I've made a positive impact - it's probably the biggest reason I do what I do. My main goal is to help people through the frustration and confusion of reaching their fitness goals. Who am I? Let's see... There's not really a formal title that nails it. I'm a combination of a teacher, trainer, nutritionist, and double agent for the dairy, sugar, and grain industry.

What's going on with my life? Right now my areas of focus are to keep my clients reaching their goals, and maintain the quality of the content of my research review. I also have my regular consulting and article writing with Men's Health magazine that keeps me busy as well. Recently, I've been invited onto the advisory board of Livestrong and Fitocracy. I occasionally stand in for the Nutrition faculty at Cal State Northridge, and I speak annually at the JP Fitness Summit.

I recently was contacted by the committee staff of the NSCA, inviting me to speak at their personal training conference next April. I saw this as a particularly sweet victory because I remember the old days of struggling to get these types of gigs with much smaller organizations only to find out that I wasn't a big enough name. I'm not particularly interested in fame or fanfare, but it's definitely gratifying to know that endless hours of hard work has made a dent - to the point that the big boys are now taking notice. The ongoing challenge is doing a good job in all this while carving out the time to spend with my family.

Eric Helms: Alan, the amount of science related to bodybuilding is always growing, but obviously the contributions to this field are minuscule compared to more mainstream sports due to the simple fact that there is less interest and money in bodybuilding comparatively. That being said, you're always examining what is out there that is relevant and novel. In your opinion, what's on the forefront with regards to bodybuilding? What is the most interesting or promising new information? Lastly, are we on the cusp of ending any of the big debates in this sport (i.e. hormonal vs. mechanical roots of hypertrophy, volume vs. load, meal timing, pre/post workout nutrition, protein intake etc.)?

Alan Aragon: On the forefront of bodybuilding, I'm ironically witnessing a sort of reversion to the basic basic stuff rather than a technological thrust forward. Nutrition-wise, much of the typically imposed intricacies of nutrient timing, supplementation, nutrient cycling, etc., are neither necessary nor beneficial compared to the boring, fundamental broad strokes. There are a few noteworthy developments, but they're still minor in the large scheme.

On the supplementation front, it appears that BCAA can be used to clinch a small edge for preventing fatigue and enhancing fat oxidation while training on low glycogen stores. The problem with this research is that it's too new to have been replicated, and it's mainly hypothesis-generating since it only looked at short-term effects (as opposed to effects over a period of weeks). Very interesting stuff though, and it has potential applications to individuals who purposely train with low glycogen stores, which occurs in certain phases of bodybuilding with some competitors.

On the nutrition front, there's not a whole lot new under the sun. A few lines of research evidence have come around to demonstrate that higher protein intakes than traditionally recommended can be beneficial to trained individuals under hypocaloric conditions - but this is old news with bodybuilders. Carbohydrate timing concerns have gotten a few knocks against them since acute muscle protein synthesis is maxed out with relatively low protein doses (25-30g) beyond which no further enhancement occurs despite the addition of carbohydrate to the meal. This is a good thing in the sense that there's more freedom for bodybuilders to shuffle around carbohydrate placement through the day wherever they want without worrying about compromising gains or recovery - as long as the total for the day is hit. I'd also mention that there's still a lack of nutrient timing research (both acute and chronic studies) on athletic subjects undergoing a resistance training program. Hopefully more of what's relevant will surface in the near future. On the observational front, I've seen that sticking to personal preference in food choices can optimize training performance and improvements in body composition.

Training-wise, I'd like to share some anecdotal data. I've observed that increasing the frequency of deloading can contribute to strength gains. For example, world record holding powerlifter Becky Rich deloads every 4th week. I've also seen good results with an auto-regulatory approach where roughly a week-long deload occurs every 4th to 8th week, depending on the athlete's training momentum. But if you were to take a truly auto-regulatory approach to deloading, even these limits could be breached. For example, if the gains are coming nicely and training sessions are blazing at week 7, no need to ease up during the 8th week; save the pull-back for when you begin to flatten out or get stale in your lifts. By the same token, if you've trained the demons out of yourself for 2 weeks and your normal deload isn't scheduled for another 2 weeks, screw the schedule, deload immediately. The same principle can be applied to time completely off from training.

As far as the big debates go, man, they are raging on just as much as ever, but I can briefly touch on some of these topics and then we can get into more depth as we continue. Hormonal vs. mechanical -- I'd say to focus on the mechanical side, and the hormonal side takes care of itself given that proper nutrition is in place. Some people do it ass-backwards and train for a certain hormonal effect, but let's put it this way, physiological hormonal flux and pharmacological hormone manipulation are two different things. You can't attempt to monkey with the former in attempts to achieve or even come close to the effects of the latter. Volume vs. load -- I really think it depends on the goal here. Hypertrophy is something that can be achieved with pretty much any intensity of load, as long as the work is progressive. However, the far ends of the spectrum (super low reps and super high reps) make this process far less efficient. Meal timing and protein I already touched upon briefly, let me know if there's more there you want me to dig out or be more specific with.

Eric Helms: The new BCAA research is interesting. There are a few avenues on the horizon for potential research on BCAAs and "outside of the box" supplementation. I recently had the pleasure to train and talk with Layne Norton earlier in the year while he was in San Francisco presenting his research at a dairy industry conference (he's a double agent for the dairy industry like you).

We discussed some of his not yet published research comparing isocaloric diets of equal protein in an animal model comparing muscle protein synthesis, and he found that more stimulations of muscle protein synthesis (via more feedings of protein) were superior to fewer. We also discussed the "refractory" response to too frequent of protein feedings and how leucine (a branch chain amino acid) in its isolated form can overcome this refractory period. I know this is on the forefront, but what are your thoughts and impressions on this?

Alan Aragon: LOL @ being a double-agent for Big Dairy :)... To answer the question, I just don't put a whole lot of stock into animal research. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a valid starting point. However, there's no getting around the fact that we humans are just so damn different from rodents - well, most of us, anyway. For example, de novo lipogenesis (DNL), the conversion of carbohydrate to fat, is a much more active metabolic pathway in rodents than in humans. Much of the fructose scare-mongering has been based on extrapolations from research involving rodents fed extravagant doses of fructose-containing saccharides. The adverse effects are compounded due to rodents' far lesser fructose tolerance than that of humans in the first place. As far as protein metabolism goes, humans and rats have vastly different muscle and liver distributions of branched chain amino acid amino transferase (BCAT). The significance here is that BCAT catalyzes the first step of the breakdown of BCAA. There are also marked differences between rats and humans in muscle and liver activity of branched chain alpha-keto acid dehydrogenase (BCKD) complex, which catalyzes the 2nd (irreversible and rate-limiting) step of BCAA catabolism. These are just a couple of examples, but they are sufficient cause for caution when making assumptions about rodent research. The effects seen in rats are best viewed as preliminary until replicated in humans under relevant circumstances.

Eric Helms: There is a current fascination with the Intermittent Fasting approach that has been popularized by the website and Martin Berkhan. This seems along the same lines as the interest in Lyle McDonald's UD2 (which can be used for lean gaining periods) and your approach of "culking" (bulking and cutting at the same time). I was wondering if you could compare and contrast these three approaches. To me, it seems that culking is more of a long term, patient and slow approach to mass gains that takes a realist's, conservative perspective on how long it takes to add muscle. On the other hand, UD2 and IF'ing are similar in that they are cyclical in nature but operate over different time spans; either the course of a week or over the span of a day and have differing approaches to nutrient partitioning; intermittent fasting vs. glycogen depletion and replenishment. Some might argue that your approach is easier to follow behaviorally and psychologically, but may not produce the same level of lean body mass gains at the same rate as the more (arguably) intensive cyclical approaches. I'm curious as to your take on this, is there a tradeoff here? Or are they just different ways to skin a cat?

Alan Aragon: Lyle and Martin have their own ways of doing things, and both ways have gotten clients consistently positive results. So, in a sense, it is indeed a matter of different ways to skin a cat. I'd like to clarify that "culking" is often assumed to be a methodology or program that I thought up, but it's not. It's a set of default effects. I find it amusing how a catchy word like "culking" can conjure up all kinds of assumptions (I also coined the term "fulking" - short for fat-bulking - but somehow it wasn't as attractive). Culking is merely a set of effects (simultaneous muscle gain and fat loss) that are seen in beginning and some intermediate-level trainees. It's also seen in formerly fit trainees who have been sedentary for a long period and have slipped into a deconditioned state. These populations don't need to necessarily focus on simultaneous effects because they'll happen regardless, by virtue of being relatively far from their potential.

Other populations who don't necessarily need dedicated cutting and bulking phases are those who don't compete in Bodybuilding and do not necessarily want to push the extremes. These folks often do better - psychologically and otherwise - on a more simplistic and linear path, plodding along like the turtle that beat the rabbit. The first time I mentioned culking it was most likely addressing newbies on the forums who had barely been training for 3 months yet they were agonizing over whether they should bulk or cut. In my private practice, programs for actors and other such people in the entertainment business (as well as certain non-bodybuilding athletes) sometimes are precluded from dedicated bulking and cutting phases due to the nature of their roles (or sports). In these cases, a more linear and subtle trend in whatever direction is needed and sometimes is the only option.

With that said, dedicated bulking and cutting phases are almost always the necessary resort once trainees make it past the beginning and intermediate stages and still want to push the envelope. The direction taken has to be very specific, whether it's gaining muscle or losing fat. For example, if an intermediate or advanced trainee's primary goal is muscle gain (but still cares strongly about leanness); I typically recommend bulking and cutting cycles at a respective length ratio of 3:1. That is, bulk for roughly 3 times longer than you cut, then repeat the cycle. Progress can still be made with other ratios (i.e., 2:1 or 4:1 bulk-to-cut lengths), but the 3:1 ratio is what I've seen most consistently benefit those in the intermediate and advanced stages. As far as specific cycle lengths go, what I've seen work best in practice is a bulking length of 6-12 months followed by a cutting cycle of 2-4 months (with the specific length depending on the individual details of the trainee). Cyclical dieting in some form is often inevitable when people are trying to push body comp extremes. However, outside of extremes, cyclical dieting isn't always necessary. I know I rambled a bit there, hopefully that makes sense. In any case, thanks for reaching out, Eric.

Eric Helms: Alan thanks so much for agreeing to do the interview! The guys and I were so excited that you were willing, and like you said "game recognize game"!

For everyone out there looking to gain more wisdom from Alan, please check out his blog and think about becoming a subscriber to his regular research reviews where he breaks down the fine details and points to current research related to training, nutrition, and supplementation. 

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