It is a great honour that Eric Helms of 3Dmusclejourney has agreed to be interviewed by me, on behalf of Natural Physique Sciences. Eric has been an invaluable mentor to me, in both bodybuilding and academics.
Eric holds a laundry list of certifications including being a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), a Level 1 Sport Performance Coach via USA Weghtlifitng (USAW), he is certified through NASM as a Certified Personal Trainer (CPT), Fitness Nutrition Specialist (FNS), as well as being a certified International Powerlifting Referee. Along with these certifications Eric has also completed his BS Sports Management (fitness and wellness – 3.93 GPA) and an MS Exercise Science and Health Promotion (performance enhancement and injury prevention – 4.0 GPA).
He is currently completing his second Masters degree at the Auckland University of Technology which a thesis concentration in optimal protein intake in lean, dieting, strength athletes and beginning his PhD.
Thank you very much for your time today, Eric. For the readers who are unfamiliar with you would you mind giving us a brief bio about yourself, your competition history and how you started in the fitness industry?
Firstly, thank you for this honor and doing your part to put out good info, help people and to help natural bodybuilding in Australia. I think you covered my academic credentials, but to give more background I got into fitness while in the Air Force in 2001. Since, I’ve been acting in some capacity as an exercise leader, mentor, trainer, instructor, lecturer or coach. I didn’t get heavily involved in lifting until 2004, which I pursued as a therapeutic outlet emotionally. I fell in love once I was bitten by the iron bug and branched into competition. I competed in my first power lifting competition in 2006 and my first body building show in 2007 and most recently my first weightlifing competitions this year in 2013.
I’m an above average strength athlete at best, but I’ve had a measure of success in natural bodybuilding. In 2009 as an amateur I clinched a number of open class wins and fought for a few overall titles but came up short. I had my first overall victory in the INBA Nevada State Championships in August 2011 where I earned a pro card with the PNBA. In the process of competing I met the folks (who I now call brothers) who would help me form 3DMuscleJourney. I am one of the four co-founders along with Alberto Nunez, Jeff Alberts and Brad Loomis; also professional trainers and drug free bodybuilders. We’ve been coaching athletes, promoting evidence based training and nutrition, and trying to bring together the natural bodybuilding community since late 2009.
Fast forward to present day, I wear a lot of hats. Competitor, coach, author, researcher and life long student. I’ve done 9 bodybuilding shows, competing in the INBA, INBF, NPC and NGA, I’ve done 9 raw powerlifting meets in the APC, IPF, and APA, and 2 weightlifting meets. Most recently I’ve qualified for the NZPF Classic Powerlifting Championships, which are the raw nationals here in New Zealand. I’m trying to earn a spot to compete at the Oceania and Commonwealth IPF championships in December. In Olympic Weightlifting, I’m very much a novice. I train at the North Sport Olympic Weightlifting club under the tutelage of my Olympic lifting coach Adam Storey, and I’m very much enjoying the challenge of periodizing and organizing my training around the three sports of bodybuilding, powerlifting and weightlifting.
I don’t want this to be a stock standard interview where you tell us that lifting weights is good and tracking macros is really good, so if you don’t mind would you please share with the readers a little more about yourself and why it is that you’ve decided to go the route you have in regards to academics, as well as your biggest drivers in the industry?
I dive in with both feet when something grabs my attention, physically, emotionally and intellectually. My entire life focus changed when I found lifting. I went from studying linguistics, recording music and being involved in dance, to studying exercise science, nutrition, becoming a personal trainer, and engulfing myself in the community, competition, science, and experience of lifting weights.
I enjoy the applied sciences and career-focused study. Pure exercise physiology, nutritional biochemistry, and biomechanics only pique my interest in the sense that their concepts form the foundation of applied study. Thus, while I originally set out to study dietetics, I changed my major to exercise science, and then ended up changing it again. Initially I was looking at local schools in California, but I decided to study online in a career oriented program for my BS and first Masters degree as many classes for dietetics or exercise science I had little interest in.
My BS was an online program designed for folks already in the fitness industry. I completed it while working as a personal trainer. It included classes that prepared you for training certifications and there was always a focus on the application of theory. The curriculum was split 50/50 between exercise science and nutrition classes, and sports/fitness industry business classes. I spent semesters concurrently learning about program design, exercise science and nutrition while also writing up business plans for 3DMJ.
If I’d stayed with dietetics or exercise science at the local university, I would have graduated a full year later, and that year would have been spent taking multiple chemistry and advanced biology classes, or physics and calculus classes depending on which major I’d chosen. Let’s just say I don’t have any regrets! In fact, I stayed at the same university (California University of Pennsylvania) and did my MS online as well. I learned more, and I learned how to become a purveyor of research. The only downside was there wasn’t a research project or thesis, so when I decided to go on to do my PhD, I needed to first get experience as a primary researcher.
So, that is what lead me to doing my second Masters in New Zealand at AUT. AUT is a world leader in high performance sport and strength and conditioning research. The S&C research at AUT floods academic journals dedicated to strength and conditioning and some of the most prolific, practical, intelligent and influential researchers in the world of S&C come out of AUT, and once again it is very much focused on applied science. When I contacted the Strength and Conditioning professors at AUT, specifically John Cronin, I was incredibly impressed. It is so much more difficult to get into schools in the US, and in general you have less freedom to study what you want, with an online coaching business, I wasn’t limited to local schools so that’s why I looked overseas.
I’m finishing my 1 year Master’s here in less than 2 months and I’m soon to start my PhD. My Masters was essentially on manipulating protein intake in dieting strength athletes to explore what might be best practice, and my PhD is going to be on autoregulation in periodization of resistance training.
I’ve been most heavily influenced by guys like Alan Aragon, who knows how to be the professional while staying down to earth, can be the sceptic and voice of reason while being willing to change his mind, and all the while sincerely tries to make positive impact in the fitness industry. I’m also heavily influenced by Dr. Layne Norton, who almost single handedly brought natural bodybuilding into the limelight and in the process promoted a scientific, evidence-based approach to the sport.
When moving to Auckland what were some of the biggest differences you had noticed in terms of the local lifting scene when compared with the US? Would you say either is more advanced in their approaches?
Well let me first say that I don’t have a great feel for the local lifting scene. I am a bit sheltered in that I train at north sport olympic weightlifting with some of the best Olympic lifters in the country and my coach has a PhD in Sports Science, and before that I trained at the YMCA in the north shore, and the fitness manager and his wife, Ruth and Strini Naidoo are experienced, intelligent trainers. Strini has been a student of the game for a long time, and has trained top level professional fighters and Ruth has a masters degree in sport and exercise and is the 2012 Natural Olympia Women’s Physique Overall Champ and is arguably the best natural female bodybuilder in the country. All my friends here are either competitive weight lifters, competitive bodybuilders or post graduate students studying sports science. So, I couldn’t give a fair comparison. That said, there are a lot of people I’ve consulted with here in NZ, and I tend to run into the same issues here that I run into in the states…to be honest that I run into everywhere. I consult on a daily basis with someone, and probably 2-3x per week they are from a country besides the US, Australia or NZ. 90% of people I coach simply know too many details without being able to put them into context, prioritise them, or be able to create a structured plan.
You touched on something that I admittedly get carried away with at times, and that is sometimes focusing a little too much on the black and white science without thought for the application and real world meaning. Do you think this has become a trend as of late with more and more research becoming available? It often seems that now every man and his dog is a scientist and are quick to shoot down anything they can’t prove.
First I think this is a great problem to have! I much prefer a pubmed ninja to a bro-scientist. The fact that the number of people reading pubmed is even comparable to the number of people reading Flex magazine is forward progress. That said, research has its limitations and it often follows practice. Often what bodybuilders do is an extreme version of what the research eventually proves (the more is better mindset), but the broad concepts from the trenches often have elements of truth. The scientific community was originally sold on cardiovascular training and suggested lifting weights could make you muscle bound or be bad for children, while bodybuilders were saying lift weights. Scientists said that .8g/kg of protein was all that was needed and high protein diets were dangerous, while bodybuilders were saying eat more protein. Now we know that resistance training improves everything from the aging process, to health markers, to sports performance and protein intakes higher than 3x the RDA in healthy pepole are safe and intakes in the range of 2-3x the RDA improve muscle mass maintenance during weight loss, satiety, LBM gains in resistance training, and markers for metabolic disease.
Empirical research is not the only source of information and it’s foolish to ignore other sources. Some journals only publish 25% or less of what is submitted and just because something hasn’t been proven by science doesn’t mean it’s been disproven or that it’s even been studied.
Studies in general are extremely controlled, and therefore results are often applicable in a narrow set of circumstances. Too often findings of a study are applied too broadly and researchers are often guilty of overstating the application of their work. When you read a study, remember that the results are what happened, while the conclusions are the opinions of the researchers on those results.
Getting back to applied science, the flip side of applied science is mechanistic science. Meaning that instead of the goal of figuring out best practice, mechanistic science looks for a mechanism. It isolates a variable and attempts to prove causation. For example, looking at muscle protein synthesis by tracing individual amino acids in response to eating protein or in response to weight training are mechanistic examinations. The benefit is you can tell on a micro level what is occurring and why.
To contrast, looking at changes in strength, or body composition over time in response to a nutritional intervention or training intervention would be applied research. It can’t tell you specifically why the changes happened on a micro level, but it most certainly can help to inform best practice.
Problems come when people take mechanistic studies and try to apply them to practice, when the research continuum should flow from mechanistic to applied to practice. I have seen many examples of a mechanistic outcome not being replicated when it comes to long term applied research because they controlled and isolated a variable so much as to remove the ability to apply the info outside of the lab setting. Mechanistic nutrient timing studies are a great example. Google the review by Aragon and Schoenfeld “Nutrient Timing Revisited Is there a post-workout anabolic window?” You’ll find that short term mechanistic studies show specific benefits of nutrient timing that don’t play out consistently in long term studies with applied variables like performance or body composition.
Moving on to your PhD, you mentioned that your focus will be centered around periodization and auto regulation of resistance training. This is something I have been very interested in for quite some time now and it has gained a lot of attention with the inclusion of the RPE system into many routines, as well as the latest focus on non-linear periodization. If you wouldn’t mind getting into some of the pros and cons of autoregulated/periodized training vs the standard linear/percentage based routines?
First I think it’s a bit of misnomer to classify the older periodization model as “linear” when in fact every model of periodization I can think of; undulating, reverse linear and block periodization are all linear in one way or another. They just have different ways of organizing volume, intensity and frequency to get the goal of linear progress in the most efficient way possible.
All of the periodization programs traditionally are based off of a percentage of one rep max, or perhaps a percentage of a training max, or perhaps a 1, 3 or 5RM. This is great as the training is customized to your level of strength, however, saying that your 1RM is 300lbs for example, is a little bit misleading. Is your max 300lbs if you got 3 hours of sleep? Is your max 300lbs if you had a big cup of coffee before training and got some great sleep? What if you maxed out on a different lift yesterday? What if you just recently had a light week of training or a taper? In reality, someones max might be more like 280-320lbs depending on their readiness to train at any given time.
Now if you are supervised by a coach, or are really honest with yourself, or if you’ve spent a decade in the gym, you can make workout to workout adjustments based on readiness and progress as efficiently as possible while using a percentage based program. But, if you don’t have a coach or that ability, a pre-planned hard day can fall on a day you got shitty sleep, or pre-planned recovery day could fall on a day you were well rested and had a relaxing weekend prior. You can end up not providing a stimulus when you are ready, or providing too much of a stimulus when you aren’t recovered and degrading the efficiency of your progress.
So, I’m going to be researching a model of training in which instead of programming set weights and a set volume, the readiness of the lifter will dictate the load and the volume. This is something we at 3DMJ picked up from Mike Tuchscherer at Reactivetrainingsystems.com and have ran with and loved. I’m lucky to have a good relationship with Mike, he sends a number of his lifters over to us for nutritional advice, and he is involved with and very supportive of my PhD, which will essentially be a series of studies looking at systems very similar to what he developed.
Those are some very good points you make that I think sometimes are overlooked. Whilst on the subject of Mike T, would you mind sharing your opinions on autoregulation tools such as Mikes’ TRAC, as well as other methods such as heart rate variability (HRV)?
First off let me just say that I haven’t used either personally. That said, I’ve been lucky enough to talk about HRV and TRAC with Mike T, and he thinks both have benefits. The TRAC can tell you more variables related to your readiness and capacity to adapt, while HRV might be more reliable but doesn’t tell you about as many variables. That said, TRAC, HRV, and other measures of readiness or recovery (like testosterone cortisol ratio, or perhaps performance on a force plate) are nice, but, they are still quite open to subjectivity, because, after you get this rating of readiness, you have to decide what to do about it. There are different theories about training while fatigued, how to train, training while well rested and recuperated, how to train etc., some S&C coaches might specifically have a harder day if you were a bit beat up to try to build up your fatigue resistance, while another coach might make the decision to take a day off.
I like intra-session autoregulatory techniques, like Mike T’s or Borge Fagerli’s autoregulatory programming because there is no guesswork, you “cut out the middle man” and have guidelines to what training you do based on what your body allows.
How do you feel overreaching/tapering cycles could benefit a bodybuilder, if at all, and would you mind explaining how you organize your training throughout the year? I believe you are quite fond of sheiko routines with a higher than ‘normal’ frequency, and would you mind giving us a brief breakdown of the hows and whys of the program and why you enjoy it?
I find that when you are pushing for progression at the intermediate and advanced levels (where most competitive bodybuilders are at), the required efforts to get small amounts of progress are significant. Because of this, the ability to stay motivated to do so is transient. By the time most get to the highest levels of development, their training essentially becomes a maintenance program. To make further progress, globally with a physique (meaning all over body hypertrophy, or with strength on all lifts for that matter), would take an effort that is not practical nor sustainable. So the best approach I find is either overreaching programs, or body part specialization programs. In an overreaching program you push for that global progression, but within a specific time frame with a planned back off afterwards. In a body part specialization split, you take strong body parts down to maintenance levels of volume, and really jack up volume and/or frequency on the weak points where you are focusing. You get in get the work done, make some progress, then recuperate re-evaluate and set the next set of goals.
As far as Sheiko or any routine, really I just look at them as their constituent parts. A high volume, high frequency, low intensity powerlifting routine has it’s place, but so do many other programs. I specifically was training with sheiko at the end of 2012 into this year for a few reasons.
- high intensity routines when followed by high volume routines (and vice versa) tend to pay off pretty well. I had just finished some modified Wendler training that I did for a few months, and I was plateauing.
- I have been really stuck on my bench press for years now, hovering in the 305-325 lb range as my 1RM and the only thing that’s finally been making it budge was a high frequency high volume approach which is an aspect of the advanced cms-ms prep sheiko routine.
- It’s perfect for the transition to Olympic lifting training and I wanted to get my volume tolerance up to set the stage.
As a general note on training and volume, basically the paradigm is that intensity and rep range are going to dictate the adaptation, and volume will dictate the magnitude of that adaptation. However, before that is interpreted as “everyone should do high volume”, recognize there is a point where you get diminishing returns and end up just digging a recovery hole. This is the old “non functional overreaching” that is often mis-characterized as over-training. In actuality, you want to get the most volume in that you can recover from and adapt to optimally. A lot of high volume junkies aren’t honest about what they can recover from and tend to constantly repeat cycles of pushing too hard, and running into nagging injury that prevents them from training, and losing the gains they could have realized had they taken a more moderate approach. On the note of “normal” frequency and “normal” volume, for the most part I don’t think we really know what is normal. We have massively conflicting camps in practice (the HIT camp and the high volume crowd), and in research we have mostly studied untrained or recreationally trained populations and not enough is known to make broad conclusions about high level athletes.
Lastly, to answer the question about my training, I am currently balancing olympic lifting, power lifting and bodybuilding and I’m lucky to have the programming help of my Olympic lifting coach Adam Storey. Essentially I rank the three sports’ training as primary, secondary, or tertiary based on what I have going on. Initially, there were two Olympic lifting meets that Adam wanted me to compete in a few months back, so for the first four months or so of training I was primarily doing the Olympic lifts secondarily focusing on powerlifting, and my tertiary focus was bodybuilding. Squatting came after the snatch and clean and jerk, I was only benching and deadlifting once per week and accessories were geared towards the Olympic lifts with just a little bit of bodybuilding work. Now, with powerlifting meets on the horizon, powerlifting is primary, Olympic is secondary and bodybuilding is tertiary, however there is a lot of overlap in powerlifting and bodybuilding so I’m actually doing more hypertrophy work than I was when I was focused on Olympic lifting. I do my squats before the Olympic lifts, I am benching twice per week, deadlifting once per week before my Olympic lifts, and I have more strength and hypertrophy based accessory work like romanian deadlifts, strict presses, pull ups, pull downs, Pendlay rows, face pulls and cable rows. When I’m roughly ~2 years out from my pro debut, which is very much up in the air…bodybuilding will take the fore front, and I’ll probably only snatch and clean and jerk once per week in a combined session, squat twice per week, deadlift once, and then really focus my volume and frequency on my upper body.
Something i’ve wanted to ask for some time now is in relation to mobility, specifically forms of stretching and how much/how often, if at all it should be done? My understanding is that you want to be as mobile as you NEED to be and no more. What is your stance on this and do you think there is any merit to static stretching for a performance athlete, or should streching be limited to dynamic/foam rolling/self myofascial release?
I think the concept that you want to be only as mobile as you need to be and not more is a good way to look at it. I put it this way only because with the latest fitness trends mobility has really become a buzz word and sometimes people end up doing 40min pre workout rituals with all kinds of movements that may not necessarily be well targeted for their needs.
The best way to look at all of the things that encompass “mobility work”, is to look at each one of these things (foam rolling, static stretching, dynamic stretching, movement prep etc.) as tools. So in the case of static stretching, it can be used to get a tight muscle a bit looser acutely, or if you used it more aggressively as true flexibility training, can be used to try to increase the length of the muscle-tendon unit. So, doing some brief stretching that most people do instinctually during training, between sets etc. is fine I would say. This is not the same thing as the static stretching done in a yoga session. The longer holds of true flexibility training, like that seen in yoga, have their place if you need that tool. If you have a muscle that needs to be longer, say in the case of someone who sits a lot and has chronically tight/shortened hip flexors, or for someone who wears high heels a lot and has chronically tight/shortened calves, then yes static stretching can be included. How much is going to depend on how much of a problem the issue is, often it’s not realistic to have someone just not sit, or change their lifestyle to avoid some of the chronic muscle length issues, so it might mean doing calf and hip flexor stretching on a regular basis, and yes even right before training so you can do the movement patterns properly.
Foam rolling, dynamic stretching and other training tools that we categorize under the umbrella of “mobility work” just need to be seen as exactly that; tools. So if you know the function of your tools, you’ll know when to use them, instead of just whipping out the hammer, screw driver, wrench, and saw no matter what each time you get in the gym.
Eric I want to thank you for your time today, you have provided fantastic answers to some burning questions I have had. Where can people find out more about you, and would you mind giving some quick insight into what the future holds for you? Lastly, might we be seeing you head across the pond to Aus any time soon?
It’s been a pleasure, and I really enjoyed the questions! You can find out more about me and 3D Muscle Journey by checking out our youtube channel: www.youtube.com/team3dmj and also our website www.3dmusclejourney.com. To find out specifically about me just click the coaching tab and my bio on our main page.
As far as what the future holds for me, academically I am 2 months from submitting the thesis for my second masters. It’s on protein intake in lean dieting strength athletes. I’ve done a review which is in the pre publication stages and I’m 3 weeks away from completing my main study (thank you participants for letting me starve you!). The study won’t be published for a while knowing the peer review process, however I will make my thesis available when it’s back from academic review before the year is over! Next year, I’ll be starting my PhD focused on training periodization and autoregulation and that will be a 3-4 year process.
As a coach, I’m going to continue growing in my theoretical, interpersonal and practical skill sets trying to become the best coach I can be, and continuing to make videos to help people more broadly on our channel on youtube. I also will be doing some seminars in the future, one is in the UK early next year, and as far as Australia I don’t see why not! Just need some folks to put me up, get a venue, sell some tickets and help me to make that possible (wink wink nudge nudge).
As an athlete I’ve got probably the biggest competitions of my career in powerlifting as I’ve qualified for the IPF NZ Raw Nationals in September. If I do well there I may get a spot for the Commonwealth and Oceania championships in December here in Auckland; a rare opportunity. It will be an honor to get slaughtered by the guys who are TRUE powerlifters, I’m just a bodybuilder with a pretty good squat! Also trying my hand more and more at Olympic lifting, give me 3 years and I may actually seem proficient! Lastly, some time in the next 2-5 years I’ll be making a pro debut on a natural bodybuilding stage.