Wilkins Power – An Interview with Isaac Wilkins

Isaac has been a member on the Wannabebig forums for almost 5 years now and also ran a column on Wannabebig called Got Strength. During this time he has grown in leaps and bounds and has displayed true leadership skills as a coach, trainer and lifter. Isaac is the real deal and it shows in his work and how he conducts himself online in helping people as a moderator on the Wannabebig forums. He is an athlete, a competitor and someone who is humble enough to learn from their mistakes so they can continually move forward.

Isaac was kind enough to set aside some time to answer some questions and some insight into who he is what he’s all about.

Wannabebig: It’s nice to finally get the chance find out a bit more about you and what you’re all about. Please tell us about yourself.

Isaac: Well, I’m a 27 year-old private trainer and performance coach living in Charleston, SC. I consider myself to be largely a science-based trainer rather than an emotion or “bro-telligent”-based trainer.

I grew up in Maine where I attended the University of Maine for both my undergrad and graduate degrees. I started seriously lifting in college and as I grew more serious I found WannaBeBig.com. I actually give WBB a lot of credit for this turn that my life has taken as I probably wouldn’t have been nearly as successful in the gym without that initial dose of solid advice. It also fueled my interest in learning more about the strength and conditioning field and that obviously has blossomed into my passion.

I absolutely love what I do. I look forward to training a variety of clients daily and take great pride in seeing them reach their goals. The ability to stimulate the human body and see an expected response is just as fascinating to me as when the response is unexpected.

As someone who is in the same field as yourself your words ring loud and clear. The reward that you get from seeing your clients change is a feeling you just can’t get enough of. So, why did you choose this field?

It certainly wasn’t the direction that I had envisioned my life going, I can assure you of that. I had graduated from the University of Maine in 2002 with a degree in Finance. While in school I’d caught the iron bug and started to take exercise and weight training more seriously, culminating in earning a certification as a personal trainer in the Spring of 2002.

After working in the financial field for a year I just wasn’t particularly happy. The work was basically the same and it wasn’t especially challenging. I wasn’t looking forward to doing it for the next thirty years. I certainly don’t regret getting a business degree as it’s applied to life, but pushing beans around a table wasn’t for me.

I was presented with a great opportunity to go back to school but didn’t really know what course to take. After a few major switches I was offered the chance to earn my Master’s Degree in Kinesiology/Exercise Physiology from almost out of the blue. I jumped at the opportunity and haven’t looked back. I was well behind the curve as far as pre-requisite classes go, but a passion for the subject matter made the remedial study on my own time a lot easier.

By this time I had changed the focus of my own training from bodybuilding to power-lifting and training for performance. This type of training appealed to me more and was a better fit for my lifestyle. With the opportunities offered by my status as a graduate student in the field I was able to focus on the S&C field and it continued to build from there.

That’s quite the switch from a desk job to the iron. Do you play any sports or compete in anything?

Growing up my primary sports were wrestling, football, baseball, and tae kwon do. As I moved into college I stayed busy as a recreational athlete by focusing on football, MMA, and some rugby. At the moment I base my training around power-lifting although I keep toying with the idea of playing semi-pro football here in Charleston if I can ever fit it into my schedule!

Wannabebig: Personally, I’m a big proponent on practicing what you preach. My belief is that all coaches should compete in something because it strengthens the connection they share with their clients. Have you found that this helped you in how you train your clients?

Isaac: It’s been extremely valuable. I’ve been on the other side of the whistle, so to speak, and that is a very important perspective to have. I know what the clients are feeling during various situations and I have first-hand experience in what it takes to perform athletically. I strongly believe in the “under the bar” experience for strength coaches. I’m not saying that every S&C professional has to play pro ball or total elite (I’m working on it!), but they need to know what it feels like to push their limits and strain under some heavy-ass weight. If a coach hasn’t felt it, then what business do they have telling athletes to push themselves that hard?

Wannabebig: Amen brother!

As a long-time athlete in a variety of sports I’ve also been exposed to a lot of different strength and conditioning programs and sports coaching philosophies. Some have been great while some have been awful. Regardless of the success of the program, I was able to learn a lot about what to do, or what not to do when coaching and training others. I view all of my past sports as a participatory internship, with more running.

Wannabebig: The next question I have which stems from what you were just saying is about your training philosophy. Every coach/train should have one. I know you do.

Isaac: I believe in a couple of things in regards to training: Education and focusing on the outcome. Everything I do falls into those two areas.

I’m not the type of trainer that likes to keep their clients in the dark. I feel that the more the clients know about how they’re training and how they respond the better they will be. If a client understands why something is working, they’ll be much more likely to do it, quite frankly. “Because coach told me to” doesn’t work with most clients in the long term.

It is frequently my goal to have clients, especially general personal training clients, learn enough so that they can successfully train themselves. Do they need to become S&C professionals themselves? No. However, the empowerment they receive when they can successfully control their bodies is amazing. A client who is in control of their body is one who will reach their goals.

The other angle of my philosophy is focusing on the outcome. To do that I break down a goal depending on the qualities associated with the success of that goal. Then I apply it to what I consider five key areas of fitness (I actually have smaller subdivisions, but for the sake of brevity I’ll stick with the five big ones): Strength Training, Conditioning/Energy System Training, Mobility and Flexibility, Nutrition and Supplementation, and Recovery. These five keys need to be lined up in order for the goals to be reached, plain and simple.

For example, let’s say I’m training a 6’2”, 225lb high school defensive end. I need to make sure his strength training is building up primarily strength along with hypertrophy as a secondary consideration. At that size he’s a pretty solid high school athlete. I don’t need him to become 260lbs; that’s what college and a few more years of growth are for. I need him to slowly grow and in the meantime be as quick and strong as possible. His conditioning needs to be good enough to run him for the game in football shape. He doesn’t need to go out and run three miles. He does need to be as mobile as possible with good flexibility to get around those big tackles. In order for him to continue to grow and perform, his nutrition and light supplementation needs to be on point. Depending on the season, his recovery may be at a premium or it may not. He may need to utilize some advanced recovery methods in-season and much less other than sleep in the off-season. If any of these five points is lagging, that player will not perform at his best, and thus I’m not performing at mine.

Another thought I’ve internalized is in relation to something I heard sometime ago in that “the best strength coaches are the best thieves”, and I’ve found that to be true. I am always hunting for new information and ideas. One of the things I do is to read at least an hour a day. I also hunt down people from a variety of backgrounds to talk training with. As a result of this I get a lot of information. Not all of it is good. Quite frankly, most of the training and nutrition information I come across is crap, but that just forces me to look at it critically. What I do is look at everything, pick out what works, integrate that into my system, and throw away the rest.

There’s nothing I hate more, except maybe lazy athletes, than being pigeonholed as a certain type of trainer. I had a boss that used to call me a “functional trainer”
because I used some Olympic-based unilateral lifts. He himself was an “old school” trainer because he used three sets of 10 to 15 reps of general exercises. I’m not a “kettle-bell guy”, a “functional guy”, a “band guy”, or a “power-lifting guy”. I’m a performance coach utilizing the means necessary to improve my clients.

I stress the basics of diet and athleticism. Until those are covered, my clients are not going to move forward. Sexy? Probably not. My clients learn the basics before anything else and will keep learning them until they’re ready to progress beyond them.

My clients pretty much all dead-lift, lunge, squat, press, row, and pull. There may be some variation in the specifics of their exercises, but it will be based on these movements, and they’ll be largely ground-based. I’ve never understood why many trainers are so fired up to adapt every exercise to use an unsteady surface. Other than a couple of little accessory movements the primary use of a stability ball in the gym is to sit on while your client does something on the ground or for the little kids to play a giant game of basketball with.

My nutrition philosophy is the same. I’m less worried about the ideal macronutrients (if that exists) and exact calorie counts than basic quality when I first start working with a client. I want them to understand what it means to eat for their activity and what it means to put healthy fuel into their body. Once they get a good handle on eating the right things at about the right time it’s a whole lot easier to tweak how much of it they eat and make things specific.

Wannabebig: You have a pretty damn solid philosophy. How has it shaped how you train yourself and others?

Isaac: I just stress the basics and focus on keeping them covered. It also helps to keep me grounded. Ninety percent of my clients do not give a hoot about ninety percent of what I know. Do you really think that the high school linemen who finds himself fifty pounds overweight because his coach told him he’d “have to be a 300 pounder for colleges to look at him” and now can’t move really needs to be concerned about lactic acid buffering or the mechanics of GLUT-4 manipulation? No, he needs to be directed on how not to be a fat-ass anymore.

If the five basic areas of fitness I outlined above are being addressed to the needs of the activity then the client or athlete will be successful. I make sure those areas are being frequently tested and the programs are changing as a result. I personally tend to get a little lazy about my conditioning and my flexibility, as I hate to train both. I know that I feel better and perform better when those are being addressed. That means that I absolutely need to make them a priority in order to be operating at peak performance.

Wannabebig: Ok, touching briefly on the educational side of things, what are the top 3 books/DVDs or information related products that you’d suggest to people to read or watch?

Well, it depends on the audience you’re speaking of. For an aspiring strength and conditioning professional I would obviously offer the old stand-by: Super-training, by Mel Siff. It is one of the more comprehensive textbooks out there on the human body’s response to exercise stimulus.

An S&C professional needs to understand more than the how to get someone in shape. They need to understand the why. That doesn’t mean that they necessarily need a PhD in Biochem or something of that nature, but they need to know what’s going on in the human body. Exercise Physiology: Human Bioenergetics and Its Applications by Brooks, Fahey, White, and Baldwin is one of the best texts I’ve seen on the subject.

I would also recommend the West-side tapes/DVD’s. Louie Simmons is one of the best in the United States and the world at making people just plain strong. No, not all athletes will train like Louie’s power-lifters, but strong is strong. I’m sure that any aspiring coach will be scribbling notes frantically while watching the tapes… or at least they should be.

Wannabebig: As an up and coming coach you must have some nuggets of wisdom tucked away in that head of yours. What are some of the best pieces of advice that have been given to you?

Some of the best advice I’ve ever received took a while to really sink in. My advisor at Maine was Dr. Robert Lehnhard, who has forgotten more science and training than most strength coaches will ever know. He spent years as the University of Maine’s strength coach for hockey, which if you know hockey is a big position. I credit him for making this all possible for me, literally.

I was once going on and on about an exercise protocol that I’d picked up from somewhere and what I thought of it. He let me go on for a while and then looked at me and said: “Who f-in cares?” Needless to say this wasn’t what I was expecting. He then said: “What’s really going on? That’s what you need to pay attention to. It’s not four sets of six or five sets of five that is the question. It’s load, time, and how it stimulates the body. The training is just a way to achieve the stimulus you want to make the body adapt the way you want.”

Too many people argue over the little crap of training. While that’s entertaining and probably a good learning exercise, a true S&C coach’s goal should be to look beyond that. Once you understand the why, the how is pretty simple.

Switching from advice to lessons you’ve learned, what has stuck with you so far? I’m sure you have learned a lot so far and have many more to come.

Isaac: One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in the industry is that nobody really cares what you know on paper. It’s good to hold certifications and degrees, but that’ll just get you the opportunity to talk to someone. This is a results-driven industry and people want to know that you can get them to their goal. A private strength coach needs to be able to articulate that they understand what’s going on, what the goals are, how they are going to get the client there, and be able to show past success.

Talk is cheap. Show me the success.

That my friend is pure gold. You basically summed up the essence of training. Where can we find out more about you and what you have to offer?

Isaac: Well, I’m pretty easy to find, despite a busy schedule. My website is www.wilkinspower.com, and I also maintain a blog at www.gotstrengthblog.com. I’m easily reached on Wannabebig also. I provide a range of online services including training and diet consultation as well as in-person training or seminars.

Wannabebig: I can say with all honesty that this was a great interview. I appreciate the time taken out of your schedule to answer these questions.

Isaac: I’d like to thank you for the opportunity to participate in this interview. I really enjoyed it. I’d also like to extend my thanks to the great community at WBB for all of the help, advice, and encouragement over the years.

Written by Maki Riddington

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Wilkins Power – An Interview with Isaac Wilkins discussion thread.

Mike Wolfe loses 76lbs and Increases his Bench Press

Is it possible to lose 76 lbs of body fat and increase your bench press from 835 lbs to 859.8 lbs?

It is, and Mike Wolfe did it!

This article will address in-depth exactly how he accomplished this tremendous feat while simultaneously providing you a roadmap to accomplishing your own fat loss and strength training goals.

Get ready to hear an awesome transformation and exactly how it was achieved!

Ok, so to kick off this article, I want to show you some before and after pictures of Mike Wolfe:

Mike Wolfe at 416 lbs prior to his transformation

Above: Mike at roughly 330 lbs and dropping!

Mike’s Initial Foray

Mike’s odyssey began in July of 2006. He had just completed a personal best competition bench press of 835 lbs at a body weight of 416 lbs. Up to this point, Mike had fallen prey to the “bigger is better” trap that afflicts so many strength athletes. While it is true that increased body weight correlates (in resistance trained athletes) to increased brute strength, adding excessive amounts of body fat merely to increase one’s power is not the healthiest long term strategy, aesthetically appealing, or necessary.

While something like good health is a noble goal, it wasn’t the driving force behind Mike’s decision to slim down. No, like so many men before him, Mike’s ego and competitive nature provided the fuel for his fire of change. A man by the name of John Zemmin from Detroit Barbell lifted in the same meet where Mike had set his personal record. John competed in the 275 lbs weight class and pressed a tremendous 830 lbs! The fact that this man was nearly 140 lbs lighter than Mike and only pressed 5 lbs less was not lost on him. He silently wondered what this man was doing that he was not?

A brief conversation with John cemented Mike’s resolve to reshape his body. In Mike’s mind, training was not the issue, he knew how to train. You can’t bench well over 800 lbs if you don’t know how to train, right? Time would answer that question, but for the moment, Mike was focused on altering his dietary habits.

He started generally cleaning up his diet by dramatically reducing his intake of sweets and other “junk” foods (foods which had previously dominated his daily caloric intake).

Mike quickly dropped a few pounds but soon found his weight loss stagnated. He decided to consult with a bodybuilder friend. This friend recommended that Mike both dramatically limit his carbohydrate intake and alter when he consumed them. Mike accomplished this by allotting his entire daily carbohydrate intake into three meals which would be consumed prior to 1 P.M. Below is a basic template of what Mike consumed daily at that time:

  • 06.00 am –  2 packets of instant oatmeal, 20 oz. of orange juice, and a 50g Nitrean protein shake.
  • 09.30 am – Large lunch meat sandwich with wheat bread, some pretzels or baked chips, 1 can of diet soda, and a 50g Nitrean protein shake.
  • 12:30 pm – Same as meal # 2 (last carbohydrate containing meal)
  • 3.00 pm – 50g Nitrean protein shake
  • 6.00 pm – Lean beef, chicken, or tuna. Some sliced cheese and possibly some unsalted peanuts. His family eats out frequently, so instead of the aforementioned foods he might have had a McDonald’s or Burger King salad with 2 grilled chicken breasts.
  • 9.00 pm – A final protein snack consisting of another 50g Nitrean protein shake, some peanuts and cheese, or possibly a can of tuna.

As you can see, no calorie counting was performed, but the mere reduction in carbohydrate intake and subsequent overall caloric reduction resulted in Mike dropping a quick 20 lbs. Mike was thrilled at the loss, but a fellow powerlifter helped put matters in perspective for him.

He said, “Mike, you losing 20 lbs is like someone throwing a deck chair off the Titanic, no one will notice…”

Being a good-natured soul, Mike took this in the manner in which it was intended and didn’t proceed to crush the guy. He did, however, use it as additional motivation and proceeded to lose another 30 lbs for a 50 lbs total loss. It was at this point that Mike hit another wall and could not drop any additional weight.

Even though his buddy had been ribbing him, he had made an excellent point. As with any weight loss program there is a certain number of pounds which are relatively “easy” to lose, and then the going gets rough. Mike had surpassed his “easy” loss phase and now needed a solid plan to help get him to his goal of 308 lbs. It was at this point that I became involved.

I am the co-owner of AtLarge Nutrition and Mike is one of our sponsored athletes. During the course of conversation one day, Mike talked to me about his diet, weight loss, and the wall he had hit relative to losing additional weight. Mike uses our products and I saw an opportunity for both of us. For me, I saw the opportunity and challenge of working with a world class athlete. I wanted to showcase my mentoring and coaching abilities in both the diet and training arenas, and to demonstrate how effective our products are when properly used. For Mike, I knew that I could help him achieve his target weight of 308 lbs, or less, AND simultaneously build or maintain his strength.

We conversed at length via email and on the phone. I agreed to work with Mike on the condition that he would follow the dietary regimen I provided to the “T”. Mike agreed, and our fat loss partnership was born. My first order of business was to establish Mike’s average daily caloric intake. I had Mike record every calorie containing food or liquid he consumed over the course of a week. I then calculated his total caloric intake and divided it by seven to come up with his average daily caloric intake. This worked out to roughly 5,000 calories (Mike was still weighing over 360 lbs at this point and had veered from the carbohydrate reduction plan detailed above) and became the starting point for our program.

When I devised Mike’s initial daily diet my goals were as follows (in no particular order):

  • Get him down to below 308 lbs so that he may comfortably compete in the 308 lbs class in his chosen sport of powerlifting, and for the positive health ramifications of living at a lighter body weight.
  • Maintain, or increase his strength while he lost the body weight.
  • Create a diet that Mike could follow easily. Mike’s diet prior to his weight loss odyssey consisted almost entirely of what are considered “junk” foods in large quantities. You cannot take someone from years of this sort of eating to a “clean” diet overnight. I wanted to create a program that would accomplish the above goals and allow Mike to remain compliant with a minimum of psychological and physiological stress.

The above parameters resulted in the initial plan detailed below:

5000 calories

Supplements: Nitrean, Opticen, Creatine 500, Multi-Plus, ETS, Thermocin or Nitor

Meal 1:


  • 5g of Creatine 500 mixed in orange juice (see below)
  • 3 Multi-Plus tablets
  • 4 ETS capsules
  • 3 Thermocin or Nitor capsules

5 whole eggs fried in butter (2 teaspoons of butter)
438 cals 30g prot. 5g carb. 33g fat

3 slices of wheat toast with 3 teaspoons of butter
297 cals 6g prot. 36g carb. 14g fat

1 cup of whole milk
150 cals 8g prot. 11g carb. 8g fat

1 cup of orange juice
110 cals 2g prot. 25g carb 1g fat

Total: 995 cals – 46g prot. 77g carb. 56g fat

Meal 2:

2 servings of Opticen (mixed with 8 cups of whole milk)

Total: 1846 cals – 168g prot. 140g carb. 68g fat

Meal 3:


  • 3 Thermocin or Nitor capsules (depending on when you take this meal – don’t take the Thermocin or Nitor later than 1 P.M.)
  • 2 servings of Opticen (in water)

Total: 646 cals – 104g prot. 50g carb. 3.4g fat

Meal 4:

1 McDonald’s Quarter Pounder® with Cheese
510 cals 29g prot. 43g carb. 25g fat

1 small french fries
250 cals 2g prot. 30g carb. 13g fat

1 medium Coca-Cola Classic®
210 cals 58g carb

Totals: 970 cals – 31g prot. 131g carb 38g fat

Meal 5:


  • 4 ETS capsules
  • 2 servings of Nitrean (mixed with 2 cups of whole milk)

Total: 520 cals – 64g prot. 24g carb. 18g fat

Grand Totals: 4977 cals – 413g prot. 422g carb. 183.4g fat

The Method behind the Madness

I am sure many of you will be surprised/aghast at the inclusion of a fast food meal. Remember, one of my primary goals was to come up with a plan with which Mike could remain compliant. Mike’s family eats out a lot due to their busy lifestyle. That fact, combined with Mike’s years of consuming whatever he wanted would have made an instant switch to a “bodybuilding” style diet a recipe for disaster.

The high sodium content of the fast food was not really a concern due to the fact Mike is not a bodybuilder. An excessive reduction in sodium intake would have been of no benefit from a strength perspective. The high sodium content of the meal was also moderated by the balance of the diet which was relatively low in sodium.

Once you overcome the initial shock of the fast food inclusion, you may note that the macronutrient breakdown was roughly 33% protein, 34% carbohydrates, and 33% fats. The relatively high initial fat content was due to the overall high caloric intake of the diet. Mike would simply have had to consume too much low fat food. The satiety factor of dietary fat was another important reason for its inclusion.

Unless one’s goal is a specific physical appearance for a specific period of time, such as a bodybuilder who wishes to peak for a contest, any diet which over, or underemphasizes a specific macronutrient(s) is not a good solution. Diets which are high in protein and fats and very limited in carbohydrates are functional in terms of losing body fat, but cannot be maintained for prolonged periods by most individuals. The same can be said for excessively low fat diets and so on. When looking to create a “normal” (the goal norm for the individual), sustainable physical appearance and body fat level, a more balanced approach must be utilized.

The inclusion of two solid, “normal” meals was integral to the overall success of Mike’s program. Foods which are rich in fats and carbohydrates must be consumed in a long-term plan to alleviate the sense of deprivation so common to most weight loss “diets”. These foods must be included, but cannot dominate the diet for obvious reasons. This brings us to the importance of proper protein supplementation. Protein supplements can be of great value to any dietary plan (both long and short term) due to their ability to provide a high level of protein (and other nutrients depending upon the specific product) with a minimum of calories.

As you can see, protein supplementation played a huge role in Mike’s diet. We started with five “meals” of which two were of the aforementioned solid food variety, and the balance were liquid meals provided by either Nitrean or Opticen protein supplements. Nitrean is a protein-only blend which consists of 3 fractions of whey (isolate, hydrolyzed, and concentrate), casein, and egg proteins. This blend provides for a nearly optimal net retention of ingested protein and a markedly better degree of satiety than any whey-only protein product. Opticen is a meal replacement powder which utilizes a similar protein matrix to that of Nitrean (with similar benefits) and adds to it carbs, and a myriad of vitamins and minerals.

The proper combination of “rich” foods and protein supplements allowed for a dietary plan which was satisfying to consume, macronutrient rich, and highly functional in terms of allowing us to manipulate Mike’s physique. When Mike commenced this diet he found it simple to comply with, his training flourished, and the body fat began to melt away.

Moving Forward and Making Adjustments

Once Mike began the diet we needed a method of tracking his body fat and body weight. We would use the results to slowly reduce his caloric intake at the proper times, thus keeping his body fat loss moderate in pace and consistent for optimal results.

A weekly waist measurement was chosen as our primary method of body fat assessment. There are other methods which may be more effective, but none are as easily performed, readily available, or as inexpensive. All you need to measure your waist is a measuring tape, and you can make one from newspaper if funds are especially tight.

It is imperative that you measure your waist immediately upon arising the morning of your chosen measurement day. This allows for a consistency of measure. Food consumed throughout the day can alter your waist measurement significantly, so measuring first thing in the morning ensures a seven or more hour fast has preempted the measurement. Accuracy of measure in terms of placing the tape in the same spot around the navel each time, and being sure to unfailingly, completely relax your stomach (any tension of the abdominal musculature can alter the measurement) is of the greatest importance to ensure the efficacy of this method. If care is taken to ensure accuracy, this method will provide a very good barometer of your body fat levels. Combining it with a subsequent measure of your body weight (standard scale) will allow for a nearly optimal tracking of body fat levels.

Mike’s chosen measurement and weigh-in day was Sunday. As a brief aside, it is on this day that he arises at 4:30 A.M. and begins his weekly pilgrimage to the world famous Westside Barbell Club in Columbus, Ohio. Strength trainer, and athlete extraordinaire, Louie Simmons presides over the vaunted lifting club which is considered by most to be the premier powerlifting training center in the United States, if not the world. Mike is lucky enough to be a member, and he is willing to drive several hours each week just for the privilege of being so.

Once Mike would obtain his measurements for the week, he would email them to me and I would use the data to determine if any dietary adjustments should be made. For instance, if Mike’s waist got smaller, but he lost no body weight, we knew that he both lost body fat and gained muscle. Special care was taken to watch for large drops in body weight. A large drop in body weight (assuming electrolytes are kept consistent) indicates that the individual is losing lean muscle tissue as well as fat, or is at least in great danger of doing so.

Daily caloric decrements were nearly always 200 calories. This count seems to afford the best results in that it is sufficient to elicit change and yet not so large as to overreach and cause unwanted results. Due to the fact we started Mike’s diet at a near maintenance caloric intake and used small caloric variations, all of the adjustments were decrements and we never needed to increase his caloric intake to slow weight loss.

So long as Mike’s waist was getting smaller, or he was losing 1-3 lbs of body weight per week, we would leave his daily caloric intake alone for the following week. This either/or method was used because the complexity of the human body is such that body fat is not removed uniformly as one loses weight. Normally, body fat is lost in more or less the reverse order from which it was added. For most men, Mike being no exception, the waist and lower back areas seem to be the place body fat is first deposited, and the last place from which it is removed. For this reason, so long as Mike was losing body weight and/or seemed to be getting leaner in an overall sense (arms more defined, etc.), we were not overly concerned whether or not his waist size was decreasing each week. The real importance of the weekly waist measurements lied in the fact that if his waist got smaller he had invariably lost body fat. Additionally, any increase in his waist measurement would have been a sure sign things had gone awry.

I want to emphasize that caloric decrements were only initiated when both body fat reduction factors (weight and waist size) did not change sufficiently in a week’s time.

Supplementing for Weight Loss

We have already explored the reason for the liberal inclusion of protein shakes in Mike’s daily diet. The balance of his supplementation consisted of ETS, Creatine 500, Multi-Plus, and either Thermocin or Nitor (all products available from www.atlargenutrition.com). Below is a brief description of why each of these products was included in Mike’s arsenal:

ETS: is a very unique recovery product. ETS dramatically aids in both muscular and joint recovery from intense training. A hypo-caloric diet normally limits one’s ability to recover from intense training, and most individuals find they are compelled to train with less resistance when they are dieting.

ETS offsets this limitation and allows you to keep training heavy and hard! ETS was one of the major components to Mike’s success.


Thermocin and Nitor: are both stimulant/thermogenic supplements. Both products pack a powerful “punch” which offsets the usual lack of energy one feels when on a hypo-caloric diet. Both products also suppress appetite, increase fat oxidation, and promote thermogenesis. Their difference lies in the pathways they utilize to achieve their effects and in their potency. Nitor is hands-down one of the most potent products of its kind.

Mike optimized their use by alternating them over the course of his program. Nitor was the backbone, but he would switch to Thermocin every 60 days or so (for a 30-45 day stint) in order to get the most out of both products. These products were absolutely integral to the incredible success Mike enjoyed, and continues to enjoy on his way to 308 lbs or less.

Creatine 500: is Creapure™ creatine monohydrate. It is one of the purest forms of monohydrate commercially available. Creatine promotes lean muscle mass and strength in resistance trained individuals.

Lean muscle tissue increases your basal metabolic rate and burns fat preferentially as an energy source even when at rest. Creatine helps to maintain or add lean muscle mass even during a hypo-caloric diet.


Multi-Plus: is a multi-vitamin. It is unique in the sense that is does not take the “everything but the kitchen sink” approach. It was specifically formulated for the resistance trained individual.

A multi-vitamin is a must have for anyone on a hypo-caloric diet as such diets tend to be lacking in nutrients due to their low overall caloric content and food variety.

Mike’s Training

You don’t lose 76 lbs of body fat and increase your best competition bench press by 25 lbs (especially when going from an 835 lbs bench to 859.8 lbs) without proper training. As already mentioned, Mike trained (once per week) at Westside Barbell in Columbus, Ohio under the watchful eye of Louie Simmons. Westside is also the home to strength legend George Halbert. George is a multi-record holding, multi-title holding titan of bench pressing strength, and quite possibly the strongest pound for pound bencher to ever compete. He took Mike under his wing and was instrumental in helping Mike to increase his already prodigious pressing power.

Mike is a bench specialist. He does not compete in all three of the powerlifts (squat, bench press, and deadlift). Mike’s training had therefore always focused on upper body work, virtually excluding lower body exercise.

After his July 06 meet, Mike, George and others reviewed video from the competition. They were looking for relative weaknesses with the idea of addressing them with changes in Mike’s training. It was noted that Mike was having trouble stabilizing the bar near lockout. Mike and his advisors determined this was due to a weakness in the upper back area. The solution implemented was to increase his upper back training frequency and volume with a three day per week upper back routine.

Below is Mike’s resulting training template (to include some alterations he made over time) for his assault on the WPO Bench Bash at the 2007 Arnold Classic:

Sunday (Max Effort day – ME)

This day involved pyramiding up to a personal record (PR) single attempt using a rotation of several pressing exercises. The exercises and a brief description are listed below:

Floor Presses: are exactly what the name implies. The trainee lies on the ground and performs a modified bench press. The ground prevents a full range of motion (ROM). A medium width grip should be used with this movement. The barbell is lowered until the triceps touch the ground. The forearms and upper arms should form a nearly perfect right angle at this point. The bar is paused, and then pressed to lockout. Floor presses strongly work the lifter’s ability to lockout a heavy load.





Floor press – start

Floor press – paused, arms touching the ground

Board Presses: are a tremendously popular exercise in the powerlifting world. The movement is a standard, paused bench press with a twist. Boards are placed on the lifter’s chest running the length of his or her body. These boards are used to limit the ROM during the press. The limited ROM allows for tremendous weights to be used thus promoting an overload effect and allowing the lifter to work whatever portion of the ROM they desire (by using more or less boards stacked upon one another).

Board presses – start

Pausing on the boards

Band Presses: are typically standard ROM bench presses which incorporate the use of special elastic bands. These bands add varying levels of resistance to the bar depending on which ones are used (they are coded by color), and how they are used (doubled up, where they are anchored, etc.).

Their advantage lies in the fact that they provide “accommodating resistance” by increasing the resistance as the barbell approaches lockout. In a standard barbell press, once the sticking point has been passed the leverages involved in our skeletal muscle system make the movement progressively easier as the barbell approaches lockout. The bands increase the resistance during this time, thus helping to maintain a maximal load on the involved muscles.

Band presses – near lockout

Band presses – touching the chest

Foam Presses: are a very unique form of the bench press. Giant blocks of foam are placed on either end of the barbell. The barbell is then lowered onto the foam at which point the lifter pauses, allowing the weight plates to literally sink into the foam, and then presses the weight back up. The foam absorbs all of the kinetic energy from the barbell, thus mandating that the lifter produce a tremendous amount of force to get the barbell moving. The foam is also typically used to limit the ROM much like boards during board presses.

The above exercises were rotated weekly during monthly cycles. The idea of rotating variations of a given movement (in this case, the bench press), or rotating exercises which work similar muscle groups, is known as the conjugate method of training. This method allows for highly intense training performed more often. Training harder and heavier, more often, can only lead to greater progress assuming one recovers properly between sessions.

Pausing on the foam

The conjugate method’s “secret” lies in the fact it varies the stress on the central nervous system (CNS), thus allowing for more frequent bouts of high intensity training without the concurrent CNS overtraining that would occur had a single movement been practiced with the same intensity and frequency.

As mentioned above, Mike would pyramid the load up to a 1RM PR attempt. Once the PR had been set, or attempted, Mike would move on to heavy triceps training. His triceps training consisted of 1-2 of the following exercises each session:

Lying Dumbbell Triceps Extensions:
are performed lying on a flat bench. A dumbbell is held in each hand with your palms facing each other. The movement begins with the arms at full extension (as in the completion position of a dumbbell bench press). Rotation occurs only at the elbows and the lifter lowers the dumbbells simultaneously until they touch their shoulders. The movement is then reversed and the dumbbells are returned to full extension.

Lying dumbbell extensions – start

Lying Kettlebell Extensions: are performed much like lying dumbbell extensions, but with kettlebells used for resistance and an obvious change in hand position dictated by the kettlebell handles.

Mike at his top body weight performing kettlebell extensions

Dumbbell JM Press: is a movement which incorporates the benefits of both close grip bench presses and lying triceps extensions. The exercise is performed lying on a bench. The movement begins with the arms at full extension in the same position as the lying dumbbell extensions detailed above. The dumbbells are lowered via rotation around the elbows until they are roughly 4-5” above one’s head. Rotation then occurs around the shoulder joint and the dumbbells are “slid” (they remain the same height above the body) to a position where the lifter can press them back to full extension (normally a few inches proximal to the head relative to the nipples).

Triceps pushdowns:
This movement is performed using a high-pulley apparatus (the pulley is overhead) which can be found at most gyms. A handle must be attached to the pulley apparatus to allow execution of the movement.

To begin, you will be in a standing position and should have the handle attached in such a fashion as to allow you to grasp it at approximately eye level. You can use a straight bar/handle, or other types of handles which will allow for varying grips. The most common position of the palms for this movement is facing downwards.

As you grasp the handle you are to bend your arms at the elbow until the upper and lower arm form a slightly less than 90 degree angle at the elbow (you will have to be leaning slightly forward to do this). Your hands should be in front of your body and you should be standing relatively close to the pulley apparatus. Proceed by pulling your upper arms down while retaining the bend at the elbow until the handle is roughly even with the bottom of your chest. Your elbows will move towards the rear of your body as you do this. Your wrists should be flexed such that they make roughly a 90 degree angle with the forearm (your fingers will be pointing away from you). This will be the starting position for the movement.

Commence the movement by using your triceps to straighten your arms with the primary rotation being around the elbow. Your elbows should be kept relatively close to your sides throughout the movement and your wrists should gradually straighten. Once you have straightened your arms fully your hands should be at waist level and just slightly in front of you. Reverse this motion and return to the starting position to complete one rep. Pausing momentarily in the fully extended position is advisable to give an extra contraction of the triceps.

Mike would perform 4-5 sets of 8-10 reps of either one or two of the above exercises for his heavy triceps training. He always finished his ME days with pushdowns, so if he was not feeling his training “oats” on a given day that would be the one triceps movement performed. When he was feeling strong he would perform one of the other movements first using a conjugate rotation (switching the exercise from week to week).

In late September Mike made a significant change to his training regimen. A Westside lifter by the name of Tony Ramos was experimenting with bands and kettlebells in order to help rehabilitate his shoulders and strengthen his upper back. He created a unique movement which incorporated a standard Olympic barbell, mini-bands, and kettlebells (both the bands and kettlebells are available at www.westside-barbell.com). The lift was performed using a full ROM bench press. Instead of plates being used for the load, kettlebells were suspended from each collar using mini-bands. This setup made for a very unusual and productive exercise. The elasticity of the bands made the kettlebells literally bounce around as the bar was lowered and pressed. This chaotic state (as Louie Simmons described it) placed a huge burden on the stabilizing muscles and seemed to work the pectoralis to an even greater degree than a standard bench press.

Mike incorporated this movement into his routine and instantly found that it helped him learn to properly use his lats when pressing thus eliminating a weakness that had previously plagued him. Getting away from the conjugate method for a bit, Mike used this exercise for his ME day for 3 straight months. He eventually worked up to a whopping 440 lbs of kettlebells for 6 repetitions! He strayed from the 1RM ideal of the ME day because this movement demanded it, but still went for a multi-repetition PR each session.

Wednesday (Dynamic Effort – DE):

Wednesdays were Mike’s DE, or speed work days. As per the Westside Barbell training protocol these days are intended to help the lifter work on the generation of explosive power and bar speed. This is typically accomplished through the use of relatively light loads (50-60% of one’s 1RM) for 8 sets of 3 repetitions with a minimum of rest between sets. In addition, light bands are often employed. Mike practiced this typical format from July through December of 2006.

In late December, Mike made the conscious decision to alternate his typical Westside DE days with a bodybuilding-style chest workout. This decision was the result of physical changes occurring due to his weight loss. Mike felt he needed to “fill-in” his pecs which had shrunk is absolute size due to the loss of body fat. He wanted to replace the fat with pure muscle and decided to focus on a hypertrophy stimulating workout every other week. This decision was very interesting in the sense that it proved to be effective and helped to validate a theory I had conceived relative to speed work. From my reading and understanding of motor learning and the general nervous system relative to resistance training, it had always been my feeling that speed work does very little to enhance one’s 1RM in a direct sense. In other words, lifting light weights very quickly will not make you able to move heavy loads quickly. My thoughts were that DE days were essentially a form of active recovery. The light loads used stimulate blood flow and help the skeletal muscle recovery process while not stressing the nervous system in the same manner, or to the same degree as heavy training. Mike’s bodybuilding training worked similarly in that it involved lighter loads of higher repetitions. The difference was that more skeletal muscle stimulation was incurred when compared to a normal Westside DE day.

The bodybuilding workout Mike employed is outlined below:

  • Light Barbell Bench Press: 4 sets of 12 reps with 225-275 lbs
  • Dumbbell Bench Presses: 3 sets of 25 reps with 100 lbs dumbbells
  • Dumbbell Flyes or Cable Crossovers: 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps

This workout focused on form and the pump. After alternating it with traditional Westside speed work for roughly 2 months Mike switched to using this routine every DE day. The variety (from his usual DE day) and recovery promoting effects of the routine were integral to Mike’s success at the Arnold Classic.

Monday, Thursday, and Saturday (upper back training):

Training the upper back three times per week may seem like overkill, but Mike and his advisors determined that he would benefit from the increased volume and frequency. Mike has truly superior recovery ability, and that fact combined with the lack of volume his training incorporated for his lower body allowed for a recovery “reserve” he could utilize to resolve his relative weakness in his upper back.

Mike’s upper back routine included the following exercises:

  • Lat Pulldowns: are a bodybuilding standard exercise. Varying grips should be used from one workout to the next.
  • Seated Rows: are another standard that targets the lats.
  • Two Arm Dumbbell Rows: are a unique variation of an old standard. This is essentially the same movement as a barbell bent-over row with dumbbells used for the resistance. The difference is HUGE, with a much greater degree of control allowed for, and thus a superior contraction of the lats.

Two arm dumbbell rows

Face Pulls: are a unique exercise designed to train the rear delts. They are performed on a lat pulldown machine and closely resemble a pulldown to the front. Mike prefers to use a specialty attachment sold by Westside Barbell. You can find it here – Westside football bar

The movement begins just like a seated lat pulldown to the front. The upper body should be angled back at roughly 35 degrees. The difference from the standard pulldown is that the handle is pulled to the face instead of the chest. Care must be taken to avoid pulling too hard and whacking oneself in the face! Keeping the elbows high throughout the motion serves to further target the rear delts.

A variation of this movement is to use the 2 handled rope attachment and to pull outwards on the handles as they are pulled towards the face. This provides rotator stimulation to augment the rear delt work.

Face pull – start

Squeeze those rear delts!

Rear Delt Dumbbell or Cable Raises are another bodybuilding staple.

High Dumbbell Shrugs: are yet another twist on a standard. The difference from standard shrugs is that there is bending at the elbows. The lift is essentially a hybrid of a shrug and a row. The head should be slightly tilted forward during the execution of the exercise. As the dumbbells are shrugged the arms are simultaneously bent at the elbows allowing for a fantastic contraction of the traps.

Big Mike squeezing those traps!

Each training day consisted of 2 of the above pulling movements (rotated weekly), face pulls, rear delt raises, and high dumbbell shrugs. Mike did 4 sets of 8-10 reps per exercise. None of the exercises were taken to concentric failure (he stopped 1-2 reps short).

My Contribution to Mike’s Training Regimen

As already mentioned, Mike is a bench specialist. Due to this fact and personal choice, Mike did not do any direct work for his lower body prior to my involvement. One of the very first recommendations I made was that he perform some form of leg work. My reasoning was simple; the muscles of the hips and legs constitute a huge percentage of one’s total skeletal muscle mass. Increased lean body mass equals increased caloric expenditure and fat burning even when at rest. In addition, while I know of no real science to back it, it is commonly accepted in the bodybuilding world that one cannot optimize their upper body without lower body training. In other words, the body thrives when trained as a whole. In my considerable experience this tenet seems to hold true.

When deciding what leg training I would have Mike perform there were two main factors I considered. First, Mike suffers from ankle problems due to an old injury. This precludes certain movements, at least relative to compliance on his part. Second, as Mike had done virtually no leg training in years, I felt that choosing one compound movement to be performed once per week would be best (again, primarily from a compliance standpoint).

The exercise of choice ended up being the leg press. Squats were out due to the aforementioned ankle (and some knee) problems. The leg press has a low skill requirement, and is thus easy to perform. I instructed him to use a slow, controlled cadence and to really go for the “feel” of the movement. The goal was simply to stimulate some hypertrophy in the major muscles of the lower body while simultaneously protecting his ailing joints. I instructed Mike to perform 3 sets of 10 reps (post warm-up) once per week.

In addition to the leg work, I instructed Mike to add yet another missing link to his training regimen. You guessed it, CARDIO! Cardio was hardly a part of Mike’s vocabulary let alone a training staple. In my early years of training I too bought into the idea that cardio is catabolic and not to be used by the strength athlete. What it took me years to realize was that properly performed cardio not only helps one to lose body fat, it can also aid overall recovery. In short, properly used, cardio is a boon to strength training! The key is to control for the intensity of effort and therefore your heart rate. The target heart rate for this form of cardio is 120-130 beats per minute. If you stay within this parameter you are burning fat, building cardiovascular health, aiding your overall recovery, and in no way hampering your strength training results.

The final piece of the puzzle for Mike was the addition of mid-section training. Contrary to what has been purported over the years, spot reduction is possible to some degree. This fact combined with the general benefits of a strong mid-section compelled me to include work for this area in Mike’s regimen. I instructed Mike to perform 2 sets of 10-15 reps of two different exercises twice per week. He would alternate the exercises of choice each workout.

After some cajoling on my part, Mike added the leg presses, cardio (3 times per week for 20 minutes at a time), and mid-section training to his routine, and the combination took Mike’s results to a whole new level!

The Final Preparation for the WPO Bench Bash at the 2007 Arnold Classic

Mike took a brief break from dieting during the holidays. January 2nd saw the beginning of preparation in earnest. To that point, Mike had seen his weight drop into the mid 350s (with a bit of a spike from the holidays). His strength was through the roof, setting PRs virtually every session.

Mike and I had the initial goal of getting him down to the 308 lbs weight class for the Arnold, but we were never willing to do so at the expense of muscular size or strength. Our results relative to decreasing his body weight and increasing strength were thus far so profound that we made the decision to drop him no lower than 340 lbs in order to not jeopardize those results, and to have Mike at his absolute best for the Arnold.

In order to stabilize his body weight we added 2 Nitrean (protein only) shakes to his daily intake. We also allowed him to take a few cheat meals at his discretion. These changes did the trick.

The Bench Shirt

Mike competes “equipped”. This involves the use of a “bench shirt”. These shirts are made of special materials that allow them to add support and aid to the lift. Getting optimal results from one’s bench shirt requires a degree of skill.

Mike chooses to use equipment manufactured and sold by Inzer Advance Designs. Roughly three months prior to the Arnold, he made the decision to switch to their Rage X shirt. Mike had two shirts custom made by Inzer with one smaller than the other. The idea behind having two shirts was that he would be losing body fat in the proceeding 3 months and he wanted to be sure to have a tight fitting shirt for the day of the meet.

Once in possession of the shirts, Mike began by breaking-in the larger of the two. He accomplished this by working on his ROM in a progressive fashion using board presses. He started with a 3-board press and over the course of several sessions worked his way down to a 1-board press. Once that was done, he began work on the smaller shirt. A few weeks later he worked to a 1-board heavy single with what would be his opening lift at the competition. This was just a couple of weeks out from the meet. The lift went well and Mike decided he was done with heavy lifting until the day of the meet.

The 2007 WPO Bench Bash at the Arnold Classic

Mike arrived in Columbus the Thursday prior to the competition. I will let Mike tell you the rest in his own words:

“I came to the Arnold confident I was going to do well. We arrived in Columbus on Thursday night, got settled into our hotel and just relaxed. I showed up for weigh-in Friday morning with a belly full of food and bristling with confidence! After the weigh-in, my family and I spent most of the day walking around the expo hall meeting and talking to friends we only get to see once or twice per year. Along the way, I also met a lot of “strangers” who recognized me and showed me tons of support! This only served to get me even further fired-up!

Saturday morning, I went to the expo hall around noon. As I was coming down the escalator, I got my first glimpse of the crowd waiting to get in. It was HUGE!!! This started my nerves a rollin’, but I knew in my heart I was ready and all would be good!

Around 1 P.M., I made my way to the main stage at the rear of the expo hall. This is where the meet would be held. At that point, I knew there would be no turning back. I went backstage to the warm-up area and began getting my body ready for the most important lifts of my life. For some reason, all of my warm-up attempts felt heavy. This was a bit worrisome, but I knew I had to forge ahead and figured the adrenalin rush of being onstage in front of thousands of fans would handle the problem.

As the time came for me to take my opening lift, I grabbed my box of Mike and Ike’s candy and my Mountain Dew, got my sugar rush, and out I went. I knew it was my time to shine with my wife and 2 kids, my parents, my training partners, and a ton of my friends in the audience. I was ready!

Mike staring down the weights!

I got my opener, came back and missed my 2nd attempt. I was going to repeat with my failed 2nd attempt weight for my third and final lift, but I knew I had more in me so I jumped to a PR attempt with 859.8 lbs. I smoked it!!! I can’t tell you the feeling…it was a culmination of all that I had gone through with the diet, waking up at 4:30 A.M. every Sunday to make the pilgrimage to Westside, 10 years of busting my ass in the gym, and hitting a PR in the biggest bench contest in powerlifting in front of thousands of fans. It was, AMAZING!!!”


Mike and I both hope that this article will inspire and educate you on how to reach your own physical goals whether they be a world record bench press, or simply to get in the best shape of your life!

Written by Chris Mason

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Mike Wolfe loses 76lbs and Increases his Bench Press discussion thread.

Fish Oil – Just The Facts

The Dawn of Fat Phobia

If you have a few years of training under your belt, you can probably remember what I call the “Fat-Free 80’s.” Think back to a time when dietary fat was the enemy. Ah, yes, a time when fat-free products lined the shelves of the supermarket. A time when it was not a bad thing to get a box of Entemann’s cinnamon rolls, as long as they were the FAT-FREE cinnamon rolls. Health Valley made some positively disgusting fat-free cookies, along with a host of other fat-free products that tasted like sugary cardboard. And we can’t forget the weight gainer products, those were priceless. 1,000, 2000, 4,000 calories per serving, and all you had to do was mix about a cup of powder into your favourite drink.

No worries, though, these gainers were virtually fat-free! What we were led to believe was that fat-free products equated to fat-free physiques. Unfortunately, that was far from the truth.

During the 1980’s national obesity rates started to drastically climb. Large behavioral trend studies such as the National Health and Nutrition Examination Study (NHANES II & III), the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), and the Calorie Control Council Report (CCCR) collectively showed a 31% increase in overweight prevalence from 1976-1991. What is the punch line? This increase in weight was accompanied by an 11% decrease in percentage of calories from fat (from 41.0% to 36.6%). The most recent report by the BRFSS shows a further decrease in fat intake to 33%, accompanied by an increase in obesity from 11.6% to 22.1%. This is a 90.5% increase in US obesity from 1990-2002[1]. It’s obvious that dietary fat is not the evil culprit in the expansion of the population’s waistline.

A Brief Evolution of Our Knowledge of Fats

As indicated by the fat-free product boom a couple of decades back, there indeed was the widespread belief that ALL fats were a substance to be minimized or avoided altogether. But with the forward march of research, we came to understand that different fats had different effects on health. Since it is human nature to think in black and white terms, the great divide initially fell between saturated (SFA) and mono- or polyunsaturated fatty acids (MUFA & PUFA). SFA were thought to be the root of all evil, conjuring images of arterial plaque and eventual heart failure, while unsaturated fat was regarded as a universally angelic substance. This turned out to be a gross oversimplification of reality.

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The intricacies and widely varying sources and subtypes of SFA is another article altogether, but suffice it to say that it’s not that simple to pigeonhole them as unhealthy. SFA are not created equal. They have markedly variable physiological effects from the detrimental all the way to the beneficial. Given this, it depends on which ones you want throw onto the theoretical chopping block. Stearic acid, an SFA abundant in meat & milk fat, has been consistently observed to actually reduce blood platelet aggregation [2]. This is a good thing. In contrast, trans fats (found in high concentrations in commercially baked goods as well as processed & fried foods) have been observed to negatively impact blood lipids by not only lowering HDL, but increasing LDL as well [3]. 

Ironically, experimental research exists on healthy humans showing the least fat was oxidized on the MUFA fat dietary treatment, and the most fat oxidized on a trans fat diet [4]. This result echoes what has been seen in rats as well. It appears that the tighter the control of the study, the less “superior” unsaturated fats turn out to be for any presumed effect on body composition compared to SFA. Throw in the fact that a reducing SFA intake and increasing the degree of unsaturation of fatty acids in the diet reduces testosterone levels [5], and then you have yet another wrinkle in the mix.

Then you have medium-chain triacylglycerols (MCT), which are SFAs that exhibit physiological behavior that is closer to carbohydrate than fat. MCT has been hyped to death by those who sell it. But the point is that they are a type of SFA that may potentially have minor benefits on body composition. I personally wouldn’t spend a dime on them, but they nevertheless illustrate the fact that SFAs are a complex and highly varied group of compounds in terms of physiological effect. As always, the effects of each type of fat undoubtedly vary with the population in question, as well as individual response.

Finally, with the black and white fallacy of saturated versus unsaturated fats out of the way, we can now shift the focus on fish oils, which happen to be a rich source of a particular class of fatty acids under intense study, the omega 3’s. 

Enter the Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are 20-carbon compounds essential for normal growth and development, and are noted specifically for their powerful influence over multiple physiological processes. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), one of the two essential fatty acids (EFA) that the body cannot biosynthesize and must get from the diet, is an omega-3. Here’s a structure for those of you who miss your days in the classroom:

EFA are precursors to a class of biologically significant compounds called eicosanoids, which include prostaglandins, leukotrienes, and thromboxanes. Eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA) can be derived from fish oil, and to a lesser degree, flaxseed oil. Consumption of EPA and DHA has an appreciable number of positive health effects, including decreases in blood platelet aggregation, lowered blood pressure, enhancement of smooth muscle function, decreased inflammation, alleviation of dyslipidema, and treatment of mood disorders [6-9]. There is also emerging evidence pointing to the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids on bone health [10].

Archaeological research postulates that humans were biologically designed to thrive on a diet whose ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids was approximately 1:1, and unlikely greater than 4:1. Today, consumption of n-6 to n-3 fatty acids is estimated at roughly 25:1 [11]. This is due in part to a predominance of omega-6 oils available commercially in our food supply (corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, refined packaged grain products & pastries) and a relative minority of omega-3 sources (fatty marine fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, and flaxseed oil, walnuts, & small amounts in canola oil). Industrial production of omega-6-rich animal feeds has also resulted in animal tissues (livestock, eggs, and cultured fish) rich in omega-6 and poor in omega-3 fatty acids. This disproportionately high intake of omega 6’s biases our physiology towards thrombosis, hyperlipidemia, and vasoconstriction. The reverse of those effects occurs simply by increasing the proportion of omega-3 fats.

Is Fish Oil a Fat Loss Supplement?

So far, the resume of fish oil’s health effects is very extensive. But can it add fat loss to the list as well? The buzz in the supplement industry would certainly want consumers to believe so. But as always, the answer can only begin to reveal itself in the research. Human studies examining the effect of fish oil supplementation on body composition are scarce, but that makes it easy to pick them apart.

A decade ago, Couet and colleagues investigated the effect of replacing 6g of visible dietary fat with 6g of fish oil in healthy adults over a 3-week period, done 12 weeks after a 3-week control diet period [12]. Bodyfat mass and respiratory quotient decreased in the fish oil phase. It’s important to note that the flaws in this study’s design are grave enough to almost completely invalidate it. Extremely small sample size (6 subjects total), short trial period (3 weeks), and a complete absence of randomization or treatment balance (opening the distinct possibility for seasonal variation, among other errors) are the main fatal knocks that render this data nearly useless.

In contrast, 2 more recent studies conducted within the past 3 years looking at weight-loss diets supplemented with omega-3’s have not observed any significant effects on body composition beyond what was caused by dietary restriction alone [13,14]. But it’s never that simple, since things may differ according to the population and protocol. In contrast to the previous two trials, Kunesova’s team examined the effects of omega-3 supplementation on severely obese female inpatients undergoing a 3-week very low calorie (525 kcal) in-patient weight reduction treatment [15]. Calories were controlled to accommodate the supplemental omega-3, which was 2.8g/day. Result? The omega-3 supplemented group lost 1.5 kg bodyweight and 2.2 cm more off the waist than the control group.

How about more relevant populations? As of this writing, there are only three trials in existence examining the effect of omega-3 supplementation combined with a structured aerobic exercise program on body composition. Let’s dig in.

In 1989, Warner and colleagues looked at the effect of walking or jogging 3 days/week for 45–50 minutes at 75-80% maximal heart rate in hyperlipidemic subjects randomly assigned to 1 of 4 groups: fish oil + exercise, fish oil alone, corn oil, or control [16]. Body fat was reduced only in the fish oil + exercise group. These data are severely limited by the absence of an exercise-only control group, leaving a huge question mark open regarding the relative contribution of exercise to the bottom line result. A year later, Brilla and Landerholm conducted a well-designed study on healthy, previously sedentary men [17]. This trial did contain an exercise-only control group, and no effect of fish oil on body fat was observed.

In the most recent fish oil + exercise study to date, Hill’s team examined the effect of fish oil supplementation (6g) on overweight hypertensive/hyperlipidemic subjects (24 men and 41 women) over a 12 week period [18]. Exercise was 3 days/week walking at 75% predicted maximal heart rate for 45 minutes. Body composition was assessed by dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA). Predictably, fish oil supplementation improved blood lipids and arterial vasodilation. As for body composition, fish oil by itself didn’t cause any bodyfat reduction from baseline levels, whereas the sunflower oil control gained body fat, but to an insignificant degree. However, fish oil + exercise caused a 1.1% greater bodyfat reduction compared to the sunflower oil + exercise control (1.2% reduction versus a 0.1% reduction in the sunflower oil group). If you re-read those body composition results, they’re nothing to get too excited over, especially considering small amount of fat lost in the 12 week duration.

The Dark Side of Over-doing Fish Oil Supplementation

Yes, Luke, there is always a dark side. In the world of unchecked marketing hype, fish oil has definitely gotten the “more is better” stamp. The problem is EPA and DHA have a well-documented ability to suppress the body’s immune response. Although not as consistent as the immune effects, data also exist on the ability of EPA and DHA to increase bleeding time and oxidation. Let’s take a look at a couple of the published peer-reviewed research that no one in the fitness industry talks about.

Thies and colleagues examined the 12-week effect of various fatty acid supplement mixes on healthy subjects [19]. Various blends of placebo oil and oils rich in ALA, GLA, AA, DHA, or EPA (720mg) + DHA (280mg) were compared. Total fat intake from the 9-capsule dose was 4 g/d. The EPA/DHA treatment was the only one that had a negative effect on immunity, significantly decreasing natural killer cell activity by 48%. This effect was reversed after 4 weeks of ceasing intake of the supplement.

Rees and colleagues investigated the effects of various amounts of EPA on immune markers in young and older men [20]. In a 12-week study, EPA was incorporated into plasma and mononuclear cell phospholipids. Supplemental EPA in amounts of 1.35, 2.7, and 4.05g/day caused a dose-dependent decrease in neutrophil respiratory burst, indicating the suppression of a cellular defense against immunity threats. This effect was seen in the older, but not the younger men. Based on these and the previous data, if you’re not a spring chicken, and immunity is an issue, you might not want to go hog-wild on the fish oil dosing.

Suggested Use & Take-Home Tips

The cardio-protective benefits of increasing the dietary proportion of omega-3 fatty acids is seen consistently in trials involving various populations and protocols. Fish oil is one of the few supplements that actually have a substantial body of scientific evidence backing it up. However, it’s easy to think in terms of pills instead of food. Those who love fish (and have the time or resources to prepare or order it) can simply increase or maintain their intake of fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, lake trout, herring, albacore tuna, and sardines.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends at least two servings of fish per week for the general population. Think of a palm-sized piece as a serving. For those with high triacylglycerol levels, a supplemental 2-4g of combined EPA/DHA is their suggested therapeutic dose. However, note that the AHA cautions against supplementing more than 3g outside of a physician’s care [21]. I recommend maxing out your whole food options first before going the supplemental route. There’s always more complete and synergistic nutrition contained within whole foods. For those who can’t or won’t eat fish, there’s always fish oil capsules, which thankfully are inexpensive, and more convenient than getting your omega-3’s through fish.

The amount of EPA/DHA per capsule may vary with the brand. Capsules can contain anywhere from 250-500mg. Most healthy folks don’t need more than 3-6 capsules per day to meet or exceed the amounts that show benefits. There are no definitive conclusions about optimal proportion of EPA:DHA, so to error on the side of safety, I recommend finding roughly an even mix. It’s common and perfectly acceptable for products to contain slightly more EPA than DHA. If at all possible, make sure your supplement is verified by the USP (United States Pharmacopoeia) for the peace of mind that you’re getting what the label is claiming. I would also error on the side of safety and keep them refrigerated. As a side note, there’s a widespread belief that ALA from flaxseed is worthless for increasing EPA/DHA since the conversion is inefficient. However, Harper’s team recently observed 3g ALA/day (from 5.2g flaxseed oil) raise plasma EPA levels by 60% at the end of a 12-week trial [22].

Looking at the body of evidence as a whole, fish oil (or increased fish consumption) has great potential for improving cardiovascular health. But for reducing body fat, the effects are minor to nonexistent. Let’s not forget that fish oil isn’t some magical negative-calorie food. It still contains 9 calories per gram, and no matter how much of those calories are used in its processing within the body, it’s still a net gain in calories after consumption. To sum everything up, fish oil has health benefits, as well as potential risks. It’s certainly not a matter of more-is-better. It might have minor fat loss effects in the obese and overweight population, but their fat loss effect in general is far from conclusively established. Get a variety of fats in your diet, and get them from whole foods whenever possible. Fish oil is merely one of many agents that can contribute to optimal health within the context of well-balanced nutrition. Keep it in perspective, and keep your eye on the facts.

Written by Alan Aragon

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Fish Oil – Just The Facts discussion thread.


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