Shelby Starnes – Recreational Bodybuilder to Competitive Bodybuilder

There inevitably comes a time in every lifter’s life when he decides to buy posing trunks, start tanning, shave all his body hair, and get shredded. Ok, maybe most lifters won’t enter the world of competitive bodybuilding, but everyone reading this site still wants the best information on how to get leaner and more muscular. I’m here to provide you with better ways to avoid some of the most common mistakes that recreational or newly competitive bodybuilders make when trying to look their best.

Messing up in these critical areas will limit progress. They can set you backwards, and leave your body in a state that is less than what you deserve for the work that you put in.

Here to help you make the most of your time is competitive bodybuilder and nutritionist Shelby Starnes.  Shelby is quickly becoming known as one of the top diet and bodybuilding prep coaches and he’s here to lay down the law.

Get Your Questions answered by Shelby – Shelby will be a regular contributor in 2010, answering questions from the Wannabebig readers in his new Q & A column (new fancy name coming soon). If you have a training or nutrition question for Shelby, please ask it here. Shelby will be selecting questions to answer in his future Q & A issues.

Matt McGorry: Shelby, let’s just right into it. Many of the Wannabebig readers are regular people, doing their best to maximize their physiques.  Without a bodybuilding competition on the horizon, many lifters find themselves in a perpetual off-season, never really dieting down to see the muscle that they’ve build over years of training.  For the average guy looking to get shredded for the first time, or for the recreational bodybuilder looking to step onto the stage, what is the number one thing you recommend to these people?

Shelby Starnes: This will probably come off as pretty self-promotional, but the number one thing I suggest for anyone when they decide to compete is to hire a nutritionist to handle their prep: someone that has been there and done that, has had success with others, and knows what to do (and NOT do) to ensure success (i.e., maximum fat loss with minimal muscle loss, and possibly even muscle gain).

MM: That makes a good deal of sense.  What do you think the apprehension is about?

SS: I think a lot of the time, the ego gets in the way. Most trainers like to think that they “know everything already” when it comes to dieting, but go to any amateur bodybuilding show and you’ll quickly realize this is not the case at all.

I hired someone to help me prep for my first show, and I ended up winning the overall in the novice division as well as taking 2nd in the men’s open middleweight division, thereby qualifying myself for national-level competition. This would NOT have happened if I had tried to get ready for the competition on my own.

MM: So, it’s like when I refuse to call the repairman to fix the sink and my girlfriend gets pissed at me for causing it to leak all over the kitchen floor!

Say our lifter has picked a contest or decided to get ripped for summer and he’s started a diet.  After dropping a little bit of body fat, he comes to the realization that he has a muscle group that is greatly underdeveloped.  At what point in the dieting process do you think it becomes fruitless to try and bring up that lagging body part?  Is it worth to add in more specialized work once the diet has begun?

SS: It wouldn’t hurt, and it might produce some results depending on how “negligent” your training of those body parts was up to that point, but honestly when you’re dieting and in a caloric deficit, you’re not going to be adding much if any new muscle. Use the offseason to bring up lagging body parts…pre-contest is a time to retain muscle and shed fat.

MM: An enormous part of the fitness and bodybuilding industry includes making objective physiological changes into subjective catch phrases to entice the readers.  That being said, do you believe in “detail” training to “etch out” certain body parts?

SS: No.  Definition comes from diet and cardio, not from training.  Next question.

MM: Some lifters are a proponent of “dirty” bulking or consuming mass quantities of junk foods to put on size.  Is this ever a good idea, and do how do you think it affects the lifter if he has to diet down afterwards?

SS: I have yet to see how crap calories add quality to any physique in the long run. On the contrary, they can cause health issues, wreak havoc on hormones, and cause unnecessary fat gain.  Though there are definitely individuals who need a higher caloric intake (relative to others) to gain muscle, it should be done with proper foods and proper macronutrients, not a “shotgun” approach.  Bodybuilding is a marathon, not a sprint.  Too many guys get too focused on what the scale will read tomorrow, instead of focusing on how they will look (and feel) next year and further down the road.

MM: What role do the power lifts play in bodybuilding?  Can a great competitive physique be built without them and do you think that they have a place in every bodybuilder’s arsenal?

SS: Basic compound free weight movements work wonders for building large amounts of muscle mass in a short amount of time.  They should definitely be part of every beginner and intermediate lifter’s arsenal.
There are definitely advanced trainers that no longer deadlift, squat, or bench due to injuries or personal preference, but all of these guys built their physiques with the basics.

MM: Powerlifters turned bodybuilders are described as having dense muscle. What exactly does this mean, and what significance might it have to a bodybuilder or someone just trying to look good naked?

SS: Powerlifters train with one focus: more weight on the bar!  This emphasis on progressive resistance is something all trainers could benefit from, but many bodybuilders get caught up in things like “getting a good pump”, “etching in detail”, and whatever else they read in the latest Muscle and Fiction magazine.

Progressive resistance for a bodybuilder is different than it is for a powerlifter though, as a bodybuilder’s goal is muscle hypertrophy and not merely moving a weight from point A to point B.

Therefore, we want to make the target muscles stronger, not make the lift more efficient by manipulating leverages (i.e., a wide stance squat vs. a close stance squat, or a sumo deadlift vs. a conventional deadlift).  We want to make our muscles do the work of getting stronger, and not to use momentum or rebound or any of the other methods powerlifters often take advantage of to move more weight.

The bottom line is that when you go from close stance squatting 315 for 10 reps, to close stance squatting 405 for 10 reps, you will have much much bigger thighs to show for it!

Additionally, the lower rep (<8) training that is common among powerlifters develops more myofibrillar hypetrophy as opposed to sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

Myofibrillar hypertrophy is an increase in the size of the myofibrils, the actual muscle fibers. This is the contractile tissue that does the actual work when weight training. When you think of myofibrillar hypertrophy, think stronger, more forceful muscles. This is the type of hypertrophy that powerlifters and weight lifters typically display, and is commonly associated with lower rep ranges, i.e., < 8 reps.

Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is an increase in size of the sarcoplasm (also called cytoplasm) and noncontractile proteins that are more or less the “fluid” in the muscle. It includes the glycogen, nutrients, mitochondria, capillaries, and other non-contractile elements.

When you think of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, think “bigger and fuller” muscles, but not necessarily “stronger” muscles.

This is the type of hypertrophy that advanced bodybuilders typically display, and is commonly associated with higher rep ranges, i.e., 10-20 reps.

MM: Moving back to the “cutting phase”, what place do intervals have in a bodybuilders’ pre-competition preparation?  How does interval training compare to low or moderate intensity steady-state cardio in terms of effectiveness?

SS: It depends on what type of diet the person is utilizing. If carbs are present in the diet, then high intensity cardio can be utilized. But if someone is utilizing a zero carb approach, lower intensity cardio should be their only method, because high intensity cardio will quickly burn muscle if glycogen levels are low.

Even when carbs are present though, I still like to use a mix of both high intensity interval cardio and more moderate intensity cardio, as both are beneficial to fat loss. Too much HIIT can be a drain on the CNS and can possibly interfere with weight training and recuperation.

MM: How should one’s lifting training change when transitioning from off-season to in-season?  It seems to be a common notion that lifters should transition from heavier lifting in the off-season to higher reps as they approach a competition dates.

SS: The most common mistake is to change your training at all. What built the muscle is what will keep the muscle while dieting. Suddenly changing from heavy progressive lifting to light high rep training is a great recipe for muscle loss. At the very end of a prep (when you’re under four weeks out from a contest), you might want to start lowering the volume a bit, and also the intensity, since you’re more susceptible to injuries and overtraining when body fat levels are very low and calories have been restricted for a while.

Don’t worry, you won’t magically lose muscle mass overnight.  The goal at this point is to simply maintain what you have and to AVOID INJURY.

MM: How about advanced methods of training (drop sets, forced reps, etc.) in the dieting phase?  It’s pretty common to see lifters get excited as their bodyfat levels drop, so they sometimes kick things up a notch.

SS: High intensity methods like this can be hard to recover from in a hypocaloric environment, so I would only use them sparingly, if at all. The goal during a diet is muscle retention, and not getting hurt.  Too many guys try to be too macho when getting ready for a show and often end up with torn muscles. Train smart to win.

MM: What are some major considerations when preparing  natural competitor versus a drug-using competitor both in terms of diet and training in the in-season and off-season phases?

SS: There aren’t any huge differences.  Everyone is still human, with a human physiology.  Natural trainers generally need to be a bit more careful to avoid muscle loss from low calories and excessive cardio (and they generally need to diet longer and slower to ensure maximum muscle retention), but the same physiological principles apply to both types of competitors.

MM: What is the main cause of a bodybuilder peaking too early for a competition?

SS: “Peaking too early” is usually an excuse for not coming in shape, rather than being an actual phenomenon. You can always be ready for a show early, and taper things back (ease up on cardio, add in calories, etc.), but you obviously never want be ready for a show later.

I always try to have my clients close to “stage ready” at about two weeks out so we can play around with things and see where they look their best in terms of fullness, dryness, etc.

With that said, sometimes people DO diet too hard too soon… and end up losing muscle in the process. They get too caught up in seeing the scale change, and being “hardcore” about dieting when the truth is that it’s not about who can diet the hardest, but who can diet the smartest.

This is more common with novices, and is another reason I recommend working with a nutritionist during the pre-contest journey.

Definition like this comes from diet and cardio, not from training

MM: Ok, we’ve been talking a lot about competitive approaches, but let’s not forget that we have tons of members on Wannabebig who don’t want to get below 5% and don the posing trunks. They want to be in great shape (let’s say 10-12% body fat), look great, and more importantly, stay looking great year round as they add lean muscle. What is your advice for them?

SS: The same principles apply – the lifter would just need to back off and maintain when they hit 10% rather than pushing for further fat loss.

The requirements for “maintenance” will vary widely from individual to individual, but generally speaking, cardio would be reduced to a few sessions weekly and carbs could gradually be added back into the diet to keep weight from dropping further and also to support heavy lifting

Also, whilst it’s a lovely idea being able to maintain 10% and add lean muscle, unless you are genetically predisposed to a leaner body, this is going to be unfeasible. The non-competitive bodybuilder looking to add 15lbs of pure muscle will most likely have to venture above 10% bodyfat to do this.

Now let’s be clear, I am not saying you have to excessively bulk and get fat to gain muscle. But, if you’re someone that has to do a great deal of cardio and be very strict about diet in order to stay under 10% bodyfat, then you’re going to be limiting muscle and strength gains by doing this year round.  On the contrary, the building and cutting phases don’t have to be taken to the same extreme as a competitive bodybuilder, but some fluctuations in bodyfat percentage is mandatory for those seeking big physique changes.

For those who are very close to being satisfied with their body, then they can really take their time in making adjustments.  But I think it’s safe to say that you wouldn’t be reading this interview unless you had big plans for building your body.

MM: Well, that’s all the questions I’ve got for now, Shelby.  Thanks for helping me beat down, bully, and steal the milk money from some of the biggest misconceptions and myths in our industry.  Hopefully the readers will heed your advice and let it guide them on the way to their best body.

SS: No worries and remember if you want me to answer your questions in my future Wannabebig Q & A columns, just ask it here.

Written by Matt McGorry

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 – An Interview with Shelby Starnes discussion thread.

About Shelby Starnes

Shelby is a successful National-level Bodybuilder & Powerlifter and has helped hundreds of athletes get into the greatest shape of their lifes.

  • 2009 NPC Central States Championships – 1st place Middleweight and Overall
  • B.A. in Psychology with Departmental Honors – estimated completion May, 2008
  • 2nd place 198-lb class – 2004 APF Michigan State Powerlifting Championships
  • Overall Novice Champion – Motor City Bodybuilding Championships, 2005
  • 2nd place open middleweight- Motor City Bodybuilding Championships, 2005 (nationally qualified)
  • 5th place middleweight – NPC Junior Nationals, 2006

Whether you are a competitive bodybuilder looking for pre contest/off season assistance or simply just striving to achieve a specific physique, Shelby is available to set up custom diet and training programs to suit your goals.

For more information on his diet and training programs and prices, see here.