Interview With Hardcore Natural Bodybuilder Tommy Jeffers
I have to admit, I knew very little about Tommy Jeffers walking into this interview. I knew that Tommy had an amazing physique, and that he was a member of Team Scivation. I also knew that Tommy Jeffers had appeared in several of Layne Norton’s videos. But what I didn’t know was the fact that Tommy Jeffers knew training. What follows is one of the most memorable conversations on the topic of training that I’ve had in quite some time.
Muscle & Strength: You have an amazing looking physique. Very aesthetic. How long have you been training for the sport of natural bodybuilding?
Tommy Jeffers: Thanks, I appreciate that! Working out for me didn’t start until about sophomore year of high school. I grew up the skinny kid that didn’t have a lot of money to afford all the name brand stuff, so I was picked on repeatedly growing up through elementary and middle school. By the time I got to high school, I was still one of the smaller kids…in fact, the only way I was able to play on the football team was as the kicker! LOL! Then, after my sophomore year of football, I simply had enough. I had had enough of getting picked on, not getting attention from girls, you name it. So, I started hitting the gym in the early mornings with my high school baseball coach who was already going into the high school gym at 5am.
He would pick me up at my house and take me to go lift with him. Needless to say I wanted to change BAD! Well, about that time I was also finally hitting my growth spurt. I ended up coming back next football season as a full back! LOL! Not too may times the kicker comes back and starts blocking for the tailback! Anyway, that’s when everything changed. Now, because of baseball (I played at the professional level) I always had to lift sport-specific for the first ~8 years or so up until about 2004. It was when I decided to stop playing baseball around that time that I picked up bodybuilding…mainly because I needed something to compete in and every other sport you need a skill set.
I figured, well, I’ve been weight training all this time, I might as well try bodybuilding. So, I entered my first show, which was a local show held at my college called Mr. ISU. I ended up winning that show in 2004 and I have been hooked ever since! That was about 5 years ago, and that is how long I have been training specifically for bodybuilding!
Muscle & Strength: Winning your first show must have been awesome! Great job. What did you learn from your first show, and how has your contest prep changed since?
Tommy Jeffers: Yes, winning my first show was an amazing feeling, but it was also a very humbling learning experience to say the least. One of the great things about starting out at a smaller local show like that is the fact that the competition isn’t near as fierce as, say, a top state or regional level show…so you can make a lot of mistakes and still have a shot at winning either your class or the entire show. That is actually a GOOD thing because the only way we learn and make ourselves better is by making those mistakes, learning from them, and then applying what we learn the next time around.
The sport of bodybuilding in and of itself is so complex because you are dealing with the most adaptive and sophisticated “machine” on the planet – the human body. Thinking you are going to walk right into dieting and get everything right (for instance, how long to diet, what ratios to use, what type of training, etc.) is a delusion of grandeur. I learned a ton from that first show, and the beauty part is – I’m STILL learning! It’s amazing – just when I think I have things figured out, my body seems to pull a fast one on me. That’s actually one of the main things I’ve learned over the past few years…the body is constantly changing and adapting. What might work for you one year may not the next. Crazy, huh?
Anyway…back on point. The thing is, there were a lot of things I knew weren’t exactly right with my first prep, but I didn’t know enough about physiology and the like to know what exactly was right and how to fix my mistakes. I mean, you see so much conflicting information on the Internet no matter where you go – mainly because another key thing I’ve learned is that there really is no “right” or “wrong” way to do things. I mean, don’t get me wrong, there are more “optimal” ways to do things, most of which are entirely individual, but there is no one right way to do anything. But, because of my ignorance, I took it upon myself to learn as much as I possibly could about the science surrounding the human body.
I read books, I surrounded myself around people smarter than me, etc. Eventually I started sifting through the BS and putting little things together that have made a big difference. You know what most of my changes all have in common whether I am talking about dieting or training? Simplicity. It’s usually when we overcomplicate things that we get in our own way and stall our own progress. So since my first prep, things have been made MUCH simpler. The changes and adjustments that I make are MUCH smaller. In fact, my peak week usually baffles people LOL. But, what I have found is that the less drastic, the better. Small and slow changes over a long period of time is really the way to go. I could write an entire book about why, so I will just leave it at that LOL.
Muscle & Strength: You mention simplicity versus complexity. This is a good topic to discuss. Tell me some ways in which you feel the average trainee is trying to get too complex when it comes to training, training techniques, and routines…
Tommy Jeffers: Ah yes…simplicity. Let me start this off with a great visual. Have you ever gone into a commercial gym, any commercial gym where they have trainers and sell personal training and what not, and see a trainer working with someone who is obviously brand new, overweight, etc. and you see the trainer having them do all this weird, what I call, “functional” training? I’m talking like balancing on one foot and lifting a weight, or doing a step up while curling a dumbbell, or any other bizarre movement like that and wonder, what the heck is the purpose of all that?
I mean, I literally just scratch my head at half of the stuff I see in there and laugh at the other half. I’m almost curious as to whether they are required to train everyone a certain way, or if the trainers truly believe that’s the most optimal way to get results. I’m leaning towards the former simply because I always see them having obese people doing hundreds, and I mean literally hundreds of crunches…as if that had anything to do with weight loss in the stomach area. Anyway, back on point…the thing is, if you are working out and exercising for aesthetic purposes, whether it’s as extreme as bodybuilding or as simple as losing weight or getting into shape, then there isn’t anything complicated to it.
Dieting comes down to habits and numbers. Training comes down to consistency and progressive overload. There is no re-inventing the wheel here. If you are talking sport specific weight training, that’s a whole other topic. But for aesthetic purposes, it’s that simple. In fact, I repeatedly tell people I talk to on a daily basis…what I do isn’t hard. Making the habits necessary to do what I do is the hard part. I mean, think about it. How hard is it to measure out food? It takes, what, an extra ten seconds? But, making the HABIT to do it is the hard part.
The main problem I see with the average trainee is that they are constantly looking for the “magical” training routine, or the “magical” diet that is going to make them both gain muscle and lose body fat and look like Arnold Schwarzenegger in a few short months. That simply is not the case. In fact, MOST clients of mine question the simplicity of my diet and training routines but they automatically think, “It can’t be that easy and simple, can it?” The answer is yes, it really is! Instead of jumping from diet to diet or from training program to training program, they completely miss the forest through the trees! It’s not so much the diet or the training strategy as it is the CONSISTENCY over time of your habits.
Muscle & Strength: Speaking of looking for a “magic” routine and diet, you generally see a lot of impatience. Do you feel that the mainstream bodybuilding magazines are giving these guys a false expectation about what is possible, and how long it takes to achieve good results?
Tommy Jeffers: Oh my God – YES! Do you want to know why? It’s because fitness and bodybuilding magazines are NOT in the business of publishing good, solid, factual, scientifically based information. They are in the business of MARKETING products and selling supplement advertisements. THAT is how they make their money. They pay very little, if anything at all, for “filler” (read articles) by any Joe Schmoe with some letters after their name.
Not only that, but most of the workouts and diets that you see advertised in those magazines by “professionals” are not done by those individuals in the first place! They are paid money to have their name or picture on those workouts and diets whether prescribe to them or not. And since there isn’t a lot of money in bodybuilding, they of course do it for the money. See, once you understand the back end of this industry, you can really start to put the pieces together on what is possible or achievable, and what is not – ESPECIALLY with supplement ads.
So here’s the take home message – there is no magical diet or training program that will make you have that “Bowflex” body in just 6 short weeks. The majority of people think about or wanting to get into shape are further away from that type of body than 6 weeks (or whatever time frame they insert here). What is important to understand is that the basics have always, and will always continue to work just as good, if not better, than any complex, sophisticated training plan out there. In fact, if you read these crap magazines long enough, you will eventually run into a good article about every few months that is called “Back to the Basics” and the article is full of great info on how to simplify your training and get good results.
The fundamentals of anatomy and physiology don’t change. You can make it as complicated or as simple as you want to make it. (I prefer simple!) In the end, what makes the REAL difference in people’s physiques are the intangibles – work ethic, desire, perseverance, dedication, etc. The mental aspect is so important. When life gets tough, or when it tries to get in the way, if you don’t have the mental part down as well as the intangibles, you will fall right back into your comfort zone and your old habits. That is the difference. The ones that can push through and make this a part of their lifestyle are the ones who ultimately get what they want. Time frames are individual, and quite honestly, shouldn’t matter if the reason WHY you are doing it is strong enough.
Muscle & Strength: Tell about the Team Layne videos…how did you get involved with Layne Norton, and how many videos are you featured in?
Tommy Jeffers: The Layne videos really changed my life as it is involved in this industry. First off, the first time I heard of Layne was on a forum for Avant Labs. At the time I was first getting into bodybuilding in 2003-2004, I was searching for anything and everything that would help me get into as good as shape as I could do. I actually bought a book called “The Ultimate Diet 2.0” by Lyle McDonald. In that book, he actually plugged a supplement called “Leptigen” that at that time was being made by Avant Labs with the primary goal of inducing a “fed” state to the brain while dieting. That was how I came across Avant Labs, and at that time one of the main posters that had a lot of followers was Layne.
So naturally, I followed along his journal and tried to pick up as much as I could from him. Fast forward a couple of years, it’s 2006 or so and I was thinking about getting into bodybuilding FOR REAL. Previously I had done about a show a year in the NPC, never placed well, still didn’t know much about what I was doing at that point and I was sick of it. I decided that if I was going to compete again, I was going to hire someone who knew what they were doing and knew how to dial it in. It was at that time Layne posted pictures from a contest where he received his natural pro card. WOW! First off, there is natural bodybuilding? Awesome! Now I can compete against guys I have a fighting chance! LOL. Second, his conditioning was remarkable.
It was obvious he knew what he was doing and had experience prepping guys for shows. I was sold. I contacted him and hired him to do my prep for the entire time I was going to compete that year – which ended up being 3 shows. About 6 weeks out from the final show, which was the pro-qualifier I was aiming for), Layne approached me about being involved in a few episodes of his “Inside the Life of a Natural Pro” series he had. At first I thought it was just going to be little tidbits here and there, but it ended up being a 5 video feature. The episodes I appear in are #12-16 – and it shows the final weeks of preparation, as well as the day of the contest of my getting my natural pro card with Layne at the wheel.
I have been simply amazed since then at the large number of people those videos were able to reach and inspire on all levels – not only for competitive bodybuilding, but even for life choices such as staying natural! I can’t possibly describe in words what it means to have a positive impact on so many people’s lives. THAT is the reason I love this sport and this industry, and THAT is the reason I continue to do what I do!
Muscle & Strength: Speaking of being a positive influence…do you feel there are ways that the IFBB/pro side of bodybuilding have negatively impacted the sport of bodybuilding?
Tommy Jeffers: Actually, yes I do. Although the IFBB side has impacted bodybuilding in positive ways, it sure has its fair share of the opposite. For instance, the one way that sticks out the most to me is the ‘facade’ that it portrays. See, steroids are a taboo subject in this sport. Everyone knows that most IFBB guys are using every drug under the sun (and they have to in order to even compete at that level which is sad in and of itself), but no one ever talks about it (obviously because of legal ramifications).
So what ultimately ends up happening, is you have waves of new generations growing up, feeling insecure, and wanting to get started, not necessarily in bodybuilding the sport, but bodybuilding the activity in order to better their physical appearance. Whether it’s to gain acceptance from certain social clicks, girls, or to boost self-esteem, we all go through an insecure phase. So they sift through magazines, and read the Internet, and go to shows, etc. and they see these giant IFBB guys that basically look like cartoon characters, and they start trying to do what they do, eat what they eat, train the way they train, take the supplements that they “supposedly” take (lol), in order to start to look like them.
What all “newbies” don’t realize at first is that it’s all a facade. And not only that, but a natural simply can’t do what an IFBB guy does and expect the same results. Why? Because their bodies are physiologically different than a naturals because of all the drugs they take. They can side-step some things and get away with a lot of dumb stuff and still look like that. So, essentially, you have this facade…this lie…that is portrayed to new generations every year on what is optimal, what is feasible, you name it.
That then filters in to the supplement industry where these IFBB guys promote these supplements they don’t even use in the first place, and the younger crowd thinks that THAT is the reason why they look the way they do…when in reality, the TRUTH is: a) they never will unless they use the drugs they use, and b) what they really need is to learn how to eat and train properly and allow the consistency of that transform their physique. See, we all want to look like Arnold RIGHT NOW.
The problem is, that as a natural – which most younger kids and newbies are, it takes a lot of time, effort, and small (but consistent) growth to effectively change the physique. And then, they still may never look like an IFBB guy or as good as they want to through whatever limitations they may have. The keys are in the intangibles: work ethic, consistency, perseverance, desire, etc. Those are the things that get us what we want, not only with our physique, but in every other aspect of our lives. That is what needs to be taught and preached – which is what I try to do with all of my clients. There are other ways, both positive and negative, that the IFBB/steroid side of bodybuilding has impacted the sport, but the big ‘facade’ is the one that sticks out at me the most.
Muscle & Strength: One of the big impacts of this “big lie” is that the average trainee believes he can get as big as Mr. Olympia if he only works hard enough, even without steroids. What are realistic goals for young bodybuilders that want to get as big as possible naturally? And how hard does it become to add muscle after the first – say – 5 good years of training?
Tommy Jeffers: Yes it is, and that’s very unfortunate. And the other down side to that big lie, is that for some of those natural lifters that finally figure out that they can’t get that big, they end up turning to drugs for recreational use. I mean, it’s one thing if you are dead set on trying to make money in the IFBB as a professional bodybuilder and you need to take drugs as a necessity in order to compete, but it’s something else entirely to use drugs recreationally without any real purpose behind it other than to take a short cut to “looking better”.
But again, it’s those intangibles that most people lack, so it’s understandable why the seemingly “easier” route is so appealing. Realistically though, naturals do have genetic limitations. Unfortunately, our bodies are only meant to get so big without a resulting rate of diminishing returns. And, if you understand how our species evolved, it makes perfect sense. Humans didn’t always have plentiful food. We went hundreds of thousands of years where food wasn’t plentiful. That means, the smaller and fatter you were, the longer you survived. Why? Fat is more than twice as energy efficient as the other two macronutrients. That’s how we evolved into surviving. That’s why there are all these defensive feedback loops built into our bodies with hormonal systems shutting down, etc.
The body doesn’t care that you want to be big and lean. It wants to be small and fat LOL. So there is this constant battle physiologically going on the longer we train and try to improve our physique. Our body is literally fighting us every inch of the way. That’s why the majority of one’s growth comes in the earlier lifting. Once the body has adapted, it gets harder and harder to stimulate and grow because the body gets more and more efficient at adapting to what we throw at it.
It’s not that you can’t make continuous gains…it’s just that they come at a slower and slower pace as we age. Essentially, that’s the reason why genetics only allow for so much size (muscle wise) and why it seems like all the explosive growth comes in the newer part of training. As you may have already noticed, seasoned athletes don’t grow very fast (including myself lol).
But, I enjoy working out, I enjoy how it makes me feel, and believe it or not, I enjoy trying all sorts of different ways to stimulate and grow muscle beyond what my body is comfortable at! That’s why I try to tell my clients to be patient and let consistency over time (with optimal diet/training of course) take over to give them the physique they want. Unfortunately, not a lot of people have the patience to endure what it takes, which is why so many people yo-yo back and forth all the time or ultimately end up going the drug route to bypass some of the physiology that limits us in the first place.
Muscle & Strength: If you were only allowed to perform 5 exercises, what would you pick and why?
Tommy Jeffers: If I only had to pick 5 exercises to perform (and I assume you mean for bodybuilding/aesthetic purposes), than I would want to pick the exercises that get the most “bang for my buck” so to speak. So the five I would choose would probably be:
- Conventional Barbell Deadlift
- Barbell Deep Squats
- Barbell Military Press
- Barbell Low Incline Press
- Weighted Pull Ups
The conventional deadlift is probably the best overall exercise in the books as it pretty much works everything. The deep squats will recruit just about all the muscle fibers in your thighs. The Military Press gives the overall shoulder cap (primarily lateral and rear deltoids if you are really strict with form) some work. The low incline press and the weighted pullup are two-fold; you get the best chest recruitment from the low incline as well as tricep recruitment and the weighted pullup gives you a nice back exercise along with some bicep recruitment.
Don’t wear a belt on the deep squats (or deadlifts) and you work your abs plenty. Use pristine form on the deadlift, and you can hit rhomboids and traps pretty good. Don’t use straps on the deadlifts for grip/forearm work. Only thing really missing are the calves – heck, just throw a calf raise at the end of the squat reps…yeah it will look silly, but hey, you only have five exercises to choose from, remember? LOL.
With those, you can cover just about everything…then just vary your rep ranges to train in all of them, split out your volume to keep the split in balance, and viola!
Muscle & Strength: Tell me about your relationship with Scivation…
Tommy Jeffers: Scivation and I have a great relationship. I believe it was in 2007 about 4-6 weeks out from my pro-qualifying contest that Scivation offered me a position as a sponsored athlete. And what an honor! Like I said before, a lot of bodybuilders much better than me never get that chance, so it’s important for me to continue to do as much as I can to help the company out. Essentially, I travel around in a local region putting on demos at local gyms and supplement stores and hand out samples, talk about the products, etc. I also go to the Arnold and the Olympia every year to help support them and work the Scivation booth. It has been a great experience so far and I really look forward to being with them as long as I can.
Question for you…what’s the one training program/split that will work for everyone? 🙂
Muscle & Strength: Now that’s like walking into a minefield…how about the one that they actually stick with and enjoy?
Tommy Jeffers: I’m going to have to disagree with ya on this one 😉 Although I will say that enjoying the workout can be pretty important so that it will help you stick with it, that doesn’t mean that that particular split/routine will actually work for you. Let’s take a look at what main variables we have to play with when designing a split. The three main ones we have are volume, intensity, and frequency. And, just to make sure we are on the same page with the context of each term, I’ll describe each one.
Volume is simply referring to the amount of sets and reps for any given time frame. Intensity, believe it or not, is not referring to how ‘hardcore’ you are being or how much effort you are putting into your workout (you’d be surprises at how many people assume that lol). Intensity actually in this case is referring to how heavy the load is in relationship to a one rep maximum. You can more simply look at intensity as rep ranges (assuming the lifter is going to the same 1 rep shy or failure effort each set). Frequency is simply the number of times a particular muscle group is lifted for any given time frame (the most common time frame used is 1 week when developing workout splits).
Now, given those three variables, the way I like to explain balance is this: picture a triangle with each angle representing the three variables. Now, as one variable goes up or down, the other two need to compensate in some way to maintain the right balance. For instance, if I take someone’s workout split – let’s say for the sake of argument they are lifting one muscle group a week (very common with the bro’s in the gym) – and I change the frequency from once a week to twice a week…well, one or both of the other variables has to change or the split won’t be effective or work.
Think about it, with that one muscle group a week routine, guys are normally getting in 16-20 (sometimes more) of chest on chest day. Can you imagine trying to do that many sets twice a week? No way. So the volume needs to come down as frequency goes up (assuming intensity is roughly the same). Or you can bring volume down only a little and not train as intense (or as close to your one rep max) and do higher rep ranges. You see how that works? The enjoyment part, honestly, probably has more to do with exercise selection (doing exercises they are fond of, changing them up and not getting bored, etc.) than it does anything else.
And let’s face it, as long as the exercises that are chosen are done correctly with good form and using the intended muscle group to perform said lift, then exercise selection becomes more of a moot point and left up to the lifter. So, just because someone enjoys what they are doing and sticks with it, doesn’t mean their split is working. I mean, how many guys in the gym do you see year after year doing the exact same thing (because they like it) and yet they look the exact same year after year? I think you know the answer to that one 🙂
Muscle & Strength: Why do you believe there is an infatuation with over-complicating training routines and training approaches? And can you tell us what “keeping it simple” means to you?
Tommy Jeffers: I’m really not sure why honestly, but I think we all do it to some extent. I mean, how many times have you written something off because it looked “too easy” or “too good to be true” or thought to yourself “It can’t be that simple”. I think the main reason why we do that is simply because of the paradigm “Well if it really is that easy, why isn’t everyone is shape?”
The problem with that is, again, the focus is on the wrong thing(s). Yes, the actual things we do to get in shape are easy…BUT, it’s the consistency, the determination, the motivation, etc. that is hard. People have a comfort zone that they don’t like to venture out of. Change isn’t easy. But, when they finally get a grasp on those intangibles and can apply it in their lives, it’s THEN that they see how easy and simple this whole thing really is.
Keeping it simple, with respect to training, to me means this: choose a compound movement for your major muscle groups…choose a few other exercises to isolate and fill in the gaps, train in all rep ranges, train a muscle group twice a week or once every five days, and focus on PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD. That’s it. How you choose to split up the exercises, the split, what exercises you choose (as long as you use good form and work the intended muscle) is all personal preference. Treat every muscle group the same. Rinse and repeat. Keep it simple. Change it up every so often, but keep it simple.
Muscle & Strength: Do you believe beginners should be performing elaborate 4 to 5 day splits using isolation exercises, or is it better for them to stick with the fundamentals and a full body approach?
Tommy Jeffers: Well, it kind of depends on what you mean by “beginners” really. A brand new beginner to lifting? No. Stick with the fundamentals, learn good form, and do mostly compound movements. A beginner can make excellent progress with the simplest routine. A couple of full body workouts, or an upper/lower split, is as complicated as a beginner needs to worry about.
Besides, it’s the NUTRITION that causes most beginners to spend their wheels, not the routine or hard work exercising in the gym. And that is what typically happens to most beginners – they start lifting for a few weeks, don’t really “notice” any improvements, then they quit saying they tried and it doesn’t work. The majority of the time, it’s because they only have one piece of the puzzle in place. Had they had their nutrition in check, things would have ended up different.
Muscle & Strength: Do you believe the term hardgainer is overused? And if someone is genetically weak and underweight, how should they approach training?
Tommy Jeffers: Yes, that term is mostly used as a scapegoat and used in place of “not doing what it takes to get what I want” LOL. We are all victims of our genetic heritage. Some of us gain or lose weight more easily than others…that’s just part of life. But, I can assure everyone out there who claims that they are a hardgainer that they are NOT going to be breaking the same laws of thermodynamics that everyone else has to follow. 🙂
And just about every time, these people who claim they eat all day and never gain weight, coincidentally NEVER track their food intake. Most of them actually rely on hunger signaling – which means they eat when they are hungry and stuff themselves until they are full, then claim they eat all the time and never gain any weight. The truth is, in most cases, they don’t eat all day. In fact, most would find out they if they tracked their calories and compared them to where they SHOULD be at, they aren’t eating enough to gain weight anyway.
In some cases, though, where the person actually does eat a ton and has the type of genetics that ramp up metabolism and thyroid to burn off the extra calories, those individuals may have to drink calories through something like a meal replacement or weight gainer. We should all be so lucky! They better enjoy that while they can 🙂 But yes, claiming to be a hardgainer, is usually done by people who don’t track food intake at all. Once those people actually find out what they are really eating relative to their bodyweight, they start singing an entirely different tune.