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If you’ve seen the iconic 2015 cover of Muscle & Fitness featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, you should know that Hollywood’s biggest box office draw worked closely with Dave Rienzi to achieve that “chiseled from granite” look.
It’s a tried-and-tested partnership that has reshaped and revitalized “The Great One” on countless occasions.
For his part, Rienzi has built a sterling reputation, thanks to both his academic and practical knowledge, becoming a much-sought-after expert in the field of bodybuilding, nutrition, and physical rehabilitation.
He last competed in 2014 at the NPC Nationals and took 4th place in the Heavyweight class prior to his return to competition in 2020, achieving IFBB pro status, following some significant surgeries of his own.
Muscle & Fitness sat down with Rienzi, 36, to discuss his origins in fitness, his work with The Rock, and the process of co-founding the brand-new ZOA healthy energy drink.
How did you start your fitness journey and what led to you becoming a strength coach?
I started weight training at the age of 12, with an old weightlifting set that my dad had in our basement. I loved the discipline of working out, the mental fortitude, and of course the reward of getting stronger and gaining muscle. From there, I decided to turn fitness into a career. I went to Indiana University and earned a bachelor’s degree of science in kinesiology, as a fitness specialist. After college, I spent several years working in the fitness industry where I really began to hone my craft. I was fortunate enough to open my own private strength and conditioning gym in 2014.
Congratulations on gaining your IFBB Pro card! You mentioned that muscle activation techniques were a big help in the process, can you explain a bit more about what this means?
It was a long journey back to competing after recovering from four surgeries. It felt great to finally achieve IFBB Pro status!
One thing that a lot of people don’t recognize is that, for various reasons, certain muscles may not be firing at their optimal potential. For me, this was tied to my multiple surgeries (two rotator cuff and two knee operations) and the body’s mechanism to turn off certain muscles, in order to protect an injured joint or, to aid in its recovery. This is when compensation patterns are created as well as chronic tightness. It can be a long process for the body to recognize that the joint is no longer in danger and allow the muscles to turn back on, alleviating the restriction. To override this, I use several different techniques for muscle activation. I begin by using muscle testing to determine which muscles aren’t firing. For example, to test the lats (latissimus dorsi), you can internally rotate your hands, keeping your arm at your side. Then have someone try to pull your arm away from your body. If you can’t resist them, the lat is not firing properly. Once you’ve determined which muscles aren’t firing, you can use a foam roll, or massage ball, or a massage gun, and make sure to stretch the area, to make progress toward full activation.
What have you learned about neuromuscular patterns, as it relates to muscle?
The neuromuscular patterns that I focus on, are to correct and override compensation patterns, or to tweak the order in which certain muscle groups fire. This is done through using those muscle-activation techniques as well as exercising to reinforce the correct firing sequence.
For example, if when you’re doing barbell hip thrusts, you feel the majority of the tension in your hamstrings, this means your glutes are not firing first in the movement pattern. So, the hamstrings are compensating. The simplest solution here, is to use a Pso-Rite to release tightness in the psoas (major muscle in your lumbar region) and then use a foam roller for the glutes. When you go back to the movement, focus all of your energy on the peak contraction to reinforce the correct neuromuscular firing pattern.
You have been able to pass on your scientific knowledge to NFL football players and movie stars such as Henry Cavill. How did you gain the prestigious role as The Rock’s strength coach?
I met DJ back when my wife Dany and I were dating. She was overseeing his professional career while simultaneously building out his business interests. Dany was looking for someone to assist DJ, with a deep understanding of the body, and proper biomechanics. Also required, in such a role, is the professional expertise to oversee his nutritional needs and the development of training programs that could complement DJ’s taxing shooting schedule. Additionally, he needs rehabilitative support for his numerous injuries from football and wrestling. My specific background and unique expertise were a perfect fit.
The three of you, along with beverage guru John Shulman collaborated to create ZOA, a new healthy-energy drink. It’s getting good reviews for being “non-jittery.” Was this by design?
Absolutely. We wanted a clean energy drink with natural caffeine and B vitamins, that wasn’t loaded with the amount of sugar that you see in the market. We created ZOA to be the “anytime” energy drink that is actually for everyone.
What else is in ZOA?
We wanted a wide range of B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12) in ZOA to aid with energy and mental clarity. Immunity was also a big focus for us when formulating this drink, and this is why we included 100% DV vitamin C. ZOA also contains 250mg of BCAAs. Most people who are into weight training understand the benefits that BCAAs have for recovery. We knew from the start that this drink had to have BCAAs to support the lifestyle of our consumers.
We have also added electrolytes; potassium and magnesium in our ZOA formula to optimize hydration.
Do you find that your work is like being an artist, in terms of helping to sculpt physiques to meet the requirements of each role?
Absolutely. I definitely look at this with an artist’s eye for symmetry, detail, and proportion. It’s a fun process when you have someone like DJ who is so driven, disciplined, and determined to do the work. There’s a continuously evolving vision that we are always working towards. We’ve been building up to the Black Adam movie for a while, with this goal of creating a real-life superhero physique… with no padded superhero suit necessary.
The Rock is involved with so many productions, how important is it for him to be “always ready” in regards to staying in screen shape?
It’s extremely important. We hold his conditioning in a very tight window to allow him to be “scene ready” at any moment. Keeping him at striking distance ensures that we never need to take drastic measures to obtain a certain look, or over stress his body. The bottom line is that he always needs to be able to perform at his best on screen. The execution of his diet and training needs to be as nuanced and complimentary as possible to allow him to do that consistently.