I notice you sometimes use pads for your grip and sometimes training straps. How do you choose which to use?

It’s just whatever I feel comfortable with at the time. I go by feel. I like to use pads sometimes because they help me grip the bar harder, and it feels more comfortable. You’ll notice when FLEX shot me bench-pressing 495 for six reps during my actual workout [“Pecs in the City,” FLEX, January 2011], I had a thumbless grip on the bar. Most people would say that’s dangerous, and for most people it would be dangerous, but that’s the way I’m used to doing it, so to me it’s more comfortable and therefore it’s safer. You’ll also notice I was gripping the bar while gripping pads. The pads help me squeeze harder.

No one can squeeze an iron bar and have the metal give to their grip at all, but I can squeeze the pads I have wrapped around the bar, and they’re going to give and lock on even more the harder I squeeze. It’s a personal thing, though. Most people like to hold on to the bare bar.

Use what you feel most comfortable with. When it comes to straps,
 I use them on back exercises when I go heavy. With straps, I know my grip won’t give out before the muscles I’m trying to target will. Some people might say you don’t want to become too reliant on straps, but for me it’s not about having a strong
 grip, necessarily. No one 
is going to judge my grip at the Mr. Olympia. It’s all about targeting the muscles I want to target, so I don’t want my grip to give out before I’ve exhausted my back muscles. I think straps are essential tools for anyone training back heavy, but, as with pads, it’s all about personal preference.

I heard you took some time off from training after the 2011 Olympia and Sheru Classic. Is that unusual for you? Do you think it’s wise for the average bodybuilder to have extended periods of time each year when he trains less intensely 
or doesn’t train at all?

Competing at this high level, there’s a time to rest and take 
in less protein and train less heavy. You need to be conscious of the maintenance part of bodybuilding and make sure
 you stay healthy and injury-free and keep your energy and enthusiasm levels up. I can’t go with that all-out intensity all the time. It’s like anything. It’s like if you drive a car hard continuously it’s probably going to break down. You need to give it that regular maintenance, the oil changes, the new tires, and check under the hood for the little things that can go wrong.

At the beginning of this year, I took some time totally away from the gym. This is very different for me, because I’m used to training every day, but this is also a very different year for me. For the first time since I turned pro in 2005, I’m taking a whole 12 months off from competing between last year’s Sheru Classic and this year’s Olympia. Other bodybuilders, like Phil Heath and Jay Cutler, had taken this much time off before, but it’s a first for me. So I took some time away from the gym, and took in less protein and calories, and my weight got down to about 255 pounds, which feels really light for me. I know 
it did my body good in the long term. It allowed me to heal some little injuries and get a different perspective on things. Then when I returned to the gym I was stronger and more enthusiastic than before and ready to start the journey again to be Mr. Olympia.

I’d never encourage the average FLEX reader to do exactly what I do, but I think everyone can benefit from maintenance periods when you give your body a bit of a rest for a couple of weeks and recharge your intensity. It may mean staying away from the gym, or it may mean doing something else with your gym time, maybe more CrossFit sort of stuff or other styles of training, maybe do some experimenting with more plyometrics. I’ve been doing more of this myself, and I’ll tell you about it in a future column in FLEX. There are other ways of training. It doesn’t have to always be about drive-drive-drive, always trying to get stronger and use more weight for more reps. Trying other workout styles and using less intensity are good techniques to use during a working break.

0305151245aWhat do you usually have for your first meal each day?

It varies. I’m not a guy who likes to stick to a routine to such a degree that I can tell you exactly what I’m going to eat tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. Overall, though, I eat less since I’ve been working with George Farah than I was eating before, and I’m taking in less protein. George explained how I was just taking in too much of everything. I always wanted to err on the side of making sure I got enough, but it’s like filling up a bucket. You can fill up a bucket only so far. When it’s full, the rest is going to spill over. It’s wasted. If you try to take in 150 grams of protein in a meal, but your body can digest only 75 grams, you wasted 75 grams, and those extra 75 grams can’t do you any good, but they can do you harm by just being wasted energy and extra fat you have to burn calories and energy to get rid of.