Here's what has changed, and what has been learned.Read article
When Dennis James set a course for his first bodybuilding contest in 1993, a year after he started training in earnest, he was clueless about how to prepare nutritionally for the stage. Like a lot of beginners, he thought his one and only mission was to get as big as he could.
Reminiscing about his typical meals at that point, James admits there were no limits on what he was ingesting. “I was eating everything, from doughnuts to pizza and hamburgers,” he says. “I had no idea about dieting. And as soon as I started to compete, the only thing I knew for that was chicken, rice, pasta and pineapple.” As a result, the first contest diet for the neophyte consisted of those foods five times a day for 12 weeks.
James lived in Thailand, so he didn’t know many bodybuilders in his region. His boundaries were set by meager tips such as “dry chicken and dry tuna” from the few people around who had any experience at all. From 1992 to 1995, his diet allowed few options. Eager to learn, James searched for nutrition articles in magazines to try to expand his horizons. He bought a nutrition book that listed calories, protein, carbs and fats to teach himself the basics. “That’s when I started learning about oatmeal, dropping carbs and increasing fats,” he explains. “To me, everything was the same. I ate until I was full and then I stopped. I didn’t know starving was on the menu.” For the first four years, James competed in the European-centric NABBA Mr. Universe, winning the medium-tall class in 1995, but that organization had a restricted reach, and media coverage of it was almost nonexistent in North America.
To access the greater competition available in the NPC and to eventually join the more prestigious IFBB, 28-year-old James decided to figuratively dip his calves into the water at the 1997 NPC Border States Classic in San Diego. Although unsure about how he would be perceived by American judges, he won the overall.
The Border States victory qualified him for the following year’s national-level contests, and he entered the 1997 Nationals in Dallas three weeks later. Because of his lack of experience, James continued to diet, and he weighed 11 pounds less at the Nationals than he had at the Border States. Had he restored his glycogen instead of keeping to his strict diet, he figures he could have done better than placing fourth in the heavyweight class behind future pros Tom Prince, Orville Burke and Garrett Downing.
James came to the USA with no expectations. He was pleased with that placing, considering his outsider status, and he planned to return better prepared for the next Nationals. However, a conversation with bodybuilding journalist Lonnie Teper prompted James to try the ’98 NPC USA, even though he wasn’t sure he was ready. He didn’t think that he had built his rep enough and was uncertain as to how he would fare.
James modified his diet, but it was primarily the same: chicken and rice. He started to eat oatmeal for breakfast, but it was chicken more often than not. After 5 PM, he would substitute vegetables for the rice.
In July at the USA in Las Vegas, Nevada, James won the first NPC super-heavyweight class in a pro qualifier after a hard-fought battle with Melvin Anthony Jr. By taking the USA overall decision, James had earned his entry to the IFBB. Judges who remembered the “no name” from the Nationals saw a bodybuilder who appeared to bring in a package 18 pounds heavier, never mind that he was smaller at the Nationals because he had overdieted. James says, “I learned a lot when I first came to the United States. I’d see these guys ordering off the menu at restaurants. I thought they didn’t take their diets seriously. That’s when I realized how restrictive my diet was and how I was suffering for no reason. There were so many things that I could get away with that I didn’t know.”
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James had some respectable placings in his first few years as a pro, and he was getting bigger all the time. Although it wasn’t a conscious decision to attempt to match larger competitors like Ronnie Coleman, Jay Cutler, Markus Rühl, Günter Schlierkamp and Toney Freeman pound for pound, he was trending upward. “It just happened naturally,” James says. “My body likes to get big. I have to reduce my calories to maintain my weight. If I don’t watch myself, I can gain 20 pounds in three days. There were times when I didn’t want to get any bigger, but it happened.”
James worked with a nutritional adviser, Milos Sarcev, for the first time in 2000. It might be hard to believe, but that’s around the time that he finally discovered supplementary protein. James explains what took so long: “In Thailand, everything is available over the counter, but you can’t get any protein. I didn’t know you could drink protein while you’re dieting. Back then, I thought that wasn’t possible. It’s farther advanced now, with whey isolates and no carbs.”
When he allied with nutritionist Chad Nicholls for the first time for the 2003 Mr. Olympia, more avenues opened for him. For example, Nicholls introduced James to the joys of flavored instant oatmeal. James says, “Apple cinnamon, peaches and cream . . . I didn’t know I could eat that. That was like paradise for me. I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and have my oatmeal.” In Las Vegas before the show, Nicholls monitored James approximately every two hours. The result was fourth place in the world’s most exalted bodybuilding contest, where he feels he set his personal standard for conditioning and fullness.
In 2007, James narrowly missed his first pro victory in the United States at the New York Pro, but he was not prepared for what was to come a month and a half later at the Colorado Pro. Reluctant to talk about what he considers his worst showing and an appearance he’d just as soon forget, he sheds some light on why he tumbled to eighth in what was his lowest placing in a non-Olympia competition since his pro debut at the 1999 Night Of Champions. “I would never ever. . . ever . . . listen to this person again in my life, no matter what it is. [Based on a misguided attempt to come in extremely full, the strategy by his nutritional adviser at the time (who James would prefer not to identify) backfired miserably.] He said, ‘Do everything I tell you. Trust me.’ After, he officially apologized on his Web site for messing me up, but that’s not going to change anything. I couldn’t stand it; I was so full and spilled over. I didn’t even want to be on that stage. I wanted to get out of there quick. Four days before, everything was still on. I was asked to carb load, and then carb load even more with all this stuff that I never ate. My stomach got bloated. I was gassy, uncomfortable, sick and tired. It was terrible. That was the biggest mistake.”
After the Denver debacle and a bout with pneumonia, James decided to sit out the 2007 Olympia. This was hardly idle time, however. He was formulating a comprehensive plan designed to return him to top-tier status. Since his best success and condition came at a lower bodyweight, he would go into his next show 20-25 pounds lighter, like when he was a new pro.
As disciplined as he is precontest, he feels free to eat what he wants during the offseason. Complimentary to his wife Sin’s cooking, James credits her for preparing all his meals. He also admits to having a sweet tooth, enjoying carrot cake, cheesecake, muffins and chocolate-chip cookies with milk.
After living in Thailand and Germany, James moved to the Phoenix, Arizona, area at the end of 2007. Another big shift was reuniting with Nicholls, who helped James secure his highest Olympia finish, in 2003. James says, “Every time I work with him, my body changes and responds well to his adjustments when it comes to diet. I follow it to a T, and he’s always right.”
James started his diet at the end of May, 10 weeks before his scheduled contests in Tampa and Dallas. At that point, he weighed 265, which was what he weighed at his last Olympia in 2006. He began with a basic precontest diet, although Nicholls changes something every few weeks. The first couple of weeks, there were some cheat meals to ease into the diet, although most of the time they consisted of a larger amount of the standard foods rather than wild divergences into uncommon meals. Four weeks in, he converted to a low-carb, higher-fat version of the diet that lasted through both August contests and the Olympia with a moderate carb load just before each show. If there is a secret to the low-carb diet, it would be the twice-daily tablespoons of Skippy Natural creamy peanut butter topped with a little bit of grape jam or jelly.
The first segment of the diet was exactly what James needed to get the buzz back and score runner-up finishes consecutively to Toney Freeman at the 2008 Europa Super Show and the Tampa Pro Bodybuilding Weekly. Observers at those contests commented that James was the sharpest he had been in quite some time. James and Nicholls planned to bring him in at 90% of what he expected to display at the subsequent Olympia. It turned out to be not quite his best placing in an Olympia competition, but it was certainly notable — with an aesthetic new look and stream-lined waist, he finished eighth in the 2008 rendition. FLEX