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Photographs by Jason Breeze
When a 19-year-old Jay Cutler won the heavyweight class at the NPC Teen Nationals in 1993, Branch Warren took home the light-heavies and the overall. Three years later, Jay took his pro card on his first attempt at the 1996 NPC Nationals. He did it by besting a heavyweight class that included Tom Prince (second), Orville Burke (third), Bob Cicherillo (eighth), King Kamali (11th), and Bill Wilmore (13th). Willie Stalling won the light-heavyweight class and overall title that year (Dexter Jackson was sixth in Willie’s class).Bodybuilding glory didn’t come immediately for Cutler: He placed 12th in his pro debut at the 1998 Night of Champions (he would come back to win it in 2000); he was third at the 1999 Ironman Pro, and fourth at that year’s Arnold Classic (he’d win his first ASC in 2002 and take the Ironman title a year later); and in his Olympia debut in 1999, he was 14th (a year later he was eighth). But when he hit his stride, very few could hold their own against this mass monster. What Cutler might have given up to a few other competitors in aesthetics, he more than made up for with sheer mass and a seeming yardstick’s measure of width through his shoulders. Cutler’s physique literally crowded other competitors of the stage.
What a run it was. Consider a few of his many accomplishments on the bodybuilding stage: Jay has beaten two standing Mr. Olympias (Ronnie Coleman in 2007 and Dexter Jackson in 2009); he’s only the third Mr. Olympia to win the Sandow in non-consecutive years (2006–07 and then again in 2009–10); he’s the only man to regain the title the year after losing it; Cutler has won three Arnold Classics and eight other titles; and, arguably, Iron Jay should’ve won the 2001 Mr. Olympia. FLEX sat down to talk to Cutler about the evolution of his training through the years, about what changed, and what has stayed the same.
FLEX: How did you get started in bodybuilding?
JAY CUTLER: I joined a gym on my 18th birthday, Aug. 3rd, 1991. My sister’s boyfriend used to collect bodybuilding magazines, and I started to pick up magazines with Chris Dickerson on the cover. These were older magazines that were lying around the house. I already had a muscular physique from working in the family concrete business, so I decided I wanted to take it a little further and try to look like the guys in the magazines.
Chris Dickerson? It wouldn’t seem that the sixth man to hold the Mr. Olympia (1982) title had much in common with the physique you would bring to the stage.
I remember his calves and the muscularity. I was picking up a magazine the year he was the man. It was kind of one of those things where, OK, this is the best guy. He’s winning the shows, so that’s what I wanted to look like. What my physique turned into isn’t necessarily how it started. I was pretty muscular growing up, but I wasn’t a freak. I had pretty decent lines. Eventually I got bigger and bigger and bigger and came to be considered more of a mass bodybuilder than an aesthetic one.
I was 16 years old when I picked up Bob Paris’ book, Beyond Built. That was the first book I’d ever read that I bought from the local GNC. Bob’s book was the one that taught me to do the exercises. In 2004 I wrote a book titled CEO Muscle, and I kind of followed Bob’s book as a guideline as far as how to show the exercises and group the body parts. I still have his book in my collection.
Were you a volume trainer from your teen years?
I always trained each body part once a week. Chris Aceto and Laura Creavalle took me under their wing and taught me a lot about training and nutrition. I did a lot of sets. Being younger, I could recover much quicker. There was a lot of variation and angles. I worked for the pump versus pushing heavy weight all the time.
What mistakes do you think you made as a teen bodybuilder?
I overtrained, no doubt. I did too much. Chris taught me a lot about the nutrition aspect and wrote me a six-meal-a-day diet that I posted on my refrigerator and followed exactly as the portions and the foods were listed. I think I progressed very quickly from that point because my diet was so intact. So, even though I was probably overtraining, I did pay strict attention to the diet and getting enough nutrition.
Your legs were obviously the body part that developed easiest for you. I remember a picture Steve Neece took of you as a teen in tights outside Gold’s Gym in Venice more than 20 years ago.
Legs, yeah. Of course.
Which body part(s) were toughest to get to grow?
I’d say my chest, because I was so wide and my shoulders were so big. I had to learn to get that arch when you train chest; I have a big rib cage. I had to learn to work the chest muscles instead of just pressing weights because I was very, very strong. I had to learn to contract my chest, so what I’d do is tuck my chin in and let my chest touch my chin with every rep so I could feel it contracting.
My arms were rough to grow. I had small calves compared with my quads. My back held me back against Ronnie Coleman in the early years at the Olympia, so I did a lot to improve that, a lot of T-bar rows and pullups. Really, I just always tried to improve. For a guy who I think wasn’t blessed with the best genetics to be Mr. Olympia, I think I did a good job of filling in the blanks.
Did any exercises change over time? For example, did you give up flat benching for dumbbells?
You know what? I did everything. I varied everything. It’s funny, because I did regular squats, then started squatting with my heels raised on a two-by-four. I switched back and forth between barbells and dumbbells and machines. When I turned pro, I started to use more Hammer Strength machines because those became available, but I always stuck to heavy free weights. As I started getting into the Olympias and battling Ronnie, I began to incorporate T-bar rows and front squats, walking lunges, all stuff I never did in the beginning of my career.
Did any exercise ever just not feel right to you so you avoided doing it?
You know, the squat was always my No. 1 exercise when I was younger. It seemed like as I got older it started to feel like, “whoa, this is a little too heavy.” When I was squatting 700 pounds, it got to a point where it felt like I didn’t need to be squatting 700 pounds. I became a little timid about going over four plates a side, but I didn’t have to go that heavy. I was winning the Olympia, and I never went over 405 pounds; I’d squat that for sets of 12 or 15 reps.
Were you ever a one-rep-max kind of guy?
So you avoided ego lifting.
I always tell people I benched 550 twice, and that was the only time I ever did that. I would never try that again. Maybe because I was a great competitive bodybuilder from Day 1, I wasn’t going to risk my physique by pushing weights I didn’t need to. I didn’t think it was necessary.
A lot of guys make the mistake of thinking that intensity is equated with the amount of weight lifted.
They do and it’s bulls—. No one knows what intensity really is. To me, intensity is like having a certain mindset. The mindset that less rest time between sets is better, that the mind-muscle connection is what matters, that if you’re training with a partner you go and then he goes and then you go again. Bodybuilding is about focus and visualization. It’s boom-bang you’re in and out in 45 minutes with a body part and on your way home to eat.
A member of the general public sees you and says, how much can you lift? How do you reply to that?
I say “lots” or I laugh. In the back of my mind, I think, “Here we go again.” Of course, I’m never rude to anyone. I joke now and say sarcastically I train only on the weekends.
You or Phil don’t train like Ronnie, but then again you seem to have avoided the injuries a guy like him had.
Nah, of course I got injured toward the end of my career, but I wasn’t doing anything crazy. Phil didn’t learn from me; he’s a genetic freak who just looks at weights and grows. I trained with heavy weights to get my mass, and I don’t train that way today, which is why I’m not holding as much size. But Phil and I do train in a similar manner because we don’t want to get injured. It’s more important to train for the feel rather than to push the weights.
People would say to me, “How much do you lift?” and I’d always be able to say, “Well, at every gym I’ve trained in I’ve been able to do the heaviest dumbbells in there 10 or 12 times benching them and most of the time shoulder pressing.” When you’re at that point, how heavy do you really need to go? Do you need to start strapping weights on the calf machine? I used to strap plates on the pulldown machine, but sometimes I think about it, and it’s kind of mind-blowing I did that stuff.
I remember a FLEX Chris Lund photo shoot where you were pressing the 200-pound dumbbells.
Chris goaded me on. He was like, “Greg Kovacs did it,” and in my mind I was like, “I can do those.” I’d done them before. I was fresh of the Nationals wins. There were only a few of us—me, Kovacs, Cormier—willing to try to do them.
I looked at the pictures and I was like, “Oh, man, this guy is going to hurt himself just getting them into position.”
Yeah, they were very awkward because they were very long. They used the 10-pound plates back then. Later they got smart and used the 12-pound plates, made ’em a little less elongated.
How did you team up with Hany Rambod and what differences did his FST-7 (Fascia Stretch Training) make to your physique?
I’d been friends with him for years. Hany was in the Ronnie Coleman camp, and then when Ronnie lost, we stayed in touch. We got to talking and, after I lost in 2008, everyone was kind of writing me of. People I thought were my supporters let me down. Hany was really the only one to reach out to me in the industry. He sincerely called me a month after the show to check on me, see if I was OK. He didn’t call saying he wanted to work with me. We decided to team up. FST-7 kind of worked with how I was training anyway—the high volume. It gave me something different for my body, helped keep my body fresh and made it rounder and rounder. Which was what my comeback in 2009 was about: the roundness when I dieted down. FST-7 seemed to work very well. I don’t train to that extreme now, but I used it up until the last show I did.
How important is it to have a trainer/nutritionist/guru these days?
For me, remember, I always had one. I had Chris in my corner, then Hany, then Chris again. I found the extra set of eyes always helped. I needed the help with my diet. I always stayed in decent condition, but to get that fine tuning with the amount of calories I had to take in there were a lot of adjustments I needed. If you asked Hany or Chris now who was the hardest guy to peak, they’d probably both still say me because of the amount of food I had to eat to be as big as I was. It was always about trying to find that balance between leaning out and not going flat. I was the guy who if I depleted on 400 grams of carbs a day I would get fat. Most people would dream of eating that much on a high-carb day. My metabolism is crazy. Of course, I had a fluid retention problem being as big as I was. I always stayed at a high body weight. I’d be 290 in great condition and pretty much diet down for the show from there.
You started out in Massachusetts, then California, now Vegas. Did you ever find geography affected your training?
I don’t think so. I had great success in all arenas. I stayed in Vegas because I found a home here, made investments, and the Olympia has been here (since 1999). I can own a beautiful home here and save a lot on income taxes. They also have the best gyms in the world, open 24 hours a day.
What techniques or principles worked best for you?
I did a lot of things: Pilates training, kettlebell training.
You’re known for training late at night.
There were a few reasons I trained late at night. I did it to avoid the crowds. I did it to have that mindset that I’m doing what no one else is doing. And I wanted to know when my body was going to peak at its best. At the Olympia, the pre-judging and night shows are taking place at nine or 10 at night, so I always wanted to make sure I was awake to see what my body was going to look like when I had four or five meals in me. I calibrated my body to look the best at night after I had several meals. I didn’t care about a clock. I didn’t care what day it was. It was always about what I was training and how: two days on, one day off; twice a day; four times a day. I would usually go to the gym four times a day or do two cardio sessions at home and two workouts in the gym. That’s what kept me the biggest and fullest. I ate big, and I trained big. There are no shortcuts, and there are no secrets. It was just good old-fashioned hard work and dedication.
You must get a lot of young bodybuilders who come up to you for advice. What do you tell them?
I say be patient and be consistent. I tell them that the diet is the major factor because none of them eat enough, none of them eat healthy enough. They read things on the Internet, but the Internet is the best and worst thing that ever happened to our business. They’ll read online that I go and eat at In-N-Out Burger, but it wasn’t like that until I became Mr. Olympia. I needed the calories to maintain the crazy size. These kids just have to take the right road and realize there are no shortcuts. I tell them they’ve got to sleep and train and get the food in. Your body is going to function on the day’s prior nutrition, so you need to pay close attention if you intend to train as hard as you plan to.
What is your training like today?
I’m training five days a week. I get up and do a cardio session in the morning. I train once a day, a body part or two. I always tell everyone I eat half as much of the food I used to eat and lift half as much of the weights I used to train with. I’ll do fewer sets, maybe 12 to 14 or 15 instead of 20. I did T-bar rows yesterday, but I tend not to do as many T-bars or deadlifts. I am eating five or six meals still, but the portions are very small. I’ll eat five ounces of chicken where I used to eat 10 or 12; I’ll eat 50 grams of rice per meal where I used to eat 100. Same breakfast I’ve always eaten: egg whites and protein, oatmeal. Breakfast has always been my biggest meal. I have a shake after I train with some sugar, carbohydrates. I try to keep it as simple as possible. I’m still maintaining about 265 pounds, but I keep it lean.
CUTLER’S CHEST WORKOUTS