In this episode, I am speaking with Ben Pakulski – founder of Ben Pakulski Fitness International, the Muscle Intelligence podcast, and the Muscle Intelligence and MI40 brands. He is a former Mr. Canada and IFBB Professional Bodybuilder. We talk about the best way to build muscle, mental toughness, and creating an intentionally tough life.
Table of Contents
In this podcast, Ben and I discuss:
- The foundational keys to building muscle and optimizing body composition
- Why muscle is critical for health
- How to structure brief workouts for maximum gains
- How to develop toughness in the gym…and in life… for unshakeable, calm confidence
- How to stimulate dopamine to boost your energy levels and get stuff done
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Ari Whitten: Hey there, this is Ari. Welcome back to The Energy Blueprint podcast. I am very excited for today’s guest. He is someone I’ve looked forward to interviewing for a very long time. He’s actually the host of a podcast that is one of the very few fitness and sort of body composition-centric podcasts that I follow. The reason why is he just bring such a great mind to all of those things.
He’s very non-dogmatic, open-minded, scientific, but also open to exploring the cutting edge and just asks great questions, and has a great body of knowledge that he’s developed over the years. I’m very impressed with him and very excited to welcome him to the show to talk all things body composition, and health, and weight training. I think we’re going to get into some cool stuff here. Welcome, Ben. It’s a pleasure to have you on.
Ben Pakulski: Ari, come on, man. You can’t set me up like that. That’s a very high standard I’m going to have to upkeep here. I think you should start it off with like, “This guy is kind of cool. He knows a little bit,” only uphill from there. Thank you for having me, man. I’m looking forward to our conversation.
Ari: He’s in Mensa. He’s the leader of Mensa. He’s got an IQ of 290.
Ari: You don’t like that.
Ari: Like I was mentioning to you a minute ago, I’ve followed your work for a long time. I remember in my 20s since my teen years being into bodybuilding and following that world very closely well into my mid-20s. I remember seeing you in the muscle magazines back in the day, and you were a monster, man. You got to the absolute highest levels of that sport of building the physique and becoming just a mass monster. I’m curious what your personal story is, what lead you to pursue that.
Ben: I’ll tell you what, it’s funny that I always tell the story that I was probably genetically at a disadvantage to do that. My genes certainly just weren’t well-suited to be a professional bodybuilder, but I was just a really, really stubborn kid and I loved it. That’s all I wanted to do. I wouldn’t take no for an answer. I grew up in a family of overweight alcoholics. No one had ever been fit, no one had ever even graduated. I’m not graduated high school, to be honest.
Once I was done university, I’ve made a commitment to myself that I would compete just to get in shape. It did really well, and people start to pay me to work out. I was like, “Okay, this is fun.” My pursuit of professional bodybuilding was just this relentless stubbornness that is like everyone– The first thing everyone said about me is like, “You can’t do it. You don’t have the genetics, you’re certainly not capable of doing it. You won’t get lead enough, you don’t work hard enough.” I was like, okay.
The thing I always say is I pulled my hat down and put my nose to the grindstone, and I just did it. I made it to be one of the top 10 in the world. It was great. It was awesome to accomplish a lifelong dream of stepping on the stage of the Mr. Olympia contest. However, I will say that it was also not as fulfilling as I would have hoped. Stepping on stage, you think you’re accomplishing your life dreams because you’re going to feel like everything’s just fulfilled, and it wasn’t. What that opportunity afforded me was this incredible opportunity to start turning the light around on myself.
So many of us ascend this proverbial mountain of the accumulation of something outside of yourself. It’s like, I want to make money or I want to have material goods. In my cases, I want to be muscular and I wanted to be lean. I wanted to have people recognize me for having this great physique. I got it, I was like, “Oh, it didn’t change how I feel about myself.” Many things along the way did change the way I felt about myself, but the act itself, the accomplishing of the goal itself wasn’t the win that I thought it was going to be.
I started reflecting and realizing that the process was really what I loved. I didn’t even want to compete anymore. I was like, “I just love getting better every day. I love challenging myself every day.” The lesson in there for people is the ascension of any proverbial mountain is wonderful. It could be, I want to make money, but it’s not for the sake of the money. One of my great mentors who I look up to still, even though he’s passed is Jim Rowan and he said, “Don’t set the goal to be a millionaire for the money, set the goal for the person that makes the view to achieve it.” That phrase really holds true in my bodybuilding career.
No amount of muscle will change the person you are, but it’s the person you become in the process is the character, the discipline, the virtue, the persistence that I developed along the way that has given me this bulletproof confidence in my ability to follow through on anything. I have this belief in myself that no matter what I do, I’ll do it. I’ll accomplish anything because I simply won’t stop.
I may not do it perfectly. I won’t do it the first time, but I simply won’t stop until it’s done. I hope every human being in the world does something in their life to give them that level of belief in themself. Just knowing that you could accomplish anything, that’s the one thing I try to pass onto my kids is like, “It’s not going to be easy, it shouldn’t be easy. You shouldn’t ask for it to be easy, you should ask yourself to be stronger every day.”
Bodybuilding gave me that. Whether or not people like bodybuilding or look down on it, and the things that I did every single day, very few human beings would be willing to put the amount of time and effort that I did into that. My level of respect for professional athletes of every level is so deep, so vast because it’s so much harder than you think. Everybody sees you on stage, posing in your underwear, and they’re kind of making fun, they’re knocking down what you’re doing, but they don’t see the 10 to 15 to 20 years that I suffered, that I grinded, and I sacrificed.
I have so much respect for anyone who does anything to a level of excellence. That’s where my podcasts [unintelligible 00:06:00] Ari, sorry, I’ll wrap this up. It’s like, I’m so interested in any single person who does something to a level that no one’s ever done before. That’s my greatest fascination in life, the understanding of excellence and what drives that.
That’s why I told you Andrew Huberman and I became great friends. It’s just like any human being who’s willing to take something to the level that no one’s ever done before is really, really fascinating to me. That’s really the precipice of my podcast is how do you decode excellence and then give people the lessons along the way that they can apply to their journey, whatever that looks like for them
How to build a different relationship with pain
Ari: Yes, absolutely. One of the things that I’ve noticed, I’ve been weight training since I was a little kid, since I was about 12 or 13 years old. My older brother was a personal trainer and inspiring bodybuilder. He had a mentor who was a professional bodybuilder, so I was in that world from a very young age. From the time I was 13 years old, I like spending hours every day going through Arnold Schwarzenegger’s encyclopedia of bodybuilding and all that Flex magazine and muscle magazines and all that kind of stuff.
I was very into it for many, many years, 15, 20 years, something like that. I really feel that it just gave me so much ability to persist through difficulty to deal with mental and physical discomfort, like mental and physical toughness. I also did martial arts growing up, and so it’s hard to know which what came from what, but I definitely feel this thing of training of intentionally putting yourself through this grueling thing where if you’re not into it, if you take somebody who’s not into that stuff, and you put them through the same thing, the same ordeal, the same workout, they’re like, “This is horrific. This feels like torture. Why would I ever do this?”
Then you intentionally do it and you look forward to it and you gain this different relationship with mental and physical discomfort, and pain.
Ben: I think there’s so many intangibles that come along with the physical. People often see, “Oh, you’re training to budge your body, that’s wonderful.” What they don’t see and the way I look at it, Ari, and this is really interesting. Life is easy. In general, life is very easy. The way people progress, the way we separate ourself from the pack is with intentionally curated challenges and obstacles, and sometimes densely curated obstacles and challenges.
That’s what I envisioned muscle-building to be, whether it muscle building or fat loss or opening a new business or starting a podcast, it include going to college or university. It’s like you have these really densely, condensed periods of really, really challenging things that force you without question to expand your capabilities. So many people drift through life and they arrive in at some age, and they’re like, “Gosh, I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished the things I want. Therefore, I feel inadequate or I have fear, or I don’t want to start something new because it seems too hard.”
Anytime you can intentionally curate challenges and obstacles, specifically in a really controlled way where you’re not going to hurt yourself. Going to the military, it would be a really good way to curate really hard challenges. However, it could be negative side effects that could be really, really essentially devastating side effects. Have great opportunities, but also potentially devastating side effects. Something like fitness or muscle building or CrossFit or whatever it happens to be where you can densely populate these obstacles and intentionally curate challenges that allow you to overcome your own inadequacies, whether it be fear or discipline or whatever, and you can intentionally go, “Oh, I’m not very good at this.” Let’s consciously and mindfully will step into that every single day, eventually it’s no longer a deficit. It’s now a strength.
I think fitness is the greatest opportunity to intentionally curate obstacles, right? When you view obstacles as opportunities as grow opportunities for growth, you start to intentionally seek them out and you go, “I’m really not good at this, I’m going to go after that.” That’s the way I approach anyone’s physique transformation. Is this like, most people want to do the things they’re good at. I’m looking for things you’re really bad at and how do we move the needle on that as well. That, in general, is like, I think the greatest approach to life is like, look at the thing, look at your blind spots, and then make a better, and obviously, you become a more complete human being and that could be physical and that could also be intellectual.
Ari: Yes, very well said. When you’re a kid, when you’re a teenager, when you’re in your 20s, for a male, it’s a very primal thing to want to just have big muscles, to be the biggest, strongest, most muscular guy in the room. Understanding that is very easy, but what is always interested me is when I look at people who have done that, and I’ve done that to the highest level, like yourself, and then they’ve transitioned out of it, they’ve retired and now they have to form almost a new identity of sort because they were identified with just the muscles, like everywhere you go, everybody’s just like, “Wow, this guy has gigantic arms.” That’s insane and you’re your identity, your ego so tied up in that, but then when you retire, and then you make the transition out of that world and your body shrinks a lot and now you look more like regular dude, I feel almost like this there’s this- and you’re still a pretty big dude, by the way, but you’re more of a regular dude than the freaky ones.
There’s this transition of identity and ego that takes place and I’m very curious to hear what have been the biggest shifts in your own thinking and your own evolution as that’s taking place.
Ben: That’s a brilliant question, man, I love that and I think about it a lot and I think there’s a lot of people in that boat, people transitioning out of relationships, people transitioning out of pro sports that have old jobs. I’m going through something that millions of people are going through, and it’s this shift in identity. The interesting with bodybuilding is like, you can’t hide it. It’s like everyone can see what you do. The irony of it is most people that the quick first thing I get is like, “Are you okay? Are you sick? What happened?” You’re like, “What do you mean?” Like nothing happened. I feel amazing. I look the best I’ve ever looked at my life.
If it was the opposite way, like someone who was start off skinny and added as much muscle, to be where I am now, everyone would be celebrating it like, “Oh my god, you look so great. You look awesome. Good for you.” Presume it’s going the other way, everyone goes, “Oh, what happened? Are you sick? Are you okay?” I’m like, no, man, I’m just like, I have a different goal now. I want to live long, I wouldn’t want to be strong. I want to be happy and help with my kids. I’ll be able to play sports with my kids.
It’s a very interesting transition, mostly because of people’s perceptions. Personally, I feel great but when it’s every single day, everyone’s like, “Oh, man, you used to look so much better,” or something like because the world that’s watching me is this muscle-building world who knew me as that. Like, “Oh gosh, he lost so much muscle.” Yes, I lost so much muscle, I feel awesome and I’m lean, I’m healthy. I’m muscular. I feel great.
That’s very much a real thing. That’s truthfully a struggle but it doesn’t really affect me. I see it, I perceive it. It’s almost like I’m witnessing it and I almost laugh it off. I think that my ability to become maybe aware and step out as the observer, rather than being in it and being emotional about it has really afforded me a great opportunity to not get sucked back in. One thing that was an advantage for me, and I always said this during my career, and it seems like everyone else doesn’t think this way but I did was I never saw bodybuilding as who I am. I thought it is what I do and most bodybuilders are like, “Oh, I’m a bodybuilder.”
Literally, after I competed as a pro for years, I never told anyone I was a bodybuilder. I was like, yes, I train. I love to train, but I would never self-identify as a bodybuilder. Yes, it’s what I did but it was never really my identity. I wanted to be known as someone who was an intellectual. Maybe I was a business guy. Maybe I was a good person, but it was never the first thing I said. You get these 17-year-old kids, you’ve never competed in the [unintelligible 00:14:34] “I’m a bodybuilder.” “Oh, that’s interesting.” Or, “I’m a physique competitor.” Like, “Okay, cool,” but that identity piece was something that for whatever reason, I never really got sucked into.
I don’t know if that’s the right statement, but I just never really identified as that and so it may be helped my transition out a little bit, but you’re absolutely right, that it’s still in my mind. I guess in my brain, it’s just my conversation with those people that make those comments is like, “Yes, I do it different, and I have a different goal now. I want to live long, I want to be healthy, I want to feel awesome, I want to have a great family, I want to have a great business.” Therefore I was able, I was blessed enough to mentally let go of that, and a lot of people can’t. A lot of people really can’t.
I know a lot of old-school bodybuilders who still just linger around shows, even though they don’t compete anymore, to still get the attention and still get the accolades, because that’s the only place where they’re significant. I’ve been able to transition my life and look for new significance in other things that I do and that’s with my family and my business, and whatever. It’s really this shift in values.
When I was training, being the best bodybuilder in the world was my highest value and nothing else mattered. Then you insert kids, and then you insert this shift and purpose in my life, and all of a sudden, it’s just a different direction that I feel completely confident in in saying, “Hey, now my values, our family, finances, and fitness,” and there’s many more that are subcategories, but families is the superseding value.
If I have to choose between playing with my kids for two hours and go to the gym for two hours, I don’t even think. It’s not a hesitation. If I have to choose between doing something for my business for two hours and go to the gym for two hours, I do nothing for my business. I’ve kind of established my hierarchy of values and I make my decisions based off of that. That helps me feel good about decisions I make and not have to dwell on them and always be wondering if I should have done that, should have done this. Creating that hierarchy, that value ladder has been very, very useful for me.
The importance of building muscle
Ari: Beautiful. There’s a whole bunch of people listening right now that probably are wondering, why should they pay attention to some, big muscley bodybuilder guy. They have no interest in that world. What is it about weight training and muscle mass that even those people who are just interested in, maximizing their health, their longevity, and their energy levels should be aware of?
Ben: Well, I think the simple way to think about it, Ari, is like, I don’t have to want to be Warren Buffett to want to make money. I don’t have to want to be a Mr. Olympia competitor to want to have a lean, healthy, and muscular body but there’s certainly something to be learned from Warren Buffett. Maybe I’m not Warren Buffett of the muscle-building world but I certainly took it to a level that most humans will never be able to experience. I learned a lot along the way.
Most importantly, what not to do. We’re not to focus your attention. I think the worst thing to do is to train in a way that is mindless in anything to do, whether you’re walking, or running, or cardio or CrossFit, or anything. The biggest opportunity that I think exists in exercise on top of building the foundational health of your system exists in doing things in a way that integrates the body in mind.
Some people think of the body and mind as these two separate entities. I’m sure you’ve talked about this on your podcast is like these things are inextricably linked. You can’t separate the body and mind. As I train the body, I am also unequivocally training the mind. No matter what I do, the state of mind that I carry with me when I’m moving my body, when I’m training my body, when I’m meditating, when I’m walking, anything, will also then be transferred into other areas of my life.
Why is it interesting? I think exercise on top of the massive known scientific benefits, which are really starting to come to light in the last five years of resistance training in general. For anyone, regardless of your object, even if you’re trying to lose all your fat, even if you’re trying to be lean, healthy, muscular, you still want resistance training. I think the greatest benefit is, in order to change anything in your life, the single prerequisite that we must have is mindfulness.
In order to change something in my life, I must become aware of that thing. After 35 years old, 95% of things we do are unconscious. Until I become conscious of those things that I do, I can’t change them. Exercise affords us this incredible opportunity in a controlled environment to become mindful of where we are in space and time. We can take our attention from the outside of our body, which is watching things going by, watching this podcast, really watching anything and bring it inside of our body.
When I’m training muscles, muscles exists inside of the body. I teach this in exercise. We have an internal view of exercise into a muscle-centric perspective, meaning, I’m not thinking about the dumbbell in my hand or the resistance that’s being applied against my body on the outside, I’m taking an internal view of exercise. What is my muscle actually doing? You’re shifting that focus from the outside of the body to the inside, eliminating all the external variables, all the external noise and signals and sensory input coming in, bringing your attention inside of your body. That single act of shifting your attention from what’s happening outside of the body to inside of the body, even if it’s for a split second to begin with, is an act of mindfulness equivalent to meditation. It’s like we’re having a single point of focus. It’s a meditative experience that also gives me the amazing benefit of resistance training on my body.
Whether your goal is to change your finances, change your relationship, change your health, become aware of it. How do we do that? Intentionally curate periods throughout the day that are mindful. It could be three to five minutes at a time. One of the ways I explain it to my clients is like, “All right, let’s say you sleep eight hours a day, which would be ideal. That leaves you 16 hours of the day for the rest of your life.” At this point in your life, those 16 hours a day are filled up, however they are, doesn’t matter.
We want to start slowly punctuating the day with bouts of mindfulness. It could be ideally when we wake up, maybe it’s before we eat, and then maybe it’s sometime around midday, and then it’s sometime around before dinner, then again before bed. We’re punctuating with these little momentary increments of mindfulness. If you start eventually punctuating it enough times, and frequently enough, then they just start to overlap and it all starts to run together, you become mindful in your life. You’re more effective at your relationships. You’re more effective at your finances, at your business growth, and everything you do.
Exercise can be the root of that. Exercise can be the opportunity that allows you to stop for a moment, and pause and bring your attention inside of your body. When I go into the gym, I can go in there and be mindless and go, “Oh god, I have to do this,” I’m just mindlessly moving away from point A to point B, I call it swinging weights like a monkey. It’s like monkey see monkey do. It’s like this mindless stuff. Or I can go in there, I can use it as an opportunity to connect with my body, connect with my mind, and ultimately use it as a mindful endeavor. I think, hopefully, that makes sense.
Hopefully, that’s really the power of that is coming through in my words. I’m like, gosh, if I could just implement that once a day, or maybe it’s a couple of times a day in really small bouts, I can start to change the way I view the world. It’s no longer reactive, I can now create it. Because if I’m aware of it, I now have the ability to choose and create what happens after that. Whereas if I’m not mindful and I’m not present in the moment, it’s just this reactive mindlessness that so many of us exist in. I think, for me, exercise, whether it be walking, running, yoga, breathing, anything can become that opportunity to become more mindful.
Ari: Beautiful. Speaking about weight training specifically in terms of the benefits, health benefits, irrespective of everything that you just said, but let’s say there’s some people out there who– They understand that exercise is healthy, and maybe they go for walks, and they ride a bike, and they swim or do Pilates or something like that, but they’ve never done weight training before. What would you tell those people about weight training, about understanding the importance of it?
Ben: Well, I think it’s important for everyone to know that after the age of 35 we’re losing 10% of our muscle mass per decade. When you start off with a low amount to begin with, and you don’t do enough to maintain it, it’s continually going to be going down. When you start to reach your 50s and your 60s, sarcopenia is so immense that it’s really slowing down your metabolism, slowing down your body’s ability to use nutrients, ultimately driving up the likelihood for osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s and all these nasty things, heart disease, all these nasty things that we simply just want to avoid.
Weight training in my mind, and in the mind of many scientists is the single greatest opportunity to reverse that. The more muscle we can keep, the more we can resistance train, the more our body is equipped to dispose of nutrients that we consume, to utilize the nutrients we consume, to improve the function of our arteries and capillaries. Anytime we’re doing weight training, we’re burning exponentially more calories than we do when we’re doing aerobic training. There’s so many benefits on top as we just spoke about the brain-building benefits.
Any type of complex movement, as you know Ari, whether it be weight training or any new skill is fantastic for increasing brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which is the ability to effectively build new neurons in the brain. We’re helping the brain establish new connections and maintain a higher brain function as we age. There are so many benefits that come with a relatively smaller dose of exercise. We don’t need to be training two hours a day. If you can get in the gym and train for 20 to 30 minutes or 20 to 40 minutes in an effective way, doing it correctly for your body type, gosh, the benefits are just innumerable. I know that’s vague, but that’s a great place for the listeners to start.
The best workout routine for maximal muscle
Ari: Yes, beautiful. I’m curious what your personal workout routine looks like and how it’s evolved since your bodybuilding days to now given that you went from maximum muscle is my only concern to now, hey longevity, time with my family, being functional, living a long time, those things are bigger concerns for you now. How has your own personal workout routine evolved as a result of that?
Ben: I think you’ll agree with my approach. There’s basically three things that every human needs as far as training. You need some type of resistance training and strength training. I categorize strength training and hypertrophy together and retrieving muscle building. We’ll call that one pillar. The middle pillar, another pillar we’ll go mobility instability, because as I age, I want to make sure that I have the ability to go through all the ranges I want to go through. The spine, the pelvis, and hips, the shoulders and scapula, the ankles, I want to make sure that I have a mobility practice. I have a weight training practice, resistance training practice, I have mobility practice, and I have an aerobic fitness being the third pillar. Aerobic, cardiovascular fitness. All three of those, I think are my three pillars.
The way I think people should approach it, I believe, you must include all three. The proportions with which you choose to implement them is completely up to you. If you want to build a little bit of muscle or get a little bit stronger, then just turn up the dial on the strength training. If you want to improve your mobility just turn up the dial on that. With aerobic training, if you need to improve that, turn up the dial on that.
Is there a minimum effective dose? Sure, but depends on your goal. For me, my effective dose right now is weight training three to four times a week. I literally alternate days. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, sometimes Sunday will be my resistance training days. Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday will be yoga, and some type of aerobic fitness, which for me is like riding my bike outside, going for a walk, going for a run, playing basketball with my kids. Something that’s like 45 minutes to an hour, where I keep my heart rate elevated and I’m breaking in sweat. If I find that one of them isn’t feeling so good, I just simply dial it up.
If I’m noticing my mobility is not where I want it to be, I’ll push out the four days a week, and I’ll add an extra one. It’s really just this– I found this nice balance of things that works for me. As far as how hard I train, well, I’ve set some metrics for myself. I’m like, hey, I always want to be able to do this. When I’m 60, I still want to be able to squat this much, [unintelligible] this much, do as many pull-ups, do this much bench press, whatever. It’s nothing crazy. I think if I can sustain that, almost as my marker of health or my marker of strength and sustain it over time, maybe it decreases a little bit, it gives me a good gauge of how much muscle I’m actually losing every decade.
Regardless of where someone is now, set a standard for yourself, like, hey, this is how much I think is good for my body weight, or this is how much I think is good for my goals right now. I’m going to sustain that. I’m going to use that as my checkpoint. As long as I can do this every year, or maybe I’m improving a little bit or sustaining whatever, however you want to approach it, I think it’s a really good way to think about it. With the mobility stuff, if something starts to hurt, I know it’s a mobility problem. 99 times out of 100. If something starts to get hurt, it’s like, okay, something here isn’t moving correctly, I want to do some mobility stuff.
Now I will asterisk that mobility is not the same as flexibility. It’s not just stretching. The audience out there, if you don’t understand that, it’s not just about passive stretching, it’s also active mobility work. I won’t get into that unless you want me to, Ari, but it’s important to know that there’s a difference between active and passive mobility. Obviously, the final one, aerobic fitness is massive for cardiovascular health. It’s massive for recovery between workouts, massive for nutrient disposal, so many benefits to each of those pillars.
The biggest hacks to optimize your body composition
Ari: Excellent. In the bodybuilding world, it’s very common to eat super high carb. Since those days, 20, 10 years ago even, there’s been big trends of low carb and keto movements and those kinds of things. I’m curious where you fall on the dietary spectrum and how you eat now and what recommend to people who are interested in optimizing their body composition?
Ben: After 25 years of doing this, Ari, there’s only one answer that seems to make any sense to me and it’s earn your carbs. That’s the easiest way to approach that. If I’m sedentary, I don’t eat any carbohydrates. I literally will have zero. Maybe I’ll have half a cup or a cup of berries or something which is very low glycemic. If I’m very active, then I push it up. Maybe there’s days I’ll have 200 or 300 grams, but I know that I’m utilizing it. I’m not sedentary and just jamming a bunch of carbs down my throat. The way I eat now typically is what most people would call, I don’t know if it’s low carb or if it’s keto. I’m certainly not in a ketogenic state all the time.
I certainly maybe fluctuate in and out of a ketogenic state, but it’s relatively high-fat diet. It’s probably middle-range protein, and I would say low carb in general. Most of my calories, let’s say on the order of 50% of my calories most days are coming from fats. I think that seems to be from what I can see in the data, the most healthy approach for longevity, provided you get the right types of fats, the right ratios, all that, that’s very important. I know too much protein can be an issue with overstimulating mTOR pathway, certainly too much carbohydrate can be an issue with over stimulating insulin and potentially driving up inflammation.
My lens through which to make dietary decisions is always from a perspective of trying to minimize inflammation. It always starts there. What I do to keep inflammation at a minimum, and then how do I then ultimately get in as many calories as I need to thrive and survive from sources that are not going to in any way hopefully cause negative effects.
Ari: In all your years of doing this, what do you think are some of the biggest hacks as far as improving body composition? Obviously, in the pro bodybuilding world, you have the whole world of steroids, which is considered a big hack, and then there are some things, there’s prohormones, there’s [unintelligible 00:31:05] there’s [unintelligible 00:31:06] There’s all these other things like that. There’s different technologies that people have put out there and different ways of computerized weight training, resistance training exercise, and all these kinds of things. In everything you’ve seen during and after your bodybuilding career, what would you consider some of the biggest hacks that are available?
Ben: Gosh, that’s a great question and I could probably do an entire podcast on that. I’ve got a lot. Not sure where to start, I’ll just jump in. One that I think is massive is obviously you must weight train. Weight training is absolutely imperative and now if we go a level deeper on that, it’s increasing the density of your weight training workouts, so simply decreasing the amount of time between sets. The term density is just like, I need to do more sets in this unit time. If I give myself 45 minutes, instead of doing 12 sets, I’m going to do 20. I may just decrease the rest from 60 seconds to 40 seconds, and the density of the workouts plays in a lot. That’s a big one.
I could go layers deeper on that too, on how to integrate many body parts into a workout. Oftentimes, if I’m running a fat loss workout, I’ll pick three or four body parts in a workout and have people almost do them in sequence, so you have a dense workout. There’s no rest between it, but the same body part only gets one set every fifth set. You’re getting, let’s say you do quads, chest, shoulders, and back, consecutively, you’re doing them one, two, three, four, rest and then repeat. You’re doing a really dense workout. Your heart rates getting up, your total calorie expenditure is going up. That muscle itself isn’t getting huge amounts of fatigue. You’re giving it enough time to recover.
The reason we do that is because if we give that muscle more time to recover, one, our performance tends to [unintelligible 00:32:53] the quality of work can remain higher. We don’t tend to create a huge amount of muscle damage. Most people who are trying to burn fat, we don’t want to generate huge amounts of muscle damage, because often we want to train with a higher frequency as well. That’s another thing. If we’re doing high density, weight training, we can also potentially do high-frequency weight training, which means maybe training the same body part every other day or all body parts every other day, we reach full body. That’s one approach.
One thing I think is massive is having periods where you’re hungry. I think most humans who have a hard time losing fat have some negative association with be hungry. If I get hungry, I get into a panic [unintelligible 00:33:36] I have to eat now. Whoa, whoa, what if we started to flip that paradigm to, “I’m hungry, therefore maybe my body is burning fat.” That’s interesting. Very important to think of when I feel hungry, when I was competing, I used to smile when I was hungry. I used to train myself, I’m like, “Yes.” I’d smile because I know my body’s tapping into those calorie reserves. That’s important.
Also, speaking of weight training, it’s so important to learn to train your body to ideally use more fat for fuel than it does carbohydrate for fuel at rest. There’s a lot of things we can do for that. The primary one is improving aerobic fitness, allowing aerobic fitness to be slightly elevated or aerobic fitness to be slightly elevated meaning when we’re doing basic, daily mundane tasks, our body isn’t burning carbohydrates for fuel. The primary things that influence that are stress, heart rate, respiration rate. If our heart rate and respiration rate is elevated, the body tends to burn more carbohydrate as fuel.
We want to keep our breathing rate down, our heart rate down, and ultimately our body will then use more fat for fuel at rest. That’s important because when we start burning through carbohydrate when we’re doing mundane things around the house, when we go to train we have no energy. We’re going to be fatigued. Then when the body runs out of that carbohydrate, it’s going to start burning muscle. We don’t want to do that. Training that aerobic fitness, train that CO2 tolerance, which I’m sure you’ve talked about on the podcast before already. Improving your CO2 tolerance, your body’s ability to tolerate CO2, your aerobic fitness improves is really, really important.
As far as a few other things that come up, there’s massive benefit in daily sunshine. The UV light that we can get, the infrared in the morning, the UV in the afternoon has been shown to have significant influence on our satiety on our vitamin D levels, on our insulin sensitivity, so many benefits to daily full-body light exposure, light in the eyes, light in the body. All that is massive.
Ari: Subject of my next book, by the way.
Ben: Oh, dude, wonderful, man. Yes, I’ll be the first customer. There’s so many things that are just little hacks, to include sleep, gosh, prioritizing sleep, best practices for sleep, massive. I think one final one that I’ll say before we move on is, one of the reasons people fail is their environment isn’t set up in a conducive way to allow them to succeed. Our environment is probably one of the single biggest triggers for behavior. If I’m sitting in my kitchen, constantly in my kitchen, I have this– Or maybe I sit on my couch, and I have this association on the couch with snacking. Well, as soon as I see that couch, and I walk in the room, my brain wants to go back into that snacking mode.
The environment that we set up around us, and the habits we create, those environments are massive. One of the first things I work on with a lot of my clients is like, hey, what are those environmental triggers? What happened exactly before you cheated on your diet? What happened before you had those snacks you shouldn’t have? Let’s look at what those triggers are environmentally and remove them or use them as a signal to create a behavioral change.
If I see that, Ari, every time you walk into the kitchen and you open the pantry, your brain goes, “Cookies.” Okay, awesome, here’s what I want you to do, I want you to the next time you go to the pantry, you can open it, you’re going to go, “Cookies.” Since you feel that right before you get the cookie, I’m not saying you can’t have the cookie, but I want you to go on a 5 or 10 minute walk, or I want you to do something that just adds a bit of a gap between the stimulus and the response. We’re trying to increase the gap, the time between that signal which is opening the pantry and seeing the cookies, and you eating them and eventually, if we can create enough of a gap that you forget to do it or you’re like, “Oh, I don’t have to do that anymore.” You’ve uncoupled that association.
I think that’s a really powerful tool for people who tend to overeat or tend to have some negative habit that they want to change because you have to have some intervention there to create a gap.
Turning discomfort into pleasure
Ari: You mentioned something, as you were talking there about when you used to feel hungry, you used to smile and get excited because that mean you’re burning fat. I have a couple of comments on this. One, I’ve had the experience, I’m sure you’ve seen this too, of working with overweight people who, as they’re starting to implement some strategies to lose weight, I’ve seen this happen a number of times where somebody will feel a burning sensation in their abdomen and get alarmed by it. Actually, consider calling the doctor or going to the hospital or panic and freak out, like something’s wrong. Then they realize that it’s just the sensation of hunger.
They literally have not felt the sensation of hunger in years or sometimes decades. There’s a number of avenues that we could probably go down just based on that topic alone, what are the consequences of never getting into that state. The other thing I want to mention that’s interesting here is you mentioned Andrew Huberman. He talks about, as far as dopamine circuits, this idea of subjective insertion, where you take control of your own dopamine circuits, and take something that maybe otherwise would not necessarily be something that makes you feel pleasure, like the discomfort of hunger pains, for example, but you now create an association where you go, I’m going to smile because now this means I’m on the right track to achieve my goal.
You’re training your brain, that that bit of discomfort is actually something that you should be happy about and turn it into pleasure. Anyway, to those two comments I wanted to make with these, I’m sure you got commentary, take that wherever you want to go.
Ben: It’s funny that Dr. Huberman and I bonded over that. Because one of the things that I’ve perpetuated since my career was, I was known for my legs, I was known for having some best legs in the planet. I took pride in crushing anyone that came in to train with me on leg day. I would intentionally try to crush their soul. I wasn’t always nice. The way that I was able to do that, was every time it was just so uncomfortable, it was almost unbearable. I would smile and at the time I’m like, “I know that I’m doing something that no one else can,” so I get this almost devilish smile.
I wasn’t trying to put anyone down, but I was literally training myself to love that. I have this quote, this the deepest depths of your heart is our smile knowing you’re becoming a better version of yourself. It’s funny because when he heard me said he goes, “Man, you know what you’re doing there?” I go, “No.” He goes, “Oh yes, you’re hijacking the dopamine system,” and I was like, “Gosh, that’s so fascinating.” All you have to do is just convince yourself or train yourself to realize this is a good thing and it’s certainly a far divergence for most people, isn’t it?
I often teach this in the gym, and I use this metaphor like think about maybe 50,000 years ago as humans, when the first or whatever duration of time when we first discovered fire when somebody first saw a fire, let’s say you saw a big fire off in the distance, you didn’t know what it was. At first you’re going to go like, “Oh my gosh, it’s a god.” Like, “Oh, is this amazing thing.” Eventually, the next day, you come back, you go a little bit closer you go, “Oh, it’s a god, amazing, I’m going to bow to it.” Eventually, you get closer and closer, you start to feel the heat, and you go, “Oh, I can’t go any closer,” you start to feel the warmth.
Eventually, you get a little more comfortable, and you go back a little further, and eventually, you’re right up against it, you’re waving your hand through it, and maybe you’re going, “Oh, my gosh, this is amazing.” Then eventually, you’re able to cook your food in it, you’re able to heat your family, and you’re able to sustain life so it goes from being this thing that’s fearful and I’m staying at distance to eventually becoming the greatest asset in my life. I’m walking into this fire I’m going, “Man, I can cook my food, I can keep my family warm at night, I can use this for my tribe to be able to thrive and grow.”
That’s, I think, the same idea that exists in exercise. In the beginning, when people walked into the gym like, “I don’t like this. I hate it,” and we’re like, “Well, how about we just slowly intentionally walk you a little bit closer, as close as you want, I’m not going to rush you, as close as you want into that proverbial fire, and if you feel it uncomfortable at six reps, no problem, you stop right there and next time, let’s try seven. Maybe you can even start the next rep. Let’s even go a little bit further into that discomfort.”
Eventually, you develop what I developed which is when I go into the gym, the set starts when I start to get into the excruciating burn I was like, “Oh, yes, here we go, this is what I’m looking for. This is the reward for me.” It’s you see the reward, and you go into it because you’re like, “That’s where the gold is man. That’s where the good stuff is.” Rather than like typical people who walk in the gym like, “I don’t even want to lift the weight, because it really hurts.”
Yes, it does, stop, don’t go in it and that perspective of it’s okay to stop it. I don’t have to yell at you and tell you to do 10 more, I want you to be comfortable and realize you’re safe. This is an important lesson for parents too as parents, sometimes, I’m sure you’ll deal with this at some point, kids can tend to have an aversion to discomfort like riding their bike or going for a walk, “This really hurts. I want to stop.” Stop, no problem. You can decide how far you want to go but I want you to realize next time, maybe you can go just a little bit further.
Now I’m empowering them rather than beating them down and go, “You need to go further.” Well, now they’re a victim they have to rather than someone who makes a conscious choice to go, “Yes, I did go a little further into it, and actually didn’t feel really good at the time but now I realize yes, I actually did better today than yesterday.” That’s the paradigm.
Ari: I’m having to navigate a lot of that right now with my four-year-old son teaching him to swim, and he’s got a really intense fear of the water. It’s been a big challenge yet, and to do this thing that he’s so afraid of, and to learn how to push himself a little bit beyond where he was the previous day.
Ben: Until you let him make that conscious decision himself he’ll always be a victim because he’ll always be like, “I have to,” rather than like, “Oh, I see that I’m going to be okay and I get to.” That little flip. This is what I teach all of my coaches, it’s like you have to curate the subjective experience of your client. The subjective experience is what are they perceiving in their brain, and you have to intentionally be aware of that this high-level meta-level awareness of like, “I see what you’re going through in your head, and I’m going to let you stop wherever you’re comfortable, but I’m going to be aware of curating and going further and further and further each time to include the subjective experience of did I enjoy this, how do I feel, or not,” and progressing that in whatever way you can is a high-level approach to helping anyone with behavior change.
Ari: Well said. You talked about some of the biggest hacks that you’ve found to developing your body physically. What about mentally? I know this is something that you really explored, especially since retiring from bodybuilding. Mentally, spiritually, what would you say have been the biggest revelations or biggest tools in your tool belt that you’ve discovered daily practices that have become important rituals for you?
Ben: I think owning the book ends, owning the morning in the night, everyone talks about it, there’s nothing new there but I really talk about this intentional creation of your mind. When I start my day, I can wake up and have the world create my mind for me, I become a victim or I become reactive to the world around me, or I can sit down and intentionally curate who I’m going to be that day, how am I going to show up for my kids, how am I going to show for my business?
I can sit down and literally create joy, I can create gratitude, I can create discipline in my mind before I ever approach any of the day’s whirlwind. I could sit down in meditation or I could sit down just by myself, and ask myself, who am I going to be today? How am I going to show up? I start to visualize it and I see myself being the most loving dad in the world, I see myself being the most inspirational leader to my community, I see myself being a really focused disciplined leader in my business.
I’m just envisioning that like, what does that look like, and what does it feel like? How do I show up in those, you create these avatars. How do I show up? For me, it’s like business, it’s family, maybe it’s fitness, and the business can be separated into my external tribe and my internal team. How am I showing up for those people? I like to curate how I’m going to show up, in that way any whirlwind can be thrown at me, and I’ve already intentionally decided who I’m going to be in that moment.
I’ve intentionally decided how I’m going to show up and then it’s this calm confidence that I’m unshakable. You can throw anything at me and it doesn’t change who I am, it doesn’t change how I react. I’m just going to approach it with the same logic and rationale that I would otherwise. So many people just jump into the day and they start getting into problems and getting into obstacles and they become reactive. I think that’s probably been the biggest thing I’ve done and then not stacking on top of that, asking yourself, what are the most important things you can get done every day?
It’s like two or three. You’re your primary, your secondary list of tasks, and you get those primary things done. If it’s two or three things, now you have a sense of accomplishment, now you have that dopamine pathway of being that reward pathway going off I’m like, “Oh, I feel good about myself, I feel confident,” and taking confidence into any situation is always a win. Whereas if we don’t have those things– Even if I’m accomplishing things every day, if I don’t intentionally write them down and go, “Yes, that’s what I wanted to do,” I don’t know that I’m actually moving the needle. I don’t get the same dopamine response.
You can get a million things done in a day but if it isn’t like the big things that you wrote down, there isn’t that constant pursuit, that constant movement towards some worthy idea, and then maybe you start losing motivation, you’re losing out on the opportunity to gain motivation, losing on the opportunity to gain confidence. It’s a simple act of just writing down just a couple things I want to do today, a complete game-changer, man, and I wish somebody had taught. I know it’s funny that I’ve heard that you’ve heard this a zillion times since I was 18. It was like, “You got to journal every day.”
Nobody could ever explain in a way and I was like, “Yes, that makes sense.” It was, “Just journal.” I’m like, “What am I journaling about?” Well, I think it’s like, “Hey, write down what you want to do in this month or this three months, and then what are the two or three things you can do today that will ensure that you’re moving in the right direction. You don’t have to get to the goal, just move in the right direction. Eventually, you get to the goal.” I think that simple practice if people could do that every day will completely change their belief in themselves.
The three top tips for an optimized body composition
Ari: Beautiful. You’ve given a ton of practical tips mental, physical, nutritional. I want to wrap up since we only have a couple of minutes left here. I would like to just ask you if you could say to someone who maybe has no experience with weight training and the world of muscle building, bodybuilding, but they’re interested in maximizing their health, their energy, their longevity, where should they start? With everything that you’ve covered here, what would be your top three recommendations for them to optimize their body composition and get results in the fastest time possible?
Ben: You know this man. Sometimes the most important things are not the sexy things. I’ve got this three-word acronym that I use is like breathe, walk, meditate. That’s it, man. If you can’t do those things, everything that is stacked on top of that simply won’t work. If you can’t breathe effectively, walk effectively, and meditate, everything else simply won’t be as effective. You could try to train as hard as you want, if your breathing is inefficient mechanically and inefficient biochemically, you simply just won’t do it. Nothing can be optimized.
Breathing and walking here are the most functional things we do as humans. Breathing, believe it or not, there is a right and a wrong way to breathe. There’s definitively the most optimal way to breathe and it may be different from person to person, activity to activity, but there’s certainly some foundational things that we should all be doing with our breath, and to include the way our breathing influences our posture. We all hear all these people saying, “How am I going to go to the gym and improve my posture?” No, you’re not. The likelihood of improving the gym your posture in the gym is zero.
I’m helping people build their body, I’ve never seen someone improve their posture by weight training. What improves their posture is by improving their breath. Why? Because we breathe 22,000 plus times a day that the one hour, that 15 minutes you spend in the gym and trying to train those postural muscles is not going to do anything until you change what your body is doing unconsciously. The conscious application of posture changes is futile often because you’re so tight and you’re moving to those areas because of how much the breath is influencing posture.
Every time I take a deep breath in, I extend my spine. Every time I exhale, I flex my spine forward and oftentimes people’s breathing cadence is so limited, so shallow that that never happens. We never get a full extension, we never get a full flection. That’s why people who are robotically fit, people that pretend to run or cycle tend to have better posture in general because they go through these big excursions in their breasts cycle.
If I’m running, if I’ve got aerobic fitness and I’m breathing really heavy, I have bigger excursion through my breath cycle. I’m getting more diaphragmatic control, getting more expansion of the muscles around the rib cage that improves my posture in of itself. I would say that I’m breathing and so it’s always through the nose, always into the belly in the diaphragm, and minimizing the movement up in the chest.
Walking is the second most functional thing we do as humans and learning how to do that in a way that is mindful, it’s not just mine less one first start, right? Doesn’t matter if it’s mindful mind, let’s just start, and then the progression is, how can I turn that into an opportunity where I’m like actually paying attention to the way my feet at the floor and the way I may be pushing off through my toes and maybe how my muscles feel as I extend my back leg and how my arms feel as I swing. Am I getting some rotation happening at my spine and can I increase the swing in my arms and can increase the pace? Like it turns into this mindful endeavor.
That I think is one of the greatest opportunities. Do it every morning, as soon as you wake up, because it sinks the left, the right hemisphere, the brain improves the body’s nutrient utilization efficiency. So many benefits and obviously meditation are, I’m sure you’ve talked about ad nauseam. I don’t need to tell anyone about that but man, if you want to become a high performer in anything, you meditate because it’s just like focus. Focus, bring your brain back into focus and that’s why I say you can also use exercises, this meditative experience, where it’s like single point of focus, bring your attention onto just as by separate, just as quad, or just this whatever.
You can do meditation by sitting down for five minutes in the morning before every meal, before you go to bed, any of those things, just bringing the attention onto a single point, even if it’s for 10 to 20 seconds to start. Then every time you lose it, bring it back, lose it, bring it back, lose it, bring it back. Eventually, you start to string together these wins that literally just change your life. They make you the creator of your life rather than a victim to your life.
Ari: Beautiful. Ben, I’ve really enjoyed this. There’s a lot of pleasure getting to know you in real-time for the first time and I look forward to hanging out when you’re in my neck of the woods in a couple of weeks. For the listeners who are interested in learning more about your work, first of all, I highly recommend that everyone follow. If you’re interested in fitness, muscle building, body composition, excellence in general, follow Ben’s podcast. It’s really excellent. He does a great job with it. Like I said before, it’s one of very few and probably the only one, maybe the only one that I listened to in the fitness genre these days. If people are interested in learning more about your work, getting their hands on your programs, books, things like that, work you in person, where should they do that?
Ben: All right. Thank you very much. Muscle Intelligence podcast would be a great place to start, so muscleintelligence.com is where you may find the program if you want to just try that. We also are launching a coaching program, which would be super fun. We’re taking on a small group of coaching clients. It’s actually our 10th year in business so to celebrate, we’re doing a exclusive coaching offer, which is going to be really, really fun. That should be out around June 1st, maybe actually a little bit before that, this is 2021 and that’s it.
I’ve got many, many programs we could put, people can pick up a Muscle Intelligence and most of it’s centered around muscle building but doing it in a way that’s efficient, effective, and what we call it, an intelligent approach to building a lean healthy and muscular body for life.
Ari: Awesome, man. Thank you so much for coming on the show. It was a pleasure.
Ben: Thank you, Ari. I really appreciate it.