Interview With a Fitness Expert: Sal Di StefanoOctober 20, 2017
This blog is a tribute to my former coach and mentor, Sal Di Stefano, founder of Mindpump Media, and the work we did together, which completely revolutionized my approach to fitness.
I stumbled upon the masterminds of Mindpump on a podcast I listened to, and their approach to fitness really resonated with me. I immediately began listening to the Mindpump podcast and was hooked [if you don’t already listen and you’re looking for real, raw, fitness truth, I highly recommend you do so]. Among many things, they preach total body workouts as opposed to traditional body part splits and have created several programs around this philosophy.
At the time I first heard this #truthbomb I was in the trenches of training for my upcoming NPC bikini competition, working myself into the ground, in the gym 6 days a week, and fatigued to the max. I decided to purchase MAPs programming and counted down the days until training for my show was over so I could give it a try.
The more I listened to Sal, the more I realized that what I had been taught with respect to working out were flat out WRONG. I learned that Sal offered 1:1 coaching online, and wanted him to be my coach to help me reverse-diet and transition slowly from my bodybuilding style of training. Not surprisingly, when I first reached out he was completely booked, but I kept checking back-in. Fortunately, three-weeks after my competition, the stars aligned and a spot had opened. I was nervous to be challenged on everything I thought I knew about fitness, but knew this opportunity was a gift, and I was stoked to learn from a true genius.
Photo from Mind Pump Media
So, below you will find an interview I did with Sal where he elaborates on some of the most important concepts I learned from him, which changed my entire approach to fitness.
- “Fitness” is such a craze these days and everyone seems to be jumping on board with social media, which is great. But what are the main things you have seen that people are doing wrong on the path to fitness?
There are a few things. For starters, the fitness industry does a good job developing supplements and products around every craze and people buy into it.
The big focus on aesthetics is a problem. As consumers, we drive this and the fitness industry fuels this. As a coach I try to take clients away from that. When people can move away from that and learn to enjoy the process it becomes more consistent and easier. This is true for everything I’ve done with respect to business, fitness, and beyond. Anytime I’ve set a goal I want to achieve it’s never been merely as effective or successful as when I’m able to enjoy the process.
One of the things Sal has a knack for is being able to recognize trends before they get big. Sal shared that he believes Mindfulness is going to blow up in the next few years in the health world, and even more specifically in the fitness industry. This made me really excited to hear, as Mindfulness has been such an important part [and still is] of my journey to health.
- Taking it one step further with respect to this focus on aesthetics. When we worked together you really instilled this concept of focusing on health and letting the aesthetics follow, can you speak more about this, because I think it’s so important for people to hear? What was your journey with this philosophy?
When you focus on total health (everything from mental, emotional, and physical) and do it from a standpoint of caring for and nurturing yourself, you make better decisions, plain and simple.
I say this a lot on the podcast, but you should train and eat because you love your body not because you hate it. If you’re focused on hating the way your body looks, then you’re always going to work out hard and be restrictive with food 24/7. And, if you’re in a situation where food may be important to fuel emotional and mental health [such as when enjoying time with friends] and you break your restrictive patterns to engage in this behavior, you then judge yourself for making that decision. Focusing on aesthetics leads to phases of bingeing and restricting.
On the flip side, if you’re focused on nurturing yourself and you’re out with friends having great conversation and you’re bonding and thinking about your emotional health and how you want to connect with these people right now, a couple of drinks and pizza may be exactly what you need. and this takes priority over your physical health, where alcohol and pizza don’t benefit you. The thing is, when you’re choosing health you won’t make these decisions that often because you’ll be able to take a step back and think about the impact your decisions will have on you and how they will make you feel and as a result make better decisions.
When you focus on health, you don’t judge yourself. This [judging yourself] really messes things up. When we fuel body and mind and spirit from a nourishing standpoint, you are at peace with the decisions you make. The ones you make are the ones that are best for you, and your healthy lifestyle becomes stress-free.
I was in that space for years. I planned all my meals. It ruled my life and took me to places that weren’t great. It shut me off from friends and family. I couldn’t enjoy my kids’ birthday parties because all I was thinking about was “what and when am I going to eat?” and I needed to make sure I got to get my workouts in. I wasn’t living life the way it’s supposed to be lived.
Choosing to focus on health is not a destination, you’re constantly moving through this and becoming more mindful of your decisions. Every once in awhile I’ll look in the mirror and notice I look better than I ever did when I was stressed out about it, and it’s such a cool afterthought. And now, I’ve gotten to a point where I intuitively know how to manipulate my body with food and exercise and do a mini-cut without attachment to the outcome. It’s fun now. I used to confuse body image with self-image, and don’t get me wrong I still have struggles at times, but it’s a journey.
- How and why did you switch your philosophy from the traditional body part splits to total body training? Did you notice a difference right away, or was it a hard philosophy for you to embrace?
There are dogmatic pieces of information in the fitness industry that you believe to be factual because everyone says they’re true, but they were either created by companies trying to sell a product, or promoted by athletes who were anabolically enhanced with synthetic steroids and as a result their bodies reacted differently. The body part split is part of this. The philosophy was sold that if you train a muscle really hard, it breaks down and then you let it recover until you hit it again the next week.
But, the muscle building signal peaks 48-72 hours after a workout.Even if you’re still sore after that timeframe, if you don’t send it another muscle building signal at the end of that time period, it goes from building to neutral to stagnant and you’ll be weaker when you go back to train it the next time.
Sending frequent signals to muscles [by training them more than once a week] is the way old school bodybuilding used to lift before supplements and steroids. I have never trained people with a body part split regimen, which in part was out of necessity since I wouldn’t see clients 5 or 6 times a week, only 2-3 so it was most efficient. But, I also started reading old muscle building manuals, and people with blue collar jobs built muscle groups dependent on the requirements of that job and it made sense that with frequency and repetition the muscles that were worked became developed.
So, I decided to split my total volume over 2-3 times a week as total body workouts and my body responded immediately. The vast majority of people respond better to frequency training because hitting a body part 2-4 times a week is far superior to turning on and maintaining that muscle building signal than only training a body part once a week. Also, body part splits are so not functional for our everyday movement patterns and lives. The good news is more people are preaching total body workouts now and I predict in next 5 years it will over take body part splits.
- So when we started working together I was doing 6 HIIT sessions a week coupled with 4 fasted steady state sessions. Now, this is overkill and I had amped it up as a result of my bikini competition training, but why is cardio not as effective of a way to reach your fitness goals like so many cardio bunnies think it is?
When it comes to any physical activity you need to ask: what kind of signal are you sending your body? What is the adaptation your activity is calling upon for your body? Cardiovascular activity asks you to have more cardio endurance. If that’s your goal, cardio training will meet it. But, if your goal is to improve your overall health, then walking will do the trick. Anything more than that won’t necessarily have an additional impact.
More endurance requires better efficiency. Doing lots of running tells the body to become more efficient at running and the way it does that is by reducing muscle because muscle weight and size are counter-efficient. It also tells the body to be more efficient with calories because if you’re burning tons of calories while running, you are asking your metabolism to slow down.
If your goal is to be fit and lean then cardio is counterproductive. Yes, it burns calories when you’re doing it, but over time you’ll adapt and burn less and less.
On the other hand, resistance training tells the body it needs more muscle and it requires more calories, which is ok to prioritize because we need to fuel our bodies to gain strength and build muscle. Resistance training is much more effective in the long run to maintain a lean body, especially in modern times when we’re not that active and spend many hours a day sitting.
- What is mobility training? [ as demonstrated in Mindpump’s MAPs Prime program ]
Mobility is being able to have total control of the body through different ranges of motion in different planes. It is subjective because for example you could have good shoulder mobility for everyday functionality, but not necessarily for swimming laps in the pool.
The better your mobility, the deeper and wider your range of motion.
If you have favorable recruitment patterns and mobility, then you will get more out of your workout and mobility training is the best injury prevention you can have. Most injuries and pain comes from lack of mobility. If your knee hurts, most likely something is also wrong with your hip, ankles. and back.
If you can move well you can lift heavy well, and in turn get the results you want.
- How does mobility training differ from stretching?
Stretching contributes to mobility, for example static stretching increases your range of motion. Stretching is part of a protocol to increase range of motion, but then you also need to gain strength and stability within that range of motion, which is accomplished through weight training.
- Something else I learned from you was this concept of undulating calories, can you speak a little more about what this is and why it is effective?
So, there is little evidence of this concept to date, it’s mainly anecdotal, but I do believe more research will come out supporting this.
If you’re trying to lose weight and you reduce your calorie intake below maintenance levels, your body seeks to adapt to that new calorie target by being efficient with those calories. However, when you undulate your calories [meaning varying them from day-to-day], we don’t see the same metabolic adaptation as we do with a consistent daily deficit and your body responds better.
Undulating calories mirrors what real life is like. It’s a step toward intuitive eating (stay tuned I’ll be writing a future blog post on this!). Eating say, 1500 calories every day is so regimented and difficult. If however, you still have a schedule and track your intake, but consume a different number of calories on a daily basis, this allows you to still engage socially while still pursuing your goals.
It also breaks you free from the chains of food and you can step away from the regiment of tracking.
It is more effective emotionally and gives people a wider range of food options. People are able to play around with macros (macronutrients) and see how their body responds to higher fat days, or higher carb days.
At the end of the week the deficit is the same as it would be if you did a steady, consistent calorie deficit every day.
- I recently wrote a blog about why I no longer take protein powder after my workouts, which was something I learned from you, can you share your input on ergogenic aids and why people don’t need to waste their money on taking these supplements?
So, ergogenic aids are any supplement that is thought to enhance performance.
Of all the ergogenic supplements, the only one that actually makes a difference is creatine. There are a couple hundred peer reviewed studies on creatine, and that taking it prior to your workout does have a minimal effect on muscle building, but everything else is a waste of time and money. Studies on BCAAs [branch chain amino acids, which are essential amino acids, meaning the body cannot produce them and we need to obtain them from ingestion] show that if you have adequate protein intake, it is unnecessary. The only clients where BCAAs might help is if someone is vegetarian or vegan because then they are most likely not getting adequate protein.
I encourage you to pause and reflect on all that you believe about health and fitness–where did you get this information from? Was it from a trainer, the fitness industry, the Internet? Did you stop to think about what might be best for you, or just listen to what other people told you? It’s great to listen to the Mindpump podcast because it challenges everything you think you know or have been told about fitness and invites you to decide for yourself and experiment with what is best for you. So, I challenge you to try something new–abandon body part splits and give total body workouts a try, or maybe you forgo your daily post-workout protein shake. Whatever it is, I encourage you to give it a try and to see what the results are. What’s the worst that could happen? If you don’t like it, just go back to the old routine if it works best for you!