McGorry/Starnes Interview: Powerlifting to Bodybuilding

TAGS: mcgorry, starnes, bodybuilding, motivation', powerlifting

Our very own “Unlikely Powerlifter,” Matt McGorry, decided to compete in his very first bodybuilding show just a few short weeks ago. He came home with not only the overall championship in the men’s division, but also the overall title for the entire show.

I had been working with Matt to optimize his nutrition and supplementation for quite a while before he decided to compete in bodybuilding, and it was very evident how consistent and focused he was. His competition experience just served as the “icing on the cake.” It took place after many months of effort and displayed what Matt’s body and mind were capable of after he set out to achieve something.

However, it’s far from over. If anything, it just started a whole new chapter in his lifting and fitness career.

To find out more about what went on “behind the scenes” in Matt’s bodybuilding transformation, I did the following interview with him.

Q: Why did you choose to do a bodybuilding show?

A: There are a few different instigating factors that pushed me toward the decision to enter a bodybuilding show. When I started to get really serious about training, I considered myself more of a bodybuilder, so the idea of a competition was always in the back of my mind. That is, the very back - like one of those lobes in the brain that only handles the subconscious.

Anyway, one of the biggest sparks that set the wheels in motion was my love for acting and comedy. It seems a bit counterintuitive, but I kept finding myself cast as “meathead” characters. As soon as I walked into a casting agency, or into an agent’s room, they immediately judged me based on my looks and what character they could see me as – and they only saw a meathead. I learned that I would have greater marketability as a performer if I leaned up to under 200 pounds. That was when I started the contest preparation. A meeting with a very good acting agent in NYC sealed the deal for me when he told me that he liked my work, but simply thought that I was “too big” to play a wide variety of roles. I had a feeling that this day would come at some point, and that was the kick in the groin that woke me up.

I’ve always had an inherent dislike for when people approach their goals in a half-assed manner. I seem to have a little more patience with my clients in this regard than I do with myself and other trainers and lifters. I decided that if I was going to drop some weight, that I wanted to really push it and see how lean I could get.

Doing this for no reason seemed to be a bit ridiculous and would’ve made it hard to justify the commitment that I knew it would take. So, I e-mailed Shelby to see if I had any chance in hell at doing decently in a natural bodybuilding show, and asked how long I should plan on dieting for if I decided to do one. He told me we should leave 16 weeks in order to preserve as much strength and muscle mass as possible. I found a natural bodybuilding competition 16 weeks later, on January 10. Not surprisingly, there are very few shows in early January, and I would soon understand why.

Before making the final decision to do the competition, I wanted to make sure that this was something that I could justify the time and effort it would take. I knew that once I said I was doing a show, there was no way I could back out. But it always helps to have a “higher purpose” and to ground your goals in some greater cause. This helps you stay committed when things get difficult. I plotted out a few ways in which this would benefit me.

·        Mental Discipline - I talk about this over and over again with clients, other trainers, lifters, etc. Having the ability to push your body to its full potential comes from the mind first and foremost. Both in terms of the knowledge we seek out, and also in terms of how hard we can push ourselves in the gym, with diet, and all of the other factors that lead to success. I knew that the prep for this show would be extremely difficult and would test my mental fortitude. I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who couldn’t benefit from a few more hairs on their sack, myself included. I knew that I’d be able to take this experience and apply it to my business, personal life, and powerlifting. Even though I knew I’d take a hit with regard to my strength, I knew that in the long run, I’d be a better lifter for it, in a more holistic sense.

·        Training Business - The aesthetic aspect of being a trainer is very important to most clients. In my opinion, much more than it really should be. There are many knowledgeable trainers who aren’t especially fit, strong, or muscular. There are probably an even greater number of dumb, awful trainers, with very muscular or “good” physiques. I’ve always had the belief that if one can harness both the textbook knowledge and the in-the-trenches experience, then one’s training business can only stand to benefit. Frankly, it doesn’t matter how much you know about getting ripped if you haven’t actually done it yourself. Clients just don’t believe you the same way as if you had the proof in your own physique. Since the majority of my clients are body comp clients, I knew that this would be a smart move, as I would document the achievement with photos that could be used for marketing down the line.

·        Powerlifting - There’s no doubt that I’m undersized for a powerlifter. Even at 198, my squat and bench are going to lag behind because I’m not filled out enough to move the weight that I’m capable of. But, if I’m forced to compete at 181 pounds, I should have the best body composition that I can in order to be as competitive as I can be. I don’t believe that any light or middleweight competitor is well served by a crappy diet. A better diet and body composition will always lead to greater gains for smaller lifters. Becoming a super heavyweight might be another issue, but most people experience better recovery, health and energy when eating clean. In the past, every time that I dieted, I’ve always had the ability to put on more muscle mass and stay leaner. All things being equal, if I can fit more muscle mass onto my frame in a given weight class, I’ve got a greater potential for strength.

 

Q: What were the hardest parts?

A: I picked what was probably the worst time to start dieting. A big part of this was because I wanted to make the whole experience as difficult as possible. I knew that if I could diet during the holiday season, then any other time of year would be significantly easier. I ended up dieting through Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. All of these holidays are usually accompanied by alcohol and junk foods at family events and holiday parties. I packed my own meals for these and watched everyone enjoy the holiday cheer - as I was hungry and miserable.

The hardest part of the whole process was the cardio. People would always ask if I was eating tiny portions, but the truth is that my food intake never became bird-like.  We never really cut back too significantly on calories for the final month or two, and when people would see the size of my meals, they were sometimes surprised by the amount of food that I was eating. But once I was doing 9 hours of cardio per week, the portions that had once filled me up were no longer the least bit satisfying. I remember finishing my last bite in a meal and the first thought in my mind was about what my next meal would be and how far away it was.  Having finished the contest prep and cutting back on 3 hours of steady-state cardio and 2 hours and 15 minutes of higher intensity, interval-based cardio per week had suddenly made the same amounts of food seem completely bearable. People asked if I was relieved to be eating again after the competition, but I was much more relieved to cut back on the cardio. In fact, other than a weekly, all-out, hour long cheat meal, my diet has stayed the exact same as my weight has moved up in preparation for the deadlift-only part of the Raw Unity Meet.

Toward the end, every day was a double training day. My four medium carb days consisted of 60 minutes of AM fasted cardio (incline treadmill walking) and a lifting session in the evening. On my three low carb days, I did the same 60 minutes of AM fasted cardio sessions, plus an evening cardio session of 45 minutes (that included some higher intensity cardio work). This sometimes took the form of a very high treadmill incline or fan bike intervals. During the last week, I pulled the sled and pushed the prowler. Scheduling these alone was a bitch, let alone doing the workouts. With the holiday hours of most gyms, I sometimes found myself doing my AM cardio session and the PM cardio session with a 2-hour break in between because the gym was closing early for New Years or Christmas. There’s nothing that makes you feel the holiday splendor more than a double-cardio day on Christmas Eve, or being too exhausted to want to interact socially with anyone, including your own family.

The following is from an email I sent to Shelby on Christmas day. I really didn’t complain much throughout the process, but I felt like I was going out of my mind that night. The fact that the heat and hot water was off in my apartment didn’t help either.

“Is it normal to feel like I'm going fucking crazy? I've been ahead in cardio this week, making up for a session that I thought I'd miss - but didn't - so this morning was my last cardio session for 48 hours (since I have a high day tomorrow) and I feel like it's the best news I've heard in a while. Today is Christmas, and I'm more excited about a high carb day tomorrow than all of Christmas with my family. Are these possibly ‘typical’ feelings for a first time competitor? I didn't get a single gift that I wouldn't trade for a cheat meal. At this point, I can't wait for the show to be over. Is it normal that I want to kick people in the throat when they say ‘Ew, you drink all those chemicals?’ when you're drinking a diet coke, but they're eating pie and ice cream?”

I think that holiday contest prep is so difficult because the training just makes you want to be alone. But, the holidays are the time of year that everyone likes to get together and be merry. And by “merry,” I mean they like to eat my favorite foods.  You become anti-social and really disinterested in many of the things that you usually love. I couldn’t write much, was an awful participant in my improvisation team and didn’t even get much joy from lifting.

Also, having very low body fat makes you feel like you’re freezing all the time. In the winter, this is the last thing that I needed. I often found it impossible to get warm in the gym when working with clients, and even in my own bedroom. There’s a very intuitive reason that most people tend to store body fat in the winter. I’m sure that part of it has to do with a deep physiological need to feed during the cold months.


Q: How did you stay motivated?


A: I’m proud to say that I didn’t cheat on the diet one single time. Shelby gave me two “authorized,” hour-long cheat meals in the four months. Other than that, I didn’t even have an extra serving of the foods that I was allowed on the diet. I didn’t skip a single minute of cardio either. I was able to do this because I had strongly established reasons for doing it. It certainly wasn’t a “love for bodybuilding” that did it for me, because I don’t really care that much about bodybuilding as a whole. I still consider myself more of a powerlifter than anything else, despite being a bit weaker now.

Also, having complete faith in Shelby was essential to the process for me. I knew that he wouldn’t push my diet or cardio any harder than what was ideal, nor would he give me any “breaks” simply because life had become miserable. There were a few times when I felt absolutely awful, and would’ve kept pushing through if I had been doing it on my own. But some of these times, he’d get my weekly updates and tell me that it was time for a high carb day or a cheat meal because I was ahead of schedule with the fat loss.

In order to do this, I had to keep reminding myself of the “why” behind the pain.  Like I said a million times, if you don’t have a strong reason to do it, then there’s no way that you’re going to make it through the temptation. I kept telling myself that I’m not the kind of person who quits or cheats. That’s really a grand statement if you think about it. I was tying the whole competition into my self-belief system and grounding it in the foundation of who I believe myself to be. I truly never thought about winning the competition until the day that I was there. That’s never really been as motivating to me as pushing the limits of my own physical and physiological boundaries. When you tie something like this into your own self-belief system, it becomes a much more powerful driving force than simply wanting to win a competition. I’m sure that some people don’t find that, but it’s absolutely the case for me.
Q:  Are there any "tricks" you used to make it more bearable, or any advice for a first time competitor?

A: For the fasted AM cardio sessions, buying a portable DVD player was the best decision that I could’ve made. I lasted quite a while on music from my iPod and watching the gym TVs with the volume off, but I eventually felt like I was starting to go crazy. I spent $110 on the DVD player, and went through countless DVDs. Some were my roommates’ and the rest were ones that I just never got around to watching. Since I don’t watch any TV, but love to watch films, this was the perfect way to spend my time. I found that I couldn’t concentrate enough to read and actually enjoy it, and answering anything beyond basic emails on my iPhone was impossible to do in an intelligent manner. I think that audio books in the realm of non-fiction might be something that I’ll add in the future. As much as I detested the 9 hours of cardio at the end of the process, I was able to find the positive in it as well. I saw many great movies that I would’ve never taken the time to sit and watch. I also spent a great deal of time thinking about my training and acting business and various aspects of life that I can sometimes find myself too busy to stop and consider.

With regard to the diet, I had an enormous advantage having worked with Shelby for almost a year before embarking on the journey to the bodybuilding show. When I first began with him, I thought it was such a pain in the ass having to cook all my own foods, weigh and measure them out and bring them with me wherever I went.  But I gradually got used to it and refined my process in the kitchen. If you’re not used to this, you’re very inefficient at grocery shopping, cooking, prepping, weighing, calculating macronutrients for meals, etc. As I got deeper into the bodybuilding diet, I found that I could no longer do three meals and three shakes a day because it wouldn’t fill me up nearly enough and it would wear on me mentally.

The last few weeks, I was making five whole food meals and one shake per day.  And the shake would rarely be something that I drank. It often took the form of a casein powder mixed very thickly and frozen into a mock ice cream concoction with a tablespoon of peanut butter on top.  The whole food prep process would’ve taken much more time if I hadn’t already been prepared for this whole process. It still ended up being very time consuming, but not in the same way that it could’ve been otherwise.

Also, it allowed me some room to get inventive in the kitchen, playing with new recipes, mixing more than one source of protein, carbs and fat per meal. Part of this was the obsession with food that I found nearing the end of the diet. When I finished one meal, I couldn’t help but think about the next one, and I was always trying to get in a variety of foods and flavors from different sources in each meal. Compare this to the times when I was building back up with Shelby. I’d literally be fine with grilled chicken, brown rice and soy sauce for three meals out of the day.

At the end of the diet, every meal was different as I began exploring how to use spices, various condiments and different methods of preparation. I also experimented with textures and combinations of food to make new dishes. It was a strange thing because I was suddenly making tastier foods than I ever have in my life, but I was never full. This was truly a huge “mind fuck” as I like to call it. My friends must have gotten so sick of hearing me talk about food all the time - the new recipes that I had come up with, meals that I had the day before which were really tasty, etc. This was my way of coping with the diet. When putting on weight with Shelby, I would often have a whey/casein shake with half a cup of instant oats for breakfast. It was like drinking paper mâché, and I actually somewhat enjoyed it. But for the same meal, I found that I could have an egg white veggie omelet with three slices of turkey bacon, chocolate-protein powder oatmeal with blueberries, and two pieces of sprouted grain toast; all for basically the same amount of calories. I’ll let you take a guess at which one fills you up more and keeps you more satisfied when you’ve finished eating it.

Q: What advice would you give to someone looking to go through a similar journey?

A: Well, I’ve given a lot of my own reasons for going through with this and I hope that the readers can find something in here to apply to their own process. Here’s a quick list of some pieces of advice that I think could help a new competitor:

·        Make your goal known. Working as a personal trainer provides good incentive because as soon as I made the decision, I told all my clients about it, as well as the other trainers in the gym. In the beginning, people might give you a hard time about it, but as the process continues, they grow to respect you and your commitment. More than I expected, people offered their support and kind words that really helped me stay focused in the hardest times. Having an awesome outlet such as EFS and even Facebook and YouTube where I posted my goals and progress really helps to keep you accountable.

·        Hire a coach. This is probably the most important one of all. Even for a very capable coach/trainer such as myself, I know that I wouldn’t have been able to do this the same way without enlisting Shelby’s help. In preparing for a bodybuilding show, there are certain nuances and very specific methods of preparation that those who aren’t in the competitive circuit really wouldn’t know about or understand. This is especially true as you get closer to the competition date and have to deal with the finer points of sodium and water manipulation, tanning, posing, etc. My friend Shawn Lindo, who is a pro in the WNBF, helped me with the posing and tweaked things so that I was really able to show off the physique that I had worked so hard to achieve. Without these guys, I would have looked like a bloated, charred turd on stage.

·        Envision your future suffering. Before I started getting ready for the competition, I imagined that it would be even harder than it was. I prepared myself for the worst eventualities. Some of them were fulfilled, but not all. I thought long and hard about what I was willing to sacrifice to get this done and made that commitment early on. Once you’ve done that, you’re getting ahead of the process rather than letting it take you by surprise.

·        Focus on the future. This is a part of the many mind games that I had to play with myself to stay on point. If I knew I had a cheat meal coming up or a high carb day, I would keep my mind on that, breaking the whole process into short term “checkpoints” and “prizes” along the way. During the hour long cardio sessions, my first checkpoint would be 30 minutes and I was halfway done, then 45 minutes, and I was “almost” done, then maybe 55 minutes and I thought to myself that I was pretty much already there. At that point, I’d let the treadmill just move to “cool down” mode without looking at the clock again. Likewise, I kept a mental countdown of the months, then weeks, then days until the competition. Despite the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday before the meet being the most grueling in terms of low carb, double cardio each day, I felt focused like never before. Because I knew that I was so close, I felt like I couldn’t be stopped. It was so close to being over that I could taste it.

Q: Would you ever do another bodybuilding show?

A: Yes, I certainly think I would. I would never do it again during the holidays, but I know that there’ll be points in the future where I will diet down to be as lean as I was, if not leaner. However, I couldn’t see this being more than a once-a-year type thing, at most. Shelby told me that the first show, in some ways, is the toughest - at least mentally. The whole experience was so disruptive to life in general, that I can’t imagine putting myself through it for the sake of becoming better at bodybuilding.  But, I have great respect for those that do this on a consistent basis. I always have, but to a much greater degree now.

One of the most appealing things about coming out of the pre-contest prep is my new appreciation for the simple things in life. I have no idea if this will last or not, but after the competition, I felt like the weight of the world was lifted off of my shoulders. Simple things seemed to give me a renewed pleasure, as if I had taken them for granted before. They were little things like eating a meal and feeling decently full afterwards, having the energy to hang out with my friends, not being so irritable that I would snap at people for no reason, and being free to think about things other than food. Also, it makes things that seemed difficult before getting ready for the contest seem like a breeze. Four hours of steady-state cardio per week is truly no big deal now. One cheat meal per week, plus a high carb day would be a treat.

So while I can’t see myself transitioning towards a “bodybuilding program” of training, I think that I have a lot of potential in some areas of competing. Having a whole lifetime of on-stage experience made me feel completely comfortable being on stage, and I actually had a blast. A lot of the other competitors looked miserable, and I’m sure it counted against them. Before going on stage, I felt awful and kept practically nodding off. But as soon as I got up there, I really didn’t feel as awkward in that fake tan and posing trunks as I thought I would. I’ll continue to keep an eye on proportion as well, although it won’t take over my goal of getting stronger.

My future plans are to stay around 180 pounds during most of the year as opposed to my usual powerlifting weight of 200 pounds and the bodybuilding weight of 165-168 pounds. I’m going to put everything I have into building my deadlift and still do the best I can on the bench and upper body lifts, although there’s only so much I can do there being a waif. I imagine that I’ll compete at a light 181 in the USAPL and other two-hour weigh-in federations. Occasionally I’ll drop to 165 for some 24-hour weigh-in meets. I might even consider giving a deadlift suit a try. But one thing is for sure, I can’t wait to start getting stronger again.

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