About-Muscle talk with bodybuilder Joe Zucchi, an Amateur Bodybuilder and ACE Certified Personal Trainer who started training when he was just 16 years of age
Could You Tell Us A Bit About Yourself And How You Got Involved In Fitness?
As a kid, I was always active and played many sports, such as baseball, basketball, golf, and tennis. Around the age of 16, I started performing calisthenics such as push-ups, which eventually progressed into some basic lifting with a pair of dumbbells in my basement. My nutrition was always pretty solid thanks to my parents for teaching me to eat healthy and nutritious foods. Due to my decent diet and basic resistance training, I started to notice results and was excited by my stronger and more muscular body. I decided I wanted to take things more seriously and eventually got a gym membership and started training with a more structured lifting routine. I was, and continue to be, determined to stay natural and never use steroids. And ever since then, I have become fully committed and passionate about fitness and have also become an ACE-certified personal trainer. As a Pre-Med Natural Science major, I’m very interested in the scientific side of things and finding the best ways to fully optimize my nutrition and weight lifting plans. I continue to learn and educate myself so I can provide myself and my clients with the most effective training and nutrition advice.
What Helps You Stay Motivated?
There’s a lot of factors that keep me motivated. For one, just my passion for health and fitness and taking care of my body drives me to do whatever it takes to be in the best shape I can and keep progressing. I’m constantly researching and reading articles/studies and seeing different opinions regarding training and nutrition. Also, following fitness blogs and other fitness models/natural bodybuilders on sites like Twitter always inspire me to keep working hard and strive to stay strong. Thanks to people like Rob Riches, Steve Cook, James Ellis, Jim Cordova, Layne Norton, Jim Stoppani, and Lyle McDonald, I have learned so much behind both the training and nutritional aspects of fitness. Plus, my workout partner shares the same love for fitness as I do, so we motivate each other to push through every rep and stay focused on our goals.
Lastly, I truly enjoy working out and pushing my body every time I step foot into the gym. Every day that you train hard and eat healthy, you’re bettering yourself as a human being. Our body is our most important possession and a precious gift from God and people need to start treating it that way. I see so many people everyday who are just going through the motions, living life with no ambitions. They’re unhappy with their bodies and struggle with numerous diets and false supplement claims. My goal is to motivate as many people as possible. I want to change the lives of others, one person at a time. Diseases such as diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, depression, and so many more can be cured through exercise and proper nutrition, rather than pills. By teaching through example and explaining the reasoning behind my specific training, nutrition and lifestyle, I hope others can understand how to apply these principles to their own lives and motivate others to do the same.
What Is Your Training Philosopy?
There are a lot of different theories out there regarding the best way to train to maximize muscle mass and fat loss. Rather than sticking to one particular philosophy, I try to learn and understand a variety of different perspectives and incorporate multiple principles into my workout. Although the typical 8-12 reps is definitely effective at building muscle, there are also benefits to lower and higher rep ranges as well. So in constructing my workout, I typically start off with a heavy, compound exercise for a low rep range (around 4-6 for large muscle groups and 6-8 for smaller muscle groups). This especially targets the Type IIx fibers and causes myofibrillar hypertrophy. It also is good for developing strength gains. Then my second exercise is in the more traditional bodybuilding rep range of 8-12. This is then followed by another exercise of 8-12 reps for large muscle groups. And lastly I finish with a higher rep (around 12-15, sometimes 20) exercise. The middle and higher rep ranges promote sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and produce a solid pump. Each of these exercises is about 3 sets. So to sum up, 4 exercises of 3 sets each for large muscle groups, and 3 exercises of 3 sets each for smaller muscle groups. By employing this progression of rep ranges, I’m able to get more benefits as well as keep my muscles “guessing” so to speak. I change the exercises I perform every once and while to keep my workout from getting stale and to keep hitting the muscles from different angles. But rather than mindlessly changing my routine, I try to always incorporate exercises that hit each part of the muscle. For example, I have an overhead tricep extension to stretch and target the long head followed by a tricep rope pushdown to emphasize the lateral head. Having a good understanding of your anatomy and physiology can be helpful in making a solid workout.
As far as my training philosophy goes, there are always a few things I keep in mind. First of all, INTENSITY is of utmost importance. Going to the gym means nothing; it’s the effort and hard work that you put in that will get you the results. Stay mentally tough and have strong focus. I go to failure with basically all of my sets. We’re trying to overload our muscles and get them to grow stronger. By going to failure, I’m assured that I exhausted the muscle and gave it my all. The rep ranges I mentioned are just for reference. If you can keep going, then do it! I see too many people just stop at 10 reps. You could’ve done more! Keep going until you can’t lift the weight and then next time you can increase the resistance. Progressive resistance is crucial for continued muscle and strength gains. But at the same time, another important principle is “feeling” the muscle performing each rep. Focus on each contraction, with a relatively quick and strong concentric phase, followed by a slower eccentric phase. The eccentric contraction is most important for muscle growth. Too often people tend to just drop the weight rather than feeling the stretch and having a nice 3-4 second eccentric phase. The ideal time under tension for muscle growth is about 30-60 seconds per set. As intensity and duration of muscle tension increase, so does amino acid uptake and the rate of protein synthesis. Pick a weight that allows you to stress the muscle, but don’t go so heavy that you start swinging and having poor form. Mike Mentzer’s brother, Ray, said that he could make a 25lb dumbbell feel like 60lbs. Make the muscle work hard! Leave your ego at the door and make each rep count. If you are going to failure, then the weight isn’t the most important factor. You’re overloading the muscle and that’s what counts. There are more variables you can use to increase intensity besides increasing resistance. Drop sets, supersets, forced reps, and partial reps are all excellent ways to keep challenging your muscles and go beyond failure. Going up in weight should still be a goal, but even if your reps or weights didn’t go up from last week, your form performing the exercise hopefully improved and that will further stimulate the muscle and keep the results coming. You can also alter your rep speeds and rest length between sets as well. Having a spotter/workout partner definitely helps to stay safe on heavy lifts and get you through your sticking points so you can manage to pump out a few more reps.
One final point I want to mention: understanding the complexities and different principles is great and can help maximize your workouts, but, as Layne Norton says, you don’t want “paralysis by analysis.” If you workout hard and eat healthy, you will get results. Even if you don’t have the perfect routine, you can still make great progress if you commit yourself to a schedule and put the time in. Give it your all, work hard while in the gym, and have fun with it and you will leave feeling satisfied and proud.
What Does Your Workout Plan Look Like?
How Often Do You Perform Cardio?
I’m a big supporter of HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training). It has been proven to be more effective than steady pace cardio for fat loss, plus it takes less time to do. I like bringing intensity to all of my workouts and the hormonal benefits, as well as the increased amount of calories burned doing HIIT, make it my preferred form of cardio. Walking in the “fat burning zone” is not the best way to lose fat. It’s calories burned that matters. Although you burn mostly carbs during HIIT, you end up burning more fat later in the day. HIIT can be done on any cardio machine (bike, treadmill, rower, etc.). I alternate between 30 seconds of high intensity exercise (such as sprinting), followed by 60 seconds of low intensity exercise (walking). Keep repeating this cycle for about 20 minutes total.
Since HIIT can be rather intense, I also perform low intensity, steady state (LISS) cardio occassionally as well. LISS is less demanding and can complement HIIT as part of a weekly workout schedule.
I also play tennis often, which is another great form of cardio. Cardio doesn’t have to be performed on a treadmill. Get outside and have fun with it. Playing a sport like tennis or basketball is just as effective.
Lastly, design your cardio routine according to your goal. If you are trying to build muscle, don’t overdo it on the cardio. You need to be in a calorie surplus so running everyday will hinder your muscle growth. That’s not to say you shouldn’t do any cardio while bulking. Cardio isn’t just about burning calories. It’s also important to keep our cardiovascular system healthy and efficient.
What Does Your Nutrition Plan Look Like?
Proper nutrition is vital for getting results, whether it be gaining muscle or losing fat. Training is just the stimulus. I like the analogy by Lee Labrada: “Training and nutrition are like the 2 wheels on a bike. You need both in place in order to move forward.” There are many diet philosophies out there from balanced eating, to intermittent fasting, to carb backloading, to paleo, to “If It Fits Your Macros” (IIFYM), to carb cycling, etc. and many of them work for a variety of people.
The best diet is the one that you stick to. Personally I follow a rather balanced style of eating, with about 4-6 meals per day, but I do incorporate some of the other diet principles in as well. When constructing a diet, I believe first and foremost, calories are the most crucial factor. If you are trying to build muscle, you need to be in a calorie surplus, and if you are trying to lose fat, you need to be in a calorie deficit.
There are exceptions where you can gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, such as people who are new to working out. But too often people try to build muscle and lose fat at the same time (body recomposition) and end up running in circles and not making much progress. There are ways around this, such as carb cycling, in which you have higher carb, higher calorie days to help build muscle, and lower carb, lower calorie days to help shed fat. So although you might not be building muscle and losing fat at the “same time,” over the course of a week or month, you get both benefits in the end. But rather than trying to do this all the time, I recommend picking a goal, whether it be gaining more muscle (bulking) or losing fat (cutting), and then also applying carb cycling along with it. You can still have higher carb/calorie days and lower carb/calorie days, but by having a main goal in mind, you would have more calories during your bulk and less calories during your cut so that you can achieve your goal faster than trying to do both at the same time.
The benefits of carb cycling are numerous. When bulking, it allows you to gain muscle while minimizing fat gain. And when cutting, it allows you to lose fat, while preventing your metabolism from slowing down (which could occur with a constant low calorie diet) and gives you higher calorie days to keep you sane. But before starting to focus on carb cycling and other details, calories need to be calculated specifically for each individual. You should use a calorie calculator to figure out how many calories you burn each day, also known as your TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure). This can vary depending on how active you are each day so keep that in mind. Once you find out how many calories you need to maintain your current weight, then you can adjust this according to your goals.
For those looking to gain muscle, you should add about 500 calories extra to your daily intake. And for those looking to lose fat, you should reduce your calories by 500 daily. This can be achieved by either exercising more or eating less. The amount of calorie surplus/deficit can vary depending on your body type so keep adjusting as necessary. Once you figure out how many calories you need, you can track them using an online calorie calculator or personal log. While it’s not a requirement to track your calories, it can be very useful to help you see if you are hitting your proper calories each day.
The biggest issue I see is tons of scrawny teens in the gym. Their workouts are decent enough, but their diet is limiting them. They need more calories! Period. It’s great to eat clean, healthy foods but if you are not eating enough calories, there’s no way you are going to gain muscle. You can’t build a house without the bricks. Even if your protein intake is high, your body is just going to burn the protein for energy if you aren’t eating enough calories. So it is critical that you consume enough calories if you’re looking to gain muscle size. And the same applies for those looking to lose weight. You could be eating “healthy food”, but if you are in a calorie surplus, you are not going to lose weight. There’s no reason for your body to use its fat stores for energy if it’s getting enough from your diet. Although typically healthy foods are also lower calorie, that isn’t always the case. A glass of orange juice has as much sugar as a glass of orange soda. Shocking, but true. Nuts, while very nutritious, are calorie dense and can add up quick. So look at what you’re eating and adjust it according to your goals.
After calories, the next step is calculating your macronutrients. This also varies per person and according to your goals. Personally, I follow a 40% protein/40% carbs/20% fat diet for when I am cutting or maintaining, and a 50% carbs/30% protein/20% fat diet when bulking. This is all dependant on calories of course. I always keep my protein intake high. It’s necessary to build muscle and important to prevent muscle loss during a calorie deficit. Protein also increases satiety and has a high thermic effect, which boosts your metabolism due to protein being thermogenic. I keep protein around 1-1.5 grams per lb of bodyweight. Next are fats. I keep fat around 20%. Fats are important for hormone production so you don’t want to go too low. On days I’m less active, I will boost my fats up a bit, and lower my carbs. The last macronutrient, carbs, have the most variation. Since my protein and fats are relatively stable, I fluctuate my carbs depending on my goal. For building muscle, I increase calories by increasing my carbs. And for losing fat, I lower my calories by lower my carb intake. Lower carb = less blood glucose = less insulin = more opportunity for body fat to be utilized as fuel. As a side note, there is a lot of confusion regarding how carbs make you fat. Contrary to popular belief, carbs rarely turn to fat (de novo lipogenesis). But when you eat more carbs, you burn more carbs for energy and burn less fat. So therefore, more fat is stored. Of course, this is all relative to how many calories you consume daily. There’s no reason to fear carbs. They provide you with energy for your workouts, replenish the glycogen stores in your muscles, elicit an insulin response which is important for muscle growth, etc. Yes, carbs need to be controlled, especially during a fat loss phase, but there’s no need to ever completely fear a particular macronutrient. All 3 are important and have their benefits.
Calories and macros are definitely the most important factors when it comes to reaching your goals. If you have these in check, then you will definitely see results. Now comes the debate of where these calories come from. Some say that the quality of your foods plays a major role, while others say, “If It Fits Your Macros,” then it doesn’t matter what you eat. I take a stance in between the two. If you are tracking your calories and macros as you should be, then you follow IIFYM basically. And if you are keeping your protein high, fats low, etc, it’d be almost impossible to be eating fried foods and drinking soda all day. The benefit of IIFYM is that you can allow yourself to eat something that’s not necessarily “clean” as long as you fit it into your daily macros. For example, a burger or small dessert won’t take you off track of your goals. As long as everything is in moderation, you will be fine. To that extent, I agree with the IIFYM principles. On the other hand, I don’t believe that getting your carbs from poptarts is equal to eating low-glycemic complex carbs such as brown rice or sweet potatoes. The nutrients, vitamins, fiber, etc. that you get from healthy foods are very beneficial. In addition, the chemicals, artificial colors, sweeteners and other unhealthy ingredients of processed foods would be better off avoided. We’re not just trying to build muscle and look good. We also want to be healthy on the inside as well. And to do so, we must look beyond the macronutrients. Protein from grass-fed beef has a much better amino acid profile compared to protein from a fast-food chain, even if both labels had the same grams of protein. And healthy fats from olive oil, coconut oil, and nuts are superior to canola oil, lard oil or trans fats. So yes, calories and macros are most important, but having better quality and healthier sources of food can also be beneficial in the long run.
Another benefit of eating “cleaner” foods is that they are typically lower in calorie and more filling. Brown rice and white rice are similar, but the fiber in the brown rice is important for digestion and also makes you feel fuller longer, therefore you will have less cravings later. It can be hard sticking to a low calorie diet, so keeping protein high, along with fiber from wholesome foods and veggies can increase satiety and help regulates blood sugar levels.
Continuing with food quality, I am a supporter of eating natural and organic foods. Although they are not necessarily “better” in terms of building muscle or losing fat, I want to be as healthy as I can and avoid feeding my body with artificial and adulterated ingredients. Organic foods aren’t super-foods. But their benefit is that they don’t have the added pesticides, chemicals, genetically modified ingredients, and other dangerous substances. Eating foods in their most natural state means you’re fueling your body with the best ingredients. You wouldn’t put cheap fuel in a Lamborghini so why put unhealthy food and chemicals into your body? Along those lines, I tend to avoid artificial sweeteners as much as possible. If I need to, I will use the natural sweetener, stevia. I like having a balanced diet, and by getting my calories from a variety of food sources, I make sure to get the proper micronutrients each day.
The remaining factors left deal with food timing and some other non-caloric variables. For the most part, many of the former beliefs regarding food timing have been proven false. Eating carbs at night won’t make you fatter, exercising on an empty stomach won’t help you burn more fat, and so on. What you eat is more important than when you eat it, but there are some philosophies that I do incorporate into my diet to some extent. For example, following a workout, our muscles are more insulin sensitive. During this time, the carbs we consume will go to our muscles primarily to refill the glycogen and start the anabolic rebuilding process with the help of protein. So due to this, I tend to consume a higher % of my carbs for the day following my workout. This is part of the idea behind carb backloading, although I don’t follow the entire approach. Another concept that I like, which I already explained earlier, is carb cycling. It can be adjusted to fit different diets and prevents some of the plateaus of traditional diets.
As I mentioned above, the best diet is the one you stick with. If the more structured style of intermittent fasting or leangains works for you, then great; keep up the good work. Personally, I prefer eating throughout the day and spacing out my meals so that I’m not hungry and so I’m constantly getting enough protein into my body. I enjoy eating clean, healthy foods and know that I’m bettering myself with every nutritious meal and every hard workout. While a small cheat snack here and there is fine with me, the guilt I feel after eating a high fat/sugar food bothers me more than the pleasure of eating it. When you eat junk food, it’s only in your mouth for a few seconds and then it becomes a part of your body. Are those few seconds worth it?
That last variables I want to mention involve things besides food. Sleep, water intake, stress, supplements, vitamins, etc. can play a major role in the regulation of your body’s hormones, nutrient partitioning, and overall health. Take sleep for example. Not only do you need sleep to help recover and recharge your body, but there’s also important hormones, such as growth hormone, that get secreted in higher amounts during sleep. Plus, a good night’s rest will allow you to be more active the next day and push hard through your workout. Also, if you sleep less, then you are awake more and have a higher tendency to eat more. A healthy, well-rested body will get better results from a diet than a sick or stressed-out individual. Our bodies are very complex and many processes are always occurring so staying active and having a solid nutrition plan will not only help you reach your fitness goals, but it will also extend your longevity and prevent illnesses.
Here’s an example of my diet:
(ex. Dextrose powder or Rice Cake)
What Supplements Do You Use?
Supplements are just there to “supplement” your training and nutrition. For skinny teens looking to gain muscle, an extra 500 calorie meal would do a lot more for them than an expensive gimmicky pill or powder.
I Stick With The Basics:
Optimum Nutrition Natural 100% Whey Gold Standard
Carlson Fish Oil
Green Tea Extract
What Activities and Hobbies Do You Enjoy When You Are Away From The Gym?
I love playing sports. I’m captain of my college tennis team and play throughout the year. I also enjoy playing basketball and hanging out with my friends.
What Is Your Greatest Achievement?
From a fitness perspective, getting the opportunity to do a fitness photoshoot was exciting for me. I’m proud of the progress I’ve made and the results of my hard work considering my age and I look forward to continue training hard and keep progressing.
What Is Your Favorite Quote?
“Aim for the moon, even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”
– W. Clement Stone
“Don’t just count the reps, make every rep count.”
– Rob Riches
“Calories in vs. calories out affects weight, but the quality of those calories affects body composition.”
– Steve Cook
“The last three or four reps is what makes the muscle grow. This area of pain divides the champion from someone else who is not a champion. That’s what most people lack, having the guts to go on and just say they’ll go through the pain no matter what happens.”
– Arnold Schwarzenegger
“A total commitment is paramount to reaching the ultimate in performance.”
– Tom Flores
“Yeah Buddy!! Light weight baby!!”
– Ronnie Coleman
If Someone Wants To Connect With You How Can You Be Contacted?
FitOrbit Online Personal Training: fitorbit.com/trainers/JPZfitness