A Follow-up Interview With Menno Henselmans on Evidence-Based Fitness Coaching
Nootropics, the healthy habit of bodybuilding, and fitness for digital nomads
In his last interview, evidence-based trainer Menno Henselmans shared some of his secrets for looking like a professional fitness model without starving himself or using drugs.
In response to several reader requests, Menno, one of the leading trainers in the evidence-based fitness community, has come back for a second round to provide more detail on his highly research-based approach to personal training. Other topics we get into include:
- How Menno is able to live the bodybuilding lifestyle while having no permanent home
- Menno’s favorite nootropics and how he uses them for both productivity and physical fitness
- How he stands out in a crowded fitness marketplace
- A deep dive into the effects of bodybuilding on health, and why natural bodybuilding is actually one of the healthiest things you can do
In the last interview, you mentioned eccentric overload training— how does that work, and when would you employ it?
It’s one of my favorite advanced training techniques for muscle growth. Research on it is still somewhat scarce but very promising, and the theory makes sense.
During a concentric muscle action, the muscle shortens because actin filaments are repeatedly pulled over myosin filaments. This process is called actin-myosin cross-bridge formation. These cross-bridges have to be detached with a chemical reaction, the cleaving of an ATP molecule.
During eccentric contractions, the cross-bridges are separated mechanically as the muscle lengthens, so less energy is required to produce force. As a result, muscles can generally produce 20–60% more force during eccentric contractions than concentric contractions of the same movement. The difference varies from 14% all the way up to over 161%, depending on the person, the training intensity, and the exercise.
During eccentric contractions, the myofilament titin also produces passive elastic force by virtue of its stiffness. While this is passive force production, it’s still biomechanical tension on the muscle fibers, and it therefore contributes to muscle growth.
The result is that eccentric emphasized training allows you to perform more work and reach higher levels of muscle activation than during traditional sets. More mechanical tension should correspond with more muscle growth and multiple lines of evidence support this, though not all research finds statistically significant benefits (none finds poorer results). To quote the research overview on this from my PT Course:
Accommodating resistance training of any kind tends to outperform traditional constant-load exercise. In a review by Wernbom et al. (2007), accommodating resistance training had a 0.16% increase in quadriceps CSA per day, compared to 0.12% for conventional strength training and 0.11% for isometric training. (See course module on exercise selection.)
The iso-inertial FlyWheel device, which is a form of accommodating resistance with eccentric overloading, tends to outperform traditional constant-load exercise in terms of muscle growth, strength development, muscle activation, total work output, and carry-over to sports performance [1, 2, 3]. The research is limited by low statistical power and mostly untrained subjects. One meta-analysis found that FlyWheel training resulted in more muscle growth and strength development than traditional, constant resistance strength training, but another concluded there’s not enough evidence to say either way yet.
Training with machines that have eccentric overloading tends to result in more muscle growth than training with regular, constant-load machines, seemingly mostly in type II fibers with an associated shift in muscle fiber type to more fast-twitch fibers [1, 2, 3]. (Interestingly though, a study of eccentrically overloaded leg presses for rehab after ACL reconstruction found that eccentric overloading resulted in greater muscle growth but a shift towards type I fibers, possibly due to impaired neuromuscular functioning from the reconstruction .)
Strength development also tends to be greater with eccentric overloading than without it [1, 2, 3], though this isn’t the case in all studies [1, 2, 3]. Many studies were likely underpowered to reach statistical significance. A 2017 review concluded: “The current research concerning both the acute responses and chronic adaptations to accentuated eccentric loading is inconclusive, but suggests it may be a superior method by which to enhance strength and power performance.”
Implementing eccentric overloading requires a bit of creativity if you don’t have special equipment for it, as most people don’t. One effective method is to use momentum to lift more weight than you could otherwise concentrically and then overload the eccentric by controlling the descent. With exercises done with two limbs independently, you can also reduce one limb’s contribution during the descent or put yourself in a biomechanically disadvantageous position, such as with Zottman curls.
You’ve really emphasized the importance of minimizing stress. I think most people have some idea of why it matters for health and longevity, but why is keeping stress low so important from a physique standpoint, and what do you have clients do about it?
People dramatically underestimate the importance of stress for not just their health but also their physique. Here’s an excerpt from my online PT Course on the negative effects of psychological stress on your training (the effect on diet is even worse):
Hollander et al. have performed a yet unpublished study of the effect of academic stress in students. In their study, the highest stress group gained less than half the leg press strength of the lowest stress group. The highest stress group also gained body fat and lost thigh circumference, whereas the lowest stress group lost body fat and gained thigh circumference. This study included both men and women, and the researchers found no gender specific effects.
Other research confirms that psychological stress reduces strength gains. This study also found a nine times greater percentage change in thigh circumference in the low-stress group compared to the high-stress group, but this did not reach statistical significance. Limb circumference is a notoriously inaccurate measure of muscle size due to the confounding effects of muscle swelling, regional muscle growth, water retention, fat mass, and changes in fat distribution.
The negative effects of stress on the recovery of strength after training have been documented in several studies already. One study found that the difference between high and low stress made a twofold difference in the rate of recovery, i.e. having a lot of psychological stress cuts your recovery capacity in half. Another study found that the risk of injury is roughly doubled during periods of high academic stress in Division I football players and that academic stress can play an even larger role than the physical stress from exercise itself. This is not surprising, since in medical communities it has long been known that stress impairs healing time of various pathologies, including that of simple wounds, by as much as 40%.
Proper stress management should be reactive as well as therapeutic. This means times of high stress should have a lower training stress, preferably with autoregulated training methods like reactive deloads, and that psychological stress management techniques should be implemented to reduce the stress itself. One such technique is active coping. I’ll quote my PT Course again, because I’m lazy, and literally all of the answers to the questions in this interview are covered in detail in there.
Many people spend their lives being passive, and so too they deal with stress. Passive coping means not dealing directly with situations or emotions. Instead, people reach out to others (social diversion) or engage in different activities that ignore the stressor and provide short-term relief, such as self-medicating through food, alcohol or instantly gratifying and distracting activities like watching television (task diversion).
Active coping generally results in better stress management . Surprise: Procrastination and ignoring the problem generally don’t make it go away. Active coping means addressing or eliminating the situations or emotions themselves (problem-focused) or managing the resultant emotions (emotion-focused).
You’ll often hear psychologists emphasize emotion-focused coping: accepting responsibility, thinking on the bright side, seeking social support—that kind of thing. That can all be useful, but it’s at its core still just a Band-Aid approach. Problem-focused coping generally works significantly better than emotion-focused coping . Simply put, you need to address the root cause of your problem with actions, not thoughts.
Got into a fight with your partner? Talk to him or her.
Run into an obstacle at work? Fix it.
Car problems? Call your mechanic or garage right now.
Dealing with the problem immediately and directly takes advantage of the stress. Acute stress is good. It energizes you and motivates you to solve your stressful problems. It’s only when the stress becomes chronic that you get problems. Don’t let it fester.
What specific foods are staples of your diet?
I very much live on the recipes that I publish on my website’s recipe section. Currently I eat a ton of these protein wraps with pasta sauce, and I eat all-you-can-eat sushi multiple times per week. This diet covers all my nutritional bases, allows me to maintain my six-pack year round, and it results in good health biomarkers in my blood work.
What do you think are realistic body-fat percentages and levels of lean body mass (i.e. lean body mass index) for most men and women to maintain year-round? What does it take to maintain at this level?
It’s much harder to gain muscle than to maintain it. Maintenance of muscle mass is easy. Most research finds you can maintain your muscle while you cut volume to a third of what you did to get there. Most people can maintain their muscle with two weekly workouts.
As for a realistic level of muscle mass you can naturally achieve, we have quite some research on that. Based on this research, I’ve designed an online calculator to estimate your “natty max” from your body composition statistics. You can estimate your maximum muscular potential here. The web app can also calculate the probability someone’s physique is naturally achievable.
Maintaining a low body-fat level is more difficult than muscle mass. I always focus on sustainable fat-loss practices. Practically none of my clients do cardio for fat loss, for example. If it takes you an hour of cardio per day to get lean, you probably won’t sustain that level of leanness without the cardio, so are you going to do an hour of cardio a day for the rest of your life? I think not.
I also don’t condone any dieting that results in chronic hunger. You may be hungry at times, but if you’re regularly hungry, the diet’s almost certainly not sustainable. I don’t know anyone that’s like, “I’ve been hungry and miserable all the time the past decade, but look at these abs. Totally worth it!”
When you got lean with sustainable nutritional strategies, maintenance is not that difficult. It’s much easier than getting lean, and since you achieved that, staying lean is just a matter of sticking with what you learned with a bit more leeway from a higher energy intake.
A realistic and healthy low body fat level to maintain is generally 7 to 10% for men and 15 to 19% for women. If you think these body fat ranges are unrealistically low, your frame of reference may be excessively influenced by the standards of contemporary society.
In traditional hunter-gatherer societies like the Hadza, the average body fat percentage of men is 13.5% and that of women is 20.9%. And that’s long after this culture had already discovered many of the indulgences of Western civilization, like tobacco and alcohol. Since strength-trained individuals should carry a lot more muscle mass and burn a lot of energy during their training, it is very realistic to stay below these values year-round with a healthy lifestyle.
There are also multiple lines of evidence showing the ideal body fat percentage for optimal health is quite low. For example, the optimal body fat percentage for fertility for a 21 year old is about 10.7% for men and 21.5% for women. This estimate for fertility corresponds with the ideal body fat level for testosterone and growth hormone production in men: Both anabolic hormone levels negatively correlate with body fat percentage above 12% body fat  (no data on leaner subjects).
You’ve been living as a digital nomad for years. How does this impact your diet and training? Are there any strategies you use to stay consistent while you’re moving around? Any workout gear you travel with?
I carry Angles90 for elbow health during pulling exercises, powerlifting knee wraps for blood flow restriction training, and workout bands with me, but these days I don’t go off kayaking on a lagoon in Belize anymore.
I stay in pretty urban areas, which means diet and training are mostly a matter of strategic planning. Even if you have a crappy hotel gym or no gym at all though, you can almost always design an effective (bodyweight) workout with what you have.
Managing your diet is mostly a matter of strategic planning too. It’s very context-specific. For example, I have one client that goes to a week-long meditation retreat, so I had him bring a tub of protein powder and set up a bodyweight workout program.
Another client has a lot of hotel buffet meals during business travel, so we focus on which food choices to make and what kind of meals you can bring on an airplane or with you in your luggage. I personally love all-you-can-eat sushi, so I’ve mastered how to estimate calorie intake from that and how to manipulate my appetite to avoid overeating without macro tracking.
One of the most common mistakes people make when traveling is relying on protein bars and dried meat. Those are still highly caloric and not satiating at all, so they end up massively overeating these days. Consuming enough protein is generally not the biggest problem: Avoiding overeating is.
Your focus is clearly on weightlifting and gym workouts, but do you ever mix in any other training modalities, like bodyweight workouts, sports, or martial arts?
Bodyweight workouts, for sure, especially when traveling. Muscles respond to tension, and they don’t differentiate between a bodyweight exercise, a kettlebell, a barbell, or a band. Most special equipment is just marketing hype. Like kettlebells are somehow more functional and cool than dumbbells because the iron is cast in a slightly different manner. It’s just metal in a different shape, which makes it more practical to use for certain exercises and less so for others.
As for sports, that’s not my area of expertise. I coach some athletes, but I don’t do their sports-specific programming. I get them big, strong and lean. They then have to apply this to their sport. Fortunately, that often only requires simply doing the sport. I’m not convinced there’s much sports-specific programming that actually works better than conventional strength training. Most “functional training” does not produce objectively better performance improvements than conventional strength training in research.
I’ve heard you mention nootropics before—specifically nicotine and phenibut, I believe. What do you use these for, and what is your dosing protocol? Do you use any other nootropics?
Most nootropics don’t do much. Piracetam and green tea extract have some research backing, but their effects are often something you won’t actually notice, so few people bother to use them long-term. Fact is — and this goes for all supplements — most compounds that produce significant physiological effects in the human body also come with addiction risk and/or side effects.
This means people will abuse them, and that means it’s just a matter of time before their use is criminalized. Good examples are modafinil, methylphenidate, albuterol, and ephedrine. Highly potent when used in a medically responsible manner, seriously dangerous when abused.
Even alcohol falls into this category, but its use is so widespread that criminalization is no longer a feasible option. Just look at what happened during Prohibition. The thing alcohol has going for it is that you pass out before you do too much damage, so it’s hard to overdose too badly on it, unlike say heroin. That makes it somewhat dummy-proof. (By the way, see this article for how damaging alcohol is for your physique and why it may differ per gender, and see this article for how to minimize the damage from a night out drinking.)
Caffeine is in the same boat. Its saving grace is that while you may get addicted and lose nearly all net beneficial effects, it won’t actually harm you, so the majority of the world is happily abusing this drug at the moment.
Nicotine is an exception, because ironically it’s the lesser evil compared to smoking tobacco, which again is an example of how any potent drug will be abused by the masses. However, the addiction risk of pure nicotine is not nearly comparable to that of smoking tobacco, as the speed of absorption and peak blood brain concentration are much lower with nicotine gum or patches than when you’re inhaling it.
Tobacco also has other psychoactive compounds that enhance the effect of nicotine. Nicotine addiction is a serious concern for people prone to tobacco addiction or addiction in general, but many other people have shown no symptoms of addiction when consuming up to 8 mg a day. Women appear to be more prone to nicotine addiction than men. If a person has ever smoked tobacco and didn’t like it much, the person is likely a non-responder to nicotine’s addictive properties, at least psychologically. People prone to addiction tend to experience addictive symptoms after their first cigarette.
If you don’t have an addictive personality, nicotine can be quite safely used in the form of 2 mg and sometimes 4 mg gum (or transdermal patches). Nicotine is a good appetite suppressant, mild stimulant, and mild nootropic, specifically enhancing attentional control. The psychoactive effects are different from stimulants like caffeine, and not everyone likes them. Nicotine gum is basically green tea extract on steroids: It majorly increases your focus.
Phenibut will probably be illegal soon. It’s already becoming hard to obtain in the U.S. This Soviet smart drug is currently arguably the best legal anxiety-killer and mood-enhancer on the market, but if you use too much of it, you’re in for an absolute nightmare during the withdrawal period. If you can moderate your dosage, see this article for how to responsibly use phenibut and where to find it.
John’s Note: As I’ve heard it put before, if a compound doesn’t have side effects, it also probably doesn’t have much in the way of main effects. I second Menno’s recommendations here, although I strongly suggest nicotine patches (cut into narrower strips) over gum, and I would limit phenibut to two non-consecutive days a week.
Who is a typical client for you, and why do you think that kind of person gravitates towards you?
My client base is quite diverse, but there are a few distinguishing demographics that make sense.
- It’s male-dominated, as my whole audience is and the whole evidence-based fitness market is. Unfortunately, it’s harder to attract a female audience with relatively dry and technical content. I notice my content attracts a lot of IT professionals, doctors, analysts, lawyers ,and of course fitness professionals. However, my article series specifically for women has a high conversion rate to coaching and my online PT Courses. In these articles I showed how women have the same relative muscular potential as men, but they’re just not fulfilling it as often (this article has almost 30,000 shares on social media alone), why women should train and diet a bit differently than men, and how to take advantage of the hormonal fluctuations of the female menstrual cycle.
- Most of my clients are educated, have full-time jobs, and are aged 25+ years old with several in their 60s and the occasional 70 year old. A big factor here is probably that my coaching has a premium price. As a digital nomad and former business consultant, I also attract a lot of business travelers that want to learn how to cope with this lifestyle while staying six-pack lean year-round.
- They’re at an intermediate training level. It’s not that the conversion rates differ. I coach some complete beginners, and I’m most renowned for the results I’ve achieved with pro-card winners and national champions, but there just aren’t that many advanced trainees. Beginners often don’t know they need coaching or that online coaching is even a thing. They’re just happily milking their newbie gains. It’s only when those run out and things become problematic that people start looking for expert guidance. Most of my clients know what energy balance is and that they need to consume enough protein, but to get to the advanced level, they need to learn how to optimize all program variables, autoregulate their training, implement nutrient timing, etc.
- They’re serious about training. If you don’t train with weights at least 3 times per week, my coaching is overkill for you. I only offer nutrition-only coaching in this case.
What were the main strategies you used to build your business to the point it’s at now?
The evidence-based fitness market is relatively savvy compared to the mainstream fitness market, so my experience is that, even more than anywhere else, two things are key for success.
- Your reputation. I’ve found that the vast majority of people that sign up for my online coaching or my online PT Courses have followed me for years before signing up. People have become skeptical. They’re constantly bombarded by BS ads, scam artists trying to sell them the next magic pill, and juiced-up fitness models promising you’ll look just like them if you follow their six-week to six-pack program. To cut through the noise, you have to show you’re legit, you’re likeable, you deliver genuine results, and you know what you’re talking about. And then maybe over time you earn someone’s trust and pique their interest for what you can offer them.
- Content. Content is king, but I put reputation above content, as most of my colleagues in evidence-based fitness don’t produce nearly as much free content as I do, and they still thrive because of their reputation. Regardless, you first have to produce a lot of top-quality free content. And then your premium content has to be even better to get the only advertising these days that still really means a lot: word of mouth from people you already know.
Marketing also helps, but I’ve worked with several marketeers, and only the current one I’m working with, Vincent Huisman, has actually produced measurable results in terms of conversions, website traffic, etc. The effect of marketing compared to content is very small and only becomes worthwhile to majorly invest in when you’re already reaching a large audience organically. Marketing is, in essence, just the skill of spreading your message to more people. If your message isn’t convincing, nobody will care.
Do you think health, fitness, and longevity are largely compatible goals, or are there some respects in which people need to choose or make trade-offs between them?
They are absolutely compatible. Here’s an excerpt from my online PT Course where I discuss this:
General opinion doesn’t consider bodybuilding as a healthy activity, but bodybuilding’s reputation for being unhealthy is mainly due to steroid abuse and psychological problems associated with competing at extremely low body-fat levels. The essence of bodybuilding, being lean and muscular, is normally very good for your health.
Muscle mass is inherently protective against diabetes because muscle mass improves insulin sensitivity. Most health benefits of a higher BMI are probably because increased muscle mass is beneficial, not because low body-fat levels are detrimental. Since BMI does not discriminate between lean mass and fat mass, and people with a high BMI typically have more lean mass than lower-weight individuals, the health benefits of muscle mass show up in BMI research as health benefits of a high BMI.
This seems to be the case for your chances of surviving cancer: There’s a U-shaped survival chance relation with BMI, but this is not because being fat protects against cancer. It’s probably muscle mass that increases your chance of surviving cancer, while a high body fat percentage decreases your survival chance. Oversupply of energy to tissues can lead to hyperproliferation and tissue invasion, resulting in cancer cells, so fat gain likely increases the risk of getting cancer.
By virtue of its health-promoting effects, notably enhanced insulin sensitivity, and thereby lower chronic inflammation, muscle mass is significantly associated with longevity, and muscle mass protects against metabolic deterioration with age. The positive effects of muscle mass remain even when you adjust for comorbidities and many control variables.
As for body-fat level, being lean also protects against diabetes, reduces chronic inflammation levels, and corrects hormonal imbalances , because fat tissue, especially visceral fat, negatively influences all of these systems in the body. In research, losing body fat has very strong and consistent positive effects on almost every health biomarker, and the rate of weight loss and even diet quality do not seem to matter as much for our health as the loss of body fat.
Energy restriction, or rather staying lean throughout your life, also increases the lifespan of various animals, and studies on humans have found improvements in biomarkers of longevity, suggesting we too can live longer if we stay lean [2, 3, 4]. However, since it’s logistically and ethically infeasible to conduct lifelong RCTs on humans until they die, we are limited to animal studies, epidemiological data, mechanistic evidence, and RCTs up to two years in length.
While it’s certainly possible to be overweight but healthy, many people who appear to be “metabolically healthy overweight” by certain standards actually have considerable subclinical health problems. “Healthy overweight” individuals are also still at greater risk than leaner individuals of developing metabolic risk factors . As such, being “healthy obese” is basically just a time bomb.
So for optimal health, you probably need to be lean. Research supports a J-shaped relationship between BMI and all-cause mortality. In line with this, centenarians — people that live over 100 years old — are rarely overweight and have been found to have a metabolic profile very similar to those of people in energy deficit. Calorie restriction is currently the most likely candidate to delay the health defects of age, with exercise being contender two mostly effective to manage the symptoms.
Is there such a thing as too lean? Probably, yes. At some point, when you get extremely ripped, typically in contest prep, natural anabolic hormone production decreases. Research has also found that intensive exercise combined with prolonged energy deficits to cut to very low body-fat levels suppress our immune system and may cause inflammation, but these effects may be the result of insufficient micronutrient and antioxidant intake, which were explicitly diagnosed in one study, not necessarily their low body-fat level.
Fortunately, the negative effects of being contest lean are temporary. Even women that completely lose their menstrual cycle normally fully recover their hormonal health during a subsequent bulking phase, and our immune systems also fully recover.
Strength training also confers many of the same health benefits as endurance training, such as reducing chronic inflammation and improving cardiovascular health [2, 3], and strength training is associated with considerably lower all-cause mortality, independent of aerobic exercise. Since systemic inflammation can damage pretty much everything in the body, maintaining low inflammation levels is strongly associated with quality of life.
Mental health correlates with physical health. The healthier people are, the happier they tend to be. Being metabolically unhealthy is associated with a 19 to 60% increased risk of depression; if you’re also obese, the added risk increases to 30 to 83%. The effect of exercise, including strength training, on well-being is very positive, often larger than going from a yearly income of $15K to $50K.
· Strength training increases subjective well-being and positive mood state and decreases depression.
· Strength training decreases your stress levels, anxiety, and neuroticism.
· Strength training improves your self-esteem, self-satisfaction, body image, and self-concept.
· Specifically relevant for the ladies: Strength training makes premenstrual syndrome more tolerable.
In sum, strength training and being lean and muscular are great for your health.
In theory, for optimal health you would need to do both cardio and strength training, as they provide different health benefits to some degree. However, in practice I doubt this is the case for the target audience of this article, because you’ll reach a ceiling effect. You can only get so healthy. For example, at a certain level of insulin sensitivity or “good” HDL-cholesterol, more of it won’t improve your health further.
Most research finds the health benefits of exercise plateau after a couple hours per week, and cardio in particular even backfires when you start doing ultra-marathons and the like. So when you take an individual who already has a healthy diet, they’re lean, they’re muscular, and they engage in strength training several times per week, will adding cardio to that make them healthier?
There’s scant research on this, but I think for most people the effect will be trivial, especially when we consider that for most people, cardio and strength training compete for the same time we have. Adding a cardio session to two strength training workouts per week will most likely improve someone’s health, but will replacing one out of seven weekly strength workouts with cardio have a significant positive effect? I doubt it.
You also have to factor in that cardio’s interference effect may hinder muscle growth and thereby its corresponding health benefits.
Editor’s note: Better Humans is a publication dedicated to evidence-based advice that works from trustworthy sources. The primary evidence in this article is peer-reviewed research. To learn more about how we evaluate evidence and trustworthiness, visit the Style Guide for Better Humans. This article discusses the use of supplements; while we trust our readers to make sound decisions for their own health, we also recommend that you speak with a physician when you have any concerns related to a supplement you would like to use.