How To Look Like a Fitness Model Without Using Drugs: An Interview with Menno Henselmans
Learn how this expert trainer and researcher coaches clients for natural, evidence-based bodybuilding
Most bodybuilders and fitness models are on drugs. Menno Henselmans isn’t — and as the photo above shows, with hard work and discipline it’s entirely possible to look like a real-life Adonis without needing to use steroids or dangerous weight loss drugs.
Dutch trainer Menno Henselmans is one of the best-kept secrets of the fitness industry. Originally a professional statistician, he quit a lucrative career as a business consultant and data analyst to start MennoHenselmans.com — he originally called the site Bayesian Bodybuilding) — his online personal training business.
Now Menno is one of the world’s foremost evidence-based fitness coaches. He has also co-authored several studies which have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, and lives as a digital nomad, traveling the world and giving talks on exercise science and nutrition around the world. He’s particularly known for his heavy emphasis on program individualization, as well as his online training program for evidence-based trainers.
Menno has trained dozens of natural bodybuilders, powerlifters, and fitness models, including international prize winners. He’s also helped hundreds of regular men and women– trainers, soldiers, doctors, and engineers– look like fitness models. In this interview, Menno shares some of the secrets to his clients’ success.
Menno uses a lot of terms in this interview that many readers won’t be familiar with. I’ve appended my own notes after many of his answers, to clarify some of the terms he uses or provide additional information.
The old name of MennoHenselmans.com, which was “Bayesian Bodybuilding”, is used a few times in this article, and is still what many people will know him by.
As a final note, Luis Vilsenor, who I previously interviewed about the ketogenic diet, is a protege of Menno’s, and runs the Spanish language version of Menno’s personal training course.
Why did you start Bayesian Bodybuilding?
I’ve always been passionate about fitness. I played every sport available in my neighborhood as a kid. At age 12 or so, I started training in a home-made squat rack in my parents’ garage. Soon after I started going to the gym and reading everything I could about fitness.
It wasn’t until I already had a job that I started Bayesian Bodybuilding as a business, though. I was educated in statistics and science in my degrees, as a business consultant and as a data analyst. I felt the fitness industry could benefit from that way of thinking because most of the popular sources at the time weren’t what is now known as ‘evidence-based’.
I got certified with the ISSA as a test for myself to see if I actually learned something with my self-study. To my dismay, I actually had to unlearn a lot to pass the exam: doing useless flexibility work and needing months to work up to back squats and that kind of politically correct nonsense that no top athlete or coach employs. So I started writing.
Based on my articles, people started asking me for online coaching. Based on that, people started asking me about how to be a good coach. And that’s basically still where I’m at now. I do a lot of other things, including scientific research, but business-wise, I make my living as an online coach and with my online PT Certification Courses.
John’s note: I can attest that Menno’s certification course provides a far better education than any of the main certifying bodies for personal trainers, like the ISSA or NSCA. Unfortunately, if you want to train clients in a gym, you’ll still need a certification from one of those organizations. In the USA, at least, this is due to industry self-regulation rather than government regulations, but gyms still won’t bend on it for liability/insurance reasons.
What percentage of fitness models, bodybuilders, physique competitors, trainers, etc. do you think are natural vs. “enhanced?”
Based on the research, over 50% of competitive bodybuilders and over 90% of the pros are on drugs. That’s in line with my experience.
Note: Menno doesn’t specifically mention fitness models in his answer, but the numbers should be about the same for them.
In the bodybuilding world, “pro” has a different meaning than in most other contexts. People who place highly in an amateur bodybuilding competition can win a pro card which lets them compete in professional-level competitions. With regard to bodybuilders, physique/figure/bikini competitors and the like, the word “pro” usually means someone has their pro card, and not necessarily that they make a living as a bodybuilder.
In your opinion, how fast can natural trainees realistically expect to gain muscle and/or lose fat? And what are the maximum rates of fat loss and muscle growth you believe to be possible for most people naturally?
It varies widely by the individual. The maximum fat loss rate you can achieve without muscle loss is primarily determined by your body fat percentage. The more fat you have, the quicker you can lose it. Obese individuals can lose fat extremely rapidly on a good diet—easily a kilo per week.
In contest prep, you have to be very conservative, or you’ll end up scrawny instead of shredded. Someone’s metabolism and overall energy expenditure also matter as this determines the maximum energy deficit you can create.
Maximum natural muscle growth rates are primarily determined by the muscle’s level of advancement. The closer it is to its genetic ceiling, the slower your gains come. At the novice level, gaining a kilo of lean muscle a month is typically realistic.
An example of maximum results would probably be my client Joanna. She lost 11.5 kg of fat and gained 6.4 kg of muscle in under 5 months, as measured by DXA scans. Her transformation even made it into a newspaper.
Note: “Contest prep” effectively means any time a man is trying to cut below about 9% body fat or a woman is cutting below about 14% body fat. The best way to measure body fat is with a DEXA scan; your best free option would be body fat calipers.
You’ve famously asserted that it’s possible and even realistic for many people– even intermediate-level natural trainees– to “recomp”, i.e. gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. At what point does this stop being a realistic expectation, so that people need to start bulking and cutting?
Indeed, there is a lot of research showing it’s possible to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time, even sometimes in contest competitors and advanced athletes. Typically though, you won’t see advanced trainees achieve significant body recomposition.
Since you can carry more muscle mass at higher body fat levels, by definition you must lose muscle during a prolonged cut when you’re at your genetic muscular limit. So there comes a point when it stops being possible to recomp and you’ll need to bulk — be in an energy surplus — to put on any more muscle mass.
How do you determine the training fundamentals — volume, frequency, intensity, rest periods — for natural trainees?
That’s an extensive question! I have about 50 pages on this in my online PT Course. However, you can get a good idea of my methods in this older article about optimal program design, along with an update here about training volume and an update here about training frequency.
Note: Yeah, this really would take 50+ pages to answer thoroughly, and I highly recommend reading all of those articles. But to give you the short version:
- Total training frequency is mostly the more the better, generally 4–7 times a week.
- Per-muscle training frequency goes up as you get more advanced, from every 4–5 days to every 1–2 days.
- Intensity — as in how heavy of a weight to life — varies, but generally goes up as you get more advanced.
- Volume should be measured in sets per muscle group per week and is generally quite high in Menno’s programs.
- Rest periods are generally on the longer side; Menno doesn’t believe in using shorter rests to get “metabolic stress.” They’re also often auto-regulated, meaning you rest as long as you feel like, within reason and your willingness to spend more time in the gym.
Are there any particular training techniques you use that aren’t very well-known?
I employ a lot of autoregulation techniques in my periodization models, such as autoregulatory volume training and reactive deloads. I think most traditional models that specify certain fixed weights x reps don’t work well for a large number of people. They ignore individual variation, so they work for some of the powerlifters that created these models, but many other people that try to copy their methods don’t achieve nearly the same results.
I also employ eccentric overloading, blood flow restriction training and cluster sets in the right scenarios. Most advanced training techniques are not something you should always implement but rather a tool that fits certain scenarios or exercises for certain individuals. Blood flow restriction training is great for (p)rehab, for example, while cluster sets are best suited for strength development rather than muscle growth.
One advanced programming method for women that all coaches should be familiar with (but often aren’t) is menstrual periodization. Strategically allocating a greater training frequency or volume, and sometimes energy intake, to the follicular instead of luteal phases of the menstrual cycle can significantly improve the training results of many women.
Note: Several terms here may be new to you:
- Autoregulation: A set of techniques for adjusting your training program on the fly to match your level of energy, strength and recovery capacity at any given time.
- Eccentric overloading: training in a way that makes the eccentric (lowering phase) of the exercise harder than the concentric (raising) phase. There are a few ways to do this.
- Blood flow restriction training: wearing a sort of tourniquet (not nearly as tight as a medical one of course) around your limbs while lifting a very light weight.
- Cluster sets: Sets that are sub-divided into several shorter sets, with shorter (10–20 second) rests in between them.
What does a typical diet for one of your clients look like? How does your approach to dieting differ from most people’s?
I don’t have one model that I use for all clients. Maybe that’s what sets me apart from some other coaches. I employ certain principles, like ensuring a sufficient protein intake, but the practical application differs depending on the client. I have some clients on ketogenic diets, some do intermittent fasting and some are on fixed macros—while others are on ad libitum diets.
I think being a good coach in large part comes down to knowing when to use what tool. If you put all your clients on intermittent fasting or ketogenic diets, regardless of their specifics, you’re probably not a good coach. I go into individualized program design in this article.
Note: As I discuss in my article on dieting styles, there are three styles of dieting. Menno favors ad libitum (eating as much “as desired”) diets but doesn’t force all of his clients to follow that dieting style. People preparing for a photo shoot or competition, in particular, often have to count macros even if it’s not their favored dieting style.
What dietary supplements are worthwhile for a natural trainee who is otherwise eating very healthily, training hard, and living a very healthy lifestyle? Which are the biggest wastes of money?
Branched-chain amino acids are probably the biggest waste of money at the moment, as they’re popular, expensive and generally 100% useless.
Not many supplements are must-haves. Creatine and caffeine come closest, but not everyone responds to creatine and caffeine is easily abused.
A lot of micronutrients can be useful, depending on someone’s diet and climate, but they’re never essential in supplement form.
Most supplements fall in the category of ‘conditionally slightly useful’ in that they benefit certain individuals a little bit in certain contexts. For example, beta-alanine, citrulline, and nitric oxide boosters can enhance performance with certain strength-endurance type training, but they’re not useful for traditional heavy strength training. High-stress individuals may benefit from phenibut for recovery and overall wellbeing.
Note: I second all of this, but want to note that phenibut can become habit-forming. The linked article has a phenibut dosage calculator, but I would also limit usage to a few days a week to be on the safe side. Consider using less habit-forming supplements like theanine and ashwagandha for stress or phenibut for sleep induction on most days; all three are discussed in this article on nootropics.
What are the main challenges that natural trainees face, and how does that change if you’re talking about, say, novices, vs. people with 2–3 years of training under their belt vs. a fitness model or physique competitor?
The first challenges for novices are always learning exercise technique, consuming enough protein, and creating calorie awareness. As you progress to the intermediate stages, you’ll need to start fine-tuning things more in terms of programming. Periodization and nutrient timing become important at this point too.
Just messing about without a plan won’t cut it anymore. Competitors and models need to learn to optimize their peak week, which takes meticulous experimentation, as the optimal peak week varies significantly from one person to the next. They need to figure out if they benefit from dehydration and how much, how much to carb-load and how (not) to ‘shit-load’, and how to improve vascularity before going on stage or camera.
Note: Carb-loading and shit-loading are techniques used by competitors and models in the last week before a contest or photo shoot. Carb-loading is pretty self-explanatory, and typically done 1–3 days before the big day. Shit-loading refers to eating a small amount of candy, chips, or the like in the last few hours before a contest or photo shoot. “Improve vascularity” means to increase the appearance of veins.
Yes, You Can Look Like a Fitness Model Without Jabbing Needles Into Your Ass
It takes years of hard work and discipline, but it can be done. We’ve barely scratched the surface in this article, but if you want to get started down this road, here’s what I would do next:
- Read every article Menno linked to in this article.
- If you’ve never done so before, hire someone to teach you proper form for all the major lifts. Probably a personal trainer who works with you in person, although a really good online coach (like Menno) can critique your form if you take good videos of yourself lifting weights.
- For most people, increase your training volume and frequency as high as you can while still recovering from your workouts.
- Absolutely optimize your sleep to where you’re sleeping 8–9 hours a night every night.
- Start calorie cycling — eat more calories in the next two meals following a workout, and fewer calories in all other meals.
- Clean up your diet. Eat more fruits, vegetables, and meat, and cut out the processed foods and liquid calories, other than protein shakes.