An Interview with Lee Labrada

Interview Courtesy of Lee Labrada

– You had an amazing career. Which competitions stand out in your mind?

One was the IFBB Mr. Universe, which launched my pro bodybuilding career.  Back in those days, you had one shot at such a title.  If you didn’t win, you weren’t coming back the next year to compete again, because the Americans were sending someone else to represent them. It’s not like today, with pro cards being handed out left and right.

Close to this achievement is placing in the top four at the Mr. Olympia for seven consecutive years, and being the only man in history to beat 8-time winner Lee Haney in the prejudging of our 1990 showdown. Keep in mind that at 190 pounds, I was giving away a 50lb advantage. Nobody came as close to beating the eighties reigning champ Lee Haney as I did. I have a great deal of respect for Lee Haney as a person and an athlete and feel that he is still the one of the greatest Mr. Olympias ever. It was an honor to compete with him.

– What was it about your preparation for these shows that just worked so well?

Being extremely disciplined about my diet, training and posing practice.  I was meticulous about weighing everything I ate, and knowing how many calories I consumed on a daily basis. I recorded everything.  I still have these logs in a vault—they’re valuable. This approach allowed me to make seemingly minor adjustments in my food and fluid consumption that manifested themselves as HUGE physical differences in my physique. I turned training and nutrition into a science, where most of my counterparts did things more intuitively. After a while, all I had to do was to refer to my logs to determine exactly what I should do on any given day leading up to a show. It was like connecting the dots.

– How did the decision to move into a pro building career affect your enjoyment of training? Did training become more or less enjoyable?

Bodybuilding was always been enjoyable to me, both while competing as an amateur and later as a pro.  I was always focused on two things: improving my physique and winning. I thrived on the pressure and never felt like I  “had to” train.  Training was something which I looked forward to and which I attacked with fervor. That’s because I approached every workout as a unique opportunity to make a change in my physique. Each and every workout made a difference—I was getting better every time. I never had a “maintenance” approach to my physique. If anything, the bodybuilding process just became more results and goal oriented once I “turned pro” and had set my sights on winning the Mr. Olympia.

– Sustaining the type of intensity and consistency needed to get onstage and compete in the biggest bodybuilding events in the world seems like something that can’t be done forever. How has your training changed over the years, including now?

It’s like running a race car at high RPMs in second gear.  Pre-contest training can take its toll on you, both physically and mentally. Burn-out is common amongst top competitors, especially those who get caught up in the distractions of the bodybuilding lifestyle. When I competed as an Olympian, I alternated periods during which I trained with higher and lower intensity, so as to give myself time to recover between competitions. This is a concept called periodization. For most of my competition years, I only competed in the fall each year, in the Mr. Olympia and ensuing Grand Prix events, which gave me lots of time to heal and grow between shows.

On the topic of training…Because I have always been a proponent of high intensity training, I only did as much as was required to stimulate muscle growth, and then, I’d get out of the gym. I still take the same approach to my training: get the job done, then get out of the gym and recover.  Of course, today I am retired from competition, so I am more focused on maintaining my sharp physique and health as I get older. If I need extra time to recover, I’ll take an extra day, and just do cardio to get my blood moving.

– Of all the approaches to training that we hear about so often, and there are many, what were the approaches that you felt gave you the best growth spurts throughout your years of training?

The approach of “Less is more!”  I would do as much as I needed to in order to stimulate the muscles to grow, then stop.  This amounted to about 30 minutes of hard work per body part. Let me tell you, if you are working with maximum weights and putting forth 100% effort, it’s plenty. People who tell you that working a muscle group takes them an hour or more are just working out at sub-maximum capacity, using lighter weights or resting too long between sets. I normally only rest long enough to catch my breath in between sets, or let my partner (if I am training with one) finish, before starting my next set.

– Who were the strongest Bodybuilders physically when you were at the height of your career? 

The physically strongest were Bertil Fox, Dorian Yates and Ronnie Coleman.  The best physiques I competed with were Lee Haney, Flex Wheeler, Shawn Ray, Kevin Levrone and Ronnie Coleman.

– Who were your biggest influences? 

I would have to say that early on, my biggest influence was IFBB Mr. Universe and Olympian Mike Mentzer. Being a civil engineer, I loved the logic and science that Mentzer brought to bodybuilding at a time during which bodybuilding was structured largely around anecdotal training results. As you may know, Mentzer was influenced greatly by Arthur Jones, Elliot Darden and one of Mentzer’s contemporaries, Casey Viator, the youngest bodybuilder in history to win the Mr. America title—at 19 years old.

I also have to mention my ex-brother-in-law, Samir Bannout, who was Mr. Olympia in 1983.  Samir served as an inspiration for me in the years during which I was transitioning from an amateur to the pro level. Later in the late eighties, I was influenced by Frank Zane, who was my training partner for two weeks prior to the 1988 IFBB Mr. Olympia. Frank is a master at developing beauty and symmetry in the physique. We are friends to this day.

– What was your training split during competition season and during the off season?

• Competition season

  • Three days on, one day off; followed by two days on, one day off
  • Push/pull/legs alternated

• Off-season

  • Two days on, one day off
  • Push/pull/legs alternated

For example:

  • Monday: Chest/ Shoulders/ Triceps
  • Tuesday: Back/ Biceps
  • Wed: OFF
  • Thursday: Legs /Abs
  • Friday: Chest/ Shoulders/ Triceps
  • Saturday: OFF
  • Sunday: Back/ Biceps
  • Monday: Legs/Abs
  • Repeat cycle.

If you examine this two-on, one-off split carefully,  you’ll see that I am training each body part three times every two weeks (instead of four times every two weeks, as on the four day per week routine).  This added rest really helps with overall recovery, which you need lots of to enjoy huge gains in muscle size.  In fact, this routine is so effective, that I still use it to this day.

On the days off, you can do 30 minutes of your favorite cardio work to improve your recovery.  One of the benefits of cardio is that it increases blood flow throughout the body, which aids in flushing the waste products of exercise out of your muscles.  That means faster recuperation in between workouts for you.

– What rep/set ranges did you like to work around?

At the beginning of each of your exercises, you should perform 1-2 warm up sets to increase blood flow to the target muscle.  This will result in a muscle that is more elastic and less susceptible to injury from the heavier training poundages that will follow. Once the muscle is warmed up, light stretching is useful to further prepare the muscle for training.

Once you are warmed up, select a training poundage that you can comfortably perform 8-10 repetitions with.  Perform your first set.  Rest long enough to catch your breath,  or to allow your training partner to perform his/her set,  whichever comes first.  This rest period will last about a minute on the average,  but may be as long as two minutes with larger body parts such as legs.  Gauge your training tempo by your breathing.

Increase the training poundage by adding weight,  so that on your second set you can perform no more than 8 reps. In a perfect world, you should “fail” on the eighth rep. But things being what they are, if you get to the eighth rep and feel that you can perform another, proceed to do so.  The important thing is that you take the muscle to the point of failure. Your muscles should feel more and more fatigued with each succeeding set.

On the third and last set of an exercise,  increase the training poundage yet again,  to ensure that you can do no more than 6 repetitions.  Have your training partner assist you if necessary to help you get the last rep. Don’t over do these “forced repetitions” however.  One or two on the last set of an exercise is usually enough. Too many forced reps can lead to over training.

Now, go on to the second exercise and repeat the pattern that we followed here. If necessary,  you can go to a third exercise, but I only recommend that for larger body parts such as back and legs.  I have gotten my best results from limiting total sets for small body parts like arms to 6 total sets.  It doesn’t sound like much, but when you are training fast and heavy, it’s the just the right amount.

–What about sets per body part? (see above)

  • 6 sets for biceps and triceps
  • 10-12 sets for larger bodyparts
  • Never more than 30 minutes per bodypart, nor 1.5 hours per workout

– What about your diet throughout this time? What was your usual daily diet?

• Offseason

  • 5-6 small meals per day
  • 40 grams protein at each meal including chicken, fish, turkey and red meat.
  • Lots of complex carbs such as oatmeal, yams, rice and beans, and potatoes
  • Fruit, yogurt
  • Low fat—15-20% by calories
  • Today, my diet is higher in fat calories, primarily from “good fats” such as fish oil, olive oil and nuts

• Competition season

  • 6 meals per day
  • 40 grams of protein at each meal—no red meat
  • Fat 10% by calories
  • No fruit or simple sugars
  • Salads and steamed veggies

– What made you want to get into supplementation?

In 1995, after retiring from pro bodybuilding, I saw a real opportunity in the supplement market to fill a void for high quality, great tasting products that met label claim. To this day, there are a lot of supplements that don’t taste good. Ours do. That’s because they undergo a rigorous R&D process with a crack team of food scientists, combined with consumer testing, prior to being release. Secondly, there are many supplements that don’t meet label claim; ours do.  Since day one, I have had all shipments of Labrada products lab tested to ensure that they meet label claim.  That’s why I stand behind all of my products with my personal quality guarantee: “If it’s on the Label, it’s in the Product.”  Lastly, our products are made with the highest quality ingredients, using efficacious doses—they cost more, but they work. Experienced supplement users have come to recognize Labrada as the most trusted name in sports nutrition.

– What types of supplements would you say are the essentials?

I would say that first and foremost, you must make sure that you have a solid diet as a foundation; otherwise supplements can only do so much. For those of you who desire additional help in this area, Labrada provides free programs and informative how-to articles and videos on our website, You will also find our free Lean Body Nation newsletter that you can sign up for on the website.

Once your have are on a nutrition program that is built on whole foods, you should add a protein supplement. Labrada Nutrition makes an exceptional line of high protein Lean Body ready to drink protein shakes and MRP powders.  

– What is it that you would like to achieve with Labrada Nutrition? 

I want to help athletes change their bodies by providing the tools they need — high quality supplements and education. I have already talked about why our supplements are the best tools an aspiring bodybuilder can invest in. 

At Labrada, we are much more than a supplement company.  We are also in the business of educating.  That’s why we publish the free weekly online Lean Body Nation newsletter that goes out to more than 70,000 subscribers.

– Looking back over your career, what has the sport of bodybuilding given to you (and I’m not talking financially, necessarily)?

The opportunity to develop myself as an athlete and a person. Because of the challenges involved in competing for many years, I have developed a great deal of discipline and commitment, which I bring to all areas of my life.

– Do you have any regrets?

None at all. It’s been a wonderful ride! That’s not to say that I haven’t had many challenges along the way,  I have. I am just grateful. I have been very blessed to have the opportunities which I have had, and I thank God for giving me the strength and determination to follow through on them. I appreciate my family, friends and fans and their support over the years.

Lee Labrada
Labrada Nutrition / Lean Body | + posts

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