Someone once said that starting at the very beginning is a very good place to start, but that might take quite a while! So, long story short, I’ve wanted to do bodybuilding for a long time but it never materialized for me until recently. I was pretty small as a kid and slow to develop. So yeah, I looked like a skinny nerd and was treated like one. And somehow I ended up working as a technical engineer for the past 32 years.
Eventually I started structured exercise, and later joined the YMCA where I could swim and lift weights. It really reminded me of how we played as kids. We didn’t have all the modern electronic distractions so we played in the neighbor’s pool, climbed trees, rode bikes and made model cars, planes and rockets. I loved working out at the Y and eventually started competing in triathlons (get it – running, swimming, and biking) – just like a kid. I got myself into pretty good condition, although not very muscular… But, I wanted to be.
One of my neighbors was a bodybuilder and I finally confessed to him that although triathlons were fine, I really wanted to try bodybuilding. He was like Sure, you can do it, no problem! What a relief, I was afraid he was going to say, Sorry, no, this really is not something you should try. So I decided at that moment, I’m going to do this.
By this time I was working out at the local LA Fitness and my first step was to just start working out harder – trying to lift more – force my muscle to grow. I also started reading every magazine and book I could get on bodybuilding. Reading instructions and looking at illustrations is one thing, but performing the correct exercises in proper form is another. My form basically sucked but I didn’t know it until one of the gym members finally said, Steve, you’re going to hurt yourself. He connected me with Chris Moran at Total Fitness in Indianapolis, and I finally started working on doing things right.
Lessons from the Deadlift
Chris was insistent on correct form and complete development of my body – not just the show muscles. At the end of 2012 when I confessed that my goal was to compete, the first thing Chris did was add deadlifts into my program. Why deadlifts? Why not work the show muscles with more curls and crunches? I didn’t like deadlifts, could never master the form, and rarely had done them. Chris checked me into deadlift rehab for a few months – starting very, very light and adding small increments each week. By small I mean usually 5 and never more than 10 pounds per week. Then the day came when he added two of these stupid-heavy looking plates (45’s) to each side of the bar. Steve, meet 225! I think I did like 3 reps. But I felt great! I finally I realized that I could do this, and while it took some time, I was getting to the point where I could lift some actual, decent, weights.
Over a few months I continued to progress and eventually got up to 315, which was very serious lifting for me. As the weights increased, I started sensing a really good feeling. I figured it was just a positive sense of accomplishment, but have since learned that there’s also good body chemistry at work when the big muscle groups are worked hard.
I Connect with the Bodybuilding Community
Even though I had set a goal to compete, as yet I’d had no connection to the bodybuilding community. One night I googled Indianapolis body building and Jesse Dale’s contest popped up. I remembered reading about Jesse in the No Nonsense magazine and decided to attend his show. I don’t know what I expected, but my first bodybuilding contest was a shock. I thought, This was just way too extroverted for me! I kept thinking No way I can get on stage and do that! And yet I still really did want to. And I wasn’t about to give up on my goal (unlike a contestant I overheard in the lobby that night who said Well, one and I’m done.)
I was able to meet with Jesse a few weeks later at his gym. He took some measurements, did some number crunching, formulated a meal plan and signed me up for some posing classes. And I was on my way to becoming a competitive bodybuilder. I hadn’t been eating horribly before, so I wasn’t starting way out in left field, but it was... an adjustment! The key was staying focused on the plan, if you are going to hit your macronutrient targets +/-1 gram every day, you've got to pay strict attention to everything you eat. I’ve had the good fortune in my life of knowing some people who are the absolute top of their fields, and one common characteristic is that they pay attention to the details most dismiss as unimportant. I followed a contest diet for 4 months and my body composition changed dramatically. The diet was somewhat daunting, but the posing class was downright intimidating at first, the coaches were inspecting every detail!
I entered my first show that fall, the 2013 NPC Circle City Championships, just a month shy of my 56th birthday. It was a great experience being there with friends and family, and yes, it took me out of my comfort zone- anyone who knows me knows that essentially prancing around and flexing to Macklemore on an auditorium stage in front of hundreds of people I don’t know is not my usual mode of operation! But I got first place in bantam class and second place in my age group.
My Contest Diet
For my contest prep diet I had daily goals in grams for my protein, carbs, and fat. I used an excel spreadsheet to track the exact amount of what I ate, weighing everything on a scale. I tried to have some room for food at the end of the day, so I could have a small snack before bed to make my numbers come out right for the day, typically Greek Yogurt and pineapple. The spreadsheet calculated the exact grams of each required macronutrient- two equations and two unknowns for carbs and protein add just a little math and I would hit my targets within a gram every day for months. It might be a little overboard on the nerd scale, but I had to have a little fun with it! The NPC rules don’t say we can’t use our brain.
On the weekend I make my lunches for the week. I bake chicken breasts, then make salads with the chicken (200grams / 7oz.), onion, cucumber, orange pepper, and red leaf lettuce, and store them in plastic containers in the fridge ready to go. I’ll add some fat-free dressing in the morning each day before I head off to work.
Pre Workout: I train in the early morning before work. I’ll typically have a banana, UMP shake, Quadracarn, Creatine Select, and then take Glutamine Select plus BCAAs along to drink during my workout.
Breakfast: (after my workout) consists of oatmeal (60g) and eggs (1 or 2 whole, 4 whites), 3-4 each Mass Aminos and Ultra 40.
Lunch: as described above is usually baked chicken and a salad along with the usual 3-4 Mass Aminos and 3-4 Ultra 40.
Afternoon snack: is typically an apple, a UMP shake and 3-4 each Mass Aminos and Ultra 40.
Dinner is often lean ground beef (224g/8oz) or chicken along with broccoli, and 3-4 each Mass Aminos and Ultra 40.
Evening Snack (optional) Greek yogurt and pineapple.
Water is my #1 supplement. I drink a gallon each day. I fill a gallon jug each night and keep it in the fridge to drink throughout the following day. This really keeps my water intake precise and on track.
Supplements are UMP, Quadracarn, Creatine Select and Glutamine Select as described above, Mass Aminos and Ultra 40 with all my meals, plus ZMA 2000 and more Quadracarn at bedtime.
I also tried to get a good amount of what I call vitamin S, or what most refer to as sleep! I shoot for 8-8.5 hours. During the build season (or should I call them trophy season and hypertrophy season!?) I still follow the same basic plan, but just eat more of the same, with more flexibility at dinner. I don’t track what I eat in a spreadsheet during the off season, although I’ll occasionally spot check myself. I’ve also kept the habit of weighing
food instead of using measuring cups and teaspoons. Most recipes and cooking methods were designed before the advent of affordable and accurate digital kitchen scales, but using the scale
makes less cups and spoons to clean up.
I can’t write an exact workout because it changes all the time, but you’ll find a sample workout based on the applicable principles. The main approach is periodization training, with A and B workouts along with an auxiliary C workout. The A workout involves compound leg exercises, upper body horizontal push, hamstring work (hip dominant)
and upper body horizontal pulls. The B workout focuses on a compound leg exercise,
upper body vertical push, hamstring work (knee dominant) and an upper body vertical
pull. The C workout consists of more isolation type exercises.
One of the advantages of working with a trainer is that he calculates and sets the weights, which I like because I don’t go into a lift with numbers in my head. My work is to bring effort, focus, and intensity.
I think people give up on themselves way too early in life- don’t do it! I encourage anyone who has a lurking interest to try it. I did a second show in April of last year and placed 2nd in both weight and age categories. My conditioning was great but my overall muscular size still has room for improvement. I’m now on a two-year program to build muscle and plan on competing again in spring of 2016.
Sample 3-month Periodization Program
In the following training program you’ll see that the weight you should use for each exercise is based on your one rep max (1RM). Finding your 1RM can be quite difficult, if not dangerous. If you don’t have at least two spotters, and wish to prevent possible injury, using a 1RM Calculator is definitely the best route. A calculator can determine your 1RM by entering the number of reps performed with a specific weight. For example, let’s say that you can bench press 225lbs 5 times, your one rep max is approximately 253lbs. Normally you’d have to bust out your calculator and then multiply your estimated 1RM by .6 (60% 1RM in the first week of training listed below) but if you use this website, exrx.net/Calculators/OneRepMax.html, you’ll get a table of percentages to go by.
[photo added 21 June 2017] A recent photo of Steve for Progressive Overload Method While staying lean, he has made significant muscular gains.
Steve Thomas at a Glance
Occupation: Machine Design Engineer
Family: Daughters Anna, 27, and Natalie, 24, & son Justin, 20.