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Layne Norton: Real Science of Building Muscle (Podcast)

Layne Norton, PhD is one of the strength world’s most respected minds when it comes to the science behind building muscle and strength. He’s also competed in both bodybuilding and powerlifting at elite levels. Layne joins us to talk about what the bodybuilding and powerlifting worlds can learn from each other, along with sifting through the “bro science” to determine what’s actually optimal for building muscle. 

In this episode of the BarBend Podcast, David Thomas Tao talks to Layne Norton about:

  • Living the double life of being a meathead/nerd (2:24)
  • Layne’s origins in strength sports and early interest in muscle building (4:00)
  • Layne’s research into nutritional interventions that can improve muscle gain: How different sources of protein create better anabolic responses to a meal (6:00)
  • Early days of Layne’s bodybuilding career, and how it intersected with his research (8:30)
  • Transitioning from bodybuilding to powerlifting (10:30)
  • What bodybuilders can learn from powerlifters and vice versa (16:50)
  • Layne’s unpopular opinion about bodybuilding and bodybuilders (17:16)
  • It is possible to perform well and be lean (20:00)
  • Why crash dieting isn’t optimal for weight loss in powerlifting (22:30)
  • What currently interests Layne most about strength and performance (25:30)
  • Most bodybuilders compete way too often (29:20)

Relevant links and further reading:

Transcription

Layne NortonLayne Norton

This is going to be very unpopular with a lot of bodybuilders. You don’t train hard enough. [laughs]

 

I thought I knew how to train hard and I trained pretty darn hard. Until you go through some overreaching phases in powerlifting, and I’m just talking where heavy squats to the point and heavy deadlifts like it is soul sucking.

David TaoDavid Tao

Welcome to the “BarBend Podcast,” where we talk to the smartest athletes, coaches and minds from around the world of strength. I’m your host, David Thomas Tao, and this podcast is presented barbend.com.

 

Today I’m talking to Layne Norton, also known online as Biolayne, one of the fitness community’s most multitalented influencers. He’s a competitive natural bodybuilder, champion powerlifter, and PhD in nutritional sciences.

 

Fun fact, his thesis title was “Loosing is a Critical Factor Determining Protein Quantity and Quality to Initiate Muscle Protein Synthesis.” Yeah, this guy knows a thing or two about building muscle. In today’s episode, Layne and I talk about some critical connections, differences and similarities between bodybuilding and powerlifting.

 

Including what athletes can teach each other across the disciplines. We also discuss myths and misconceptions surrounding training intensity and how long it really takes to build quality muscle mass and strength.

 

Also, I want to take a second to say, we’re incredibly thankful that you listen to this show. If you haven’t already, be sure to leave a rating and review in your app of choice. Now let’s get to it.

 

Layne Norton, probably better known as Biolayne to a lot of people, thanks so much for joining the BarBend podcast today. You are someone who’s done a lot in the fitness and strength industry, bodybuilder, powerlifter, researcher, PhD.

 

How do you like to describe yourself? Which of those titles fits best these days?

Layne NortonLayne Norton

I have one or two ways I’ll describe myself typically, which is, a meathead who loves science or a geek who loves to lift weights. Depending on the day, one might be a better description than the other, but I think they’re both pretty accurate.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

That makes a lot of sense, and I’ll take that. Which do you think has a more negative connotation in society, being a meathead or being a nerd?

Layne NortonLayne Norton

Probably be a meathead, I’m guessing. Other than school where intelligence can be put down to [inaudible 2:51] , the society, as a whole, values intelligence or at least they say they do. [laughs] We value people we think are intelligent. How about that?

David TaoDavid Tao

That’s a really good way of framing it. I was going to say I’m not sure it’s actual intelligence because everyone has their own measure. I like the way you put that.

 

Now, I got to ask. Which came first, your interest in the research side of things and being really inquisitive or were you a meathead first? Were you interested in getting strong in lifting weights first? It always comes at different times for different people.

Layne NortonLayne Norton

 I always had an inquisitive nature. Those seeds were always there, but I definitely started lifting weights with the idea of not that I want to unlock the secrets of the human body but I just want to get jacked [laughs] so that stopped getting bullied so much in high school and maybe get some attention from girls.

 

Sadly, it didn’t help with either one of those things but did lead to a lifelong love affair of training. That’s how it worked for me.

David TaoDavid Tao

Well, that makes a lot of sense. If you wouldn’t mind, give us a little background in to what you researched for your doctorate when it comes to the strength world because I’ve been in the industry for nearly a decade. I’ve known you for a while as Biolayne PhD, like mad scientist or whatever bodybuilding and powerlifting.

 

I don’t know if mad scientist is completely fair but take us through that main research component and focus that you had at that stage in your career.

Layne NortonLayne Norton

I have to go back a little bit. When I was getting into bodybuilding, I was starting to try and further my education, so to speak, but I didn’t really know how to read research. One of the things that got me interested in it was I was on a message board called mindandmuscle.net.

 

It was a small message board but there was actually some really intelligent people on there. There was a lot of ideas tossed around, a lot of verbal or a lot of jousting, scientific jousting, I would say, and I was just a kid doing my degree in Biochemistry. I knew a little bit of stuff but not a ton.

 

That sparked my curiosity. I decided I want to go to grad school. Applied to a few different labs. Got accepted in Donald Layman’s Lab at University of Illinois.

 

For those who don’t know, it’s funny I get people on Twitter like, “Oh, you went to the University of Illinois.” I’m like, “Have you ever looked at where they actually rank?” I know it’s a state school and maybe you think that’s not impressive but there are top 50 school overall. Number 14 for public school and for nutritional sciences, in particular, they’re currently ranked third.

 

When I went there, they were at second. The lab I went to in specific was one of the top labs for protein and muscle metabolism in the world. That’s where my research focus was. It was the anabolic component and wanting to learn more about nutritional interventions that could improve muscle hypertrophy.

 

In that lab, in particular, we were focused on studying how different sources of protein and what components of the protein were important for enhancing the anabolic response to a meal.

David TaoDavid Tao

Cool. Makes a lot of sense now. Take us through a little bit of your…I think it’s actually relatable. I like how you break it down for all of us who might not be doctorates in [laughs] these things. Take us a little bit through your strength-competition career. Were you interested in bodybuilding and competing in that first or more on the powerlifting side first?

Layne NortonLayne Norton

Yes. I’m different than a lot of people. A lot of people started in powerlifting and then moved to bodybuilding. I actually took the opposite course. I got interested in competing in bodybuilding when I finished my senior in high school. I’d been lifting for a few years.

 

Got relatively strong, relatively decent amount of muscle. I was a baseball player in high school and knew I wasn’t going to go anywhere with that in the long term. I was a pretty good ballplayer, but I was a 5’10” average height, average hitting, defensive-minded for a right-handed first baseman. I wasn’t [laughs] exactly fielding a lot of offers from… [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

You were going to be…

Layne NortonLayne Norton

 

…the top schools.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

You weren’t going to be starting for the Yankees after a few years in the minors, let’s put it that way.

Layne NortonLayne Norton

Probably not. They usually can find guys with some better tangibles than that.

 

I love baseball but I think I knew that portion of it was over for me. My high school coach did tell me, “Hey, if you want to go play college ball somewhere, you can probably find a place that will take you or walk on,” but I decided I wanted to shift gears.

 

I wanted to go and focus on my academics, and being a college athlete these days is a full-time job. I was the first person in my family ever to go to college. I really wanted to take that seriously. Got into bodybuilding as a way to wet that competitive appetite since baseball was over.

 

After my freshman year of college, one year after I really gotten serious about bodybuilding, I wanted to do a bodybuilding show and enter in the Teen division. I did that. Long story short, won the Teen division and actually won the Novice Tall division as well as a 19-year-old and I was hooked.

 

I was absolutely hooked, and did a few different competition seasons. I did that competition season. Did two shows the following year. Took two years off, and then did four shows, my senior year of college or actually right after I graduated college.

 

Took two years off and went, and did I think four more shows as well in 2006. That’s where I won my Pro-card in Natural Bodybuilding. Knew I was going to take a long extended break from bodybuilding of four years because that’s how long I had left on my PhD.

 

I hoped how long I had left on my PhD. [laughs] I was going to use that time to really build a lot of muscle or as much as I could, and get ready for the Pro stage because that was pretty intimidating for me.

 

The idea that I was going to go up against some of the best natural bodybuilders in the world. I started training with that mind but building muscle without drugs is a very slow process, very arduous process, and it can be very disheartening at times because in order to build that muscle, you’re usually allowing yourself to put on a little bit of body fat.

 

The gains you’re making, you’re not seeing them in the mirror because it’s being covered by some body fat. I decided I wanted to do something to keep myself motivated in the gym, that wouldn’t interfere with my bodybuilding goals. I decided to enter a powerlifting meet.

 

I did a few of those, turns out I was pretty good at it. I even got an invitation to Raw Unity 3 back in 2010, which at the time was the biggest raw powerlifting event in the world — which is funny because it was held in a high school gymnasium — which now the biggest raw events in the world are in big…There’s actually going to be one in the stadium next year, which is cool.

 

I did that and then went back to bodybuilding in 2010 after I graduated from my PhD. I did very well in the Pro shows I entered. I actually won my weight class — my first Pro show — then finished top five in all my shows overall. After that, I had the mentality that, “Well, I’m going to go…”

 

I still didn’t consider myself a powerlifter, really. I considered myself a bodybuilder who likes to powerlift. I decided I was going to take another extended break from bodybuilding just to focus on growing my business and trying to build as much muscle as I could.

 

I was hanging around Mike Zourdos, who’s a professor of Exercise Science at Florida Atlantic University and my friend Ben Esgro at the time, and they were both into powerlifting.

 

They loved it. They kept telling about the USAPL, which is the IPF affiliate in the USA. The IPF is the most prestigious powerlifting organization there is in the world. The next one is…they’ve been close. They’re recognized by the IOC. They have a legitimate World Championship where over 50 countries from around the world send athletes to compete.

 

It’s a very, very prestigious event, in any case. I didn’t really know much about them. I was just doing powerlifting for fun. Mike, Professor Zourdos, he put on a meet at FAU one year, and asked me to come down, and do the meet. I did the meet. He was like, “You realize your total would have won you Nationals last year.”

Good to know.

I was like, “Really?” He’s like, “Yeah. You would have won Nationals and you would have placed in the top 10 at Worlds.” I was like, “Oh. Really?”

David TaoDavid Tao

Good to know.

 

Nice to know in hindsight.

Layne NortonLayne Norton

Yeah. I got the idea, “Well, maybe I’ll try. Maybe I’ll give this thing a shot.” I went and did Nationals. I think, at some point during that prep for Nationals in 2014, the switch flipped in my head where I was like, “I really love this heavyweight stuff. [laughs] This is great.”

 

I was starting to hit some pretty crazy numbers and training. I was into the mid-60s on squat. I’d hit like a 630-squat in the gym and then a 640-squat in the gym.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

What bodyweight were you at around this time? What were you training at?

Layne NortonLayne Norton

I was competing in the 93-kilo class, which is 205 pounds, and I hit a 700-pound deadlift. I was really liking my chances and my totals.

 

When I got to Nationals, it was funny because I was a wildcard, and this was the first year where Raw Nationals was really big. There was over 500 lifters.

 

People looked to me like a wildcard. I was like this guy who had done bodybuilding but now he’s trying to do powerlifting, and I ended up winning that meet. I remember, after I won, the exhilaration of pulling your last deadlift and realizing you’ve won is pretty cool feeling.

 

Immediately, the head of the US Coaching Committee Matt Gary, who’s a legend in the IPF, the greatest platform coach there is. Meaning if you need somebody to call your left or pick an attempt for you, Matt Gary is the man.

 

Matt walked straight up to me and says, “You’re gonna do Worlds, right?” Again, I just was like, “Oh, I’m going to try this Nationals thing, see how it works.” I was like, “Well, where is it?”

 

He’s like, “It’s in Finland.” I looked at my coach Ben, I was like, “You wanna go to Finland?” He was like, “Hell, yeah.” [laughs] Did that and then found out I squatted 650 at Nationals, the world record was 661.

 

That became a pursuit for a while, and I broke that at Raw Worlds in 2015. Squatted 668 and got a 1,758-pound total, and finished in the silver medal position, which was a pretty cool experience for me.

 

At that point, I think I had a fully transitioned over to like, “I think I like this powerlifting thing a little bit more.” [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

Would you ever switch back to bodybuilding or would you ever compete in any sort of bodybuilding or physique competition again?

Layne NortonLayne Norton

 For sure. It is something that I want to do. It’s on the bucket list. I’ve still got a passion for getting under a heavy squat.

 

Bodybuilding is very rewarding. I love it. I do love bodybuilding, but there’s nothing that can quite compare to…With bodybuilding, you’re waiting. You’re waiting to hear your name called. You’re waiting for the feedback from five or seven people. It’s all subjective.

 

With powerlifting, it is a little bit subjective when you talk about squat depth, and did you hit your dead lift or that kind of stuff. For the most part, it’s, “Did you lift it or not?”

 

There’s nothing quite like coming down to the last deadlift, and knowing you need a certain pull to win a meet, putting it on the bar, and getting it. It really is hard to compare to something like that.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

 What are some lessons that you think bodybuilders might be able to take from the powerlifting world and vice versa as someone — not the only person — who has existed and had success in both those realms?

Layne NortonLayne Norton

Great question. I always said I think there’s a lot that powerlifters could learn from bodybuilders and bodybuilders could learn from powerlifters.

 

This is going to be very unpopular with a lot of bodybuilders. You don’t train hard enough. [laughs]

 

I thought I knew how to train hard. I trained pretty darn hard. Until you go through some overreaching phases in powerlifting — I’m just talking where — heavy squats to the point and heavy deadlifts. It is soul-sucking. It’s always funny. I was doing a live the other day, and I had hit a squat. I had done 520 for 5.

 

I said, “That was about RPE eight for me,” meaning I could have done two more reps. Somebody goes, “Well, if you could have done two more reps, why didn’t you just do them?” I said, “If you train to absolute failure on lifts like that, it will crush you pretty quickly.”

 

I have people all the time that, for example, if I put together a program, and it’s three sets of squats, they’ll say, “Those are so easy. I was through that in 10 minutes.”

 

I’m like, “You don’t know how to train hard. If three sets of squats at an above a RPE eight was easy for you and felt easy and was quick, you just have never trained hard, and you’re actually not even close to failure.”

 

If you do a legit hard set of squats…For anybody who’s ever done an actual set of heavy squats to failure, and by failure I mean actually either got pinned in the rack or did it to the point where you were shaking and convulsing by the end because you were just so much muscular, neuromuscular fatigue, trying to do anything after that — good luck.

 

I think one of the things I learned was actually how to really push myself in training, how to really train hard. Even doing a hack squat to failure or a leg press to failure, it doesn’t compare to doing a heavy squat or deadlift to failure, where you’re bracing and balancing and having to stabilize all that weight.

 

It’s a whole different ball game. That really taught me how much I really could push myself in training.

David TaoDavid Tao

What about the other way around? What can powerlifters, if anything, take away more from the bodybuilding sphere, and what did you take to powerlifting from your bodybuilding experience that other people might not be able to bring across the two sports or might not have if they haven’t done both?

Layne NortonLayne Norton

I think now it’s a little bit different. There’s quite a few powerlifters who are pretty lean. When I got into it, that was a little bit more of a novelty. It was, “Eat until you couldn’t eat anymore, and then drink some calories when you couldn’t eat any more.”

 

Now, people realize that it is possible to perform well and be lean. I think the other thing I brought was, there was a lot of stupidity and just bro science. Well, there is in bodybuilding too, but in the way powerlifters cut down for competitions, like I was talking to one powerlifter, like, “Man, I lost so much strength. I don’t think this weight class is for me.”

 

I was like, “What did you do for your diet?” He’s like, “Well, I had 30 pounds to lose, so about a month out, I started cutting out my food.” I’m like, “No kidding, you lost all your strength.” Like…

David TaoDavid Tao

 

He’s just cutting out the food not with any intelligence, just eating less generally?

Layne NortonLayne Norton

Yeah, just eating way less and then cutting a bunch of water. For me, people don’t realize the weight class for USA PL used to be 100 kilograms and 90 kilograms. The IPF restructured their weight classes circa 2013, I want to say. For the year 2014, you had to pick either the naïve for 100 kilo lifter, you got to go down to 93, or you could go up to 105.

 

I made a judgment call. I decided I want to go down to 93 because I never really felt like I got that much more strength from being anywhere above like 215-220, or that would be anywhere from 98 to 100 kilos. That’s only seven kilos. That’s only a 15-pound drop.

 

I did that over the course of almost a year. That was like I would lose two kilos, and then I would reverse diet or in a period of maintenance for several weeks. Let my body get adjust to that new body weight, then I would come down to another kilo or two.

 

Let my body get adjust to that body weight, stabilize, maintenance work, then I would go down again.

 

By the time I got to the 205-pound or 93-kilo class, I had been already maintaining that weight for several months. A lot of these powerlifters, they want to drop 20 pounds or 25 pounds, and then they’re shocked that the weights don’t feel that great.

 

I was like, “No kidding. It’s not just your energy levels. It’s also your frame is completely different now. Your waist is narrower. Stabilization is going to be different. You have to learn your new mechanics.”

 

This idea that these guys are just going to lose a bunch of weight at the end, and especially in the IPF where we have, too, our weighings. The weighing is not the day before the meet for us.

 

We’re literally weighing in two hours before we’re about to go lift. You can’t just cut a bunch of water because if you try to cut a bunch of water, you’re going to perform like crap. That’s one of the things I brought over.

 

One of the things powerlifters could learn from bodybuilders is a more intelligent approach in terms of how to come down. Most bodybuilders, most — even though some still do silly water depleting protocols — do know that crash dieting is not a good idea especially for maintaining lean body mass.

 

I think that’s one of the concepts I brought over from bodybuilding that really helped me in powerlifting.

David TaoDavid Tao

That makes sense and I appreciate you diving into that obviously. I especially like what you talk about where your mechanics and the physics of how you move are going to change at a different body weight.

 

That’s something that a lot of people, a Cross-Strength sports that I’ve seen, be it weightlifters, powerlifters, Strongman athletes, even Crossfitters, when they undergo a significant phase, hypertrophy or weight loss, they’re surprised that, “Oh, I’m just missing these lifts.”

 

Sometimes isn’t due to strength, it’s just sometimes because you’re positional awareness is completely different.

Layne NortonLayne Norton

 Even your proprioception, that thing, your equipment or your belt can fit differently. Even the cues I use are a little bit different now. When I incurred a few back injuries, and I actually did go up to the 105-kilo class last year, more so because I didn’t want to deal with trying to diet down while I was also on my comeback trail from a pretty serious back injury.

 

My mechanics were different. I was able to be a little more upright my squats and that was great. Now, I’m actually coming back down to the 93-kilo class again but I’ve had to change the cues I used during a squat. I’m having to change the way I think about things. I’ve wide my stance a little bit.

 

There’s a few little things I’ve done because I can’t expect to lift the same way at a lighter bodyweight as I did than heavier body weight.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

Makes sense. Layne, I have to ask. You’re someone who is known not only for your athletic prowess but as for being a prominent voice on the latest research and evidence-based fitness and methodology in bodybuilding, powerlifting, other strength sports even. What area of research interests you most right now when it comes to strength performance?

Layne NortonLayne Norton

 Interesting. I would probably say, the research right now that’s looking at effective volume and volume load. Looking at what kind of dosage do we need to effectively promote hypertrophy in strength and also optimize it and [inaudible 26:00] . Before 2014, there’s a statistic out there.

 

I can’t remember the exact amount but before 2014, there was a certain amount of research in strength sports and I want to say, since 2014, the body of research has doubled or tripled on studies looking at resistance training and hypertrophy and strength. We are expanding our knowledge-based of what creates hypertrophy in strength exponentially.

 

I’m really interested in that research and to tease out some more of what the research actually says. We have a basic idea like some things we’re pretty confident. We know that multiple sets are better than single sets. We know that you can build muscle with lightweights but you need to take them near failure and near fatigue.

 

We know that we think we are pretty confident that the volume is better expressed as number of hard sets. We think we know that the effective number of hard sets in a workout tends to cap out around 10 per day in terms of a body part. There’s a lot of other unanswered questions in that research. That’s the field I’m really interested in right now.

David TaoDavid Tao

 What are some aspects of bodybuilding that a lot of bodybuilders at all levels are just getting wrong still?

Layne NortonLayne Norton

Good. Great question. The number one thing I would say is they compete way too often. If you want to — especially, if somebody is drug-free — build significant amount of muscle, you are not going to optimize that if you are always dieting.

 

Let me go further, even if you are competing once a year, it’s too often for the most part.

 

If you want to build significant muscle, you’re going to need to take time off because…let’s say, somebody is reasonable and doesn’t have a lot of fat to lose and they do a 16-week prep. That’s a short prep in my mind. 16 weeks is a short prep because I don’t promote crash dieting.

 

Most people who think they’re 16 weeks out are more like 24 or 30 weeks out. Let’s say, legit 16 weeks out, meaning they’ve only got six, seven, eight kilograms to lose, they do a prep.

 

The research shows that when you get that lean, you need almost as much time to recover from that prep and just get back to a good normal healthy state as you did the actual prep.

 

Let’s add another 16 weeks to that. That’s 32 weeks now that you haven’t been focused on improving your hypertrophy because you’ve been dieting or recovering. That’s 32 weeks. There’s 52 weeks in a year.

 

You have 20 weeks left. Also, if you want to do another show the following year, that’s another 16 weeks. You can see how much time is left to actually make progress and make some gains in hypertrophy.

 

It can be precious little. Some of the biggest mistakes bodybuilders make is competing way too often. A lot of them do that because their identity gets wrapped up in competition and looking stage lean because they love the way it looks, and so they end up competing every year just so they can satisfy the ego part of their identity, which is stage lean.

 

If you want to be successful, especially, again, for people who are drug-free, you’re going to have to take some time off.

 

David TaoDavid Tao

 What about on the powerlifting side? What are powerlifters at all levels generally getting wrong that you see most frequently?

Layne NortonLayne Norton

 Huh.

David TaoDavid Tao

You had to expect this follow-up with the first one. [laughs]

Layne NortonLayne Norton

It’s the more difficult question. Not appreciating the aspects of individual variability enough. I have seen so many different methods work for so many different people with regards to powerlifting that being a student of the game and being open-minded with different training techniques, different exercises, different loading schemes.

 

Also I think one of the biggest things I’ve seen in powerlifters is not being proactive enough in injury recovery and prevention.

 

That’s a huge thing. You lived hard enough, long enough, you’re going to get dinged-up. It just happens. That’s something I’ve tried to emphasize. I guess one of the other things I would say is I think part of this is social media. I see a lot of guys who are maxing out really frequently, doing one rep maximums with their competition lifts, and I get it.

 

It looks awesome on Instagram to the huge squats and benches and deadlifts to whatnot, but I have learned to try to let go of those gym PRs so that I can hit competition PRs. Whereas, I would say, before 2017, my focus will always be setting PRs in the gym. That was what drove my training.

 

After that, I have not set one PR in the gym, but I’ve set PRs in the platform. Having the mindset switch from always feeling like you’ve got to set some PRs in the gym to actually just focusing on what is going to get me to that PR in the platform, and it doesn’t always mean PRing in the gym.

 

I’m not saying that PRing in the gym is a bad thing, but if you’re always finding yourself PRing in the gym and then not PRing in the platform, you probably need to ask yourself if what you’re doing is the right way to do it.

David TaoDavid Tao

Makes sense. I really appreciate your time, Layne. We’ve covered a lot of grounds across multiple sports and obviously, the body of research that you spent years and years on to earn your PhD.

 

Where’s the best place for people to keep up-to-date with the work you’re doing and your next return to the platform or maybe further in the future of the bodybuilding stage?

Layne NortonLayne Norton

Yes. I’m on the social medias, pretty much Biolayne on every social media, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter. My Facebook is a little bit different. Facebook is just Layne Norton. It’s an athlete page, and then my website biolayne.com.

 

That’s where we keep everything. That’s where you can keep up with all of our content, videos, articles, all that kind of jazz is at biolayne.com.

David TaoDavid Tao

Great. Layne Norton, thanks so much for joining us.

 

Layne NortonLayne Norton

 I appreciate it. Thank you, David.

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