5 Questions with Dr. Mike Israetel

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Dr. Israetel is a rising force in the world of strength and bodybuilding.  He has a Ph.D. in Sports Physiology, and he’s a competitive athlete himself.  Currently focusing on bodybuilding, he’s also competed in martial arts and powerlifting.  With that brief intro out of the way, let’s dive into the interview.

I understand that you’ve of the opinion that there aren’t different types of periodization?  Care to elaborate on that?


The first thing that we have to accept in order to agree that there are not, in fact, different types of perioidization is that there is only one actual reality. I have yet to learn of a dependable system of philosophy that has determined otherwise. Since the world is “as it is,” and doesn’t depend on the state of the observer (I’d love for someone to bring up quantum mechanics as a retort… LOVE), our task is to figure out how it works.

Specifically, we must figure out how the human body works, and in the case of periodization, how it responds to training. Along this theme of a constant reality is the indisputable fact that at the level of basic physiology (upon which the entire science of periodization is built), almost all humans are remarkably similar. We have 97% genetic concordance with Gorillas, 98%+ with Chimps, and 99%+ with every other human on the planet. Humans respond to training in almost identical ways qualitatively, but differ only in quantity of response. For example, ALL humans need an overload to progress and ALL humans take on muscle damage with training. HOW MUCH training is an overload and how much muscle damage occurs from any given training is different for different people, but no one on this earth can claim to experience zero muscle damage from training at any given volume.
Because reality is universal and because humans are so similar to each other in their basic physiology, there is only ONE science of training. There is only ONE grand architecture for proper training theory that works the best to improve performance. There is no such thing as “linear periodization” or “conjugate periodization” or “daily undulating periodization” if you’re really in search of the truth. There are linear, conjugate, and daily undulating elements in EVERY properly sequenced and periodized training plan. It’s JUST PERIODIZATION. Put another way, if you consider all the principles of training (specificity, overload, variation, fatigue management, and several others), you arrive at the same basic structure of training as everyone else who’s been thinking clearly and diligently about the subject.

Are there proper debates at the margins and details? YOU BET.

Exactly how much of a linear progression can you make in a mesocycle before progress is no longer maximal?

Lots of debate, lots of consideration of the sport and the individual differences of the athletes. How much variation is too much? In other words, can a system be “too conjugate?” You bet, but there’s a lot of gray area. And how much alteration in volume/load is best within a microcycle (daily undulation)? Almost no modern sport scientist will tell you “no alteration” is the best answer (in fact, I think the last proponent of actual purely linear progression died in the 70’s or something), yet almost no sport scientist will tell you that it’s a good idea to train for sets of 15 reps, 5 reps, and power doubles in the same week. There is quite a bit of debate on the specifics, but most serious sport scientists have found that an advanced block periodization model is appropriate for most sports.

Modern block periodization (known best as “modern periodization”) has linear elements (load increase per week during a strength phase, for example), conjugate elements (secondary fitness characteristics must be maintained even though dominant ones are preferentially trained in any particular block), and undulating elements (heavy and light days in the same week, using varying volumes and loads within a microcycle to manage fatigue). There’s a good debate to be had about how much linear progression, how much fitness characteristic specificity, and how much undulation are best for any particular circumstance. On the other hand, some popular methods overuse one of the training principles or styles to the detriment of others. Training that is too linear ignores fatigue management and variation. Training that is too “conjugated,” or undulated too much within the week or month gives up too much specificity to be maximally effective. NO, Westside is NOT the best way to train be cause it largely ignores phase potentiation. NO, DUP is not the best way to train because it largely ignores specificity. NO, linear progression (whoever still does that anyway…) is not the best way to train, because it trades off too much variation and fatigue management.

If you invest too heavily in defending a biased system of training, you’re just going to be missing out on the effective features of a system that addresses ALL of the training variables, not just some. That system is called “modern periodization,” and it’s always evolving and being updated (as well it should as it’s a testable and falsifiable scientific theory). In the end, saying that you do “Conjugate Periodization” is the same thing as saying you believe in “Bottleneck Evolution.”

Well, just like evolution proceeds through mutation, selection, drift, and bottleneck events, ALL under the overarching theory of Evolution, attending to dominant and secondary fitness characteristics (Conjugate approach) is UNDER THE OVERARCHING THEORY OF PERIODIZATION.  Damn near no one in the biological sciences considers themselves a die-hard “Bottlenecker,” and it’s damn near time us meatheads started looking at the BEST way to train that integrates all proper features, rather than defending to the death systems which have exaggerated some features to the detriment of other features, and worse, best results.


When planning training, where do athlete preferences factor into all this?  Should the coach make adjustments to accomodate individual athletes, or is the training model the training model, and that’s that?

The program absolutely changes for each lifter based on two considerations: needs and tolerances.
If someone needs to put on more muscle vs. just expand their strength at a current weight, they would do longer hypertrophy phases. Because they need more muscle, the program changes.
On the other hand, tolerances must be considered. If someone can benefit from 20 sets of lower body work per week, they should be programmed to do so. Those that cannot tolerate (recover from) such volumes should do less.
But you’ll notice from the above examples that the program only changes in the quantity of the stimulus applied, not the quality. Some lifters might benefit from less or more overload, less or more hypertrophy, less or more weekly undulation. However, not a single lifter on this earth benefits from underloading, infinite hypertrophy, or zero undulation.
The design of a program are all on a spectrum of quantity of variables applied, not the basic foundational principles of the program. Preferences of the athlete can absolutely guide needs and tolerances (leg presses work great to both grow your quads and you can do more volume on them than squats, for example…), but preferences that violate the training principles are a misunderstanding and probably misguided.
So Mike, how did you get started with Renaissance Periodization?  What is your role with the company?
Nick Shaw and I went to Michigan together for our undergrad. We met in the weight room and began to train together, along with a group of other guys I’m still honored to call some of my closest friends. Nick and I were both Kinesiology majors and had a passion for powerlifting and bodybuilding. We also both a had a passion and profound respect for the scientific approach to training and nutrition. We had an understanding that in the end, only science could be the surest path to the truth.As personal trainers in NYC several years later, we ran into all sorts of people doubting our methods and willing to give us free advice on diet and training, advice backed only by the name of some guru or another… all of these gurus without a single relevant academic qualification to their name… most just being lucky enough to have trained a famous pro and gone on to snowball clients and fame from there. They were charging all sorts of crazy money to write diets and programs that were, to put it softly, underwhelming in their validity and level of advancement. At that point, Nick and I sort of planned that we would eventually try to help people achieve their goals in a manner that actually worked best (or closer to it than what the gurus had).I left NYC in 2010 to begin my PhD program, and Nick started his own training company. He did very well, but eventually both of us were referring each other so often to clients (often due to individual time constraints and Nick’s physical presence in NYC to train my diet clients) that we decided (Nick decided) it was time to incorporate.

We chose the RP name because of the significance of the Renaissance period (an end to the mysticism of the Dark Ages and the re-birth of science) and because our business model was an attempt to reflect the practices of Renaissance Technologies (a hedge fund that uses mostly quantitative trading and has largely disposed of trading by hunches and traditions). Because I was the scientist, I wrote much of the early programming and the templates, most of the tracking programs, and things of that nature. I also (still) do most of the research into effective strategies and am the outreach person on science matters for the company. That’s why I have this fancy “head science consultant” title, you see!

Outside of the research and template making, I do write programs and diets myself as well.

What are some of the biggest mistakes you see people making, and some of the biggest misconceptions people have when they first get into bodybuilding?
Two mistakes come to mind immediately:

1.) “Lean gains” or any other term for the idea that muscle can be speedily added without fat in the short term. This is very related to the idea that someone can stay in very good conditioning year round and add lots of muscle. The problem with this idea is that it just doesn’t work so well. The ones who advocated it are either genetic freaks or just very small, not-so-muscular individuals that have the proclivity to blame their lack of size exclusively on a lack of steroid intake. Because muscle is best grown in a hypercaloric environment and fat is best burned in a hypocaloric environment, muscle gain and fat loss need to be somewhat distinct phases. YES, you need to get a bit fatter in the short term and burn the fat off later to get the most muscle size. If you try to stay lean all the time, you’re just not going to make the biggest progress.
2.) On the flip side, trying to rush muscle growth is profoundly misinformed. Gaining about 1-2lbs per week of tissue probably maximizes muscle growth for most people, but gains that are any faster (or gains that are attempted for a longer continuous stretch than about 3-4 months at a time) lead to a vastly disproportionate rate of fat addition rather than muscle growth. So if you try to gain 3lbs of weight per week for 12 weeks or 1lb per week for 36 weeks straight, you’re going to put on some muscle, but you’re gonna get so fat that the fat loss phase to follow is going to take way too long and risk too much muscle loss, leading to a slower average rate of muscle gain than the more moderate methods. And never mind how bad this is for health!Another big misconception I’d like to touch on, and I’m sure it’s one you deal with a lot, is the idea that there are special tricks out there that can radically speed up or enhance results in training and diet. Like, if you just do sets of 4 on your deload instead of sets of 6, you’re gonna BLOW UP with new size and strength in the next mesocycle. Unfortunately, those of us who have committed ourselves to the deep study of this field have come to the realization that there ARE NO SHORTCUTS, just slightly better ways of getting slightly better results. Now, all those better ways add up in a big way over time, but TIME still has to be put in. I swear everyone is looking for a weird technique correction that adds 50lbs to their squat or a food they can eat that just zaps bodyfat, and they are going to spend lots of time and possibly money in an almost completely futile effort. Train hard and smart, eat well, and try to get a bit better every month. After a while you are a completely different person, but it takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight and there are no quick tricks.
You just authored a new diet book.  There are a ton of diet books out there.  Why’d you see the need to write it, and how’s it different from the rest? 
Most diet books approach diet from one or several of the dieting principles at a time. For example, the zone diet focuses on the ratios between macronutrients, South Beach focuses on the composition of the food consumed, and IIFYM (though not a diet but an approach to eating) focuses on calories and macro ratios. Still other diets like CarbNite focus on timing, and the HCG diet even focuses on supplements.
In the RP diet book, we amass evidence for all of the principles of diet in one book. Furthermore, we arrange all of the principles in their order of effect magnitudes on body composition, approaching them as priorities rather than end-all rules. What we get is that calorie balance is the most important feature of any diet, macronutrient ratios as next in importance, followed by timing, food composition, and finally supplements.
So if you want to lose weight or gain muscle but want to keep things basic and simple, just watching your calories and macros is very effective with no concern for timing or food composition (such as glycemic index). If you have more energy to get more detailed or more serious ambitions (such as competing), timing, composition, and supplements may now be worthwhile details to consider. Of course each principle discussed in the book is covered in great depth for both muscle growth and fat loss goals.

Our book is this unique in that it is both scientific in its origins and recommendations, as well as being a useful starting point to diet design for anyone who wants to get leaner and more muscular, from the businessman that wants a simple yet effective approach to the physique athlete that needs all the details to fall into place.

Click the picture to buy this invaluable resource.
“The Renaissance Diet” is a must-own resource for anyone looking to improve their performance and body composition, while disposing with all the silly fads and BS. Click the picture above to get your copy.

Born in Moscow, Russia, Mike Israetel is a professor of Exercise Science at the University of Central Missouri. Additionally, he is a competitive powerlifter and bodybuilder, and has been the head sport nutrition consultant  to the US Olympic training site in Johnson City, TN. Mike is currently the head science consultant for Renaissance Periodization, and the Author of “The Renaissance Diet.”

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