Eric Helms Interview: Protein Timing, the Value of Having a Fitness Coach, Ideal Contest Prep Length, and More!

To preface this, I would like to express gratitude to my good friend Eric Helms for taking the time to answer these questions. As for the rest of you, enjoy! If you find value in this, I encourage you to share it with your friends. 


As is the case with most interviews, I think it’s important to provide those who don’t know who you are with some context. Could you tell us a bit about yourself, including your personal achievements in bodybuilding/academia/etc?

Eric: Sure, but first let me say thanks for honoring me with this interview Jared, I appreciate the opportunity and hopefully my answers are helpful to your readers. Anyway, I fell in love with repetitively lifting heavy things back in 2004, a bit over a decade ago. I fell in love not only with the act of training, but also the profession of helping others reach their goals and to change their bodies and mindsets. A huge part of both my training and training others was learning the science behind the training. Very quickly I found that I fell in love with that aspect as much as the physical aspects. The natural progression of that passion lead me to pursue exercise science and nutrition academically, to compete as a natural bodybuilder and raw powerlifter, and to eventually become a coach for natural bodybuilders and raw powerlifters. I formed 3D Muscle Journey with my colleagues and brothers Alberto Nunez, Brad Loomis and Jeff Alberts in late 2009, and we've been pursuing our mission statement of supporting the drug free lifting community and promoting an evidence based approach since.

Personally as an athlete, I've competed in 14 raw powerlifting meets, and 9 bodybuilding competitions and a handful of Olympic lifting meets. In my last show I won the overall, which was a pro qualifier for the Professional Natural Bodybuilding Association. In powerlifting, I compete with the IPF and to date my best total is 617.5kg at just about 90kg. Academically, I have a masters in exercise science from the California University of Pennsylvania and a masters of philosophy from the Auckland University of Technology on protein and macronutrient manipulation in lean, resistance trained, dieting athletes. I'm currently pursuing my PhD at the Auckland University of Technology and my research is focused on methods of autoregulation for resistance training. I've published multiple peer reviewed articles on nutrition and exercise specifically related to weight class restricted strength athletes and bodybuilders as well as lay publications. As a coach, I have had the honor of working with athletes at all levels, from amateurs competing at local shows and meets, to those competing at IPF Worlds, WNBF Worlds, IPF Arnold Sports Festival, the IFPA Yorton Cup and others.


Do you believe that certifications/degrees are a prerequisite for a competent fitness coach? If not, what other qualities do you look for in identifying a great coach.

Eric: I believe that a certain requisite understanding of basic exercise science, nutrition, and behavior change are prerequisites for a competent fitness coach. A certification or a degree shows the formal pursuit of one or more of those fields, and indicates the likelihood of a certain level of competence, but it doesn't guarantee it. Certainly you can find not only incompetent, but downright harmful trainers out there with a lot of letters after their name. Likewise, some of the best coaches I'm aware of don't have much in the way of alphabet soup after their names.

But much more important than the understanding of science that a degree or a certification often implies, is the actual skills of coaching. Coaching means something, and it doesn't mean the manipulation of macronutrients and acute training variables. I believe someone who truly wishes to coach athletes needs to understand that the title is one that should be earned and taken to heart. A coach is the person who provides the unbiased, yet compassionate truth to an athlete. A coach is the one in your corner who believes in you even when you may not believe in yourself. A coach is a confidant, a mentor, a teacher, a role model and a leader. These roles have a great deal of responsibility and a skill set that goes beyond understanding energy balance and progressive overload. 

The science is just the methods a coach uses. True coaching is rare, and 10x more valuable to an athlete than numbers. For that reason, the qualities I think are the most important if I was to order them 1-5 would be:


1. Passion and caring about the athlete

2. Communication skills

3. Emotional intelligence

4. Experience

5. Sound knowledge of evidence based practice....notice this is important, but last!


Having worked with many athletes, do you find yourself developing a bias for certain macronutrient ratios? Or is this something that is entirely context dependent for you?

Eric: I would say that my experience in and of itself is the context by which my biases are formed. I predominantly work with lean athletes trying to get leaner (or stay lean while getting bigger) who have experience with resistance training. Most of them are over 17, under 50 and all of them have the goals of getting more muscular, either as an end goal in and of itself, or as a secondary goal to increasing their strength. This certainly results in a certain macronutrient bias towards what most people would characterize as a high protein, moderate to high carb and low to moderate fat diet. Those who come to us are typically not insulin resistant, inactive, or overweight, and aren't suffering from any clinical ailment that would modify the appropriate macronutrient ratios for their situation. Additionally, as we become more popular and our approach becomes more well known, athletes that feel they fit with our approach to training will be drawn to us and those who don't like our approach won't. Of course, this further entrenches our biases.

So yes, I do have a certain macronutrient bias for all of the above reasons. That said, I'm by no means rigid in my approach. I've worked with folks with PCOS, folks who have a family history of type II diabetes, and those who simply have a preference for a different macronutrient setup and don't experience any apparent negative affects from following it. I would say about 80% of my clients fall under the high protein, moderate to high carb, low to moderate fat umbrella, but the other 20% consists of folks who might be on more moderate protein intakes, or lower carb and higher fat intakes.


What is the value in having a fitness coach, and do you believe that it is wise to have someone overlooking your protocol even if you think you’re fully capable of doing so yourself? 

Eric: The value in having a coach is having an unbiased eye watching over you. It can be extremely helpful to have an outside perspective, and an emotional buffer to your decision making. This is especially true during contest preparation for bodybuilding when stress levels, both physiologically and psychologically get very high. However, this is true outside of bodybuilding as athletes live for their sport. The importance of competition can create a great deal of stress as it has such momentous emotional weight in an athlete's life.

I actually think knowledge of training and nutrition has very little to do with your ability to coach yourself. Some of the best coaches I know fall apart at certain stages of contest prep, or do things to themselves that they would never have an athlete do. It's not any different than any other profession that identifies the importance of avoiding a "conflict of interest". A therapist is not supposed to treat a family member because they are too emotionally close to that person to be objective, for the same reason you coaching yourself is difficult, because who are you the most emotionally close to if not yourself?

I personally have the rest of the 3DMJ team look over my shoulder when I diet for a show.Also I have Dr. Adam Storey, head coach of Olympic Weightlifting New Zealand and a Strength and Conditioning coach for High Performance Sport New Zealand, doing my training for powerlifting.

Now, I'm not saying it's impossible or foolish to try to do it yourself, but you have to setup some guidelines and "rules" for yourself to stay objective and it's not a bad idea to have at least a friend or fellow competitor you trust who can give you feedback and objectivity from time to time looking over your shoulder.


If you could only pick 3 things that you think many bodybuilders/fitness enthusiasts are doing to overcomplicate the process of fat loss, what would they be?

Eric: Well, as the question implies there are certainly more than 3! But, I will focus on what I think are not only unnecessary but also the most harmful. A big one is the mindset of there being "good foods" and "bad foods" or "clean foods" and "dirty foods". The idea that certain foods are off limits because they are actively harmful, rather than seeing diets as a whole as good or bad is a recurring problem. Typically, when someone prescribes to a highly restricted good/bad approach, believe it or not the overall diet typically gets worse. The narrower your variety, the more likely you are to have nutrient deficiencies. This is exemplified by the nutritional research on bodybuilders done in the 80's and 90's, arguably during the height of the "clean eating" movement in bodybuilding. Despite sticking to a short list of "bodybuilding approved" foods, micronutrient deficiencies were ubiquitous in the bodybuilders surveyed in these studies. Additionally, there is a great deal of work on rigid vs flexible dieting approaches, and the more rigid an approach the more likely it is to result in falling off the wagon, not being able to maintain lost weight, and also developing eating disorders. 

Number two on my list would be worrying about peaking too early. There is the idea out there that if you diet too long you will miss your peak condition, and look worse on stage. Thus, shorter diets are typically followed to prevent this. However, shorter diets force you to lose weight at a faster rate in order to get ready on time, and actually result in more muscle mass loss than a slower approach. This is another situation where the baby is thrown out with the bathwater or the forest is missed for the trees. Much like the "good food bad food" approach can actually result in a poorer quality diet, trying to avoid muscle loss by dieting for a shorter period of time can actually force muscle loss by having to create a very large deficit. Additionally, dieting for a short period of time means you have less likelihood of actually attaining the fat loss needed to be competitive. You can always eat up into a show if you get ready early, or take a diet break if you are ready far in advance. But if you are 1 week out and you still have pounds of  fat to lose, you're out of luck.

Finally, the third item on my list would be what I call arbitrary carb (or calorie) cycling. There is an idea out there that having high, medium, low, very low, and very high carb intakes within the same week is beneficial, simply by virtue of the variety itself. The arbitrary cycling is normally done without thought as to the total weekly calorie deficit, and instead is just thought to be a way to "trick the body" to keep losing. 

Now certainly some forms of carbohydrate and calorie cycling make sense, but they are anything but arbitrary. Intermittent Caloric Restriction where only a few days of the week are dieting days or strategically timed refeeds are examples. These approaches can be used to replenish glycogen, provide a psychological break from dieting, prompt a whoosh, stave off muscle loss, or attempt to reverse some metabolic adaptations. However, they should be used in a logical fashion, based on the needs of the individual; specifically the target weekly deficit, how lean they are, adherence, how much glycogen depletion they experience on the diet and other factors. 


How important do you think protein timing throughout the period of a day is for natural athletes looking to optimize muscle hypertrophy, and would your position change if the question were asked in the context of a contest prep in regard to muscle preservation?

Eric: There is a great deal of short term research that (typically) looks only at muscle protein synthesis in an acute window of hours to at most a day while the subjects being studied perform unrealistic training and consume unrealistic meals (typically just whey protein, no other food) in a fasted state.This research suggests that to maximize muscle protein synthesis, fast digesting protein rich in branch chain amino acids should be consumed immediately post workout, and potentially pre workout. Additionally, more recent research in the same vein has suggested that protein feedings should dosed at an amount that maximizes protein synthesis and spread apart and "pulsed" throughout the day to avoid a refractory response in protein synthesis. Lastly, the most recent research also suggests that a slow digesting protein source should be consumed before bed to avoid a large dip in protein synthesis that occurs during the overnight fasting (sleeping) period.

However, longitudinal research in the form of recent meta analyses have shown that fat loss and muscle gain seem to only be minimally affected at best by peri-workout protein timing and by the number of meals (between 3-6) consumed per day, which draws into question the real world applicability of the acute, muscle protein synthesis studies. Additionally, muscle protein breakdown which is half of the equation that results in how much muscle mass is accrued is largely unexplored in these acute muscle protein synthesis studies. Finally, one recent study found no relationship between long term changes in muscle mass and muscle protein synthesis markers in a group of resistance trained males.

So, how does the practitioner interpret all of this data? Well, I would advise against completely dismissing the acute muscle protein synthesis studies despite their shortcomings, and thinking about practical application. It's not difficult to try to get protein within 1-2 hours of a resistance training session, nor is it difficult to roughly spread your daily protein intake over 3-6 meals per day and to have the final meal within some proximity to bedtime. So my advice, would be to hedge your bets and try to meet those rough guidelines when it's convenient, and to not stress the timing when it's inconvenient and just hit your daily target. Timing is extremely low on the totem pole of importance and certainly much less important than meeting your daily target protein intake. 


How can people avoid falling into the trap of acquiring a bad coach?

Eric: Try to find out how they communicate with their athletes. Getting a 1-3 sentence email from them once a week is simply not coaching. At best it's half assed consulting. If you actually want a coach, you want someone who does all of the things I mentioned earlier that makes a coach a coach, vs someone who just gives you macronutrients to follow and a workout split. Before you hire the person find out how your interactions with the coach will be structured, the format of them, and also what approach/philosophy to coaching the person uses. Also, find out how much experience they have. They don't need to have a ton, but experience is very important, additionally if you can ask to contact some of their current clients and ask those clients about their experience, that would be advised as well. Lastly, it's also a good idea to make sure they are up to date with best practice, but that's not the most important thing to check on. Being a researcher and a coach, I can tell you the two require completely separate skill sets. Knowledge is not the same as application and working with people. So yes, you want a coach who is aware of the best practice as we currently know it and who has a fundamental understanding of things like energy balance and progressive overload, but common sense, good communication skills, passion, compassion and experience are what you should be looking for. 


What are your thoughts on the term “Clean Eating”, and do you think that the fitness community has for the most part gotten past dichotomizing foods as “Clean” and “Dirty”, or do you think this is still a legitimate issue that needs to be talked about?

Eric: Social media has a great way of allowing you to narrow your social circle over time so that you end up surrounded by people and opinions you largely agree with. Selection bias is a real thing, and it's sometimes a good experience to be a fly on a wall in a conversation among people you know who don't travel in your normal evidence based fitness social circles. Listen to a few people talk about nutrition in a random office party or family get together and you'll probably see that the clean and dirty food mentality is alive and well. The resurgence of the ketogenic diet vilifies carbohydrates and sugar, the paleo movement vilifies processed foods, and on and on. So yes it does still need to be talked about, but it needs to be talked about in a more intelligent way. When we bash "cleantards" or "keto zealots" or "paleotards" on our facebook wall to our friends who already agree with us, we are wasting time. At best we come off like an asshole and anyone who might have considered one of the approaches we were bashing is going to unfriend us and close themselves off to that information. 

However, acknowledging that regardless of approach you share the same goals with someone using a more dichotomous approach, and also acknowledging the good in each approach is worthwhile. Clean vs dirty eating is a heuristic approach that is much simpler than learning to track macronutrients and typically results in greater consumption of protein, fiber and veggies. Ketogenic diets typically result in a higher protein intake, may actually provide more satiety for some people and typically results in faster initial weight loss due to water weight which can be motivating. The paleo diet emphasizes meats, fruits, vegetables and fiber, which all in told make up a pretty decently balanced diet. The point being, each of these approaches have some positive aspects, and by acknowledging them you don't put the people who are listening to you on the defensive (which means they aren't listening). At the point where you have established some mutual respect and trust, then you can talk to them about the potential short comings of these approaches. And in every case, they are the same, because it is long term sustainability that these diets lack. That should be what is discussed, rather than vilifying these diets and making fun of the those who prescribe to them (often temporarily). 


Do you think there is an ideal contest prep length for most people? And is there a point where more time /=/ better?

Eric: Typically this is going to be dictated by the necessity of the show schedule. It's not uncommon for the big show of the season to be in the last third of the calendar year and then a qualifying show to be in the middle of the year. This means, that you'll probably have to be dieting for longer than 6 months so that you are in shape for the first show to qualify, and so that you stay in shape for the big show. That said, not everyone is in this position, and some people are just looking to do a couple local shows and have a lot of options to choose from. Most people need 20-30 weeks to get into peak shape. Not all of this is necessarily dieting though, there may be a diet break or two, and the latter weeks may consist of eating up into the show if everything goes right. Some people can get away with less, while some need more even when they do everything right. It's good to give yourself a buffer to ensure you get into shape and can account of life's curveballs, but you don't want to be dieting longer than needed. The reality is that the conditioning standard these days simply requires a longer diet than what was previously used.


From a physiological and cultural standpoint, do you think females have it harder than males in the realm of fitness? If so, why?

Eric: Culturally, that's tough to say as it will be culture specific. Anglo, Asian, Polynesian,Latin, African, etc, each has their own culture, and typically all of them create some barriers for physique competitors. Across all cultures there is always some societal or cultural norm that has to do with food and what is the aesthetic ideal. Do women have it worse? Typically I would say yes. In most societies, not all, there is more pressure to look a certain way for women and that can result in greater pressures related to food and body image. In our western society, a greater percentage of female physique competitors have a prior history of eating disorders than do male physique competitors, so that tells you something right there. 

Physiologically, in general I would say yes. Metabolic adaptation in general seems to be a greater problem for women and women have more variability in their response to dieting, more variability in their body fat settling point, and more variations in their hormonal phenotypes which can influence the approach you take


What can we expect from Eric Helms in the next year? Any projects we should be aware of?

Eric: Yes, there is a lot of exciting stuff going on in my future. First, since we're on the topic, I am making a small contribution to a couple books that Lyle McDonald is writing, one of which specifically addresses the female dieter. Additionally, I'm speaking at the Academy of Personal Training international conference in Olso Norway in September. I've also joined Dr. Mike Zourdos as one of the Shredded by Science Academy contributors, and we are working on continuing education for personal trainers specifically related to coaching powerlifters and physique competitors. Next year, the entire 3DMJ team is planning on presenting at the Epic fitness summit in the UK and later that year I may be doing a presentation in London for Shredded by Science with Dr. Mike Zourdos as well. Academically, I'm in the midst of a series of studies on auto-regulation, the first of which should be published very soon in the journal of strength and conditioning research and more should be published over the next 2-3 years. Also, we are submitting some manuscripts looking at the efficacy of low carb high fat diets for strength athletes that will hopefully be published in late 2015 and next year.


Do you read books unrelated to fitness? If so, what are your top 1-3 books?

Eric: I most certainly do! I'm an avid reader of fantasy and science fiction in my leisure time and I've probably read 1-2 books per month since I was a young teenager. It's very difficult to give you a top 3, but I'll try! 

I'm a big fan of the Song of Ice and Fire series by George RR Martin, you know the one that became the popular TV show Game of Thrones. Also, I'm a big fan of R Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing and Aspect Emperor series, it's a very dark take on epic fantasy. Finally, for science fiction I'm really enjoying The Expanse series by SA Corey at the moment.

These are all more recent works, but of course I love the classics of this genre as well such as Lord of the Rings, Gentle Giants of Ganymede, Ringworld and others.


Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions Eric. I know you’re a very busy man, and the fact that you still make time for things like this when you don’t have to is a testament to your genuine nature. You are an integral piece of the fitness community, keep up the great work! 

Eric: You're very welcome and it was an honor Jared. You're also much too kind, but I appreciate the words, thank you!


To contact Eric and/or view his work: