In this interview, IFBB Physique Pro, Thomas Canepa, shares his thoughts on training, nutrition, supplementation, and the mental side of staying on track for competition. Many thanks to Thomas for taking the time to talk about his development as a top physique athlete. You don’t want to miss this!
Joel Minden: How did you get started in physique competitions? Can you tell me about your progression into the sport?
Thomas Canepa: I got into building muscle at a young age. I was always a skinny guy. I played sports in high school: water polo, wrestling, track. I really started getting more into how the muscles are developed and that’s what eventually led me to pursue a degree in kinesiology. I decided to get serious at one point. I put all the other stuff aside and really focused on my diet, started studying nutrition, became a nutritionist and devoted myself to it. It’s really my passion. And of course the gym is one of my favorite places to be. I love to get in that atmosphere. I really wanted to maximize my potential and stick to my diet and my training and have a goal to work toward, which is key. I always was into it, but to have a goal to work toward, to have a date, this is the show I’m gonna do, that’s what really set things off.
JM: A lot of people are interested in developing their bodies and they want to go through the process like you do, but what is it that attracted you to that competitive aspect of physique?
TC: Maximizing every aspect of myself and my life. That’s one of the main things. I’m always about bettering myself, even if it’s 1% each day. If I can be better than the day before, I’m happy. It’s been a lifelong goal. I continue to try to improve myself, my condition, my knowledge, and be a student of the game and learn as much as I can along the way. Self-improvement, I guess you can say, if you had to put it into one kind of topic, would be my main goal. That’s one of my number one goal in life.
Yes, you are competing against others, but in a sense I’m almost competing against myself. It’s about what you’re doing and bringing the best package you can bring. What drew me to physique rather than bodybuilding or another route? It’s more aesthetically pleasing. I think it’s a healthy look; it’s all natural. You eat right, train hard, and attain the results that are, to me, more appealing. No disrespect to bodybuilders that go down that route, but I think the natural aspect is key and that’s what really drew me to the physique division. You can maximize your own characteristics and look great rather than having to get monstrous, gigantic.
JM: Given the different aesthetic demands of physique and bodybuilding, what are your goals as you prepare for a competition? What are you trying to create to have a winning appearance?
TC: I’m trying to create the most aesthetically pleasing—obviously you want to have that shoulder to waist ratio, that tight midsection, that v taper, broader up top. You want to create that physique that’s aesthetically pleasing rather than going to the extreme. But a lot of it comes down to stage presence. That’s something I want to mention briefly. I’ve noticed in the physique division, having that stage presence, it really makes a difference. It can make or break you. You could have somebody who has the most amazing physique on the planet, but if they don’t have that presence, they aren’t going to excel in the sport.
JM: Can you give me an example of what would make someone stand out from another competitor?
TC: One thing I always say is having fun with it on stage. Being confident, obviously, but being natural rather than all caught up in things like foot placement or what your hands are doing. When you’re having fun it shows. The judges see that and the crowd enjoys it as well. Have fun with it. That’s what it’s all about. All the work that goes into getting there—the prep, training, dieting, and you let all that energy that’s built up, you let it out, and have fun with it on stage. That plays a big role in success in the physique division.
JM: It sounds like the elements of success are a certain degree of hypertrophy, the mass, a very low level of body fat, and having the ability to pose and display a stage presence that makes the crowd excited and creates the right atmosphere. Not just putting the body together, it’s having the performance aspect.
TC: Exactly, yeah, very well put. The hypertrophy is huge. We have to maintain it, and we have to get lean, too. Those are key aspects. But presence is just another icing on the cake. It’s sealing the deal. You have that physique that shines on stage and you match it with that energy you exude to the audience and judges as well.
JM: Let’s talk about your approach to training. As far as promoting hypertrophy, what’s your strategy?
TC: When it gets closer to the day of a show, I’m going to be a little more concerned about maintaining muscle mass I’ve built along the way. But heavy, concentric lifting, and a lot of compound movements. What I’ve really been focused on is working the muscle through its full contractile range. The strength curve is—you’re strongest at the middle and at the extremes you’re weak. So somebody who gets strong at the extremes is going to build his physique in a significant way.
I’m also utilizing more “tension with intention.” On a bench presss, you apply “inward intention.” It’s something you can’t see; it’s in the mind. Inward intention will recruit the pecs more. All of that has helped immensely with hypertrophy. And of course the diet is everything: high protein, BCAAs, and complex carbohydrates for sure, especially surrounding training. As the show gets closer I drop down the carbohydrate somewhat but still maintain intake. I usually train twice a day as the show approaches. I do an earlier workout that’s more based around high threshold motor units, CNS activity, and heavy weights. I come back later, hit that same muscle group about 4-6 hours later after having 2 meals and BCAA, glutamine, and then I’ll hit that same muscle group with a hypertrophy-based workout, which would be a lot more supersets and volumization, drop sets, and less rest.
That’s just a 45-minute—annihilate that muscle group, etch in the detail, and you still get the CNS activation to maintain strength and size in the earlier workout of the day. That’s my workout approach as the competition draws near. The two-a-days really help cardiovascular conditioning as well when you’re doing giant sets with no rest. And a set can last up to five minutes and that’s just intense.
JM: I assume you’re doing some kind of split program. Can you give me some general details? And how does your training change as you move from a mass building phase to a contest preparation phase?
TC: To be honest, aside from the double day split, I really don’t change too much, aside from my diet and less rest when it comes to reducing body fat. I’ll diminish the rest periods and incorporate as many techniques as possible, but pretty much, the training stays hard and heavy. I’m trying to maintain muscle mass, density, and strength above all else.
My split usually consists of chest, which is really a focal point of the physique division, and maybe I’ll throw in a triceps exercise in the end, since it’s a correlating muscle group. The following day is all back and maybe a bicep exercise at the end. I usually take a rest day after back day and leg day because it’s so taxing on the CNS. After the rest day (when I usually do cardio), I’ll do the walking or sometimes I do switch it up and do HIIT, which has proven to be beneficial in my program. I’ll hit shoulders and traps the next day and the next day would be arms, bis and tris, and then finally hit legs real hard that following day. I have a rest day and go right back into that same split. I typically do abs every other day as hard as I can at a different point in the day. Early in the morning or late at night I do abs. Cardio obviously gets more intense as the show approaches. In the mass building phase, I just do cardio maybe twice, three times a week cause I’m trying to put on as much size as possible and not burn off too much.
JM: You mentioned leg training. In the physique division, you’re wearing shorts, so the leg development is not as evident as it would be in bodybuilding competition. How important is leg training for physique competitors?
TC: Personally, I think it’s huge. Leg development is your foundation. It promotes hormonal response, improves your production of testosterone, GH, and optimizes your base. It even helps with your upper body development. And yes, I know we do wear board shorts, but you want to fill them out in the right areas. You do you want to have some upper leg development, quads, and hamstrings. You don’t want them to be loose and falling off your legs. Of course calves are a key point. That’s one area where I’ve really had to step up my game. I train calves every day now. They really need a lot of time under tension. (They have) a lot of slow twitch fibers, (so I use) a lot of intensity techniques.
JM: You mentioned you make sure to have adequate carbohydrate in your diet. I know people have different opinions about the importance of carbohydrate in training and also for creating a low body fat percentage. What’s your perspective on carbohydrate?
TC: My perspective varies from person to person. Some people, (because of) the American diet, they become resistant to the effects of insulin. Personally, I do well with carbs. I tolerate them quite well. Up to very close to my show, I’m still consuming quite a bit of carbs, especially considering I’m training twice a day. When the demand goes up, my carbohydrate goes up. As far as the average individual, usually it’s recommended to moderate carbs, especially anything high glycemic. Consuming a lot of sugar will eventually lead to insulin desensitization. It’s a common occurrence. For a lot of people, I would suggest reducing carbs, especially to minimize body fat. Increasing protein helps—the thermic activity of protein in the body, and getting your healthy fats actually helps metabolism as well. Carbohydrate helps you fill out the rest of your caloric needs after you get your protein needs, which obviously to me are higher than most people would recommend. I would say at least 1 gram to 1.5 grams per pound of body weight, sometimes even higher than that, depending on how hard you’re training and how much muscle you’re breaking down. You’re creating all these micro tears in the muscles; you want to replenish and rebuild those. You need plenty of amino acids to have the amino acid pool filled and ready to be utilized.
JM: It sounds like your general approach to nutrition is a) adequate protein to ensure muscle protein synthesis and to prevent breakdown, b) essential fats to support hormonal processes and mental health, and c) carbohydrate for training and also to refill glycogen stores.
TC: Exactly. Perfect way to put it. The carbohydrate I tend to prefer comes from complex sources such as sweet potato. Quinoa has actually been a great source lately. I was doing a lot of oats, but the gluten in the oats, even the gluten free oats, cause GI disturbances and bloating, so I’ve gone with quinoa and sweet potatoes for the most part. Surrounding training, sometimes I’ll do some jasmine rice, which is a little different from the typical brown rice, but I feel it absorbs a little more efficiently when you need it, to support glycogen synthesis.
JM: What are your thoughts on supplementation?
TC: I’m all for all the natural supplements and a big fan of aminos. EAAs, BCAAs are huge in my program. I consume them even between meals on a day where I did legs the previous day and I’m really sore to increase recovery, I’ll take 5-10 grams between meals. It’s really been beneficial for my recovery. It’s huge. And during training, I sip on the BCAAs, pre- and post-workout always. And then of course I love glutamine, arginine, beta-alanine—sometimes if I’m trying to put on a little bit of mass, I’ll take some creatine as well. Other than that, my supplementation, it’s surrounded by amino acids. A lot of aminos.
JM: What about whey or casein?
TC: I tend to do that mainly in the off season. As I get closer to a competition, I promote solid foods for every meal and then the whey protein and time-release casein at night get replaced with salmon filet or, if I want a fast acting protein, I’ll switch to tilapia pre-contest. But I definitely believe in the whey protein. I like whey isolate post-workout, but mainly the BCAAs. BCAAs don’t require digestion. They’re preferentially taken up by the muscles. You can’t go wrong.
JM: You have to get extremely lean for competition. For you, what’s a goal body fat percentage?
TC: I’d say around 3% is about where I want to be for my physique. Some people can look great at 8%. Personally, I try to get as lean as possible while maintaining muscle mass. It’s the most difficult part of it while you’re doing these intense caloric restrictions, which I don’t tend to do too much. I try to keep my calories as high as I can allow, and increase the training frequency and intensity. Those things help etch in the detail and minimize body fat. But the diet is everything when it comes down to it. A lot of lean white fish, tilapia, and make sure to get the healthy fats later on in the day when the carbs are cut out. But I still keep the carbs in pre- and post-training, even up to the day before the show. And then you get into all the intricacies of the peak week, the loading strategies, which is a whole different area.
JM: The dieting process can be extremely intense, so for a lot of people that’s the biggest obstacle. From a psychological standpoint, how do you deal with cravings and the impulse to binge or overeat?
TC: That’s critical. It really comes down to—I just keep my eye on the prize and prioritize. What matters more to me, this little splurge meal, say I have a cheeseburger, or do I really want what I’m training for all day and all night and breathing and living for? Every once in a while, a cheat meal, when it’s the right time, can help increase leptin secretion and thyroid functioning but, for the most part, once you’re getting really strict, you want to stay strict and prioritize. It’s not that important. Later on, after it’s time to celebrate, after all the hard work pays off, then you can splurge a little bit and enjoy yourself. And it does make it that much more meaningful when you do get to splurge after being so disciplined and having the willpower to refrain from any kind of temptations. It really comes down to willpower and prioritizing.
JM: You recently got your IFBB pro card. Congratulations!
TC: Thank you!
JM: Which competition qualified you for the pro card?
TC: I’ve had my ups and downs and placed where I wouldn’t be 100% satisfied, but it really gave me that drive to just improve myself and better my condition and presence. A year ago was the show that qualified me for the NPC Team Universe Championships, which was out in Teaneck, New Jersey, and that’s where I got my pro card just a few weeks ago. So finally all this work has paid off. In total, there were over 100 physique competitors, and they had qualified, too. So these were the top guys. They had won at regional shows all over America.
The first and second place winners of each class, the height divisions, each of those competitors got their pro cards. I took second in C class for this one. It was such a blur. It was awesome. Everyone was coming up to take pictures. It was an honor. I’m very grateful to have been able to compete in the first place because these shows are definitely not for the weak at heart. You’ve got to really put your all into these shows. You’ve got to put forth your full effort and discipline and stay with it. That’s what helped me finally get to where I wanted to be. I’m ready to jump right into the pros and start competing. I’m really excited and grateful. I feel blessed to be able to participate in something that’s already a passion, especially because I’m so into health and fitness. It’s perfect. And the goal is to compete in pro shows and hopefully qualify for the Physique Olympia next year!