This week we were lucky to get in touch with Chris Gilbert. In our eyes, Chris is one of the best crossover athletes in the Philadelphia area. Very few people can take on two fitness sports and be highly competitive in both. Chris is a natural athlete that competes in both bodybuilding and powerlifting. Chris is pro in the IFPA & NGA bodybuilding federations and has totaled 1404 raw (no wraps) in the USAPL in the 93kg class. Not only does Chris have a lot of personal success, but he also coaches many men and women in both powerlifting and bodybuilding.

Chris isn’t just a full time gym rat either. He’s also the General Manager of Optimal Sport Health Club in Newtown Pa and has an Ivy League degree.

Q1: What diet plan allows your powerlifting workouts to be fueled properly and for you to look as lean and muscular as you do? Why do you choose that “plan”?

I follow a customized IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) protocol. This is also known as Flexible Dieting. I eat over 4000 calories a day with very specific macronutrient targets. Each day has a target of 500g Carb, 300g Protein, and 100g Fat. This protocol is customized to my specific needs and preferences.

I like this approach because it allows me to focus on more important details like calories and macros, while not focusing on less important variables like meal timing, meal frequency, and food source (clean / whole foods vs non-traditional diet foods).

To give you an example of a typical day, I have an ISOPURE tea with two Lenny and Larry’s cookies for breakfast. I have a Primo’s hoagie and bag of HERR’s chips for lunch. I have sushi or more cookies for a mid-day snack, and then I have a massive dinner at around 9pm. I usually have a big bowl of cereal, whey, and even some chocolate or maple syrup for dessert, just before midnight. Most people would NOT consider this a typical bodybuilding or fit-lifestyle day of eating.

I’ve eaten like this for years and it lets me stick to my diet goals because it doesn’t feel like a diet at all.

I know people will say that I’m missing out on lots of vitamins and minerals, but I take two servings of a sports multivitamin a day, along with phytonutrients and digestive enzymes. I think that the multivitamin is a MUST for anyone following an IIFYM protocol, especially if the food choices are “non-traditional” (not “clean” / whole foods). I also have a fiber minimum that keeps me regular and helps to ensure I don’t get all of my carbs from sugar!

Q2: Many people believe that to be a successful powerlifter you must train “like a powerlifter”. What do you think about this and what does your workout programming look like when compared to a typical bodybuilding program and typical powerlifter program?

I do agree that a powerlifter should train like one. Specificity is one of the main components of a sound training program, but unless a powerlifter is peaking for a meet, there is some room for less specific strength training.

I do believe in the power of the big 3 lifts – squat, bench, and deadlift. While I believe that they are 3 of the most bang-for-your-buck exercises, I also believe that there is room for assistance/accessory lifts. Productive upper body assistance lifts include chins, dips, rows, incline/overhead presses, and direct triceps work. For the lower body I find value in front squats, RDLs, hypers, and GHR’s.

I do not believe that any of the movements I have listed above are inherently powerlifter or bodybuilder specific. Bodybuilder specific movements would be things like biceps curls, lateral raises, and calf raises, for example. Generally speaking, I think most people should spend at least 90% of their time doing free-weight, multi-joint exercises. Bodybuilders get a bad reputation for spending too much time on machines or doing isolation(single joint/muscle) exercises.

Besides questionable exercise selection, typical bodybuilding programs fall into the trap of VOLUME at the expense of intensity. While sets of 10-20 reps do have their place, I do not think that is an efficient way to go about building strength over time. Proper periodization and use of strength and power rep ranges helps a bodybuilder to use heavier loads for high volume work in the 10-20 rep range. This will allow for sustained improvements over a lifetime of training.

This concept is illustrated by the lifter that has been benching 3×10 at 225 for years. He can continue to try to tack on a rep or two with 225, but he would benefit from building strength in the lower rep ranges. He may find that he can handle 3×15 at 225 after a month or two of strength work. 45 reps at 225 vs only 30 reps – who do you think will have the more impressive physique?

Q3: You’ve been lifting for years. If I recall, you said you were pretty thin when you started. How has time influenced your physique and strength? What have you changed along the way? Do you have any tips for the long-haul?

I was actually obese as a kid and then struggled with eating disorders in my teens. I have been as heavy as 242, but I compete in the 93kg (<205lbs) division for USA Powerlifting and I’m just under 190 for bodybuilding competitions. I am about 6’2, so it will take a while to fill out this frame of mine. Eventually I will be muscular enough to weigh 200+ on the bodybuilding stage.

I do have small joints which help me for bodybuilding. I have small wrists, knees, and elbows. I also have a small waist, which stands out among other heavyweight / tall competitors.

My tips for thin guys or “hard-gainers” is to eat more. I know they have all heard it before, but I do question if people who “can’t gain weight” really eat as much as they say/think they do, just like I have my doubts about people who are overweight and claim that they “just can’t lose weight”. There are all of these mythological stories of thin people eating 5000 calories a day and overweight people who average 800 calories a day, but I don’t think this is typical, if at all possible. There are plenty of days that I do not want to eat all of the food that I have budgeted, but I am committed to my strength-season improvements just as I am committed to my contest prep diet before a show. Hard-gainers need to eat like it is their job!

FOOD is the most effective “supplement” and basic training (moderate-heavy compound movements) is the best training program for most people’s goals. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that, but simple doesn’t sell.

Q4: You’re also a coach for both powerlifting and bodybuilding. It seems like a lot of your athletes are also crossover athletes. Many people enjoy getting stronger and bigger, but often have times doing both. What’s contributed to the success of your athletes?

I think my athletes are successful in both because of our commitment to the nutrition component. Whether it is getting lean, getting big and strong, making a weight class, or just responsibly enjoying a meal with friends, my athletes know how to do it better than most. Nutrition is never neutral. Nutrition is always either helping or hampering our progress toward our goals. Some people argue that tracking nutrition is too much work. I would argue that lifting and training and WONDERING if the nutrition is helping is more trouble than tracking the nutrition itself. Hitting macros is my insurance policy. I know I am getting closer to my goals with every meal, even though I eat non-traditional diet foods!

“We cannot manage what we do not measure!”

As far as training for the crossover athlete, I think there are plenty of great programs out there that expose the lifter to both the 3-5 and the 8-12 rep ranges. Wendler’s 5/3/1 with the BBB assistance template is a favorite of mine. I’m currently running Layne Norton’s PH3 (dup) program and seeing gains on the bar and in the mirror. Both of these programs are well documented and published online for anyone to use.

Q5: Can you give us some tips for things to pay attention to or implement in our training programs when you’re goal is to both get stronger and build muscle for a natural athlete?

Progressive overload and caloric surplus are important for long term strength and size gains.

My main tip for people that want to be strong AND look like something special is to get the big lifts in for strength, and then add some “window dressing” isolation movements like lateral raises, leg/arm curls, leg/arm extensions, and calves.

Something that is obvious, but often overlooked is movement quality. Be sure to have good, clean form going through a full range of motion. Improper mechanics or movement quality can lead to injury, less muscle stimulation, and red lights on the powerlifting platform. Recording videos of your movements can help give that objective perspective of what your lifts look like.

Q6: Any “secrets”? 

If you want to be truly lean, you will likely need to be lighter than you think. You can either work your weight down closer to your lean body mass (LBM) or you can invest in your physique with a growth phase and walk your LBM up! Either way is fine, but I think most athletes need to spend time doing both in order to refine their physique and efficiency. A hard-body powerlifter will usually be more competitive in a weight class when compared to another lifter with less LBM – or more efficient, per pound. Many of today’s top powerlifters look like offseason bodybuilders!

Q7: When you reach plateaus in either strength or building your physique, what approach do you take to continue moving forward?

I think that the biggest problem most people have is the difference between their perception and their reality. Often times we think of ourselves in favorable or unrealistic terms of what we do, but it can be helpful to put it all on paper and objectively ask ourselves “What have you done for me lately?”

If we can put our training “on paper” and objectively quantify our efforts, we can better identify the problems.

What has performance in the gym been, exactly? What has our nutritional discipline and accuracy been, exactly? Once we honestly identify where we are, we can identify areas that need improvement. Usually the answers are right there in front of us.

You can throw in anything else that you’d like to put in as well. I’ll take the information and turn it into an article and send it to you for review. 

Have an actual program for both training and nutrition. Hit your numbers in both protocols and you will be amazed at how successful you can be.

Can’t write your own lifting program? Chris suggests these templates:

  • Jim Wendler 5/3/1
  • BBB Assistance Template
  • Layne Norton’s PH3

You can follow Chris on Instagram @ChrisFitPro