Interview with Fitness Expert Lou Schuler

Interview with Fitness Expert Lou Schuler

Men's fitness expert Lou Schuler weighs in on bodybuilding and steroids and their implications on current newsmakers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire.

Lou Schuler has had an impressive career as an award-winning journalist focused on men's health and fitness. In addition to co-authoring three books, Lou is former fitness editor of Men's Fitness magazine and former fitness director of Men's Health. He is certified as a strength and conditioning specialist by the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

Schuler has been quoted in national publications such as the New York Times and USA Today and has made numerous television and radio appearances with the CBS Early Show, Fox News Channel and many more.

Schuler is a native St. Louisan and Cardinals fan who has some professional insight on bodybuilding, steroids and their implications on current newsmakers such as Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire.

How did you get into fitness and writing about it?

I can't really remember a time when I wasn't interested in exercise. I think I started strength training when I was 13, give or take a few months. That's when my older brother bought a weight set to get stronger for football. I was always the skinniest, weakest kid in my class or on my teams who was actually interested in sports, so I saw the weights as a way to get big and strong enough to keep playing.

And if I'd known what I was doing back then, it might actually have worked. I never got any better at sports, but I did develop a lifelong interest in fitness and exercise.

I graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1979, and didn't start writing about fitness until 1992, when I got a job at Men's Fitness magazine. Before that, I was mostly a feature writer for newspapers and magazines. The fitness thing turned out to be my niche, and I've been doing it ever since.

In your field, there are many self-proclaimed experts, some with questionable credibility and motives. Everybody has a study or findings about everything. How do people know who to believe?

Reputation, credentials, affiliations. It's like being a sports fan: At a certain point, you pick the team you like the best, and trust what it says.

You're a C.S.C.S. What is that and how did you become one?

It's a "certified strength and conditioning specialist," a designation used by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. It's a gold-standard credential. (I say that proudly, because I have no background whatsoever in science, and passing the test was one of my major achievements in life.) It's safe to say that almost every strength coach at the college or professional level is a C.S.C.S.

I first started getting personal-training certifications in '97, just because I felt I was at a disadvantage. I was always interviewing guys who had them, and they always seemed to have sources of information I wasn't yet aware of. So I figured I'd start by getting their credentials, subscribing to their trade publications, and then seeing if it helped me do my job better.

Turns out, it did. Just the discipline of reading the textbooks and studying for the tests made me a better journalist. I started with a better base of knowledge, could ask better questions, and could hunt a little more effectively for the type of information that you don't typically see in newspapers and magazines.

I got my C.S.C.S. in 2001. It was much harder than the others I'd gotten, and I think it's been a lot more useful.

What are the similarities and differences between weight training and nutrition by professional bodybuilders and professional baseball players?

Beyond the fact they're both eating and lifting weights, there shouldn't be any similarities. In theory, it doesn't matter to a bodybuilder if his muscles can do anything. His diet and training are designed to create a certain appearance, an ideal shape.

A ballplayer, on the other hand, needs to be able to perform. Baseball is a lot like football, in that it's all about being able to generate speed and power suddenly and over very short distances.

I remember reading, back in the ‘80s, about how Jose Oquendo would go jogging in St. Louis in July in the afternoons before ballgames. It's hard to imagine a more counterproductive way for a ballplayer to keep in shape – I mean, how does any part of jogging translate to baseball performance? – but that's how little anyone knew about sport-specific training back then.

Another big misconception is that ballplayers who have big bellies are lazy slobs who aren't in shape for their sport. If the most important part of the job is hitting the ball out of the park, then there's no need for someone to have six-pack abs. In fact, training to achieve that type of look would probably be detrimental to a ballplayer. It's not that the fat helps him hit a baseball, it's that training to get rid of the fat might reduce his strength and power.

How might steroids affect a baseball player's performance?

Steroids don't just make a player bigger and stronger. There's no direct evidence, but plenty of reasons to believe that higher testosterone levels could improve reaction time, and also make a player more confident and fearless. Look at the huge improvements in on-base percentage among players who we now suspect were now taking steroids. Is it just because pitchers are afraid to pitch to them? That could be part of it, but you can also look at the confidence and aggressiveness a guy with inflated testosterone levels will have. It's the dominance hormone. In the wild, the animals with the most testosterone lead the pack and get all the females to themselves.

You look at the way these guys were suddenly crowding the plate in the ‘90s. They were fearless. Well, if you put Jeff Blauser on steroids, he might've been fearless, too.

I know the umpiring and expansion-era pitching and smaller ballparks and tighter baseballs all played into this. But that one stat, on-base percentage, might tell a bigger story than anyone suspected. I mean, if you're not afraid of getting hit by an inside fastball, you own the plate. And what pitcher is going to aim for the head of a guy with 18-inch biceps?

Why should the average sports fan care one way or the other if their heroes are users?

If the only reason they go to the ballpark is to see home runs, the longer the better, they shouldn't. If they think sports should be more like video games, with supersized guys slamming each other around like the laws of gravity are for losers, then they should hope all their heroes get juiced like pro wrestlers.

Now, if you believe that athletes should follow the rules of their sports, then steroid use is cause for alarm.

For me, as a baseball fan, there are two issues. One is that steroids can take a marginal player and make him an all-star. That makes it harder for the legitimate all-stars, the best players, the guys we want to tell our grandchildren we saw play, dominate the games the way they should. So I think steroids diminish the natural stars.

Just for the sake of argument –and I don't know these guys, and can't say anything for certain – I'd put Ken Griffey Jr. into that class, along with Nomar, A-Rod, and Albert Pujols. Looking at those guys, and following their careers, I don't see any reason to believe they've juiced.

Those guys may put up numbers like the juicers, but visually, they just don't look like they take steroids. Pujols, for example, would probably have much bigger shoulders and arms if he were using training drugs. But like I said, no one can possibly know for sure.

Griffey, in particular, might've benefited more than any of the others from steroids, since he probably would've recovered completely from his injuries and would still be dominating the game the way he did in his 20s.

That brings me to the second issue, which is the fact that the record book is meaningless if a guy can take steroids and put up better numbers than the guys who didn't take steroids. Steroids can help guys overcome injuries and play at a high level longer than they otherwise would. Fans may enjoy that in the short term, but a few years down the road, we're going to have a lot more guys with Hall of Fame-worthy numbers, and we'll have no idea how much was them and how much was pharmacological.

There's a third issue now, which is that steroids are against the rules, and anyone who uses them is cheating. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think steroids were against the rules in Major League Baseball until after the 2002 season. So, technically, Barry Bonds wasn't even cheating in 2001, when he hit 73 out.

With seemingly everyone from governors to movie stars to athletes bulked up, how do we know who is legit and who is not?

That's a very good question. And there's actually an answer. A Harvard psychiatrist named Harrison Pope worked out a formula called the "fat-free mass index," or FFMI. He measured hundreds of bodybuilders, both natural guys and juicers, and figured out exactly how much muscle mass someone could build without adding fat. Beyond a certain point, you can't add more mass without also gaining fat.

So that's why it helps to look at bodybuilders. No matter how big their muscles are, they can't compete unless they're also so lean the audience can see all the muscle separations – where one set of muscles ends and the next begins.

Humans can build practically unlimited bulk without steroids, but most people would be surprised how little they can build without also being fat.

Dr. Pope says that a bodybuilder from the 1940s, Steve Reeves, pretty much hit the ceiling. Steve Reeves was a big guy – 6'1", 213 pounds, with 17 ½ inch arms, but only a 31-inch waist. And that was the best physique ever built without steroids, according to Dr. Pope.

But virtually every bodybuilder and pro wrestler today surpasses that, by a long shot. Lots of other pro athletes do, too.

The other thing to remember is that Reeves' maxed-out body wasn't built to play 162 baseball games a year, in four different time zones and all kinds of weather. He didn't have to run or swing a bat or deal with the stress of fans saying nasty things about his wife.

You have to figure that a ballplayer, because of the performance demands and the stress, wouldn't be able to maintain that kind of size and leanness without also sacrificing his performance.

And yet, every October, you see really big, really lean guys jacking balls out of stadiums like they're in spring training.

Specifically, how do we ensure athletes who are not users are not unjustly accused? After all, isn't most evidence circumstantial, such as in the case of Mark McGwire?

You can't. You can only look at what we know to be humanly possible without drugs, and judge for yourself whether or not guys like McGwire exceeded it.

I loved baseball in 1998. I made my son come watch every McGwire at-bat with me, even though he was only 2 and couldn't have cared less, just to be able to say he and I saw the record-breaking shots together.

And even at the time, I figured McGwire and Sosa were both juiced. I didn't care. As a fan, particularly as a Cardinal fan, I was in heaven.

I can't say with any certainty that McGwire took steroids – and andostenedione doesn't count, since no studies have shown it works well enough to produce the kind of size and strength McGwire had.

Circumstantially, all the signs were there. He turned 35 right about the time he hit his 70th homer. That season he had an OPS of 1.222. Athletes typically peak in their late 20s. Mac's highest slugging percentage in his 20s was .618, in '87, when he was A.L. rookie of the year. He started that season at 23.

At 28, in '92, he had a slugging percentage of .585. The next few years are screwed up, with his injuries and the strike, but then all of a sudden, in 1995, he jumps up to a .685 slugging percentage, then .730 in '96, on up to .752 in '98.

You just can't find a precedent in baseball history for that. Ted Williams had an amazing season when he was '38, in 1957, but it was amazing because it almost equaled his previous best season, 1941, when he was 22 and hit .406.

Henry Aaron is another one who had some great seasons in his late ‘30s, but they weren't dramatically better than his best seasons when he was in his 20s. And in terms of total bases, they weren't really close to what he did when he was 25. He had 400 that year, but in his 30s he never came close to that, even though he was hitting tons of homers.

Have you ever met Canseco, McGwire or any of the other principals in this story or have any connections to them?

Nope, never have. I have the same information everyone else has. I may interpret it a little differently, but we all have the same stuff to work with.

Canseco's first book, Strength Training for Baseball, was written with former A's and current Cardinal coach Dave McKay in 1990. Have you read it?

No, but one of my great moments as a blogger was looking it up on Amazon on the day that Tony La Russa was saying that Canseco was a lazy slob in the weight room, and that McGwire worked his butt off. And he quoted Dave McKay as his source! Gee, Tony, so why didn't Dave write his book with McGwire, instead of Canseco?

(Note: Tony La Russa's actual quote was that McGwire "was probably in the gym ten times more than Canseco".)

As we all know, McGwire admitted use of androstenedione, which at the time was banned by the IOC and NFL, but not MLB. Some have suspected him of executing a bait-and-switch to draw suspicion away from other substances. In your experience, do steroid users stick with one drug or do they migrate from one to another or combine their use?

I don't have specific experience with steroid users. I don't run in those circles. But from what I've read, I'd say that all these guys use a long list of drugs, because you have to keep adding things to counteract the side effects from the other things on the list. It's quite an interesting science, and the guys who know what they're doing can make a lot of money working with pro athletes.

How long do traces of these drugs remain in a person's system? In other words, could McGwire accomplish anything in an attempt to clear his name by being tested today if he had stopped using substances five or six years ago?

Nothing would last 5 years. The muscle architecture might be permanently altered, so if a longtime juicer died and was examined by an exercise physiologist, his muscle fibers might show some telltale signs. And certainly, there could be signs in the heart, liver, and other organs, but you'd have to dissect someone to find it.

Every drug is a little different. One, I've been told, is designed to be in and out of the system in less than a day. So let's say a guy takes it before a game, and then gets a surprise test the following evening, before the next game. In theory, he could get the effects of the drug but still test clean.

Most steroids, as I understand them, stay in the system longer, sometimes months longer. And the ones that are out of the system fastest aren't necessarily the ones that are safest to use or produce the biggest benefits. That's why athletes have steroid gurus, guys who're paid to get them on the right drugs at the right times, giving them the most benefit with the least risk of getting caught and the fewest health risks.

What can be accomplished by Canseco and all of us bringing up McGwire's past, when in all likelihood, nothing can be proven without some doubt? After all, players have used various methods of cheating since the game began.

Very true. I don't know that there's a great answer to the question. Even if McGwire admitted to taking the drugs, I'm not sure he should be kept out of the Hall of Fame.

If we assume guys like Caminiti and Canseco told the truth, and at least 50 percent of ballplayers were taking steroids, then McGwire should continue to be regarded as the best of his era.

It's like looking at baseball pre-integration. The superstars of that time were the best white ballplayers in an all-white league. It really sucks that the best black and white athletes couldn't compete the way they can now, but all we can do now is judge them based on how well they played within the system they had.

The one asterisk you might hang on McGwire is that he was never the best player before the time when, in my estimation, he started taking them. He might've been the best, if his injuries and personal problems hadn't slowed him down, but we'll never know.

Bonds was certainly the best player in the National League in his 20s, and if he'd never touched a steroid he'd have still been a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

In one story, a writer who covered the A's in the ‘90's, Steve Kettmann, alleges McGwire didn't need to lift because he was getting all the bulk he needed from injections. I am neither a lifter, nor a steroid user, but I didn't think one can bulk up just via drugs. Don't steroids just relieve muscle fatigue, not eliminate the need for training? First of all, did I get that right and if so, wouldn't that put Kettmann's claim into question?

You most certainly can bulk up without training if you take steroids. And some guys who train can't bulk up without steroids. Life's cruel that way.

I'd say most guys who take steroids do lift, and I wouldn't take Steve Kettmann's line literally, meaning McGwire never lifted. A guy who takes steroids can afford to screw around and blow off workouts. A guy who's natural has no choice but to work his ass off if he wants to keep up with the juicers.

Here is a recent quote by Dave Stewart, a former teammate of Canseco and McGwire, "…if you're an admitted steroid user, believe me, you'd know who uses them." Do you agree with this? Why or why not?

I don't know if it's 100 percent true. Steroids are something guys just don't talk about. It's like telling someone your salary, or how often you have sex with your wife. It's one of modern life's last taboos.

Would steroid users talk about steroids with other steroid users? Maybe some would, but my guess is that a lot wouldn't.

Getting back to this specific example, sure, it's possible that McGwire and Canseco shared info. I've heard stories from sportswriters about how open steroid use – all drug use – is in major-league clubhouses.

The one time I was ever in a major-league clubhouse was in 1981, right after the strike ended, and I remember how shocked I was to see Keith Hernandez smoking a cigarette. Even back then, recreational drug use by some ballplayers seemed to be common knowledge among sportswriters.

Would the same apply to steroids? Would all the players, and the savvier sportswriters, know what was going on? I don't know. But I do know that, outside sports, steroid use is something that just isn't discussed.

Some national writers, such as Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, point out the ring of protection that coaches and players wrap around each other to hide the truth about illicit behavior. Have you seen that characteristic in other athletic arenas, such as lifting?

Some lifters, like powerlifters, don't even pretend they don't take steroids. But they're in a fringe sport, with hardly any money for anyone, even the champions. The Strongman competitions on ESPN have a combination of natural and steroid-using athletes. A friend of mine, who competes at a pretty high level, told me you could tell the non-juicers because they're all fat. The guys who're 300 pounds with visible abs – you can bet your mortgage they're using steroids, and I doubt that they'd deny it, unless they thought it would get them kicked off TV.

I guess my point is, if someone thinks his livelihood would be at risk if anyone knew about his drug use, yeah, he'd probably lie about it, and his friends would lie to protect him. That's why I like powerlifting and Strongman competitions – no one has to lie.

Why were steroids made illegal in the first place and how do professional athletes avoid criminal prosecution when they publicly admit use?

I got into this in a sidebar to the Men's Fitness story, which was cut for space.

Basically, steroids were outlawed to keep athletes from using them – there was really no evidence that they were any danger to you and me. In Latin America, you can buy them over the counter, and steroid use isn't thought to be any higher among the general population than it is here.

But because steroids are illegal, regular guys buying them for recreational use, or to sell them to their friends, get busted all the time, and some of them do serious jail time.

Athletes, on the other hand, are never busted for possession. They might be caught by the governing bodies of their sports, but dirty urine won't land them in jail.

As I understand it, the biggest, richest athletes usually pay someone else to acquire the drugs and manage the inventory. So if you hear about a bust, it's usually the coach or trainer. I can't think of a big bust of a major athlete in this country. I could be wrong, but nothing comes to mind.

What do you think of baseball's new steroid policy?

Better than nothing. At least the penalties have some teeth.

But you know, there's a huge loophole there. There's no penalty for missing a random drug test. If I'm using steroids in the preseason, and someone shows up at my house to give me a drug test, I'm going to run out the back door. And I won't come back until I'm sure the drugs are out of my system and I'd pass a test.

During the season, yeah, they might be able to catch guys, as long as the tester stands right there in the bathroom stall watching the player pee into the bottle. If he doesn't, then the players could just have the clubhouse guy provide a few bottles before every game, and hide them in the stalls. Maybe all this is covered somewhere in the rules, but I haven't seen it if it is.

Do you think governmental regulation or tighter guidelines within the sport or a combination is the answer? Or is it something else?

I don't see any place for government in this. I think the fact steroids are illegal now puts a lot of recreational lifters in jail, but doesn't do anything to keep sports clean.

Baseball and its players' union are monopolies. If they want to get the steroids out of the game, if they want to spend the money and make the commitment, they can. They don't need the government for that.

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