Hi! Tell us about yourself and your training
My name is James Emmerson, 35, born and raised in the UK, but living in Italy for almost a decade where I work as a teacher and model. My girlfriend, an Italian ballerina, lives in New York; it’s not easy, but we both have work commitments and love has no limits when it comes to distance, I say.
So as for training, I have been involved in sport and fitness in some form or another all my life. I grew up as a footballer, (real football, as a British man I can’t bring myself to say the word Soccer without puking), boxing and general athletics.
Sadly, I haven’t always been so consistent. I had other passions, music, literature, film and at university I pursued my more artistic/creative side and dropped sport and fitness altogether.
With this energy going to waste, I fell into severe alcohol and drug problems, but once sober, I eventually swapped the bar for the barbell again. I discovered that yes, I was an addict, but I could choose an addiction that had real positive and long-lasting results – fitness.
Due to my past, I am a little late in the game, already gone 30 when I fully devoted myself to a fitness lifestyle; but the gains came fast and within a few years I was taken on by a modelling agency, which has led me to many cool and exotic places.
The greatest thing about bodybuilding and fitness, regardless of the aesthetics, is the drive for self-improvement. There are many things in life where external factors prevent us from getting what we want, but for the most part, when it comes to building a better physique, you get what you put in.
Fully promoting the ethos of ‘healthy body, healthy mind’, I spend as much time in the library as I do the gym, the brain too is a muscle. There, I read the ancient Greeks who believed that it was a sin not to make the most out of your body.
Describe a typical day of training
So, at the moment I train for about an hour or so a day, full body, hitting all major muscle groups, including a few isolations. I go heavy on the big lifts and chase pumps on the rest, I am seeing good results. I am an addict, so rest days – no thanks. I have one day a week where I might limit myself to some light cardio, but seriously, if I take a foot off the gas, I feel terrible. Nihilism starts to set in almost momentarily – got to avoid that.
I train in the afternoon; just an espresso is enough to fire me up. I hit all muscle groups in a full body heavy workout 5×5 – then I’m out. My favourite exercises are incline bench press, Arnold shoulder press and hammer bicep curls. Deadlifts and Squats are my daily penance, (I love them really). The next day, I’ll hit them again with a different variation. I pay no attention to the 48-hour rule, I used to, but results stagnated.
This unorthodoxy naturally makes me a bit of an anomaly and therefore; I train alone, which is great, it helps me stay focused. Obviously, if I want to find out what my new one rep max is, I’ll ask the closest bro to spot me, but I don’t believe in going to failure, so it’s not common.
I don’t use training logs anymore, I used to, but I think I started getting bogged down in spreadsheets; most of us get enough of that in our day jobs. You’ve got to go on how you feel and how you look in the mirror, you know if you’re making progress and if you aren’t, switch it up.
Scientifically what builds muscle, we still don’t know, progressive overload seems to be the shared belief between the bros, but I am not convinced. Shocking the muscle has been about in gym vernacular since pumping iron; but even that too can be contradicted by the training regime of some of the strongest people in the world, Olympic powerlifters who train with stable weights for months.
There’s validity in all traditional splits, training methods and regimes and I’ve tried them all; but lab studies made by people who may have never trained mixed in with a whole load of ‘broscience’, leaves me with doubt. The way I see it, at the end of day, you are just lifting heavy things and putting them down, that’s all.
I find the traditional push/pull/legs routine very fruitful, I’ve done upper/lower splits too, I think they both offer a good level of frequency and intensity, plus the rest we are proscribed, but I think you can do more that’s why I am a 5×5 five days a week guy. It goes against a lot of general opinion in rest and recovery, but I feel that the latter is about listening to your body.
If your thighs are burning just crouching down on the throne, perhaps don’t hit legs that day. Saying that, if you did squats the day before and you really feel ready to hit them again, go for it. Research delivers facts but the truth regarding each individual is more complex. You know yourself better than graphs and bar charts. Train your body and not the program is my ultimate message.
How do you keep going and push harder?
When motivation is low, don’t go to the gym. It’s not worth just going through the motions, you’ll get no benefit. That said, if it’s some sort of self-inflicted thing, like an argument with your partner that keeps you up all night, or your balls being broke at work, then force yourself to go. But if physically I am tired, a few cold symptoms, that is your body saying, ‘Oh! Give me a rest, dickhead’.
My motivation to remain consistent has mainly come from the benefits to my all round life as a result of training. The more I worked out, the greater my mind-set for achievement and determination developed.
People treated me better too; I attracted more attention and respect, (at least to my face). It might sound superficial, but admiration and affirmation from others is a big boost to your self-esteem and enthusiasm for life.
If you can avoid the trappings of today’s push towards narcissism and conceitedness that will go a long way. Furthermore, once your physique becomes a money-spinner, motivation goes up a few notches.
It’s equally important to stay interested. That means, don’t let your routine takeover and make your workouts stale. Yeah, you need to be consistent, you don’t want to be changing plans every other week, but if you let your body get used to a certain way of training, it will stop adapting.
Got to keep challenging your body; whether that’s going heavier, higher reps or other deviations of classic exercises – keep the muscle guessing and your brain. There’s nothing worse than turning up in the gym and just going through the motions. If that ever happens, shake it up, skip a day, go and do calisthenics, or take up that offer from your bro at CrossFit.
Instagram, @jamesanthonyemmerson - photo by @abby1dog
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
At the moment, I am in decent shape, strong, not as lean as the summer, but I am never fat. The 5×5 five days a week routine means my muscles never get slack, they always seem ready and warmed up. Mass, power and all-round strength has definitely improved.
For the time being, no tendentious, of which I have experienced on other more traditional splits. It’s February and I am about 80 kilos, which for my height is borderline bear mode, usually when I’ve got a photoshoot, I need to be somewhere between 70-74 kgs.
Saying that, I fear that back-to-back cycles of cutting and bulking can be counterproductive in reaching your natural limit, which is my ultimate goal for the next five years. I intend to do this by maintaining a steady weight and turn as much of it into lean mass, with a strong arm and an open mind I’ll get there.
If I could start over, I would listen to my body and my own mind. Sure, form and exercise techniques are great to learn from other people (who know what they are doing), but I think I’ve made a lot of mistakes, lost time and muscle swallowing bad advice. Intermittent fasting was great for a while, but contributed to recurring digestive problems that I have today.
As for training, I would have gone easier on my cardio, it’s needed, but I didn’t need to be breaking any cross-country records, just enough to keep away the love handles. Problem is for me, once I get going: Running, cycling, swimming, I lose the love handles and get loving the heart rate.
How do you recover, rest and handle injuries?
I don’t recover, not completely, but I don’t destroy myself either. I just keep blasting day after day at one I can handle and don’t run the risk of injury.
It’s not a popular practice, even a pathology among some bros not to go for the “one more approach”, as well as those convinced by the 48-hour recovery window, but as I previously mentioned, the science behind what builds muscle is still a mystery.
What the best route is to explosive strength, power and mass. There’s no universal one-size-fits-all rule, it’s all about learning what triggers your own guns.
Instagram, @jamesanthonyemmerson - photo by @abby1dog
How is your diet and what supplements do you use?
I’ve followed a load of diets in the past and have lived to regret it. Low carb: Lose muscle, no energy, never full, always hungry and feel like shit. High protein: Feel bloated, constipation, diarrhea, mood up and down. Intermittent fasting: All of the above.
In my opinion, far too much is made of diet and nutrition, sorry science guys, but again, we’re all different. My pocket or stomach doesn’t extend to 1 gram of protein per lbs of body weight a day. I tried, it bankrupted me, it destroyed my digestive system and I didn’t get the supposed results.
When I halved my protein intake, including throwing out tubs of protein, creatine amino acids, I went on regardless, through the summer, while upping my cardio and dropping body fat. By the end of the summer, my bicep size was still the same, but well-conditioned and solid as a rock.
Protein is still however the main focus of each meal, chicken, beef, pork, a little fish (don’t like it and it’s not keen on me either), some fruit and veg, (nowhere near as many as before).
It’s true, you can eat too healthily and that means too many fruits and vegetables, if you have issues like myself, they ferment inside your belly and make your intestines extend then, bang! You’re 9 months pregnant, not a good luck for any fitness athlete of any gender.
I get a good bit of sugar: I am not afraid of pastries and cakes, but I’ve got to watch out with excess dairy. I still eat cheese, but long gone are the days of Greek yogurt and muesli every day for breakfast.
I eat a few eggs, I like my Italian deli meats, in Italy one pizza a week is nothing. I wouldn’t say a traditional Italian pizza is the best thing for you, but they are a long way away from the big American pie – in any case, a week without is a week lost.
Counting calories, too, seems to me a pointless exercise. I am a model, I am not a pro-bodybuilder on the world stage and neither are most people. My job is to look nice in Calvin’s, more or less all year round. I guess, I’ll never be the biggest guy in the gym, but I can live with that, it’s not my aim to be.
I don’t drink alcohol, been sober for ten years, so I don’t have any partying setbacks. I do socialise, but in Italy the focus is more on the food than drink. Italy is behind only Japan in terms of highest life expectancy, sweet stuff for breakfast is the norm, pasta at least once a day, when in Rome, you’ve heard it.
As for supplements, believe it or not, they are gone too: Creatine, amino acids, even whey protein are things of the past for me. Each time I touch any of them, my stomach blows up. Since leaving them alone, I haven’t seen any loss of muscle mass.
I eat a balanced diet, I like meat anyway, so I get stuck in, but I am not counting how much protein, I guess I am somewhere between 20 to 30 grams each meal, and honestly I believe that’s enough.
What has inspired and motivated you?
Frank Zane is my all-time bodybuilding hero. Aesthetically in his prime, his physique was flawless. He was perhaps an inch or two taller than me, but a similar shape and of course he was packing at least a good extra 10 pounds of mass over me, I still feel that what he achieved is attainable.
Another guy, who I think is very important, is Pavel Tsatsouline, an expert Russian guy who brought the idea of kettle bells to America and the west. His ideas very much go against the grain of what is widely considered gospel among the fitness industry and yet his work speaks for itself, I guess that’s why I like him, a fellow contrarian.
Jeff Cavaliere of athlean-x.com has a great YouTube channel. With diverse material, he’s non-partisan or preachy, just gives his view as a professional coach and he’s doing it for the older guys – a lot of time for Jeff.
I think it’s important with all aspects of life today in the information-overload age we have to deal with, to pick and choose wisely who we listen to. I could write book on the amount of bad advice I have received from ‘broscientists’ over the years; however on a positive note, I think the best advice I ever got came from an ex-coach who told me, “Do what you can do, not what you think you should be doing.”
Advice for other people who want to improve themselves?
My advice for people looking into bodybuilding and fitness would be, ask yourself what your motivations are and go for it. Have fun with lifting and exercise, and always compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not who you want to be tomorrow.
As you progress, you have to keep an open mind, even bordering on nihilistic. The latter refers to a scenario, should you ever discover that you have swallowed a piece of useless information that took you on a long back breaking regime for zero results, just put it down to experience and move on.
However, it’s unlikely that any advice is that bad, if it were, likely you wouldn’t be wasting your time in the gym, more like at the physio.
Oh, and don’t forget those legs.
Are you taking on clients right now?
I am not a qualified personal trainer, but if there are any sports apparel companies looking for six-pack abs all year round, check out my Instagram: @jamesanthonyemmerson
Where can we learn more about you?
I use only Instagram @jamesanthonyemmerson, there are a lot of gym pics and videos, mixed in with music. A strange juxtaposition I know, but a troubadour with guns is what makes me unique.