John Parrillo is a true master of bodybuilding nutrition. John is a steadfast revolutionary. Brilliant iconoclastic, intense, enigmatic, articulate, occasionally abrasive, Parrillo is above all else an innovator. Radical postulations come easy to this guy. Back in the late 70s Parrillo became enamored with the idea that a competitive bodybuilder, seeking to grow as large and lean as humanely possible, should eat massive amounts of quality food on a consistent daily basis. Massive caloric intake would "underpin" the blisteringly intense weight training and savage cardiovascular training that he routinely proscribed.
Parrillo's postulations were considered heretical when he first presented them. At the time, the late 1970s and early 1980s, bodybuilding was having an identity crisis: men like Frank Zane and Chris Dickerson, small guys with lots of defined muscles, were winning the biggest titles in bodybuilding. In the early 80s Chris Dickerson won the Olympia one year with a 16.5 inch arm!
Parrillo, a native of Cincinnati, Ohio was a powerlifter dumbstruck by the gargantuan physiques of the oversized, brutish lifters. John marveled at the elite lifters' sheer size. How did they get so big? He wondered. He noted that humongous powerlifters hoisted huge poundage for low reps in a limited number of basic barbell exercises. They trained infrequently. Their training sessions were extremely heavy and extremely intense. Afterwards top lifters would rest for days. Parrillo also marveled at how much food these men ate - their appetites and capacities were gluttonous.
John at 60: He's dedicated his life to bodybuilding and sports nutrition.
"The solution to losing body fat - and keeping it off - will totally amaze you. The solution to losing body fat lies not in cutting calories but in increasing them! My three stage 12 week fat loss program has been used by competitive bodybuilders to acquire single digit body fat percentiles for decades. The ideal bodybuilding diet is one that builds the metabolism. This allows you to consume copious calories yet still burn off body fat. Crash diets are disastrous. Denied food, the body begins to feed on the protein in the muscle. Muscle is the human body's most metabolically active tissue; depleting it, cannibalizing it, retards the body's ability to burn calories."
Parrillo deduced that extremely heavy weight training combined with extremely heavy eating (powerlifters ate thousands and thousands of calories in a single sitting) would result in tremendous gains in muscular size and strength. On the downside, the indiscriminant consumption of calories was a health catastrophe: pizza, pasta, cheese, fried foods, saturated fat, sugar, Jack Daniels and beer were seemingly the staples of the powerlifter's diet. Massive caloric intake combined with hardcore power training built massive muscles: Parrillo pondered long and hard on how to best improve and refine upon this profound premise.
Bodybuilders of the day turned their collective noses up at the idea that there might be anything of the slightest interest to be learned from thuggish "power oafs." Parrillo thought that shortsighted and mused,
"What if bodybuilders expropriated the training tactics of the powerlifter and copied their massive ingestion of calories? How do we replicate the powerlifter's massive muscle size - yet somehow manage to stay lean and fat free?"
At the time top bodybuilders engaged in endlessly long weight training sessions using light weights and high reps. Sessions were long and drawn out. The standardized training protocol was to perform 20 sets per body part. This, it was thought, would sculpt and refine muscles. The elite bodybuilders weight trained twice a day, six days a week, using mind-numbing double split" routine. Parrillo thought this training approach was a physiological dead end. What if bodybuilders were to cut back on training volume while radically upping the poundage? Reduce the reps, start slinging some serious iron and after these bar bending sessions ended, feed the body huge amounts of food - good food, beneficial foods. Instead of eating all the day's calories in two or three mega meals, spread the calories out, eat 5-7 times a day, and reduce the caloric intake at any one time. Eat equalized mini-meals spaced at periodic intervals throughout the day.
What if, Parrillo postulated, instead of consuming gobs of calorie-dense saturated fat, insulin spiking sugar, refined carbs galore and beer by the case, selections were limited to "quality" food sources? Bad calories would be replaced with good calories such as lean fat free protein, fibrous vegetables, starchy complex carbohydrates and little else. Still eat massively, but eat clean. A chicken breast is a clean food where a fat-laden piece of prime rib is dirty. The food selections become more discriminating: dirty calories are replace with clean calories.
Heavy power training would stimulate muscular growth and the consumption of copious clean calories would accelerate recover and trigger anabolism.The only foods allowed would be those foods preferentially partitioned into muscle construction or used for energy production. Parrillo would have his trainees eat big, but avoid foods preferentially partitioned into body fat. The goal was to create a new generation of gargantuan bodybuilders: 250 pound monsters with single digit body fat percentiles.
The Experiment that Spawned the Philosophy
Parrillo proceeded to change his own eating and training habits. In no time his body exploded with growth: by combining heavy power training with clean mini-meal, mega eating. He transformed his own physique in a matter of months. He set state powerlifting records. The bodybuilders that trained at his gym wanted to know what he had done to trigger such a dramatic transformation in such a remarkably short period of time. He soon found himself in the role of a muscle guru, structuring the diets of competitive bodybuilders. Being detailed by nature, he began systematizing his embryonic philosophy.
Every single time a bodybuilder working under John's auspice fully adopted the Parrillo approach, the bodybuilder became significantly larger and leaner. By the early 1980's Parrillo's "bodybuilder preparation" services were in tremendous demand. He would design the bodybuilder a customized pre-contest nutritional game plan. In some instances he oversaw training sessions. He became a master at plotting progress and making critical in-flight adjustments and course corrections. Men that had been stuck at a particular level of physical development for years resigned to placing in the middle of the pack at the state and regional level suddenly added 30 pounds of muscle while simultaneously losing body fat.
Losers became Winners
The word spread as Parrillo's fleet of bodybuilders began wiping the floor with the competition at the local, regional and national level. Soon IFBB professional bodybuilders began seeking his dietary counsel. Several Olympia winners surreptitiously used his products and sought his nutritional guidance. This was on the QT as the Olympia winners were all under exclusive endorsement contracts to giant supplement makers. They endorsed products they didn't use. Word spread to the muscle magazines: there was talk of a mystical muscle guru who was using natural methods to obtain supernatural results for men already at 98% of their genetic potential. The underground magician went mainstream. The word was out and a revolution gained traction. The era of the muscle monster had arrived and John Parrillo was Doctor Frankenstein.
Bigger and Leaner
More Calories/More Training/No Excuses
Parrillo is an odd mix: simultaneously a cutting-edge revolutionary and an Old School throwback. He is a revolutionary in that nothing in the world of bodybuilding was ever the same after his high calorie thesis took root. He boldly proclaimed that an athlete could "build the metabolism" and teach the body how to handle ever increasing amounts of calories and do so without getting fat. He was immediately set upon by the bodybuilding ruling class. They labeled his pronouncements about being able to eat upwards of 10,000 calories a day and not get fat as Insane!" It defied the laws of thermodynamics, they screamed, to insist that anyone could eat that much food and not have vast portions shuttled into fat storage. Had it been the Middle Ages, this heretic would have been burned at the stake.
Parrillo's pronouncements were greeted with the equivalent of the Bronx cheer by defenders of the prevailing orthodoxy. In assembly-line fashion he just kept churning out bigger and leaner bodybuilders. The professional bodybuilders took notice and were a lot more receptive to Parrillo's ideas than the opinion makers, the supplement manufacturers or the magazine article writers. Athletes continually seek out new avenues of progress and elite athletes will try any crazy substance, training tactic, idea or approach they believe might give them a leg up over the competition. The Parrillo precepts made sense to them. Top competitive bodybuilders noted that after having starved down for a competition, (the accepted contest preparation orthodoxy of the time) when "regular" food was reintroduced into their post-competition eating, after being so drained and depleted for so long, they blew up, often gaining 10-20 pounds within 36 hours of the competition without any loss in muscle clarity, definition or delineation.
The "super compensation" phenomenon was widely noted among the elite and tied in nicely to Parrillo's talk about "windows of opportunity." The elite bodybuilders were equally receptive to Parrillo's theories about elevating the metabolic thermostat using specific combinations of nutrition and exercise. Parrillo had confirmed the elite bodybuilders' unarticulated suspicions. John Parrillo had bottled bodybuilding lightning: he had figured out how to manipulate the metabolism through the expert use of regular food.
Build the Metabolism
Eat More to Lose Body Fat
Parrillo preached that to ratchet up the metabolism the bodybuilder should eat 5 to 8 times a day. Multiple meals, "feedings" should be spaced at equidistant intervals and only approved foods should be eaten. These foods would be eaten in certain combinations. The continual intake of quality nutrients would stoke the fires of the metabolic furnace. Over a protracted period of time, more calories could and would be consumed at each feeding. Mini-meals were to be eaten every two to three hours. The idea as to never overload the digestive system at any one meal. By spreading the day's calories out in a never ending succession of mini-meals, the bodybuilder's digestive system would become adept at digesting, distributing and utilizing quality nutrients. Parrillo pointed out that the metabolism accelerates when forced to digest certain foods - i.e., lean protein and fibrous carbohydrates. The conscientious consumption of ample amounts of lean, fat free protein and fibrous carbohydrates form the backbone of the Parrillo nutritional approach saturated fat, sugar and alcohol are eliminated under Parrillo guidelines. Foods that spike insulin are verboten. The highly systematized Parrillo nutritional approach is disciplined, demanding and effective. The bodybuilders of the 1980s loved it: the orthodox dietary procedure of the day was to starve. Now they were told to eat and eat a lot. They were gleeful and ecstatic.
By eating throughout the day the bodybuilder established Positive Nitrogen Balance and stayed in a state of perpetual anabolism. PNB is created by eating an ample amount of calories. While in PNB muscle growth is possible - not that it occurs in and of itself, but the growth field is made fertile. If while in PNB an intense weight workout is undertaken, hypertrophy occurs. To spike the metabolism consume multiple mini-meals comprised entirely of quality nutrients. Avoid high glycemic foods and avoid refined foods and man-made foods. Engage in intense exercise. Over time the metabolic set point will be ratcheted upward. "Building the metabolism" is the central tenet of the Parrillo Philosophy. The best analogy for building the metabolism is building and maintaining a blazin fire. If dry hardwood logs are used (quality food fuel) the fire burns hot and intense. If every few hours new hardwood logs are thrown onto the already blazing metabolic fire, the fire is kept blazing and all the logs are burned completely.
The metabolism is ignited in the morning by eating a quality food meal, The metabolism is then kept blazing throughout the day. The competitive bodybuilder teaches the body to expect food every 2-3 hours. By never overwhelming the digestive system at any one time, by using foods difficult to partition into fat storage, by eating foods difficult to digest, the metabolism is forced to periodically elevate. The bodily thermostat is raised repeatedly by ingesting specific foods at specific times. Add intense weight training and cardio to further elevate an already elevated metabolism. The metabolism is stimulated is some manner or fashion every few waking hours.
Champion bodybuilders can consume up to 8,000 calories or more a day spread over five to eight meals, and not gain an ounce of fat. They have worked up to this massive caloric intake over a protracted period of time. They avoid foods that deaden or make the metabolism sluggish and eat upwards of 50 mini-meals each week. Every two to three hours the body burns through its current supply of food/fuel and the bodybuilder becomes ravenous for more food/fuel. The size of the meals is gradually increased. This enables the bodybuilder to grow additional muscle without adding body fat in the process.
Manipulating the Insulin/Glucagon Axis
Muscle gain and fat loss are controlled by hormones, i.e. chemical signals sent out by the endocrine glands. The pancreas secretes two hormones - Insulin and Glucagon. These hormones work together to provide uniform blood glucose levels. Insulin is the body's most powerful anabolic hormone and promotes the absorption of glucose from the blood into the cells. It is required to trigger muscle growth. Glucagon is the body's main catabolic hormone that increases the concentration of glucose and fatty acids in the bloodstream when blood sugar levels plummet. It increases the rate of breakdown of glycogen in the liver.
The good news is that the respective levels of insulin and glucagon, the insulin/glucagon axis, are determined solely by diet. We can exert an amazing degree of control over each of these hormones through modification of our dietary habits. The Parrillo Performance Nutritional Program is designed to take advantage of this fact and keep insulin and glucagon at precise levels to ensure maximal muscle acquisition and maximal body fat oxidation.
Insulin can be a powerful stimulus for body fat accumulation when blood sugar levels are spiked by storing fat inside cells. In the Parrillo approach meals are constructed to release carbohydrates into the bloodstream slowly. Lowered insulin minimizes the accumulation of additional body fat. Glucagon stimulates body fat breakdown (lipolysis) and its actions are mostly confined to the liver. It is not a potent stimulator of lipolysis in peripheral body fat storage compartments. However, when intense exercise is introduced into the hormonal equation, epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, is secreted. Epinephrine is the body's most powerful stimulus for fat breakdown. By keeping the insulin/glucagon axis under control via precision eating fat is better mobilized from adipose tissue to provide energy.
Parrillo postulates: It is far better to ingest 5,000 clean calories per day spread over 7 meals of 700 calories a piece that o consume 3,000 dirty calories eaten in three 1,000 calorie chunks. Parrillo bans nutrients easily and preferentially partitioned into body fat. He insists that each of his students have a long-term nutritional game plan and track progress daily by logging each meal they consume. In addition competitive bodybuilders weigh their food - counting grams of protein, carbohydrates, fat, sugar and sodium. Food intake is tweaked and manipulated to an infinitesimal degree.
In 1985 Parrillo began producing potent, customized supplements for his growing army of competitive bodybuilders. The supplements of the day lacked potency and were loaded with sugar to make the concoctions palatable. He needed powerful natural products to augment the training and nutritional efforts of his competitive bodybuilders. His nutritional system continued to evolve as he worked with an ever wider range of clientele: athletes from different sports, all with differing needs and goals. Regular people began using modified versions of his elite methodology with great results.
Parrillo also created the BodyStat Kit - a nine point skinfold pinch test used to determine body fat percentiles. The kit consists of a set of skinfold calipers and log sheets. Each week the bodybuilder checks his/her body composition: the fat to muscle ratio. To maximize increases in muscular size and stimulate decreases in body fat, adjustments are made weekly in both diet and exercise. The BodyStat results act as the ultimate weekly benchmark. While the skinfold calipers might not be 100% accurate, when used properly the body fat measurements obtained using calipers are quite accurate and more importantly create a terrific benchmark for week to week comparison and analysis.
Thirty years down the road and Parrillo has become an institution. His corporate headquarters are sleek and expansive. His supplements are manufactured onsite. He has an onsite research lab and custom mixes. He exerts maximum control over the integrity and potency of his already products. This allegiance to product potency has created a legion of fans and followers. He remains as inscrutable and innovative as ever.