Ask Layne Norton, PhD, a question, and he'll tell you what's on his mind. No filter, no qualifying, no BS—just straight talk. His take on sports nutrition is no exception. Here we are, doing an interview about the products offered by his supplement company, and Layne is telling me that supplements won't do a damn thing if you sit on your ass all day. If you're not willing to train hard, he adds, please save your money.
Norton's in-your-face opinions are backed up by a keen intellect and the initials P-H-D. He earned his doctorate in nutritional sciences from the University of Illinois. But unlike many people with equivalent credentials, he's also a current world-record holder in the squat, a silver medalist at the IFP Worlds powerlifting meet, and achieved a handful of bodybuilding victories from 2001 through 2010.
He finally decided to start his own supplement line when he grew weary of having to build his own pre- and post-workouts from ingredients he cobbled together from his own research and testing its effectiveness on himself during intense powerlifting training. I caught up with Norton to discuss his new line, Carbon by Layne Norton, and his dual loves of powerlifting and bodybuilding.
What inspired you to build your own supplement line?
I've used supplements for years, but I'd always have to piece together my own pre-and post-workouts, because the products on the market didn't contain all the ingredients I wanted. Either that, or they didn't have them in the right doses. Even most of the so-called science-based companies out there were making certain concessions I didn't care for, underdosing their product and overstating their claims.
However, I only became interested in creating my own line when I had the opportunity to partner with Bodybuilding.com. I wanted to make products I would take myself and could give to my clients, too, so they wouldn't need to buy eight different things like I did.
I wanted to create good products without proprietary blends and marketing hype. In short, I wanted to make products I could be proud of.
What makes Carbon supplements different from the rest of the pack?
For one thing, they're properly dosed. I looked at the research on the ingredients I was interested in and found out what the human studies were dosed at. From there, I could determine the optimal dose for the customer's dollar. I didn't add extra ingredients just because I could. I said, "What's the minimum dose we can use to get this good response without overcharging our customers?"
To properly dose things isn't cheap, and Carbon is never going to be the cheapest brand on the market. But we wanted to make sure that even though the products were going to be a little bit pricier, we weren't overcharging people.
The idea is to train harder, recover better, and enhance your training, because that's what drives gainz with a Z. No supplement is going to grow muscle for you; that's just not how they work. Supplements are an adjunct that can help you train harder and recover better so you can build more muscle and lose more fat. Our big social media marketing campaign is "Carbon Prep—it only works if you do."
We're not a supplement company for the person who thinks, "If I just take this, I'm going to get jacked." We're never going to make that claim. What we're saying is, if you want to function optimally and have great workouts and recover better and perform better, this is something we think would be helpful.
It sounds like it was very important to you that people get what they pay for when they buy Carbon.
Definitely. People on Twitter challenge me on the price, and I say: "OK, I want you to go price what it would cost to make it, and tell me if you saved any money. We listed the amounts of the ingredients on the side. You're welcome to go build it yourself if it's going to be cheaper for you, but it's not going to be."
One person actually did, and they came back and said, "This is a big mistake; I should have just bought Carbon. It was about the same price, it was a pain in the ass, and it tasted like crap because it wasn't flavored."
People typically look for caffeine and other stimulants in a pre-workout. Why did you choose to leave out caffeine in Carbon Prep?
I think caffeine is a great supplement; there's a lot of research that supports the use of caffeine for enhancing performance. That being said, there are a lot of people who are very sensitive to the effects of caffeine, who don't like caffeine, or who work out late at night and don't want to be up all night.
Pre-workouts contain great ingredients like betaine, creatine, citrulline malate, and carnitine, but you're always getting them with a heavy dose of stimulants. So, what if somebody doesn't need or want a full-fledged dose of caffeine? What if they just want to go have a good workout and function well and not have to rely on that stimulant? There just weren't enough choices in the market.
The other problem with caffeine is it gets less effective the more you take it. So, if somebody who doesn't typically consume caffeine takes 300 milligrams, they perform better. But if they keep taking it, that response starts to go away. I felt like was this could also be a great supplement for people who are trying to wean themselves off caffeine and still perform well.
All that said, if someone else wants to use it with a stimulant, it will work absolutely wonderfully.
Did you build the Carbon line with powerlifting performance in mind at all?
Definitely, because that's one of the sports I love. Very few supplements will actually help increase your one-rep-max strength. Creatine monohydrate can help with that, and betaine can increase peak power. But when I was training for Nationals and my sessions grew really, really heavy and long, like 3-4 hours long, I really felt like Carbon Prep and Carbon Recover allowed me to do stay focused a little bit longer and perform a little bit better later in my workouts. That's where I felt the most benefit.
Also, where I'd normally be a little sorer, not recover as well, and be stiff for follow-up workouts, I seemed to be recovering a little bit better. I think those products helped me perform a bit more optimally. And the nootropics in Carbon Prep may support cognitive function.
But now Prep and Recover aren't your only products anymore. What's new?
Carbon Build is our new protein powder. It's a whey protein isolate with over 3 grams of leucine and 24 grams of protein per serving, and it's very low in fat carbs, and calories. It's made from quality ingredients, it's priced well, and it's going to taste amazing. We spent nine months on the flavoring, because we wanted to make sure we got it right. We have Chocolate Milkshake, Vanilla Ice Cream, and Salted Caramel. You can mix it in water, and it tastes like salted caramel. I think it's going to be a great seller.
To be clear, whey protein isolate is not more anabolic than whey protein concentrate. I went with isolate, even though it's a bit more expensive, because it has fewer carbs, less fat, a higher protein percentage and more leucine. Also, some people's GI tracts can't tolerate a whey protein concentrate or they have lactose sensitivity. I wanted this to be something everybody could take.
We're not reinventing the wheel with this; we're just trying to make the wheel as smooth as possible. There are some proteins out there that taste really good, but then you look at the label, and they've got 5-7 grams of carbohydrates.
If you're offseason, maybe that's not a big deal. But I don't like drinking my carbs. I'd rather eat them.
You still maintain a great physique as a powerlifter. What's your best advice for getting stronger while staying lean?
I'm very meticulous with my training, so of course I'm meticulous with my nutrition. Those are the two factors in your control that make the biggest difference on how you perform.
I still track my proteins, carbs, and fats every day. I'm very aware of my maintenance calorie level, and I usually sit 2-3 pounds over the weight-class limit. I keep myself there by staying at my maintenance calorie level. When it's time to come down a little bit, I cut some carbohydrates and fat and make the weight class, no problem. And I'm able to refuel easily for the meet.
You've got plenty of training and competitive experience as both a bodybuilder and powerlifter. Which one do you like more?
As I've gotten older, I've developed a real appreciation for the art of lifting weights. If somebody put a gun to my head, though, I would pick powerlifting, because of the actual competition day. I feel like I'm more in control of the outcome than I am with bodybuilding; I either lift it or I don't lift it.
Again, no hating on bodybuilding. I still love bodybuilding and will probably compete in it in the future. But for me, there's nothing quite like the feeling of being an athlete on competition day. Coming down to that third deadlift, that last attempt, and having the chance to pull for a win—that's a pretty special feeling.
How has your long history of bodybuilding benefitted you as a powerlifter?
The mindset required to be successful in one can be beneficial for the other. Bodybuilding prep just gets to be such a grind. It's with you 24 hours a day, because you're hungry. In powerlifting, the training itself is grueling, but at least when you're done with the training, that's it—there's no extra grind, so to speak.
Obviously, there can be rehab for injuries and those sorts of things, but I think the bodybuilding prep gets to be more grinding. Having gone through that, when training got hard for powerlifting, I could dig down and kind of divorce myself from the grind. I'd think, "OK, this is how I feel right now, but it was just a bad day; just work on moving forward."
What is it about strength training that you love the most?
Oh man, I always like pushing myself. If I hit a PR in competition, it's great, but I love hitting a PR in training too. Just having that progression—I feel like that's kind of the theme of my life, to be constantly progressing toward something. It's evolve or die.
Obviously, you can't progress forever, but later in my training career, as the strength gains come more slowly, I've appreciated it even more. It makes those PRs even more valuable when they come infrequently now.