Competing at the highest level within the pro bodybuilding ranks requires pinpoint accuracy when planning the peaking process. And while many people assume a pro competitor will know exactly how and when to do what is needed as far as their training and nutrition is concerned, the reverse is often true, and the enlistment of an expert to provide a second pair of eyes and an intuitive sense for what works and what doesn't is, these days, par for the course.
Take top pro Craig Richardson, surely, at least in this author's opinion, one of the most underrated competitors of today. With almost two decades of bodybuilding competition under his belt, including nine as a professional, having turned pro at the 2000 NPC Nationals, and having done his pro debut at the 2003 Night Of Champions, Craig continues to find new ways to improve his physique. For the Atlantic Pro, held on September 11th, 2009, he aims to get smaller in order to be the largest competitor in his division.
With the introduction of the 202-pound class, IFBB professionals now have greater scope when planning their pre-competition training strategies. For those at the lighter end of the open division, the 202-pound class provides an opportunity to reduce their weight by a few pounds to become more competitive. Craig Richardson has decided this will be the most feasible and realistic option for him and will aim to contest future pro events as one of the larger 202-pound men.
For those of you waiting to see how Craig will finish at the Europa Super Show this weekend, you will have to wait a little longer. At the last minute, Craig has decided to forgo the Europa Super Show, take on his nutritionist of 2007, Dave Palumbo, and head to Atlantic City with the intention of not competing in the open class.
Usually competing at between 210 and 215 pounds, Craig, though balanced and well muscled enough to hold his own, has in the past been overlooked alongside men who have outweighed him by upwards of 40 pounds. Now he expects to be the one doing the outweighing. In the following interview, the New Jersey native provides, for the first time in any publication, the exact details regarding how he plans to be one of the largest men in the 202-pound division and how he has progressed to his current position as one of the best bodybuilders on the planet.
Craig Richardson Interview
[ Q ] You competed at the Tampa Bay Pro show on the weekend. What is you competition strategy for the remainder of 2009?
I'm going to do the Atlantic City Pro. I teamed back with Dave Palumbo; I didn't use him for my last show. But it's really hard to judge yourself. My conditioning and everything was perfect (for the Tampa Bay Pro) until about Wednesday. Those last few days are very important but everyone thinks that because you are a pro you are able to pretty much do it yourself.
And you do know a lot when training other people, but unfortunately it is hard to look at yourself, and you never see yourself exactly the way other people do. So I am now back with Dave and have four weeks and five days before the Atlantic Pro. He wants to bring me in a little bit heavier and he wants to bring my conditioning back to where it should be. Hopefully we see some good things coming out of that show.
[ Q ] And of course you will also want to do well at this year's Olympia.
Yes, I mean the Olympia has the best in the world; you have the top guys from all over competing together. The highest I've ever placed in that contest is 13th. If I can break the top ten, to me that is almost like a victory.
[ Q ] My sources tell me that you are contemplating coming down to the 202-pound division for the Atlanta.
Well that was the plan. I am going to try to come down to the 202 for Atlantic City. If I can do this with the weigh-in on Thursday, I can actually get onstage on Saturday at the same weight I normally compete at, around 210 to 215. If that works out that will be great. The only thing is it might be a little hard getting down to 202 because I haven't seen that weight in so long (laughs).
But it would make sense to be up there with David Henry and Flex Lewis because I do give up a lot of weight to the other guys like Dennis James. James and I are about the same height but he outweighs me by about 30 pounds. So the best move for me, I feel, is to come into the 202-class.
[ Q ] You mentioned earlier that you would utilize Dave Palumbo to come in a little heavier. Would this added weight be seen after the loading phase following the weigh-in for the Atlanta Pro?
Well, we are going to see what happens over the next few weeks and make some adjustments if needed. Over the next two to three weeks we are going to play around with a few things and if my weight stays around the same, and I can come in harder, great. But if my weight starts to come down, which is what happens most of the time since I tend to drop it so fast, then we will aim right for the 202.
Because normally I'd come in at 214-213, so in order for me to be extra dry I would maybe need to come in at 210, eight pounds away (from the 202 weigh-in mark). So for the 202 I will suck myself right down and carbohydrate load like crazy for a day and a half to put the weight back on.
[ Q ] Sacrificing muscle tissue seems almost inevitable under such conditions.
Yes and that's why every three or four days he (Palumbo) will take a look at me and monitor everything to make sure this thing is coming right because, like you said, I don't want to destroy any muscle coming down, and look stringy onstage. So we have to take it one day at a time for the first two weeks and see how that works out, and then take it from there.
[ Q ] You strike me as being much bigger than 210 onstage, and you are known for walking around at over 250 pounds in the off-season. Coming down to 202 you will be up against guys who are more at home at a lighter weight and who are shorter and might pack more muscle on their smaller frame. Is this a concern for you? How will you stack up?
I think pretty well. A lot of people don't know this but I did the Olympia last year (in 2008) along with David Henry who was allowed to crossover (to the open class) with Kevin English. I was onstage at about 209 and I beat both of them so I actually, in reality, should have sucked down to 202 and then carb loaded back up to 210 and it would have been the same thing onstage.
What happens is you weigh-in the day before, so I had plenty of time and after depleting your body so much, like I had, then the slightest intake of carbs blows you right back up. I would weigh-in at 202, drained obviously, then carb up ridiculously and come in the next night with ten pounds or so more on my frame, and will have filled out much more.
Guys have been doing that at the Nationals for years. You will see a guy weighing-in at 198 and a quarter barely making it and then all of a sudden Saturday comes around and he is 210 or 215.
[ Q ] On the face of it such a strategy sounds very good, but in reality, getting down to that point might be difficult ask for someone who has routinely been coming in at 210-215. How will you deal with getting down to 202, psychologically and physically?
Well the psychological part I can deal with. The physical part, that remains to be seen. Like you said I've been competing at this weight for a long time and my body's used to it, but there are guys who were competing heavier who dropped down to the 202 also. George Farah was able to do it, and Kevin English.
If you saw Kevin English in the off-season you would think that there is no way that he could make 202. The guy gets up to 280 pounds in the off-season. I've seen him at 240, shredded. He has managed to suck down to 202; there are ways to do it. Obviously you need someone outside to look at you that know what they are doing who can monitor you and tell you when enough is enough.
[ Q ] Getting there in a safe manner would be the issue wouldn't it?
Yes. Normally for me to compete at 210 or 215 I have to eat eight or nine times a day and my portion sizes are huge. So I'm usually fighting to keep my calories up to compete at a higher weight. If I ate a normal six times a day (normal for bodybuilding purposes that is) in normal portions I don't think it will be that much of a problem to get down.
[ Q ] These days the trend typically has been for a competitor to pack on as much muscle weight as humanly possible to come in larger, rather than working on getting lighter in line with their genetic limitations. Mark Dugdale, for example, has been working on getter larger and has consequently fallen back in the placements.
Yes, so I'm going to give this a try and see what happens. I have everything to gain and not much to lose. If I come down a little lighter and see that this thing isn't working I can always fill myself back up a few pounds and come into the open class. If it does work out and I'm able to fill myself back up to 210-212 before the prejudging then I will actually be one of the heavier guys there and will outweigh everyone by about ten pounds or so.
[ Q ] So clearly for you being the biggest, fullest and most shredded guy in your class in a pretty nice proposition.
Yes. And people reading this interview might say, "What is this guy nuts?" - But for the last 30 years that is what everybody has done at the Nationals. When you see a middleweight, he weighs-in at 177 on Thursday but when you see him on Saturday at the show the guy is 185 pounds.
The light heavies weigh-in at 198 but when they have finished carbohydrate loading and filling out they are much larger. I remember Derrick Whitsett, God bless him, competing at the Nationals: he weighed-in at 198 and competed at 215 at pre-judging. I'm going to go back to that strategy and if I can get down to 202 psychologically I don't think I'm going to have a problem, because when it comes to the day of the show I know I'm going to be back up to my normal weight. But whether my body can handle it physically remains to be seen.
[ Q ] So, for you, it is about going in and winning the contest, not packing on as much muscle as you can and taking your chances?
Yes, and that is one of the issues also. I worked with Don Long in the off-season and he has given me a lot of advice. I can remember him telling me exactly what to eat and I was eating, for example, 14 egg whites with three yolks and two cups of oatmeal in the morning.
An hour later it was a pound of chicken and two cups of rice, a couple of hours after that it was a pound of steak and two cups of rice. It was literally around the clock, eight hours per day. And I was throwing in shakes in between those meals. So I get up to 257-260 and compete only two pounds heavier (above usual contest weight of around 210) at the contest (laughs).
One year I went from 230 to 257 and I competed at 212 at one show (following the bulk-up to 230) and competed at another show at 214 (after building up to the 257). When people saw me at 257 they said, "Wow, you have put on so much and it is quality mass." Then all of a sudden the weight just stated dropping off while dieting. And while dieting my meals were still pretty big. Instead of a pound of chicken it was 12 ounces, the same thing with steak. It was a cup of rice instead of two cups.
So in the end I had to pick it back up to two cups of rice again because my weight started dropping too fast. So this way (aiming for the 202 class) I'm figuring in the off-season I can eat clean with reasonable portions and I don't need to pack all this weight on my small frame. My frame is small; I'm actually a really small guy. Genetically if I wasn't working out and eating eight times a day I'm about 170 pounds.
[ Q ] That is really hard to believe.
Well it really is true. One year, a few years back, I stopped training for six months. I just got so fed up with everything and ate three times a day like a normal guy and went to 172 pounds. My family are all very small people. I just happen to be shorter.
I'm five-seven and everyone else is six feet and above. My family are all very small and vascular people. My mum is very thin at five-ten, but is very vascular. So this way (competing in the 202 class) I could be in the top three as opposed to the top 20.
[ Q ] So, to clarify, your new strategy is to not try too hard to gain weight in the off-season but to stay within range of 202 so you will be more competitive come contest time.
Yes, correct. I've tried to eat, like I said, enormous amounts of food and my weight will go up, and I'll get pretty heavy and my condition will be pretty good for the off-season. Then all of a sudden somehow and some way I'll start dieting and it will start melting right off. I get frustrating at times so with this way here I don't have to worry about competing with guys 20 or 30 pounds heavier. Now the guys in the 202 will have to worry about me being 10 to 15 pounds heavier in the show.
[ Q ] So you will effectively be switching positions.
[ Q ] In terms of your training itself, has it been reasonably consistent over the past few years or have you made some big changes as of late?
Well I've always been pretty much consistent except for the six months several years ago when I got fed up with it all. But I do two (training days) on/one off basically. Getting ready for a contest it's still the same schedule with the two on/one off, but on my days off I still go to the gym and do cardio, glutes and abs, forearms and all of the detail work. But in the off-season the only thing that changes is that I don't do as much cardio.
[ Q ] Have you done anything differently this year to provoke further gains in muscle mass?
Well I have tried to go a little heavier this off-season. Normally I go between 10 to 12 reps per set but this time I actually went down to as low as four reps. I spoke to Dave and he advised me to go as low as four reps for certain movements so I've tried that and it is working out well.
[ Q ] And your muscle density has improved because of this intermittent heavier style of training?
Yes it has. On certain body parts I can see that I'm a little more etched. Now, if I can just get some of that water off on the day of the show (laughs).
[ Q ] It is all about dryness at your level.
That's it, definitely.
[ Q ] You could be the better bodybuilder physique-wise but if you are not dry you will be relegated towards the end of the final standings, right?
Absolutely right, and I'm a prime example of it. There are guys that I've beaten numerous times, but because I was off, I couldn't. And I have no one to blame but myself, but it happens.
[ Q ] So for you it is about pulling it all together.
[ Q ] And at this point in your career do you still feel that you haven't quite done this yet, that you still have much more to offer as a competitive pro bodybuilder?
Oh absolutely, I have just turned 35 and with better technology now and better training methods and nutrition guys are training well into their mid to late 40's and getting better. Whereas years ago at 32 or 33 guys were retiring, they were done. So I'm only going to get better at this point.
[ Q ] And, of course, you will also have the added advantage of muscle maturity should you stay healthy and injury free.
Yes, that's it.
[ Q ] What is the heaviest you have been onstage?
The heaviest was about 216, but I still could have been two pounds or so lighter. But in order for me to be completely bone dry, where it is just lines on top of lines you are talking about 210. So that's when my training partner (Harley Breite) and I came up with the idea, and a few judges brought it to my attention, that I could bring my weight down to 202 if I was competing at 210. Just get down to 202 and then carb myself back up, and I would have a full day to do this (carb up).
[ Q ] This all sounds good in theory but reducing you weight by a further eight or nine pounds when you are already bone dry could be tortuous at best, plain risky at worst. How exactly will you cut your weight back to 202?
Well (laughs), massive amounts of cardio, very little carbs and very little fat in my diet. It will almost be all protein and vegetables, which I have done numerous times already as a light heavy. To compete at the Nationals I can remember the same thing: Sometimes on the day of the weigh-in I would be five pounds over (the light heavyweight division cut-off weight) and I would have to do cardio. I would run and drink black coffee and whatever else I would have to do to go to the bathroom to try to get rid of it. And it was gruelling, but the reward in the end after carbing up and coming in a little heavier than the rest of the light heavies was great.
[ Q ] So after carbing up you should, at least in theory, compete even more ripped because your skin is forced to push out even more water while the muscles become fuller thus stretching the skin further and creating a greater degree of definition and size. Is that how it works.
Yes, that is how it works. That's what happened to me this time but I went down too low and I was afraid to take in too many carbs because I thought I would spill over as this has happened before - I have had a tendency for this to happen because I would take in too many carbs and they would spill and create water retention - so I was afraid to do it (over-carb). Then I ate ridiculously all Sunday (after the show). On Monday I woke up, looked in the mirror and it looked like I was ready to compete (laughs). So the theory is to get down as light as you can and be as shredded as you possibly can be before taking in a massive amount of carbs to fill yourself back up.
[ Q ] So the main concern for a competitor doing this would be to ensure they are completely depleted of carbohydrates.
Yes, that's right. The tank has to be completely on E (laughs).
[ Q ] The non-bodybuilding initiated would struggle to comprehend exactly how this can be achieved from a sheer will power perspective, much less the science behind it. Since the body has mechanisms for regulating its internal water balance in both the muscles and beneath the skin, playing around with water levels needed for survival must be extremely tricky. What tells you that you have reached a critical point where things could begin getting dangerous?
You also have to make sure you take the right supplements, vanadyl sulphate being one. There are over the counter (OTC) supplements that people don't even realize can help to keep that water in the muscles.
Even creatine at that point over the last couple of days can help. Some people actually use creatine because, at that point, you are just completely dry and using it during the last two days, or the day before the show, can help to protect the water in your muscles. So there area few tricks, but I can't give them all away (laughs).
If you can find the things that will keep water in your muscles while you are coming down, to fill back up you just have to make sure you get the right carbs in the right amount. That's what Dave Palumbo's job is: to ensure I eat the right amount and types of carbs so what way we can just fill the muscles out and nothing gets under the skin and I can just be as big and as full as possible.
[ Q ] And at this point you can neither confirm nor deny that you will be taking creatine prior to the Atlantic City Pro.
That's right, I can neither confirm nor deny that (laughs).
[ Q ] I'm sure people will definitely be asking the questions once they see you in five weeks time.
[ Q ] I understand you have been with your training partner Harley Breite for 12 years.
Yes, a very long time. I actually met him about 13 years ago. He was actually Vinny Galanti's training partner. He and Vinny stopped training. The guy who owned the gym, Bodyworx, at the time, Maz Ali, paired Harley and I up because Harley needed a training partner, as did I. At the time I was very young and lazy and Harley actually trains very hard and he's a good motivator. And we have been going strong together for over 12 years. It's unbelievable to hear of a training partnership that has been going for over 12 years. I don't know of anyone else.
[ Q ] What else does Harley offer as a training partner other than the obvious motivation? Is he a knowledgeable guy?
He knows a lot about the sport, but it's hard to find someone who is going to show up every day, who is ready to train, whose intensity is high and who is on time every day and will cater to your workout. There are certain exercises that I have to do because I need a certain area filled out.
He doesn't mind doing it and will do it as many times as we need to. Then there are certain exercises that I can't do because that body part may grow a little faster, like legs, and he never complains that we haven't done these (exercises) for a while. When you are training with another guy who is a competitor, then he needs certain things you may not need. My back is a little weak so there are certain exercises I have to do for it that he may not have to do.
So you can never completely get along with another competitor. With Harley and me it's always great because with whatever I need to do he's right there. He might not need to do cardio, but if Palumbo has me doing and hour and a half of cardio he (Harley) is right there doing it with me. He never complains and never gives up. He is like the perfect training partner.
[ Q ] And how long have you been working with Dave Palumbo for?
I started working with Dave Palumbo for the Atlantic City (in '07). I had heard how great Dave was and how he had helped out other people such as Toney Freeman so I gave him a call. I had bombed at a show, I think the New York Pro, and I called Dave and asked him how much he would charge to work with me for the Atlantic City Pro.
He asked to see how my body was first of all. At that point the Atlantic City was in four weeks and he said, "Let's see if you can get ready for it." This was well after the New York and I really hadn't trained and I had injuries to my shoulders and elbows and my knees were a little sore. I took a month off training and ate like a normal guy and got quite pudgy to be honest with you. He's like, "you have got four weeks, let's do it." So I sent him my pictures.
Well, the transformation he did with me in four weeks I couldn't believe it. None of my friends could believe it either. And I took fifth place. Don't get me wrong: I suffered like a b#tch over those four weeks. It was complete hell; I was doing an incredible amount of cardio a day and I didn't have that many carbs. He didn't even give me that many fats because I was so far behind, and I still managed to take fifth place. Some people actually think I should have placed higher. Then I worked with him a few shows after that and only got better and better so he's a guy to stick with.
[ Q ] Dave is known for getting people into their best shape regardless of their individual training requirements. What kind of feedback did he give you as to how you were evolving as a bodybuilder under his guidance?
Well it's funny because Dave's like a boxing coach. When you are winning the fight Dave will still tell you that you are behind on points and to pick up the pace (laughs). I will send him pictures and I'll say "this is probably the best I've looked in God knows how long" and Dave will say, "Well you look okay, but maybe you should increase your cardio by ten minutes" and this and that (laughs). I'm like, "Hang on a second, how do you expect me to increase my cardio." But it works. He tells me what to do and I listen.
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Craig Richardson At The 2007 IFBB Atlantic City Pro.
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[ Q ] Cardio is one of those components that people tend to underestimate and there is often a thought that it is easy to overdo it. In my experience if your nutrition and rest are in place then cardio can actually be hard to overdo.
That's right. Yes if you are taking the right nutrition you definitely can do it. But you can't go crazy. I see some guys on treadmill running like it's the last time they will see a treadmill again. You just need to take a nice easy pace and stretch it out.
[ Q ] When would you cut cardio prior to a contest?
It depends on how I look. Around Wednesday morning I will do a good leisurely 40 minutes, nothing strenuous, not the stepper, just the bike or treadmill. Wednesday morning is usually the last one.
[ Q ] Are you one of those competitors who literally trains with weights right up to the day of the show or do you ease back earlier?
I will train but I won't go as heavy. The reps will be really high and there will be a lot of drop sets and super sets to help get out all of the glycogen (to assist in the depletion phase). And my last workout is usually the Wednesday.
[ Q ] Assuming you will continue to contest the 202-division, provided it works well for you in Atlanta, will you have to begin the carbohydrate loading phase later than usual for your future 202 shows?
Yes pretty much. I'll have to make weight first. If things are done the way I think they are. If you weigh-in the morning before and the prejudging for the 202 starts, usually around 11:00am, and with all that will come before we take to the stage, I'll be onstage at about 2:00pm or later. That gives me a full 28 to 30 hours to keep pounding the carbs in to try to fill out.
[ Q ] How long do you plan to continue competing in bodybuilding?
I'll take it as it comes. I'm not going to be one of these guys who keep going. I see a lot of guys who just don't want to let it go. Their bodies are falling apart and they are tearing everything, everything is atrophying - you see it a lot. They won't let it go and I won't be one of those guys. If I see that things are just not tightening up the way they used to and muscles are atrophying all over the place I'm just going to give it up. I'll train just to be healthy and look good, but as far as competitive bodybuilding at that point, it's over.
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Craig Richardson At The 2008 Olympia.
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[ Q ] Would you like to continue in some capacity using your knowledge to help other people become better bodybuilders?
Yes I would really like to. Once I'm done with all of this I would really like to help out a few guys, especially at the amateur level, not the pro level.
[ Q ] These would be competitors at a crossroads where they have achieved at the highest amateur level and now want to go ever higher into the pro arena.
Yes, but I would like to get them even before that, when they are at the local level and help them work up to a national qualifier, then the juniors, then the Nationals and then the pro card. It's not even about earning money; it's about helping someone live a dream.
[ Q ] How did it feel for you to turn pro?
Oh, it was the best feeling ever. I had been reading the magazines featuring guys like Kevin (Levrone) and Shawn (Ray) and Flex (Wheeler) for years and then to get to meet them. My one only regret is that I didn't get to compete with them. By the time I had got to compete at the Mr. Olympia they had already gone.
And I tell Flex Wheeler all the time it would knock me down a place, or three actually (laughs), but to compete against guys like him, Shawn Ray and Kevin Levrone, that would have been a dream come true. That would have almost been as exciting as being onstage at the Olympia itself, if I could have just been at a show where the three of those guys were competing.
[ Q ] The 90's was definitely the era wasn't it?
Yes. And even at the (1991) National's where Kevin won, you think about it: you had Kevin Levrone in first; Flex Wheeler taking second; Paul Demayo in third; Ronnie Coleman took fourth and fifth was Matt Mendenhall. When are you going to see another Nationals with a line-up like that? You will probably never see another weight class at the Nationals that deep.
[ Q ] And of course that show set the foundation for one of the best pro bodybuilding decades ever. Thank you for this interview Craig. Is there anything you would like to add?
I would just like everybody to know that I thank all my fans for sticking with me through good times and bad. I just want to tell them I appreciate this and to ride it out with me. Hopefully this 202 works out for me and I can actually make the weight. Then there will be some good times from here on out.
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Craig Richardson At The 2008 Olympia.
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