As Director of Sports Nutrition and Performance, Carter designs and manages the training and nutritional programs of clients from around the globe, from recreational exercisers of all levels to elite athletes competing in collegiate, Olympic and professional sport.
Precision Nutrition: You’re a pretty young guy, and yet you’ve been working with clients and athletes for a long time now. Did you always know you wanted to work in the strength and conditioning field?
Carter Schoffer: Uh, can you refer to me as handsome rather than pretty? [Laughs.] But yeah, now that I think of it, it has been a long time. I’ve always had a passion for this stuff, athletics, training, all of it, but I had no idea I’d make a career out of it. I’ve been really fortunate in that sense, I guess, because a lot of people never get to make a living doing what they love.
PN: What compelled you to get into the field?
CS: Sports. And girls. [Laughs.] No, let me think…well even back as a teenager, I’d already begun designing programs for friends and teammates. I mean, I just put things together from what I saw in the muscle magazines or what I saw in the gym. They weren’t works of art by any means, but that’s how I got started. But really, if I had to pinpoint it, I’d say it all started with a high school class. I had this great teacher, he was my Biology teacher, but he also taught this class that was called “Physical Education: The Bioscientific Method.” And to me, that was the greatest class in the history of the world. [Laughs.] It still is. It was no joke, we were taught applied upper year university nutrition, kinesiology and physiology. In high school. In fact, it’s funny, I still have my binder for that course. I still consult it from time to time. [Laughs.] It’s actually on my shelf here, hang on. Yeah, listen to this breakdown. These were the topics: Human Anatomy, Muscle Physiology and Mechanisms of Contraction, Energy Pathways for Muscle Contraction, Nutrition and Body Composition, Physical Fitness and Exercise, Cardiorespiratory Physiology, Biomechanics, Motor Ability and Motor Learning. How good is that? For a kid like me, I mean I was just devouring anything training-related that I could get my hands on, that was like an epiphany. It was my first exposure to the scientific side of exercise, and just thinking back to it, I was really fortunate to have a teacher like that.
PN: And how did you get started doing this professionally?
CS: Well, about seven years ago now, I had the good fortune to meet John Berardi at the University of Western Ontario. The university is actually in my hometown of London, and JB was working on his PhD there. At the time, I was training hard myself, plus I was writing programs for friends, that sort of stuff. I’m also a voracious reader, and I had read his articles on t-mag.com, which was what t-nation.com was called at the time, and I saw that he was studying at UWO. And it’s not often that we Canadians get experts in our own backyard. So I thought, “Why not?” I just dropped him an email. And he was really cool about it, he got back to me with something like, “Come by the lab and we’ll talk.” But I had no idea where or what “the lab” was. And you don’t ask for directions, right? [Laughs.] So I spent a good couple of hours wandering around until I found it. But it was definitely worth it, in fact it turned out to be a key moment for me. JB was looking for well-trained individuals to be subjects in his studies, so of course I volunteered…
PN: So you were actually a subject in the post-workout nutrition studies?
CS: Yeah, in fact I think I was the very first participant. JB was doing mock-up studies, trying to come up with the protocols to use to test this workout drink he was formulating, which eventually would be the basis for Biotest Surge. And he was trying to decide what to use as the exercise modality. Originally it was going to be weightlifting, and so he had me come out to the gym. And of course, this is only the second time I’ve met the guy, and I want to impress. So he had us doing these volume circuits, real hard volume circuits, and I’m going all out, whipping the weights around, acting like it’s nothing. And about halfway through the workout, I start to feel nauseous, and he kinda looks over, and all the sudden, “Blaaahhhh!” – I’m puking all over the gym floor. [Laughs.]
CS: Yeah, exactly, I guess he wasn’t too fond of mopping up vomit. [Laughs.] He ended up changing it to a cycling protocol, which was actually still very tough. I did that one too. But he could control it a bit better.
PN: What exactly was the circuit he had you doing?
CS: If I recall correctly, it was barbell back squat, standing barbell shoulder press, pulldowns, flat barbell bench press and bent-over row for 3 non-stop circuits of 10 reps per exercise. I think I threw up after completing the bent-over rows during the second circuit. [Laughs.]
PN: Couldn’t have been all bad, you ended up working together not to long after that.
CS: Well, after everything was mopped up, I actually did go on and complete the workout, so maybe that had something to do with it. [Laughs.] But yeah, I think he was impressed by my efforts, or at least I hope he was, and we got along really well. I talked a big game the first meeting, and I tried to back it up in the gym. I mean, I always try to make sure that I walk the talk, and JB is the same way, so I think that was some common ground between us. So anyway, he asked me what I was doing for training, I think he was going to offer to draw me up a plan or something, so I showed him my latest design. And I think he was impressed, because I ended up designing his training plan for the next few months. [Laughs.]
But it was great, because he was designing my nutrition programs, and I got to pick his brain the whole time. We’d go back and forth, discussing the research, figuring out ways to apply it in real life. We were both doing our studies, but we’d meet up on campus and talk shop. I was working with a bunch of local athletes, and John had all these clients from around the world who he would consult with over email and all these teams he worked with.
Over a couple of years, it turned out to be this massive number of case studies. And since John had access to all the lab equipment, we were able to test everything in detail, and when you do that you really start seeing what works and what doesn’t. And we started to come up with this way to codify the process. Like, how do you take someone from point A to point B? There are virtually infinite point A’s and infinite point B’s, but it’s always the same logical process going from one to the other. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an athlete looking to get faster, or a guy looking to get big, or a woman looking to lose fat or get healthier or whatever. It’s always a series of interventions, then a series of tests to measure what happened. So we started putting it all together and systematizing it.
Eventually, once John got his PhD and we were both out of school, we began to build this coaching program that existed entirely online, first at johnberardi.com and now with precisionnutrition.com. We would sit down together and design programs, pour over results, plan out strategies. Then I would have tell the clients to shut up and do it, sort of thing. [Laughs.] John became the good cop, I sort of became the bad cop. But really, that’s how I got started, it just kind of came about naturally.
PN: If you had to give yourself a job title, what would it be?
CS: Well, it’s interesting because traditionally you’re either a personal trainer or you’re a strength and conditioning coach. And I’m neither of those, really. I think if I had my druthers I’d call myself a body optimization consultant, as highfalutin as that may sound. What I do is almost exclusively distance-based. I coach, I design programs, I monitor progress, I provide support. But I don’t go into the gym with clients, which makes it fundamentally different. So really I’m a consultant you bring in to either supplement or replace the expertise available to you locally. I mean, you know what you’re getting with us, you can read all the articles on the site, you can read the books, you can see the teams we work with, in fact, you can even talk to clients and members on the Precision Nutrition forum. With us you can be certain you’re going to get the best. Walk into the average commercial gym and it’s a total crapshoot. You really have no idea what you’re going to get. Some trainers are superb, and some are just awful. And it’s really hard for people to differentiate. We get clients who deal with both, some are really unhappy with the advice they’re being given, and some are also working with the best coaches in the world, like some of our Olympic athletes, and they just want another expert on their team of advisors. So that’s the “consultant” part of the title.
As for the “body optimization” part, that’s the best way I can describe what a good trainer or coach really does. You take a client and figure out what they want, what their goals are. You look at where they’re at now, what their life is like, what their body is like, what their strengths and weaknesses are. And then you show them how to build the best body they can possibly have, and you use every tool available to do it. And it goes beyond training, that’s the thing. You work it all, training, nutrition, supplements, all of it has to work together. That’s critical.
PN: So body optimization requires bringing the training, nutrition and supplement components together in one program.
CS: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, they’re components, yes, but they’re only pieces in the larger puzzle, and really the only way to get results is to make sure all of them are optimized individually and then to make sure that they’re completely integrated with one another. How you train in the gym will affect how you have to eat and what supplements you should take. Take one guy who works a desk job and lifts weights four times a week, his plan will look totally different than a guy who trains five hours a day for elite athletics, even if they’re the same age, body type, whatever. He’s going to be taking different supplements, too.
And vice versa, how you eat will determine to a large extent how you’re able to train: how much, how hard, how often, and so forth. And it even goes beyond that. We have to look at the person’s life in general. What do they do for a living? How active are they? How much time do they have for food preparation? How much sleep are they getting? Do they have a family, how many kids, and so forth. Do they have a good training partner, do they have friends who are also interested in health and fitness? There are hundreds of other variables at play in all of our lives. So body optimization, to use that term again, involves all of them. It really does. My job is to create a plan that optimizes that client’s body, how it looks, how healthy it is, how strong it is, how well it performs, how it responds to stress, everything. And to do that I have to influence every single variable I can, and make them all work together.
That’s one of the advantages to having some distance from our clients. A lot of people fall into the trap of focusing only on one of those broad categories. It’s like, “I’m going to go on a diet,” or, “I’m going to step it up in the gym,” or “I’m going to take this or that supplement.” I mean, it’s just easier that way, it’s much easier for our minds to focus on a single thing. Unfortunately that’s not how it works. As a distance-based consultant, I can kind of remove myself from that and look at the grand scheme of things. I can take a client’s feedback, requests, complaints, that sort of thing, and make sure everything I do is focused on the bigger picture, the overall body optimization. I don’t have to act or respond immediately, and I don’t have to make a split-second decision just to please the person. To work with us, you have to retain us for at least four months, sometimes longer, so I have that freedom. Unfortunately, a lot of trainers or coaches who get paid by the hour, they sometimes feel compelled to keep a client happy in the short-term, even if it means compromising their progress in the long-term. That’s a typical rookie mistake. The experienced trainers, the good ones, they don’t care, they’ll just tell it like it is. If you can find one like that, consider yourself lucky.
But even if people aren’t working with a trainer or coach, one of the best things they can do for themselves is understand that all of these things are interconnected. They can learn how they interact, they can learn how to put together a plan for themselves that covers all these facets, and then learn how to test it to see if the thing is actually working or not. I mean, in a nutshell, that’s exactly what I do.
PN: Okay, let’s rewind a little bit. Do you remember the first day you picked up a weight?
CS: Oh yeah, I remember. [Laughs.] I still get a laugh thinking about it. I was probably about 10 years old or so. One of my close friends, who happened to be a couple years older than me, he had a bench set up with those old-school concrete-filled plastic weight sets. I remember benching something like 100lbs for a few reps per set. My friend and I were going back and forth for what was probably 2 hours. Anyway, we ended up doing something like 37 reps each. So I remember later, some older kids were talking about lifting, and I’m trying to get in the conversation. And they ask me how much I bench, and I’m like, “Oh, about 3700 pounds.” [Laughs.]
But my first real experience in iron game came in the 9th grade. My football coach, and that biology teacher I mentioned, they ran the weightlifting club. So I joined after the football season was over. I was fortunate enough to be taught how to properly squat, deadlift, military press, bench and row. The majority of my workouts focused on those lifts. Which was great, I was lucky enough not to be one of those guys who had to learn on the Universal.
CS: No, not at all. I mean, simply put, I was fat. I was 5’5, 175lbs by the time I reached the 4th grade. And I didn’t really get into organized sport until much later. Eventually I was really into baseball and football, so that started to help me lose weight. I could throw a fastball in the low 80’s at age 13, but needless to say, I never really learned to locate it. [Laughs.] I played both sides of the line in like the Canadian version of a Pop Warner league. So I started to get more athletic, more active, as I got older, and it did start to help my body composition.
But at one point I actually became anorexic. I just stopped eating. It wasn’t a body distortion issue, the truth was I was fat, no two ways about it. Like it wasn’t this kind of “I’m not thin enough” thing when you’re 97 pounds. And fortunately, it was controlled, in the sense that once I had I lost the weight, I did start eating again. But really for most of the eighth grade, I wasn’t eating anything. I lost the weight, but it was terrible for my overall growth. Every man in my family is over 6 feet tall, but I topped out at 5’9”. So I ended up losing all this weight, but totally the wrong way, I mean the unhealthiest possible way. And in the end, I wasn’t jacked or lean or anything. I still didn’t look the way I wanted to look, and I still had no idea what I was doing. But I was at least self-aware enough to know that I had to find a better way, fast.
And so from a very young age, I knew that I would have to learn everything there is to know about exercise, nutrition, physiology, everything I possibly could, because it would never come easy for me. I knew that the only way for me to be healthy and athletic and in great shape was to learn everything, and to figure out how to make it work for me.
CS: Well I hope it allows me to relate to people who are struggling, because I’ve been there myself. I’ve had to work for every little bit of progress I ever got. I’m not one of these genetic freaks who never have to train and can eat garbage without consequence. I’ve been down, I know what it’s like. So hopefully it helps me understand them better, to know what they’re going through. But I think it also helps me intervene when I have to. Because as a coach, you do have to intervene. I was lucky enough to have people step in and help me when necessary, I had great mentors and coaches and teachers, people who wouldn’t accept anything but my best. So I feel comfortable stepping in for others, because I know they need it, and I know without it they’re in big trouble. So if I can help clients the way I’ve been helped in my life, then I’ve done my job well.
PN: What’s the difference between the people who get it done and those who don’t?
CS: Putting a plan of attack, whatever the plan may be, into action. Far too often people succumb to paralysis by analysis. They wait for the perfect plan before getting off their butts. And the successful people, they attach their goals with tenacity, but they also understand that these are lifelong pursuits. You might be initially motivated by a specific goal, losing ten pounds or benching such and such, or whatever, but I think what makes the difference is the understanding that eating well and exercising consistently are worthy pursuits in and of themselves. The people who get it done find ways to enjoy the process, they find satisfaction in the meals they eat or in their workouts or whatever. They enjoy the life they’re living.
So it’s really about having the proper perspective. I sometimes use an example with clients who are feeling down for not having made a drastic transformation in a few short weeks or even months. I’ll calculate how old they are in weeks. For example, a 30 year old has been living for well over 1500 weeks. If that 30 year old has been making a concerted effort for about three months, that’s still just 12 of those 1500+ weeks! For more than 1488 weeks of their lives they didn’t have a goal, weren’t working towards it, or were actively doing counterproductive things. So in that person’s lifetime, they’ve done one week of productive work for every 124 weeks of counterproductive or ineffective work. So don’t get down about the 12 good weeks! Get down about the 1488 bad ones and start replacing them with good ones! That’s the proper perspective, and while it’s important to get short-term results to keep fueling the fire, it’s also very important to keep that in mind.
CS: Someone who is intrinsically motivated. Someone who has definitively made the decision to do this. Because we’ve worked with the whole gamut of individuals, athletes of virtually every sport, business execs, students, retirees, stay at home parents. And it really doesn’t matter where you’re at right now, if you’re novice or elite, rail thin or morbidly obese, or whether you’re looking for performance gains or just to improve your quality of life. It really doesn’t matter what the goal is, or who the person is. All that matters is their willingness to put forth and maintain the effort. That’s all I ask.
PN: And what about the coach? What makes for an ideal coach?
CS: Well, a couple of things, I think. First, you have to be good with psychology, you need to be able to understand, motivate and influence people. It would be so easy if it were just about program design. All the top coaches, consultants or trainers know that you have to be able to read people and play on their mental and emotional strengths and weaknesses. A relationship has to be built, you have to know each other, what gets them going and what doesn’t. The ideal coach is like the ideal teacher. Most of us have that one teacher that sticks out in our mind. The one that made you believe that they believed in you and in turn gave you reason to believe in yourself; the one that didn’t give up on you when you were struggling and the one that knew when and how to light a fire under your butt when you were dogging it. That’s what a good coach has to do.
And the other main requirement is flexibility. A good coach has to be flexible in who they train, how they train them, the methodologies they use, their approaches or strategies. Great coaches figure out what that person needs and adapt their programs to produce the required result. And it’s the required result, not necessarily the desired one. A good coach sometimes has to overrule the client. You may get a client who wants to bench three times a week but really needs to work on their posterior chain and subscapular stability. So you have to figure out what a client needs, see if that meshes with their wants, and from there make use of as many different approaches as necessary until you find one that works.
As Bruce Lee once said, “Use no way as the way.” When asked about his fighting style, Bruce told people that he had no style. Instead he tried to be like water, flowing and adapting to the opponent and altering his approach until the opponent is vanquished. Well, same thing with coaching. You don’t want to vanquish your clients, but you definitely do need to adapt to them. [Laughs.]
PN: You coach your clients exclusively over the web. In fact, most of them would have an easier time recognizing your writing than recognizing your face on the street. How has the web changed your job?
CS: Well, it provides a platform for an expert to reach a broader range of people, and vice versa, for that broad range of people to reach experts they otherwise couldn’t have. But it certainly wasn’t an easy transition. I think we were one of, if not the very first, to go the distance-based Internet route. We were basically making it up as we went along. The great thing is that it opens up the world to the trainer or coach. We’ve had clients from Africa, Australia, Japan, Brazil, Portugal, Mexico, the Czech Republic, England, Germany and the list goes on. So it allows me to say that I’m world-renowned. [Laughs.] But it definitely makes it more global. So you have these interesting scenarios, like for example I had a client in Ghana who had remote Internet access, but no real access to a modern gym or Western medicine, that sort of thing. That’s an extreme case, but in general you have to be more aware of the client’s lifestyle, because it may be much different than your own. It creates challenges I could never have imagined. And it also let’s you collaborate in ways that weren’t possible before. Prior to all web, there would be no real way to have a skill coach, a sports psychologist, a doctor, a strength coach, a nutrition coach, and all these specialists all working with the same athlete. Now we have ways to monitor someone’s progress on the web, and share that information with whoever needs to see it. So you can have the top experts in each field monitoring you, kind of like your own personal board of advisors.
And the other thing it does is force us to track everything. All of my programs are written, and I have to go into great written detail for them to make sense. And that forces me to clarify my own thought process and to be able to explain every part of the program. And since I’m not in the gym with my clients, when I want to know how someone is doing, I can’t just eyeball it, or listen to their tone of voice, or read his or her body language. I have to know for sure. I have to be able to quantify it. And so we have all these measures that we track regularly, be it body composition, recovery, blood work, strength, flexibility, whatever. We even have this web-based software that we’re working on called the Results Tracker [Ed: accessible only to beta testers], which basically tracks everything for you online. So everything is there in black and white, it’s either working or it’s not. And I think that forces me to stay on the ball, and it keeps the client on track. Even things like taking digital photos. All our clients have to take photos and send them to me, and of course they have to look at them themselves, and often that alone is motivating.
PN: Do you ever get tired of looking at other men in their underwear?
CS: No comment. [Laughs.]
PN: How do you think the web has changed things for the fitness enthusiast?
CS: Much more direct access to the experts. Prior to the web, for example, if you wanted to learn the Westside Barbell methodology, you’d have to actually go to Westside Barbell or know Louie Simmons personally. And that’s if you were even fortunate enough to know what Westside was. But now, good information spreads fast, and you can read everything by Dave Tate and learn a lot about probably the most innovative powerlifting system around without ever leaving your desk. [Laughs.] And so it’s fantastic, if you actually use it. It’s a double-edged sword though. Now every keyboard jockey can position themselves as an expert. Hang around any forum for more than a couple posts and you’ll see that this is true. A guy that weighs 140lbs @ 20%+ bodyfat is preaching about how one should best eat and train to be a 220lb bodybuilder @ 5%. Or a 300lb self-proclaimed powerlifter, who can’t bench a plate, is preaching to others how best to utilize bands or weight releasers. So the problem is still learning who to trust, and basically holding them accountable by testing their advice.
PN: Say someone comes up to you and tells you they’ve been doing this for a few years now, trying to get lean, or muscular, or both – but they say they haven’t had any luck at it. If you had to wager on what they’ve been doing wrong, what’s your guess?
CS: Well, first of all, luck has nothing to do with it. But generally I would say that if results are lacking, the person is either not changing his approach, or changing it way too often, in other words changing for the sake of change rather than the sake of need. Those are two problems that I see all the time, but obviously those are just generalities and there are a ton of other possibilities. Another problem is a simple lack of intensity in the gym, people going way too easy on themselves. It’s supposed to be hard, at least some of the time, and if it’s not, that’s a problem right there. But there are more, and that’s why we have a whole screening process, to figure out exactly what’s holding the person back.
CS: If you’re eating whole foods and lifting weights than you’re doing a lot of things right. That’s the foundation. From there on out it’s about optimizing how one lifts those weights, in other words the exercises they use; how much or the volume one uses, how heavy or how intense the lifts are and how often they lift the weights. And of course what they’re eating, how much of it and at what time. As to how far the individual might be off from optimization, it depends. Some just require a few tweaks and someone evaluating the big picture for them while others require a slap upside the back of the head. [Laughs.]
PN: How important is nutrition in the body transformation process?
CS: Absolutely critical. Nutrition is 100% important just as exercise is 100% important. I mean, you often hear people say things like, “Nutrition is 90% while training is 10%,” or even, “Nutrition is 50% while training is an equal 50%.” I think they’re missing the point. It’s like asking, “What’s more important, the lungs or the heart?” Bottom line is that if you can’t breathe, you die, just like you die if you can’t pump blood. They’re both necessary, and there’s no room for fractions of importance, it’s an absolute. But which do I see people neglecting the most? Definitely nutrition.