Tom Venuto's

Mega-Muscle Interview with Hugo Rivera Pt 2

Tom Venuto

We’re back today with part 2 of our “mega” interview” with natural bodybuilder Hugo Rivera. Today Hugo shares the major differences between going from overweight to normal weight, normal weight to low body fat, and from low body fat to ripped and contest ready. You’ll also learn The exact pre-contest diet strategy Hugo used to compete on the national NPC stage as a lifetime natural, the truth about the pain barrier in serious bodybuilding training, how to keep your head screwed on straight before the competition, when your mind is playing tricks on you and distorting your self-image, and much, much, much more. This interview is LOADED with tips you can take to the gym and dinner table and translate directly into better muscle gains and better fat burning results.


Tom Venuto: Let’s shift gears a little bit from muscle building to fat loss. How do you see the difference between going from overweight or obese to normal weight, and going from normal weight to single digit body fat and going from upper single digit body fat to contest ready?

Hugo Rivera: Great question Tom. There is a HUGE difference between these three cases and since I have been at every body fat level you can imagine, I certainly know about these differences. So to answer this question I will cover each case in detail:

Case #1 - Going from obese to normal weight: This is the easiest transformation by far. In this case, it is very easy for the body to start dropping body fat since there is so much of it that once any sort of diet starts, the body responds by burning the excess fat. At this level, any sort of diet that provides some sort of caloric restriction will drop weight. However, since we are interested in just losing fat weight while preserving or gaining lean muscle, the best results happen when a sound program consisting of multiple meals (5-6) spread out every three hours and consisting of complex, low glycemic carbohydrates (like brown rice, oatmeal, yams), vegetables (broccoli, green beans), lean proteins (like chicken, tuna, turkey, egg whites), and good fats (like the ones found in salmon, olive oil, flax seed oil) is implemented. Take 1 serving of each of those nutrients that I just mentioned to make up each meal, drink plenty of water (0.66 times your body weight in ounces), weight train with weights 3 times a week (like Mon/Wed/Fri), do cardio the other 3 times (Tue, Thur, Sat) and voila, you will lose weight.

Case #2 - Going from normal weight to single body fat: To do this, you still implement the same strategy as the one for case 1 but now you need to be a bit more precise. While you can get away with portion control by using the “eye method” if you belong to case #1, for case #2 you need a bit more precision so measuring your food intake with a scale and measuring cups is a must. In addition, more frequent weight training (4-5 times a week) and more frequent cardio (5-6 times a week for 30-45 minutes) will be needed. In terms of nutrient intake, one needs to pay closer attention to the types of carbohydrates consumed, and depending on how carbohydrate sensitive the person is, the last meal may or may not have any starchy carbs. In addition, it is of utmost importance that except for EFAs, all other fats be minimized.

Case #3 - Going from upper single digit body fat to contest ready: This case is really what separates the men from the boys. Except in the exceptional case of those with great genetics, most of us who wish to get contest ready will need to restrict carbohydrates significantly and also practice carbohydrate cycling (having a high carb day at least once a week). Precision of nutrient intake is IMPERATIVE in this case and more frequent training will be needed. Weight training routines that go 3 days on, one day off or 4 days on, one day off work best and most of us will also need to perform double cardio (yes, you heard me right). One session before meal 1 of 45 minutes will become a must and if more cardio is needed, another one of 30-45 minutes performed either after the workout or later at night will help the cause tremendously. Missing meals as well as not measuring your food are not options and you will also have to restrict any sort of artificial sweetener as well as watch your sodium. Water intake also needs to be in 1-2 gallons per day. Getting into contest ready condition is no walk in the park and will require the most Spartan discipline to get through it. The nutrition required may be considered extreme by some people but that is what it will take to achieve this level of leanness. Also, the use of supplements like glutamine, creatine, flax oil, extra vitamin c, and a great multiple vitamin formula are a must. Also, I should add that I have never been able to get through a contest prep without some extra caffeine to help me get through the day as contest prep dieting is EXTREME!

In a nutshell Tom, I always say that the more extreme you want to look, the more extreme your bodybuilding lifestyle will need to become.

Tom Venuto: For serious contest level dieting, what is your opinion on the ideal way to diet for reaching low single digit body fat?

Hugo Rivera:What has always worked well for me is to methodically lower the carbs and increase the cardio. I don’t recommend zero carb diets so when I say lower the carbs I am not saying eliminate them. Usually, my starchy carbs come out to be around half my bodyweight and the rest of the carbs come from vegetables like green beans. The green leafy vegetables I don’t count…to me they are free foods as they have negative calories (takes more calories to digest them than what they take in 100 calories from green beans and it may take 120 calories to digest it so you have a deficit of 20 calories). However, every 6 days I then increase my starchy carbs to around 1.3 times my body weight. That high carb day will prevent the body from adjusting the metabolism downward.

For contest dieting I also believe in eating as much real food as possible. As a matter of fact, this past year all I did was real food for the Southern States and the USAs. Two good reasons for this:

1) Real food has a bigger thermogenic effect than shakes.
2) You get more satiated with the real food and I also found that you get way less cravings if you just have a solid food diet.

In addition, EFAs are a must so I made sure to consume 2 servings of salmon per day plus an extra tablespoon of flax oil and Labrada Nutrition EFA Lean Gold. The flax was spread over 3 teaspoons that were added to my veggies on meals 2, 4, 6 and 8. The Labrada EFAs would be consumed on meals 1, 3, 5, and 7 and I would take 3 of those softgels.


For carbohydrate sources I stuck to brown rice, sweet potatoes, and oatmeal. I would have grits also at times. For vegetables, mainly green beans and lettuce. Proteins were simply chicken and salmon.

I would also make sure not to consume any starchy carbs after 1 pm (after 1 pm only veggies were consumed with every meal). My weight training would be performed around 12 so that as soon as I was done I would have my last serving of starchy carbs. In addition, I would perform a 45 min walk before meal 1 and a 45 min elliptical around 6pm.

I should also mention that I did 8 meals per day of 32 grams of protein each…even though this was inconvenient, I feel that having extra meals like this during pre-contest helps to keep the metabolism operating more efficiently and also curbs appetite a bit better.

Needless to say, as far as beverages is concerned, spring water was all I consumed. I used no seasoning other than Mrs Dash for the meats and I had zero artificial sweeteners.

Tom Venuto: Wow, that sound uncannily close to what I do before competitions. Hey, great minds think alike! I want to come back to that comment you made earlier about dieting year round for years on end providing hardness. Could you elaborate on that? Do you mean eating clean and keeping tight control over your body fat level and food intake is a better approach than bulking up and getting lax with your off season diet?

Hugo Rivera:Exactly Tom. There is no reason to get lax in the off-season; getting lax is not bodybuilding. To me, bodybuilding is a lifestyle of consistent proper eating, training, cardiovascular exercise and rest. So whether competing or not, one should always be on top of all these variables. I am not saying never ever have a small cheat, but you must always exercise self control and common sense.

For those who choose to compete, it is IMPERATIVE that in the off-season you prevent yourself from going above 10% body fat, you will not only grow better, but your muscle maturity will increase over time tremendously. There is a chemical reason for this. At above 10% body fat your estrogen levels begin to increase and the more body fat you accumulate the more estrogen you will have. Therefore, now the extra calories required to gain muscle have a higher probability of getting stored as fat.

However, between 6-10% your testosterone levels are pretty optimized. As a result, you grow better because the extra calories can be better utilized to gain muscle. In addition, your skin always stays thin and close to the muscle which over time provides for better hardness and muscularity. Also, the problem of loose skin due to loss of elasticity caused by getting fat and then trimming down is no longer an issue.

I believe one should always stay between 6-10% body fat. Bulk up phases should be “clean bulks” as I call them where one eats a slightly higher amount of calories to support muscle growth. Once 10% body fat is reached, then one should go on a fat burning phase and get back down to 6 or 7%. Going up and down in this manner systematically will give you better muscle and much better definition over time. I have tested this principle over and over again in athletes that I have trained for competition and it never fails to yield results. And the beauty of it is that I find athletes year after year just getting better and showing up bigger and more defined show after show.

Tom Venuto: If you were giving advice to a serious, hard core competitive level bodybuilder, what would you tell him about the pain barrier in training?

Hugo Rivera: I think that hardcore bodybuilders need to learn how to use whatever mental tactic is needed to go past the pain barrier and keep those repetitions coming (as long as they are performed with good form). This is particularly true of leg training as it is way too easy to give up once the burn on the quads start to creep up during a high repetition squat for example.

As “sick” as it sounds, I have learned to enjoy the pain and feed off from it. I explore it as I perform the set and stay in tune with it always differentiating good pain vs bad pain. The sooner you embrace the pain encountered during hardcore training, the sooner you will see your gains skyrocketing.

Tom Venuto: You “explore” good pain. That is very, very interesting, and I hear similar comments from all bodybuilding champions at the high end of the sport, as compared to people who train recreationally and don’t need to push that far. On this topic of mindset, when you’re getting ready for a competition, I have to believe that unless you’re a cyborg or your nickname is “iceman”, that you have periods of self-doubt in some shape or form. I know the mind can play tricks on you especially in those final phases of contest prep. What do you do or say to yourself to re-focus and stay motivated when self doubt pops up.

Hugo Rivera: Great question Tom. I think that to be a successful competitive bodybuilder, not only do you need to be awesome with all the bodybuilding variables of training, dieting and rest, but most importantly you need to know how to handle the mind games that can play tricks on the competitor, and these games get worse and worse as the weeks go by.

Ever since my first competition back in 2001, I hired a great coach, Tim Gardner, and thanks to him I was able to deal with these issues much better. What I do is that I just let him take over the diet and dial me in. In this manner, even though my mind is playing all sorts of games on me, I just remember Tim’s words on how much I am progressing and simply disregard the thoughts. In addition, I like to take weekly pictures as these serve to give me great feedback and also motivate me to look better for my next photo shoot on the following weeks.

I have also noticed that as one does more competitions, one learns how to better tune out the voices inside the head. However the first competition is the most challenging one by far as one goes into it with no idea of what will be encountered. My advice for at least the first competition is to hire a good coach.

Body Re-engineeringf

Tom Venuto: I found your book Body Re-engineering very interesting because you did something that most trainers and strength coaches have not done, you applied periodization to bodybuilding. Most of the information published on periodization today is focused on sports and on leading an athlete up to a competition or season that has nothing to do with physique and cosmetic appearance. I remember attempting to write an article series years ago about periodization for bodybuilding and I found it challenging to capture on paper what could be a very complex system of planned variation. I think you did a great job with that. One thing I was curious about though is whether you follow the exact training programs from your own book, or if you wrote that book for a more mass appeal audience that’s in a different place and has different needs than you do.

Tom Venuto:Great question and thank you for the compliment Tom!

Believe it or not, the routines you see in Body Re-engineering are the exact routines that I used with great success in the past. Today, after tons of years practicing such methods, I am pretty instinctive and though I still use loading and growth phases, the workout themselves I create as I am on the gym (so every workout is different). For a loading phase I follow a quicker pace and higher reps while for a growth phase I go heavier and use modified supersets in order to get extra rest in between sets. Also, these days I may follow a loading phase up until I start encountering overtraining symptoms and then cut back to a growth phase.

So to answer your question, I still follow the principles laid out in Body Re-engineeringbut the training routines are created instinctively…always using the most basic exercises, of course, so nothing fancy.

(Note: Sometimes I do look through the book if I don’t want to go through the effort of creating something unique for the day so if I am on a loading phase, I choose one of the many loading phase workouts and if I am on a growth phase, then choose one of the many I offer).

As far as the split routine, except during pre-contest, I do the same split presented on the book (for pre-contest I like to split my body parts over 5 days actually). However, since my chest and back are my most powerful body parts, I have started to do delts and arms on Day 1, legs on day 2, and chest/back/abs on day 3. On day 4 I just rest.


Tom Venuto: Do you think there is a place for very short, abbreviated training protocols for an advanced competitive bodybuilder, or do you belong to the camp that says you need a certain amount of volume to grow optimally? How does the volume change over time in your periodization system? Is there any particular time that you should lower the volume?

Hugo Rivera: I think that unless the athlete using the very short, abbreviated training protocol is an athlete who just got seriously overtrained by a training protocol of 2-3 hours of intense training 6 days a week, abbreviated 1-2 sets per exercise/high intensity protocols will yield very little results.

I do believe that a muscle requires a certain amount of volume to grow. Research and real word results prove that. In my Body Re-Engineering periodization, I increase the volume over a period of 3 weeks. Then when the body is almost at the point of overtraining I cut the volume by reducing the amount of repetitions and increasing the weight (this is the Growth Phase). After 3 weeks I dramatically reduce the volume by only doing two full body routines over the course of a week (Active Rest) before going back to the next high volume phase (Loading Phase). In this manner I use volume as a means to cause stress to the point that overtraining becomes a possibility, then allow for adaptation to happen (since I am lowering the volume and allowing the body to catch up and grow), and then I emphasize rest by taking an active rest week (as this is more beneficial than just taking a week off since in this manner endurance, size and strength are not lost).

Tom Venuto: I think that’s pretty interesting to note that you still use full body workouts sometimes, even as an advanced competitive bodybuilder. On a related note, what are your thoughts about hard gainers?

Hugo Rivera:Hard gainers are mainly a victim of undernourishment. The problem with this type of people is that their metabolism burns through nutrients with the efficiency that desert sand swallows water. Therefore in order for growth to occur, hardgainers need to have a much higher carbohydrate base than most of us. For them I recommend a nutrient ratio of 55% carbs. 25% proteins and 20% fats. Calorie wise, multiplying the body weight times 18 yields a good start. If results are not achieved with this strategy then I would suggest slowly increasing calories to bodyweight times 24 but we will modify the nutrient ratio to contain a bit more good fats; so now the ratio will look like the following: 50% carbs, 25% proteins and 25% fats.

Because of the volume of food that hardgainers have to ingest, I recommend that half the meals be solid and the other half liquid in order to facilitate digestion. In addition, digestive enzymes are a must and should be taken with every meal. For liquid meals a good weight gainer that is low in sugars and high in protein like Labrada’s Lean Body Mass 60 is a good choice. Stay away from high sugar high fat weight gainers as we still need to focus on quality calories, not garbage ones.

In addition to the above, there should be 2 days where the hardgainer lowers his caloric intake in order to give the digestive system a bit of a rest and also to prime the body again for maximum nutrient intake.

In terms of training, recovery needs to be maximized so cardiovascular activity should be at a bare minimum and sometimes none. In terms of training, a routine like day 1 – chest/back, day 2 rest, day 3 – delts/arms, day 4 legs, day 5 rest, and day 6 start over will work great for a hardgainer. Other than this, I still recommend the same loading, growth and active rest phases to the hardgainer than I would recommend to anyone else.

To learn more about Hugo’s cycle training principles and Body Re-Engineering Program visit:

Published on 31 October, 2008


Don said:

Just like to say thank you for all the tips you send our way their are vvery helpfull.

One of the thing I would love to ask is about what is the best supplement and which ones are the best and when to take them to target the body fat.

I use to run a gym and train as well.. Till I mess my back up..I have ddd in my lower back and had my c4 removed in my neck..I have alot of stiffness and pain I work with everyday as I work. Am not lazy it just hard to get my weight off with just the diet alone. I have been strong and fit all my life but now help me get my life back once again..I want to stay away from steriods I want to set the right example to our youth.

Thank you and God Bless

Don McCutchen

Posted on Nov 01, 2008 09:03 AM

Tom Venuto said:


in the interview hugo says he takes these supplements:

"glutamine, creatine, flax oil, extra vitamin c, and a great multiple vitamin formula are a must. Also, I should add that I have never been able to get through a contest prep without some extra caffeine to help me get through the day as contest prep dieting is EXTREME! "

For more info, follow the link to hugos website and you can email him for more information

Posted on Nov 01, 2008 10:10 AM

Hugo Rivera said:

Hello Don,

As Tom mentioned, those are the supplements that I believe in. As far as times to take/quantities, here is what I advise:

BASIC SUPPLEMENTS (the must have list)
Multiple Vitamin/Mineral Formula (take with breakfast...I have been using Vitamin Shoppe’s Multiple Vitamin/Mineral Formula for men)

Extra Calcium/Magnesium (take 1500mg Calcium/750mg Magnesium with breakfast and after training...I like to use Country Life)

Ester Vitamin C (1000 mg with breakfast, after training and at night with the last meal from Vitamin Shoppe)

Chromium Picolinate (200 mcg at breakfast from Walgreens)

Flaxseed Oil (Spectrum Brand) 3 tablespoons per day (one three times a day with meals or shakes)

EFA Lean from Labrada Nutrition 3 caps/3 times a day

Protein Supplement (since you are looking to lose fat, Pro V60 from Labrada Nutrition will be a good choice since it is a slow released protein)

I think creatine and glutamine are great additions to the program if you are looking for performance enhancement at the gym. I particularly love pre-workout products like Super Charge Xtreme that have both of these supplements and then some. However, I would use these supplements only after 3 months or so of consistent dieting and training.

I agree with Tom 200% in regards to the caffeine. Though you will not be getting ready for a bodybuilding show, caffeine certainly will help you to mobilize some fatty acids, suppress appetite and also give you much needed energy that sometimes is lacking.

There is a new product that I just tried from Lee Labrada's company called Xhilar8. I've been using it for 4 weeks with awesome results. It has 200mg of caffeine stacked with Tyrosine and Iodine which help to maintain healthy thyroid function. In addition, it has nootropics (nutrients that improve the functions and capacities of your brain, including mood, energy and appetite control)
like Rhodiola Extract and a derivative of Vitamin B1 (Thiamine) called Thiamine Trisulfide Diisobutyrate. I love it because it gives me steady energy, suppresses my appetite and gets me in a really good mood all day long. I also seem to be more focused and able to work harder all day long.

If you'd like some samples I have some that I can send you so just send me an email to

Tom, if you are interested I will be more than happy to send you some samples too so that you can try it as well. I think you will love it! I have not been this excited about a fat loss product in a long time because, in my opinion, most of the products in the market are pretty similar.

Some final words for you Don: Just remember that the training, nutrition and the rest are the foundation needed to get great results. Only add the supplements above once you have those three variables under control. God Bless and keep up the great work.

All the best!
Hugo Rivera

Posted on Nov 07, 2008 02:22 PM

Post a comment

If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.

Please enter the letter "k" in the field below: