Tom Venuto's

The Hugo Rivera Mega-Interview

Tom Venuto

A few months ago, Bodybuilding Secrets dot com ran an interview with natural bodybuilding champion Hugo Rivera. The story, titled “Introducing Hugo Rivera” brought in so many questions and so much positve feedback, that we decided to bring Hugo back a second time. When I read Hugo’s replies to all my questions, I was blown away! He must have spent hours answering every question in great detail. In fact, Hugo shared so much information that we had to split up this “mega” interview into three parts! He practically wrote us a book! (and we’re not complaining, either - wait til you read this!) In part one you’ll discover Hugo’s secret to a huge, thick, wide back, the truth about competition bodyweight, the importance of “The Physique Illusion” frank discussion about steroids and a lot more…

The Hugo Rivera Mega- Interview: A 3-Part Bodybuilding Secrets Super-Feature… Part 1

Tom Venuto: Thanks for your last interview Hugo. I really appreciated it and so did our readers. In fact they asked for more and that’s why we’re back today.

Hugo Rivera: You’re welcome Tom and thank you so much for having me again. It’s both a pleasure and an honor.

Tom Venuto: In your last interview, you covered your background and personal history, so today I want to cut straight to the chase and get some specifics so forgive me for jumping right in without any more introductions or preliminaries. Dude, your back double biceps shot is other worldly! How did you develop so much thickness AND detail in your back? I’m sort of hoping you won’t say genetics or you’ll be liable to send me into a depression. But seriously, give us some training secrets! Good genetics or not, you don’t get a back like that by accident!


Hugo Rivera: Wow…thanks for the compliment!

To answer your question, no it is not genetics so no need to get the Prozac..:-) While I do have my lats attached pretty low (which gives me more growth potential than a person with high lats), I do have a “secret” to my back development. I have used this “secret” on men and women alike and no one fails to gain at least an inch and a half of circumference in their back area.

The “secret” to my back development is……(drums rolling) Pull-ups! Different variations of pull-ups, especially when performed with weights attached to a weight belt, are the best exercises for both back width and thickness. I perform wide, medium and close grip pull-ups to front, reverse grip medium and close grip pull-ups, and neutral grip pull-ups. I do use dumbbell rows, t-bar rows and low pulley rows for my back routines but the bread and butter of my back workouts are the pull-ups. I don’t do bent over barbell rows nor deadlifts as these exercises hurt my lower back.

In regards to how a typical back routine may look, here are a couple of examples:

Back Routine #1: (Using the 10 sets x 10 reps training method)

Wide Grip Pull-ups to Front 10x10 (1 min rest in between sets) Low Pulley Rows 2 sets of 12-15 reps (1 min rest in between sets)

Back Routine #2: (Using a more multi-angular approach)

Wide Grip Pull-ups to Front 3 sets of 8-10 reps (1 min rest in between sets) Reverse Close Grip Pull-ups 3 sets of 10-12 reps (1 min rest in between sets) Neutral Grip Pull-ups 3 sets of 10-12 reps (1 min rest in between sets) One Arm Rows 3 sets of 12-15 reps (1 min rest in between sets)

Now, I do vary my routines between loading and growth phases as I have discussed previously so a growth phase routine may consist of a pull-up movement and a row movement using lower reps and heavier weights.

Tom Venuto: I’ve always said that how much you weigh doesn’t matter for the most part, because bodybuilding and physique development is such an illusion. You are a perfect example. In some of your photos standing by yourself, I swear you could pass for 210 lbs. I was stunned when I read that you were a welterweight. I was thinking top of the light heavies in contest condition. Could you give us your stats, height, weight, any measurements? Do you have any tips for other people on enhancing that illusion of making yourself look bigger than you really are?

Hugo Rivera: Thanks Tom!

I agree with you 100%. Weight does not mean much…the way one looks does.

For the USAs I weighed in at 158-lbs believe it or not at a height of 5 feet and 4 inches. I lost some mass (around 12lbs mostly on my legs unfortunately), but in order to achieve that ultra shredded look and make it to the welterweight class that was a sacrifice that I was willing to make.

As far stats go, for the USAs I had around a 50 inch back, 27 inch waist, 17.5 inch arms and calves and around 25 inch quads.

The key thing Tom for enhancing that illusion of size is to do the exact opposite of what most people do: stay lean and not get fat! When one maximizes growth in all areas while staying lean you are just bound to look bigger than what you are, especially with tight clothes or when the shirt comes off at the beach. The reason for this is because your muscles will be much more delineated and your waist will stay small, giving you then a nice V-taper that also adds to the size illusion.

If on the other hand you bulk up and go way past 10% body fat, then your back to waist ratio will not be that different (in addition to having little definition to show) and thus you will not look as big (nor nearly as good) as you would if you weighted much less.

Tom Venuto: One of the things I mentioned in my last blog post about you is that you competed in the NPC USA. Based on our previous email correspondence it seemed to me that you were kind of nonchalant about it like it wasn’t any big deal. Personally, I was blown away by that achievement. Most naturals wont compete in any show that’s not drug tested. I’m not afraid to compete in open non-tested NPC competitions myself, if they’re local, state or regional shows, but to be honest, competing in an open, national level NPC show where people are vying for an IFBB pro card has always been completely off my radar. What led you to choose that competition and how did you feel about it before, during and after?

Hugo Rivera: : Well Tom, I used to have that same philosophy of just sticking to tested shows but in reality there are not many. At the NPC level, only the Team Universe is a tested pro qualifier.

Since earning a pro card is one of those things for me that if it happened it was most welcome but it was far from being a life goal, I stopped caring about whether the shows were tested or not and simply cared about competing against myself and enjoying the journey of getting ready for a show.

In addition, since I was going to be competing at the lower weight classes, I figured that the steroid issue was not going to represent as much of a problem as if I were to want to compete as a light heavyweight but with the same definition that I displayed at the USAs. A good light heavy should show up around 195-199 so if I wanted to compete carrying that much weight with the same definition I had at the USAs then I would need around 30 lbs of extra muscle. That is a completely different ballgame as you can see and in order for me to accomplish that, then either I need to be reborn again knowing all I know today or chemically induce puberty at my 33 years of age. This is not to say that someone who is natural at my height could not weigh that and be absolutely shredded but such person would need to have some pretty amazing genetics in order to do that.

As far as how I felt before the contest, I felt pretty awesome. At first, I was not sure if I was going to actually be able to compete at the USAs since I had to qualify for it first, so my main goal was the Southern States. Leading to it I was already in good shape since I keep my body fat pretty low anyways and that year I stayed at around 7-8% through the off-season. So when I started preparing it was just a matter of tightening things up 12 weeks out and cruising into the Southern States. I was highly motivated as my son did great in school that year and I had promised him that I would compete again if he would get straight . In addition my friend Mercedes Khani (IFBB Figure Pro) was preparing also on the other side of the world (Amsterdam) so we supported each other (misery loves company). On top of that, this past year I was 110% determined to achieve my best shape ever so I did not mind the preparation at all.

After I won my class at the Southern States, which was a thrill and a half, I celebrated that night with a gallon of water, a steak and 2 baked potatoes. Next morning I was back at the gym and re-focusing for the 2 week prep leading to the USAs. Believe it or not, I trained even HARDER (as a matter of fact, I even overtrained which is why I ended up at 158-lbs) in preparation to it. All I wanted was to show up in the best shape EVER and let the judges decide what to do with me. When I stood on that stage at pre-judging and they called me out for the first round comparisons (which means I am top 5) and placed me in the middle (which means someone in the judging panel feels I am a contender for first place) I was in shock!!! I don’t think I have ever posed so confidently. Next day at the evening finals I had a blast doing my routine to music and getting my 4th place. I ended up 4th as even though I had 3 first place votes (including that of the head judge) other judges felt my lower body needed more size to match with my upper and they ended up giving me 5th place. So when all the scoring was settled I ended up I think 1 point below 3rd place. At any rate, to me it was as if I had won. Especially when I got compliments from long time idols of mine like Shawn Ray, Bob Cicherillo and Lee Labrada. I mean, what more can you ask for!!!

Initially, I was looking forward to competing again this year but then again, I felt that I had such an enjoyable and awesome last year that I should instead hang up my posing trunks and call it a day in a very high and positive note. I have nothing further to prove.

Tom venuto: You said something to me in a private email last year so I hope you don’t mind me mentioning it, but I think it’s an important thing to share with our readers because I think it will be encouraging to the naturals. You said, “At the lower weight classes, I don’t think steroids can make much of a difference. They can provide hardness, yes, but so can dieting year round for years on end, which I enjoy doing anyway.” Hugo, could you elaborate on that and on your feelings about natural vs assisted training, if you don’t mind, and in particular, is there anything else you could say to encourage the natural bodybuilders to stay natural.

Hugo Rivera: The key for a natural bodybuilder with average genetics to be successful in competition is to spend years training and dieting correctly so that they can gain enough muscle mass to shred down once a competition comes about. Care must be taken also to gain the muscle methodically while staying lean. Why? Because average natural bodybuilders cannot afford to get fat and then trim down. The reason for this is because in the process of trimming down from a large body fat percentage a lot of muscle gets sacrificed (since naturals lose muscle much easier than an assisted athlete). So it is imperative that a natural athlete always stays lean (never more than 10% body fat). Assisted athletes can bulk up and trim down successfully (since the drugs help to prevent the muscle loss), but in my opinion, even they would benefit from staying leaner at all times as even with drugs some muscle gets sacrificed anyways in the process of losing 60-70 lbs as some bodybuilders do.

So again, if you are a natural bodybuilder who wants to compete successfully, then my advice to you is to stay lean. Most local shows (tested or not) are easier to win than most people think. If you show up conditioned enough (meaning with very little subcutaneous body fat) chances are, you will place high. The good news is that conditioning has little to do with steroid use. You can seriously abuse steroids (even those that are considered pre-contest ones) and not be conditioned at all. The reason for this is because dieting is the main variable that affects conditioning, not drugs. So if you stay lean year round and then take 12-16 weeks to lower your body fat from say no more than 10% to 3% then the odds will be in your favor at this level of competition.

Now, for national level shows, like the USAs for example, you also need to have good symmetry in addition to good muscle and conditioning. Depending of how good a job you have done over the years at keeping symmetrical from day 1, you may or may not be able to compete successfully at the national level. That being said, if you are a teen who is just starting out their bodybuilding journey with aspirations of competing one day, then make sure you pay equal attention to all your body parts (not just the chest and the arms) and make sure you stay lean.

In terms of staying natural Tom, here is what I have to say:

Based on all the research I have done, I feel steroids may have a place in a man’s life as anti-aging therapy to replace hormone levels back to those of a younger person. Other than that, if you are looking at them as a “shortcut”, you may be very disappointed at the results you will get and unless you are an expert at knowing how to properly use them, you are playing Russian roulette. And I am not even talking about the legal ramifications of using steroids for performance enhancement in the US today.

Most people think that if they take steroids they will become the next Mr. Olympia or Arnold Classic Champion. If this were to be the case, then there should be a whole lot more people on those two competitions based on the fact that there are millions of Americans (per what the statistics indicate) who at one point in their life have tried anabolic steroids.

The guys at the top are there not only because of the enhancement but also because of their insane training throughout the years, the diet and most importantly, the way their bodies respond to all of the above which is a variable controlled only by genetics. To look like a top level male IFBB Pro you need to have favorable genetics and that is something that not even steroids can give you; you either have them or you don’t.

The good news however is that for the physique goals most of us have, there is no need whatsoever to take any steroids, especially with all we know about training and dieting. Also with supplements like creatine, glutamine, and nitric oxide boosters, an advanced athlete who has trained with none of these supplements for years can reach a new level of development by adding these to their program as all of the supplements I just mentioned offer many of the benefits that steroids offer but through non-hormonal pathways. So you can get the benefit of faster recuperation and more performance in the gym but without the side effects caused by hormonal manipulation.

Again, no matter how you look at this, training and nutrition always be the mainstay of your bodybuilding program. If your training and nutrition are impeccable, you will achieve a much bigger physique that is nicely defined and which will generate attention from others…..and possibly questions like: “what are you on?”

Tom Venuto: Hugo, you seem to have a very solid knowledge base about training and nutrition science and you’re a champion. But there are a lot of bodybuilders who don’t bother to read all the science and they become top champions as well. You could say they’ve become “street smart” but they’re not book smart. For example, they could tell you what they did to get big, but they couldn’t explain hypertrophy in scientific terms. Do you think it’s better or even a necessity for bodybuilders to do research and make the effort to learn exercise physiology or do you believe that a bodybuilder can become great just by listening to his body and following his instincts?

Hugo Rivera: Tom, I think that there are bodybuilders who are just really good at figuring out what works best for them as they really know how to listen to their bodies. They are far and few in between, but they exist. Others simply have great genetics and even by doing silly routines and really dumb diets that would do nothing for you nor I, they still look better than us. However, in my experience most people are not like this. So what are the average bodybuilders to do?

While I don’t think one has to become an exercise physiologist nor a molecular biologist to gain muscle, I do think a certain amount of education is necessary simply to do things in a safe manner, avoid the mistakes that we did at the beginning and thus gain muscle as quickly as possible by doing things right. So the solution then is to get a good bodybuilding guide and MOST IMPORTANTLY stick to it. You have an awesome one, so does Will Brink, so does Lee Labrada and so do I (shameless plug for Body Re-Engineering…LOL).

I think it is important to know however that while some education is necessary, I have seen guys that know a TON about the science behind muscle growth yet don’t look like they have ever picked up a weight. These are people who spend more time debating muscle growth theories and the science behind them than putting them into practice at the gym or at the kitchen. One thing that I learned back in my engineering days is that sometimes the lab results will tell you one thing and the real world another. So you always have to put theories into practice in order to fine tune them and make them work.

Having said that, if you feel compelled to know what happens at the molecular level when you train, then by all means do so but just don’t forget to do what you need to in terms of training and dieting as otherwise only your knowledge of muscle growth will get big but not the muscles you want to grow.

To Be Continued In PART TWO

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


Published on 25 October, 2008


Thomas Paull said:

Thanks for the Rivera interview, it was very encouraging! I got recharged with my own ambitions and goals! Thanks!

Posted on Oct 31, 2008 09:07 AM said:

Great interview Tom! I look forward to the next parts.

I realize from this interview that I've been going about a few things all wrong. I'm been trying to do the whole 'bulk up then lean down thing', but I think Hugo makes a lot of sense when he talks about just staying lean all the time. I've read similar things recently from

So I think it's time to lean up and then build from there. I'd love to hear any comments you have on this!

Posted on Nov 03, 2008 05:09 PM

Alan Low said:

Great down to earth interview. It's refreshing to hear.

Posted on Feb 17, 2009 12:54 AM

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