AMJ – How long have you been training?
Raphael –I’ve been training for 39 years.
AMJ – What got you into bodybuilding?
Raphael –I played sports growing up but when I was in college I wanted to put on some size and get stronger. I first walked into a hardcore bodybuilding gym in 1978. The gym (World Gym East) was owned by Mike Katz. Mike was a very well-known and successful professional bodybuilder in the 70’s. He appeared in the movie Pumping Iron, and is a legend in bodybuilding. I was immediately drawn to the energy in that gym and the laser-like focus that a lot of the people had during their training sessions. I’ll never forget doing bench presses with Tony Atlas (a famous wrestler from the 70’s). Atlas was doing 315 on the bench for 15 reps and then spotting me with one finger as I struggled with 135. A very humbling experience! But as far as the gym, I admired the muscular physiques and was in awe of how strong some of the guys were. I knew I wanted to achieve that. Then when one of the guys started giving me his old Muscle and Fitness magazines,I got completely into it.
AMJ – What is your competitive history?
Raphael –I’ve been competing for 16 years and have competed in 24 shows. When you consider cross overs (open and masters classes), I’ve had 34 stage appearances. I wanted to compete earlier in my life but after college I had an extremely demanding job in Manhattan plus a long commute, so even though I still trained, getting on stage was not goingto happen at that time. Then after my father died in 1998, I knew I had to start doing things that were important to me and not leave anything on my bucket list. So I prepped for the 2001 Mr. Connecticut show. I ended up winning the open lightweight class, the over-40 class and the overall masters class. They even gave out an award for “overall crowd favorite” at the show and I won that as well. I was so excited I couldn’t even sleep that night. I was completely hooked.
Early in my bodybuilding career I competed in natural organizations (the INBF and WNBF) but now primarily compete in the NPC. Some of my significant victories/placementsover the last few years are as follows:
2016 NPC Masters Nationals second place bantam over 50
2016 NPC Prestige Crystal Cup first place over 50
2014 NPC Southern States first place open lightweight
2012 NPC Florida Gold Cup first place open lightweight
2007 NPC Florida StateChampionships first place open lightweight
I have won a total of 9 first places and had many outstanding placements in other highly competitive shows.
AMJ – Who did you idolize in the sport growing up?
Raphael –My all-time favorite bodybuilder is Lee Labrada. Labrada had a beautifully proportioned physique with outstanding muscularity, and his posing was simply impeccable. He understood and mastered the art of transitioning from one pose to another, and how to display his body with the best possible poses. Also, this isn’t discussed often, but Labrada knew how to send his energy outward to the audience and to the judges. That’s something that’s difficult to teach and it’s beyond just smiling on stage. It has to do with knowing how to emanatesuch powerful confidence and charisma that all eyes are drawn to you. It’s more than just about your body.
Other bodybuilders I liked growing up were Mohammed Makkawy, Danny Padilla, Franco Columbu, Frank Zane, and of course the great Arnold Schwarzenegger.
AMJ – What were some of your earliest training mistakes? What did you learn from them?
Raphael –My earliest training mistake had to do with going overboard with intensity. I primarily over used forced reps thinking it would get me to my goal faster. It took me several months to realize that it just wasn’t working. You can get away with doing something like this in your 20’s and have a lower chance of injury compared to an older age, but it still won’t lead to progress. I learned that natural progression is one of the keys to bodybuilding success and that killing the muscle all the time is not the way to go. Tear the muscle down just enough and don’t destroy it so much that you’re sore for an endless amount of days. Once I backed off, I started to grow more muscle and dramatically increased my strength.
A second training mistake was thinking I had to bench at the start of every chest workout. I think most people fall prey to this one when they start training. Once I changed my approach and my mindset, yet again more progress.
Last but not least, in my early years I never appreciated how important periodizing my training phases was. You can’t go hard and heavy ALL the time. You have to have intelligent back off periods where you allow the body and the mind to actively recover. Training puts a lot of stress on the body and that has to be understood and respected.
AMJ – We always see the interview where the interviewer asks, “What’s your best body part and how do you train it?”, but I have always thought that was ridiculous as many times the best body part was the easiest to develop. What has been the body part you are most proud of bringing up? How did you do that? Could you give us an example workout?
Raphael – That’s a very good point. The best body parts will grow no matter what you do. One of the things I’ve always done after each show is get judges feedback. And I’m not referring to just after the show is over. What I would do is find out which judges had an outstanding reputation for being able to assess physiques and who took judging seriously. Then I would do some detective work and get their email addresses. I would establish a relationship of sorts and tactfully ask for feedback. Only one judge never emailed me back since I’ve done thisalthough it may have gone to their spam folder. Every other judge who I contacted gave me outstanding critiques. Then I would go to work in the gym with a routine designed based on their feedback of my weaknesses.
The body part that first comes to mind is my back. I had a lot of good muscle separation when I first started competing but not enough width. Thickness was an issue as well, but the first feedback had more to do with width. Admittedly, I blew it at the 2016 master’s nationals and over trained my back to the extent that it didn’t even look like my back (to me anyway), even though I placed second. That being said, in 2003, back width was the first major feedback I received from judges as far as improvement. After about 9 months of hard training and an intelligent training/nutrition strategy related to what I believed would work for my body, my back started to get wider. In fact, at my next show the judges who gave me the initial feedback, told me that I had done a great job and even were curious as to what I had done for a routine.
The routine was actually only one piece of the solution, nutrition was the other. My strategy started immediately after a show I competed in in 2003. After the show I was at an extremely low body weight so I slowly started to push on my caloric intake each week. I kept pushing on it and moved from a 4 day a week training program to a 3 on – 1 off split. Real old school stuff. I did the following split:
Day 1 – chest, shoulders, triceps
Day 2 – back, biceps
Day 3 – Legs
Day 4 – off
Day 5 – repeat day 1 etc.
I eventually got to 4,000 calories a day which is a massive amount of calories for a guy my size. But I kept getting stronger and bigger and not gaining a lot of fat. I also didn’t do any cardio. Like I said, real old school. I never over trained on it either, just kept getting stronger.
As far as my back routine, the following was one routine that seemed to do great stuff for my width. I had others, but this was my go to workout. It focused on a lot of vertical pulling at the beginning of the workout. Everyone always says row to grow, but I make my best width gains with vertical pulling. That was another error in judgment I made when getting ready for masters nationals last year. However, I do realize that everyone tends to respond differently.
Pullups – 4×15, 12, 10, 8
Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown – 3×8-15
Barbell Row –4×6-10
Machine Row – 3×12-15
(deadlifts every other workout)
Each workout I simply tried to add a little more weight or an extra rep, and sometimes both.
This year during my off season, I’ve had an interesting spurt to back growth again. And some of that has to do withstrategically incorporating techniques such as muscle rounds and rest pause sets. I’ve increased frequency but decreased total volume, and it’s working great. My training partner, as well as my wife, noticed the change. You don’t think you can pull something like this off in your 50’s, but it just goes to show what the mind and body are capable of.
AMJ – What are some of your favorite exercises and conversely what do you think are the most overrated movements people use?
Raphael –I enjoy most exercises but my favorite exercises are BB Incline Press, Pullups, Squats, Snatch-Grip Deadlifts, Dips, Dead Stop Smith Machine Rows, and Lying EZ bar triceps extensions.
I’m not sure any movement is overrated. If you’re focused, in tune with your body and using a resistance that challenges you, I believe every movement can have benefit. However, placement of an exercise within the framework of the entire workout as it relates to your goal is what’s important. If you begin your workouts with cable chest flyes and you’re looking to add size and a lot of strength, then the approach to training is what needs to change. Vince Lombardi once said that the key to winning football games is blocking and tackling. Lombardi was referring to the basics, the fundamental s. It’s the same with training – heavy compound movements with barbells and dumbbells will take you where you want to go. Isolation exercises have their place but nothing beats the fundamentals.
AMJ – Do you incorporate any components of power lifting (power bodybuilding) into your routine?
Raphael – Yes, in fact in 2015 I was training for my first powerlifting meet but my mother died and I was unable to attend the meet. However, powerlifting cycles have great benefit for the competitor as far as increased strength levels that can later be applied to a bodybuilding routine. I also regularly incorporate standard deadlifts, snatch-grip deadlifts, rack pulls and of course, squats.Because I’m in my 50’s, how I approach the exercises as far as using heavy but manageable weight is what’s essential. But for me, having some power movements built into my routine is important and a lot of fun!
AMJ – What do you think is missing from the routines of many younger athletes?
Raphael – Consistency and focusing on the harder exercises. I see a lot of younger guys doing a lot of isolation work as their primary movements when they’d be better off choosing the big compound exercises. The other thing hurting younger athletes and even older ones is routine hopping. The internet has provided us a wonderful wealth of information that we can tap into, but with all the latest and greatest workout trends and “new” way to train that will “guarantee results”, we have professional training routine hoppers. That’s when you know one has not learned the basics, the fundamentals.
I do think that trying different training routines is good. I’ve tried more than I can remember and was never afraid to experiment. Some of them worked and many did not, but you have to give it enough time to see if it works and if you enjoy it. You can’t keep hopping every few weeks from routine to routine. Also, if you hate the workout, it’s not for you. Passion must remain high for your workouts.
AMJ – What type of diet do you utilize off season versus contest prep?
Raphael – It’s essentially the same aside from taking in a lot more calories off season. I never understood the drastic changes to diet that some competitors make. Up until recently I had been taking in higher carbs but decided to change it because I didn’t like the way I was feeling. I changed it to moderate carbs and higher fat intake. Nothing is super high though – it’s very balanced. My calories are about 2900-3100 off season.
AMJ – What foods make up the core of your nutrition?
Raphael – I’m pretty boring when it comes to foods. My protein sources are chicken, lean beef, fish once a week (salmon), protein powder, whole eggs and egg whites. My carb sources are oatmeal, sweet potatoes, white jasmine rice, red potatoes, barilla protein plus pasta, rice cakes, fruit and vegetables. My fat sources are peanut butter, almond butter;occasionally olive oil, and obviously I have to count the fat from lean beef, whole eggs and salmon.
AMJ – What have been some of the lessons you learned about with nutrition?
Raphael – What I’ve learned is that we all respond a little differently but that experimenting with your program will teach you a lot. I never believed carbs were the enemy but do recognize that they have to be included based on what the individual can handle and what is the healthiest approach for that individual.
I used to believe that the more protein you took in, the better. But this isn’t true for me. In fact, some people overdo it on the protein when they could be using carbs or even more fat to propel their workouts and off season. I can usually spot them in the gym. They look a little flat and unimpressive. I do recognize that’s a judgment on my part though because everyone responds differently.
Last but not least, I learned not to abuse my nutrition program with so many excess calories off season that I end up carrying too much fat. In your early years of competing you can get away with putting on 25 pounds or so off season. It may even be helpful to do that a few times as far as gaining muscle is concerned. However, I don’t think it should be done every year and certainly not after the age of 40. One year I put on 40 pounds off season. I was big and strong but I had way too much fat on me. It was an absolutely miserable prep when I started getting ready for a show. And I believe if you’re over 50 and have that amount of weight to lose for a show, you disrupt your hormonal balance. I never did that again and never will. No matter what, you still have to respect your health. Finally, I highly recommend getting regular blood tests. It’s important to know what’s going on internally, and that can help you adjust your nutrition plan if any test result is out of range.
AMJ – What has been the key to your training longevity?
Raphael –Avoiding major injury along with a never-ending passion for bodybuilding.
As far as avoiding injury, I’ve always done thorough warm ups (driving a lot of blood into the muscle) before hitting a body part, practicedimpeccable attention to form, usedlaser-like focus on each repetition, and, never have worked through an injury with an out of control ego. Working around an injury is fine, but never through it.If it’s real pain, stop.
Make no mistake, I’ve gotten injured. We all do in this sport. If you’ve never had an injury as a bodybuilder, I’d say you’re doing it wrong. It’s strange to actually write that but if you’re a competitor, you know it’s a fact. The key is to minimize it as much as possible.
Aside from thorough warm ups I also place the higher risk exercises later in the workout. For example, I’ve had a few minor pec tears from benching, but when I place benching as a second or third exercise I have no problem with it.
AMJ – What do you recommend for younger trainees to improve their longevity and avoid injuries?
Raphael –Always warm up thoroughly. Drive as much blood as you can into the muscle before beginning your first set. Also, pay close attention to exercise form. Think about the movement. For example, if you’re doing a flat db chest press, your chest should be elevated throughout the movement, your legs pulled back a bit with your feet firmly planted on the floor. Your feet should never do a dance like I see a lot of people do when the set gets tough. Stay in control and be aware of your body and it’s positioning. Focus on your breathing etc. Own the movement, don’t let it own you. Also, if you’re tired, cut back on the intensity. Your body will guide you but you must listen to it carefully. Also, if you need a few days or a week off, take it. Don’t worry about what the internet tells you about never taking time off. It’s your body. You know it better than anyone.
AMJ – What injuries have you had to work with and how have you dealt with them?
Raphael –I’m fortunate in that I’ve never had a major injury. I’ve had muscle pulls but the two that I’ve encountered the most are minor pec tears and biceps tears. For chest, as long as I get a thorough warm up, more so than I’ve ever done, then I’m fine. Also, increasing weight very gradually on my first chest exercise helps tremendously. After that first exercise I’m golden.
AMJ – Thanks for your time sir. We really appreciate your contribution. Before we conclude our talk, is there anything else you would like to leave our readers with?
Raphael – The most important thing I want to stress is how important attitude is in this sport. I’ve encountered cocky people in the gym and on stage and I’ve encountered great people. Be one of the great people. Be the example, help others when they need it, offer your advice when asked by someone new to training or competing. Set yourself apart and leave people with a positive impression about you and the endeavor that you enjoy.
I also want to point out to some of the younger readers, and even the older ones, that I’m still winning open classes in my 50’s. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that you can’t. Your mind is just as important as your body in this process. Believe in yourself and don’t make age your cage.
David, I just want to thank you, Joe Lalli, and the entire team at Apex Muscle Journal for asking me to do this interview. It’s an honor and I’m very appreciative.