Jim Cordova’s World Champion Secrets
Tom Venuto, CSCS, CPT
Jim Cordova is the reigning world champion in the WNBF Natural Bodybuilding federation, currently preparing to defend his title in New York City… against worthy and hungry opponents. Jim’s amazing physique is the result of an intelligent, scientific, analytical approach to training. He’s achieved what few drug-free bodybuilders have achieved: Muscle mass with thick, full muscle bellies combined with razor sharp conditioning. As our Bodybuilding Secrets interview series returns, we are thrilled to have been granted this exclusive interview with the champ, where he shares some of his best World champion secrets.
Tom Venuto: Jim, anyone who reads Natural Bodybuilding and Fitness magazine or who follows the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation circuit will know who you are – the reigning world champion. But for our readers who aren’t familiar with your background, would you give us a brief biography that leads us up to where you are today?
Jim Cordova: My father and grandfather trained fighters and I often drove them nuts so that they would take me. So, I was in the gym since I was about four. I lifted weights for the first time when I was around 15. I remember getting a mind-blowing pump in the biceps and that was all it took to hook me! I grew pretty quick in terms of development, but was very lean and did not put on a lot of weight. Yet, the appearance of my physique moved me to both to avoid temptation to use growth-enhancing compounds and to continue building. At around 23, I got into business and bodybuilding took a backseat. It wasn’t until around 27 that I decided to get serious, pack on some muscle, and make my mark in the bodybuilding world. I competed in the INBF in 2004, got second in the INBF NaturalMania, tightened up, and won the INBF Amateur Worlds a few months later. I herniated a disc in 2005 during a set of deadlifts, damaging nerves, which caused my right leg to shrink terribly. This affected my development for the 2005 WNBF Worlds, although I still did well, placing third that year. So, I took a year off and came back out in 2007, winning the WNBF Pro American, Universe, and World Championships.
Tom Venuto: How does it feel different going into a competition as the defending champion as compared to going after the title for the first time?
Jim Cordova: It is very different! Before 2007, I knew of nothing less than going into a show as just another competitor, as one that no other competitor would even consider to be a threat. I always liked that feeling because it motivated me to work as hard as I could to shock as many people as possible! Now many expect me to bring a world-class physique onto the stage. Don’t get me wrong, it feels great to be the current world champion and I intend to win as many of those titles as I can, but there is something about being the underdog that I just love! On the flipside, I have now set my sights on improving at a rate that is unheard of at the advanced level and to build a physique that wins over the praise of even the toughest critics!
Tom Venuto: It seems to me that both the INBF and the WNBF judges demand a tremendous amount of conditioning and a really bone-dry, sharp look to take the top positions. Some of the champs in past years were not huge guys at all – some weighing under 175 pounds, but they were absolutely razor sharp – I’m talking Christmas tree lower backs and striated glutes. You seem to have managed to come in with that same crisp, sharp look while keeping the mass and the big round, muscle bellies. Some guys try to come in with shredded conditioning and they end up looking stringy. What’s your strategy to come in so ripped, yet still maintain so much fullness and size?
Jim Cordova: Many bodybuilders enter the pre-contest season with the mentality of maintaining size. I feel that this is not the ideal mindset for such, ironically, because it affects their approach. They might train in a way that they feel is “safe,’ by stopping a rep short of failure and/or adjusting their regimens to reduce volume, rest periods, perform too many lower-intensity supersets, and the like. Personally, I follow the same patterns as I do in the off-season, which revolve around growth. The body adapts with respect to its overall safety and survival. With this in mind, training for growth causes it to hold onto more muscle while on a caloric deficit. Practically speaking, I train in cycles to keep the body off guard with in terms of adapting to any specific style. Although safety and intelligent training is in the back of my mind, when pre-contest comes around, you will find me performing rest/pause sets, low-rep strength training, and performing basic heavy compound movements, in addition to isolation-style exercises. – quite the opposite of what you might see in the mainstream bodybuilding world! If my body could speak, it would say, “Draw from the fat stores…we need every gram of muscle for this insane workload!” My nutrition follows the same formula. I consume a larger portion of carbs for breakfast, pre-workout, and a higher-glycemic carb/fast acting protein post-workout.
Tom Venuto: What are your predictions for the future of drug-free bodybuilding in terms of organizations, popularity, drug testing, athlete sponsorship and publicity or public attendance?
Jim Cordova: Well, first, I do not mean to come across as judgmental, as I respect anyone that has a passion for bodybuilding and fitness regardless of their chosen route. With regard to the popularity of bodybuilding in general, the fact that Dexter Jackson won the Olympia this year is a turn for the better given that his physique is very aesthetic. If a harder and more aesthetic appearance continues to become more appealing to the mainstream, people may become fonder of the natural physique. The future lies in the hands of the people. As long as they buy non-drug affiliated magazines off of the stands and come in droves to see non-tested athletes, the natural realm will suffer with regard to the lack of appreciation that they deserve for being the true ambassadors and role models of bodybuilding & fitness.
Tom Venuto: If I recall correctly, a bodybuilding journalist said you were the next Arnold. I have to say, that single side bicep shot of yours – the same one of Arnold on the original cover of The Education of a Bodybuilder, incidentally – is mind blowing. How does it feel to be compared to the greatest bodybuilder of all time?
Jim Cordova: …mind-blowing! I still cannot believe it, even today when I look at that cover (NB&F February 2008)! Talk about an honor! I have a deep passion to sway the younger generations toward the drug-free side of the sport and what better way to do so than by showing the bodybuilding world that a top-caliber physique can be built without growth-enhancing drugs! Truly, I intend to do nothing less than live up to those words.
Tom Venuto: A lot of bodybuilders describe their training as following a certain philosophy such as high intensity training, volume training, superset training, perfect form training and so on. How would you describe your overall philosophy?
Jim Cordova: I mainly utilize the same exercises and simply alter the components within that framework: rep range, tempo, positioning, tension patterns, exercise order, and the like. I vary my training split and volume based on the combination of these variables. Of course, I throw in multiple “shock” strategies to boost intensity and keep my muscles from becoming resistant to any one particular pattern, cycling them on a systematic basis. I think every bodybuilder should be aware that there is no such thing as a best training style and you can find a “study” to back up virtually all of them – even those that contradict each other. In fact, I believe that any athlete that sticks to one style over another will limit his or her potential. To date, and based on the current data available, there are a few sound philosophies, each backed by a respectable amount of scientific literature. I simply research these methods and adhere to the most scientifically sound formulas, cycling them in orderly fashion.
Tom Venuto: What about your overall nutrition philosophy for the pre-contest diet? Do you restrict carbs and if so, how much and how much do you think carb intake needs to be customized for the individual?
Jim Cordova: When it comes to nutrition, I see yet another debate of extremes, particularly in terms of the high carb/low fat versus the high fat/low (no) carb approach. What boggles me most about bodybuilding is why so many people, even genuinely qualified and intelligent contest-prep specialists, must be so rigid with one approach over the other – strictly. Obviously there is merit to both sides or the debate would have been settled and you wouldn’t see athletes walking on stage with jaw-dropping conditioning using drastically different methods. When it comes to fats, carbs, and water, you won’t find a concrete method for one very simple reason: there isn’t any solid data that thoroughly supports one approach over the other, despite the library of literature that both sides present to debunk each other. Everything is, in fact, tailored to the individual and nothing is black and white at this level. What you do have is tradeoffs and this is the premise behind my approach.
Carbs are essential for muscle retention…but fats have their place. If you take an ectomorph with a high metabolism, keep his fats lower, and stuff him full of carbs to meet his caloric requirements and lose at the proper pace, he will always walk around with subcutaneous fluid under the skin. I am one such individual. You will find me eating over 3000 calories two weeks out from a contest. If I keep fats around 10-15%, rely on carbs as my primary energy source, and balance them out in small 2 – 3 hour windows, I still find myself looking “watery” even if I’m matching intake with expenditure and my weight is dropping. Breaking my plan into smaller meals is not the solution, as this style of “grazing” will also lead to this condition (I already eat 8 meals per day!). On the flipside, if I adhered to a high fat low/no carb diet, I would burn more muscle than a Louisiana Barbeque competition, especially if such a meal is consumed before a higher volume workout.
What I will do is follow a combination of these two approaches. Generally, when it comes to carbs and fats, pre-contest, I break each day down into small windows and match it with expenditure levels. I might take in a bit more fat over carbs during low-activity periods, even up to 30-40% of my caloric intake for that meal. This slows the digestion process and allows me to utilize the carbs more efficiently over a longer period. Along these lines, I will boost my ratio of carbs and reduce fat before my workout. Generally, I will pack in the majority of my carbs pre and post workout, with a bit extra for breakfast.
Tom Venuto: You’ve said previously that you take an intuitive approach to your training. Some strength coaches say that intuitive training is nonsense and that all your training has to be planned and periodized to a T. On the other hand, I don’t think I ever heard a champion bodybuilder not talk about the importance of intuitive training. Could you explain what you mean by intuitive training, how you apply it and how you reconcile that with the need for also having a plan and using scientific approach?
Jim Cordova: For me, intuition is founded off of science. One example of the way I interchange training styles based on science involves two distinct types of muscular hypertrophy: sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar. To acquire the best of both worlds, my understanding has led me to incorporate training styles that differ quite extensively, particularly in terms of rep range and volume. So, although this concept is the foundation behind my strategies, I often find myself taking an instinctive approach with regard to practical application. This means that I may end a low rep, moderate volume cycle a week early and move to a high rep, high volume routine if I feel that my progress is slowing and I am on the brink of stagnation. The same goes for altering the components within a specific plan, such as adding a few more reps, another drop set, and even choosing a different exercise altogether.
Tom Venuto: I think we would probably both agree that there aren’t really any secrets in bodybuilding, just hard work, consistency, intensity, dedication and so on. But bodybuilders are always going to be looking for secrets, even if that’s just a new technique they didn’t know about before. I’m sure you get asked about your arm training secrets all the time and in your latest Natural Bodybuilding & Fitness magazine article, you describe something pretty unique that most people probably never thought of: compound movements for biceps, like “bicep rows.” That intrigued me. Could you tell us more about that?
Jim Cordova: The premise is that most use a compound movement for every other bodypart. So, what is the rationale behind using such strict isolation for the biceps? The biceps row is only one of many movements that you could implement into your routine. The point of that article is to make people question their reasoning behind using such rigid strictness when it comes to the biceps. It contradicts their rationale for using a compound movement for every other bodypart…including those muscles that lie along the back of the humerus – the triceps!
Tom Venuto: Your article also says you’re in favor of cheating movements that use some momentum, for building massive arms. That might come across as controversial to the form fanatics, but you also say you use momentum “strategically.” What’s your rationale for using heavier weights with momentum, how much is too much and how do we keep it safe?
Jim Cordova: First, not only am I not against isolation movements, but I believe them to absolutely essential. The reason I use “strategic momentum” is because a muscle is stronger throughout some portions of the range-of-motion than others, especially when you consider the peak tension points of a movement. Using a barbell curl for example, athletes will hinder progress if they use a weight that allows for super-strict isolation at the bottom of the movement…in addition to acquiring one nasty case of tendonitis given enough time. This particular exercise is where people often inquire into the notion of momentum. I often tell people that barbells and dumbbells are pretty archaic tools with which to build a world-class physique. When using them, say for barbell curls, safety entails a sound “mind-muscle” connection to ensure that just enough hip momentum is used to assist at the bottom of the movement without leaning the upper body backward and risking injury to the lumbar region. This requires years of experience, oftentimes.
While we’re on the topic, those that believe that no other bodypart should assist when working the target muscle might as well remove squats, various forms of deadlifts, and many other outstanding movements from their routine. Safety is usually the basis for strict isolation, but it is quite the opposite, as intense repetitions without momentum, particularly at the beginning of a barbell curl, is the recipe for disaster. Moreover, a synergy is created when using multiple muscles during multi-joint movements and athletes will benefit greatly from using other muscles to assist. In a nutshell, the body is meant to work as a unit and this is how you operate during every single moment of life…after all, how many people do you see moving around like robots?
Tom Venuto: I think you have some video clips on your website. Do you also have a DVD or do you plan to film one?
Jim Cordova: My DVD will be released in October. It is geared toward intermediate athletes that desire to progress to the advanced level. It came out very well, in fact! The basic premise of the DVD revolves around positioning tactics and is entitled, “Positioned to Excel!” I am filming another for advanced athletes this November. In addition to my DVD, I have a set of video instructions on my site that illustrates a wide array of exercises. Many others are embedded into the articles. Look for a whole new set of professionally edited videos to be released around January!
Tom Venuto: I would love to come out and train with you sometime… so I can steal all your secrets… no just kidding. Seriously though, I like to shadow the champions anytime I get a chance and I think a lot of other people might be interested in doing the same thing. Do you train people in person or online and if so, how can our readers find out more about that?
Jim Cordova: I train both one-on-one at Fitness Incentives in Babylon NY. I also have a large base of athletes that I train online. You can find out more by checking out www.JimCordova.com
Tom Venuto: I could go on with a dozen more questions, but I know you’re very busy, so maybe we’ll connect again in the future for a part two. Thanks a million for your time and expertise.