Diet and Nutrition

Wilkins Power – An Interview with Isaac Wilkins

Isaac has been a member on the Wannabebig forums for almost 5 years now and also ran a column on Wannabebig called Got Strength. During this time he has grown in leaps and bounds and has displayed true leadership skills as a coach, trainer and lifter. Isaac is the real deal and it shows in his work and how he conducts himself online in helping people as a moderator on the Wannabebig forums. He is an athlete, a competitor and someone who is humble enough to learn from their mistakes so they can continually move forward.

Isaac was kind enough to set aside some time to answer some questions and some insight into who he is what he’s all about.

Wannabebig: It’s nice to finally get the chance find out a bit more about you and what you’re all about. Please tell us about yourself.

Isaac: Well, I’m a 27 year-old private trainer and performance coach living in Charleston, SC. I consider myself to be largely a science-based trainer rather than an emotion or “bro-telligent”-based trainer.

I grew up in Maine where I attended the University of Maine for both my undergrad and graduate degrees. I started seriously lifting in college and as I grew more serious I found I actually give WBB a lot of credit for this turn that my life has taken as I probably wouldn’t have been nearly as successful in the gym without that initial dose of solid advice. It also fueled my interest in learning more about the strength and conditioning field and that obviously has blossomed into my passion.

I absolutely love what I do. I look forward to training a variety of clients daily and take great pride in seeing them reach their goals. The ability to stimulate the human body and see an expected response is just as fascinating to me as when the response is unexpected.

As someone who is in the same field as yourself your words ring loud and clear. The reward that you get from seeing your clients change is a feeling you just can’t get enough of. So, why did you choose this field?

It certainly wasn’t the direction that I had envisioned my life going, I can assure you of that. I had graduated from the University of Maine in 2002 with a degree in Finance. While in school I’d caught the iron bug and started to take exercise and weight training more seriously, culminating in earning a certification as a personal trainer in the Spring of 2002.

After working in the financial field for a year I just wasn’t particularly happy. The work was basically the same and it wasn’t especially challenging. I wasn’t looking forward to doing it for the next thirty years. I certainly don’t regret getting a business degree as it’s applied to life, but pushing beans around a table wasn’t for me.

I was presented with a great opportunity to go back to school but didn’t really know what course to take. After a few major switches I was offered the chance to earn my Master’s Degree in Kinesiology/Exercise Physiology from almost out of the blue. I jumped at the opportunity and haven’t looked back. I was well behind the curve as far as pre-requisite classes go, but a passion for the subject matter made the remedial study on my own time a lot easier.

By this time I had changed the focus of my own training from bodybuilding to power-lifting and training for performance. This type of training appealed to me more and was a better fit for my lifestyle. With the opportunities offered by my status as a graduate student in the field I was able to focus on the S&C field and it continued to build from there.

That’s quite the switch from a desk job to the iron. Do you play any sports or compete in anything?

Growing up my primary sports were wrestling, football, baseball, and tae kwon do. As I moved into college I stayed busy as a recreational athlete by focusing on football, MMA, and some rugby. At the moment I base my training around power-lifting although I keep toying with the idea of playing semi-pro football here in Charleston if I can ever fit it into my schedule!

Wannabebig: Personally, I’m a big proponent on practicing what you preach. My belief is that all coaches should compete in something because it strengthens the connection they share with their clients. Have you found that this helped you in how you train your clients?

Isaac: It’s been extremely valuable. I’ve been on the other side of the whistle, so to speak, and that is a very important perspective to have. I know what the clients are feeling during various situations and I have first-hand experience in what it takes to perform athletically. I strongly believe in the “under the bar” experience for strength coaches. I’m not saying that every S&C professional has to play pro ball or total elite (I’m working on it!), but they need to know what it feels like to push their limits and strain under some heavy-ass weight. If a coach hasn’t felt it, then what business do they have telling athletes to push themselves that hard?

Wannabebig: Amen brother!

As a long-time athlete in a variety of sports I’ve also been exposed to a lot of different strength and conditioning programs and sports coaching philosophies. Some have been great while some have been awful. Regardless of the success of the program, I was able to learn a lot about what to do, or what not to do when coaching and training others. I view all of my past sports as a participatory internship, with more running.

Wannabebig: The next question I have which stems from what you were just saying is about your training philosophy. Every coach/train should have one. I know you do.

Isaac: I believe in a couple of things in regards to training: Education and focusing on the outcome. Everything I do falls into those two areas.

I’m not the type of trainer that likes to keep their clients in the dark. I feel that the more the clients know about how they’re training and how they respond the better they will be. If a client understands why something is working, they’ll be much more likely to do it, quite frankly. “Because coach told me to” doesn’t work with most clients in the long term.

It is frequently my goal to have clients, especially general personal training clients, learn enough so that they can successfully train themselves. Do they need to become S&C professionals themselves? No. However, the empowerment they receive when they can successfully control their bodies is amazing. A client who is in control of their body is one who will reach their goals.

The other angle of my philosophy is focusing on the outcome. To do that I break down a goal depending on the qualities associated with the success of that goal. Then I apply it to what I consider five key areas of fitness (I actually have smaller subdivisions, but for the sake of brevity I’ll stick with the five big ones): Strength Training, Conditioning/Energy System Training, Mobility and Flexibility, Nutrition and Supplementation, and Recovery. These five keys need to be lined up in order for the goals to be reached, plain and simple.

For example, let’s say I’m training a 6’2”, 225lb high school defensive end. I need to make sure his strength training is building up primarily strength along with hypertrophy as a secondary consideration. At that size he’s a pretty solid high school athlete. I don’t need him to become 260lbs; that’s what college and a few more years of growth are for. I need him to slowly grow and in the meantime be as quick and strong as possible. His conditioning needs to be good enough to run him for the game in football shape. He doesn’t need to go out and run three miles. He does need to be as mobile as possible with good flexibility to get around those big tackles. In order for him to continue to grow and perform, his nutrition and light supplementation needs to be on point. Depending on the season, his recovery may be at a premium or it may not. He may need to utilize some advanced recovery methods in-season and much less other than sleep in the off-season. If any of these five points is lagging, that player will not perform at his best, and thus I’m not performing at mine.

Another thought I’ve internalized is in relation to something I heard sometime ago in that “the best strength coaches are the best thieves”, and I’ve found that to be true. I am always hunting for new information and ideas. One of the things I do is to read at least an hour a day. I also hunt down people from a variety of backgrounds to talk training with. As a result of this I get a lot of information. Not all of it is good. Quite frankly, most of the training and nutrition information I come across is crap, but that just forces me to look at it critically. What I do is look at everything, pick out what works, integrate that into my system, and throw away the rest.

There’s nothing I hate more, except maybe lazy athletes, than being pigeonholed as a certain type of trainer. I had a boss that used to call me a “functional trainer”
because I used some Olympic-based unilateral lifts. He himself was an “old school” trainer because he used three sets of 10 to 15 reps of general exercises. I’m not a “kettle-bell guy”, a “functional guy”, a “band guy”, or a “power-lifting guy”. I’m a performance coach utilizing the means necessary to improve my clients.

I stress the basics of diet and athleticism. Until those are covered, my clients are not going to move forward. Sexy? Probably not. My clients learn the basics before anything else and will keep learning them until they’re ready to progress beyond them.

My clients pretty much all dead-lift, lunge, squat, press, row, and pull. There may be some variation in the specifics of their exercises, but it will be based on these movements, and they’ll be largely ground-based. I’ve never understood why many trainers are so fired up to adapt every exercise to use an unsteady surface. Other than a couple of little accessory movements the primary use of a stability ball in the gym is to sit on while your client does something on the ground or for the little kids to play a giant game of basketball with.

My nutrition philosophy is the same. I’m less worried about the ideal macronutrients (if that exists) and exact calorie counts than basic quality when I first start working with a client. I want them to understand what it means to eat for their activity and what it means to put healthy fuel into their body. Once they get a good handle on eating the right things at about the right time it’s a whole lot easier to tweak how much of it they eat and make things specific.

Wannabebig: You have a pretty damn solid philosophy. How has it shaped how you train yourself and others?

Isaac: I just stress the basics and focus on keeping them covered. It also helps to keep me grounded. Ninety percent of my clients do not give a hoot about ninety percent of what I know. Do you really think that the high school linemen who finds himself fifty pounds overweight because his coach told him he’d “have to be a 300 pounder for colleges to look at him” and now can’t move really needs to be concerned about lactic acid buffering or the mechanics of GLUT-4 manipulation? No, he needs to be directed on how not to be a fat-ass anymore.

If the five basic areas of fitness I outlined above are being addressed to the needs of the activity then the client or athlete will be successful. I make sure those areas are being frequently tested and the programs are changing as a result. I personally tend to get a little lazy about my conditioning and my flexibility, as I hate to train both. I know that I feel better and perform better when those are being addressed. That means that I absolutely need to make them a priority in order to be operating at peak performance.

Wannabebig: Ok, touching briefly on the educational side of things, what are the top 3 books/DVDs or information related products that you’d suggest to people to read or watch?

Well, it depends on the audience you’re speaking of. For an aspiring strength and conditioning professional I would obviously offer the old stand-by: Super-training, by Mel Siff. It is one of the more comprehensive textbooks out there on the human body’s response to exercise stimulus.

An S&C professional needs to understand more than the how to get someone in shape. They need to understand the why. That doesn’t mean that they necessarily need a PhD in Biochem or something of that nature, but they need to know what’s going on in the human body. Exercise Physiology: Human Bioenergetics and Its Applications by Brooks, Fahey, White, and Baldwin is one of the best texts I’ve seen on the subject.

I would also recommend the West-side tapes/DVD’s. Louie Simmons is one of the best in the United States and the world at making people just plain strong. No, not all athletes will train like Louie’s power-lifters, but strong is strong. I’m sure that any aspiring coach will be scribbling notes frantically while watching the tapes… or at least they should be.

Wannabebig: As an up and coming coach you must have some nuggets of wisdom tucked away in that head of yours. What are some of the best pieces of advice that have been given to you?

Some of the best advice I’ve ever received took a while to really sink in. My advisor at Maine was Dr. Robert Lehnhard, who has forgotten more science and training than most strength coaches will ever know. He spent years as the University of Maine’s strength coach for hockey, which if you know hockey is a big position. I credit him for making this all possible for me, literally.

I was once going on and on about an exercise protocol that I’d picked up from somewhere and what I thought of it. He let me go on for a while and then looked at me and said: “Who f-in cares?” Needless to say this wasn’t what I was expecting. He then said: “What’s really going on? That’s what you need to pay attention to. It’s not four sets of six or five sets of five that is the question. It’s load, time, and how it stimulates the body. The training is just a way to achieve the stimulus you want to make the body adapt the way you want.”

Too many people argue over the little crap of training. While that’s entertaining and probably a good learning exercise, a true S&C coach’s goal should be to look beyond that. Once you understand the why, the how is pretty simple.

Switching from advice to lessons you’ve learned, what has stuck with you so far? I’m sure you have learned a lot so far and have many more to come.

Isaac: One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in the industry is that nobody really cares what you know on paper. It’s good to hold certifications and degrees, but that’ll just get you the opportunity to talk to someone. This is a results-driven industry and people want to know that you can get them to their goal. A private strength coach needs to be able to articulate that they understand what’s going on, what the goals are, how they are going to get the client there, and be able to show past success.

Talk is cheap. Show me the success.

That my friend is pure gold. You basically summed up the essence of training. Where can we find out more about you and what you have to offer?

Isaac: Well, I’m pretty easy to find, despite a busy schedule. My website is, and I also maintain a blog at I’m easily reached on Wannabebig also. I provide a range of online services including training and diet consultation as well as in-person training or seminars.

Wannabebig: I can say with all honesty that this was a great interview. I appreciate the time taken out of your schedule to answer these questions.

Isaac: I’d like to thank you for the opportunity to participate in this interview. I really enjoyed it. I’d also like to extend my thanks to the great community at WBB for all of the help, advice, and encouragement over the years.

Written by Maki Riddington

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Wilkins Power – An Interview with Isaac Wilkins discussion thread.