Connor LaVallie successfully accomplished what very few competitive bodybuilders ever do – he won his Professional Natural Bodybuilding Association (PNBA) pro card by winning the overall at the Natural North America, August 13, 2011 in Bolingbrook, Illinois. An amazing feat made even more amazing when you consider he’s only 23 years old. Connor’s staggering muscularity and conditioning are only part of what makes this 23-year old phenom so impressive. Let’s learn more about about his background, knowledge and insight into bodybuilding training, dieting and life.
The last time I saw you was in 2008 at the Mid-America show in Indiana. I thought you had lots of potential. Then you sort of disappeared from competition for a few years and completely blew me away when I saw your photos this year. You put on impressive size and your conditioning was out of this world. Talk about this transformation and what it took to achieve it.
Thank you Raphael, that means a ton coming from you. I remember competing with you at Dr. Joe’s Mid America Pro-Am like it was yesterday – you were very insightful, respectful, and impressive on stage — still displayed one of the best posing routines I’ve seen to date 🙂
I spent the better part of a year in either Europe or China. I returned from China in June 2010 weighing about 190 pounds, and by December of the same year I weighed about 225 pounds with very little fat gain. I knew I’d made some solid progress, and that was when I finally decided to test the waters, and start contest prep for the 2011 season.
The key to my progress was mostly muscle memory, as well as sound training and nutrition principles. I based all my training around squatting, deadlifting, and pressing movements (Barbell squats and deads 2 times per week) and I rarely touched a machine for a solid 6 months straight. For cardio, I performed no more than 10 minutes of high intensity intervals 2 times per week on my off days.
As far as nutrition goes, I would have a shake immediately post workout and then head to Whole Foods after every squat and deadlift day for my post workout meal. I was taking in roughly 4,200 kcals on these days, doing heavy compound movements two times per week… but I was also getting plenty of sleep! Everything seemed to be working very well so I kept it going each week through the fall and winter.
At what age did you begin training? Competing? What got you motivated to start?
I have played football, basketball, and baseball my whole life but injuries and a kidney illness ended my football career my freshman year in college. The next summer my interest in bodybuilding became apparent when I took a trip to Colorado to visit my grandparent’s lodge. One thing I always kept constant despite my injuries was my diet. I made sure I was getting all the correct nutrients I needed to maintain maximum muscle when I was unable to train. I also made it to the gym 4 days a week to keep what I had. I knew nothing about natural bodybuilding at the time… that is until I left for vacation a few months later. When I arrived in Colorado, I was feeling pretty healthy and my strength was slowly returning to normal. I was especially excited for this trip because the lodge I was staying at had a fully equipped gym right outside our room. I began lifting and my hand wasn’t hurting at all so I decided to slowly increase weight for a few pyramid sets on deadlifts. Before I knew it, I was pulling as much weight as I had when training for football camp and the adrenaline was back. I was in the zone.
As soon as I finished my final set, a big guy wearing an Optimum Nutrition sweatshirt came over to me and asked me how old I was. I told him 18, almost 19 and he complimented me for the work I had done. I asked him about bodybuilding and he said he competed when he was younger and that he had the time of his life. He also explained that it kept him out of trouble as a kid and taught him an incredible amount of discipline. This instantly intrigued me because training has always been my favorite part of football, besides scoring touchdowns and hanging with teammates. I loved football, basketball, and baseball, but I was also burnt out from being on a schedule. Team sports are great, but I wanted to work out on my own time, develop my physique and do it in the healthiest way possible. I knew I had the discipline, a fair amount of knowledge; all I needed was a place to start. That night I made my way up to the computer room and found Bodybuilding.com. On the front page there was a link featuring “knowledgeable natural bodybuilder Layne Norton” I read through his first article, then the second, the third, I was so excited learning about his experiences from when he was my age. Right then and there I realized my goal would be to compete before I turned 21. The next day I made my way to the gym and completed my first “true” leg day filled with all types of intensity techniques I had used in the past, but never for the sole purpose of muscle growth. I now had the vision to complete my goal so I set up my own bodybuilding style program focusing on gaining lean mass. The progress I made led me to check out a few shows…. and I was hooked from there.
When was your first show? What show was it? Describe that first experience on stage.
My first contest was the 2008 Mid America Pro-Am in Evansville, In and in short, it was one of the best experiences of my life. I found that the process of preparing to step onstage just appealed to me in many ways – much like any sport I’ve done. However, this was the first ‘individual’ sport I’d ever tried and I loved the idea of relying completely on myself (You quickly learn it’s not an individual sport at all however – friends, family, advisors, and fellow competitors are an integral part your success) I got a chance to meet many new friends and ultimately reveal the progress I’d made in the gym.
In the end, I placed 1st in the men’s novice tall class and 1st in the collegiate class. Hearing my name called was a huge shock, but it made me realize what could be accomplished through passion and hard work. Competing is the ultimate ‘delayed gratification’ scenario… and when done correctly, it will enhance every area of life I believe.
What is your height? Off-season weight? Competition weight?
I’m 6 foot 3 inches tall, in the ‘grow season’ I always try to maintain a full set of abs at around 220-225 lbs. I use weight as an objective measure for determining how fast I should be losing fat or gaining muscle… but during the final weeks of prep this doesn’t matter much as the work should already be done. I weighed in at about 190 onstage at the ABA Natural North American. When it’s time to prepare for a contest – I just focus on getting as lean as possible — weight is nothing but a number!
Some of the things I found intriguing about you when we met in 2008 was that you were very intelligent, interesting, and not at all typical of someone your age. Tell us about your life outside bodybuilding – your educational background, career aspirations, and your interests. And, how has bodybuilding influenced these parts of your life?
I think I naturally took an interest in bodybuilding because of my early interests in nutrition. When I was 15 I began reading anything and everything related to sports nutrition. When I was playing football as an undergraduate… we had our body fat measured at the start of camp and mine turned out to be the lowest on the team. Invariably, I had several teammates approach me and ask me about my diet. I was happy to discuss what I did and share some of the resources I’d used to prepare for camp. I was flattered they would even ask as I was just a freshman trying to survive lol… however this taught me that I could actually get recognition for something I was passionate about. Unfortunately, back to back hand surgeries and a kidney operation led me out of team sports and into the gym – where I began designing my own schedules and training regimen.
I began studying Psychology and Nutrition at Loyola University Chicago and bought a gym membership. From that moment on, I did nothing but focus on academics and training which proved to be a formula for success in college. I graduated with honors in Psychology and decided to continue my education in Chiropractic Medicine and Clinical Nutrition at National University of Health Sciences here in Chicago. I believe in living a healthy lifestyle (much like the one natural bodybuilding requires) – hopefully, I can help many people do the same as a future professional.
I’ve learned a lot from some of the shows that I haven’t done well in. What show (s) have been disappointing for you as far as your conditioning/placement? Did you learn a lot from them? Please give an example.
Since this in only my second contest season – I haven’t had the opportunity to do a lot of shows… but there is still one that definitely stands out. My first show of this year was the IFPA/NANBF St. Louis Natural. I came in my best ever… by far… but my placing did not reflect this. I remember when head judge called my name for 3rd in the collegiate division and feeling the most intense sense of disappointment. However, this negative feeling only lasted 2 or 3 seconds because I knew how much I had improved since my last contest.
The grief was replaced with pure joy when I held up my trophy and saw my family in the audience. Right then I learned it was possible to see past the ‘placing’, and that it was pointless to focus on something out of my control (the subjective opinions of judges). This experience pushed me to make further improvements before my next contest. I would have to leave no doubt in the minds of the judges from that point on.
You took a trip through Europe with friends not that long ago. That must have taken you away from hard training (or maybe any training at all) and strategic eating for awhile. How did that experience actually enhance your training and dieting when you returned?
After that contest in 2008, I decided to go study overseas and maximize the rest of my time I had as an undergraduate. I finally returned in June of 2010. I was based in Rome, Italy and spent 3-4 days in a different country every single week I was abroad. This was an incredibly educational and eye-opening experience in many ways… but maintaining any kind of ‘bodybuilding lifestyle’ was next to impossible. Workouts were sporadic at best… and most days I was forced to stick with the local cuisine. When I came back to the United States, I had a fire lit under me like never before. I gained a whole new perspective while I was abroad… and I really learned to appreciate all we have here in the States. I mean… the gyms, Whole Foods markets, convenience stores, 24-hour diners, etc… and having friends and family close by again… it all just made me want to capitalize on all this abundance and opportunity we have. I decided I would use it all to the fullest — and finally achieve the vision I had set for myself in bodybuilding.
How many weeks out do you begin getting ready for show and how do you handle your approach to nutrition both pre contest and offseason?
I think it’s crucial to give yourself extra time to prepare for a contest – it is always better to get in shape early and then start increasing kcals as the show approaches. I did some research early on and found a person who I now consider a great friend and one of my biggest role models in fitness and life in general – I contacted Dr. Layne Norton after I learned what natural bodybuilding was all about through his video series “Inside the Life’. We worked together for 20 weeks and I discovered that amount of time was optimal for me. Layne is the greatest coach I’ve ever had in any sport, hands down.
Does your training change during pre-contest versus off-season? If so, in what way?
I strongly believe that the best methods for building muscle will also help to maintain muscle best. The only thing that changes during pre-contest is my diet and cardio regimen. I try to keep the training as intense as ever, while going as heavy as I can… and I let the diet and cardio take care of the rest.
How do you mentally prepare right before you walk out on stage for a show?
Honestly, I thought I would be really nervous to compete. However, if you put in the necessary work and leave nothing on the table… the nerves just totally disappear. I prepare for prejudging much like I would for a workout, because it can almost be as physically and mentally demanding. Going through several rounds of mandatory poses is HARD WORK no matter how much you practice and prepare. Before going on, I focus on projecting confidence and make sure my personality shows — I’ve discovered that when you look like you’re having fun up there, it enhances every aspect of your presence and presentation.
Do you find off-season difficult from a dieting standpoint?
If you are serious about making progress, living a healthy lifestyle, and setting yourself up for a successful transition into contest prep… No… It’s as easy as pie! (No pun intended) I only stick to certain foods that work best for my body and I’ll rarely deviate. This usually includes everything you would find on the periphery of the grocery store (nothing processed) except for dairy products. As the weeks progress, I’ll adjust my calorie intake based on the specific goals I’ve set for myself and how I’m feeling.
What 2-3 bodybuilders do you admire and why? Just go with who immediately comes to mind.
Each of these athletes has developed tremendous physiques… but I’m much more impressed by their character. I aspire to match them in both body and mind, but it’s the latter that I truly admire about them:
– Layne Norton
– John Hansen
– Alberto Nunez
– Evan Centopani
The great debate – peanut butter: crunchy or smooth?
Trader Joe’s… extra crunchy! But, Snaclite makes this smooth kind I really like called ‘Power Peanut butter’… so I guess it’s a tie haha!
What crazy food myths have you bought into over your years as a bodybuilder?
Nutrition has always been the topic that has fascinated me above any other. I started doing research on how to properly fuel my body even before I began taking sports or any kind of weight lifting seriously. This could have gone a couple of ways for me – either making LOTS of mistakes, or finding out what works early on. Luckily, it was the latter for me and it’s been pretty smooth up until now with the nutrition aspect. Additionally, I’ve had Layne as an advisor from the very start in bodybuilding. I believe contacting him was still one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
What’s your favorite cheat food?
Dirty sushi. I love my sashimi and all the healthy options… but the ‘dirty’ stuff is definitely my favorite cheat meal. This includes all those ‘special rolls’ filled with sauces, Unagi, tempura, and mounds of white rice…. Doesn’t get much better than that!
What was the worst advice you’ve ever been given either from a nutrition, supplement or training standpoint?
I’m not saying I’m perfect in this regard by any means, but I’ve never really bought into something that didn’t make sense to me. Early on, I just made sure to listen to those who’ve already done what I was aiming to accomplish… no need to re-invent the wheel!
Bodybuilding requires laser-like focus and can be all consuming during contest season, what do you do off-season to get away from that and have some fun?
My Dad and best friends constantly tell me I need to have more fun and learn to relax a little — I think that comes with having a true ‘type A’ personality. I’ve found that if I’m making progress in some area – no matter how small, it makes me happy though. Therefore, I like to write a lot in my free time for myself… and I’ll go out with friends and family to nice restaurants at least once a week just to take a load off. Most of my best memories are incredible 4-hour dinner dates with friends/family just relaxing and talking about what’s good in life.
What’s one of your favorite muscle groups to train and why? What’s one of your favorite exercises?
Legs – there’s nothing like leg training in my opinion. It separates the champions from the pretenders, the men from the boys…. It’s the ultimate mental and physical test when done right. My favorite exercise is the barbell squat.
Do you train alone or with a training partner?
I’ve always trained alone.
Are there any shows you’ve always wanted to compete in? What are they and when do you plan to compete in them?
It would be a dream come true to qualify and compete in the Natural Olympia right after I finish graduate school.
People sometimes forget that in order to do well in a show, it’s important to have support. Who have been your biggest supporters?
This, without a question, is the biggest part of why I’ve attained any success. It would be impossible to name everyone (even though it’s much deserved) but my main support system includes:
– My parents, AJ and Erin
– My sisters, Taylor and Lauren
– My coach, Layne Norton and his wife, Isabel
– My friends and great teammates involved in the sport…
There are truly too many to name, but two guys who really stand out are Flynn Sneed and Sean O’Bryan.
Who do you believe is the best male natural bodybuilder? Why?
I’m a fan of Philip Ricardo Jr.’s physique above any other… a great person, who truly puts his work in as well, much respect.
When is your next contest?
I plan on competing on the pro stage as soon as I earn my professional degree and complete graduate school. Even though I don’t have a contest pinpointed, I’m spending my time at the gym and in the kitchen like I have a show next week (only more food of course).
What else would you like to add?
I would like to thank you, Raphael for being such a great representation of what natural bodybuilding is all about – you lead by example and definitely made a positive impression on me from the very beginning. Thank you for everything and keep inspiring my man.