Sunday Mailbag

February 6th, 2011 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: I usually assume most artists are skinny or out of shape guys like computer nerds… but when I saw your picture you looked like a WWF wrestler. I workout myself and I was wondering if you could share with us your regiment and more importantly your diet and/or supplements. For instance I stick to a complex carbohydrate diet and I take creatine. I lift weights every 3 days yet I go all out. My main exercise are bicep curls and dips with a weighted belt. Also, I was wondering if you could share with us people’s reaction (such as fans or industry professionals) to your stature when meeting you. Artists get pinned with words like “emotional”, “sensitive”, “touchy” and I think it’s great that you potentially battle the stereotypes of creative types.

A: I understand what you mean. I do get some odd reactions when meeting someone who knows what I do but has never seen me before because there is a certain stereotype people have in there heads for artists, and especially cartoonists. We are supposed to be introverted, moody and emotional so therefore correspondingly weak and either skinny or puffy.

That is of course, ridiculous.

The physical demands of your job don’t much play into your physique or level of fitness anymore unless it’s an extreme case. Someone with a very physical job like loading heavy objects into trucks all day are going to be physically bigger because they develop their muscles in response to the load they are required to carry, but also because they had to be big and strong in the first place to do the job. Most people have jobs with a lot less physical demands, so their fitness (or lack thereof) is entirely in their own hands. With that in mind, I doubt there is much or any difference in the percentage of artists who are in good shape as opposed to those who are not than in any other profession.

Actually when it comes to comics, I know a lot of comic book artists who are in to weightlifting and working out and look the part. My good friends here in Minnesota Tom Nguyen and Doug Mahnke are well known comic book illustrators. Tom has competed in body building competitions and is totally jacked, and Doug has been weightlifting all his life and most recently competes in powerlifting, holding a few records in the state for his age/weight bracket. There are a number of cartoonists from the NCS who also are no slouches in the gym. “Pearls Before Swine”‘s Stephan Pastis is buff, both Glenn and Gary McCoy of “The Flying McCoys” & “The Duplex” are weightlifters and Pulitzer prize winning editorial cartoonist Mike Luchovich is in great shape. So is “One Big Happy” artist Rick Detorie. There are many other examples, some not so overly muscular but many who run, swim, play sports or otherwise keep themselves in good condition. “Rhymes with Orange” creator Hilary Price, who I ran the streets of Havana with when we visited Cuba as part of a cartoonists envoy last year plays league hockey… I’d think twice about messing with her. My point is there are a lot of individuals who would fit the category of bucking the “wimpy artist” stereotype.

For me, I got into weightlifting seriously when I first started doing caricatures at a theme park near Chicago, IL in 1985. I roomed with several other artists who were into pumping iron… one of whom was the afore mentioned Doug Mahnke. Under their guidance I started working out, stuck with it for several years but never got very big. I was too young and my metabolism ran too hot back then. I didn’t eat properly either. I tore a rotator cuff muscle working out in the basement of a townhome I shared with some college buddies one winter, and that derailed me for over 10 years with only fits and starts in the gym after that. Then middle age caught up to me and in 2001 there was a flabby, overweight guy staring back at me from a mirror, and I got serious. It’ll be ten years this summer that I got back into the gym, and other than another rotator cuff tear (this one I got surgery on) I have been regularly in the gym for a decade. Thanks to a slower metabolism and smarter eating habits I packed on about 25-30 lbs of muscle and lost 35-40 lbs of body fat, transforming my physique. When I graduated high school I was 6′ tall and went about 175 lbs soaking wet. These days I fluctuate with weight and body fat levels depending on what sort of routine I am on. When I am doing endurance and “cutting up” routines to lose weight/body fat I can go as low as 205 lbs, and at the end of a mass building phase the biggest I ever weighed in at was 242 lbs. I average around 220. Here’s a pic of me from right before my rotator cuff tear at about 230 lbs… I’m approaching that size again now:

My routines change around a lot. I will train for endurance for a while, then transition into hypertrophy (putting on muscle size) for a while and then transition to strength and power, and then back. I work out four days a week with weights, and sometimes work in another day where I just run or do interval sprints for cardio. Right now I am at the end of a mass building phase, the first big one since my surgery two years ago in March, and am at 225 lbs. Here is my current routine:

Monday: Shoulders/Arms

  • Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press- 12 reps x 3 sets
  • Lateral Raises- 12 reps x 3 sets
  • Upright Rows- 12 reps x 3 sets
  • Front Raises- 12 reps x 3 sets
  • Standing Barbel Curls- 12 reps x 3 sets
  • French Presses- 12 reps x 3 sets
  • Seated Arnold Curls- 12 reps x 3 sets
  • Push downs- 12 reps x 3 sets

Tuesday: Legs

  • Squats- 12 reps x 3 sets
  • Reverse Lunges- 12 reps x 3 sets
  • Leg Press/Calf Raise Superset: 12 reps x 3 sets (15-20 reps for calves)
  • Stiff Leg Deadlifts- 12 reps x 3 sets
  • Leg Extensions/Leg Curls (machine)- 12 reps x 3 sets

Thursday: Chest

  • Incline Dumbbell Press-12 reps x 3 sets
  • Flat bench Dumbbell Press-12 reps x 3 sets
  • Dumbbell Flys- 12 reps x 3 sets
  • Decline Smith Press- 12 reps x 3 sets
  • Standing Cable Crossovers- 12 reps x 3 sets
  • Dips- 12 reps x 3 sets

Friday: Back

  • Deadlifts-12 reps x 3 sets
  • Lat Pulldowns- 12 reps x 3 sets
  • V-Bar Rows- 12 reps x 3 sets
  • Close Grip Lat Pulldowns/Shrugs Superset- 12 reps x 3 sets
  • One Arm Dumbbell rows- 12 reps x 3 sets
  • Rear Delts- 12 reps x 3 sets

I will throw in core stuff a couple of times a week, and the occasional cardio work.

Next week I will vary some of the exercises a bit and do 4 sets of 10 reps for each. Then I will begin the transition to strength and power by doing progressively fewer reps and increasing the weight, until I am doing only 4 or 5 reps per set. That will take 5 to 6 weeks. Then maybe back to endurance.

As far as supplements go, I used to take everything under the sun. Now I am smarter, and only supplement a few things I am positive make a difference. Here’s my supplement list in order of importance:

  1. Whey Protein– A must have staple. No way could I eat all the protein I need to consume eating whole foods. I good rule of thumb is 1 g of protein per pound of body weight. That means I need to consume 220 g of protein a day… and really if I want to build muscle I should be ingesting 300 grams a day. That’s almost 3 lbs of chicken breast or 50 whole eggs! Whey protein is the best overall choice IMO. It does a whole host of good things besides giving your body the building blocks it need to repair your work-out damaged muscle, including immune system boosting and contributing antioxidants. Whey protein is quick to digest and peaks quickly in your blood, making it an ideal pre/post workout supplement. Look for a whey protein containing a lot of “isolates”, as they are the most pure and concentrated form of whey protein available. It contains 90 percent or more protein and very little (if any) fat and lactose. Another good protein is “casein” protein, which is much more slow digesting so better for later in the day. It doesn’t peak as quickly or as high in the bloodstream as whey, but it stays around almost twice as long giving you a steady trickle of protein for longer. I sometimes have both, and do whey pre and post workout and then casein in the afternoon. My brand of choice for whey protein is Gold Standard 100% Whey by Optimum Nutrition. No side effects.
  2. Creatine– There are few supplements out there that work as advertised, but creatine is one of them. Without getting into the scientific details, creatine is basically a substance that your body uses to replenish one of the types of fuel your muscle cells need to contract, called ATP. Creatine enhances the ability of the muscle to maintain power output during brief periods of high-intensity exercise by replenishing the ATP in your muscles faster. It also has a nice “volumizing” effect because it also pulls water molecules into your muscles as well, causing them to be fuller and bigger. I’ve tried a lot of different creatine products, but my favorite in called CellMass by BSN. It’s a creatine ethyl-ester product, which is a (some would say controversial) technology that allows for a much higher absorption of the actual creatine than standard creatine, most of which degrades in your stomach and never reaches your bloodstream. In order to get around this with standard creatine, you have to first “load” it, meaning consuming huge quantities of it for the first week and then after loading still take a lot of it to get any absorption. You also have to take it with a lot of insulin-spiking sugar so what does get to your bloodstream gets pushed into your muscle tissue. I really hate taking all that stuff. CellMass is a single scoop, no loading, and the grape flavor actually tastes pretty good. I’ve gotten good results with it. No side effects other than the occasional digestive issue.
  3. BCAAs- Branch Chain Amino Acids are the “Building Blocks” of the body. They make up 35% of your muscle mass and must be present for molecular growth and development to take place. Eight are essential (cannot be manufactured by the body) the rest are non-essential (can be manufactured by the body with proper nutrition). Besides building cells and repairing tissue, they form antibodies, they are part of the enzyme & hormonal system; they build RNA and DNA and they carry oxygen throughout the body. Absolutely crucial supplements. I take Optimum’s BCAA 5000 Powder. No side effects.
  4. NO– Short for Nitrogen Oxide, this supplement is basically the amino acid L-Arginine. It increases blood flow and improves muscular fullness through vasodilation and oxygen delivery to your muscles. It opens the blood pathways more fully, allowing more blood to flow to your muscles faster, delivering more needed oxygen during workouts. The increased bloodflow also causes a natural “pump” to your muscles making them bigger and harder after a workout. The problem with NO supplements is that most of them also contain high levels of caffeine and stimulants, which I don’t like as they increase my heart rate during a workout, and I am fully capable of bringing my heartrate to the tipping point all by myself, thanks. I little caffeine gives you some pep, but most NO products are loaded with it. I like to combine two NO supplements, both from the same company. I mix half a scoop of NO Shotgun with half a scoop of SynthaSize, both from VPX. NO Shotgun has the caffeine, and SynthaSize is the same product without the caffeine. Together I get the NO benefits with just enough stimulants to get me going to the gym. No side effects.
  5. Glutamine- This the most abundant amino acid found in muscle tissue. It helps prevent muscle wasting and improves recovery. You’ll find it in a lot of supplements already, but I take a scoop pre-workout anyway. Crucial muscle building amino acid. No side effects.
  6. Beta-Alanine- This is another amino acid that has been shown to increase the concentration of carnosine in muscles, decrease fatigue in athletes and increase total muscular work done. It lessens the “burning” sensation that you get when doing intense workouts and allows you to get that extra rep or two in… which is where all the growth starts. There are other benefits. Even though CellMass has come beta-alanine in it, I supplement additionally pre-workout. I was using a product called H-Blocker for a while but it was hard to take… too much of it and it digested badly. I’m switching to a pure beta-alanine supplement called Beta Alanine Plus from Higher Power. Side effects- this can cause an odd reddening of your ears and a tingling/heat sensation called paraesthesia. Harmless.
  7. Testosterone Boosters- Testosterone is the male hormone that dictates how big and strong you get (it’s a little more complicated than that, but close enough). At 44 years old, my testosterone levels are not what they were at 18… or 25… or even 35. You have two choices in trying to increase your testosterone: take illegal steroids or supplement with legal compounds that purport to naturally stimulate your own body’s testosterone production. Despite accusations by some people, I have never taken any illegal steroid or supplement of any kind, and never will. The cost health-wise is too high. That said, I do take a few natural test boosters: I’ve at times taken tribulus terrestris, ZMA, Eurycoma Longfolia and assorted others. Do they work? Well, I don’t have my testosterone checked very often (okay, EVER) but I will say I feel more aggressive at the gym and have had success actually gaining muscle mass after 40… which isn’t easy without steroids. Maybe they are nothing but placebos, there are certainly plenty of studies refuting the claims they effect test levels at all. My take: WHO CARES. They don’t cost that much and have no side effects, so have at ’em.

Thanks to Stephen Busfield for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me your questions and I’ll try and answer them here!


  1. jailerjoe says:

    You make Clay Matthews look like a 90lb weakling:) Would love to see a caricature of him and some other XLV champs! Go Pack GOOOOOOOOOOO!

    • Tom says:

      Dunno about the caricatures of them, but I’ve got a little something for tomorrow’s blog post all worked up!

  2. Alex says:

    REAL artists don’t workout…they’re too busy starving 😉

  3. Ryan Roe says:

    I thought you used Gamma Radiation…ha!

  4. julio cesar naranjo says:

    Hi Tom, tomorrow ill begin my recovery from my quadriceps cause i didnt do the proper technique, that was 2 two years ago. I have chondromalacia, ive been in recovery while a go and i was in therapy 4 months after that i began to give up cause its very demanding, to get recovered i got to be almost a year reinforcing my interior thighs. Ill going back to the gym next week to do proper conditioning cause my lately exercise is lifting my spoon and im beginning to feel the results. Take care.

    • Tom says:

      Good luck, Julio. Injury and illness are challenges and I hope your road to recovery is as clear and successful as possible.

  5. saraj says:

    hi tom,

    am from india, and u r my inspiration , in both caricatures and keeping body fit.

    i learn a lot from ur blogs. u r doing nice job.

    i will definitely meet u in person whn i come to US , bcos u r my guru

  6. Lash LeRoux says:

    Hi Tom! The knowledge you share is spot on. If you‚Äö√Ñ√¥re a little unsure about testosterone boosters, here are some additional thoughts: first of all, steroids have gotten a horrible rap due to the number of people who abuse them. Now, I am not a proponent of steroids at all — so don‚Äö√Ñ√¥t misunderstand me — however, we should recognize the reality of decreased testosterone as we get older. Think of it like this, as women mature and go through menopause doctors recognize the need to start supplementing the deficiency of their natural hormones. In the past, when men aged and went through those same changes they were just dismissed as a ‚Äö√Ñ√∫mid-life‚Äö√Ñ√π crisis. Doctors are now realizing the importance to men‚Äö√Ñ√¥s health in supplement their testosterone when they reach an age that deems it necessary. Once again, there is a BIG difference between supplementing your testosterone and taking and abusing steroids (which includes a whole host of drugs outside mere testosterone). But doctors are even going so far as to give testosterone shots (and some growth hormone injections) to men over a certain age, as part of their ‚Äö√Ñ√∫anti-aging‚Äö√Ñ√π therapy. The commercial with the 70 year old doctor who is all ripped up? That‚Äö√Ñ√¥s what he‚Äö√Ñ√¥s doing. So, Tom, I think you‚Äö√Ñ√¥re right to use some of these natural enhancers.

    Now, do they work? Is it just a placebo affect? I personally have irrefutable evidence that they do work. I have never had the need or desire to take steroids, although they were rampant in my industry. Most people take them for size and I have never had a problem gaining size. I‚Äö√Ñ√¥m a big guy genetically (I wrestled at 235 lbs, and now that I‚Äö√Ñ√¥m retired and don‚Äö√Ñ√¥t have the need to stay extremely lean, I weigh 275 lbs). However, one of the fat burner supplements that I took while in WCW had a testosterone booster added in it, and six weeks after I started taking it I tested positive for steroids in a random drug screen (positive meaning that my testosterone levels were above what they should be naturally). So, they definitely work! And that was ten years ago. The chemistry involved in making these boosters has come a long way since then and today‚Äö√Ñ√¥s products are even MORE impressive. So, continue the good work, my friend — and I congratulate you on doing it the RIGHT way!

    • Tom says:

      Thanks Lash! One of these days I hope to meet you and we’ll have to work out together… if I am strong enough to spot you that is.

      I know that hormone replacement therapy is something that is all the rage these days and that kind of thing is available and safe under a doctor’s care. I just worry that once you start replacing your body’s hormone production with artificially introduced hormone (even those that at safe, doctor supervised levels) you shut down your body’s own production. Thus you have to keep using that stuff forever… who knows if your body’s natural production, even at age-depleted levels, can ever return to normal?

      • Lash LeRoux says:

        I will certainly be looking forward to that day, Tom! And I doubt you will have any trouble spotting me. We didn‚Äö√Ñ√¥t put a huge emphasis on heavy weights — the Vince McMahon mantra being, ‚Äö√Ñ√∫I don‚Äö√Ñ√¥t care if you can bench press 500 lbs. or not; I want you to LOOK like you can bench 500 lbs.‚Äö√Ñ√π

        By the way, I love the analytic reasoning you apply to your training. Once again, your thoughts on hormones are spot on. I only used the hormone replacement therapy analogy as proof of how and why the testosterone boosters you use are safe, effective and beneficial. What you pointed out is very true. In fact, some who abuse steroids actually use the side-effect suppression of their natural testosterone levels as an opportunity to get more testosterone legally. Which is why my extremely misguided and unfortunate friend Chris Benoit was able to get prescriptions for testosterone, despite already looking like “He-Man”.

        On the positive side, your natural gains from doing things properly will be much easier to maintain as you get older. While others — well, you‚Äö√Ñ√¥ve probably seen enough retired wrestlers and bodybuilders to know how THEY turn out. ;o)


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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