Dos Equis commercials peddle their fictional man-of-many-feats as the "most interesting man in the world," but my old friend Stu Yellin can give that old beer drinker a run for his money. I met Stu when we were 5; we spent much of the next decade getting each other in trouble in school, usually when one of us tried to make the other laugh in class by drawing pictures like Spider-Man beating up the teacher (an actual example of a drawing Stu showed me in 12th grade). My art skills never grew past middling (though I did just draw a decent Groot for my kids), but Stu became a major TV cartoonist, drawing the Colbert- and Carrell-voiced "Ace + Gary, The Ambiguously Gay Duo" for SNL, The Tick, and Lizzie McGuire. He then became an art teacher -- before becoming a pro bodybuilder too. He got a very late start, competing only as of his early/mid-30s, yet won Pro Cards in various drug-tested federations (most notably the WNBF, the strictest one on substance abuse), and won first place as a middleweight in several "natural bodybuilding" competitions with tough drug testing. He recently needed surgery for a shoulder injury; he now mainly trains bodybuilders from his home base in Queens. Based on this unique set of expertise and experience, and the fact that he's a very smart guy, I realized Stu was the perfect expert to answer my questions about Alex Rodriguez's prospects for remaining a high-level athlete after (a) going off steroids, (b) major injury, (c) a long layoff, and (d) nearing 40. Scott: Baseball has been cracking down on steroids for years, but part of the question about how someone like A-Rod will do without the stuff depends on this: In your expert opinion, as a champion athlete and trainer of athletes in a field known to have some steroid use, how much do steroids actually help improve performance? Does it depend on the task, like weightlifting versus hitting a baseball? Do you think they improve workout/injury recovery time for mid-late 30s athletes like some claim?
Stu: I think that in any sport or athletic endeavor, it's obviously more than just taking some PEDs that makes a champion. Still, it's foolish and naive to think that they don't have a benefit or else while would their use be so widespread in the first place? For an athlete who had always relied on such a tool, certainly its absence should have some visible effect. For older athletes, who first turned to such products later into their careers, I would expect much less of a loss of performance. This is of course assuming that the individual in question wouldn't suffer the negative effects of aging more than others regardless of PEDs or not. The benefits on recovery are pretty well documented, and for someone hanging on to their athletic career, suddenly losing that edge can be a huge blow. While hitting a baseball unquestionably require more coordination and skill than simply hoisting a weighted barbell, the added muscle mass will always make a difference.
Scott: Great points. Some of this depends on A-Rod in particular, and despite all his negatives (ego, backbiting, lying, cheating...), he's a notoriously hard worker who's incredibly passionate and knowledgeable about baseball. So when I read reports that he used his suspension off-year to get into the "best shape of his life," despite my skepticism I do believe he's likely working very hard. But is it even possible, without steroids, to be in the "best shape of your life" at age 39, when it's harder to build and keep muscle mass, avoid injury, or recover quickly enough to meet the rigors of daily baseball?
Stu: This is a point that has been discussed in regard to athletes who used steroids early on, and for whatever reason, later decide to abandon them while continuing to compete. Any high level athlete learns the necessary discipline and drive needed to excel. It's not the drugs that magically instill that knowledge. Still, there have been studies pointing to a carry over effect from years of use, even well down the line. Even for athletes who never make use of PEDs, you always hear about the benefits of "muscle memory" when coming back after a layoff. What this means is that when first building muscle, changing are made at the cellular level where the result is muscle tissues containing multiple nuclei. This situation remains despite a layoff, and when the muscles are again called into plan years later, the extra nuclei provide a benefit in terms of increased protein synthesis. This is true of the human body even without steroids! So the possibility of such a high level athlete performing at a similar level wouldn't be unheard of. Could he come back at his previous best? That's the real question I suppose.
Scott: That makes sense, and just as you're saying, lots of players have kept going at a high level after the 'roids, but A-Rod has another hurdle: major surgery and time off as he neared 40 -- a combo that not many players have had, but that you actually had, right? A-Rod had early 2013 hip surgery, then came back by late summer at age 38 to play pretty well, then was suspended the whole 2014 season, through age 39. What's the effect of time off soon after a major surgery recovery at that age? Is it more likely a net plus, letting him train carefully while letting him avoid injury from, say, on-field diving or playing while sore? Or more likely a net minus, because even if you train hard, it's hard to recover world-class athletic ability after that much time off from real competition as you're nearing 40?
Stu: Surgeries definitely have more of a lasting effect on an aging athlete. There's just no way to argue around it. Hormone levels start declining, general recovery abilities aren't whet they once were, it's inevitable. I had a pretty major surgery myself 2 years ago (age 38) and it changed the game for me no question. I like to think that I handle controllable variables better than other competitors (nutrition, sleep, training protocols), but when we're talking about structural issues here, you can only overcome so much. Couple that with time away from the game, and there is certainly a greater chance to lose the footing you once had. As a competitor you always have to remember what your competition is doing. A-rod had surgery and time away from the game. His opponents didn't. On paper, it's hard to ignore the possibility of his losing ground.
Scott: Ok, so this definitely confirms the hunches of non-athletes/non-experts like me (and most writers who don't consult someone like you) that it's a tough road back for A-Rod. Just for this question, now, ignore that A-Rod is a ballplayer rather than a bodybuilder or another kind of athlete. Let's say you get hired by a world-class athlete with this "ask": "Hi Stu, I had major surgery at 37, went back to athletics at 38 for a few months, but then had to sit out a year due to suspension. I want to kill it this season that I'll be hitting 40 midway through. What advice do you have for me to get back into top form, and what difficulties might I expect to hit – lesser muscle mass? worse recovery time? needing a different training regimen? needing to change my calorie or protein intake? something else?"
Stu: In addressing any surgery, you first always need to assess what's off the table so to speak. Structural weaknesses or imbalances have to be addressed intelligently, but also carefully. The last thing you need is a reoccurrence of the same injury. With training, the older athlete simply cannot handle the same volume of work that a younger one can. That means getting more out of doing less. Fortunately the older guys are usually more mentally driven, and understanding of their situations. Nutrition wise, things have come pretty far the last generation. Not that we've magically discovered any new nutrients that turn everyone into world class stars, merely that the importance of serious commitment to a nutrition plan can really separate the top tier performers from the lower groups. The willingness to not only give your all with the training, but also eating, sleeping, stress management, anything that would allow even the slightest benefit, that's what the older athlete has to be willing to do.
Scott: Interesting; sounds like A-Rod's drive and work ethic may have to be tempered by caution too. Aside from this expertise, you're also the best artist I know, so I have to ask: Today, if you were trying to get me in trouble during class by drawing someone beating up the teacher, would it still be an old standby like Spider-Man, or would you try a newer character like Groot, Maleficent, or Mockingjay? Do you still do any art, or have teaching, bodybuilding, training, and new fatherhood made art take a backseat?
Stu: Lol, I try to stay current. Rocket Raccoon has been a favorite lately! I'm teaching art, photoshop and animation. The bodybuilding thing totally came out of left field. I learned so much about nutrition just because I thought it was interesting. Never really planned on people seeking me out as a nutrition coach. Still getting used to fatherhood, but I'm sure there will be plenty of drawing, action figures and comic books in my future?
Scott: Oh yeah, my kids have demanded that I draw not only Groot, but dinosaurs, Wonder Woman, the Hulk, and various others I drew much less successfully. For you, that'll be the easiest part of parenting young kids! Thanks again, Stu!
Stu: Glad I could help out!