Bodybuilding and Fitness Interview: Clayton South Interviews Lean Body Champion Cliff Caldwell

Bodybuilding and Fitness Interview: Clayton South Interviews Lean Body Champion Cliff Caldwell

In the spirit of the beginning of this year’s Lean Body Challenge, here is an interview conducted by Clayton South where he talks to one of our past Lean Body Champions Cliff Caldwell.  Check out this interview and get inspired.  Also, do not forget to sign up to the Lean Body Challenge today!

Clayton South: It’s my pleasure to be joined today by Cliff Caldwell. Before we get into the specifics, please start off by telling us about yourself – some background. What’s your age and where are you from?

Cliff Caldwell: I’m 53 years old, and I was raised in the Metropolitan area of Atlanta, GA. I am currently the North America Sales Manager Burgers’ Smokehouse. I work for the Burger Family. We manufacture Baby Back ribs, St. Louis ribs, dry and cured bacon and country ham.

CS: Do you make hamburgers?

CC: We sure do!

CS: I wanted to interview you because in looking at your before and after photographs, it’s obvious to me that you’ve put in a tremendous amount of work. Your transformation is remarkable, and anyone can see that just by looking at your photos. What were your stats in the first photo – the before photo – and what are they today?

Cliff Caldwell BeforeCliff Caldwell After

CC: Six years ago I stepped on the scale and it read 255lbs, my body fat was 34% and I said, “that’s it.” I decided to do something – I had to make a change. It was like a bolt of lightening went through me. I literally got off the scale, looked in the mirror in my bathroom and talked to myself to the point of tears. I had let myself go and I just knew that if I continued that course I was probably going to die.

CS: That’s interesting that you mention that because I know in talking with you before the interview you said that you were very athletic when you were younger. How did you get from being athletic when you were younger to being at the point you just talked about – where you literally were brought to tears?

CC:  Fifteen years ago I was actually playing semi-pro baseball in the Atlanta metro area. In 1994 I started traveling for a company I was about 172-175lbs then – and I’m not saying it influenced me – but I was traveling, I was out of my rhythm as I was on the road and I wasn’t eating properly because I was entertaining and was drinking too much. A lot of empty calories and alcohol and entertaining customers was a detriment because at the time in those days entertaining was more prevalent than it is now.

But in the food business now, all companies have reeled in this practice, so while it still happens, it’s not nearly as prevalent as it used to be.

So I just gained about 6 or 8 pounds a year, year after year, and when I went into my home office in Milwaukee, every year I gained weight and they always said I looked better and better.

So, I got to a point to where when I got off that scale and it read 255 I was in bad shape. I am a God-fearing man and I was gaining weight, I had been an athlete my whole life playing semi-pro ball. I was All-State center fielder, AAA for my high school, and I was the fastest man in my county my senior year. I’m 5’10 and I couldn’t carry this weight. There is cancer in both sides of my family and I reached up to God, reached deep into my heart – I reached in deep – and I said, “this is it.”

Later that day I visited Gold’s Gym. Even though I had been an athlete, I was intimidated – it had been a long time. I sat in my car, watching everyone go in, and I felt bad about myself, seeing a lot of people go in with a spring in their step – and I started my car and went home.

As I sat in my carport, I said a prayer, and went back. I went in, signed up, and never looked back.

CS: What you describe is fairly common – you gain a couple of pounds here and there and before you know it you have all this weight that you have to lose. How much did the fact of your own mortality weigh on your mind?

CC: Well, it did. I was just feeling bad!  I was looking at other people around me and when I was in good shape, people respect you by the way that you look. People disrespect you by the way that you look as well. When you look people in the eye and they start looking away, it’s very discouraging when people start treating you differently.  It’s a fact: heavier people are discriminated against.

So after I made my decision, I started studying by reading magazines – a great way to keep your head in the game – and I learned of Labrada products. I went online and was researching nutrition, and was going on the Atkins style diet but did not eat a lot of fatty foods; I was doing lean protein, smart carbs. And sourcing out protein drinks and when I started seeing low sugar and no sugar in some of the Labrada products I said, “this is it!”

CS: Returning for a moment to the moment where you knew you had to do something, after you went and signed up at the gym, when you came home did you do anything dramatic like going with a garbage bag and cleaning out the refrigerator and cupboards? Or was it more like you came to an understanding?

CC: I started the Atkins diet at the same time and so it was all or nothing on a specific day. I’ve never smoked and I stopped drinking. I had a friend pass away a year ago and he finally had made it to the top of his game in the food business.

My friend and his wife got up one morning, and his wife roll out the garbage and when she came back in the house my friend was in the restroom lying dead.

And then I said, “this is not going to happen to me.” And that’s just one example, and there are more. He was 57, about 300lbs, 6’0.

Regarding the junk food in my house, I cleaned everything out.  I cleaned out my cupboards of any white rice, pasta; sugar for sure, bread – all of that was out. I cleaned out my heart and soul, hunkered down and got back into church. I found a great church, which has a full Christian Academy with a football and baseball team, so I was embracing the church, embracing my health and my faith.

As a result, I dropped 50lbs in 6 months to the day! I even went to Hawaii for a business trip and continued to lose weight. So, I was very focused. And, it’s totally validating to see the numbers on the scale decrease, and especially for others to notice it too.

You know, we’re in control – we’re all in total control. It’s not that hard to do. You get on a lean protein, smart carb program; the weight will come off if you kick it up a notch. I’ve even got osteoarthritis – I have arthritis in my knees and in my back, and I wasn’t carrying this weight very well – it was crippling me.  I fought through the pain to get to the point where once I got past 200lbs and started getting into the high 180’s, you couldn’t have stopped me with a freight train!

CS: So as you went further and further it was easier….

CC: Yes. My first goal was to lose the first pound, my second goal was to break 200lbs, but my ultimate goal was to get to 185lbs. I have at chart on my wall. I broke 200lbs on September 29, 2005. On October 2nd I was 199lbs.  As a result, my life has changed. Now that I am 175lbs with 8% body fat, really cut and strong and feeling great, I take that with me everywhere I go.

Speaking of the term “leading by example”, especially at 53 years old. Because I realized that when you get into your 40’s and 50’s there are very few people who are staying on top of their game, and I was just so blessed to be able to obtain the energy, the strength and the willpower to achieve what I did at my age, and not let injuries side-track me.

Over the years in the gym, I’ve had aches and pains. I’ve had torn tendons and shoulder problems but you have to be smart – I have a good orthopedic surgeon, he’s helps me – and I just listen to and take advantage of the health professionals around me so I would make sure to minimize the injury.

CS: Let’s talk about that for a second, and then we’ll get back to supplements. You mentioned that when you were younger you were very athletic and involved in a lot of different sports, and when you’re older, what do you find are some of the differences in your training? What are things that you have to be careful of now that you didn’t when you were younger?

CC:  That’s easy: my tendons. At this point my muscles are much stronger than my tendons. Tendons are not very forgiving when you tear them, and it depends on the severity. I can bench press 315lbs, but I don’t all the time, usually opting for 275lbs three or four times. I work out on a constant basis with 225lbs. I do this 15 times, 12 times and then 8 times. And that’s enough – it keeps you good and cut.

As far as the pull exercises in the gym, the seated row, the lat pull-down, the biceps curls, I highly recommend anyone who is getting a little older to be very careful on the pulls, for the inside of your elbow on those tendons.

CS: It sounds like you’re a lot more goal oriented – like you’re training with a purpose now, keeping the variables of training in mind, whereas when you’re young it’s easy to lift heavy just for the sake of lifting heavy.

CC: There’s no question. I work out with 20-25 year olds on a consistent basis and I’m equal to, or stronger, than most of them.  They call me “Daddy Cliff”; it’s a lot of fun because I don’t really consider myself 53 years old. When I get in there, I am “them” – the age is not even a factor. Probably the greatest thing to come from all of this, and it’s an intangible that I wasn’t counting on, was I do a full body circuit training, I do 20 minutes of cardio, 5 different ab exercises to strengthen my core, I do that very quickly, and then I’ll do my circuit which consists of ten different exercises, and it goes alternating style, push, pull, push, pull exercises.  I hit every major muscle group in my body, going through it twelve repetitions the first time through, preparing you for your next 12 reps – the max you can do – each one of those exercise. The third time through, when I start slowing down, I go back to my original warm-up weight and burn it out as far as I can go, and then I go home.

The days in between this schedule, I do 45 minutes of cardio either at my local high school, or in the gym on the elliptical

CS: It sounds like a pyramiding program where, because of the program, you could increase your weights every week if you wanted to, but you’re happy where you are….

CC: Exactly. The longer you do the circuit; the pin starts dropping down the stack of weights. I was 185, then 200, and then 205, 215 and now I’m doing 240lbs 14 times the second time through.

CS: That’s a great way to train, step-loading your approach and then going back, so your body has a chance to push its outer limits….

CC: When you’re hitting muscle groups from both sides, for example with the triceps and biceps. You’re tightening muscles on both sides of that bone, so you’re really rounding things out nice and hard.  I’ve probably trained 50 people so far, and when I trained I want to be clear that I’m not an official trainer, but I’ve found something that works for me, people have identified it as working for me, and they’ve approached me in the gym. From there, it’s word of mouth – I don’t charge a cent – and they work out with me. It’s my way of giving back to God!

CS: Would you say that your training regimen is optimized for cardiovascular conditioning? It sounds like it is, which would be great for weight loss. You said that with your all-body training program you don’t rest much between sets, which would further increase your oxygen use and fat burning…

CC: Once I get 20 minutes on the elliptical my heart rate and metabolism gets revved up, I get my muscles moving, keeping it up through my whole workout, essentially doing cardio for the whole workout of an hour or an hour and a half.  I keep that heart rate up so that my workouts are fat burners, muscle toners and calorie burners. It works out beautifully.

CS: Let’s turn now to supplements. Earlier you mentioned that you had started reading health magazines. What supplements did you try early on, including things like alternatives and herbals? Give us an idea of what you started with….

CC: I started using Nitro-Tech protein shakes from GNC. As I got wiser, I realized that the GNC brand was just as good, because I looked at the base ingredients, and it was a lot less expensive. I also take 2000mg flaxseed pills, 2000mg fish oil capsules, saw palmetto, COQ10, a multivitamin, and since I have arthritis, I take glucosamine and chondroitin. That’s what I take every day. Occasionally, I will try protein bars, but not often. They’re not candy and I don’t eat them for candy. It doesn’t matter to me how they taste really, but the Lean Body MRP is delicious. I looked on the back, looked at the ingredients of it. Mr. Labrada and the food scientists that he works with, they’ve developed a really great product line. In fact, I’d say Lean Body Products are the smartest nutritional products to use if anyone wants to maximize their health and minimize their carbs and a good source of protein.

CS: Most of them are zero sugar – everything ranging from the RTD’s to the Charge Supershot energy drinks and they taste good…

CC: It wouldn’t even really have to taste that great for me, really. But, the fact that it does is just a plus in my case, because when you’re sacrificing to get yourself into shape it’s tough. I’ve eaten very well for quite a long time, and I don’t approach my meals as if every one is the last one. I eat to live, versus living to eat.

CS: You’ve obviously put in a lot of hard work to get to where you are now, and you have a great perspective, having arrived at the end of the journey you started. Looking back, if you could say to the person that you used to be – if you could educate that person about the challenges that you were going to face, what would you tell yourself back then to watch out for? To take pride in? And especially important, what would you tell yourself then to cling to when things get really tough?

CC: If you’re spiritual, that is your greatest advantage. We do have a higher power in this world, and there is strength and that’s a great advantage.

Obviously you want to minimize your calories. The reason that you lose weight is because you’re burning more calories in a day than you consume.  And, that’s the reason the lean protein program works: it helps to stabilize your blood sugar and doesn’t spike your insulin and cause your pancreas to overload and work too hard. As a result, you don’t get that hungry. That’s the trick to Atkins – it keeps you away from eating.

That’s what I would tell other people – it takes you a while to get here, and it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Stay focused, stay consistent. If you miss a day for some reason – maybe you didn’t walk or you didn’t get into the gym – because the circuit is three times per week, if you walk three times per week and take a day off if you want to – just know that you’re doing it for your family, you’re doing it for yourself, you’re doing it for your quality of life and to let yourself go, it’s really a disgrace to God because you’re not honoring God.

CS: Not to get sidetracked, but I think you bring up a good point, especially for our Christian readers and listeners. As you know, the Christian Bible says that the body is the temple for the Holy Spirit. And, also from the bible we know that Jesus is described as walking everywhere he went for general transportation and for various religious observances, Sabbaths, etc – he was a physically active guy, who they estimate walked over 1000 miles per year. The Christian Bible also says that Christians are to be Christ-like – and this extends into the physical realm. So if that’s the worldview you believe in, it’s kind of incumbent upon you to take care of yourself…

CC: I agree 1000%. And, you know, when you’re watching TV at night the greatest thing in the World is the remote control, because as soon as you turn it on, you see the advertisements for hamburger restaurants, pizza restaurants, and commercials for other horrible foods. I just click it – I change it as soon as it comes on, because once it gets into your psyche, its there. The good news is that from being consistent, I don’t even see those commercials anymore.

CS: So is that one thing that you would say to the person you were – when you started – when you would tell him what he would face, would you tell him to shut off the TV? To focus on the small things every day? The big things? What would you say?

CC: Take baby steps. Focus on nutrition. Read. Get on the internet, and get magazines. All of these things feed your spirit and get you into the game. Constantly feed your mind with health information so that you’re not focused on food and drink and things of this nature. Focus on the positives of life, the fruits of life, and know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Hang in there. The reward is incredible once you start knocking off the weight and start getting toned.

I was talking to this young woman who I do business with a year and a half ago, I called her and was speaking with her. She is very wealthy, she’s 35 years old, her father owned the company, and her father was the one who passed away. And he left her with the business. She was not in the best shape herself, when I was talking to her she was crying, telling me that she didn’t know what to do to get into better shape, so I asked her to trust me. When she got on my circuit-training program she was 5’2 and very overweight which she wasn’t carrying well.  During the next year she lost 78lbs and today she looks absolutely incredible.

Another point I wanted to make: as you get older you want to have the opportunity to give back to this world – you see your mortality. The rewards are not financial or monetary – the rewards are being able to help other people.  The opportunity to give back and help others with their quality of life – to put them on a wellness program, it is a tremendous blessing.

I’ve basically become a “go-to” guy for people to come to for advice, and I didn’t mean for it to happen.  There are muscle heads in the gym that see me and they eventually come over and say, “Cliff, I’d sure like to do what you did – get my stomach down. I’m over there pumping all kinds of weights but I just can’t get my stomach down. What should I do?”  So I tell them, “forget about the heavy weights for a while, change it up, and lets see what we can do.”

CS: You mentioned before that you train your core. A fitness legend Bob Delmontegue believed strongly in core strength. He always identified his core training as the most important. Would you agree with that sentiment? And, is there one body part for you that’s more important than all others?

CC: There’s no question that I agree with the idea that the core is the most important aspect of being in shape. The stronger your core is, the stronger your body is. Your core is your support system for your bench press, your shoulders, your back, it stabilizes your hips and legs – your core is critically important.

I used to have a 44inch waist and it’s now a 32 – that’s 12 inches. I lost a foot in my waist!

CS: In terms of the core, do you find that a lot of younger trainers simply don’t know how to bring in their waist? Do you get a lot of questions about that? I ask because you can see at contests that there are a lot of competitors – some even top-level – who simply can’t reign in their stomachs very well…

CC: For core training, my favorite is the Roman Chair. I do a lot of knee lifts, oblique crunches, using an 8lb medicine ball behind my ear. I do 25 crunches each way, and then I move on to back extensions. I hold a 25lb weight for this movement. Then, for reverse crunches I use an incline board, doing 50 repetitions, and then move immediately into 50 incline crunches.

The great thing about this routine is that it works the whole core – the upper abs, lower abs and obliques.  And I always make sure to do my abdominal training before my workout because after my workout I am ready to get out of there!

My ab program only takes 15 minutes, because I keep moving and keep up the intensity.

CS: There are a lot of people listening and reading right now who are perhaps in need of a change – a step in the right direction. They’re maybe in the same spot you used to be in before you made a change.  Some of them might not be aware that they need to change, but some are aware that they have to change – and that they alone are the ones who must make change real.  So, here’s my question: thinking back, knowing what you faced, and knowing what they will face as they change their lives like you’ve changed yours, what is the single most important thing that they could do to take back their health and get the body they’ve always wanted?

CC: Great question. The most important thing I would say without a doubt is having faith and belief in yourself. Have faith in the Lord or a higher power, and have confidence in yourself and your ability to overcome.  And trust your ability to use tools to help like the internet – the tools we have today are just incredible, and they make it that much easier to succeed.

I’d even go one step further and say this: if you’re serious about getting into shape, stop drinking alcohol – it makes you lazy, and it does the exact opposite of what you’re looking for. You’re looking for motivation not relaxation and motivation is what you need. People don’t drink and then go to the gym. You never say, “I’m going have a couple of beers and then I’m going to the gym.” No – it just doesn’t work that way! So, when 5pm rolls around and you’re coming home from work for an afternoon cocktail, just keep on driving and stay away from it.

You simply have to get into the gym.

Now, if you want to have something later, you can. But once you start seeing results and your weight starts dropping, things take care of themselves. You simply don’t want to put those empty calories in your body – they don’t feel so good anymore.

CS: Your life has changed. Let’s talk about three areas. First, your work life, personally and then your social relationships. How has your life changed just for you only on a personal level?

CC:  When I wake up in the morning and I step out of bed, I feel like I have wings. I used to get up and it hurt and I lumbered to the restroom. No more. I get up now and it feels like I have springs on my feet.

I’m not married, but I do have a girlfriend and other people look at me in such a more respectful way and I don’t even really have to say anything to anybody about it, but I just look through life like I am now looking into a completely different world.

For being 53 years old, I see a lot of guys my age who look 63 or 65, and I feel like I’m 25.

When I went for the interview, which was for a national position – quite a substantial job – Mr. Burger, the father, asked me as one of his first questions “where do you work out?” And I asked him “why do you think I work out?” to which he replied, “it’s pretty obvious.”

CS: This is a great point, and illustrative. For older folks who own their own companies, back in the day when they were young, if you saw someone who was overweight, they thought you were lazy! And so naturally this wouldn’t reflect well on you.

CC:  Exactly – there’s no doubt about it. It has helped me tremendously in my business life. For me being 50 years old when I interviewed with them, they had to think about a lot of questions. Questions like: do I want to hire someone in there 30’s? 40’s?

I think that if I wasn’t in super-premium shape, I don’t think they would have believed that I was up to the task.

CS: Great point. Being active improves your job performance overall – makes you more alert, stronger, better at making clear decisions, less likely to file health claims on company paid insurance, and it makes you a better sales person. It’s called the “what’s beautiful is good” phenomenon in psychology where we tend to assume before meeting people that if they’re good looking or in good shape, that they’re a better conversationalist, more intelligent, more honest, more capable, etc. So the list of benefits for the company to hire a physically fit person go on and on…

CC: It’s a total win-win situation.

CS: Everything has gone amazingly well from the start and up to where you are now. So my final question is: what does the future look like for you? You mentioned that you’re helping people now. Do you plan to carry that on or do something else? Will you write about your experiences? Enlighten us on your future plans…

CC:  I’ve been told that I should document my experience and write a book about it. If I were to write a book it would be an inspirational book by a regular guy and the challenges that I went through. I’ll have to explore this idea more fully in the future.

Once I decide to stop globetrotting, I think in the future it would be nice to zero in on working with health products and helping people more in the health field – and this would help keep me motivated. Helping people is that “carrot” that gets me going and keeps me motivated.

It’s satisfying because I’ve earned the respect of people around the country. As far as the future, I think that my new way of life is going to carry me through the rest of my life. And, I’ll continue to use Labrada products because I really do feel that they give me the competitive edge I need at my age to continue to accomplish my goals in life.

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One Response for Bodybuilding and Fitness Interview: Clayton South Interviews Lean Body Champion Cliff Caldwell

  1. Karen Fendrick


    September 3, 2009 11:02 pm

    Wow! Cliff is inspiring and a great roll model!