Hill training Zack Khan, Tenby Dungeon Gym, April 2010 / Kevin Horton
Neil Hill isn’t just one of the world’s best bodybuilding nutritionists and trainers. The longtime coach of Flex Lewis and, previously, William Bonac is also a former pro bodybuilder. And he still walks the walk. I first spent extended time with him in April 2010 in his picturesque hometown—the coastal resort village of Tenby, Wales. There, he trained alongside protégé Zack Khan in the community Dungeon Gym (and it truly earns that hardcore moniker) during Flex magazine photo shoots, and he was matching the hulking Khan set for set, if not always pound for pound.
He was then, as he is now, both gregarious and introspective, warmly welcoming me and photographer Kevin Horton into his home for fish and chips and a Welsh Sunday dinner and yet profoundly serious about all things bodybuilding. I remember both the uproarious laughter of us guys joking and joshing—the yogurt-makers on a nearby island monastery fostered a lot of quips I won’t repeat here—but also Neil’s repeated dungeon command: “Okay, mate, quit fucking about,” whenever it was time to, once again, give everything to another set. I recently spoke with Hill, who now lives in South Florida and who has achieved a level of fame and success as a bodybuilding coach that eludes all but the best bodybuilders.
What makes a good bodybuilding coach?
To be a good coach, you have to be very passionate with what you believe in and what you want your athletes to achieve with their fitness goals. I never planned on being a coach. I started training at 19, and it was kind of just an accident. I didn’t plan on being a bodybuilder. It just happened. And when I was about 22 or 23 and started gaining credibility by placing well at the amateur level, local people started asking for advice. I gave them free advice on the things I believed from my own experiences.
Because of my dyslexia, I find it very difficult to read scientific studies, so I had to listen to my body and what my body was telling me. And when we look at the human body, we know that not everything works for everybody. You have to be open-minded. You have to be in tune with your body to realize what is working and what isn’t working. I think education can be very, very good, but there’s a huge amount of confliction out there, as well, which then leads to confusion. Sometimes, I feel people are following programs, but they don’t understand the methodology for that program. So, I was very in tune with my body, and I was also very rational. And I was never reckless with my choices. There were people who were saying I shouldn’t be drinking milk and I shouldn’t be eating fruit, and it never made sense to me why I couldn’t have those foods. If we look at whey protein, it comes from milk. If we look at vitamins and minerals, fruits are loaded with them. So, I’d figured these things out for myself, and when people were inquisitive about my results, I was keen to pass on that information.
[After winning seven consecutive Olympia 212 titles (2012-18), Flex Lewis is moving up to the open division next year.] How good can Flex be in the open?
The sky is the limit. When me and Flex started working together—it’ll be 17 years next year—I really believed that this young kid could attain anything and everything in the industry. I believed that he could win Olympia titles, and I meant that with passion. I really believed he had that little bit of magic as far as his structure was concerned. But he was a work-in-progress. His physique developed over many, many years. The problem with the 212, it kept us stagnant for a length of time where we were compressed in a weight category which allowed us very little space to make changes, because once you’ve maxed out that weight limit and brought your best level of conditioning, how can you improve on that when you can’t put any more muscle on? So, I think in 2020 people are going to see the beginning of a new chapter—the beginning of Flex going towards fulfilling his genetic potential. I feel right now he’s only reached about 30-40% of his genetic potential. So, I’m excited, and I’m still as passionate today as I was when I met him for the first time over 16 years ago.
You and your longtime client William Bonac had a very public falling out this past July. With time to reflect on this, is there anything more you’d like to say?
Everything that William put up was a lie. I never took 40% of his prize money, ever. I took 20% of his prize money. I also took 20% of his bonus money, but only from the companies that I brought to the table. So, for instance, you’re an athlete, and you say to me “Neil, can you manage me?” Okay, I can manage you. So, this is the deal, any companies that you give me to negotiate I take no commission at all. But the companies that I bring to you, I take 20% of the bonus fees. So, you might have 20 sponsors, and only one of those sponsors is a company that I personally brought to you. I might have negotiated all 21 contracts, but I only take money from that one I that I brought to you.
So, for William, I never touched his monthly payments. I never touched his kickbacks that he might make from discount codes. I only took 20% of the bonuses he might get in relation to his stage places. The other thing is I have a lot of financial expenditure that comes out of my account. So, with William, for the first two years I probably lost $30-50,000 because he wasn’t winning shows, and what he was winning wasn’t anywhere near what it was costing me with my time and my effort. And I also was covering all of my own travel and accommodations and food. When I started working with William six years ago, he was living in a car. He had no money. He had no sponsors. So, the deal I had with William when we first started working together was: I’m not going to charge you a coaching fee. But I’ll take 20% of your prize money and 20% of the bonus money from your sponsors. And his word was, “But I don’t have any sponsors.” And I said, “Leave that to me. I’ll get you sponsors.” I saw potential in this young man, but I also knew it would take a number of years until he was getting recognized and placing high in shows. And it took a couple of years.
We could on and on about the William situation, and maybe we will another time, Greg, because I worked with William for six years and there’s a lot of history, but the bottom line is: I know I applied myself a hundred times over. I gave William my best, and it was for his best benefit. And the subject of William is quite sensitive to me, because, out of all the athletes I worked with, I felt very protective of William because he’s a very sensitive, complex individual who at times behaved irrationally, and I felt that I put a lot of time in helping him grow offstage and well as onstage. Being a great pro onstage is one thing, but you have to be very mindful of how you hold yourself and how you conduct yourself when you’re in the public eye. And I also knew William was quite an irrational, volatile kind of person, so I felt responsible because I know I helped him a lot in controlling his anger issues and his mental health issues, and that was just another side of coaching that I put into William. And then his rant was kind of a true reflection of all of those things that I just mentioned now.
You mentioned mental health. How important is the overall fitness & health of your clients?
It’s crucial. We’re in a sport where we know the use of enhancement is very, very common. And I feel a lot of people abuse themselves in so many different areas. It’s an attachment for them, a kind of security blanket, and they don’t look at the consequences. They feel that more is better. And one thing that’s important to me is making sure my athletes’ blood work and their overall health in general is really, really on par with what they need to be. To the eye, these physiques look healthy, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re healthy inside. When we go into a calorie deficit for months and months and we create those single digit numbers for body fat percentage, the athlete physically looks amazing but inside they tend to be physically and mentally exhausted. And they’re also possibly very, very dehydrated. And those environments of dieting and drying out can definitely impact the human body in a negative way. And I feel a lot of people push the envelope in multiple different areas. They diet harder than they need to. They do more cardio then they need to. They take more enhancements than they need to. They mentally abuse themselves by questioning themselves. So, for me, health in general has to be my number one focus. And if you’re not internally healthy, it’s going to be very difficult for me to get your body into the physical shape it needs to be in on contest day.
How did bodybuilding change your life?
For all my life, I’ve had really bad dyslexia, terrible dyslexia, which gave me a lot of insecurities in certain areas. I’m very confident in some areas and very insecure in others. So, for me, bodybuilding was my avenue for expressing myself and not being held back with being dyslexic. But at the same time, I can remember thinking after my first two years of bodybuilding: Fuck, this is consuming me. All I’m thinking about is bodybuilding. There’s got to be more to life than this. I wanted a little more flexibility. So, what does that mean to me? It means if I don’t want to train for a month, I’m not going to train for a month. If I want to eat different things I like that aren’t necessarily best for bodybuilding, I’m going to eat them. I got married. I met Angie, my ex-wife, and we had children. And I feel I did a really good job of being a balanced athlete. My priority was my wife and our children and providing a really good home for us. And then I had my personal goal of being a bodybuilder. Bodybuilding, after those first two years, became less of an obsession and more of a hobby. I only trained four days a week. I’d get in and out of the gym as quickly as I could. I turned pro in 2002. I probably could’ve turned pro years earlier if I’d applied myself, but, if I applied myself, I feel I would’ve missed out on being a bloody great dad and being a partner, and I liked the balance of what I found in my life.
And when I turned pro, there was no 202 or 212 class, so I knew that in order to be competitive I needed to put another 20 pounds of muscle on my frame. I thought it was possible, but it’d probably take two or three years. I wasn’t willing to go through another two or three years of the kind of training I’d need to do because when I was about 29 my right knee [from a genetic malady] started to get really deteriorated, and I started to get a lot of pain. And I wasn’t willing to bring on more pain with the kind of training I had to do and with carrying around more body weight. The effect on my quality of life was too great. So the only regret I have is that instead of retiring and stopping all training for six years, I wish that I’d continued on without competing but still trained and enjoyed the lifestyle, because a number of years later the 202 came along [now the 212 division] and that would’ve been a perfect place for me. But that being said, a year after I retired is when I met Flex, and I put all my bodybuilding effort and time into him. So maybe if I would’ve continued on training, I would’ve never gone into the coaching side of things, which has been my true passion.