Friday, June 28, 2013

Gamma Labs Weekend Sale

Burn Fat Without Cardio?

When most people commit to weight loss they rush to the gym and start grinding out hours of cardio. Find out just how much of a role cardio plays in the fat loss process.
I am going to ask you a question, and without thinking I want you to blurt out the first answer that comes to mind. Ready? Here's the question:
How much cardio do you need for fat loss?
Many of you probably said a lot! A good portion of you were probably a bit more specific, and said something like: 25-30 minutes, 3-5 cardio sessions per week.
Which answer is correct? Neither of them. You don't "need" cardio for fat loss. Let's get into why.

What is Cardio?

Cardio, as viewed by those of us trying to lose weight, is a light to moderate form of exercise that can be performed for an extended period of time without stopping. The goal of cardio is simple: keep moving so you burn as many calories as possible.
Cardio is also generally performed to improve our cardiovascular health. But since this article is addressing a specific question (how much cardio is NEEDED for fat loss), I will stick to that topic. Whether cardio does, or doesn't improve health is beside the point.
There are 2 major forms of cardiovascular exercise:
  • HIIT - High Intensity Interval Training. Involves alternating before short periods of very intense movement, such as 15 seconds of sprinting, and longer periods of low intense cardio such as walking.
  • LIT - Low Intensity Training (also called Steady State). This is the typical form of cardio performed by gym rats and cardio bunnies. It involves long, boring sessions on a treadmill or Stairmaster.
HIIT is generally considered a more efficient form of cardio, meaning you can burn more calories in a shorter period of time. HIIT is also more engaging, or fun. Despite these benefits, HIIT cardio is also more difficult. It is more explosive, harder on the joints, and certainly not as easy for heavier or older folks.
With this in mind, we will look at low intensity cardio, and how many calories it can burn per session.
Cardio Fat LossCalories Burned During LIT - Low Intensity Cardio
Based on a 220 pound individual performing 30 minutes of cardio.
  • Hiking - 325 calories
  • Stairmaster - 325 calories
  • Swimming - 325 calories
  • Walking - 151 calories
Let's say you are determined to perform 4 treadmill sessions per week at 30 minutes per session. This equates to about 600 calories burned per week.
Over the course of a year's time, you till have burned off a total of 30,000 calories (allowing for a few missed workouts). How much fat did this burn off? What was the reward for your hard work?
You lost 8.5 pounds of fat. You lost 8.5 pounds of fat as a result of your 100 hours of treadmill time.
What is the point in walking you through these numbers? To show you that cardio, while good for overall health, is generally not an efficient method of burning fat.
If your goal is to lose 40-75 pounds of fat, you can live on a treadmill and still barely put a dent into those numbers. This brings us to the point of this article: you don't "need" cardio to lose fat, you need to nail down your diet.

Diet and Fat Loss

A good eating plan will melt fat off your body. The only requirement - precision, monitoring your calorie intake, and making adjustments when needed.
Remember the question we asked at the beginning of this article? Most people, when they find the motivation to lose weight, think  of cardio first. They hit the gym and immediately start grinding out hours upon hours on the treadmill.
Diet is what they should be thinking about. 
Cardio without a wise eating plan is a disaster waiting to happen. If your eating goes unmonitored, cardio is likely to increase your appetite and maybe even cause you to not lose any fat at all.
Remember the old saying....working up an appetite? It's very appropriate here. If you have no idea how many calories you are taking in each day, it's very easy to slip in an extra 200-400.
By setting up a quality eating plan you can easily reach your fat loss goals in a year. More than this, you are assured of reaching your goals. Guaranteed! (If you follow the plan, that is) You can't get this guarantee from cardio, unless you live in the gym for 8 hours per day.
An eating plan can be structured to fit your needs. It can be set up to help you lose anywhere from 5 to 25 pounds of fat per month. Even if you're hammering out the miles on a treadmill, your eating plan is still doing anywhere from 80 to 95% of the fat loss work.
This is why you don't "need" to do any cardio each week to lose fat. While cardio is great for overall health, it will never be as powerful as a quality eating plan.

Setting Up An Eating Plan

So now that we've talked about setting up a "quality" eating plan, let's look at how to do so.
The first thing you need to do is estimate a daily amount of calories that allows you to maintain your weight. I recommend checking out the article: How To Determine Your Daily Calorie And Macronutrient Intake Levels. Equipped with this number, it's time to proceed and dial in your daily calories so they are in line with your weight loss goals.
It should be known that most body composition experts recommend you lose weight no faster than 1.5 to 2 pounds per week. This rate helps you to maximize muscle retention while losing fat. Simply stated, it helps you to lose mostly fat while holding on to as much muscle mass as possible.
Fat Loss
First 2 Weeks
Subtract 300 calories from your daily maintenance level and eat this amount for 2 straight weeks. This will help you establish a baseline, or what exactly the scale is doing in response to this amount of food.
You will want to weight yourself first thing in the morning (after urination) each day during this 2 week period. Write down these numbers so you have concrete data to work with.
Weight loss during the first week is typically rapid. Ignore the weight lost during these 7 days, as most of it is water. When you begin a diet you are typically eating fewer daily carbs and less sodium. Because of this your body will flush  some excess water it has been carrying around in cells and in your blood stream.
The second week is the important week. If you lost more than 2 pounds per week during this period, pull back your calories by 200-300 per day and monitor your weight loss over the course of another 2 week period. If you did not lose any weight at all, drop your calories by 200-300 per day and monitor over the course of the coming 2 weeks. If you gained weight, drop your calorie intake by 500 per day and monitor your weight during the coming 2 weeks.
Aggressive Weight Loss
If you are after more aggressive weight loss, due to severe obesity or other health related issues, then you may want to pull back your calories so that you are losing 3 to 5 pounds per week.
Some fitness professionals will warn you against rapid weight loss plans, while others see then as the best route health-wise to go. It is beyond the bounds of this article to explore the pros and cons of slightly more aggressive weight loss plans.
Do your own research and talk to your doctor. Understand the pros and cons that come with both a conservative and aggressive weight loss protocol.
Avoid starvation diets. While losing weight a little more rapidly than normal is generally ok, you still want to monitor the scale and your calorie intake so that you are not guessing. Dial in your calories until you reach a consistent and comfortable rate of weight loss.
How to use Cardio and Diet To Lose Fat
CardioHow that we have your eating plan set up, let's consider cardio.
An eating plan set up to maximize body composition - retaining muscle mass while losing fat - will result in a loss of about 75 to 100 pounds of fat per year. A more aggressive eating plan could potentially result in a weight loss of 150 pounds or more per year.
While the weight loss resulting from cardio is minimal compared to these numbers, and while cardio is not necessarily needed to lose fat, it can play a beneficial role in the fat loss process when you reach plateaus and sticking points. Here is how I recommend using cardio during the fat loss process.
First, Use Cardio For Health
When you first begin the fat loss process, don't obsess over cardio. Think of it as something that can improve your overall health, but not as a requirement to lose fat.
Don't rush into the gym and live on the Stairmaster or treadmill. This is a great way to zap your motivation.
Instead, spend the first 4 to 6 weeks of your weight loss program dialing in your diet. You can slowly add in cardio during this time - for health. Don't overdo it. Allow your body to acclimate to the demands of this additional form of exercise.
Here is a 6 week treadmill plan that eases you into a solid amount of (health beneficial) cardio.
  • Week 1 - 2 sessions per week, 10-15 minutes per session.
  • Week 2 - 2-3 sessions per week, 15-20 minutes per session.
  • Week 3 - 3 sessions per week, 15-20 minutes per session.
  • Week 4 - 3 sessions per week, 20-25 minutes per session.
  • Week 5 - 3-4 sessions per week, 20-25 minutes per session.
  • Week 6 - 3-4 sessions per week, 20-30 minutes per session.
This should be all the cardio you ever need. With that said, weight loss plateaus can happen, especially during extended cutting periods.
When a stall does occur, instead of lowering your calories any further, try making a small adjustment to your weekly cardio. Add 10 minutes of treadmill time per week, and see if this little bump helps. If not add another small bump. If this does not help, then you may need to drop your calories by another 200 per day.
Do not panic and rush to drop your calories or increase cardio. Sometimes we just have a bad week. If you hit a 2 week skid without weight loss, then it may be time to make these minor changes.

Final Thoughts on Cardio

Cardio. Great for health, not needed for fat loss.
I know many of you will think this is hyperbole, but I know quite a few bodybuilders and athletes who don't use cardio while trying to lose fat/weight. You can include me in this list.
I've been involved with fitness and lifting for nearly 30 years. During this time I've been a runner, powerlifterand have lifted to pure muscle size.
I prefer to do the minimum amount of cardio necessary when shedding the fat. The main reason is that cardio tends to spike my hunger. I prefer to minimize the drive to eat in any way possible.
Bottom line...if you want to lose weight, don't rush out and live on the treadmill. Relax, take some time to set up an intelligent eating plan, and slowly ease into cardio.
The fat loss will come.

Win a Signed Ball By Whitney Marcilus

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Is Overtraining a Crime?

I'm considering a program that would have me working legs three times each week. It seems like a great way to get more muscular, but will it put me at risk of overtraining?
Muscular hypertrophy, or muscle growth, is at the heart of the sport of bodybuilding. But it's not just for the mass monsters; the vast majority of people who start training want to build somemuscle, even if they'd never dream of calling themselves a "bodybuilder." However, many fear that the high volume in hypertrophy-focused programs will inevitably put them on a slippery slope to "overtraining," a condition which will end up causing them to lose muscle.
So the real question is: What does it really take to push someone over the edge? The answer is, "Probably more than you think."
First, let's clarify that there is a difference between "overreaching" and "overtraining." Overreaching is a short-term decline in performance that can be recovered from in several days. Overtraining occurs when it takes weeks or months to recover. This is actually an extremely rare occurrence—as long as nutrition and supplementation are adequate.
Further, unlike overtraining, which is negative, overreaching can actually be beneficial in a well-structured training split. Let's take a look at the recent research and see how to make volume work for you.

Frequency and Volume Are Not Your Enemies ///
The two most prominently discussed causes of overtraining are training frequency and volume.1One of the old school myths of bodybuilding is that training any body part more than once or twice per week will result in "going catabolic." However, there's plenty of research that shows the opposite.
In one recent example, researchers in Norway took elite strength athletes who were training squats, deadlifts, and bench press three times per week and turned up the training frequency tosix times per week.2 I'm sure many of your overtraining alarms are going off, but the researchers actually found that their subjects' strength and hypertrophy skyrocketed! This isn't totally unexpected. In fact, many elite athletes, such as the legendary Bulgarian national teams, have been training 3-4 times per day for decades.3
Frequency is important because training increases protein synthesis, but in well-trained athletes, this response lasts only 16-24 hours.4 Thus, if you blast each body part only once per week, you only really boost protein synthesis for a day afterward. If you have specific goals for, say, your arms, legs, or glutes, why would you stop there? Why not allow for growth three times per week or more?
The next issue is volume, which refers to the number of sets performed during training. There are two schools of thought about how volume affects hypertrophy. The first is that all the body really needs is one hard set, as long as it is performed to failure. The second calls for a higher-volume, multiple-set approach. Recently some researchers at the University of Sydney in Australia studied volume in a bodybuilding population with this debate in mind.5 They followed three groups who performed 3, 12, or 24 sets of squats per week. Their conclusion: the higher the number of sets, the greater the gains.

How to Safely Overreach ///
So how do you make this work for you? I recommend that you start by manipulating training frequency before volume. Let's say you presently train 18 sets for legs each Monday. You can start by increasing frequency to three 6-set workouts per week. This would result in greater overall protein synthesis.
Once you have adapted to training more frequently, each session can be increased in volume. For example, you might perform one high-volume 16-set workout, one heavy 6-set workout, and one moderate 12-set workout. Finally, when social and psychological stresses are low and it's easy to plan your life around training, incorporate a purposeful overreaching cycle.
To do this, you would combine high volume with inadequate rest, with the intent of "summating" your workouts collectively into one giant training stimulus. For example, if your legs are lagging, you might train them for five consecutive days. The following week, you would return to normal training frequencies but lower the number of sets by about 40 percent to allow your body to recover. This is known as a "taper" and usually lasts for 1-2 weeks.
It's important to understand that this should only be done with proper supplementation and protein intake. The lab where I work recently did a study where we had bodybuilders lift nearly 200,000 pounds in a week. When these athletes supplemented with anti-catabolic agents such as HMB, their gains skyrocketed after tapering. When not supplementing, they actually declined in strength and didn't fully recover following the taper. The takeaway is that high-frequency high-volume training is a tool that works best alongside proper nutrition, supplementation, and rest.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Top 10 Steak Cuts

Most people go to a butcher, supermarket, or an online store to scour seemingly endless steak options. To make sure that a good quality steak lands on your dinner plate, you need to beef up your knowledge of steak cuts.
The grade of the steak speaks mainly to the quality of the meat based on both marbling and age. The second factor is the cut. The right cut of steak can make or break your barbecue. Different cuts have different qualities. These 10 steak cuts will whet your appetite and leave your carnivorous bicuspids clamoring for more.
Porterhouse ///
This particular steak is considered the "king" of steaks mainly because it's actually two steaks in one. On one side you have a New York strip, and on the other is a rather large filet mignon. Theporterhouse is a thicker cut and has much more of the tenderloin relative to the loin portion. It comes best when grilled, but can also be sautéed, broiled, or pan-fried.
T-Bone ///
This steak is named after its T-shaped bone. It's similar in appearance to the porterhouse, yet with a smaller portion of the filet mignon side. T-bone steaks are cut closer to the front, and contain a smaller section of tenderloin. They are best grilled or broiled to medium rare temperature; the meat near the bone tends to cook more slowly than other parts of the steak.
Top Sirloin ///
This is a relatively lean cut of steak. Top sirloin differs from sirloin steaks in that the bone and the tenderloin and bottom round muscles have been removed. It is often marinated to tenderize it. It's a good choice for cutting into cubes, and skewering with vegetables for grilling. Kabob!
Tri-Tip ///
Often labeled "Santa Maria steak," this cut is most popular in the Central Coast of California and Central Valley regions of California. It has begun to enjoy increasing favor elsewhere for its full flavor, lower fat content, and comparatively lower cost. The tri-tip is flavorful because of excellent marbling and is tender as long as you don't overcook it. It is best marinated and then grilled.
Flank ///
This remains one of the most popular cuts of beef. It has a lot of connective tissue, which in turn gives it great flavor, but makes it less tender. This steak is usually marinated before being broiled or grilled. Flank steak is always served cut across the grain in thin slices.
New York Strip ///
This is a staple and classic at any good steakhouse. It has an excellent amount of marbling, is tender and full-flavored. Many people prefer this cut cooked rare, or blue, showcasing the delicate flavor and naturally tender texture. Internationally it is called a "club" steak. In the United States and Canada it is known as New York strip, strip loin, shell steak, or Kansas City strip steak. The New York strip steak is ideal for grilling.
Filet Mignon ///
This is the most tender cut off the cow. It's not the most flavorful steak since it does not have a bone attached, but it can be wrapped in bacon or served with your favorite sauces and spices. In France this cut is called filet de boeuf, which translates to beef filet. It can be broiled or grilled, but remember to cook this cut quickly to seal in all the goodness.
Rib-Eye ///
The rib-eye has long been a favorite of steak lovers worldwide due to its luscious marbling, which allows the meat to be very tender and juicy. The Rib-Eye is a boneless cut. When the bone is attached it is called a Rib Steak. These steaks should be cooked quickly by grilling or broiling.
Hangar ///
This is not the most tender steak on the menu, but what it lacks in tenderness, it more than makes up for in flavor. This cut is best when marinated and cooked quickly over high heat by grilling or broiling, and served rare or medium rare to avoid toughness.
Flat Iron ///

The flat iron is the top blade steak, which is derived from the tender top blade roast. Flat iron steaks (also known as butler's steak in the UK and oyster blade steak in Australia and New Zealand) usually have a significant amount of marbling. It's considered by many to be the finest cut of beef available. It's served best grilled or broiled.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Pink Lemonade G-Fuel Jello

Courtesy of obey46


By Lori Grannis

A few years ago, if you heard the word "probiotic," it would have immediately conjured imagery of Jamie Lee Curtis selling regularity in the guise of fruity breakfast yogurt to the over-50 set. That may have been the moment when bacteria-laced foods entered your consciousness—with a maddening jingle to reinforce them—but their history goes back much farther.
Cultures worldwide have been eating food containing live organisms for centuries, in the form of dishes like kimchi, yogurts, and many other fermented products. Part of this interest was in the name of food preservation, but some ancient cultures drew the link between fermented foods and health. In this light, perhaps we could even consider probiotics the original supplements.
A few decades ago, western dairy producers took things up a notch, introducing acidophilus-fortified milk products designed to fight the ill effects of dairy sensitivity. This led to the explosion of probiotic-laced yogurts and other foods touted to contain "millions of live organisms." Today, supplement makers hope to take out the middle man via specific "gut health" supplements that take aim at everything from supporting digestive function to an overall better balance of intestinal flora.
Along the way, researchers have continued to uncover new ways that supplementing with so-called "good bacteria" can impact health and well-being, for both the general populace and elite athletes. In short, it's no longer all about gas, bloating, and regularity. The known benefits now include things like immune system enhancement, better nutrient absorption, and even improved focus and mood. And while probiotics get the most press for what they do in your digestive tract while they're alive, emerging research suggests these benefits continue even after the bacteria die.
The bacteria are here to stay, and that's a good thing. So let's take a closer look at how they work in you, and for you.
The Life Cycle of A Probiotic ///
Your body is a walking, talking Petri dish. A complex community of microorganisms, known in total as "the human microbiome," flourishes everywhere from the skin to the intestines, and at many points in between.
Of course not all of these organisms are beneficial; some are undeniably toxic. But a surprisingly large number are not only beneficial to their host—i.e., you—they're downright crucial. Their name reflects this: probiotic, which literally means "for life." At least 5,600 known species of these living helpers are battling for space solely in the gut—a term that encompasses the entire digestive tract, from the mouth on down through the stomach and intestines.
The two best-known groups of probiotics are rod-shaped bacteria from either the genus lactobacilli, or the genus bifidobacteria. These are by far the two most commonly included probiotic strains in foods and supplements. Lactobacilli generally reside in the small intestine; bifidobacteria's natural preferred habitat is the large intestine or colon.
Of course, neither of these helpful strains is alone in its native habitat, and they must compete for resources in order to exist. Their rivals often include parasitic and toxic strains of bacteria. When these harmful bacteria colonies are allowed to run riot, they can negatively impact nutrition and immune function.*
This battle is already happening, and it lasts your entire life. It's never "won" or "lost," but you can take action help support the growth and proliferation of good bacteria. First, you can beef up their ranks by ingesting additional lactobacilli or bifidobacteria, in the form of probiotic-containing foods or supplements. You could also ingest probiotics' preferred food source, a class of carbohydrates known as prebiotics.
Until recently, pairings of prebiotics and probiotics in supplements have been haphazard, but some manufacturers have become more strategic. A few years ago, MRM and its team of scientists began pairing probiotics with the prebiotics that each strain best loved to eat, calling the pairs "qualified synbiotics." The result is a line of digestive and gut health products with condition-specific formulas engineered to create optimal conditions for beneficial organisms within the gut.
MRM founder Mark Olson likes to call the company's new line of gut health products "a for the most compatibility between bacteria and the food source that enables the fastest colonization of good bacteria in the gut."
Postbiotics—The Gift that Keeps on Giving ///
Probiotics deliver health benefits throughout their life cycle, but because they are living organisms, they eventually die. But that's not the end of the story. Like a dead tree continues to provide benefits to the forest ecosystem, microbiota leaves a nutritive legacy that continues to improve gut health. This legacy comes in the form of "postbiotics," which means "after life."

Postbiotics are the sum total of enzymes, peptides, bacteriocins and organic aids that a probiotic accumulates during its lifespan. It's a pirate's bounty of new biological activity that only begins once a bacterial cell's life comes to a close. As the cell dies, the membrane wall collapses and a cornucopia of peptides, bacteriocins, and organic aids spill into the gut environment.
Postbiotics are a nutritive broth that bathes the gut with multiple beneficial substances, according to Dr. Ralf Jäger, a sports nutrition researcher and fellow of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Dr. Jäger has spent more than a decade studying the complex nexus between prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics, and he says postbiotics provide crucial nutrition to good bacteria, further encouraging an environment where healthy bacteria thrive in competition with harmful ones.
"As strains of healthy bacteria move about the gut, it results in the formation of specific enzymes, peptides, and organic acids," Dr. Jäger says. "These benefit the gut in ways other than just influencing gut flora."
Dr. Jäger, who worked on the science utilized by MRM in the creation of its gut health line, says the selective pairing of prebiotics with probiotics makes healthier postbiotics, in addition to probiotics. A few of the established benefits Dr. Jäger points to from enhanced gut health include strengthened immune function, resistance to diarrhea, and support for a healthy inflammation response.
What Postbiotics Offer Athletes ///
Dr. Jäger says that new research in the field of gut flora has the potential to aid anyone who is looking to support immune function, digestion, and gastrointestinal health. However, there are also some distinct benefits for athletes.
First and foremost, postbiotic enzymes, peptides, and assorted organic materials immediately enable better absorption of certain minerals and amino acids. The healthier the gut environment, the better it will be able to assimilate nutrients—which is important for hard-training athletes who need to get everything they can out of their diet.
"The metabolic products of probiotics include amylolytic, lipolytic, and cellulolytic digestive enzymes, which help athletes to absorb nutrients more efficiently," Dr. Jäger says. That translates into greater gains, less product waste, and more bang for the buck on both animal and plant proteins.
For athletes who overtrain, or who routinely engage in endurance pursuits and suffer from oxidative stress, Dr. Jäger says both probiotics—and their resulting postbiotics—"offer intestinal cells protection against oxidant-mediated tissue damage." Additional benefits to athletes from better gut health include the reduction in severity of upper respiratory tract infections, gastrointestinal distress, and better regulation of muscle-wasting stress hormone cortisol.
Dr. Jäger says a thriving probiotic environment is also crucial to the unique relationship between the digestive tract and brain. Officially called the "gut-brain axis," this burgeoning area of research focuses on a two-way mechanism by which gut health directly affects mood and focus as well as muscular control. "The gastrointestinal tract has such an extensive endocrine-signaling system that gut health quite literally regulates sport-specific neurotransmitters such asacetylcholine, so vital to muscular contraction, endurance, and performance," he says.
Support Your Local Probiotic ///
Dr. Jäger says further research into postbiotics will focus on developing sport-specific supplements for better performance and recovery. In the meantime, the importance of the gut will only continue to expand, not only in terms of digestion, but also in its impact on muscles and joints, nutrient absorption, and overall health.
To stay ahead of the curve, Dr. Jäger recommends taking probiotics. Just as critical, he says, is maximizing the quality of internal postbiotics by ingesting adequate and appropriate prebiotics. "All of the enzymes, peptides and other organic material found within a probiotic cell are the results of an entire probiotic lifecycle," he says. "The quality of prebiotics and probiotics will influence the quality of what can be found within a postbiotic."
It may seem strange or unsettling to imagine all the diverse life forms working nonstop inside you, day and night. But get comfortable with it. You want more life inside you, not less. Take care of that internal world, and it will take care of you.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

James Gandolfini (1961-2013) RIP

One day in 1999, James Gandolfini walked down a driveway in a bathrobe, picked up the newspaper, and changed television forever. If back then you were watching this new HBO drama with the title that seemed to be about opera, then you know how much talent the world lost when he died, suddenly and too soon, at age 51 on Wednesday. (In Rome, Italy, of all places, where Tony Soprano sojourned in the show’s second season.) But with his forceful, charismatic, yet subtle performance as a suburban mobster, James Gandolfini changed the TV you watched even if you’ve never watched a minute of The Sopranos.
Because without Gandolfini, there would be no Tony—not as we know him. And without Tony, there would be no Walter White, no Vic Mackey, no Carrie Mathison. Through Tony, Gandolfini wrote the blueprint for the modern, complicated TV antihero; he took the wall between stand-up TV good guys and wicked bad guys and bashed it down with a baseball bat.
And without The Sopranos, becoming a smash pop-culture phenom by telling an incredibly sophisticated story, it’s hard to imagine DeadwoodThe Americans, or dozens of other ambitious dramas that came after; it’s hard to imagine the now-widespread belief that TV could be art. Without the made men, no Mad Men. (Whose creator, Matthew Weiner, apprenticed writing for The Sopranos.) “Lately,” said Tony in one of his early scenes with his therapist, Dr. Melfi, “I’m getting the feeling I came in at the end.” Gandolfini, on the other hand, got in on something on the ground floor.
He very nearly didn’t: at various points in The Sopranos‘ conception, Anthony LaPaglia was considered for Tony, as was Steve Van Zandt (who ended up taking the more comic-dramatic role of consigliere Silvio Dante). But as creator David Chase told Vanity Fair in an oral history of the show last year, “when Jim Gandolfini walked in, that was it.”
Boy, was it. Yes, to look at him, Gandolfini was just the kind of guy you might cast for a New Jersey titan of “waste management,” bull-headed and terrifying and thus all the more ironic when squinched into a therapist’s-office chair. If that had been all there was to him, The Sopranos might have been a simpler, though entertaining, show. But Gandolfini immediately brought so much more to life in Tony: his intelligence, his sadness, his fear, his self-pity, his mama’s-boy wrath. Yes, he could kill a man in a bathtub convincingly, but just as easily could sit at a family dinner and chafe against his own skin, and make you feel a lifetime of pinpricks, many self-inflicted, stabbing him from the inside.
His was an amazingly delicate performance for a big guy. Those eyes. Gandolfini could concentrate all of Tony’s physicality and criminal cunning into them, as those black pellets darted about and he conceived a lie to tell Carmela, or a way out of a business bind. That a man with such a hulking physicality—a presence that was itself essential to the character—could convey so much through such minute gestures was like watching a giant sit and play a virtuosic Goldberg Variations on a toy piano.
Gandolfini’s performance as Tony, in fact, was so rich, so effective, that it sometimes had unintended consequences. Some fans came to love Tony, to cheer for him, or at least become thrilled by his exploits; they followed the show to see who would get whacked or how Tony would extricate himself from his troubles with Phil Leotardo. In the final season, Chase dialed up the darkness in his antihero, and Gandolfini responded with a run of work that was the greatest thing on TV since—since, well, the first season of The Sopranos.
Snuffing the life out of his own nephew, looking trippily at a desert sunrise and shouting with smug self-delusion, “I get it!”—Gandolfini made the emptiness at the core of Tony something you could weigh on a scale. And yet we couldn’t just write Tony off and distance ourselves. We were in too deep with him. It would have been an easy thing for Gandolfini to make us fear Tony Soprano. It would have been a neat parlor trick to make us love him. James Gandolfini—in sync with Chase, and a peerless cast of co-stars—made us understand Tony, in all his pathetic, charismatic devilry. And that was the work of an artist.
Tony Soprano was not all there was to Gandolfini. Typecasting may have kept him from getting movie work commensurate with his small-screen greatness, but he disappeared in roles from drama to comedy to fantasy: Zero Dark ThirtyWhere the Wild Things Are, Chase’s own Not Fade Away. But if it was TV that used him best, that’s only appropriate. He ushered in, practically created, not just an era of really good TV shows, but an idea: that TV could be as rich, great, relevant, moving, conversation-driving, and significant as any contemporary movie or even novel.
(And it mattered, by the way, that Gandolfini was ridiculously entertaining: fun, compelling, thrilling. To change TV, The Sopranos needed to be a huge commercial hit as much as it needed to be a work of genius. The scripts put ideas in our heads, but it was Tony who put butts on couches.)
James Gandolfini was our usher into that new TV era, by taking a performance that could have been cartoonish (remember Analyze This?) and making it psychologically layered and unshakeable. This was a man who could show us a brute throttling a Mafia turncoat while looking at colleges with his daughter and make us think: I want to know this guy better. He could lead us, mildly contemplating an onion ring, to the finale’s famous cut-to-black, to the tune of “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and leave us wondering whether he lived or died, and what he deserved, and what it all meant.
We can only wonder what more Gandolfini would have done with a more fair measure of years. “He was special man, a great talent,” read an HBO statement, “but more importantly a gentle and loving person who treated everyone no matter their title or position with equal respect.  He touched so many of us over the years with his humor, his warmth and his humility.” Chase paid him touching tribute: “A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes. I remember telling him many times, ‘You don’t get it.  You’re like Mozart.’  There would be silence at the other end of the phone…  He wasn’t easy sometimes.  But he was my partner, he was my brother in ways I can’t explain and never will be able to explain.”
Like that final scene, Gandolfini’s potential was cut short. But his accomplishment, and the way he expanded the possibilities of his medium and his craft: it goes on and on and on and on. RIP.