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The Real Shaquille

Basketball great Shaquille O'Neal focuses on eating well (most of the time) and building muscle, not fat.
By Kent Milton
WebMD the Magazine - Feature

Thirteen years into his professional basketball career, the truth can finally be told about Shaquille O'Neal.

He is not of this earth. On the first day of training camp this year, O'Neal told a group of reporters, "I'm going back to the old Shaq. I was normal last season. I was an earthling. Now I have to go back to my alien roots."

For O'Neal, 33, who joined the Miami Heat in 2004 after eight seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, getting in touch with his inner extraterrestrial means making virtually unheard-of decision in the world of professional basketball: He's working on adding weight-muscle, not fat -- to his already colossal 335-pound, 7-foot-1-inch frame.

That's not a misprint. Goliath wants to be even bigger. Why? Because O'Neal says that when he is heavier, he is a better player. "Last year I was just too nice," that is, too weak, O'Neal tells WebMD. "I came up real light … but now I have to go back to what I know."

That kind of thinking flies in the face of conventional wisdom -- not only among many athletes but for the rest of us, too. If anything, most of us battle to lose the seemingly inexorable weight creep that comes from too many indulgences and not enough exercise over the years.

But even a fine-tuned athlete like O'Neal still has to approach the whole topic of weight intelligently. For one thing, he can't just live off a high-calorie, high-fat diet to add pounds -- or at least not without undesirable consequences. His philosophy pivots on healthy nutritional choices with an occasional allowance of his favorite sinful foods.

Heavy Duty

For a man of his size and agility, O'Neal is nearly without peer in his ability to both plant an opponent into the front row and outrace him to the other end of the court.

The 12-time NBA All-Star and three-time NBA champion, as well as the holder of an Olympic gold medal, is "a unique athlete," says Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist with the San Diego-based American Council on Exercise. "He has that blend of speed and strength that allows him to be so powerful."

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