The Scottish Terror
Alwyn Cosgrove is not politically correct. When he speaks at strength and conditioning conferences, he doesn't care if he pisses off half the audience. He's scrappy, he's cocky, he cusses a lot, but he always tells it like it is. This, of course, makes his presentations a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
Alwyn shoots from the hip, and he has a stable of Olympic and national level athletes that swear by his training methods. A native of Scotland, this former martial arts champion turned performance coach is really starting to make a name for himself in the muscle biz. It was time for T-Nation to buy him a pint and pick his brain.
T-Nation: Let's start with the important stuff. Are you wearing a kilt right now?
Alwyn Cosgrove: Of course! And I can let the female readers know that there's absolutely nothing worn underneath a Scotsman's kilt. Nothing at all. In fact, everything is in fine working order.
T-Nation: Okay seriously, how did a martial arts competitor from Scotland turn into a strength and conditioning coach in the States?
Cosgrove: Part of it was the influence of my instructor. I should mention that I had, in my opinion, the greatest Taekwon-do instructor of all time, Mr. Derek Campbell. One of the best coaching minds in any sport in the world today. People, if you want to win and understand coaching, you need to track this guy down and learn from him!
I received my first degree black belt at age 15. Now, this was in real Taekwon-do, not the bullshit, babysitting McDojo stuff that's passed off as a fighting system nowadays. I started competing shortly after.
After winning a few fights, and losing a few, I realized that the people I beat or didn't beat knew the same stuff as I did. This fascinated me. How could one man beat another man who had the exact same knowledge about fighting? Strategy plays a part, but that's part of what you should already know.
It kind of hit me that the only thing separating the winner from the loser was how they applied the techniques: how fast they moved, how hard they hit, how long they could go for. When technical skill was identical between two competitors, the strongest and fastest athlete would win almost 100% of the time.
In other words, it was fitness and conditioning that would end up determining who took home the gold. If you take boxing as an example, you've really only got four possible techniques – jab, cross, hook, and uppercut. It's not a secret punch that separates the best from the rest.
With this in mind, I started studying physiology and the methodology of training. This engulfed me. I went to college in Scotland to study it, continued on to a college in England to study some more, and to this day, over 22 years since I first walked into a martial arts class, I still spend about an hour each day researching the best physical preparation methods the world has to offer.
T-Nation: Were you still competing during college?
Cosgrove: Yes, I continued to compete in Taekwon-do the entire time I was in college. My career ended with seven National titles, five titles in five different weight classes, and several International medals.
I was prepared to fight anyone, at any weight, confident that my superior conditioning methods would carry me through. It usually did, and as a light middleweight fighter I managed to beat the national champions at both middleweight and at light-heavyweight in the same year.
T-Nation: When did you first start training others?
Cosgrove: In college, I started being approached by other athletes to help them with their training, including a National level rugby player and the captain of the track team. And then two Taekwon-do fighters moved to where I was enrolled in college to have me advise them on their training. They both won the nationals that year.
This was a good time for me. I was learning training theory and methodology academically and actually applying it at the same time – figuring out what works in the research may not work as well with real athletes in real situations. Not too many people get to experience both approaches at once. It really helped "fast-track" my development.
I think that's when I realized that my obsessive studying and note-taking wasn't normal. Maybe I had something to offer. I continually researched and refined what the science showed would work, what the real world showed did work, and what the top strength coaches in the field had shown had worked. This concept of continually refining the training methods continues with me to this day.
I've pretty much read everything that every strength coach on the planet has written. I doubt they've read everything I've written, so when our athletes go head to head, we win.
T-Nation: If you had to sum up your philosophy of training, what would it be? Do you fit into a "niche?"
Cosgrove: Bruce Lee once said, "Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless." He was referring to cross training in different martial arts, which was unheard of at the time. Lee died in 1973 yet it took another 20 or so years before cross training in martial arts (now called Mixed Martial Arts) really took off.
My approach to training is the same. Why do I have to be a functional training guy? Or an Olympic lifting guy or a Westside guy? Am I a HIT guy? No. Does that mean I'm a low intensity guy then? Absolutely not. I'm all of those and I'm none of those. I'm a results guy.
I guess my philosophy is "Results by Design, Not by Coincidence." Get the best results in the least amount of time. The faster I can get results, the more I get paid.
T-Nation: Now, Ian King once said that people overreact in the short term and under-react in the long term. He was talking about new training ideas and training tools. I know you've written about this before too. Can you give us some recent examples?
Cosgrove: This is the biggest problem in the industry today: jumping on and off every bandwagon there is. The problem is when you "challenge" a training modality or system, it's like challenging someone's freaking religion. People get way too upset about this. But I don't give a shit about upsetting people, so I'll go through a couple:
Unstable surface training (stability balls, rocker boards, etc): The argument for these tools is that they work the stabilizers, you recruit more total muscle, blah, blah, blah. The argument against these unstable objects is that they prevent more work being done by the prime movers.
Okay. Let's think it through with some fucking logic: Which are superior, free weights or machines? The answer is always free weights, right? Why? Because they're unbalanced; you have to control the weight in three dimensions, etc. If this is the reason why free weights are better than machines, then you have to also accept that your reason is because it's an unstable environment you're working in.
Stability ball stuff falls in that same continuum. You can debate it all you want, but the fact remains that it does have its use. The problem has been that in the past we've over-reacted to it. No one was deadlifting or benching anymore! Everything was on one leg on a wobble disc with a one pound dumbbell. It's not the modality that's the problem – it's our reaction to it.
T-Nation: Interesting. Doesn't the static stretching debate fit into this too?
Cosgrove: Yes, the current backlash against static stretching is another example. You know the argument that "it makes you weaker" so you should never do it? Well, in my opinion, the argument that it makes you weaker is correct. However, you have to understand why you'd want to do static stretching in the first place. It's not just as part of a generic warm-up.
Here's the thing. If I give you a static stretch to do it's because a muscle is overactive. It's too strong in relation to the other muscles. I want it to relax. So of course it's immediately weaker – I just made it relax. That was my goal. It's not a detrimental side effect; it's the effect I was looking for.
But here's the point: Once I've established that I need to reduce the tension in a muscle, why would I then want to directly maximally strengthen it ? That's the exact opposite of my goal. I've already established that it has too much tension there. It's already overactive. If I spend time strengthening it I'm creating a bigger problem (besides beating my head against a wall).
Now please don't misinterpret this. If I wanted maximal strength in the workout, then I don't use a static stretch. But if I use a static stretch I'm well aware that there's a short term strength deficit as a result, and I feel that's beneficial.
Several coaches, Martin Rooney and Joe DeFranco spring to mind, do static stretching of the hip flexor prior to vertical jump testing to prevent the antagonistic contraction of the hip flexor from reducing vertical jump – with great results I might add. The static stretching inhibits the hip flexor contraction, which is exactly the goal in this case.
If you think about it logically again (something most people seem unable to do), if I tested your 5RM in the squat and then a couple of minutes later tested your 6RM, do you think that your 6RM might be reduced because of what I just did? Of course. If you interpret this case literally, I just proved that strength training makes you weaker. I think that's the problem with research.
T-Nation: So static stretching is fine in certain situations with a certain goal in mind.
Cosgrove: Static stretching was never the problem. It was that people didn't understand how best to use it. Again, it comes back to knowing why you're using a certain technique instead of blindly following the masses.
Recently we saw an over-reaction to "overtraining." Everyone stopped training hard. We'll now enter the under-reaction phase where people will start overtraining again. Right now in the industry we're going through a major overreaction to kettlebell training. No offence to those guys, but it's just a weight! Watch for the backlash against kettlebells to begin within a couple of months. We're also seeing an under-reaction to aerobic training.
T-Nation: Where do you see most bodybuilders going wrong in the gym? Not athletes, but we superficial bastards who want mainly big muscles and visible abs?
Cosgrove: Generally, bodybuilders tend to do too much volume and don't have a plan. Straight sets (i.e. doing set one, rest, set two, rest, set three, etc.) is an outdated training method most of the time.
Not training what you can't see in the mirror is still a big problem. Body part split routines are about the stupidest training method ever, yet still the most popular.
Three sets of ten as a loading parameter is fucking archaic, yet still the most popular.
Also, the schizophrenia attached to physique training holds more people back than ever. Skinny guys don't want to lose their abs so they never gain any size, and the big guys are too scared to look "scrawny" so they never cut up. And the current trend (touted partly by strength coaches that should know better) that it's "heavy weight, low reps" regardless of your goal, is the most inane crap I've ever seen spouted.
In general, it's a lack of open-mindedness. When I do seminars, people ask me a ton of questions, I got hundreds of emails through my website and my column at Men's Fitness daily. I'd say 80% of those questions are statements in disguise. People don't really want answers – they just want you to agree with them.
I've been criticized in the past by bodybuilders who "know what works for me." That's great. I see about 200 people per week at my facility, each training a minimum of twice a week. That's 400 workouts per week. That's over 20,000 workouts per year. And I have the records and results of every program I've written for a client for the past ten years. That's over 200,000 workouts worth of information. It would take the average gym goer years to collect the kind of data I get on a daily basis.
T-Nation: The value of a good coach to me is that he can see what the trainee himself can't see, so that makes sense. What about the typical athlete? What are athletes doing wrong?
Cosgrove: Sport specific training has really hurt the industry. The last thing a young kid needs to do is to get "sport specific." They need to get "generally athletic."
But it continues on to higher levels of sport too. A baseball pitcher doesn't need to do more internal rotation work in the gym. In fact, the best thing you can do from a performance standpoint is to have him do the exact opposite movement pattern (external shoulder rotation).
Make sure the roles of strength and conditioning and skill training are separate. The role of conditioning training is not skill training. Loading a technique tends to affect the mechanics of the technique negatively.
Don't get caught up in the numbers game and don't confuse gym improvements with real world or sports world improvements. The greatest athletes in the world don't necessarily have the greatest bench presses in the world. The greatest athletes in the world have an ability to produce useable force on their field of play. Usable force is force that propels an athlete toward the ball, knocks another athlete back or down, helps him move at full speed or throw the winning touchdown pass.
Usable force is force properly directed in an unstable real world, an unpredictable environment. The weight room, in general, is a stable environment whereas a field of play or the competition ring is a constantly changing place. A good strength and conditioning coach looks to improve athletic performances, not just gym lift numbers.
T-Nation: Makes sense. Now, the concept of tempo has been under attack here lately. Many say that if you can focus on a 312 tempo or whatever, then you must not be giving an all-out effort. What do you think?
Cosgrove: The lack of good form in most people's training programs makes that a moot point. Very few guys have such perfect form that I want them to focus on anything but good technique. If that means I need to prescribe a rep speed then so be it. To be honest, if I don't have them focus on tempo, most people's form goes to absolute shit.
For most guys, using anything to tighten up a rep will be better and lead to more results. There's no point in pushing "hard" if your form is garbage. If I made it a national rule that all guys had to use 10% less weight and perfect form, they'd get better results. (I'd also make it a national rule that all females had to use 10% more weight!)
T-Nation: So the 312 type of tempo prescription is valuable?
Cosgrove: Forget the three digit formula. Tempo is just a method to communicate rep speed. Tempo is only getting bashed by people who don't understand it and I think the use of the three digit formula is partly to blame. A rep is just pretty much a measure of time and distance (an object moved from point A to point B and back constitutes a rep). Most people only think of a rep in terms of distance.
If I wanted you to do bench presses and you were only doing half reps, then you're not doing what I wanted. I'm assuming that you use full range. Similarly, I'm assuming that you do all your reps at the same speed. But what if you don't? If I change your program from 6 reps to 12 reps I have effectively doubled your time under tension assuming your rep speed was constant. If your rep speed changes then I won't get the training effect I'm looking for.
I think the people that criticize tempo have never fucking trained anyone. The average rep of the average guy in the gym takes about 0.1 seconds for the negative, no pause, and maybe a second on the concentric (while his arse wiggles off the bench). No one thinks that's correct.
So unless you tell this guy how to perform a single rep, you can't prescribe sets of multiple reps. We can prescribe full reps, half reps, one and a quarter reps etc. to change the distance you move the bar, so we also have to tell you how fast that bar is supposed to move.
It's the three digit formula that people don't seem to like. Everyone understands the difference between me saying "lower it slowly, pause, and lift as fast as possible" and "do the entire rep as quickly as possible" as being two different training methods. So if I prescribe "slow with a pause at the bottom," "pause and reset between reps," "rhythmic," "accelerative," "ballistic," "explosive," as the rep tempo, would that be better? I think maybe it would.
All the three digit formula does is it gets more specific than that. Is there a need to get that specific? Maybe, maybe not. But our only alternative is to have one generic rep speed or to let people do whatever the fuck they want. This tends to mean sloppy reps.
My feeling is that rep speed is a potential source of training variety that a good coach can use. But all that said, I should add that crazy tempos like 818 are just shite.
T-Nation: Careful, you're going to upset the SuperSlow cult! Now, let's talk fat burning. What approaches do you use when a client needs to drop some fat without sacrificing muscle?
Cosgrove: I think it's funny how aerobics on an empty stomach has become the most widespread method of fat loss exercise. At the same time we've hammered home the point that you shouldn't go three hours without eating.
Which is it then? Do exercise on an empty stomach after an eight hour fast, or don't go more than three hours without eating? These are opposites!
And if long, slow, steady work was the fat loss panacea, then short intense burst (i.e. sets of weight training or sprints) would have to be wrong because it's the opposite right? Talk about confusing the general public!
Anyway, what I'm getting at is none of that makes any sense. I don't do the norm. I don't do any steady state aerobic training. For the purposes of fat loss I think it's almost worthless.
Now, note that I'm talking about aerobic training here – not cardiovascular work (which can encompass a ton of other modalities). Aerobic training has been the backbone of fat loss programs for years, but that was based on the volumes of endurance athletes. We can't extrapolate that to the average gym goer who's got about three hours per week to give you.
I started to look at every successful fat loss program out there. While most people were arguing about the differences between them, I was looking at the similarities. Based on these similarities I created a fat loss "system" called Afterburn which combines everything I knew about fat loss at that time into a 16 week program.
It's essentially a combination of interval training and full body workouts (think along the lines of Alessi's Meltdown Program and Poliquin's German Body Comp program – just tweaked and ramped up a bit). It sucks to do as it's brutally hard, but it'll rip the fat off you pretty fast.
Recently though, through my work with Robert dos Remedios (one of the best collegiate strength coaches in the country) I've begun to prefer the use of hybrid exercises and complexes to achieve fat loss without muscle loss.
T-Nation: What's one of the most effective yet overlooked training "tricks" you can give us?
Cosgrove: The trainee needs to look past the obvious solution to any problem and look for the real solution. For example, every arm training article in the last ten years to improve your arm circumference has included a workout based on curls and triceps extensions. Do you really think a lack of doing curls is the reason why most guys have less than impressive arms?
Every article on how to improve your chin-ups includes a program with a shitload of chin-ups in it. Is that all you've got? Improve your chin-ups by just doing more of them?
Really fucking cutting edge that is!
In the arm example, it's often the ability of the upper back to stabilize a load out in front of you (i.e. the midpoint of a curl). If the back can't stabilize that load, it's not going to risk a spine injury to curl the weight up – it just "shuts down" your biceps. You just need "tae use yir heid!" as my dad used to say in a heavy Scottish accent.
T-Nation: That's interesting. You may need to write us an article on that topic! Let's move on. How do you think steroids have impacted the science of training and nutrition?
Cosgrove: A great deal. Unfortunately, it's impacted it negatively. Most guys are still drug free, yet most training programs that these guys are on are written for drug users. You simply can't use a drug-based program with a drug free athlete and hope that you'll get the same results.
The drug free athlete can't recover from the workloads of the drug-using athlete. Period. Instead of trying to figure out ways that we can help them recover from drug-using workloads, why not start thinking about ways to improve their training programs in the first place?
T-Nation: Now that you've been in the business for 17 years, looking back, what really surprised you? What shocked you?
Cosgrove: That there are so many fucking arseholes in this industry. And so many weirdoes. That most of the guys writing training articles have never actually had to train anyone in order to make ends meet. You'd be surprised if I started dropping names.
All I do is train people. I put food on the table based on my ability to produce results. If I can't do that then my life suffers, so I have to deliver. There are a ton of Internet experts out there who are making more money writing about training than they are training people. And they tend to just make shit up to get a new article published, because they can't talk about what works.
Interestingly, I've seen this with good trainers too. I've seen firsthand how trainers make up stuff just to get in magazines. They try really hard and mean well, but it's stuff that doesn't help anyone. You've seen guys who you know are good trainers give advice that they'd never give a client just because an editor asks for something cool, which is stupid.
This industry is full of arseholes, Chris, except you and me. And I'm not totally convinced about me.
T-Nation: Where can T-Nation readers go to learn more about your work?
Cosgrove: I have my own website set up – it's at www.alwyncosgrove.com. I have a pretty cool newsletter where I can talk uncensored about whatever I want, and I also have some very cool coaches in the industry contribute to it. It's free but its subscription only.
I also write for Dave Tate's Elitefts and I have a book coming out with Lou Schuler in December called The New Rules of Lifting. You can get my martial arts training manual at www.martialartsconditioning.com and my fat loss manual at www.afterburntraining.com.
Apart from that I'm appearing at a few conferences later this year – the IDEA personal trainer conference in NYC being one. Hope to meet some T-Nation readers at this!
T-Nation: Cool. Thanks for the uncensored chat!
Cosgrove: Thanks for the opportunity, Chris. I really appreciate it.