It's time to play catch-up with the Testosterone authors. Nate Green does the asking, Alwyn Cosgrove does the talking.
After being in the fitness industry for almost two decades Alwyn Cosgrove has earned the admiration and respect of, well, just about everyone. And with good reason.
His training philosophy is simple: get results by any means possible. This thinking has led to great success with his clients and a flurry of articles and a couple of books that challenge mainstream fitness thinking, including the ground-breaking work, The New Rules of Lifting, available from Amazon.com.
A two-time cancer survivor, Alwyn turned his life-threatening experiences into life-affirming reminders and now has less time than ever for "all that little bullshit."
He truly is the quintessential strength and conditioning coach with something to teach.
Testosterone: A simple question: How's life after surviving cancer twice? What did you take for granted?
AC: Lance Armstrong once said "after cancer there are only good days and great days." I think that says it all. It's hard for any day to not feel good. Going face to face with your own mortality certainly changes your mindset on things.
I think most people just take life for granted. I mean, what would you do if you only had a few more years left? We all think that we have decades of time. But what if you didn't? What if you don't make it to retirement age? Would you live differently?
I think being diagnosed with Stage IV cancer and then being in remission is like being told that your life is over, and then being given a second chance. You don't waste it.
After cancer, you just start to look at everything differently. You savor everything positive. Every conversation with someone is enjoyable. Other little things don't bother you.
It's hard to spend any time on anything negative at all, really. I've even cut some negative people out because I just don't want that energy in my life. I just don't have that kind of room to carry other people's crap, you know?
I still get regular CT-PET scans. It's actually a weird feeling when you go for check ups. Part of you knows that you're okay, but part of you is aware that they aren't doing scans for no reason. It just reawakens every old emotion inside you.
I'm not sure that these feelings will ever go away. But maybe they're good to bring up. It reminds you of your spirit and the support you have.
As much as they make me uncomfortable, at the same time I feel grateful for these thoughts. It's as if they are a gift — a reminder to appreciate everything. That's a gift that most people don't have.
T: How was the road back to fitness after cancer? What kind of stuff are you currently doing?
AC: It's been a struggle, but I'm still on the road.
It's been about 15 months since my relapse/transplant. I've done about 215 workouts this year. I still get out of breath going up stairs, and get really tired doing the simplest things. I need about 11-12 hours sleep a night most of the time.
Despite all my training knowledge, resources, and my efforts I'm at about 50% of my strength levels before I got sick. I'm smaller and have less muscle, more fat, less strength, less endurance, and get winded easy. But I've come a long way. I have no complaints.
My first workout back (about a month post bone-marrow transplant) I did 20 minutes of walking.
On a treadmill.
At two miles per hour.
And then I vomited.
I also tried to do some push ups. I got 4 before my arms gave out. Last week, though, I did 75 push ups (in sets) as part of my program wearing a 30lb weighted vest. So I'm improving.
Week one I started doing four push ups and four bodyweight squats. I added a rep a day for the first week.
Week two I started with two sets of five of each and added a rep each day. I followed that protocol for the first month and then evolved into an EDT type routine for a while — one where I tried to perform more reps in the same time, and an alternate one where I tried to do the same reps in less time. Then I started back with lifting weights.
I'm probably one of very few coaches to have personally competed at a World Championships, and also been the least conditioned person I've ever met (post transplant). I've learned a lot from that process.
The rest of my personal programming focuses on mobility, 'prehab' (although I hate that word), core work, elasticity, strength training, cardio, and some regeneration stuff. It's very balanced and challenging despite not being at max intensity.
T: Your studio in California has been compared to a human laboratory. How has this contributed to your "results-based" training programs?
AC: I'd been training people since '89 but this was my first facility. Since opening day I have recorded every single workout ever performed in our gym. We also check body fat once a week with all clients. I can see what works and recognize patterns and trends. Over time it helped shape our philosophies and refined what we did.
Consider that we have around 200 members training 3 times per week on average. We can see the effects of 1200 workouts per month. And we've kept that information for close to ten years now. With that sheer amount of data you can't help but see what works best.
We have more people at our gym on a given program than most studies have total participants. Regardless of what people think — as far as result go — there is weight in numbers.
T: What's the most interesting "experiment" you've ever tried?
AC: It's not so much experimentation as it is seeing ineffective protocols fall by the wayside. If certain clients are getting leaner than others I look for commonalities in the successful and unsuccessful programs. For fat loss clients for example, we've evolved pretty much to full-body workouts using rarely more than two different resistance training routines in the week.
Actually for most of our clients we use an A-B resistance training split. Whether that's two full body routines, an upper-lower split, or a lift-specific split (e.g. powerlifting) with a max effort or dynamic effort focus, doesn't change the underlying principle. Splitting up movements beyond that is always less effective. Frequency of exposure is a key factor in success. That seems to be a constant regardless of goal.
Now we may use a five or six day training program with energy system work and mobility, foam rolling on other days, but the resistance training is typically an A-B repeated.
We've used different supplements and cardio approaches over time and eliminated all but the most effective strategies. The only thing that matters is the result we see. That determines everything.
I'm not against any form of training. I'm not anti-anything. I'm just pro-results. If I could see a better, faster result using another method I'll always change.
It's back to the Bruce Lee line that I'm sure every Testosterone reader can quote verbatim after reading my stuff.
T: If you could put the kibosh on one method of training, what would it be?
AC: I'm guessing everyone expects me to say "aerobics" right? Ha! Well I won't. Aerobic training is extremely useful. It's just that we've misinterpreted it so that everyone thinks aerobics equals fat loss.
Good for aspiring dancers. Bad for fat loss.
But I don't think I'd want to eliminate it as a training method.
Everything can be useful in a specific situation. It's identifying that situation that determines what tool to use; it's not the tool in itself that's at fault.
Recently a lot of coaches have criticized unstable surface training (e.g. balls, Airex pads, etc). It's an over-reaction. We know that these tools can be useful in rehabilitation settings but have a more limited use with healthy individuals.
But the usual line is, "There are no sports or activities performed where the ground moves under you."
What about water polo, snowboarding, motocross, mountain biking, wakeboarding, and surfing? All exhibit a "tilting" reflex — the surface does move under the athlete — and they have to maintain their center of balance over a constantly changing base of support. So perhaps unstable surface training could/should be used with this group.
Good for her.
Bad for him.
I guess the one thing I'd eliminate would be the concept of isolated "qualities" of training. I think most coaches are now training "movements not muscles," in that we've recognized that the body works in an integrated fashion. A squat is more than just a quad exercise right? Even a dumbbell lateral raise creates co-contraction of the obliques. But it goes beyond that.
We still divide training into "strength" and "cardio" portions. It's still an integrated system. We shouldn't be thinking about dividing muscular work and metabolic work or programming them separately. I mean, if I had you do front squats and push presses as a combination for 40 seconds with 40 seconds rest, it would be very metabolic. And on the other end of the continuum, walking a mile is really nothing more than 1500 low resistance reps, right?
When does a side lunge stop being a mobility exercise and start being a strength exercise or a metabolic exercise? They are artificial categories that the exercise community has created. We need to start realizing that a total integration approach is the next step.
T: Agreed. You're into complexes for fat-loss. Are there any other training methods out there that aren't getting the recognition they deserve?
AC: Complexes just "blur the line" between metabolic and muscular work. There are advantages and disadvantages to using them of course. I prefer alternating sets (biplexes) and trisets (triplexes) for fat loss training, but I'd always get some people who didn't train at my facility email me and tell me that they couldn't do some of these routines in a busy gym at 6 PM on a Monday night.
So then I started to recommend using the same piece of equipment (e.g. step ups and DB rows or presses on the same bench), but sometimes the results were compromised as I was using equipment to dictate what physiology should dictate.
But then I thought about the ultimate "complex" — the clean and jerk. It uses almost every muscle in the body at once. All a complex is, is a circuit using one piece of equipment, one load and one space. I thought it might not work as well as the original programs but it did. However, if you have your own gym or work out at off-peak times, it's still better to load each exercise individually to ramp up your results.
The clean and jerk
As far as under-recognized training methods, I still think that bodyweight exercise can be extremely challenging. I taught a practical fat loss class for Perform Better last year.
Basically I selected a lower body exercise, an upper body exercise, and a core exercise and had the group (all trainers and coaches) perform one minute of work. We did about three "triplexes" (trisets).
Everyone told me that they had a great workout. So you can imagine that if a group of trainers felt it was an effective workout it would probably be effective for most. So body weight programming is still under utilized.
T: Back at the "Test Fest" in early 2006, your presentation was about setting up a sensible program that makes sense. You went on to bash a few of the more popular training methods out there including German Volume Training (10 x 10) and a few others. What's the big deal? I bet you couldn't do better!
AC: Yeah I could. Scottish Volume Training. 11 sets of 11.
If 10x10 is good then 11x11 must be better, right?
11 x 11 is 121. That's 21% more volume right? It must be better.
Please note the absolute sense of sarcasm in my answer — I'm a "fire" type or whatever...
First off I didn't "bash" them. I just pointed out flaws based on physiology and joint structure. And I want to add that I have no animosity towards any of the authors — I'm just taking an honest look at the programming.
I will strike Alwyn about the face and head for 10 sets of 10.
The primary flaw in this system is the issue of balance as regards to loading the joints. You need to balance loading across any joints or you're going to create a length-tension issue that will create joint injuries. It's indisputable.
T: Let's finish it off, eh? What three books have made the biggest impact on your life?
AC: To narrow it down to three is a bit tough. I usually read 1-2 books per week.
Sports Training Principles by Frank Dick is the first sports science book I ever read. The first edition was published in 1980, I think. I must have read that in about '86 or so. I think it's in its fifth edition now.
Zen in the Martial Artsby Joe Hyams is excellent. Tao of Jeet Kune Do was great.
Speed Trap by Charlie Francis was another book that every trainer or coach should read.
Winning and Losing by Ian King is written in the same vein.
More recently Tim Ferriss' book, The Four Hour Workweek, really reinforced my experiences of not wanting to live the deferred life that most people do (working until retirement and then having the free time to enjoy life). Allied with my own experiences I felt it was a great book on reprioritizing what you do.
Shit that's six. I'm not sure if they are the most influential but they were definitely very valuable.
Testosterone: Some good food for thought. Thanks for the interview, Alwyn.