When it comes to coaches who have a lot to say, we have almost an embarrassment of riches here at T Nation. In fact, the biggest challenge for us is often just keeping these brainiacs on topic.
For example, ask Chad Waterbury or Christian Thibaudeau or (God forbid) Scott Abel for just 500 words on a simple subject like calf training and you best be prepared to receive a 5,000 tome peppered with words like soleus, synapses and sarcoplasm — and that’s just in the introduction.
So in an effort to conserve space, we usually gotta do a little selective editing. But sometimes the stuff our coaches send us that winds up getting left out is pretty good. In fact, sometimes it’s more interesting than the stuff we end up using, but just not relevant to the topic at hand. Having to remove it can be a real heartbreaker, but hey, bandwidth ain’t cheap.
But what if we gave coaches a forum to really rant? What if we poked and prodded them on a few subjects that really steamed their broccoli? Or what if we looked at their principals, their methods, and their values and asked them to defend them?
And better still, what if we challenged these know-it-alls to try to tell us something we don’t know?
T Nation is proud to kick off our new Sucker Punch series with the always-ornery Lord of the Salty Tongue, Alwyn Cosgrove.
T-Nation: You’ve battled cancer. Twice. Not many people can say that. What lessons did that teach you? I don’t mean the “enjoy the little things/ work less, love more” kind of thing; I mean lessons that you learned about the body?
Alwyn Cosgrove: Okay. There are a few things. The caloric balance model of calories in, calories out? Bullshit.
I was in a negative caloric state (and vomiting) for months, lost muscle mass but gained weight (fat). I know the growth of the disease and the drugs involved in treating it change everything — but I had a malignant disease, wasn’t eating or training towards the end and probably gained 20lbs. Even after the treatment, without chemo, it took a long time to cut the weight — so it’s not just about calories.
Massive levels of cortisol have profound negative partitioning effects; calories go away from muscle and towards fat. I get that — but to create “mass” where there is no additional raw material — no fuel or building blocks present, violates the entire caloric balance model.
For the same reason that giving someone Testosterone will increase muscle mass and cause fat loss without training or changing diet, women in our gym will experience body comp changes when they’re going through menopause — even if training and caloric intake remains unchanged.
We see studies all the time about how adding a grapefruit to the diet increases fat loss despite being eucaloric. The low-carb studies have shown people losing fat when eating more calories as compared to high-carb diets. We’ve seen studies that show a loss in fat when you add in fish oil to the diet despite no change in calories. The caloric balance model just isn’t complete.
As far as after cancer — I’ve been an elite athlete and a cancer patient. That’s about as extreme as you can get. You get away with shitty training when you’re young — your body can handle a lot. After being sick, I realized how smart you need to be with your training recovery.
If you planned on doing 2 sets of 5 reps and you did 2 sets of 6 — that’s 20% more volume than planned. What changes in subsequent recovery strategies or workouts are you going to make as a result of that when you can’t get away with that stuff anymore?
And, I learned that Lance Armstrong is amazing; cancer is way tougher than anyone can imagine. To come back from that and just look normal is fucking amazing — never mind winning seven tours and being the best in the world…
T-Nation: I’m a movie star who needs to look like Hugh Jackman (sans sideburns) in 8 weeks. Here’s a blank check. Now what the heck do I do?
Alwyn: I’d probably do a 4-8-15 + undulating periodization program with an AB split and a variation of Michael Zumpano’s original “rebound” program that was essentially three phases of dieting split over nine days with different workout parameters on each day.
I’d aggressively pursue fat loss, so your diet would be key — you don’t actually have to be bigger to look bigger — same as bodybuilding — it’s an illusion. You can tell how it works when you realize that Jackman is listed at 6’2 and 210 lbs or so. That’s actually “skinnier” than Lyoto Machida (UFC), but he looks WAY bigger.
So we’d work on getting you as lean as possible while working on lat width and deltoid hypertrophy. We could probably train twice a day as you wouldn’t have to work. And I’d get Biotest to hook me up with all the supplementation we’d need. Something like this as an initial template:
1. Snatch Grip Pull / Snatch grip deadlift (depending on reps)
2. Barbell Push Press /Military Press
3. Step up or split squat
4. Superset chins and dips
1. Front Squat / Back squat (depending on the reps)
2. High Pull
3. DB Row and DB Chest Press Superset
4. Extended sets:
Lateral Raise — AMRAP
L-extend lateral raise — AMRAP
(raise with elbows at 90 degrees — straighten and lower)
L-lateral raise — AMRAP
(raise and lower with elbows at 90 degrees)
2-3 sets of that
Rotate through a 4×4 rep range, a 3×8 rep range, and a 2-3 x 15 rep range. So, alternate between the workouts and move through the rep ranges each week.
You could make some great changes in that time frame. I mean, if you had someone prepare all your meals to the perfect caloric amount for the next 56 days, you’d make amazing changes in your body even without training. Consistency is an amazing thing.
For the regular guy who doesn’t have a blank check I’d just design a four-day meal plan and rotate through it for the entire 56 days. Like I said, consistency is key. As Chad Waterbury once said:
“If I told you to consume one gram of protein per pound of body weight, fibrous vegetables, water, green tea, 12 grams of fish oil, and spread those out over the course of six meals each day, you’d be anything but impressed. But if I held you in captivity and forced you to do that every day for a month, you’d be blown away by the results.”
Do that for 8 weeks and people will accuse you of being on something.
T-Nation: You hate split routines, and have said repeatedly that you prefer full body or upper-lower body workouts. Bodybuilders, natural or otherwise, have the greatest muscle development of any athletic group; and virtually every bodybuilder follows a bodypart split routine and performs steady state cardio. So if your systems actually worked better than there’s, don’t you think competitive bodybuilders would be doing them?
Alwyn: Look, it’s not that I “hate” bodypart splits. Hell, there are times that I use them with my own clients. It’s just that for the majority of cases, there are better, more efficient ways to get results fast. And that’s the reason why clients hire me in the first place.
I design training programs on physiological basis. Part of the word ‘physiological’ is the word ‘logical’ and I argue that there is very little logic to bodypart splits. Bodypart splits are geography, not physiology!
You say every successful bodybuilder uses a bodypart split? I challenge that every successful bodybuilder is the exception, not the rule.
You say every champion bodybuilder, natural or otherwise, follows some kind of bodypart split. Well I say fuck you, and that every failed bodybuilder in the gym also follows that kind of split. The bodypart split has the most failure associated with it than any other methodology. So it’s not that that I dislike it, it’s just shown time and time again to be the absolute least successful training program for the masses.
The way I design a training program is like building a house. I start with an evaluation of your current fitness level and your long-term goals, which are like what you want your house to look like and what materials we have to work with (your current fitness level, time commitment, etc.).
Using that info, I break the end goal down into monthly, weekly, and finally, daily workouts representing what I need to accomplish along the way. Like, I want the foundation dug by this week, the drywall hung by this day, etc. In other words, I’m taking my plan to build a house and breaking it all the way down into what I need to do each week and each day.
The smallest, most insignificant part of that huge plan is the exercise selection and the day of the week things fall on. It’s minutiae! But with most bodypart splits, that’s the biggest part. It’s like showing up at an empty lot with a truck full of bricks and a photo of your dream home and saying, “Let’s build ourselves a fucking house!”
Here’s another argument. Do you ever notice that every bodybuilder who wishes to bring up a lagging bodypart usually increases the frequency that they train that bodypart? So, if the elite guys are saying the solution to slow growth is increased frequency; what if I have someone who is less advanced than that?
If it’s frequency that’s making the good things happen, should my solution not be increased frequency from the start? And this isn’t just my observation, either. Every scientific study using real people shows two to three times a week as the ideal exposure for strength and hypertrophy.
Look at sprinters. Most of them have lower body development better than 99% of the average guys out there. And these guys run every damn day! What does that tell us? Frequency is king.
Besides, look at most bodypart splits from a physiological basis. Chest/Back, Shoulders/Arms, Legs? What about Chest/Biceps, Back/Triceps, Legs, Shoulders? Due to the overlap, a lot of muscles are getting hit twice, even three times a week anyway. Again, it’s physiology.
Finally, as for these comparisons to the professional bodybuilders who trash each bodypart once a week; have you ever actually seen one of these guys train? The kind of weight and volume and intensity they use? The average guy is just not physically capable of causing that kind of damage. Therefore, they need to make up for it with frequency.
T-Nation: Tell me the dumbest thing you used to believe?
Alwyn: In my teenage years, I was convinced that the Olympia level bodybuilders, and most athletes to be honest, were drug free!
I also, like most, thought aerobic training would work for fat loss. That’s what I was taught in college and in the certifications. Repeatedly.
I tried it myself, and gave it to clients. I just kept increasing the volume when there was a plateau, with some clients doing 60mins + per day. Some were doing multiple sessions. It never worked. I mean, it burned a few calories but it just never became real world significant.
The actual scientific research doesn’t support aerobic exercise for weight loss at all. I gave a presentation where I list close to 30 studies looking at aerobic training and fat loss — real scientific published work — and none of them show a significant effect. Why it keeps being recommended by trainers as a primary intervention is beyond me.
My own wife trained for an Ironman Triathlon and got fatter in the process!
I know it seems that every competitive bodybuilder, natural or otherwise, does steady state cardio when preparing for a show. But there are a lot of other factors at play there.
First of all, when dieting THAT hard, anything that burns calories is beneficial, whether it’s moping up a treadmill or playing Wii Golf. And when you’re dealing with a 250-pound bodybuilder moving his massive body, even that little effort may be sufficient to burn a shit ton of calories, especially compared to the average person.
Throw in the usual assistance arsenal of thyroid meds, clenbuterol, and ephedrine and it’s even more significant.
I went to a seminar last year and spent a lot of time with a nationally ranked competitive bodybuilder. When we met up at 6AM for breakfast, it turned out he had brought all his food and a travel microwave with him for the weekend, and had been up at 4 that morning to do 90 minutes of cardio before breakfast.
So, if you have that level of discipline to live that way plus that amount of time to commit to exercise, AND you’re 250 pounds and burn a shit ton of calories just walking, then sure, steady state cardio is for you. But if that’s not you, then you have to look at the science to see what the more efficient method may be.
That’s why I included steady state cardio in my article The Hierarchy of Fat Loss. I think it has its place, but only if you have time for it. If you can give me four hours a week, I’m sorry but I have to use more effective tools like weight training and HIIT.
But if you have 4 hours a day, that’s a different story.
T-Nation: What’s the worst thing an aspiring trainer can do?
Alwyn: Fuck, where do I start! One of the worst things a coach can do is slag another coach who’s getting results. If Joe Blow down the street is training people and getting results, paying his bills and feeding his family, then that guy is doing something right. If not, he would go out of business in 18 months.
That’s something I learned from Charles Poliquin that I use to this day. If a guy is getting it done, he is doing something right; if he sucked he’d go out of business, plain and simple. The average lifecycle of a personal trainer is 18 months or so. The longevity is not good.
Rather than slag, my suggestion is to look at what that person is doing right and see if you can apply it to your business. Take Curves for example. Everybody knows it’s a shitty program, right? But what do they do that most gyms don’t? Why are they making money? The answer is they lowered the barrier of entry to a demographic that desperately needs training, and they eliminated any eccentric movement so no one gets sore. Of course, they don’t deliver much in terms of results, but they are definitely doing something right from a business perspective.
Another fuck up is to argue about differences in methodology. One of my favorite expressions is “Methods are many, principals are few. Methods may change, principals do not.”
Let’s say you took two coaches and said, “Okay boys, 100 grand on the table, you got 16 weeks to get a client in contest shape; winner takes all, loser shuts down.” Now take a look at what they would do that’s the same: that’s what really matters. The items they differ on are trivial.
One coach might do a low-carb diet plus interval cardio combined with circuit weights; the other might do a high carb, low fat, low-calorie diet with heavy weight training and steady state cardio. The similarities are that they are both going to try to burn a ton of calories while reducing energy intake. That’s the truth; that’s what matters.
I found myself arguing one day with some idiot about methods. He said, “I do the opposite of what you do. I follow a low fat, high-carb diet and do steady state cardio.” My response was “That’s not the fucking opposite, the opposite of what I do is to eat extra food and do no activity.”
The guy thought he was doing the opposite when he was actually right in the same ballpark as me.
If Mr. ‘One Set to Failure’ himself, Arthur Jones and Chad Waterbury each had three hours a week to get a client into shape, I bet you that their programs would be pretty similar in terms of principals, just not in terms of methods. So why argue about the trivial things you differ on?
Mike Boyle has an expression, “I can disagree and not dislike.” Debating training methods may get your juices going, but in the grand scheme of things it’s just not that fucking important.
T-Nation: Tell me the stupidest thing you’ve seen a fellow “fitness expert” do?
Alwyn: I heard a colleague of mine recommend that once your bodyfat was under 15%, you could eat .5 grams per pound carbs or something, and if you were above that you had to eat .3 grams. I’m like, don’t fucking lie. You have not narrowed this shit down to that degree. What, are you weighing your fucking apples? That’s just some made up shit. There’s way too much difference in individual physiology to be that accurate.
I agree with the premise that insulin sensitivity goes up with leanness; I just don’t agree with numbers. Based on that, you must have tried a ton of people at .36g and more at .34g and decided that .35 was best. But obviously you didn’t.
I fucking hate hearing these exact grams and percentages. How do you measure that? It’s made up shit. It annoys me cause it hurts our field. On the other hand, look at guys like John Berardi, who says stuff like ‘here, have a portion of carbohydrates.’ It’s far more real world.
I think some coaches do it because if you throw science and data at people with a lot of confidence you can look like an expert when you’re not.
That being said, I probably have more people in my gym on a program than in any given research study that produces data. So it’s not completely out of the question that you can find out things on your own that science doesn’t support yet, cause that’s all research is.
T-Nation: You say to judge a trainer by who he’s trained. Is that really the best way to measure a trainer’s competency?
Alwyn: It’s funny, after one of Mike Boyle’s first interviews, someone on the forums had commented ‘Nice story, but I’d like to see that backed up with some results.’ I almost fell out of my chair! Mike Boyle might be the most successful coach in the history of what we do.
Al Vermeil is the strength and conditioning coach for the Chicago Bulls. He’s the only guy out there who has championship rings from both the NBA and the NFL. But I don’t even think the guy has a fucking web page yet. When he gives talks, the only people who attend are other trainers like me because we know how fucking good he is. But lately, the most popular names in the business are those who are marketing the best, not the best at what they do.
So my filter is always which guys are getting it done in the real world. Dr. Stuart McGill makes his money rehabbing people who have nowhere else to go. Gray Cook literally resurrects athletes who have been told repeatedly that their careers are finished. That’s the stuff I look for, and when these guys talk, I listen.
But as for choosing a trainer based upon their all-star client list, I have mixed feelings. Look, if someone is training an NFL team or a top-level professional athlete, let’s just say they didn’t get that job because they suck. They got that job for a reason. But often their clients are pretty fucking impressive before they start up with them.
Jon Chaimberg, who is Georges St. Pierre’s conditioning coach, is a fantastic coach. And he has done a great job with GSP. But it wasn’t until GSP lost to Matt Serra that he began working with Jon. So basically, Jon started with an already world class athlete and did a good job and didn’t fuck him up along the way.
I often feel that it says more about your credibility if you train high school kids than if you train superstar athletes. I mean, you’re working with someone’s kids. Are you going to fucking tell me you’d let just anybody put hundreds of pounds on your teenaged kid’s spine? I think Joe DeFranco and Eric Cressey do an amazing job in that regard. That’s how you can judge people in my opinion — if they trust you with their kids.
Getting back to Al Vermeil, ask him what the proudest moment of his coaching career is and he won’t say it was winning a world championship with the Bulls or the 49ers; it was coaching a local high school team to the championships.
He almost gets tearful when he talks about it, it means so much to him. Taking a bunch of elite guys and making them more elite is impressive — you just have to be smart — but taking a bunch of average high school kids and making them champs is another story.
T-Nation: And finally, this is the most important question of all. The franchise question, if you will. Tell me something I don’t know…
Alwyn: Here’s something you should know. As far as the many popular trainers out there are concerned, let’s just say that I’ve seen behind many curtains. There are a lot of people writing about training who do not train anyone, or at best a few clients. I know a lot of these guys; I know their numbers, their financials, how well they’re doing. I know that they’re not getting by.
Shit, I get email from a lot of them asking me for business advice. The story is always the same: you ran out of money cause you were an unsuccessful trainer, so you had to come up with something else to make cash, like an article or an e-book. For this reason, there are a lot of self-appointed “training experts” talking about training theory who don’t train anyone to speak of. And a lot of their “findings” are based on very little real world work.
One critic of mine says I cherry pick the research that supports what I’m doing. He has that completely backwards. I don’t go to the research to decide what to do; I see what’s going on and then look to science to explain what I’m seeing.
When I started to see steady state cardio not working for people, I went to the library and began searching. I found no data to support steady-state cardio for fat loss. Everything that I write and talk about I see in numerous people over and over again. And everything I write about, I use every day with my clients.
Don’t believe me? Then come to my fucking gym and see me work. I have clients. I have a facility. I didn’t have time to start writing training articles until I got sick because I was way too busy training people. Most of the good coaches are like that. But there are lots out there now who have built a reputation based solely on articles and social media networking and Twitter and shit like that. It’s fucking marketing, not training. If you don’t know that about this industry, then you should.
I also refuse to pick a team. I probably have more kettlebells in my gym than dumbbells but I’ll be fucking damned if you label me a kettlebell trainer. But I know they’re effective.
I can pick up the phone and talk shop with top powerlifters at EFS, Olympic lifters, bodybuilding coaches, collegiate strength and conditioning specialists and MMA coaches. I learn all that I can from them and I’m not scared to use anything useful that I learn.
Different clients have different goals but more importantly, they also have very different needs. Sometimes you have to build guys up, sometimes you need to trim them down, other times you just have to get them strong. All require different methodologies. So what good does it do to pick a team when there are a lot of useful methods and tools out there?
Although I’ll confess that makes it hard sometimes. It’s easier to ignore people than be challenged. So don’t believe everything you read — but even more importantly — don’t just read what you already believe. Open yourself up to different ideas — give them a try before judging them.
But in the end, education is the single biggest difference maker in anything. You cannot get to the next level by just doing MORE of what got you to this level. It requires different knowledge, mindset, thinking, ideas, and actions.
Here’s a final thing you might not know. It’s a basic career/life rule that I live by: The gap between where you are and where you want to be is called Frustration. Frustration is eliminated by Education and Action. Get learning and get doing.