Sucker Punch: Scott Abel

Categorized under Training

As far as strength coaches go, T Nation has some of the industry’s heaviest hitters hanging around the company weight room.

Thibaudeau, Tate, Cressey, Wendler, Robertson, Poliquin, Minor; these guys are experts at helping everyone from professional athletes to ordinary humans lift extraordinary weight. And because these guys are as good as they are, it’s fair to say they’ve each become pretty popular with the segment of T Nation readers who live and die by their PR’s.

(Note: effective immediately, our coaches can no longer respond to requests to sign readers’ belts, wraps, training logs, jock straps, or frilly thong underwear. Jim Wendler says he’ll still sign the pink thongs, except any from Bruce in Hackensack, NJ. Dude, he’s signed four already; don’t get greedy.)

However, many of our readers just aren’t that interested in superhuman strength. These guys are bodybuilders first and foremost. While they might respect a strong lifter and maybe do some low rep training on occasion, for these folks it’s physique first, poundage a distant second. The weights are merely a means to an end.

If you’re one of these lifters, Scott Abel is your coach.

Scott is a bodybuilder through and through. He doesn’t train heavy, admits he’s never been particularly strong and has zero interest in how much his clients can bench or squat. Scott’s specialty is physique enhancement and he’s coached over 300 champions, from raw novices to Mr. Olympia hopefuls in a career that is currently entering it’s fourth decade.

Scott has been around T NATION for a while and is getting a little tired of all these strength coaches hogging the bandwidth. He’s also getting downright cranky with some of these same strength coaches trying to dole out bodybuilding advice to trainees that he feels is either inefficient or flat out wrong.

Tempo, timed rest intervals, and the “myth” that if you train for strength, development will come; Scott Abel barbecues so many sacred cows you’d think he was hosting his own cooking show called Guru Grilling. But if you just want to get as big and lean as humanly possible, then believe it or not, this article may just be what you’re looking for.

Let’s see if Scott can tell us something we don’t know.

T-Nation: What would you say are the biggest mistakes bodybuilders make that hold them back from reaching their true physique potential?

Scott Abel: Where to start? There are so many I could probably do a book on this topic alone.

The first is that most trainees, especially at early ages, let their egos influence their training way too much. If a trainee can learn to leave their ego at the door when they go to the gym, they could more accurately read and assess their own biofeedback as performance parameters. This is one of the elements of focus I take as a coach with a client. It’s all about biofeedback, which is specific to each and every individual.

Second, most trainees are also guilty of “pinballing.” Pinballing is when trainees go back and forth, trying this workout and that workout, without any background structure or context to work from. Trainees need to stop looking at individual workouts and more at the overall programming.

But far and away, the biggest mistake made by trainees, trainers, and experts in this industry is the overwhelming emphasis on the immediate elements of training at the expense of the cumulative elements, like the workout’s effect on total work capacity.

As I always say, a workout is part of the program, it is not THE program.

Focusing just on workouts, trying this and that, pinballing; usually this all just leads people right back to where they started, and all they carry with them from that journey is a sense of frustration.

T-Nation: Interesting. Any other big mistakes trainees make?

Scott: Another grand mistake is that people confuse what is “new” with what is “relevant.” Everyone is racing to find new findings or solutions that are so much greater than the old ways. But without the context of a properly prescribed program, what is “new” is often meaningless.

T-Nation: You said: “Many people confuse talent with knowledge. Because someone has won a national title makes them more than likely talented, but not necessarily knowledgeable. The two don’t need to go hand in hand. Yet I constantly see trainees taking advice from other trainees simply because they won such and such a contest.”

So whom should bodybuilders look up to for advice? The skinny guy in the lab coat who writes cool articles?

Scott: What you are asking is the age-old question of tradition vs. science. Both have a lot to offer, however, neither necessarily leads to expertise. The problem is when both become blind to one another, and we see this being played out all the time in the industry.

T-Nation: Please explain.

Scott: I remember way back at MuscleCamp in 1989, all the best bodybuilders and all the best “experts” congregated in one spot to talk shop. One of the best bodybuilders of the time was making a point that he feels high incline flies in his pecs and that they gave him the tremendous cleavage he was known for. One of the experts, who was a PhD in kinesiology interrupted and said, “There is no way, based on biomechanics, that incline flies are a good movement for your pec cleavage.”

T-Nation: That must’ve gone over well.

Scott: Hardly. Like I say, if you want to know the best way up the mountain, ask the man who travels it every day — not the man who stays at the bottom and studies it.

I know more than a few “science experts” in the industry who have competed and had ‘ho hum’ results at best. They chalked it up to genetics because their own bias of “scientism” has them convinced they did everything right, so this was the best outcome they could’ve achieved. But they fail to consider that experience may have more to offer than their textbook explanations and prescriptions.

We see this now as well with the scientific expert base trying to insinuate that decades of proven results is somehow wrong. This is dogma, nothing more. Just because science cannot explain “why” something works, doesn’t mean it isn’t working. Science should inform, not dictate protocol, and just because something is not measurable does not mean it is not observable.

To insinuate that decades of traditional training are mistaken is far too categorical a statement to be taken seriously; especially if the “scientist” making that statement has never “been there, done that” himself.

T-Nation: You’re not really saying we should only listen to scientists if they’ve also been champion athletes?

Scott: Absolutely not! Just because someone has won such and such a contest is really meaningless. They often have no common sense understanding of application, and application is everything. Believe me, I know more than a few trainer/coaches giving advice who should not be.

So what title someone holds really means very little to me either. Wayne Gretzky in retirement has not been able to re-produce another Wayne Gretzky through instruction and advice. So, confusing talent with knowledge is dangerous; although success certainly leaves clues.

T-Nation: So then whom should we listen to?

Scott: I prefer listening to someone who has both knowledge and experience. At that same MuscleCamp, it was Dr. Squat, Fred Hatfield, and the like who could move comfortably back and forth between the science and the experience. And although these two intersect more often than not, they are often disparate as well.

T-Nation: You said: “How much you can lift is not the deciding factor. The deciding factor is how much stress a muscle endures as overload.” But you also dump all over the concept of tempo, saying explosive lifting is better. While I agree that explosive lifting is more powerful (as defined by more work performed in less time), a longer eccentric tempo definitely causes more muscular damage. Aren’t you contradicting yourself here?

Scott: Not at all. Again, I am speaking in relative terms. I wouldn’t advocate a complete bodybuilding workout of only explosive moves. I prefer to move from explosive performance to constant tension as the workout progresses.

T-Nation: And tempo?

Scott: Arbitrarily assigning “tempos” gives the uninitiated trainee the wrong impression and this is my issue with it. Once you assign such nonsense these numbers become the central focus of a workout to the trainee. They start paying more attention to these incidentals, which should be more like guidelines than anything else. When they do so, their minds are more disconnected from their working muscles. Maximum voluntary neural activation, a key component to neural adaptations, is negated this way.

The experience of the workout should be everything. An overemphasis on these numbers negates this, and relevant biofeedback is overlooked. Once again, the impression is, “The more stuff I count, the more control I have.” So the trainee is recording ridiculous information that does not enhance the workout experience!

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.

T-Nation: What other problems do you have with some bodybuilding programs?

Scott: Some of these program experts give out I can’t begin to understand on paper let alone implement. Complicating something doesn’t make it better, it just makes it more complicated!

Let’s take assigned rest intervals as an example. Such and such a program says do exercise “A”, then rest 90 seconds. Really? So one prescribed protocol fits everyone? Listen, no two people adapt or recover at the same rate, even to the same stimulus. Let’s get real and get back to qualitative aspects of workout and program feedback instead of just arbitrary number counting.

Yesterday after a set of one-arm DB rows, I thought I was going to lose a lung. And I am in good condition. Yet in the gym I see people do a set of one arm DB rows, put the weight back, and can immediately engage in conversation and have no heavy breathing. So according to prescription we should both rest 90 seconds? No. This is misleading to results.

T-Nation: So a bodybuilder shouldn’t time rest intervals?

Scott: A more efficient qualitative indicator of rest times would be intensity and duration of oxygen debt post set. The closer someone gets to maximum work capacity in an anaerobic performance set, the greater will be the oxygen debt and the longer the demanded rest period. To gauge this by the clock ignores the actual trainee!

This is what is wrong with all these prescriptive methods. They tend to negate the actual individuals the programs are assigned to. Therefore, even though they claim otherwise, such prescriptions are in essence “one size fits all.”

To be clear, it’s not just what the program brings to the individual, but what the individual brings to the program. All this counting tends to remove the individual from his own experience of his workouts. If there is one lesson the high levels of bodybuilding success can teach, it’s this attention to individually “feeling” workouts and being able to listen to the body.

T-Nation: Let’s talk diet. You are not a fan of carb cycling, saying that it doesn’t matter and that fat loss will occur as long as you are in a caloric deficit. But many bodybuilders swear by carb cycling. Care to elaborate? How should bodybuilders eat to diet down or gain mass?

Scott: First, this industry needs to stop slotting people into diets, and start making diets to fit the people. This means entertaining and assessing not just the physical specimen but also lifestyle, emotional awareness of eating patterns, nutritional knowledge, etc. These are important considerations that seem to get scant attention by experts assigning diet protocol. Again, this microanalysis seems to come at the expense of the big picture emphasis.

Often this industry seeks to create consumer dependence. The more complicated we make something, the more “genius” or “expert” guidance required to unravel it. It’s a way of creating two things.

One as I said, is dependence, and the other is the illusion of control. If we give people more and more variables to pay attention to, they “think” they are controlling complex bodily processes that are not linear one-way causative relationships. Again, by seeking to complicate what is simple, the industry creates for itself “experts” to unravel its own creation: complexity.

T-Nation: Speaking of complexity, I’m going to have to re-play that one in my head. <pause>. Okay, I’m good. Please continue.

Scott: I do the opposite. I look at people who aren’t part of the industry: people who never obsess about food and nutrition and who never manifest any weight issues. Then I work backward from what these observations reveal.

The simple truth is that complicating things in the short run usually burns people out in the long run to the point they just give up and move on. The industry relies on this turnstile nature of consumers within it. So carb cycling may “work” depending on how you define it, but is it sustainable and relevant? I may use it here and there as a short-term strategy with a particular individual, but I don’t mandate it as an operating principle.

I get letters all the time from people asking me about my “program” or my “diet.” The industry has brainwashed them into thinking all experts fall into a specific category of one-dimensional approaches. While that may be true of some, it’s not true of myself. I don’t have a diet or a program. I have thousands in both categories.

T-Nation: Scott, you’ve been involved in professional bodybuilding for many years now. If you had Oprah-like powers to change the bodybuilding industry with a snap of your all-powerful fingers, what changes would you make?

Scott: Let’s be clear here because there seems to be some confusion regarding “Scott Abel” in the fitness and bodybuilding world. For the most part, I’ve deliberately stepped away from the hard-core competitive world. Of course, I still coach competitors who come to me for competition prep, but it is no longer my niche, even though I’m more than qualified to do so. But as far as professional bodybuilding goes, let’s just say that I’ve been to the top of that mountain, took a look around and said, ‘I don’t like the view!’

T-Nation: What aspects do you disagree with? The competitive lifestyle? The drugs?

Scott: I whole-heartedly embrace a healthy bodybuilding lifestyle, but the bureaucracy of the competitive structure and the media that caters to it no longer interests me. It’s created a dark sub-culture not unlike the subcultures of recreational drug users. I have addressed this in detail in my ebook, The Other Side of the Mirror.

T-Nation: Can you explain that a little?

Scott: I’ll give you an example from an “advice column” from one of the hardcore mags. A guy writes in basically saying he loves the “physique results” he gets on a certain drug. He loves what the drug does for his physique, but while on it he suffers terrible anxiety, sleeplessness, and headaches; all of which get more severe as the duration of intake continues.

Now the lunacy comes in the form of the advice from the “expert.” The advice was to get a “prescription” for either Lexapro or Zoloft for anti-anxiety. Then along with these new meds added to his existing stack, the “expert” also suggests Xanax and/or Valium for sleep.

So the mentality of the hardcore end of the industry is to just “add more,” whatever the issue. This is lunacy. As we see with Chris Benoit, Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson, etc. the drug use mentality can literally be a dead end.

Hardcore used to mean an attitude about training and devotion: now it signifies the same to drug use.

So if in a snap of my fingers I could change something, I would change it to at least be more real and open about its dark subculture and the potential consequences of being a member in it. For people immersed in the lifestyle of the competitive side of bodybuilding, the question begs, “What is bodybuilding doing for my life; vs. what is bodybuilding doing to my life?” It seems this question gets a little too real for some to address.

T-Nation: A movie star needs to get buff in 12 weeks. His agent gives you a signed blank check. So, uh, what do you do?

Scott: First thing I have to say is that I do not like shot gun approaches to physique transformation. It’s too risky for metabolic damage or metabolic burnout. That said, I do have a lot of experience in this area.

First, we need to assess the client. This is often overlooked. In other words, vital stats and personal history tell me a lot about my range of possibilities. So for example, is my movie star Jack Black or James Gandolfini? Or is it more like Sylvester Stallone or Jackie Chan? Right away, just by a quick assessment of vital stats and personal background I have a working model as to how cooperative this person’s metabolism and nervous system will be for the task at hand.

T-Nation: How would you approach his diet?

Scott: A quick metabolic starting point is necessary. I will usually start with one gram of protein and one gram of carbs per lb bodyweight or LBM, depending on how much body fat there is to shed. And often I will use 15-20 % bodyweight for fat allowance. So if he weighs 180 lbs, then 180 X’s 20 % = 36 grams fat. Then these portions are spread evenly over 5 meals per day.

Or, I may do a very quick and general metabolic profile. So bodyweight in kilos X’s 24 hours, or bodyweight in lbs X’s .45 X’s 24 hours. So 180 X’s .45 = 81 X’s 24 = 1944. This is a likely metabolic profile for an individual not currently paying much attention to diet or training.

Since I assume I have not only a blank check, but also no time constraints, we would begin with at the hardest point of duration and intensity and work our way to a taper. So the diet would begin at its most restricted.

T-Nation: What about training?

Scott at his freakiest: 5.9 and 270 pounds

Scott: We would begin 3 per day workouts and taper to 2 as soon as indicators fall in line. I would more than likely make body part training the central emphasis, with a 6 day, two body parts per session program rotating Hybrid, speed, strength, and power.

The middle session would be some form of steady state cardio for say one hour. This is not for metabolic effect or for fat burning; it’s merely to burn some extra calories so that with the caloric deficit over time we can more effectively get into Supercompensation mode, which gives me more freedom. This session could be as simple as walking a dog for 60 minutes, the treadmill, etc. This middle session would be dropped once Supercompensation is reached.

The third session would be divided. 2 non-consecutive days per week would be either abs/core circuits for 45 minutes or MET circuits, or one session of each over the two sessions. Two other non-consecutive days per week would be some kind of sprint intervals, either on a track or field, or graduating to bleacher or stair sprints.

These sessions would last 30 minutes post warm up. One other session would be devoted to a one hour Yoga class, and to round out the 6 days, one other session would be another steady state cardio.

As the relative energy deficit and fat burning mode take over, I would drop the steady state sessions. I would also grant the 7th day of rest to also include calorie spiking of some kind, either a couple meals, or a whole day off dieting. (No limitations!) This would require an assessment of course. This serves to give the client some short-term goal to work toward each week. And this really catapults the motivation.

To make the final dialing in, I would taper off the fat sources of calories (NOT the carbs!). And in the final week, I would do individual water and osmotic control to peak the peak as we say. Nothing drastic, just some mild water manipulation.

The point is to do it intelligently, so there are no negative rebound effects once the process is complete.

T-Nation: That’s pretty interesting, especially how the program gets progressively easier, not tougher.

Scott: Exactly. Robert De Niro won his Academy award for playing boxer Jake LaMotta. He gained over 60 lbs for this role, but the strategy used was brilliant. They shot the movie in reverse. In other words, he gained the weight first, then they shot those ‘fat’ scenes and he actually undertook his training and dieting as the filming progressed. Very intelligent. Since the weight gain was forced and sudden, the labile component would come off very quickly. So it was a very healthy and intelligent approach.

Hillary Swank also had great advice for Million Dollar Baby. She trained 4 hours per day and quite intensely at that. But her carbs stayed well above 200 grams a day the whole time to allow her to endure the months of rigorous training. She looked fantastic, and when it was over there was no negative rebounding.

On the other hand, Jessica Simpson recently came under attack for her seemingly sudden weight gain after undertaking an ill-advised deprivation diet for her role in Dukes of Hazzard.

T-Nation: Yeah, but I don’t think I’ll ever look at the General Lee in quite the same way.

Scott: True, but the result of getting emaciated was several months of metabolic rebound. I predicted this long before it happened.

Anyway, these are but a few of the right and wrong ways that shot gun approaches to Hollywood physique transformation can play out.

T-Nation: What the biggest scam in this industry?

Scott: There are so many right now, but the most troublesome is the rise of the Internet expert.

T-Nation: A lot of coaches are complaining about this.

Scott: It’s frustrating. These are kids barely out of school who are trained in Internet marketing and they have more of a love of money than a love of fitness. They say and do things that strain credibility, or they just steal from some known and recognized expert and repeat their stuff without any credit to the original source.

But because they know how to manipulate the internet demographic, they are “earning” a significant income, which is their goal. So they are successful marketers but really offer little in terms of expertise.

I guess that leads to my next scam, the misrepresentation of expertise to the consumer. People now have ebooks, etc. that claim to get people in ‘contest shape’ or to have trained ‘competitors’ when they’ve never been there themselves, and lead people on as if they have. So the rise of the pseudo expert is the biggest scam, and I’ve seen it a lot in my career.

I’ve had people on my forums who go by the tag “Big Guns 21” or something ridiculous like that. Then, I’m doing an appearance and this guy comes and introduces himself. “I’m on your forums, I’m Big Guns 21,” and the guy looks like he’s never been in a gym in his life!

But he’s doling out advice on 5 or 6 different forums on the net. It’s the “blind leading the blind” and “bullshit baffles brains” technique. To these guys I say, shut up and show me.

T-Nation: Any others?

Scott: The infomercial mentality of both producer and consumer concerns me. Buzz words like “secret,” “never before available,” “fast results,” or those advertising “little time” or “zero commitment.” I call it the “Bowflex Mentality.” And people keep going from one get-results-quick solution to the next.

Now, science and technology have indeed come a long way since the early days. This means people paying attention can “optimize” their rate of adaptation, but they cannot speed it up. The problem is people keep jumping from program to program, workout to workout, Guru to Guru, to find that “fix” that keeps getting advertised to them. This actually slows their potential progress.

T-Nation: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in 20 + years as a bodybuilding coach?

Scott: Well I’ve made so many big ones that I wouldn’t know what to call the biggest. But let’s be clear; I’ve made a lot of mistakes.

First, I think my biggest mistake was early on, getting carried away with my success [as a coach]. At one time there wasn’t anyone even close to having my success at the competition level. It got to the point where if I had more than a few people in a contest, claims were made that this was “unfair” to everyone else.

There was even a rumor once that I “cooked” my own secret drugs in my bathtub, and the reason all my people won was because I would only give the concoctions to my own athletes.

T-Nation: I actually heard that one, except the lab was in your garage.

Scott: Ha! Yeah, my head got pretty big at one time. It led to a few years of being lost in a need to “be” right, rather than to “do” right. I’d like to think I’m making up for that now.

I remember at one National Show a competitor of mine who I really thought the world of tried to tell me the day before weigh ins that he could make middleweight. I remember dismissing him in an instant, saying “No way. You’re ripped at 193, there’s no way you’re going to get down to 176.5 by tomorrow.”

But come weigh-ins, after dehydration, he weighed in at 178.

He looked diced and placed third in light-heavyweights, but I could have easily got him down to middleweight and walked away with the National Middleweight Title if I’d just been paying attention! Next time around, we did just that! I learned a lot from that.

The other mistake I made early, which is still common today, was always thinking there was a “better way.” There were other ways, but seldom were they any better. I learned a long time ago, that once you truly know and understand the principles, you don’t need to keep revisiting them.

The principles are a lot like the alphabet, once you know the alphabet and understand the rules of consonants and vowels, you don’t need to keep revisiting it. We see this now with the internet; everyone getting carried away with more and more complicated exercises or thought trends.

T-Nation: Any big mistakes you made as a bodybuilder?

Scott: Now, as a trainee, one the biggest mistakes I made was pursuing low rep strength as a means to physique development. All that got me was injured and frustrated. Strength has a ceiling capacity for everyone; and max strength capacity has a lot more to do with genetics than people realize. Giving up this “dogma” allowed my physique to dramatically improve.

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?

Scott: I’ll tell you two things that are related. First, this industry, like many, suffers from its own paradigm blindness. It’s much like the way Wall Street experts could not see the financial collapse coming before it was too late. The experts within it, if you look back at their quotes, were supporting foolishness even in the face of logic, common sense, and reason.

The industry suffers form a serious case of “science bias.” The current emphasis on “strength” being the common denominator of all fitness is misplaced, especially concerning muscle development. I’ve trained lots of people at the Olympia level and their strength levels were all over the board. Strength did not explain their development; intensity did. So to accurately put it; “it’s not the weights that work the muscles, it’s the muscles that work the weights.”

It’s max efforts that build a body, not max weights. How much you lift is less important than how hard you lift. The research supporting this is decades long but the industry either misreads it, or ignores it.

Put another way, many experts in this industry have people believing that if they “train for strength, development will come.” This is absolutely untrue! You may not be born to be a great powerlifter, but you can still acquire a fantastic physique. The truth is in fact the opposite: “Train for development and strength will come.”

T-Nation: Strong words. And the second thing we don’t know?

Scott: I’ll say it by analogy. “It’s not the recipe, it’s the chef!” I’ve lasted 4 decades now by realizing this fact. Everyone is looking for the right “recipes” for results. That seems to never change. But there are few ‘master chefs’ who truly get it.

They understand the “food” so well that although vogue cuisines will come and go, these master chefs will remain. They know how to create and tweak various recipes to fit any palate. True physique experts are master chefs. They don’t follow cookbook recipes. That’s for wannabe’s! But some of you will get it, some of you will not.

T-Nation: Ales cuisine! Thanks for doing this Scott.

Scott: It was my pleasure.