The Next Poliquin? Part 1

An Interview with Don Alessi - Part 1


It takes a lot for a strength coach or trainer to catch the attention of our man TC. In case you didn't know, TC has "discovered" just about every well known strength coach you can think of. Through Muscle Media 2000 and now Testosterone, TC has brought to the forefront dozens of experts in various areas and made certifiable gurus out of them.

That's why my ears perked up when he told me about Don Alessi. Don's been building a name for himself in the private sector for years and is a colleague of Charles Poliquin and other notables in the field. The articles he's written for T-mag have caused quite a stir for two reasons. First, they're very different than most anything you've probably tried before. Second, and most importantly, they work tremendously well.

We thought it was time T-mag readers got to know the man behind Meltdown Training and the guy who, among other things, is going to help you get bigger biceps by training your legs.

Testosterone: Don, we don't know much about you at this point. Start by telling us what it is you do for a living.

Don Alessi: I'm the founder, co-owner and operator of Alessi Personal Fitness. I started it twelve years ago and currently I operate it with my brother Derek who's also a trainer and has his Masters in business. We have two locations in the Western New York area and have eight trainers, not counting my brother and myself.

T: I understand you train these guys who are working for you and certify them yourself?

DA: Yes, from the trainers that enter our program, we select the best to work with us at our facilities. We've developed many successful trainers throughout the years. Because of this offshoot, we've created a separate company called the North American Training Certification Ltd. that specializes in certifications, but it's intern based whereas many of the other programs are text based.

T: So in other words, these guys can only get certified by working with you like an apprentice.

DA: That's right. They must also demonstrate a working knowledge of anatomy and exercise physiology. One of the things we find so lacking in this industry are trainers that have any practical experience and know-how.

T: Honestly, Don, we hardly ever publish articles written by personal trainers because the vast majority of them just don't know shit. Do you take offense to the fact that T-mag bashes most of the personal trainers out there?

DA: I wouldn't hire the average personal trainer to answer my phones or make my protein shakes, especially the ones at large health clubs. Most of them just aren't professional and they nickel and dime the presentation. They love to talk about the money that can be made but there's really not a lot of money being a one-on-one trainer, so you have to love it. To love it you need to commit to it. Most trainers just do it as an odd job or as a way to make ends meet while they pursue their bodybuilding careers. That's the biggest problem.

T: So what's an average week like for you?

DA: I train clients anywhere from 20 to 30 hours per week, one-on-one. In the past it's been as high as 60 to 70 hours per week. These days I spend time working with our trainers and developing future trainers. I dedicate over ten hours a week to reading and research. I also do live seminars at various companies as I've developed an executive client base.

T: So how did you get involved in all of this? Were you an athlete yourself back in school?

DA: I'd like to think I was! I started working out when I was ten or eleven years old by doing push-ups and calisthenics. I started to get the "look" and started to get a lot of recognition because of it, so I became very egocentric about my physique at a young age. I was just trying to lure the high school honeys, I guess.

Then I started participating in football and athletics. I ended up playing college football which led right into bodybuilding. I competed at the state level and in some local shows. I did pretty well; I would get first and second in some shows. I don't think I've missed a week of training in the last fifteen or sixteen years.

And then, like TC, I pursued a medical background. I took three years of pre-med and was all set to become a doctor. I quit my third year because, to be very honest with you, I'd skip class to go to the gym! I didn't care too much about friends or anything else at that time, just getting to the gym.

T: So what are your stats now?

DA: I'm 32 years old, 5' 7", 188 pounds, 8% body fat. I seldom get above 10%.

T: Yeah, me neither (cough cough). What are your interests outside of fitness, bodybuilding and athletic preparation? Or do you have time for anything else?

DA: (laughing) Is there anything outside of that? I didn't know anything else existed!

T: I know the feeling. Are you married?

DA: Yes, I am. I have two loves. My first is my family. I have three daughters, all very athletic. In fact, my five year old can do three pull-ups without stopping. I never pushed my kids into doing anything, they just picked it up by watching me. I have a nine year old and seven year old as well. My second love obviously is training. I started the personal training business professionally at age 19 and that didn't allow for many other interests.

T: Have you worked with many professional athletes and celebrities?

DA: Oh yeah, many. I've worked with athletes, local TV personalities, a couple of rock stars...

T: Oh yeah, who?

DA: Johnny Rzeznik of the Goo-Goo Dolls for one. He's a Buffalo boy and we teamed up years ago. A great up and coming athlete I've worked with is professional boxer Baby Joe Mesi. He's a heavyweight and was on the Tyson undercard last year in Italy before that show was canceled. He's 21 and 0 as a professional with all 21 wins by KO and TKO.

I've trained a lot of high school and college athletes. The money isn't great there but I certainly love doing it. I've also trained a professional golfer and a Trans Am auto racer. I've trained some Vegas performers, the mayor of Buffalo, and several politicians, so it's been a great little run. I also train some Fortune 500 and 100 executives as well as the owners of the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabers.

T: Cool. Free tickets! Now, when the average guy comes to you for training, what is he usually doing wrong and what patterns do you notice? What do you have to fix in other words?

DA: Number one would be nutrition. There's a lot of confusion and it's not necessarily the client's fault. There's just so much controversy regarding nutrition, but it doesn't have to be confusing. Most bodybuilders who are successful know this. The two things most trainees screw up is meal frequency and getting quality protein. I'd say that 75% of success is in nutrition.

In terms of training, people make mistakes because they have very little concept of organization or periodization. They need a long-range plan. They need to have a "season," so to speak. You don't have to be a competitive bodybuilder to have a season. Even if you just want to look great naked, you need a goal or something to work toward, a competitive period.

T: So although I don't compete on stage, my competitive period would be something like going to the Arnold Classic every year and wanting to look good?

DA: Exactly. That's what I'm going to use now.

[Editor's Note: Don will be joining the rest of the T-staff in February at the Arnold Classic.]

Most guys that have competed in bodybuilding have learned they're going to get their best results and make the most progress those twelve weeks before the show. You learn so much during that time about how your body works. Everyone needs some type of competitive period.

T: Where else are people screwing up?

DA: Biomechanically, the average bodybuilder's range of motion is as tight as spandex on Rosie O'Donnell. Anterior pelvic tilt, anterior shoulder rotation, way too much protraction and not enough retractive exercises or variation in the upper body...

T: Whoa there! What does that mean in plain English?

DA: It means people are too bench-press happy and even too pull-up happy these days. I'm glad they're doing pull-ups but they're neglecting the rowing movements. As a chiropractor will tell you, people in general are severely forward rounded with anterior shoulder rotation. One of the things they need to do is stretch the tight upper pecs and the anterior shoulder and do a lot more retraction and external rotation work.

Also, most people don't realize that the pull-up, functionally speaking, is an exercise that's going to pull the shoulder blades forward a bit. Related to the rotator cuff, the flat bench press and chin-up develop the internal rotators of the humerus – the lats and pecs. Therefore it's easy to see that most trainees quickly develop a lack of external rotation and retraction strength. So the problem there is you're doubling up on something that's going to hunch you over even more. That's where the bent-over rows, the cable rows, and the rear-delt raises are going to come in.

T: What problems do you see with technique?

DA: The biggest problem I see with most bodybuilders is lack of timed tempos and rest periods. Ian King and Charles Poliquin have brought the concept of rep tempo and rest time into play, but no one is actually timing these things. Don't think you can just count to ten and it's going to be ten seconds; you'll find you're going to rush it every time. You need a partner to get the Timex watch going or use a metronome. You don't need to do it forever; it'll become instinctive. You'll develop a very accurate subconscious sense for time.

T: Let's talk about why people reach a certain limit in their development and then stall out. I find that most people who say they've hit their "genetic limit" are really just screwing up somewhere in the areas of diet, training, or recovery. What do you think?

DA: I think genetics are a crock. What causes people to reach a certain income bracket? Is it genetics? No, it's knowledge and environment. What I mean is that, in training you're only as good as the books you read and the people that push you, the people you surround yourself with.

T: So too many people use genetics as an excuse?

DA: Absolutely. Genetics and overtraining are the two biggest bodybuilding excuses.

T: Overtraining can be an excuse?

DA: Yes. Everyone likes to give lip service to overtraining, but very few people even understand what it is. One of my favorite researchers, William Kramer, is looking into the concept of "overreaching" verses overtraining. Overreaching is when you purposefully train the same body part two or three times and then expect a long recovery. In other words, hit it hard and then rest it hard.

Now, true overtraining is different. It literally destroys motivation, lean-body mass, and your total body weight drops quickly. According to the research, this entire syndrome can last for periods of weeks, months and even years. In my twelve years in this business, I personally don't know many people, if any, that have actually been overtrained.

T: Do they just think they're overtrained and actually they're doing something else wrong?

DA: A lot of times it comes down to knowledge, lack of experience, and lack of exposure to other routines. Now there is a local overtraining effect that's very common. So if every time you do legs, you squat one way or another or you always do leg presses and extensions, you're beating up your knees quite a bit. So you're going to have chronically tight, sore, and inflamed knees. This can be corrected by simply learning new exercise patterns and variations, periodizing the routine to include unloading phases and PNF stretching on off days (active recovery).

So I think knowledge has a lot to do with it. How many bodybuilders have tried front squats or power cleans? It's very easy to say you've hit your genetic limit or you're overtrained when you hit a plateau. It's an easy copout for laziness.

T: Does nutrition play a role in this plateauing?

DA: It's one of the first things I'd look at. Nutrition really plays a role in work capacity especially. Meal frequency and getting enough essential fats and quality proteins are the three most important things when it comes to increasing one's work capacity.

T: Let's talk about some of the programs you've written for us. The ab article has you training ab muscles you can't see, the arm program doesn't have you doing many curls, and the bench program starts out with leg work and doesn't focus much on benching. You're freaking people out here! What's the pattern I'm seeing with all of this?

DA: I'm glad I freak some people out. I want to get people off their asses and get them to work hard again. I think people need to be woken up. I'm trying to wake up their minds as well as their bodies. Listen, everyone knows how to do a curl and knows that they're supposed to work the rectus abdominus with crunches and various things, but what people don't know is where the most potential is.

I'm targeting areas that have more potential than the obvious target muscles. The upper back muscles are probably the number one neglected area next to the calves, especially the mid to lower trapezius muscles. T-2 and T-3 are major postural muscles that support the upper extremity and the biceps. If you want big biceps then you damn well better have strong, supportive trapezius muscles – upper, middle and lower.

T: So what you're saying is that if you want bigger biceps and triceps, you don't necessarily have to train them more often or more intensely.

DA: No way. In fact, that's where you have the least potential. Why? You've been training those muscles and they have a lot of experience. The more training experience you have in any one group, the less potential that exists. It's pretty simple – if you tap into regions you haven't tapped into before, there's more potential, more motor units that need to be recruited.

Dr. Fred Hatfield said it best. He said you can't shoot a cannon from a canoe. Your brain will literally shut down the ability of your biceps to get beyond a certain level. It's not a genetic problem; it's a neurological problem. Your C.N.S., especially the Golgi-tendon organ, can shut your biceps force production down after a certain level because it senses excess tension and it's not going to allow you to develop to a point where you're going to injure yourself.

T: So if my arms stop growing, I may have a weakness somewhere else in my body and therefore by brain is protecting me by not letting them get any bigger?

DA: Exactly. There's a weak link and the brain and nervous system detect that. There are built in mechanisms called proprioceptors that are going to shut down the mass development of the biceps if it gets "out of control."

T: Very interesting. I see now how your Booming Biceps articles go about fixing this problem. Now, let's talk juice, and I ain't talking about orange juice. What's your general opinion about steroids?

Part 2 of "The Next Poliquin?" will be posted next week.

Chris Shugart is T Nation's Chief Content Officer and the creator of the Velocity Diet. As part of his investigative journalism for T Nation, Chris was featured on HBO’s "Real Sports with Bryant Gumble." Follow on Instagram