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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.