Who Cares if It Looks Weird?

Interview with Scott Abel

Read through the posts on the T-Nation forums after we run one of Scott Abel's articles, and you'll notice a mix of adjectives from "incredible" and "iconoclast" to "ridiculous" and "confusing," all trying and failing to put Scott in an easy-to-understand box.

Which is understandable. Scott, who's 47, has never approached bodybuilding training as a simple pursuit. He started his career as a social worker, and as he got more involved in bodybuilding, his first instinct was to apply the same academic rigor that had gone into his graduate-level studies.

He succeeded as a trainer because the bodybuilders he coached were successful – to date, he's worked with more than 300 world, national, regional, and local champions in every type of physique competition. But what sets him apart is the reason they were successful: He pursues bodybuilding as an athletic pursuit, with aesthetic benefits coming from qualities like core strength, coordination, and the ability to accelerate and decelerate. In other words, if it's important for a competitive athlete, it's important for a bodybuilder.

That's what keeps him busy as a coach and consultant, and what makes him both popular and controversial here at Testosterone Muscle.

I get the impression a lot of people are confused about what you're trying to say in your articles for Testosterone. Help us out.

My message is simple: training needs to focus on the individual and not a set system. I think people are so used to black and white information – things like "lift for two reps to build strength" –and it's really limiting them. When you leave out all the gray area you lose all the knowledge. And most of the industry "experts" are just missing the point.

What do you mean?

Right now we have too much one-dimensional expertise. Someone comes out of school with a master's degree in anatomy and all of a sudden he's a bodybuilding expert. It's ridiculous.

But it works both ways. A "coach" can be in the gym for 20 years and have absolutely no academic background and that's just as stupid. Just because I fly into airports doesn't make me a pilot, right?

Real expertise is something that is acquired over time with a combination of academic background and understanding and applied expertise over time. My business tripled when I realized that for me it's far more important to do right than it is to be right.

I'm not trying to be right about something as simple as rep schemes or what strength is or isn't. I'm just trying to save people a lot of years of mistakes because that's how I learned. We've always had too dogmatic of an interpretation of training and diet principles and it leads to vested interest in being right and value rigidity.

The art of coaching and program design that everyone talks about just gets pushed aside. One-dimensional thinking leads to one-dimensional answers, and those don't usually lead to solutions.

Agreed. But let's get back to your message. You don't like using external cues like rest periods, time under tension, and periodization. Why?

They all negate the individual. You start slotting people into programs and diets rather than making diets and programs that fit the person. So we end up with a whole system of information overload that just doesn't address the client's needs.

What I do is differentiate between coaching methods. Let's call it "Big C" coaching and "Little C" coaching. Big C coaching is all about training the person. Little C is focusing on minutiae or following "what should happen" too closely.

Once a client tries the protocol you're recommending, it's no longer a science experiment – it's interactive.

The more you create a thinking environment within a training protocol, the less results someone's going to get. What's required in intense training is concentration – not thinking about prescribed rest periods or other arbitrary numbers. Go watch a high-level athlete train. They're usually not the most intellectual, but they know how to take their body and push it. They're usually the ones that have worked the hardest for the longest time, always increasing their workload capacity and intensity of effort.

So eight to 12 reps don't result in hypertrophy? One to five reps don't build strength?

It's all relative. The first thing you have to do is get out of that whole "comfort zone" kind of training. If you're an advanced trainee, then you've got a high training-efficiency percentage (TEP). This is when your first rep and your last rep are of equally high intensity. When you reach that point, you can no longer think of the strength curve in terms of very minute changes in rep schemes.

For some advanced trainees I'll even prescribe 50 to 100 reps for legs just because the legs are so hard to tire in terms of load. The bottom line is this: It's the amount of stress the tissue is under that produces growth, not the amount of load.

So weight doesn't really matter?

It matters, but it's just one aspect of overload. Most coaches look at muscular-skeletal strength as the most important variable. And I look at nervous system intensity as the most important. What we need to do is define strength in better terms. Powerlifting does not measure power – it measures limit strength. If anything measures power, it's [Olympic] weightlifting.

So if a guy who wants to build more muscle and can lift 275 pounds for five reps on the bench press, you're saying he shouldn't go up to 280 pounds right away?

What a mistake that is. Strength doesn't increase forever and ever. There's a ceiling effect. What happens is after the bodybuilders learn that it's the amount of stress the muscle is under and not the load, they actually start to progress more by using less and less weight.

If you take an intermediate trainer and an advanced trainer and make them bench press for a set of 10, you'll see that the intermediate will have a noticeable performance decrement on reps seven and eight. An advanced guy like a Mr. Olympia will do the entire set from first rep to last with equal intensity.

So it's the number or reps in the set that produce overload. The relevant information isn't how much you lifted for five reps, but what you experienced in that lift for the five reps. Then you can determine whether the acute training variable that you want to play with is load, repetition, sets, volume, or decreased rest.

Those are all the acute training variables that we can manipulate and all have a role to play in a program to help keep it alive. But the end goal is to use the biofeedback of the client.

What exactly do you mean by biofeedback, and why don't more people use it?

Biofeedback is understanding how and why your body reacts to stimuli. It's noticing things like eagerness to train, energy, and motivation, and using those as cues at to how much weight you should lift or how long you should rest.

People need to understand that they need to increase their overall work capacity. They can do that by checking their oxygen debt [how long it takes to recover from set to set] and strength density [how well they maintain their strength from the beginning of the workout to end, and from the beginning of the week to the end].

They also need to take a look at what happens within the next 24 to 48 hours, and even more at what happens in the next six months to a year.

We've got a major bias in the academic approach that intensity is tissue-related. We see all of these fancy periodization schemes where intensity will increase when volume decreases and stuff like that. That's a very narrow approach to understanding intensity because it only looks at the muscular-skeletal effect, and doesn't even touch on the physiological, biochemical, biomechanical, and neuromuscular aspects of what intensity is. It doesn't consider the overall context like the nervous system capabilities of the individual who's undergoing the physical stress.

It's when you don't consider context that things get taken for granted and progress halts.

That sounds like a lot of work, Scott. Can people figure this stuff out on their own?

Well, I always recommend that people have some kind of expert guidance. This isn't something that's going to be solved by going to the gym three times a week and thinking. This isn't for armchair experts.

The problem is that most guys think that because they're following an undulating periodization scheme or doing wave loading or whatever, they have control. But it's all an illusion. They're not properly identifying their goals.

People need to be more realistic. And for that matter, so do the experts who just say, "What are your goals?", and then slot people into programs and diets.

I have people with no development who write me and are worried about their cortisol levels or their insulin response after training when they're years away from needing to worry about those things!

So my approach is simply more of a connection of body systems and flow and rhythm. The more rules you have to pay attention to within a workout, the less results you're going to get.

But for those who are having trouble, I'll give them one specific biofeedback parameter: Force-decrement analysis is the point at which performance starts to decline and the current rep is performed slower than intended.

The next time you're doing an exercise and this happens, completely lock out your next rep, power breathe [suck in as much air as possible, as fast as you can], and finish your set. Then take as long as you need to recover before your next set. Don't worry about the time on the clock, or if you're supposed to be resting for 60 seconds. Do what feels right to get the desired effect.

I've seen you do barbell biceps curls while walking. What's up with that?

Something as simple as walking while doing an exercise will increase proprioceptive demand, which directly transfers to increased strength. The one thing I have noticed in assessing bodybuilders is that when I get them into my dungeon to test them, their core strength, power, and stability have all been vacuumed. There's absolutely none. So I can use traditional moves like a biceps curl and put those qualities back in with just very minor tweaks like adding locomotion. Just look at how beneficial farmer's walks and carries are. Why not use those principles for other movements? Who cares if it looks weird?

Good point. I know you've got some interesting thoughts on bringing up lagging body parts. Care to share?

Sure. Bodybuilders come to me all of time wanting a better hamstring sweep, or more upper-pec development. And because of traditional training dogma, they think they need to focus directly in that area with specific isolation exercises. Nothing could be further from the truth.

They don't understand that the black hole of strength is the core. If you engage core strength and core movement, then you also start engaging the various aspects of strength like stabilization, deceleration, acceleration, and balance. Those are things that actually improve neuromuscular efficiency through your whole body. And if you improve neuromuscular efficiency, you can build bigger muscles.

If we can get an athlete even a little bit focused in expressing strength through the core by doing some Olympic lifts or doing a lot of moves that I like to do from the plank position, it will actually help the weak body parts because it gets them firing in different ways.

It's the muscle system, not the isolation.

Why do gymnasts have incredibly developed bodies, even at young ages? Why do acrobats look like bodybuilders, with their capped delts, defined abs, and tight glutes? Because they move in various degrees of freedom with a load [their body weight], and they focus almost entirely on core strength. Bodybuilders should take a lesson from that.

Let me play devil's advocate for a minute. Wouldn't assigning a weaker muscle a role in a compound exercise be potentially harmful? Say someone was trying to bring up their glutes, but they weren't firing properly. Are you saying they should just go straight to a deadlift without doing any type of activation work like bridges? Couldn't that result in injury?

I'm not saying that at all. You have to understand that the isolation principle is actually incomplete. It states that the weakest muscles in a group of acting muscles receive the most overload, and that's not true. Muscles with more preferable lines of action can be used instead of the weak muscle to do the work. This has everything to do with excitation thresholds rather than activation thresholds. But because experts can't measure this, they don't think it matters.

If you understand innervation training, then you'd know that you can activate different muscles and even parts of muscles by simply putting them in another plane or different range of motion.

The exercises you described are both sagittal plane dominant. I'd suggest using that muscle in a totally different plane and totally different type of movement so that it has to load differently.

So, something like a drop lunge?

It doesn't even have to be that complicated. I'd probably do something that is more core-focused. That way, the glutes can be used to activate the hamstrings as hip extenders, rather than just using them as knee flexors. Something as simple as lifting your leg to the side – we call it "dog on hydrant" – would activate it.

And when you go back to those movements like a deadlift or a lunge, then you'll get far more effort from the glutes.

Tell me about metabolic-enhancement training - MET. It reminds me of Bruce Lee's Jeet Kune Do in that you've taken a variety of effective tools from different disciplines. What did you pick and why?

MET training goes beyond information bias and beyond limitations of each genre. It's being a generalist and putting them all together.

What I do is take obvious lessons from each sport. For instance, in the highest level of bodybuilding, athletes don't lift more weight once they get at a certain level of muscle mass and maturity. They actually lift a lot less.

If you look at gymnasts and the actual sculpting of the body, you'll notice that it's done without a load variance and by increasing their intensity. As their workload capacity increases from year to year, they start combining the way their body moves, using it as resistance. They move faster and through greater ranges of motion with more and more combinations that produce a real balanced physique.

MET training throws out all the useless stuff and focuses on things that get results.

Let's switch topics for a minute. You've criticized bodybuilders for taking way too many drugs. But I thought all bodybuilders had to take a lot of anabolic steroids to compete.

I've always said in my seminars that, when it comes to drug use, there's a difference between a person who has a glass of wine with dinner every night and a person who drinks 40 ounces of rye whiskey every day. Those are just different mentalities. One is destructive, and one is part of a lifestyle.

If you get into the science of it, then a Deca and Dbol stack, or Deca and Anavar, just has a very low risk of violating the therapeutic qualities of the drugs.

The more you combine drugs, and the higher the doses go, then the more the therapeutic effects get waved off and the more dangerous the drugs become. That's even true with aspirin.

There are going to be consequences. And they may not always show up physiologically. They could be mental, emotional, sociological, or even cultural.

I know it makes me the bad guy, but after three decades in this sport, I'm just not happy with the way it's going. My goal isn't to judge anyone, but to help people get out of their really wacked mentality.

Do you think there should be a governing body to help control steroid use in bodybuilding?

Most of the governing bodies that I know of are corrupt.

I don't think they'd actually come in and clean it up because it would just change the face of bodybuilding. But if you can work, like I do, on a one-to-one basis where people are sick and tired of being sick and tired, then I guarantee you can do some good and offer help.

When clients come to me and say "I don't want this anymore" or "Can you at least help me deal with it intelligently?", it gives me a feeling of pride.

But asking a governing body to take it over is like asking the nut to run the nut farm. I don't think it'll happen unless something really drastic occurs. Then again, what could be more drastic than people dying? Contrary to the pro-steroid argument, there are actually people that are dying from this stuff. But it all falls on deaf ears. Hear no evil, see no evil, you know?

When someone comes to you and expresses a desire to reach a particular goal, no matter the costs or consequences, what do you say?

There's a difference between a single-minded purpose and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

If you have to sell the rest of your life in order to have the body you want or to win Competition X, then at some point you're going to have to ask yourself if it's worth it. That's the thing about coaching: It's not just personal and prescriptive. It's proactive.

I'm outspoken as a coach. If I have a client who's going down the wrong path, then I'll tell him to trust me. I'm always on his side. And if he says, "Fuck you!" and leaves, then that's his problem.

But if I'm going to make a difference, then I have to act like I'm going to make a difference. That's part of going out on a limb as a Big C coach.

It's not always going to be hearts, flowers, and pom-poms. There are going to be times when they don't want to hear what I say. But I'm their mirror for truth.

Great stuff. Thanks for the interview, Scott.