Home Articles An Interview with Alwyn Cosgrove

An Interview with Alwyn Cosgrove

Written on January 27, 2008 at 9:35 am, by Eric Cressey

By: Eric Cressey

EC: Let’s face it, Alwyn: everyone on this newsletter list knows who you are, so we won’t waste time with me asking about your background or favorite color.  Let’s get to the meat and potatoes – or lack thereof – with respect to fat loss.

You’ve become an authority on getting people lean fast – and continued success along these lines has led to the release of several fat loss products (in the form of the Real-World Fat Loss Packages) that have gotten thousands of people leaner and healthier.

Conversely, we all know that there are a lot of trainers out there who aren’t getting the job done in this regard; you’ve even noted that less than 0.5% of personal trainers are financially independent, an indirect sign of them not satisfying a booming fat loss market.  Where, in your mind, are they failing?

AC: It’s essentially a complete misunderstanding of how fat loss even occurs. Ask a trainer how to burn fat and they’ll reply with “aerobics”. They have been brainwashed to think that aerobic exercise = fat loss. It doesn’t. It simply means that your energy needs are being met by the aerobic energy system.

Currently in the early part of the 21st century we are in the middle of an obesity epidemic. In the United States alone approximately one-third of the adult population is estimated to be obese. People are finally turning to the fitness industry for help.

However, despite fat loss, body composition and physique transformation being the number one goal of most people who enter into the gym, this type of exercise programming is actually a new concept; to be honest, it just wasn’t needed in the past. People were leaner. People moved more. The purpose of an exercise program twenty years ago was to enhance your already active lifestyle. Now, in an almost completely automated time-crunched society, we have had to create exercise programs specifically to induce fat loss – and we weren’t ready.

Despite the overwhelming amount of research on aerobic training and exercise for health – none of it had the goal of fat loss. In fact, the very thought of training solely to produce a loss of fat was an alien concept just a few years ago.

So, the fitness industry has failed. We recognized the need to create fat loss programs. We just didn’t know where to start. We originally designed fat loss programs by copying what endurance athletes were doing, and hoping that somehow the training program of a marathon runner would work for fat loss for an obese lady, even when we cut it down to 20 minutes, three times per week. But fat loss was never the goal of an endurance athlete; it was a side effect.

Then the fitness industry turned to bodybuilding for ideas. This was the height of the Body-For-Life physique transformation contests. And we failed again. To take the programs of drug using full-time professional genetic freak bodybuilders and use them to model fat loss programs for the general population was nonsensical.

But we tried.

And the supplement companies jumped right on board, to try to convince us that taking Brand Rx-o-plex would provide the same benefits as the drugs that bodybuilders were using.

We failed again.

But we were getting closer. Fat loss, at least was a goal for bodybuilders, but the low levels of body fat percentage a contest bodybuilder achieved was largely a result of their increased muscle mass and therefore their metabolism. However it would be naïve of us to ignore the impact that steroid use has had on bodybuilding physiques. There is very little information a drug-free trainee training three to four times per week can take from the program of a drug-using professional bodybuilder and apply that effectively to his own efforts.

It is my belief that before we start to program fat loss, we have to understand exactly how it occurs. Then, we design a program based on those principles and not on tradition, junk science, or outdated beliefs.

The biggest mistake that trainers have made, Eric, is that – despite advances in the methods of training – the fitness industry has yet to truly provide a complete fat loss solution. We have regurgitated programs for other goals, recommended the wrong diets and ineffective exercises plans, all the while never questioning where this information originated.

If you look at the research, you’ll be struggling to come up with much research that shows aerobic training to be effective, and NONE that shows it to be more effective than intervals or resistance training.

It’s time to think about fat loss as a separate goal in itself – instead of a side effect of other training.

EC: That’s a great new paradigm that you’ve obviously applied with great success, but what about gender specificity?  For instance, you’ve spoken in some detail about the different psychological approach you have to take with males and females with fat loss approaches; can you elaborate a bit for our readers?

AC: There are differences, of course, but in general, males will respond to comparison to “norms” or to other males – e.g., “good for a male is x% body fat and you are at Y,” “The average client loses X per week,” etc. Males are driven to be the alpha male. They respond well to comparisons.

That will destroy females. DESTROY them.

I only ever compare females to their goals and their progress. And it’s always positive. I don’t mean that you need to “baby” them – you can train them hard – but you have to keep positive reinforcement at the forefront.

Overall, females want to train hard and not feel intimidated. They want to look great, but almost as a contradiction – they don’t want to stand out in the gym. We joke that most females show up to train the first time in an oversized sweatshirt and baggy pants. It’s like they are hiding.

Males – just want to be one of the boys – with the underlying desire to be number one.

Once you master that – and more importantly understand it – you’re a master coach.

EC: Those are fantastic points – and it even carries over to elite sport.  Having worked with national championship squads in both men’s and women’s basketball, I can say without hesitation that you’re right on the money.  Female athletes are all about getting the job done; it’s one of the reasons that they tend to race through programs (and we actually need to make a point of slowing them down a bit).  Male athletes, on the other hand, won’t hesitate to drag their heels a bit if it means they can talk some smack to a buddy between sets in order to get each other fired up.  But let’s move on…

“Metabolic disturbance” is a term you’ve thrown around for quite some time; what do you mean, and how do you integrate it in your programming?

AC: The goal of a serious fat loss program is to optimize energy expenditure. In other words – it’s STILL about calories-in vs. calories-out in the big picture.

So we are trying to burn as many calories as possible. This occurs in two ways: directly and indirectly. Direct energy expenditure is obvious; that’s the calories you burn running on the treadmill, for instance. Perform X amount of exercise to burn X amount of calories.

Indirect energy expenditure, on the other hand, isn’t quite as obvious – but for simplicity’s sake – it’s governed by your lean muscle mass and is commonly referred to as “resting metabolism” and includes EPOC – the recovery of metabolic rate back to pre-exercise levels.

The important thing to consider is that your indirect expenditure is the bigger contributor overall – getting the “metabolism up” is the key.

For example – aerobic training can burn a lot of calories – but it doesn’t really create much in the way of EPOC or raising your metabolism outside of the exercise session.

Resistance training and interval training may not burn many more calories while you are doing it – but they both create that metabolic disturbance that burns more calories the “other 23 hours” of the day. Every study that ever compares interval training to steady state training shows an enhanced effect in terms of fat loss with the higher intensity group – even when they actually burn less calories during the session.  It’s that powerful a tool.

EC: As a mobility geek, I was intrigued when I heard you mention that you felt that corrective exercise – especially in the form of mobility and activation work – had merits with respect to utilizing compound movements to create a metabolic disturbance.  Could you elaborate?

AC: If you think about the fiber recruitment potential, the answer is pretty obvious.  Even if you’re using compound movements to create that metabolic disturbance, if your muscles were not activated like they should be, you still are not creating as big as a disturbance as you could.

For example, squats and deadlifts will give you more bang for your buck if your glutes are active than if they aren’t.  Many of the movements from your Magnificent Mobility DVD – supine bridges and birddogs, for example, with respect to the glutes – are great pairings for more of these compound lifts if you’re looking to create more of a metabolic disturbances.  In the upper body, you might pair chin-ups with scap pushups, or bench presses with scapular wall slides.

And, to add on the above points, you can ignore the value of that mobility and activation work when it comes to preventing injury.  Many times, form will start to break down with some of the longer time-under-tension prescriptions in more metabolically demanding resistance training protocols.  When you get things firing the way they should, you immediately make these complexes and circuits safer.

EC: Great points.  Now, you bust my chops for being a guy that reads the research on a regular basis, but we both know that you’re as much of a “research bloodhound” as I am.  As such, I know that you’ve got some ideas on the “next big thing” when it comes to fat loss.  Where do you feel the industry will be going along these lines in the years to come?  Here’s your chance to make a bold prediction, you cocky bastard.

AC: Ok – you’re putting me on the spot here.

If you don’t drink water – what happens? Your body immediately tries to maintain homeostasis by retaining water – doing the opposite.

Does weight training build muscle? No. It destroys muscle and the body adapts by growing new muscle. The body adapts by homeostasis – trying to regain balance by doing the opposite.

If we look at aerobic training – and look at fat oxidation – we can see that fat oxidation increases at 63% V02 max. We burn fat during the activity.  How does that EXACT SAME BODY respond? Hmmmm…

What cavemen survived the famine in the winters? The cavemen that stored bodyfat efficiently. We have evolved into a race of fat storing machines.

We are aerobic all day. If aerobic training worked – then we wouldn’t need to work harder would we? When we work harder we see a trend – we lose fat – but is it because we are moving towards anaerobics?

My prediction is that as we understand more and more about the science of losing fat (which in reality we haven’t really studied in any depth) I think we’ll find that  excessive aerobic training may retard fat loss in some way.

I’ve been saying for years that I don’t think it helps much. And the studies support that. I’m now starting to feel that it may hurt.

How many more studies have to come out that show NO effect of aerobic training to a fat loss program before we’ll recognize it?

DISCLAIMER – I work with endurance athletes. I work with fighters. I am recovering from an autologous stem cell transplant and high dose chemotherapy. I think aerobic training is extremely helpful. But not as a fat loss tool.

EC: Excellent stuff as always, Alwyn.  Thanks for taking the time.

I can’t say enough great things the fat loss resources Alwyn has pulled together; I would strongly encourage you all to check them out: Real World Fat Loss.

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