I was going to toss this into the Combat sports book review thread, but it’s an uber-ginormous super post.
This past September, I interviewed Alwyn Cosgrove for another martial arts forum, to talk about his book/dvd package “Secrets of Martial Arts Conditioning.”
Hope you guys enjoy the info.
I’d really like to believe that everyone involved in the martial arts has heard of Alwyn Cosgrove. On the very, very off-chance that you haven’t (gasp and double gasp), he is or has been a columnist for several popular fitness magazines, as well as a member of the ISSA, NASM, ACSM, BASES, USAW, and CHEK. (All those letters basically mean that he’s quite possibly one of the most well-respected and result-producing coaches working today, with tons of credentials on paper.)
As for his credentials in the real world, his clientele includes several Olympic and national level athletes, several World Champions and professionals in a multitude of sports including boxing, martial arts, soccer, ice skating, football, fencing, triathlon, rugby, bodybuilding, dance and fitness competition. Alwyn, himself, is a former Tae-Kwon-Do international champion. Did I mention that he’s also a two-time stage 4 cancer survivor? Well, he is.
So, yeah, he’s definitely high up on the list of guys who, when they talk, we listen. And I managed to get him to talk about his top notch manual, the Secrets of Martial Arts Conditioning.
If you already have a copy, you know how complete a resource it is. If you don’t have it yet, you’ll still get some great insight into ideal martial arts training. Now on to the good stuff…
Colucci: Hi Mr. Cosgrove…Alwyn…Coach…Sir? Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. I’d like to start off by just saying thank you for creating the Lift Strong project. How’s that going since it’s launch back in April?
Alwyn Cosgrove: It’s going ok. It started off really well and has leveled off a wee bit. We’ve raised about $50K for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
Colucci: Excellent. Hopefully it will stay on a steady rise. On to our main topic, the Secrets of Martial Arts Conditioning. Early in the book, you cover your “Top 10 and 1/2 training tips for martial arts conditioning.” The first point is one that you’ve mentioned in several places, that fighters should be training with their own bodyweight before adding external resistance.
But how much bodyweight training is too much and when do we know it’s the right time to advance? Should a fighter be able to knock out one-arm push-ups for reps or 50 standard push-ups in a set before incorporating the dumbbell bench press?
AC: I think about 25 lunges in each plane, 25-30 push ups and dips and 10-15 wide grip pull ups are a good base before you even consider adding external load. If you can’t do a full pistol squat you have no business using loads.
Colucci: ::weeping a bit at the thought of improving my pistols:: Okay, so it’s a general base of full-body calisthenics. Makes sense. Another point in your 10 and 1/2 tips is to train using multiple joints and compound exercises. Is there any time when isolation exercises would be “acceptable”?
Bud Jeffries has suggested starting every training session with calf, neck, and abdominal work to act as a warm-up and as pre-hab. I’m also wondering if grapplers could benefit from incorporating some kind of full range barbell curls to assist in armbar defense.
AC: Any time you’re rehabilitating an injury or bringing up a weak link in the chain you can use isolation work. The goal should be to isolate in order to integrate though - isolation work on it’s own shouldn’t be performed for long periods of time.
Colucci: Isolate and then integrate. I think that was a Paul Chek concept and again, it makes sense when it isn’t taken to an extreme.
You’ve said it’s important to avoid mimicking skills when weight training. Can you tell us, once and for all, why martial artists should not punch with weights?
AC: A punch goes forward. Therefore to strengthen that movement pattern, youï¿½??d need to position yourself against a load that prevents the punch from going forward.
Holding a dumbbell is incorrect because the resistance is going down towards the ground - you are applying resistance in the wrong direction. All you’re doing is strengthening the wrong muscles and messing up your motor skill acquisition.
Colucci: Would the same reasoning apply to kicking with ankle weights or with resistance bands on the legs?
AC: With ankle weights, definitely - unless you are just using them to work on holding kicks up (like for forms etc).
Resistance bands are different as you can adjust which direction the resistance is coming from.
Colucci: When you wrote about the need to keep a balance between motor qualities, it seems like there’s a fine line between bringing up your weaknesses versus emphasizing your strengths to your advantage.
How close do we need to walk that fine line? In other words, how long should a fast guy train to get even faster, or when should he start becoming “a fast guy who’s also very strong”?
AC: You have to identify your limiting factors. Take BJ Penn for example. His limiting factor was NEVER skill. He gassed. A lot. Once he worked on that limiting factor he beat Jens Pulver in a very one-sided contest.
If you’re a fast guy, eventually youï¿½??ll lose because of another factor (flexibility, conditioning etc). Keep the balance so you have no glaring weak areas.
Colucci: That gets back to developing a well-rounded base right from the beginning, and then building from there. Speaking of building a base, are there any training standards (for strength, endurance, and/or flexibility) that you want your fighters to meet?
For example, even though it drew a lot of controversy, Chad Waterbury once wrote about wanting fighters to have a 2.5x bodyweight deadlift and squat, and the ability to kick their shin to their forehead.
AC: Too many variables there. I disagree with Chad on that one. Jim Wendler and Dave Tate (Elite powerlifters) would have only just made the minimum strength levels.
If a guy who devotes his life to powerlifting can only just hit those numbers (and they’re considered elite) how can we expect a martial artist to hit those numbers when heï¿½??s doing cardio and other training too?
Colucci: As far as trying to balance out all the horizontal pushing that many fighters perform by punching so much, how would you feel about including work on a rowing machine? I’ve always thought that rowing, in general, was an underrated and overlooked cardio tool.
AC: It’s an ok conditioning tool but I’d rather see some direct strengthening of the upper back and trapezius as part of the program.
Colucci: True. I guess you wouldn’t want to over-rely on any one means or method of training.
You’ve developed a reputation in the fitness industry for being a straight shooter, and I think you’re holding true to that when you wrote, regarding aerobic training, that “…there is no benefit to doing long slow training of any kind.”
Am I misunderstanding that somehow? Is there anything you’d like to add to that, or clarify?
AC: For fighters, there’s not much benefit other than burning a few calories. Fighting is too fast - too high intensity. The energy system is completely different.
Colucci: In the chapter “Theory of Exercise for Kicking”, you cover some interesting material. Weï¿½??ve seen plenty of recent instances in the UFC that highlight effective kicking, from Mirko CroCop’s legendary left high kick to Georges St. Pierre using a shin-to-the-ear to win the welterweight championship from Matt Hughes.
Just how important are unilateral leg exercises?
AC: For most fighters, they need to train unilaterally. You kick unilaterally - you stand in a unilateral stance - you sprawl from a unilateral stance. Training your legs in a bilateral position is useful but only as an adjunct to unilateral work.
Colucci: Okay, so single-leg exercises would be preferred, but we need to also incorporate both legs.
In the “Punching and Striking” chapter, you mentioned the split stance standing cable press, which sounds essentially like a straight cross delivered against cable resistance.
Would that actually be used as a regular exercise during training, or is it more of a testing tool used for evaluation?
AC: It can be an exercise and a test. The idea is that once you can bench press 75% of your bodyweight, we need to work on USING that strength. Once I put a fighter in a split stance and assess how much of that bench press he can actually use, we see bigger problems.
For example - if you can bench press 400lbs, but you can only stabilize in a cable press and press 100lbs, then you have 300lbs of un-useable strength. There’s a weak link in the chain that is preventing you from applying that strength in the ring.
Colucci: To paraphrase another Paul Chek line, you can’t fire a big cannon from a small canoe. I get it.
Youï¿½??ve also talked a lot about the public’s tendency to over-react to a training method, and then under-react to the same method. Would you agree that G.P.P. is falling into that trap right now?
It seems like there are a bunch of people who feel the need to incorporate strength training, cardio, stretching, time in the dojo, and G.P.P. every week, without necessarily diagnosing a short-coming in their conditioning. They just include G.P.P. because itï¿½??s popular and talked about.
AC: A fighter needs to plan his year. It’s difficult because we often get fights on short notice, but trying to do everything at once makes no sense and will backfire. Try to plan at least 3-4 months of training at a time.
Colucci: Keeping an eye on the bigger picture, and planning in advance. That would definitely benefit anyone who trains for sport.
Regarding your chapter on Speed Training, can or “should” speed drills like ladder runs and sprints be used as a fighter’s primary fat loss workout, or should more dedicated energy systems work be done as well?
AC: Time is of the essence. If you need to cut fat you don’t need to be doing speed training - you’ll get faster just getting leaner. Similarly if you’re too fat and NEED to do speed work because a fight is approaching, you screwed up there also.
Fat loss should be a separate phase of training (don’t confuse fat loss with making weight however).
Colucci: Also, taking about speed training, should a fighter expect much upper body carryover from lower body speed work? Would they expect faster hand speed from running ladders, or should they stick with speed bags, sparring, double ends balls, and other tools and methods?
AC: Speed is a neural component more than a localized muscular component. I’ve never seen an elite sprinter whoï¿½??s arms moved slower than his legs!
Colucci: One of the most important chapters in the book, I feel, is your discussion of Flexibility Training. Specifically, I’d like to get your further thoughts on static stretching, which sometimes gets a bad rap. When is static stretching most appropriate, compared to other methods?
AC: It’s most appropriate post workout and in a separate session.
Colucci: You suggested to stretch beginning with the hips and working outwards to other bodyparts. Why is that? My dojo always started from the neck and worked down because, um, because that’s what we were told to do by the Sensei.
AC: The hip flexor anchors the legs to the spine. The origin of the hip flexor and lat are in the same area. Loosening the hip flexor will allow more lat ROM and therefore more shoulder ROM. Loosening the hip flexor resets the hip and will improve hamstring ROM.
The hip is the center of the muscular system - start there.
Colucci: I have to say that you chose an excellent contributor for chapter nine, ï¿½??Nutrition for the Martial Arts Athleteï¿½??. (Rachel Cosgrove: Triathlete, fitness coach, nutrition consultant and the other half of the Cosgrove Yin/Yang circle.)
When a martial artist does have to cut weight for an expected fight, how long would you like the fat loss phase to be? As long as possible, to avoid any potential “crash dieting”?
AC: Cutting weight and fat loss are not the same topic. A fighter should never be cutting fat “in-season”. Making weight is about dropping extra fluid/glycogen etc so that the ALREADY LEAN athlete weights as little as possible on the scale.
Colucci: Alright, so we touched on it earlier, but what is your preferred fat loss training method? Complexes, cardio intervals, increased bag work and sparring, or maybe your Afterburn system?
AC: I prefer a dedicated approach to fat loss - so I’d use Afterburn II for the martial artists.
Colucci: In general, would you train a forms competitor or a board breaker much differently than a point fighter or full contact fighter?
AC: The similarities are way closer than the differences. You need to get stronger, faster, better conditioned, etc. It’s just to which degree you need to do that.
For example - the principles of preparing for a 5K race and preparing for a marathon or Ironman triathlon are the same. The only difference is the total volume and frequency of training.
Colucci: So they’re the different sides of the same coin, alike but different, something like that.
Letï¿½??s say we have an Average Joe who goes to the dojo twice a week, but theyï¿½??re not on the competitive circuit. Should they peak once or twice a year for an imaginary event, just to go through the process?
AC: I think that’s a great idea. For my fat loss clients I suggest the same - maybe picking Labor day and Memorial day as their peak events.
Usually there’s a belt test or a demonstration that you can use as your “peak” event.
Colucci: You’ve worked with recent Abu Dhabi silver medalist Felicia Oh. I remember reading somewhere that you knew ahead of time that two of her competitors were being trained by other coaches, and that you had read books those coaches wrote, and you knew they hadn’t read your books.
First, congratulations to you both.
AC: Thank you. Felicia just took a third place in the BJJ Gi mundials and won the World Grappling Title in Turkey.
Colucci: Secondly, how important is it for folks to read and study from a variety of sources?
AC: Sun-Tzu said that if you know your enemy and know yourself - your chances of victory are 100%. I study everyone. Reading more information has never hurt me.
Colucci: On a related note, in the dvd included in Secrets of Martial Arts Conditioning, you made a brief comment regarding what you liked about Matt Furey’s work. He does have a pretty strong ‘love him or hate him’ reputation.
Are there any resources you’d suggest martial artists avoid for any reason, aside from the standard bodybuilding magazines?
AC: “Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless.” It’s still true. If you had an athlete who needed to get physically bigger - then bodybuilding works - don’t ignore that method. Just be aware of WHEN to use it.
As a general rule though - we’re in the information age. It’s easy to take on too much information. It’s overload. At this point there is so much information available that you NEED to filter out as much as you take on board.
My personal filter is to heavily prioritize information that comes from “Real World” Practitioners whose livelihood depends upon delivering results or solving problems (and I’m a fanatic for proof).
For example: I’m a fourth degree black belt, have competed in a number of stand-up disciplines at national and international level. I’ve coached athletes in a number of sports - including several martial arts and have I think seven World Titleists as clients or former clients.
I’m not trying to impress anyone with my background, but I can tell you there are SEVERAL writers out there who have never trained a fighter or spent any amount of time on the mat or in the ring.
It’s not that a non-martial artist or a strength coach from another sport has nothing to offer, it’s just that when you need to filter out information - look for a track record of real world results.
Colucci: I still get surprised that there are folks going around pulling those sorts of tricks. Ridiculous.
Okay then, last question, and it might end up being the biggest… Secrets of Martial Arts Conditioning was written a few years ago.
If you sat down tomorrow to do a second edition, are there any points you can think of that would be added, removed, or changed?
AC: This is actually one of the myths about my work. I work with a fulfillment house that prints “on demand”. It’s not like a book in Borders where once it’s written - that’s it.
I’ve updated most of my products at least twice in the last three months. I consider all my material to be “works in progress” - I’m constantly updating them and refining them.
Colucci: Well, that’s great to hear. I guess I’ll be picking up a new copy soon.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention as we wrap up?
AC: Thanks for the opportunity, Chris.
Okay, so that’s about it. Secrets of Martial Arts Conditioning really is a tremendous product. The book contains a complete 16-week training plan, which is a four-phase peaking program and I can’t think of the words to actually describe it. It’s incredibly comprehensive, and there were a few exercises (fully explained, with pictures) that I’d never even seen before.
Also, a full 15% of the book is a Q&A-style chapter. There are tons of questions about all sorts of topics, each with great in-depth answers. And that’s not to mention the two audio interviews and the seminar dvd included with the product.
Again, I truly appreciate Alwyn for taking the time to do this interview. I know that I’ve learned a lot, and hopefully everyone reading this will consider picking up a copy of Secrets of Martial Arts Conditioning, and a spare copy of Lift Strong for good measure.