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The Man With A Mission - An interview with Alan Aragon
I first encountered the writings of Alan Aragon during a bodybuilding- nutrition roundtable. While reading through the roundtable discussion, Alan’s answers really stood out for me. They were logical, and they spoke rationally against some of the misconceptions being circulated in many Internet forums. Alan struck me immediately as someone who knew what he was talking about and actually took the time to dig deeper and move beyond the preaching of other “experts.”
Here’s what Los Angeles area personal trainer and fitness writer Andrew Heffernan had to say about Alan:
“Aragon’s one smart cookie, and lucky for anyone he works with, he’s also something that we don’t see a lot of in the fitness world: a skeptic. Basically, he’s an advocate of applying this “science” thing in pursuit of optimal dieting and exercise techniques.
Thank god for guys like Alan Aragon: he’s out there poring over studies, sifting through them for faults, and revising recommendations as necessary. Aragon reads the fine print, and it usually says, in so many words, “The guys who did this study also stand to profit handsomely from its results.” Guys like Alan Aragon make a living sifting through the detritus for useful nuggets of dietary advice, and have a wealth of expertise and experience and to help them do it.”
Alan has a lot to share, and this interview only begins to touch upon what he has to offer in the way of educating us in the areas of training, nutrition and sports supplements.
Wannabebig: Hi Alan. For the readers out there who don’t know what you’re all about, could you fill them in a bit?
Alan: Well, the big picture: I’m an obsessive-compulsive learner and teacher trying to make a positive impact on people’s lives. I’m very fortunate to be doing what I love for a living, and receiving recognition for it is icing on the cake.
The small picture: I’m a sports nutritionist and perpetual fan of bodybuilding and athletic performance.
Wannabebig: You mention in your bio that as an educator you must provide accurate information and to show your clients how to successfully apply it. How has this shaped your approach to processing and reviewing information in the field of training and nutrition?
Alan: Man, you ask some damn good questions… What I do is find the biggest, most shredded guy, and subscribe to every word he says. Just kidding. I have the privilege of having worked with hundreds of clients on a full-time basis. I still spend most of my workday counseling clients. My private practice survives solely on the results of my clients, so in a very real sense, my practice is my lab. Whatever I read - be it science or random editorials - definitely takes a backseat to what I KNOW works consistently in the field. When I review information, I first measure it up against what I’ve seen in reality on a regular basis. From there, I take a look at the quality and relevance of the source of information. If it’s scientific research, again, it’s all about quality and relevance. Many studies are poorly controlled or simply inapplicable to the bodybuilding and fitness population. I get a lot of great ideas from scientific research, and I regularly employ what I learn, as long as there’s a high probability that it’ll show some benefit. I also listen to the anecdotes of fellow professionals in the business that HAVE to get their clients results in order to pay the bills and put food on the table. There are plenty of “paper gurus” who have plenty of reading under their belts but a dearth of hands-on experience helping real people succeed.
Wannabebig: How have your experiences in training and educating people impacted on you as someone who designs programs and teaches people about nutrition, supplementation and intense physical activity?
Alan: It has very much humbled and inspired me. Many of my clients have the type of dedication and discipline that I can only dream of having. Many of my students and peers have such a burning desire to learn, that it makes me realize when I’m being complacent or too comfortable with my current level of knowledge. Overall it’s made me appreciate how important it is to constantly self-improve.
Wannabebig: When someone wants to learn more about nutrition and how to use it to their advantage to change their body, how do you suggest they start out?
Alan: Starting out or not, it’s important to question everything, and not let the details get in the way of the big picture. Gain the proper perspective of the authors whose work you’re reading. What qualifies them to spout off the info? Most fitness newbies will get the bulk of their education from magazines. I know I sure did when I first got interested in this stuff.
Good thing I happened to read articles by guys like Will Brink, Chris Aceto, and Dan Duchaine in the midst of the typical sea of promo crap. If you’re interested enough, take college classes, read some books, wrap your brain around stuff that doesn’t have a vested interest in selling anything but the information. The key is viewing everything you read with a critical eye, and taking the learning process one step at a time.
Nutrition is a complex subject, and the tendency is to apply it in a complex fashion, when in reality the simpler you can make it, the better. I think it’s important to get a foundational ‘textbook’ understanding of nutrition before you go about layering your knowledge with what I call the frills and fringes. It’s also important to realize that whatever you read is inevitably the author’s limited perspective on the subject.
Wannabebig: How does one become better at investigating the truth?
Alan: Simple. TEAR it up: Trial-Error-Adjust-Repeat.
Wannabebig: I like that!
If you had to pick three books for people looking to expand their understanding of sport supplements and nutrition, what would they be?
Alan: It’s really tough to boil it down to 3 books, so I’m gonna have to run a little over here. My favorite college text is Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism (with InfoTrac ) by Groff, Gropper, and Smith. Another great monster of a book is Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease by Shils, Olson, Shike, and Ross. I really liked Sports Supplements by Jose Antonio and Jeffery Stout. It’s a bit out of date, but still definitely worth getting. I might as well continue and tell everyone who’s interested in getting deep into the details of protein and carbohydrate, Jamie Hale has written a separate book on each of those macros. Michael Colgan’s Optimum Sports Nutrition: Your Competitive Edge is definitely a worthwhile read for athletes. At the risk of destroying the rules of etiquette, I gotta be honest and am gonna include my book Girth Control: The Science of Fat Loss & Muscle Gain in that list.
Wannabebig: Are there any nuggets of wisdom in the area of supplements, training, nutrition, business or life-related issues that have really shaped the way you train or function as a person?
Alan: Just some tidbits off the top of my head…March to your own beat - everyone has advice to give, and it’s important to listen, but ultimately, you have to adapt and mold all advice to your own sensibilities. Although it’s not always easy, I try not to be inflexibly dogmatic about what I teach. The truth is, what’s known pales in comparison to the sprawling expanse of the unknown. Over time, you’ll get to know your body better than anyone else, and what some might sell as natural laws should really only be ideas or options to consider. On these lines, training and nutritional programs pulled from the ‘experts’ shouldn’t always be followed to the letter, especially for advanced trainees. Beginners without a clue may need to follow a script with zero deviation, since the alternative might be tripping over their own feet. But with more advanced trainees who have a more highly developed sense of individual response, there should always be a margin for personal intervention and adjustment. The best programs out there are at best good guidelines from which to morph better stuff for the individual situation.
Maintenance of a given level of progress is indeed a legitimate goal. In fact, people should consciously build plateau phases into their programs. Everyone hates to hear this, but the plateau phases should get progressively longer. When you step back and think about it, isn’t the ultimate goal a plateau? It makes good sense to give your body regular practice at maintaining. Everyone is so hell-bent on perpetually pressing forward with their goals, that it actually holds them back.
Don’t be overly cheap with your time off from training. Athletes’ careers are notorious for being slow-motion train wrecks. There’s three main ways your body lets you know that you need a break: Fatigue, illness, and injury. Fatigue is a bit more insidious, manifesting itself as persistent stalls or decreases in strength or endurance.
Most trainees out there wallow in fatigue most of the time, which is a damn shame. Illness and injury are the classic agents of forced layoffs. The best strategy is to stay not just one, but a few steps ahead by taking a full week off from training - I’m talking don’t even drive near the gym - about every 8th to 12th week. No one’s physique ever fell apart as a result of a periodic week of rest. On the other hand, there are plenty of guys whose great physiques won’t last very long, due to bad shoulders, elbows, and knees.
Fad diets and fad diet practices should be avoided (and laughed at). Carbs will send you to hell. Sugar is worse for you than cocaine. Fat is no longer the bad guy, so now it’s time to drink a pint of fish oil after every meal. Protein is your savior, eat as much of it as you can. If it’s isolated from food and put in a pill, it’s GOTTA be better for bodybuilding. C’mon now. A mix of patience + realistic progress expectations is typically the best cure for the compulsion to adopt fad practices or try fad diets. When it comes to progress, slower is better. Gaining more than 1-2 a pounds a month and losing more than 2-3 pounds a week typically isn’t gonna give most intermediate and advanced trainees permanent results.
Anyone can crash weight off or slam a bunch of weight on (I call it fat-bulking, or “fulking”), but in the end, temporary progress is a monumental waste of time and energy. This gets a little bit into the mechanics of programming, but in my experience, it’s best for people build their programs around 6-12 month targets. If someone can only see 2-3 months into the future, fine, build your numbers around that, but realize that meaningful (read: permanent) progress happens nice and slow, hence the 6-12 month outlook. The common method is base calories, etc, on current bodyweight. This forces the need to institute arbitrary caloric decreases or surpluses. Build your numbers around your target body composition, not the current one, and realize that changes happen more slowly than people hope. For fat loss, newbies can get roughly 3% a month (4.5-8 lbs) without muscle loss if they’re lucky, and intermediates should be happy with roughly a 2 percent decrease per month (about 3-4 lbs). Realize that’s a significant accomplishment if you can either keep or even gain muscle at the same time. If you can do better than that – and some will – then congrats, just don’t stiffly set your expectations up for it. For muscle gain, rank newbies can sometimes see 2 percent a month (3-4 lbs), intermediates should be thrilled with 1.5-2 lbs a month, and advanced guys who have been at it consistently for several years should be thrilled with half of that.
On the subject of slow, steady, permanent progress, here’s a prime example of what I like to call the “culking” effect. Over the past 3 years, one of my clients steadily put on 10 lbs per year. That doesn’t sound like too big of a deal until you ask yourself how many people you know personally who have put on 30 lbs in the past 3 years, and cut their body fat in half in the process. At a height of 5’7”, Jonathan (he’s on my website on the “champions” page) used to be a pretty normal 155 lbs at 15%. He now maintains roughly 7% at 185. Basically, we took things one year at a time in terms of goal setting and programming. Now, in what seems to be a blink of an eye later, the guy’s built like a brick shithouse, and maintains it much less effort than people assume. Staying focused on your current goal is great, but don’t kill yourself over it. Realize that over time your goals will change, and you’ll look back on your strewn body parts and realize you didn’t need to beat yourself up as badly as you did.
Stop splitting hairs over the “rules”. Actually, the way people nitpick at their nutrition is becoming an attempt at splitting subatomic particles. The beauty of food is that, unlike drugs, its physiological effects have neither the acuteness nor the magnitude to warrant extreme micro-management, especially when it comes to nutrient timing relative to training. When your meal frequency is high, and you’re not starving yourself, a half an hour difference here or there really isn’t gonna make or break your physique. Bodybuilding is a breeding ground for obsessive-compulsive behavior. The irony is that many things people worry about simply have no impact on results either way, and therefore isn’t worth an ounce of concern.
Wannabebig: Thanks for those impressive nuggets!
Alan, please fill in these blanks:
- Gaining muscle is …………………. a very slow process. Once people accept this, the confusion and frustration will end.
- Carbohydrates in the evening can be ………………. beneficial if they don’t contribute to a surplus of unused calories. The ‘no carbs at night’ tactic boils down to a ‘calorie reduction for dummies’ tactic. It’s nothing more, nothing less.
- Taking thermogenics for extended periods of time …………………. isn’t completely devoid of risk. And I’m not talking about nebulous things such as adrenal fatigue. I’m talking about specific psychiatric effects associated with ephedrine use in particular. It has the capability of exacerbating pre-existing tendencies toward psychosis. When I dug into the literature and found this effect turning up repeatedly, it made me look back on some of the cases I’ve dealt with and realize that I wasn’t completely responsible for some people’s lapses in sanity! I’ve never been a fan of ephedrine use since I haven’t personally witnessed or measured any decrease in the levels of leanness achievable without it. Many people can tolerate it just fine, but a good portion of the population just isn’t cut out for it even at conservative doses. On the flip side of stimulants, I haven’t seen any problems with long-term moderate use of caffeine, especially in the context of coffee, tea, and yes, dark chocolate (oh yeah). Some addictions have less of a downside than others, and in my observations, ephedrine has never been the staple of people I’ve considered shining portraits of psychological solidity.
Wannabebig: You’ve just released a book. What can readers look forward to learning from it, and what sets it apart from all the other fitness-related books out there?
Alan: In “Girth Control” I dig into a wide range of subjects from the macronutrients to fat loss supplements, to size/strength supplements. I even discuss the art and science of knowledge, as well as how to interpret research. My goal for the book was to create a cornerstone of information for readers interested in nutrition for fitness and bodybuilding. The book is heavily referenced and science-focused. What sets it apart from other fitness-related books? My aim was to give the reader not just a set of facts, but also a set of skills. I’m very proud of the book, and I’m not shy about letting folks know that it’s something that I wish I could have read years ago. The table of contents as well as readers’ comments can be seen on my site.
Wannabebig: Where can people learn more about you and your services?
Alan: Right here: - www.alanaragon.com
Wannabebig: Many thanks for agreeing to this interview.
Alan: You’re very welcome, thanks for the interview!
Written by Maki Riddington
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