Steve Cook has seen the fitness industry from numerous perspectives. The former college football player, spokesmodel, and Men’s Physique bodybuilding competitor is now most notable for his video work, both on his own YouTube channel (where he has over 1 million subscribers) and his recent roles as a coach of the hit TV show The Biggest Loser and the host of Men’s Health‘s own Next Top Trainer competition. As Cook’s persona has evolved over the years, he’s served as more than just a competitor up on stage—he’s become a coach and gym owner, along with his own pursuits. His role as an advocate for fitness is one that he doesn’t take lightly.
“Even if it’s just 30 to 40 minutes a day, going outside and getting Vitamin D, the benefits in all aspects is so understated,” Cook says of maximizing your active time. He spoke to MH to share what else he’s learned on is fitness journey—and what he hopes others can take away from those lessons.
Who would you consider your first fitness mentor, and what is the best piece of advice that person shared with you?
My first mentor was a natural bodybuilder named Craig Toth. He was super knowledgeable, and he helped me go from a football player mentality, “bigger, bigger” to helping me count calories, use a food scale, and basically follow flexible dieting. He showed me that you can follow a somewhat normal diet while still working towards your fitness goals.
Speaking of nutrition, what is the biggest mistake you’ve seen people make in your experience working with clients and coaching people?
Too strict, too quick. I’ve seen the January 1st dieters and people starting their fitness journeys think that they have to be perfect. They can only eat chicken and rice, they cut calories too harshly right off the bat, and they’re just setting themselves up for failure. I try to tell people that the goal isn’t to lose 10 pounds in the first week. If your long-term goal is to lose 40 pounds, then we don’t want to start right out of the gate and starve themselves. Competitors do the same thing, and they shouldn’t. It’s going to result in metabolic damage in the long run.
So, what can beginners and new dieters reading this do to avoid that kind of error?
Start by keeping a food journal of a normal week. Don’t even weigh your food. Just write out a rough journal of what you eat for that week. Next, go for another week, but weigh your food this time. After that week, you can start reading labels and determine which foods aren’t providing the bang for the buck. Figure out which calorie dense foods can be swapped out for healthier options. There are so many options out there that have less calories or more protein with less fats. You can start a diet without going super strict and cutting out foods that you love.
Do you give yourself that freedom to enjoy less healthy options occasionally as well?
Yeah, I saw my dad for the first time in six months recently, and I had a pizza. He looked at me like, ‘how do you do that?’ I said that it’s because the other times of the week I don’t eat like an asshole. I make smart decisions as well.
Can you share an example of a smart decision someone trying to stay on a plan can make?
Sure, today I’m traveling. I’ll have a protein bar instead of a bag of chips and a Mountain Dew. That is a little thing, but those little things add up over time. If you’re somewhat educated on how to read labels, then you’re ahead of the curve. That doesn’t mean counting macros every single day, but knowing what a serving size looks like and what macros are in the grand scheme of your plan can go a long way. It’s similar to learning how to balance a bank account.
Another example of a good choice might be a protein shake. Do you have a favorite shake recipe you want to share with the people?
I’ve always liked going with a base vanilla (powder). I’ll add a little almond milk or oat milk, then my go-tos are banana, strawberries, spinach, and chia seeds or flax seeds. I might even throw in some almond flakes for texture. I’m not a big fan of drinking calories when I’m dieting, but I like thick shakes for people that are trying to get big and have trouble eating so much food.
You’ve helped many people through your online programs and coaching, but many of them may already had a fitness foundation. What was the difference between that and coaching folks who were beginners on The Biggest Loser?
There are two schools of thought. I actually liked helping people on the show a lot more because they were blank canvases. They had no expectations, and a lot of them reacted super quickly to exercise and diet. Of course, we had to be careful and work around injuries, but you see change immediately. The change is drastic, which is really cool.
What do you think is the most overrated exercise and why?
I have a caveat with this one. It’s the conventional deadlift with bad form. I say that because of how often it is performed incorrectly. When we look at movements in life, rarely are we in a position that calls for us to do something like a conventional deadlift. There are a lot of people that have longer torsos and different leverage points, which causes them to do them incorrectly.
I like the hex bar deadlift, and I think that would be a great substitute for many people. I even like a sumo deadlift over a conventional one because so many young guys do it wrong. I love the hex version or anything like a clean that comes from a hanging position.
What is the most underrated movement that more people should be doing?
Anything unilateral is underrated and should be used more in my opinion. I like doing movements from a kneeling position, and I think the single shoulder dumbbell press while on a knee is a great one. I do them with a dumbbell, but you can use a landmine with a bar and do them that way as well. I think unilateral movements are always a great option. We all have one side that’s stronger than the other. It also really makes you use the mind-muscle connection because of the form and you have to keep your core tight from a kneeling position. You have to really punch it out at the top, though.
When it comes to cardio, popular options include High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and Low Intensity Steady State (LISS). Are you a proponent of one over the other?
I do both. I treat HIIT cardio more like a workout that can be done during the day or as a workout on its own. It’s taxing on the central nervous system, so I’m not a fan of doing it first thing in the morning or every single day. When I competed in bodybuilding shows, I would incorporate two HIIT sessions a week, and I’d do two to three LISS sessions a week. LISS is great to do in the morning. I like to go for a walk. I don’t do HIIT on an empty stomach in the morning because I want to feel the body out. That’s what the walk does for me. Now, having a meal, waiting an hour, then going with a HIIT workout will get more bang for the buck because your metabolism is faster. Both have their place in a well-rounded plan.
Sleep is essential, but many people feel they don’t get enough of it. What tips or tricks do you use to help you at bedtime?
The biggest thing that helped me and my clients is getting on a schedule. I can attest to it traveling the world as much as I have for the last 12 years now. If I didn’t sleep well and tried to train hard, I’d get sick every time. Going to bed at the same time every night and turning off all electronics two hours before that time. I’m a big fan of sleep aids also. I like GABA, but the main points are electronics going off two hours before bedtime and going to bed at the same time every night. I also try to not do a lot of carbs before bed. I want to eat my last meal around two hours before as well.
What other methods of recovery do you use?
I do mobility work for around 10 to 15 minutes around each training session. I like massage sessions every week. Now, these aren’t fun massages. These hurt. It’s not like I’m napping or they feel good. It’s meant to help me recover better. I’m not a fan of cryotherapy, but I do like ice baths as well.
Your body is your business in a sense, but many people reading this will never need to make that level of commitment. Why should they still make an effort to invest time and energy into their health and wellness?
I still love doing [workouts], and when I don’t, it throws me off, and the people around me can sense it. If I haven’t been as active as I should have been, it can affect the rest of my day. I feel that on top of all the obvious medical factors, people that focus on fitness will be a lot happier overall. We as a society would be in a much better position. I also think that they would see a lot more success in other areas of their lives—business, personal, relationships, whatever. When you don’t feel good about yourself, you’re not going to be a better worker, spouse, or parent. It’s such an easy thing to do, and it pays off in so many ways. It’s easy to undervalue your health until something happens like an injury, Covid, or something else. All of a sudden, you appreciate it more. Appreciate it now and take action to see and feel better both now and for years to come.
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