As the personal trainer and bodyguard for ZZ Top during their Eighties heyday, Neal Cordell incorporated some of the tackling skills he developed as an All-Memphis defensive lineman at South Side High School. After 186 concerts with the “little ole band from Texas,” Cordell has a Pavlovian reaction when certain classic rock songs burst from his radio speakers. Says Cordell, “They told me I inspired one of their songs: ‘Stages’ from Afterburner .”
Cordell turned 72 in October and lives the life you might expect of a former ballplayer (outfielder at Memphis State), coach (football at Ridgeway High School, softball at Rhodes College), and health club owner (Cordell opened The Peabody’s facility in the early Eighties, where he met ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons).
Once a 220-pound football player (in high school), Cordell now checks in at 156 pounds and says he wears the same size pants he did 50 years ago. The secret, it seems, is making fitness a habit.
“I wanted to be a coach all my life,” says Cordell. “Our football coach [at South Side], Malcolm Phillips, advocated not drinking and not smoking. To this day, I’ve not touched alcohol or any tobacco products. When I got to college, I started working with weights and running, and doing it every day. When I got out of college and started coaching, I did the same thing. I’ll take a few rest days now, but I wouldn’t miss a day. I’d go three or four months in a row, at least an hour a day. I’ve got a few aches and pains, but I don’t stop.”
Cordell’s regimen today has the same twin foundations of weights and cardio training. His preference is dumbbells (safer than barbells, as you don’t require a spotter) and running outside, as opposed to using treadmills or elliptical machines.
“I always do my weights first,” says Cordell. “Weights help you run faster and longer, because the muscles support the bones. But a lot of runners don’t lift weights at all.”
Cordell alternates his weight-lifting to focus on different muscle groups evenly: chest, back, and legs one day, then shoulders and arms the next.
Cordell has completed a marathon (“One was enough,” he says with a smile), but generally runs close to an hour a day, roughly three miles. He feels there’s as much value in the time you spend running as the distance, the two variables increasing or decreasing based on the pace a runner prefers.
As for diet, Cordell’s is centered on salads and chicken, and he pays relentless attention to portion sizes. “We eat right 90 percent of the time,” he says, “and 10 percent of the time it doesn’t make a bit of difference.” Cordell allows himself three strawberry milkshakes a year . He confesses an allergy to chocolate has helped in this area. “If there’s a blueberry pie,” he says, “I’ll eat a small piece and that satisfies me.”
Cordell taught health and wellness at Southwest Tennessee Community College for 17 years and today is a personal trainer to five clients (most of them in their 40s). That habit of living healthy is quite permanent. “I don’t know if you can lengthen life [with attention to fitness],” says Cordell, “but quality of life can be so good. People ask me why I keep working out, and I tell them I want to look good in the casket. Try to live every day to the fullest. When I get up, I can go hiking, go running, and do whatever I need to do. Live for the day.”