My Intro to the World of Accommodating Resistance, Ace Briefs, and Sumo Pulls
Never trust a powerlifter! They trick you with their clever questions and seductive commentary.
I should have known better; I really should have…but even a seasoned gym veteran has no choice but to respect lifters that wedge their bodies between impossibly-heavy barbells and demonstrate how muscle, tendon, skeletal structure and sheer force of will can bend those bars to their will and force them to move through space to either an explosive contraction or a slow, grinding lockout.
“You ever run the mono?”
“Ummm…no. But I can give it a shot if you really need the help?”
I had been working just a month as Senior Content Manager at elitefts, an info website attached to an online equipment and gear distribution business that is actually a front for a secret powerlifting cult. The company’s owner, Dave Tate, is determined to recruit anyone with even a vague desire for self-improvement in order to create an army of squat, bench and deadlifting zealots.
Think I’m kidding? Instead of being anointed by a church gathering at the river, his disciples are baptized in chalk dust and the spirit is driven into their soul by way of ammonia inhalants. The true believers show their stigmata through torn calluses on the palms of their hands, scars on their shins, torn skin across their traps by deep bar knurling, and a laundry list of muscle tears and joint replacements that have been conquered and moved past in order to reach even greater personal records. At that point, I was unaware of the mental programming that was to be inflicted upon me.
The mono he makes reference to is short for the monolift, a clever device that eliminates the need to walk out the weight for a heavy squat. Bodybuilders or powerlifting pretenders (especially the keyboard warriors that live to post snarky comments on YouTube) sometimes knock the device, stating it is “cheating,” or that “real lifters can walk out the weight.” Easy to say when you are squatting with poundages that are half the weight that Ronnie Coleman does lunges with, but when you push things closer to your ultimate potential, those two to three backward steps place a ridiculous amount of uneven load on the hip and spine. This brings about added risk without added benefit. The obvious analogy is that, while you CAN drive your car without the headlights on, doing so in the dark or a heavy fog isn’t a wise idea.
The man asking me to run the monolift is Ted Toalston, pro level lifter and national champ, although in his mind he is weak and inadequate and therefore willing to do anything to change that state. He is climbing his way up to his working sets while being reinforced by just one training partner. When squatting for powerlifting, a minimalist team of three requires a lifter, back spotter, and an additional person to run the monolift mechanism which unracks the weight and snaps the sturdy uprights back into place upon completion of the set. Ideally, sets using near-maximum poundages also have two side spotters and a crouching lifter to alert you that you are nearing legal depth (with a “Back. Back. Back. UPPPP!” series of commands). Our group of three was pretty bare bones. Refusing to lend a hand in such a situation would be like slamming closed a door in front of a sweet old lady using a walker.
Now Ted is a technician and, despite the fact that there are seven plates on each end of the sixty-pound Mastodon bar (yeah, those 45-pound Olympic bars whip around too much for serious weight), he makes the weight look easy, with his chest held up high and every muscle from his temples on down to the soles of his feet locked tightly in position. In fact, I was soon to learn that spreading the floor and keeping the weight on the outer ridge of the foot was one of about thirty important technical cues that need to be hardwired into my neuromuscular network.
After Ted’s impressively heavy final set, the next question came my way.
“Ever squat out of the mono, Stevie?”
“No, I typically walk it out and…”
“Give it a shot and see how it feels,” Ted replies, purposely ignoring the fact that I was training my back before being recruited onto monolift duty. This was just the start of things for me.
I was never really asked if I wanted to train with them, or if I had any interest in powerlifting. There was no judgment placed on the Flex Magazine-like workouts I had been doing. For Ted, it wasn’t a matter of me making the choice to try powerlifting. I was in the elitefts™ S-4 Compound, surrounded by heavy-duty equipment. More importantly, we were offered the programming of Dave Tate and a chance to filter the unbridled passion for strength development that radiates through this gym like slow uranium decay in Chernobyl. Ted didn’t ask if I wanted to powerlift because he just did not understand why someone wouldn’t.
From that day forward, I was worked into the rotation, initially completing my work sets while the others were still warming up. I ran the rack, loaded plates, and learned…both from watching and the technical cues provided me from Ted Toalston and (we were later joined by) ex-Westside team alumni Todd Brock and Joey Amato, and current Westsider Molly Edwards. Dave Tate continued to write the program. I was in, and I’m not really sure how it happened. Leaving the cult is nearly impossible.
At this point, you can either fight the fanatical beliefs of the cult or jump in with both feet, chug the Kool-Aid, and ask for seconds! To make the most of the lifestyle I had been indoctrinated into, I recommend the following basic pointers:
1) GET IMMERSED IN THE PROCESS
Lifting is an endeavor in which partial effort will not reward you with noticeable progress, whether it is bodybuilding or powerlifting. Make it a priority to get all the day-to-day tasks that support your training in place in order to maximize your results.
The powerlifting lifestyle is less time-intensive than what most bodybuilders do. Most of the year just involves four training sessions a week. Your nutrition needs to be better than the average person, but you don’t need to count every macronutrient. But ignorance of nutrition, mediocre training and haphazard recovery are not acceptable by those wishing to achieve PR totals.
2) COMPETE SOON, COMPETE OFTEN
“No matter how hard you think you’ve worked in the gym, the meet will tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt whether you really put the work in, or you were just kidding yourself for the last 16 weeks,” says Dave Kirschen (APF Senior National Champion). “Your friends might tell you that your squats were “right there” but the judges will tell you the truth.”
For those in bodybuilding, getting in shape for summer may cause you to reveal deeper abdominal separation…but you will never make the progress that someone that will be posing on stage for the state bodybuilding title in sixteen weeks, will accomplish.
You may feel like you are incredibly driven to make gains but nothing…and I mean NOTHING…creates greater results than knowing on a certain date you are going to be walking up on the lifting platform, grabbing hold of the bar, and showing an audience and three judges exactly what you can squat, bench and deadlift or stepping under the lights and presenting muscle size and fat-free conditioning while doing quarter-turns. Nothing will direct your energy better than prepping for serious competition.
3) DON’T LET SUBPAR NUTRITION DERAIL OPTIMAL TRAINING
Now this one is directed more to powerlifting, but capturing the influence of bodybuilding.
The old school philosophy of powerlifting nutrition involved eating your way up to heavier weight classes, under the belief that your leverage will improve as you get bigger. While weight on the scale increases leverage, being a 10-12% body fat 198-pound class lifter with a 600-pound squat is much more impressive than being a 242-class lifter with the same amount of lean weight and a 650 squat. A gradual, lean weight gain creates an athlete that maximizes their strength-to-bodyweight ratio. Concern for your health also extends your career. Is it a sprint to a world record squat or a marathon of progressively bigger PRs and the slow accrual of lean mass?
Two-time WPC World Champion, Eric Maroscher, is a firm advocate of the lean lifter philosophy. “As powerlifters, our mindset is more is better, but sometimes more takes time, and getting bigger and stronger is earned in the weight room, not because one super-sizes it every day for lunch.”
Pro-level powerlifter Ted Toalston is a great example of doing things the right way. Over a four-year period, he stayed very lean (visual abs) while slowly going from the 198-pound class to the 220s (weighing between 228-232 in the off-season). He also went from 1,590 to a 2,000 pound total in a five-year period.
No matter what your philosophy or personal metabolic situation, simply increasing your protein intake and limiting your carbs will make a dramatic improvement on your body composition.
Proper nutrition is an obvious determinant of a powerlifter’s level of commitment. Are you a casual meathead lifter…or a serious strength athlete? The effort put into your nutritional intake is a clear gauge of which category you fall into.
4) SURROUND YOURSELF BY DRIVEN LIFTERS
I was fortunate to be in some of the best gyms in the world and to be surrounded by some great lifters. In addition to the lifters I trained with (some veterans, others hungry young guys), I had powerlifting legends like Steve Goggins, Ed Coan and AnoTurtiainen stopping in to train. The team of sponsored athletes I supervised included Chris Duffin (raw squatting four-times his bodyweight), XPC heavyweight champion (with a 2,725 total) Chris Janek, Marshall “Freakshow” Johnson (one of the world’s top 275/308-pound class lifters, with an 1,102 squat), and Brian Schwab (lightweight lifter with over a decade of dominance in multiple weight classes). World’s Strongest Man winner Brian Shaw stopped in while in town. Squats of over 900-pounds and deadlifts over 750 were not uncommon there.
From a muscle-building perspective, John Meadows was present in the gym almost every weekend and bodybuilders like Evan Centopani, Mark Dugdale, Fakhri Mubarak, Ben Pakulski, Zak Kahn, Justin Compton and Antoine Valliant stopped by to train while they were in town. In addition to Meadows, nutrition experts and team members like Justin Harris and Scott Stevenson considered the gym their training home away from home.
As a writer, I have been in Dorian Yates’ Temple Gym in Birmingham during his reign, spent four days in Fort Worth at Ronnie Coleman’s house and with him in Metroflex Gym a few month’s before his first Olympia win. I have seen dozens of National champions and top placing pros train and shared meals with many of them.
Even if you (like me) do not have the genetics to ever lift at the same level of the champions, their example elevates what you are able to accomplish. The improbable seems likely, and I now lift weights I would not have thought possible as a young man.
A common trait I have seen in the best lifters is that, if they do not live near other lifters that can teach or inspire them, they travel to train with those lifters. Scott Warman and Josh Bryant made it a point to make road trips (and eventually even move) to be near some of the greatest and smartest powerlifters of all time. Dave Tate moved to Columbus to train at Westside Barbell with Louie Simmons, Matt Dimel and Chuck Vogelpohl. In the seventies and eighties, Schwarzenegger, Zane, Robinson, Columbu, Bannout and other top bodybuilders in the world moved to Southern California to be among the best.
With the internet, people do not need to move to learn from experts, but you still should consider driving a few weekends a month to train with the top gym experts in your state. What you learn on Facebook or YouTube cannot compare to the hand-on info you get while spotting a great lifter in the gym.
5) PERFORM PREVENTATIVE THERAPY
Success in the gym involves more than just lifting heavy weights. You also need to do everything within your power to optimize recovery from the tolls of the gym.
First off, a proper warm-up will ensure that you minimize damage in the gym and goes a long way to ensuring you get the big numbers you are shooting for in your attempts. Increased mobility, breaking down minor muscle knots, and flossing out scar tissue, trigger points, dents and dings will allow you to achieve and hardwire proper technique. Do you need a wide stance with knees out in order to drive up a bigger squat? The foam roller, rumble roller and a self-massage stick can help make that happen. Bands to provide gentle traction of the shoulders or hip joint, keeps your joints healthy. Investing some time before and after training can make a huge difference.
For powerlifters, after a meet our programming takes on a very bodybuilding-like hypertrophy phase. The reps increase. The loads drop to a fraction of our maxes. We are not allowed to touch a barbell. Machines, dumbbells and even cables become a part of our routines. A weird sensation in which blood surges to the region we are training has even been known to happen. One of my training partner has coined the term “muscle pump” to describe this strange swelling. We also use bands and bodyweight exercises (for high reps of 15-50) to get blood into areas like the lower back, triceps, shoulders and hips to help heal any minor tweaks brought about during our heavy training. Pushing the Prowler® and pulling sleds is also a big part of this “blood work” and helps us heal, improve our conditioning, and get ready for the return to blocks of heavy strength building programming.
Jacuzzis, contrast showers, ice application and liniments are also part of the process to recover quicker, reduce minor pains (if it hurts too much for you to get a good night’s sleep, that will slow your gains) and keep adequate mobility. For the advanced lifter (or those that wish to be) seeing medical experts for deep tissue massage, chiropractic adjustments, or active release work, can be a significant benefit.
6) BALANCE AGGRESSIVE LIFTING AND LONGEVITY
JL Holdsworth (elite level powerlifting and WPC World Champion) has told me that the main thing that has held back his career as a lifter is that his overly-competitive nature lead to a constant pushing of the limits. For JL, aggression overpowered logic, which brought about serious injuries that limit his current abilities. A long-term career plan involves knowing when to back down (or shut things down for the day) and when to leave it all on the platform.
Eric Maroscher says, “The goal isn’t just to be the best lifter that you can be but to be the best lifter that you can be for decades.” This requires intelligent programming. A common mistake of novice lifters is basing their programming on lifts they think they can make, rather than setting their percentages on actual weights they have legitimately done. Increasing strength is based on gradual neurological adaptation.
If you are following a well-crafted program that calls for 70% of your one-rep max in the squat and that is based on 600 pounds (even though the best you have done is 540), you may complete the reps, but your body will feel beaten up and you will start missing reps in the sessions to follow. You need to coax growth. Trying to force it will simply result in overtraining and a poor platform performance.
For both powerlifters and bodybuilders, those are the six basic commandments from my powerlifting indoctrination. Every drop of blood is a part of your sacrifice. There is no escape from the cult; no return to a life of lazy, sedentary comfort or even a return to posing dais pumpitude. You are now a brother in chalk, with hoodies, knee wraps and multi-ply support gear as your uniform. A day without dull aching in your lower back, elbows and/or shoulder is a sign of emotional weakness and an empty heart. The totality of your existence depends on the existence of your total, and your drive to increase those numbers. Welcome to the cult of power.
Bryant, Josh. “Built to the Hilt” (2014).
Bryant, Josh. “The Metroflex Gym Powerbuilding Basics.” (2014).
Kirschen, David, “Powerlifting Year One” (2011).
Kirschen, David, “Why You Need to Compete Now (August 5, 2012). http://articles.elitefts.com/training-articles/powerlifting-articles/powerlifting-101-why-you-need-to-competenow/
Maroscher, Eric. “Nutrition Advice from Generation X to Generation Y and Z” (August 19, 2014). http://articles.elitefts.com/training-articles/nutrition-advice-from-generation-x-to-y-and-z/
Pulcinella, Steve, “The IronSport Strength Training Method.” (2012).
Tate, Dave. Elitefts Strong(er) Manual (2009).