This is something I feel like I need to say
And I don’t mean that in a “this needs to be said, so I may as well say it,” way. I mean it in a, “It does not benefit me to say this, and I benefit from not saying it, so I feel like I’m the one who is supposed to say it because then people will actually listen,” way.
This is what it really takes to be the best and break world records in powerlifting.
I don’t broadcast this, so a lot of people – even consistent readers – are unaware that I’ve held three all-time records in powerlifting. Not federation records in some obscure division, but “no one in this weight class in this style of lifting in any federation has ever lifted this much” records. Two have since been broken – my 1714 total with no drugs or knee wraps at 220 pounds, and my 1885 total with no drugs at 242. My 750 squat at 242 is still on the books (powerliftingwatch.com hasn’t updated their records to reflect it yet, so for all I know it’s already been broken with another lift that hasn’t been recorded yet, but it’s still the record to the best of my knowledge), but it wouldn’t surprise me to see it fall soon. But, for a time, I was at the very top of the world of drug free powerlifting in two different divisions.
I don’t say any of this to brag (you’ll see why in the rest of the article), it’s not something I bring up more than is necessary (also to be elaborated on), and I’ve never sought sponsorship for more exposure.
That’s the purpose of this article. People wonder what it’s like to be one of the best, I’m going to tell you, and you’re going to be disappointed. But that’s okay, because then you’ll understand.
What did it take for me to break records? Train consistently, identify weaknesses, and avoid injury. Yes, that was entirety of the revolutionary strategy that helped me get to the top.
First, a bit about my background.
My parents got me a weight set when I was 10. It was a small bar (not an Olympic bar) that could only hold 250 pounds. I rushed down on Christmas morning, and, as any true future bro would do, I maxed out on everything. That first morning, I bench pressed 150 and deadlifted all 250 pounds with ease.
Fast forward 4 years. I barely used that little weight set because I wasn’t allowed to bench without a spotter (which was rarely available), and I could deadlift all the weight I had basically until I got bored. Finally I had access to the high school weightroom with full-size Olympic bars and plates. At a bodyweight somewhere around 165-170, I benched 275 and deadlifted 425 that first day in the weight room – keep in mind that I’d done both movements maybe a dozen times in my life, spread over a 4 year period prior to that point – untrained for all intents and purposes.
I took up powerlifting seriously a year later after some concussions knocked me out of basketball and football. I did a little local meet with no training leading up to it and broke the state records. I learned about the 100% raw federation soon after, checked out their record books for my age and weight, and thought, “oh, I can break all those records now,” so over the next few months, I did.
At this time, my training was incredibly stupid. Imagine the ignorance of youth combined with the added arrogance of breaking records with minimal effort, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how insufferable and closed off to critique and criticism 15 and 16 year old Greg was. My training routine was a high volume, high intensity, high frequency, high band tension, high accessory work, high disregard for life, limb, and proper form monstrosity. And with it, I managed to squat mid 500s, bench 400, and deadlift 600 not long after turning 16 at a bodyweight hovering around 195-205.
I got hurt pretty badly not long after, and proceeded to get pretty bad rehab (I had a torn QL, but they didn’t actually figure that out until I was on my 4th physical therapist). Combine that with the fact that I jumped right back into training full bore every time a PT gave me the green light, re-aggravating the injury within a couple weeks, and you wind up with a very frustrating year. Finally, I just gave up lifting for a while.
I went from being a pretty good athlete to being a pretty good powerlifter, to being a lazy fat slob. I realized one day that I used to be able to run a 5 minute mile, but was having issues walking up stairs or standing up off the ground. I was 260. That wasn’t cutting it. I basically stopped eating, started doing a ton of cardio, and had a strength training routine consisting of only bodyweight pushups and pullups. At the end of 4 months of less than 1000 calories per day, I was 190 and could do 40 strict bodyweight pullups. From there, I started powerlifting again at ground zero. Ground zero was a pretty easy 405 deadlift and 275 bench and (my memory is hazy on this one) either a 275 or 315 squat.
I got back to my old PRs pretty quickly – mid 500s squat, 400ish bench, 600ish deadlift.
After that, I took up a program of daily maxes for squat and bench. I put 100 pounds on my squat and 30 on my bench in 12 weeks, leading up to my 1714 world record at 220.
I was lazy for about 4 months, registered for another meet, trained hard for about 5 months, and put another ~70 pounds on my squat, 10 on my bench, and 80 on my deadlift for my 750 squat and 1885 total at 242.
I’ve since squatted 755 without wraps and benched 475. The squat progress came from working up to a 10rm one week, 8rm the next, 5rm the next, and then starting over until I was pretty sure I was good for a big squat PR. The bench PR came after 3 months of not benching. I did some overhead work, and some weight dips for a few months, laid back down on the bench, and PRed 3 weeks later.
During all this time, I’ve used a variety of training styles. Just about any program out there with a name (Sheiko, 5/3/1, Westside, etc.), daily maxes, basic linear periodization, and just screwing around and doing what sounded like fun for a month or two at a time. I’ve also tried a variety of different diets. I was eating strict keto for most of my prep leading up to 1714, and a more carb-centric IIFYM approach for 1885.
As long as I was consistently challenging myself, recovering effectively (sleeping/minimizing stress), and not getting hurt, I got stronger, regardless of the methods I was using.
I used to want to pin the success on small factors. “Ah hah! I added 100 pounds to my squat doing daily maxes!” Well yeah, that helped. It was basically a crash course in REALLY teaching my body how to squat. But keep in mind I squatted 545 with godawful form before my body had any idea of how to squat. I also got a lot of mileage out of breathing paused squats (for both squat and deadlift), but that only worked because I had another glaring weakness – super strong legs and a relatively weak torso.
I just lifted weights, practiced the movements, addressed weaknesses, stayed healthy, and broke world records.
No secret formula.
The thing that people, especially other people in my position, don’t want to come to terms with is that innate genetic factors are hugely important. I wanted to believe I was the strongest because I was so smart and worked so hard.
Nonsense. I think I understand training pretty well, and when my training is focused for a meet I do work very hard, but those are small factors compared the more salient issues.
My first day with a real weight set when I was 14, I hit numbers that some people work years for. In my first year of real (incredibly stupid) training, I hit bigger numbers than most people will in their entire life. The former didn’t have a damn thing to do with how hard I’d worked on the weights, and the latter didn’t have a damn thing to do with how much I knew about training.
The more I learned, the better I became at identifying weaknesses and staying healthy. That may be what pushed me over the edge from “really strong” to “world records,” but I promise you that it will not push you from “average” to “world records.”
I could benefit from (and people like me do benefit from) tacitly implying that we can make you as strong as we are, or that we know some sort of secret. That’s nonsense. If you’re as gifted for strength as I am, I can make you as strong as I am. If you aren’t, I can’t.
The range of natural ability really becomes obvious when you start working with general population clients. A lot of powerlifting coaches never see this because they give off a very elitist “if you don’t squat 500 why are you even talking to me? Just push yourself harder, pussy,” vibe. I do my best to be down to earth and approachable, though, so I get a lot of very average clients. I also get a lot of very gifted clients. I put just as much time and effort into both groups.
I’ve had an experienced lifter in his 40s put 30 pounds on his deadlift in 10 weeks for his first triple bodyweight pull. I’ve had an experienced lifter put 115 pounds on her deadlift (345 to 460) in 12 weeks while losing 20 pounds. My sister-in-law pulled 380 at 18 years old with the most basic program imaginable (she only lifted 2 days per week, with relatively low volume because she was in-season focusing on volleyball).
I’ve also had very average people come to me barely benching bodyweight wanting to get a second wheel on the bar, or desperately wanting to squat 315 at 200 pounds, or gunning for their first 400 deadlift after 3 or 4 years of consistent training. And they also make progress, slowly but surely. The game is the same, they work just as hard, but the results are dramatically different.
We like to believe that anyone can be the best if they work hard enough. At least for my American readers, that’s something woven deep into our cultural mythos. There’s nothing you can’t do if you put your nose to the grindstone and apply a little elbow grease.
Such notions are furthered by Malcolm Gladwell’s famous 10,000 hour rule – all it takes is 10,000 hours of focused practice to achieve greatness. However, recently that idea has been, if not totally debunked, at least shaken significantly. We want, so badly, to believe that people who have achieved have done so solely because of their efforts. While practice and effort do CERTAINLY matter, you can’t use them at a catch-all to explain the entirety (one could even argue the majority) of someone’s success.
If most people did the things I have done to reach the level of strength that I have, they would probably improve, but that would not make them lift as much as I do. If a perfectly genetically average person (assuming that exists) was twice as smart about training and worked twice as hard as me, I would still lift more.
One of the things that really struck me as I started reading more and more research was just how strong the average person is. If I open a study, look at the subject characteristics, and see “untrained,” I usually just close it. I look for at least “moderately trained,” and usually “trained,” or “highly trained” – people who have been lifting consistently, at least 3 days per week, for at least a year or more.
A common measure of strength is bench press max. Especially since most of these studies are conducted on college-aged males, you can safely assume that if they’ve been lifting for at least a year, there was a gratuitous amount of bench press work included for most of them.
A pretty typical average 1rm in these studies is 70-80kg. I’ve seen a couple in the 90-100kg range, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a study not using competitive powerlifters with an average bench press max of even 125kg.
Sure, they probably haven’t had a perfectly thought-out and periodized strength training program, but these people who have been in a weight room for at least a year, presumably bench pressing like any red blooded American males, are nowhere close to “strong” by powerlifting standards.
That’s one reason I abhor “strength standards” tables, particularly when they use words like “novice,” “intermediate,” and “advanced.” Especially because many people (most, perhaps) assume there’s a strong correlation between the category and the experience/knowledge of the lifter.
“Bro, you’ve been lifting 2 years and you’re still not an intermediate? What’s wrong with you? Train harder and drink more milk, bro.”
That makes my blood boil. Strength standards may be useful for football players or competitive athletes, to connote “if you can’t squat this, you’ll probably get wrekt on the football field” or “if you can’t deadlift your bodyweight, you probably won’t be competitive at a powerlifting meet,” but not for applying to the general strength training population.
It makes a lot of ungifted but knowledgeable people feel inferior (Some of the brightest people I’m working with currently are some of the weakest – they’ve been reading so much about how to get stronger because they’ve been led to believe they must be doing something wrong!), and it gives dumb, gifted lunks (16 year old Greg) a false sense of superiority.
There is another salient factor in play here that skews our perception of how strong most people are.
You have to take into account selection bias – who is actually lifting weights? People tend to gravitate toward mastery activities; they find something they’re naturally good at, and then find it rewarding to continue trying to improve in that area. Most people who have minimal aptitude for strength training probably lift weights a couple times, realize they’re not very good at it, and give it up for something else.
So, in all likelihood, these “averages” are already based on the typical attainment of a population with above-average natural aptitude. Very few people who are lousy at something and have extreme difficulty improving are going to stick with that activity long-term. Someone in the bottom quintile of strength for day-to-day gym lifters (not even competitive lifters) is probably well above the median of the population as a whole, both in terms of natural aptitude and actual strength.
This isn’t to say that there’s absolutely no validity at all in claiming a certain degree of expertise because of your achievements.
Some people probably just tensed up, ready to shout “APPEAL TO AUTHORITY” at their computer screen. Cool your jets.
While that’s certainly a logical fallacy, such fallacies are only particularly problematic in a deductive argument when you’re trying to prove something. In 99.99% of strength training discussions, you’re dealing with probability more than proof.
If you asked a dozen 700 pound squatters a question and a dozen 300 pound squatters a question, you’ll probably get on average more useful answers form the 700 pound group. This isn’t to say there aren’t some people who are strong and still idiots, or that plenty of weaker people aren’t very bright about training (I’ve already acknowledged both of those things). But let’s say you squat 400 now. Don’t you think you’ll know more about squatting and training the squat when you squat 500? So while stronger does not equal smarter in all discrete cases when comparing two individuals (so don’t think you know nothing if you’re weaker, or that you’re the omniscient god of training because you’re strong), there will be that general trend.
If that’s still a little uncomfortable to you, I talk quite a bit about formal logic and reasoning in the book I’m working on, and I may address it in an upcoming blog post.
One more thing I’d like to tie into this – my total ambivalence about drugs. People recoil against drugs because they say steroids make it an uneven playing field. I laugh at that, because it implies the playing field was ever level in the first place. Genetic differences make the playing field much less level than drugs ever could. I haven’t checked their standings recently, but my drug free world records were all top-10 or 15 all-time for untested lifts as well. Quite a few USAPL and IPF (drug tested) lifters have all-time world records regardless of drug usage, or are within 5-10% of those records.
Also, something I didn’t realize until I started making more connections in the strength world – a lot of the guys you assume are on drugs are clean, or on amazingly little. A lot of fairly weak people are on everything and the kitchen sink. A lot of people who are on drugs now were already astoundingly strong before they touched anything (can’t name names of obvious legal reasons, so don’t ask). Sure, drugs make a difference, but they don’t make as big of a difference as people like to think.
Obviously, since there are federations in powerlifting that allow you to take drugs, I think it’s ethically wrong to compete in a drug-tested division if you’re on. However, to be entirely honest about it, although that’s an ethical conviction I hold, it’s not one that I particularly care about. No one makes a living off powerlifting. It’s not like the drug cheat in a tested division is taking food off the second place guy’s table. He’s a jerk, but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter enough for me to REALLY get fired up about it.
One final thing I’d like to touch on. Where you start is a poor indicator of your genetic potential. Someone may say “Oh, look how much I’ve accomplished, and I’m not genetically blessed at all. I was so weak and small and I broke all of these records in spite of my poor genetic draw.” Nonsense.
I’d like to introduce you to my friend Eze. I have never met an adult male weaker on his first day in the weight room. He literally could not bench the bar. I don’t mean that hyperbolically. He tried to bench press the barbell, and couldn’t. He also could not deadlift 225. Not only could he not lift it – he couldn’t even break it off the ground. He was amazingly, astoundingly weak.
5 years later, he benches 355 pounds, clean and jerks ~160kg, snatches ~130kg, pulls in the 500s, and is one of the most muscular drug free athletes I know of. He rocks sub-12% bodyfat year-round at a bodyweight between 205 and 210 (when last I checked).
He doesn’t train any differently from the other athletes at the same gym. Actually, he’s considerably lazier than quite a few of them. But he’s one of the best lifters in the bunch, and he easily has the most jacked physique.
Some people start out with a lot of strength (like me), and others gain strength and muscle quickly after a low initial starting point (like Eze), but you do not accomplish truly exceptional things in strength sports without the right parents.
One last caveat: “But Greg, isn’t this post horribly condescending? You’re basically saying that you’re an ubermensch, the best are just going to be the best, and there’s nothing anyone else can do about it. Could you possibly be more elitist?”
I’m expecting this criticism, but I think it comes out of a horribly skewed value system. No one is better than someone else because they can lift more weight on a barbell. There is much, much more to life than a big total. If anything, this is an egalitarian position. If there’s a value judgement to be extracted from this rambling article, it’s precisely that I’m no better than you because I lift more. It’s not like I’m saying, “I’m more empathetic than you, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” or, “I have more close meaningful relationship than you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” That would be condescending because those are things that actually matter.
Quite the contrary. I have a lot of aptitude for lifting heavy barbells. Our destinations may be different, but the journey is the same – that’s the piece that really matters.
This should only be interpreted as elitist if your self-worth comes from how much weight you can lift, and you project that same value system onto others. And if you do, the way you’re assessing personal value isn’t too different from a teenage (literal or metaphorical) dick measuring contest.
So, getting back to the original subject – what it’s like to break world records, and how you have to train for it.
Well, in all honesty, it’s not all that different from how you probably train. Be consistent, stay healthy, pick exercises that have the biggest carryover to performance (practice your main lifts and choose accessory exercises that address weaknesses), and aim for measurable progress over weeks or months.
If you’re reading, learning, training, and improving, you’re doing it right. The better goal is to be a progressively better you, not to be better than everyone else. For one thing, it’s attainable for everyone, not just people like me who picked the right parents. For two, if you did get the lucky draw, by trying to constantly be a stronger you, the records will take care of themselves.
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