For the past year and a half, I’ve been fortunate enough to train at the strongest gym in the world, the famed Westside Barbell in Columbus, OH.
To many, Westside might just seem like a gym where lifters who are already at the top go to train.
What people don’t know is many of the lifters at Westside Barbell began as novice lifters and became world record holders.
I’m very fortunate to train at Westside Barbell and also train with several former Westside members at my own facility, Showtime Strength & Performance, in Newark, OH.
These were the same lifters who helped the founder of Westside, Louie Simmons, in many experiments such as using bands and chains that many people take for granted today.
If you want to start putting up huge numbers, these are the people to listen to.
Today, I want to share some of the best lessons they have taught me along the way. Take these lessons to heart and you’ll take your lifts to new heights.
1. Personal Records Matter
On my first day at Westside Barbell, Lou told me, “In powerlifting, your numbers are either going up or you’re going backwards.” It seems simple enough, but it’s definitely true. On max effort days, you have to hit a PR on the lift you’re doing. It doesn’t matter if it’s 5-lbs. or 50-lbs. A PR is a PR.
On dynamic effort days, the goal is to get more volume in your workout. This, in turn, will help build a larger base for the max effort days. Our goal is to set a PR every training session and push our training partners to hit PRs as well.
2. Don't Be Scared
Josh Gutridge, a longtime Westside lifter who has lifts of 900 Squat, 780 Bench Press, and 720 Deadlift, told me this when I first started. I didn’t fully understand what it meant at the time.
A lot of people will squat 500 lbs, but to squat 800, 900, or even 1000 or more lbs, you can’t be scared of the weight, the pressure, or think of what could go wrong. Any thoughts, other than what you need to do to move the weight, are distractions and will not help you lift heavy weights.
It may sound odd, but after being around competitive lifters for a while, you see people come and go. Some of them get scared of the thought of pushing themselves beyond what the average lifter can conceive possible. We see lifters begin because they want to get strong. But, we also see them drop like flies when they realize the kind of training that’s required to get stronger.
To take your lifts to the next level, you can’t be scared and you must go after those numbers aggressively.
3. Upper Back is Critical
One of the guys who has helped me a lot and who I look up to as a lifter is Tim Harold. Tim was the youngest person to deadlift 800lbs, doing so at 18 years old. After not doing as well as I had hoped in a meet, Tim told me to focus on building my upper back and everything else would come together. In that meet, I barely squatted 775 lbs.
Disappointed with my numbers, I found a meet eight weeks later and squatted 800 lbs very easily. Why? In part because I focused much more on my upper back. I began adding more face pulls, upright rows, and heavy rear delt flyes. The volume was always very high (multiple sets of 20 reps) to force as much hypertrophy as possible.
The upper back will stabilize the heavy weights on all your lifts, which is a huge factor on PR lifts. So, make training your lats, traps, rhomboids, and your neck a priority. The heavy weights will settle easier and the PRs will come.
4. The Details Are Crucial
After a recent meet concluded, I wasn’t happy with my performance and I talked with Westside veteran Joe Bayless about what I needed to do. He pointed out several areas that I either neglected completely or needed to add volume to. For me, some weak areas were abs, upper back, and neck, which are commons areas for a lot of lifters.
To combat this I added two extra workouts a week, no longer than 30 minutes, but in less than two months of training it helped add almost 100-lbs to my powerlifting total. The extra volume also helped keep my conditioning at a higher level, which made my next meet that much easier to perform well in my lifts during a long and grueling day.
Another small detail that matters more as you lift heavier is having the same set up every time you lift. Making sure every muscle is flexed the same and every breath is taken the same can pay big dividends. Small details lead to big results.
5. Attack Your Weaknesses
When attempting heavy weights, any weak link in your body can disrupt a lift. The weak link will suck the energy you need making that lift harder, can change the movement, and potentially cause injury. Fixing weak areas is something that nobody enjoys, but the best lifters are usually the most honest with themselves in what they need and don’t need.
The lifters who only focus on what they want to do or things they don’t need to do will either stall in progress or get injured. I have always loved deadlift, because I am naturally good at it. I then noticed my deadlift was going nowhere so I looked at what I had done in training.
Week after week, I was trying to deadlift heavy from the floor. After talking with Josh and Tim, I started working on areas I had never focused on like my low back, lats, and traps. Since building my weak areas, I have hit a PR in deadlift at every meet.
6. Listen More, Talk Less
When Louie Simmons is in charge of your training, the approach is simple: you just shut up. When you are training with a group of experienced lifters, they know what they want you to do, they know what they are looking for, and they know how to fix whatever issues you have during that lift.
If you ask a group of elite lifters to help you, the last thing they need is for a new lifter to tell them what they already know and why it’s right. If you are talking throughout the entire training session, the small details of the experienced lifters will pass you by and the learning experience will be dimmed. Listen, soak up as much knowledge as you can and the improvements will come.
7. Surround yourself with Like-Minded People
Being the strongest lifter at the local gym is a good feeling. However, being the weakest person in your gym is a great feeling.
Putting yourself around others who are stronger than you will make you work harder than ever before because you don’t want to stay at the bottom. If you continue to train with people that are weaker than you, it will be hard for you to progress.
When you’re training with people who are going for all-time world records, don’t you think it would motivate you to push as hard as possible? This is an uncomfortable feeling at first, and no one likes to be the weak link of a team, but once you embrace it, you will be on your way to bigger numbers.
8. Follow Your Passion
Everyone I train with has made powerlifting a top priority in their life. Louie has always followed his passion for powerlifting and training, and that has always been important to him. It wasn’t to become famous or be rich; it was to know as much as he could about training.
Everything we use when we lift was, at one time, a thought of how it could be implemented into training to help lifters get stronger. If Louie was unsure of how a training system worked, he would contact the person who created it. He has followed his passion and let everything else build from there. That was one of the biggest lasting impressions I’ve gotten from Louie.
Applying these lessons
You don’t have to be the strongest person in the world to apply these lessons, but you have to want to be better. Five of the eight lessons listed above can be applied to every aspect of your life outside the gym as well. In training we strive to be better and in life we should use these same lessons to improve outside the gym.
There is a reason why gyms are packed with people who look and lift the same every year. But at gyms like Westside Barbell, it is simply get better or get out. Get a little better every training session and the PRs will fall faster than you ever thought possible.