We've sent men on missions before. We sent Chris Shugart into the heart of one of the most notorious border towns in Mexico to hunt out 'roids. We sent former T-mag columnist Nelson Montana to go under the knife of a plastic surgeon. And we even sent Cy Willson to the bad side of town to pick up some tasty Calzones, but the mission we sent Doug Jackson on might have been potentially the most dangerous.
"So Doug," we said, "you want to write for Testosterone, huh? Hmmm, you live in Columbus, right? That's where Louis Simmon's Westside Barbell is located. How 'bout if we call up Dave Tate and set up a training session for you where you actually train with the Westside boys and write about it? Could you handle it?"
Well, Doug must have wanted to write for us real bad, because he agreed to do it. Most lifters probably wouldn't have the balls, but Doug came through. The following describes his experiences at the world's most bad-ass gym.
"Learn as much as you can and then get out of there before they kill you," was the advice that my girlfriend gave me after I explained to her that I was going to be visiting Westside Barbell, the toughest, most well-known powerlifting gym in the United States.
I'd been paying attention to the Westside methods for about five years and finally, after setting it up with TC, had the guts to give Dave Tate a call to see if I could visit the gym. I had questions about the box squats that they rely on as part of their training. I figured I had nothing to lose except for a few vertebrae.
Tate and I had a great conversation on the phone and had some common points of interest since he had attended Bowling Green State University in Ohio where I'm currently a student. He asked me what my current maxes were on the bench, squat, and deadlift. The numbers were 250, 350, and 350, respectively. I could hear Dave chuckling on the other end of the phone. I got defensive and explained that I was only weighing in at a buck fifty-five.
Of course, while Dave didn't say it, I know he was thinking, "That's your problem." Nevertheless, perhaps sensing that I was somewhat well-read in strength and conditioning, Dave invited me into Westside for a Friday Squat Workout – once he got the okay from the famous Louie Simmons.
As I drove to Westside for the workout, I made myself enter the zone; I even listened to some Metallica to psyche myself up. I was calm, but anxious; confident, yet humbled. A strange feeling came over me that this might be some sort of pivotal experience in my life. I pulled into the parking lot of Westside about fifteen minutes before their 8:30 AM workout. It almost felt surreal after reading about Westside for over five years. I felt like a little leaguer going to play with a team of All Stars.
Louie, who was standing out in the parking lot, greeted me and told me to go inside and get stretched out. Louie was slightly shorter than me, maybe about 5'6", but weighed in at about 220 pounds of muscle. He was wearing Khakis and a t-shirt. His thick torso, shoulders, and neck, along with his shaved head and goatee signaled that he was one guy you did not want to piss off.
Westside itself is 20' x 40'. There is no sign on the exterior. The windows are painted black. I went inside and took in the surroundings. This tiny gym had been home to both the unconventional Westside style and some of the strongest men ever to have lived. There was one standard Olympic bench (they do a lot of their benching in power racks), two power racks, and a special squat rack called the Monolift that optimizes the use of the bands we would use during my visit.
Other features were crazily-heavy dumbbells, the glute/ham raise, a Swiss ball, and of course, the reverse hyper. On the walls were pictures of the founder of the original Westside, which was out in California, and the late Matt Dimel, a Westside member who squatted over 1,000 lb. in competition. On the left wall, upon entering, were all of the men's and women's Westside meet records written in chalk At Westside records are expected to be broken constantly. I was in awe.
In the next few minutes a total of eight or nine guys showed up. They had a range of physiques. While some of them had more of a bodybuilding look, most of them had a strongman look. The biggest guy, who weighed in at 480 pounds, consumed three or four bottles of Gatorade during the workout. Each of them paired up with another guy or two that would be lifting around the same amount of weight. Tate informed me that I would go at the end since I was lifting a much smaller amount of weight and was working more on technique.
So it began. Fists clinched, eyes glaring, sweat poring, and tempers flaring. The intensity was borderline violent. Encouragement and punishment seemed one and the same. You could smell the Testosterone. The stereo speakers blared Drowning Pool's mantra, "Let the bodies hit the floor." The big guys worked up to about 315 lbs on the squat along with three of four bands attached at the bottom. Simmons informed me that with the bands, the squatters were facing around 1100 pounds of resistance at the top of the movement.
The lifters screamed encouragement as each took their turn on the rack. Between sets, many of the lifters would do assistance work. It was during this time that Simmons did three straight minutes of dumbbell presses on a Swiss ball to recuperate from a previous bench workout. Others did exercises such as standing cable rows from the lat pulldown, triceps pressdown, and ab work with bands and chains.
After about two and a half-hours everyone was done squatting (each pair of guys took about twenty minutes). They stripped the weights down and Simmons instructed me to jump in. I wasn't about to back away. I knew this moment of humility would teach me a lot. The Monolift they used enabled me to get into the necessary foot position while the bar was still being held by the device. I stepped into what I felt was a proper low-bar squat stance for powerlifting.
I felt the eyes of some of the strongest men in the world turn upon me. Many of them shouted out commands that they felt would help me with my technique. "Push your knees out!" "Keep your back arched!" "Push your feet out!" "Keep your feet straight!" "Tighten your abs!" "Take a wider stance!"
Then there were instructions for their specialized box-squat technique that emphasized the hams and glutes over the quads. I had known quite a bit about Westside squatting technique going in, but I still needed help. I knew to sit back on the squat. They told me to sit back farther.
"Act like your sitting on a toilet," someone said. When I got that part down and sat on the box – which was about an inch below parallel – they reminded me about releasing muscle contraction. I knew I was supposed to do that, but I guess I didn't know it well enough. Once I released the muscles, Simmons then told me to explode back up through the hips. I've been squatting for years and was amazed how each of the other lifters technically analyzed the biomechanics of my form.
All of that was with just the empty Olympic bar and one band. I proceeded to do three more sets of 3-4 reps, working on form, with just 135pounds, plus one band. I felt like I was in boot camp being schooled by tough drill sergeants. One of the bigger guys said, "You think you're something special? We have hundreds of guys like you come in here." I'm not used to that feeling that... that insignificant, since I'm a trainer myself. But I took it with an open mind and appreciated their help. I was in their house and was going to play by their rules.
During the whole workout, I tried to take in all of the surroundings. This was certainly the place to be if you wanted to be the best powerlifter you could be. I looked at the total picture and wondered what the most important factors were in creating the beasts that made this their home. Nutrition? Drugs? The intensity/atmosphere of the gym? Or the science of the former Soviet Union that is heavily drawn on in much of the Westside protocol? All of them, I'm sure, are factors, yet I'm sure some are much more important than others.
I asked Dave Tate what he thought about nutrition. He rolled his eyes at me and walked away. "Okay," I thought. Another guy heard my question and was a little more interested. He said he took in 8,000 calories per day and most of these came from liquid. He took in at least one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight (gee, I've never heard that before), used a lot of carb/protein shakes, and supplemented with healthy fats. He kept his fats at 30% of his diet.
I went back to Tate and he said, "Nutrition is overrated." He pointed to one of the other guys and said, "He's one of the strongest guys in the world and he eats grits. He eats maybe 600 calories per day." Hmmm, it would be interesting to have that metabolism. Stay anabolic by eating grits! Simmons added only this, "Cholesterol turns into Testosterone." I could only imagine what his diet is if that's his main rule of nutrition. Additionally, I'd like to see John Berardi's response to that statement. But hey, it obviously works for Simmons.
Drugs? I'm sure the readers of T-mag are quite aware that competing at the level of Westside usually entails some sort of drug use. I heard quite a few comments relating to performance drugs when I was there. They joked about some guy balding because of Anadrol, injections burning like fire, and some sort of zinc/B-12 injection. I even saw some of them put a blue liquid on their knees, hips, and lower back. I looked at the bottle from which it came. It was a mixture that relieved joint inflammation in horses. You just don't see that in a normal gym!
This extremism of Westside is what my associate and strongman competitor Jeff Goergen calls "Westside's darkside." Many of those that thought they were hardcore just can't handle Westside. Many leave on their own, others are voted out. There's even a story floating around about someone being thrown through the front window. Goergen, who's visited Westside several times and is familiar with their methodologies, says that these blemishes in Westside lore are what keeps Westside from having an even larger impact on strength and conditioning practice in the United States. That being said, I don't think that drug use in this situation is the deciding factor in Westside's success. In the powerlifting community, everyone has access to similar drugs, yet Westside continues to dominate.
Intensity/atmosphere of the gym? Yep, I think that plays a big part. I can't say enough about the atmosphere there. It's the hard-core iron lover's dream. I even saw an alter ego of Dave Tate named Zippy. This personality came out at the end of Tate's squatting routine. Tate referred to himself as Zippy and the other lifters cheered Zippy on. I wonder if this was some attempt by Tate to de-personalize the very-real pain that squatting near a thousand pounds probably causes. Of course, if I mentioned something like that to Dave, he'd probably chalk that up as some psycho-babble. Either that or he'd smack me.
As with all serious lifters, the personalities at Westside differed. Some were quiet, yet fierce, while others were loud and dominating. One thing's for sure, if there were a gym for those of us that aren't at their strength level that had the same atmosphere, I think a lot of us would be getting stronger in a hurry.
Soviet sports science? I think it plays a definite role. Westside has figured out how to train their guys using a combination of high volume and intensity without overtraining them. Westside seems to be on the leading edge of GPP (General Physical Preparation for those of you who aren't up with the current lingo) and Simmons suggested to me that GPP will be a key factor of the training of elite athletes in the years to come. I would like to see Tate do an article on how to adjust the volume of Westside training for those of us that like the Westside style, yet want to train drug-free. It would seem to me that their normal protocols would have to be adjusted.
My experience at Westside was extremely humbling, yet I learned so much. Most important, it motivated me to continue focusing on getting stronger. Unless you squat at least 500 lbs, I would suggest that you stay out of their normal training sessions and go to their seminars. I plan for that to be my next stop down the road of Westside training wisdom. Maybe I'll see you there.