In the last installment in this series, I described my return to powerlifting – and how it nearly drove me into an early retirement. This article will begin the phase I'm most famous for – the 12 years I spent training at Westside Barbell in Columbus, Ohio.
Note: Over the years many things have changed that will go far beyond the scope of this article series. The gym moved three times and it also got smarter, more advanced, more innovative, stronger, and better. Much better.
Though the key principles remain unchanged, I know things at Westside continue to evolve and improve. I'll only present what I was there to see, learn, and be a part of.
I can't tell you what's going on at Westside today. There are only a handful of people who can, and those people train at Westside Barbell. Anyone else is bullshitting you.
The "Other" Big Three
I've learned more from my time at Westside than any other period in my training life. There's no way one installment could do it justice. I also doubt anyone wants to read an article of Dostoyevsky-type length, although Crime and Punishment would be an appropriate subtitle.
To that end, the Westside period is going to be divided into three parts, after the three areas that must be accounted for in your training to avoid getting stuck: the physical aspect (what most are familiar with, including but not limited to the Repetition Method, the Dynamic Method, and Max Effort Method), the technical aspect (exercise technique, arguably the most important), and the rarely talked about mental aspect.
What is the Mental Aspect?
I often meet young lifters at seminars who are fascinated by Westside Barbell. They've read the articles, watched the videos, and have structured their training to best match the principles Louie presents in his Westside DVD's and certification course. "I'd give anything to train at Westside," they gush.
I do my best to encourage them but I know most wouldn't make it.
If Westside Barbell is anything like what I experienced, 90% of these lifters wouldn't last a week. They might be able to withstand the physical pounding, but the mental stress would chew them up and spit them out.
Here's a test I use.
- Young lifter: "I'd love to train at Westside."
- Me: "If it we're a perfect world and you could move to Columbus and train at Westside for three months, do you think you could put 50 pounds on your bench?"
- Young lifter: "Absolutely!"
- Me: "Then why don't you bench that now?"
That's the mental part. That's how I know they wouldn't make it. All the info is out there, between the 'Net and certification courses and videos. But they focus on what they don't have, which is the ability to train within those four walls. That's how I know they don't want it.
That's how I know Westside Barbell would crush them.
One of the last times I spoke with Louie before packing up and moving to Columbus was right after I tore my pec. "You're going to be out of the sport within a year if you don't change your ways," he said, and it stuck with me. I was going nowhere anyway. What did I have to lose?
Yet it should be noted that I wasn't a Louie Simmons disciple when I arrived at Westside Barbell.
I'd studied Exercise Physiology in college and read countless journals. I was strong, experienced, and not easily fooled. Louie talked about speed and dynamic lifting and none of it jived with what I'd learned.
My earlier impression was that Louie talked a good game but was basically full of shit. I always thought there was some secret method or routine that Louie kept under wraps and all this speed shit was just to distract the competition. I wanted to find out what that "thing" was.
When I showed up, Westside was in the process of changing from a commercial-type gym to a private powerlifting club. Louie had sold all the machines to Matt Dimel and took just the powerlifting essentials to a rat hole in West Columbus.
To say this place was a dump is an understatement. There were holes in the floor and the ceiling leaked. As I recall there was even some dude living in the basement.
I was just a few days post-surgery and still in a sling. I was stuck training on the machines at Matt's place and doing physical therapy, so all I could do at Westside was spot. That sucked. My weight tumbled from 270 to about 240 before I was finally cleared to lift at Westside.
The gym moved again a year or so later to a much better place about twice the size; better organized, and with no holes in the floor.
This would be my home for the next decade.
The Louie Simmons Skeptic
Louie's guys trained in the morning or in the afternoon, but being a Louie Simmons skeptic I opted to train with a small crew at around 1 P.M. I followed my progressive overload program, did a meet, and put maybe five pounds on my total. Progress, sure, but five pounds? I wasn't impressed.
I told Louie as much and he started busting my chops again about not following his methods. He'd been after me to train his way with the morning crew since I'd arrived but it didn't fit with my new job. And I certainly didn't see his system as something I should turn my life upside down for.
Louie was persistent until finally, I snapped. I told him that I didn't think his methods would work for me, and just to prove it I'd quit my job and start training his way – and when I didn't do shit at my next meet it would be his fault.
Well, that's how I figured it.
I started training with the morning crew. I followed everything he said. I did a meet and put over 200 pounds on my total.
That's when I realized that the last 15 years of my training and education were bullshit. All the classes I took, the seminars I attended, the coaches I spoke to, and my time in the gym made me educated, but it didn't make me the expert I thought I was. What it did do was put me in a position to really learn my trade. My education was about to begin.
Mecca Of Powerlifting
Guys online have almost mythologized Westside. People call it the "Mecca of powerlifting" and "the place every powerlifter should aspire to be."
I agree. It is the Mecca of Powerlifting, and what I consider to be one of, if not THE strongest, gyms in the world – but the place wasn't Muscle Beach. It was brutal, both physically and mentally. This is part of what made it work for me.
Guys training at Jerk Off Fitness might not understand this, but when you train at a place like Westside Barbell there's enormous pressure. The stress of the weights is one thing; the stress of having the strongest guys in the world expect you to keep up or surpass them is overwhelming. If it's not overwhelming, you're definitely not a good fit for Westside – you expect far too little of yourself.
Becoming exceptional at anything requires commitment, discipline, and sacrifice. At Westside, that gets you in the front door – maybe. To survive at Westside, you need to match the level of dedication and sacrifice of the rest of the crew. This alone was a huge challenge. While we did have some "normal" people in the gym, we also had several who bordered on insane. You had to bring yourself up to another level or you'd get run over or run out.
When Louie told me after I tore my pec that I could be better, it wasn't a vote of confidence he was giving me, but responsibility. Responsibility to be better, and if I was going to make it at Westside, I better get better.
Louie made me expect more from myself than anyone else. He made me believe that I should be the strongest squatter in the gym, and when I wasn't the frustration drove me deep into a part of myself that only elite athletes can relate to.
I was told that my potential didn't mean shit unless I realized it, and making that happen was 100% my responsibility. The word potential may sound positive, but to a coach like Louie, potential meant, "What's holding you back from being great?"
According to Louie, it was also my responsibility to make everyone on the team better than me. With most powerlifting clubs, there's usually one King Pooba. It's everyone else's job to make sure Pooba has a good lift. They carry his bag, wrap his knees, and load his weight – it's seen as paying your dues.
Not at Westside. Our job was to make every other lifter capable of beating you, even if it meant helping the new guy who'd eventually erase your name off the board. It didn't matter if you didn't like the guy– it was your job to make him stronger than you. Then after he beat you, it was his job to make you better than him.
When one group would squat, no one else would do a thing. Say you have 12 guys in the morning crew. Two or three guys would be squatting, three others would spot, and the remaining eight would coach, yelling cues like "head up" and "knees out." Then we'd all spilt up and do our accessories.
If you were lifting, all you had to do was lift. You didn't have to change the box, Monolift height, look at the clock – nothing. Your job was to squat and give all you have doing it. There was no bullshit chatting – it was all about building a better squat.
This created an environment where every time you hit a sticking point, you'd have a dozen guys trying to come up with solutions. Having other strong guys looking for ways to make you strong is obviously better than just tinkering on your own. It's also an ungodly amount of pressure, cause now you're accountable to those guys to be better. And you better get better.
For me, the issue was always abs strength. So after the main lift, I'd have guys barking at me to go do abs with them, and when one of those guys is someone with ridiculous work capacity like Chuck Vogelpohl, you got smashed. Or you got better.
That's why when one of us broke a world record it wasn't just the guy under the bar that felt pride. We all did – because we all worked for it.
There's obviously a huge downside to this kind of pressure. If you let any stress get to you it could rip you to shreds. Louie warned us to not let powerlifting be our entire life, but for many of us it was.
At times the tension was ridiculous. You're crammed into a small room full of huge guys, all on edge, a second away from exploding. I've seen fist fights during speed bench day, plates thrown around, and countless uncomfortable heated arguments.
But the training never stopped. Ever. Guys would be at each other's throats on Friday but be back on Monday. Cause that's when we squatted.
Every gym has drama. We were conditioned not to give a fuck. I trained along side some people I'd never associate with outside of the gym, but within those walls they were the ones pushing you to get better and you the same. I still have no idea what some of the guys I trained with did for a living. Hell, some I only know by the nicknames we'd given one another. In the gym we were all the same.
When someone wasn't holding their own, we let them know. I'm not talking about the lazy slackers you see in commercial gyms sitting on the leg extension reading the paper. I'm talking about guys who didn't bring their balls to the gym that day. The ones who weren't willing to push past what they were truly capable of.
You weren't allowed to be a pussy. That's where the real mental brutality was.
Louie was the master of finding ways to motivate you. Often he'd tell another lifter that I was going to do shit at an upcoming meet, knowing that lifter would tell me.
I'd get pissed off, but what was I going to do? I could get angry but the only way to shut him up would be to get stronger. Looking back there were numerous times when my forearms would cramp up driving home because I was trying to rip the steering wheel off.
Louie would find ways to fuck with you, get under your skin, or use other lifters to mess with your head. The result? There was a meet where our top bencher forgot his shirt. That would've knocked most lifters completely off their game, but he just borrowed another shirt and benched. No big deal.
Miss my opener? Big deal. Put on 40 pounds. I'll get it.
There was nothing that could happen at a meet that could compare with what we dealt with at the gym. Guy blew out his knee? Unwrap him and roll him out. It's my turn to squat.
Guys grew to need this mental trauma. They thrived on it. I remember one guy doing Max Effort bench work. He'd worked up to his max and missed, but no one said anything. This enraged him, so much so that he got up and started ranting.
"I just missed my lift and none of you guys said a thing!" he yelled. "You guys don't even fucking care!?!"
I knew what to say.
"No one said anything because your bench is shit. Because your triceps are shit. And until you get some triceps and some balls, your bench will always be shit, so we quit caring and we quit talking about it."
He was about to explode. "I train triceps all the time," he screamed, to which the whole gym started laughing.
To the outsider looking in it would've looked like a scene from an insane asylum – or a prison yard. We were just giving him what he needed.
Although I acquired most of my injuries before I arrived at Westside, there was no room there for being hurt. We created an environment of 100% balls out, all the time. No deloads, no easy days, no quit. If it hurts, wrap it. If it's heavy, fuck you, pull harder.
I can't blame Louie for this. I couldn't count the number of times he told me to back it down, only to see me add another 40 pounds and blow my nut sack off.
We never gave each other a free pass, especially on Max Effort lower body day. We never knew what movement we'd be doing, but always knew the goal – to strain.
We'd start at 8:30 A.M. If you were late and Louie still allowed you to lift, you jumped in at whatever the weight was. If 405 was too heavy to open with, fuck you. Next time, don't be late.
For that reason we'd always get there early, arriving at about 8 to eat McDonalds and drink coffee. During that time, we'd ask one another what lift we wanted to train that day. No one would agree on anything, until finally someone would roll in limping and say something like, "I don't care what the hell we do, as long as it's not low box squats. That would kill me today."
There. It was decided. Today we'll do low box squats.
We were lifters first. We trained Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday morning. Always. No exceptions. If you had a meet on Saturday, you lifted Monday, just maybe a bit lighter. Christmas, Easter or Thanksgiving didn't matter. If it was one of those days, you trained. And you strained.
The ultimate goal of everyone at Westside was to get on the board. It meant more to us than a world record. It pushed you to do better, to join the Elite. But as it was written in chalk, it could easily erased. There was a reason for that. YOU could be erased. Getting up there only meant that now the crosshairs were on you.
Today, the numbers on the board are ridiculous. 2700-pound totals. 1200-pound squats. Those who visit see it as "an amazing record board," but to the guys training it's their reason for lifting. No lifter at Westside was better or more important than another, so every lifter believed they could get up on the board – and knew they'd help another lifter get up there.
Louie had many carrots like the board. Every Sunday morning we'd meet for breakfast at TJ's before heading out to a small garage gym to bench. The catch was, you had to either have totaled Elite or benched 500 pounds to get the invite, and the lifts had to have been performed at Westside. My pre-Westside 500-pound bench was irrelevant, so I wasn't allowed to join them.
Again, I was pissed. I deserved to be there and Louie knew it. All it did was motivate me to train harder so I could bench 500 again and eat and lift with the Sunday guys. Before long, I got to where both I – and Louie – knew I should be.
Louie's Mental Strength
The fact that Louie was right in there, lifting and straining with us, was hugely motivating. When I first arrived at Westside, Louie was retired. That is, until Kenny Patterson said something during an argument like, "What do you know old man? You'll never have 800 pounds on your back again."
That was it. Suddenly, a then 50-something Louie Simmons was right in the middle lifting with us. That was motivating enough, but when that old guy starts beating you, the respect level climbs another notch. Louie Simmons possesses a level of mental strength that is unmatched.
What I'd Change - Mentally
As stated, Westside Barbell is constantly evolving and improving. Since my time they've adapted and changed for the better to keep churning out the strongest lifters in the world, but I can only comment on what I'd change during my time there.
I'd train smarter
I tore up my body primarily in my pre-Westside days, but I still would've backed off a bit more while training there. There was no room for being a pussy, ever, but that mentality eventually catches up to you.
I think the current permutation of Westside has moved in this direction. Again, it's purely speculation on my end, but I just don't see the frequency and severity of injuries that I did during my years there.
I'd keep Zippy out of the gym
"Zippy" was the name given to my competitive lifting alter ego. I'd do a set of 455-pound squats that would feel heavy. I'd flip a switch and "Zippy" would come out – I'd kill 455 and demand more plates be put on.
All Zippy wanted to do was strain. My back would rupture, my knees blow out before Zippy would accept missing a lift.
Zippy was a fantastic tool but I should've saved him for the meets. Louie frequently reminded us of the huge difference between a "competitive state" and "training state" but I rarely listened. Training in an environment like Westside, every lift had the pressure of a meet. I let myself become a hyper-aroused competitive lifter far too often, when I should've just been a calm, focused (sane) lifter. And I missed many lifts because of it.
Final Thoughts on Louie
Even though I'm long removed from Westside, every day I'm reminded of Louie's brilliance. He didn't invent speed training or the conjugate system – nor has be ever claimed to have invented them – but he made sense of it all and put together a cohesive system that delivered results.
- The creator, not the recruiter. Westside Barbell has a reputation for "recruiting already good lifters." This completely diminishes Louie's abilities as a coach and pisses me off. It's not entirely true. Louie was taking ordinary local high school kids and developing them into Elite lifters, guys like Chuck Vogelpohl and Kenny Patterson. Westside was the first gym Chuck ever walked into. He remembers benching 135 pounds for the first time there. Westside Barbell had produced forty or fifty Elite lifters before anyone from outside Columbus moved to train there. I was the first, perhaps the second lifter to do so.
- Today, Louie has the luxury of having great lifters from around the country, even the world, as they move to Columbus to train under his tutelage. He's paid his dues, and earned the right to take the truly great ones and make them extraordinary. But if anything, that only further validates how great Louie is. Anyone whose worked with lifters knows it's much harder to take an Elite lifter and make them pro than it is to take a beginner and make them Elite. Still, despite opening the doors to the world's best, many of Westside's current top lifters are guys born and raised in Columbus.
- The mad scientist. New ideas were constantly being test driven. Some stayed, some were abandoned. In my time at Westside, I witnessed the introduction of the monolift, boards, chains, bands, floor presses, kettlebells, cambered bars, the lightened method, circa max method, extra workouts, suspended movements, fat bars, sleds, ankle weights, speed pulls, and something other than AC/DC being played on the stereo.
- I remember watching Louie drop a few hundred bucks on stretching bands at a basketball seminar. Driving back to the gym, I asked Louie if this meant he wanted us all to stretch more. "No," he said. "We're going to attach them to the platform and wrap the other end around the bar for squats." Greeeeat, I thought. And so it began...
- The human calculator. Louie is like the powerlifting Rain Man, and could rattle off the exact numbers you needed to move a weight. Trying to squat 900 pounds? On your Dynamic days you need 455-pounds and the double blue bands. He also knew your meet PR's and all your max effort records. We didn't need to keep a log because Louie knew your numbers.
- The master of figuring out (and telling you) why you're stalling. He could tell in a second what assistance lifts you needed to squat, pull, or bench as well as the other guys.
- The ageless motherfucker. He's also just totaled Elite again – at 62 years old! That certainly says something. The guy has totaled Elite in five decades!
- The expert motivator. Although his mind-fuck approach pissed me off more than I care to remember (I know I pissed him off almost as much, so I'm calling it even), I can see now that I never would've accomplished what I did with a more "tender" approach. Louie might've told me twice in 12 years that I was doing a good job. But he never once told me I sucked or that I was a failure.
- The incredible coach. Take 300-pound pitbulls full of anger and adrenaline, each with something to prove, and cram them into a 600-square foot prison cell. Now create not only an orderly environment, but also one where every lifter believes that they're no better or worse than any other lifter.
These were guys who, to a man, could've walked into any commercial gym and assumed the TITLE of "Strongest guy in the gym," but Louie had them all believing they were just spokes in a bigger wheel. Think that's easy? Hell, it's even tough to manage the egos on a girls' soccer team.
You might be wondering if you're cut out for Westside. Maybe you're strong, really strong, and think you might have what it takes to survive there.
But what about your mental strength?
Getting back to young lifters who tell me they aspire to train there, here's another test I use.
"Why do you want to train at Westside?"
There's only one correct answer:
"I want to break world records."
Westside knows what it can do for you. What they'll want to know is, what you can do for Westside?
I've always dealt with shit. Overcoming adversity is nothing new for me. Louie reinforced that if I step up and do the work, I can accomplish things. I can realize the potential I have.
Louie gave me the mental strength to push my body past my self-imposed limitations. He knew it from day one and just had to inspire, show and lead me to it. I may not become the best lifter in the world – but I'd certainly become the best I could be.
More importantly, become better than anything I thought I could ever be.
These are lessons in mental strength that have trickled down from training into my business, my family, and how I approach every day above ground. It's made my life so much better, and I have Louie Simmons to thank for it. He taught me that it's possible to be better than your best.
Until next time.
PS: The next two parts of this series will deal with the technical and physical aspects of my time training at Westside Barbell. These areas have been covered extensively in my previous writings, such as the 8 Keys series found here.