A Conversation with Jimmy "The Iron Bull" Pellechia
What are the limits of human strength? Is there a certain threshold that no human can overcome? It's easy to think so, until you talk to someone like Jimmy "The Iron Bull" Pellechia, then you begin to believe that anything is possible.
Although Jimmy can toss around huge amounts of iron like it's nothing, he doesn't claim to be a powerlifter, but rather a professional strongman. Does he live up to this seemingly archaic moniker? Well, what would you say if you saw a man that weighs 220 pounds do an assisted bench press with over a thousand pounds on the bar? If you saw this guy curl 150 pound dumbbells, would that catch your attention? It certainly caught mine and I knew I needed to contact Jimmy to learn more about his training philosophy.
In addition to being super strong, Jimmy is a very passionate guy and his enthusiasm is contagious. I had a chance to chat with Jimmy recently and discuss his training ideas, his controversial career, and his views on bodybuilding, powerlifting, and life in general.
Testosterone: Jimmy, how's it going today?
Jimmy Pellechia: Great, just keeping busy. Working on all kinds of stuff including home remodeling, auditioning for commercials, and running my nutrition store in NYC.
T: Do you do any personal training or work with athletes?
JP: I used to. Now I just help my customers with their programs and take them through routines. I don't charge them for the service. I think it's ridiculous to charge someone for personal training. Also, I can't just train anybody; they've got to be motivated and they have to show me some balls when they train. Otherwise, I won't waste my time.
If I were going to get really into personal training, I'd want to open a 600 square foot studio and handpick my own equipment. I'd only want people that are into strength training. I'd throw in some high-rep stuff as well, but really just specialize in strength training. Also, my training philosophy is a lot different from a lot of other people out there.
T: How so?
JP: Well, I use a lot of body momentum in my workouts. A lot of guys don't believe in that. They believe in using super-strict form and isolating muscle groups. To me that method isn't really practical. Think about life in general. When you do tasks such as taking the garbage out or lifting your bag into the overhead compartment in a plane, you use your body, not just one body part. When I train, everything I do, I use body momentum.
T: Can you give us an example?
JP: When I do seated dumbbell curls, I use a lot of momentum and other muscle groups. My traps actually get sore! However, my biceps also get a great workout and get sore as well. When you're doing big muscle groups such as the back, it's really difficult to isolate. You're using your biceps, rear delts, and core muscles. The only time I'd recommend isolation exercises is when you're injured. Then you can use light weights to help the muscle repair. If nothing is hurt, I like to use power momentum like an Olympic lifter.
T: You do something called "Powerblast" training. Can you go into that?
JP: Don Ross came up with that name. I didn't actually call my training by that name, but it was something that Don came up with when he saw me train. I always looked at my style as "power bodybuilding."
I started training with weights back in the seventies when I was thinking about joining the Marines. Back in 1976 there weren't too many gyms around and I built a small gym in my backyard and had some friends come over to work out. We trained with a lot of intensity and no one did anything using strict form in those days. We'd curl as much weight as possible and did whatever it took to get the weight up.
When I got in to the Marine Corps, I was in communications and used to run with the grunts. I had to haul a lot of equipment out there, so I trained for functional strength. With training, everything I did was for strength. When I did curls, I did power curls. I wanted strength that would transfer over to the field.
T: No need to focus on isolating a bicep or calf muscle, huh?
JP: Right. The way that bodybuilders train today, I doubt that any of them could go out and get a real job that requires manual labor. I think they'd fall apart. They look good, but they're not built for physical labor.
T: They probably wouldn't do too well in sports such as mixed martial arts either.
JP: Absolutely not! Their muscles would really be worthless in a sport like that anyway. Don't get me wrong, I don't knock bodybuilding. It takes a lot of work and dedication. It's just not too practical.
I have a lot of bodybuilding friends and I respect what they do. However, one of my bodybuilding friends went to the audition for Batman Forever with me and we had to climb a scaffold to get the part. I didn't have any trouble with it, but my friend couldn't do it. A lot of bodybuilding stuff doesn't carry over to the real world. I always wanted to mingle the two.
I always used body momentum like you'd do when you're doing construction work, or even doing simple tasks like working in the yard. I always kept the mindset of being as strong as I possibly could in all the areas, especially when I was in the field in the Marine Corps. I used to do stuff like running hills with a 135-pound barbell on my back. When I was kid before entering the Marine Corps, I used to run several miles with a brick in each hand. I did all this stuff for functional strength.
T: Sounds pretty intense.
JP: I never looked at myself as a tremendously muscular guy. I do have muscles, but they're very dense rather than looking bloated. Anyone that's ever felt me has stated that I'm like a piece of steel. I'm only 235 pounds at a height of 5'11", which isn't that big in bodybuilding circles. My arms are pretty big, though.
T: How big are they?
JP: Twenty-one inches. It comes from all of the heavy curling and other power exercises I've done. When you look at my arms, I don't look like a bodybuilder. I look like a guy that's done construction work all of his life.
T: Not surprising, considering the way that you train works your entire body as one unit. With a bodybuilder every muscle looks separate from the other.
JP: It looks like someone formed them with clay and exaggerated each part. Even the powerlifters are the same. They may have big arms and legs, but not much athletic ability. Maybe if they ran at you like a rhino they'd be dangerous, but that's about it.
T: Wait, you don't feel that powerlifters are functional either?
JP: They're great at what they do and have the attitude, but what they do really doesn't carry over into the streets. You know a lot of people knock my system, like when I did the 1015 pound bench press with three spotters. What they don't understand is that I'm doing strength training; I'm not trying to set a record. I'm not trying to bench a lot of weight with a pause at the bottom using super strict form.
T: Well, in real life you're not going to pause a weight or use techniques that make it harder to lift.
JP: Right! All that stuff is bullshit! I can't even understand it. I mean, who'd want to pause all of that goddamn weight on your chest anyway! I used to go to a lot of bench press meets several years ago and was in the top twenty in the world at one point.
T: Really? What was your best bench press in competition?
JP: Well, I was a lot lighter then and only weighed 180 pounds. At that weight, I bench pressed 475. After going to several meets, I felt like each event looked like a fucking circus. You should see the weird guys that used to show up at these events. I'm not knocking them and respect what they do; it's their thing and more power to them. I'm not going to say that what they're doing is wrong. That would be like me walking into a gay bar and saying I hate gay people. I'm not going to do that because that's their turf and their ground.
I don't want to be like this asshole that came onto my website recently and said that all of my lifts are bullshit. That's a bunch of crap! Sure, you're always going to get some negative feedback, but one thing that Don Ross told me is that bad press is really good press, too. It's when they stop talking about you that you have to worry. [laughing]
T: Let's talk more about the controversy you've experienced.
JP: My entire career has been a controversy, especially when I did a 1015 pound bench press with a spotter. People always used to ask me why I don't go for the bench press record and I say listen, this is what I do, this is my thing. If I wanted a world record, I'd train for that. However, I could give a shit about a world record. My friend Anthony Clark has the world record in the bench press and it's doing nothing for him financially. Why should I give someone a true number? Why should I go to a bench meet and join their ranks? That's what they want me to do. I don't want to!
I want to be the "Ironbull" and bench press 1015 pounds with a spotter, do 150 pound dumbbell curls, tricep kickbacks at 150 pounds for twenty, all my crazy shit. Why should I go into their world? Why don't they come into my world?
T: People generally seem to fall into two categories when your name comes up. Either they're impressed with your accomplishments and get inspired, or they say you're cheating.
JP: I think I make the sport much more entertaining and bring more attention to it. What I do, powerbuilding, is a combination of powerlifting and bodybuilding. I had a fan in Germany write me and tell me I enlightened both sports, powerlifting and bodybuilding. I heighten both sports by doing what I do.
And years ago when guys like John Grimek were competing in bodybuilding they were both super strong and muscular. They represented physique and strength. However, somewhere along the line it separated like a fucking amoeba! What I do is show people that both are approachable. I'm a gym guy and the way I look is approachable.
But when people go get pictures with Ronnie Coleman, they look at him and say to themselves, "I could never look like this guy!" He's out of reach for them. Yet when they come to my table and talk to me, they realize I'm a regular guy. They realize that they could use my style and go a long way with it.
T: So what do you say to those that call your style of lifting bullshit?
JP: Listen, I did 1015 pounds on the bench with a spot. Fifty percent of people that see that are going to say that I'm outta my mind. Half a ton! That's crazy even with a spotter! The other half is going to say that what I did was bullshit and that my spotter did a deadlift. Come on, there's no way you're going to pull a thousand pounds off someone's chest! If I couldn't hold that thing and fucking move it, it was going nowhere! I don't give a shit what people say. It was a half a ton! I did it with free weights, lowered it, and pushed it back up. No way was my spotter deadlifting 1000 pounds. You couldn't even do 225 from that position.
Let me explain the marketing point of view with an analogy. When you go into your backyard at night and look at the stars with awe, you do so because there's no end. If there was an end, would you go in your backyard and look at the stars the same way? Of course not. It's not fascinating anymore. Now let's say that I broke the bench press record at my body weight and did 750. Now I'm fucked! Because even if I bench press 2000 with a spot, the guys who hate me will say that I'm only good for 750 and that the other lift is bullshit. Right now, I have the power since I never played by their rules. Once I go into their world, I'm bound by their rules.
I'm not here to step on anyone's toes or say that I'm better than everyone. I'm here to entertain people and bring some action to the sport. I look at myself like a strength entertainer and when I do these shows, people get off on it.
T: Reminds me of a scene in the movie Gladiator where someone tells Maximus that if he wants his freedom, he has to win the crowd by entertaining them.
JP: In my career, I've met people that just loved me. People that I won over really respected me and treated me like I was a gladiator. I don't worry about the jerks who send me negative e-mails. I'm secure with myself and enjoy what I do and always give credit where it's due.
It makes me feel great when people like Ed Coan and Anthony Clark praise what I do. I had Anthony Clark spot me at a show one time doing an 800-ound bench press. After that, he got in front of the crowd and told everyone that I inspired him to go after the record and be the first guy to bench press 800. To me that was a victory and made me feel like my job was done.
Ed Coan saw me do some heavy dumbbell curls once at a show and came up to me and said that I inspired him to come out of retirement and get back in the game. To me that was worth my whole career! That meant more to me than money or anything. I moved someone in a positive direction. You can't buy that.
Fuck the negative guys! They're miserable losers that are going nowhere in life. You just have to ignore those fuckers. That's what you have to do in the game. You want to live in a positive way no matter what you do. If you think like a shithead, you're going to get shit come back to you. If you think positive, positive things will come back to you.
T: How do you compare the strength of the old time natural lifters to today's lifters that use steroids?
JP: I think that the old time strongman were gifted and were also mentally tougher than today's lifters. Moreover, the old time strongman were more intelligent regarding their training regimens and did a great deal of forced reps, body momentum, and partial movements. They understood the importance of technique and hard work.
T: Let's get into your routine. Give us an idea of what your workout regimen looks like right now.
JP: I use pretty heavy weights and hit each muscle group once a week. An example of a chest workout would be ten reps with 500 pounds with a spot. I might go up to seven plates on each side for a double. As long as I keep my strength up I'm alright. I used to do eight plates for five reps and go off. However, that's very damaging and you have to be careful. You don't have to go super heavy all the time to maintain your strength or to push to new heights. For example, I use 145 pound dumbbells for curls and save the 150's for my exhibitions.
As long as I stay in the neighborhood I can tap into the extreme levels of my strength when I need to. I'm not getting any younger; not to say that I'm old. I'm really in the prime of my life and want to avoid burning out.
T: You work each muscle group once a week. How does that break down?
JP: I do push and pull routines. I'll do pushing exercises such as the bench press one day and then pulling exercises the next day or next workout. I train very instinctively and switch things up quite a bit. I don't want my body to get used to any routine. Sometimes I'll be thinking about benching all day and then go into the gym and work back. I'm crazy like that. I never take the same days off and sometimes take a few extra days off.
I never do back before chest. If your back is sore, your bench is going to be way down. You'll never see a great bench presser with a narrow back. Your back is the platform that you push off of. The chest really only comes into the movement at the bottom and at the end. The rest is lats and triceps. When you lower the weight the chest starts to kick in.
T: What do you do for legs?
JP: I'm not a big fan of barbell squats and do leg presses and hack squats. Occasionally I do leg extensions and leg curls and I kick a heavy bag a lot for cardio and for leg strength.
T: What's your take on machines?
JP: I think that free weights are number one. Free weights are the best for developing functional strength. I like to use machines at the end of a workout for a pump; however, there are many machines that I can't even get into! [laughing]
Occasionally I bench press on the Smith machine. But when you do, you lose all of the lateral strength. When you use free weights, you have to control it 100%. All the stabilizer muscles get hit. The Smith machine is good for working on push power and I'll use it for that from time to time. Machines are great for isolation and again a good pump. They aren't great for strength, though.
T: What do you think about training to failure?
JP: It really varies. It's kind of like asking me if I do a light week and a heavy week, which is kind of a dumb concept. I have people tell me they bench heavy one week and then go moderate the next week. To me that doesn't make any sense at all. Suppose the week that you're going heavy you have some crappy workouts and then during the light week you feel strong, but go light. Why would you want to do that?
That's why I recommend balls-out training every time. Your body will dictate how heavy or light you go regardless. Why bother trying to plan it? Always train with the pedal to the metal. On the days that you're strong, you should really go for it. However, on the days that you don't have it, don't train to failure. The training to failure theory only works sometimes. I wouldn't recommend it every workout.
T: Has your style of training resulted in injuries?
JP: You take the possible risk of injuries when you train on the edge. However, I think the safest way to move heavy weights is to use body momentum. It spreads the heavy weights across several muscle groups. I think it's one of the main reasons I've lasted so long. My style of training doesn't have the wear and tear of super strict form with heavyweights.
T: Interesting. Let's talk about your diet. How do you set that up?
JP: I've never been really regimented with diet and supplements. Some days I eat more than others. My diet is pretty normal. On the days I do have a big appetite, I take advantage of that. I go with the flow of my body. Sometimes, I get sugar cravings and have a Hershey's bar. I try to go along with the nature of my body and listen to its needs. I'm not into taking 500 grams of protein a day and take what I need.
T: Sounds like you just focus on the basics when it comes to food.
JP: Yes, but I do take protein shakes for the convenience.
T: What do you generally do at your strength training exhibitions?
JP: I do a few different exercises and talk about the supplement company that sponsors me [MET-Rx] and strength training. I'll go into detail about my training philosophy and then pick someone from the audience to spot me on some heavy bench presses. For example, I'll do seven plates on each side for reps on the bench press. Then I usually do some seated dumbbell curls with 150 pound dumbbells, 455 pound skull crushers and some cheat barbell curls with 315. Sometimes I do seated lateral raises with 150 for ten reps.
T: Sounds very impressive. Where can readers find more information on your seminars?
JP: They can contact me at [email protected].
T:: Thanks a lot for taking the time to talk with us.
JP: Thanks, Mike.