Maybe it's because the NBA Playoffs are currently underway, but I just can't help comparing Charles Staley to Lakers' head coach Phil Jackson.
Both are experienced leaders in their respective fields. Both have a holistic, simple way of coaching their clients (or players, in Jackson's case). Both are almost stoic-like in their mannerisms. (When's the last time you saw Jackson show any emotion? And I can't even imagine seeing Staley upset about anything.) And both have white hair (OK, now I'm just reaching).
I guess you could call Staley the Zen Master of weightlifting.
Known in strength circles as "the secret weapon," Staley, an Olympic weightlifter and world-class coach, has the uncanny ability to simplify the most complex training theories and turn them into nice, quotable one-liners that you can actually use in the gym.
Having trouble gaining muscle? Need help losing fat? Staley just may have the answer for you.
T-Nation: What's the purpose of training?
Charles Staley: Well, that's a big question right off the bat.
T-Nation: Yeah, I figured I'd go with it.
Charles Training is about getting out of your comfort zone and exposing yourself to challenges that are greater than you've experienced in the past so your physical body and your mind can grow.
T-Nation: You must have had that written down. That's way too good an answer for the first two minutes of the call.
I'll tell you what training is not: using pain to assess the value of what you've done. That's when you start to get into poor decision-making.
Charles Soreness, fatigue, joint pain, and other "negative" indicators may be the residuals of training but they should never be the goal. The goal is to have excellent performance with every set and every workout. Fitness is the result of what you do, not how it feels to do it.
T-Nation: So are you saying you shouldn't be sore after a workout?
Charles Not at all. I get why it feels important. When you wake up in the morning and you're sore from yesterday's workout it's a reminder that you were a good boy and you did what you were supposed to do. Conversely, there are a lot of ways you can hurt and they won't make you stronger and fitter. That's the distinction. There are a lot of dumb things you can do in the gym that won't help you progress. You could do 100 forced-rep sets of curls and it'll hurt like crazy. Whether or not it'll work is another question. Interestingly, one hallmark of training like an athlete is that you're not sore all that much.
T-Nation: Speaking of athleticism, I know you're a huge proponent of Olympic lifts. What can the average musclehead learn from Olympic lifters?
Charles A couple of things. First, weightlifters know how to lift as fast as possible. Every concentric is explosive. As you guys know, any weight moved at a high speed produces more muscular tension, which means you'll tap into a larger number of motor units, and more of them will be fast-twitch motor units. That means more muscle. It's also psychologically more fun, I think. It's less daunting. You know you'll be able to lift the bar, and the only thing you're focused on is how fast you can move it. Of course, you don't have to be an Olympic weightlifter to move the bar fast.
The second thing most guys can learn from weightlifters—and powerlifters and strongmen, now that I think about it—is how to cheat.
T-Nation: What do you mean by "cheat"?
Charles Well, those sports rely heavily on finding the easiest ways to accomplish a task. So if you're doing a snatch in a high-level competition, the technique used to finish the lift will be the easiest way to get the bar up. Think about powerlifting for a minute. When you look at a high-level bench presser, they're not benching the bar with their pecs, delts and triceps—they have their whole body involved. Some guys tear their quadriceps while benching.
If you read Dave Tate's articles on benching and squatting, he's effectively showing you a way to accomplish the task—within certain safety parameters—in the simplest way possible. That's what cheating is. It's certainly not a negative thing in the right context. Also, cheating isn't just a biomechanical thing. It can be a way you organize your loads in a workout, too.
T-Nation: Is this something we could use in the gym?
Charles Sure. Here's a perfect way. Let's say you normally do three sets of ten with 225 pounds on the back squat. Three sets of ten will make you tired, but remember we're trying to improve performance, not just make ourselves tired.
I'd break those sets up and organize them into ten sets of three reps with the same weight done in the same time frame. You're prioritizing performance over fatigue.
T-Nation: So you wouldn't increase the weight?
Charles Nope. The load is just one variable. Each rep on the concentric phase needs to be super-explosive. That's where you work hard. And if you do it right, you'll have a lot of practice at targeting those high-threshold motor units.
Is there ever a point to do a high-rep set? Sure. If you were to tell me that I could only do one set of squats, then I'm gonna go to failure. But I've never been told that. It's okay to do more than one set, you know?
In fact, if I had to point to the biggest misconception people have about fitness I'd say it's the need to make a single set as hard as you can make it. I disagree. The goal of training is to maximize performance.
T-Nation: More performance, more performance. It's starting to sound like a broken record.
Charles That's the thing, though. People just gloss right over it because it's so simple. I have to keep repeating it. Everyone reading this could get much better results if they simply organized their training loads.
T-Nation: Let's talk about you for a minute. As an elite coach, you must have it all figured out, right? Like, you're always on point with your training and nutrition?
Charles Occasionally I'll find myself reading about high-level nutritional concepts when I'm eating the worst possible food. I'll read Berardi while eating ice cream or something. I'm not even kidding.
But that's an interesting question. It's funny, when you go to seminars and you see a group of "experts" talking, most people think we're hatching up crazy ideas. The thing is, we're talking about the same stuff as everyone else. One guy will say, "Man, I've been doing three sets of five on deadlifts every Saturday. What do you think?" They're completely novice-sounding questions, but they're legitimate. We're always learning and getting second and third opinions.
If you're in the public eye, it's your job to present yourself as an expert. It may well be that relative to the masses you are an expert, but I don't think you get to a high enough level of skill unless you have a beginner's mind.
I think I do have insights that are unique and helpful to people, but I certainly don't have it all figured out. Whenever I'm giving advice to someone I'm also giving that same advice to me. It's a reminder to myself.
T-Nation: What's the best workout advice you've received from another coach?
Charles I've got a buddy, Mark Rippetoe, who I asked to help me with my programming. He had me do back squats on Monday where I worked up to a heavy set of five. Then on Thursday I'd do three sets of five, but focused on doing the same weight for all three sets and lifting explosively. Every Monday I was supposed to do a simple linear progression and add some weight to my heavy squats.
A few weeks in, I did 352 pounds for a set of five. I got him on the phone and asked, "What do you think for next week? A five-pound increase? Ten pounds?"
He told me that when in doubt I should use the smallest possible increase, since the goal is to string it out for as long as possible and keep making progress. I could get my rocks off and really hit a new PR if I wanted, but it wouldn't do anything for my long-term progression. I thought that was an incredibly mature attitude and some great advice. In fact, I'd say that a telltale sign of maturity is when you're able to forgo immediate gratification for long-term gain.
T-Nation: I like that. One of your mantras over the past few years has been "base your goals on behaviors, not outcomes." What do you mean by that?
Charles A goal is based on a number of factors, many of which aren't controllable by you. What I suggest is coming up with a behavior and following that. So if you follow a behavior (A) it should lead to the goal (B). If your premise is correct then you'll achieve the goal relative to what your genetics and other factors allow. Let's talk diet for a minute.
Let's say you want to lose fat. Well, we all saw what happened to Dan John on the Velocity Diet and we know that the Velocity Diet delivers fast fat-loss. So instead of saying, "I want to lose 20 pounds," you should be saying, "I'm going to do the Velocity Diet." That's a behavior you adapt.
If you have someone who needs to lose fat and you put them on the Velocity Diet, what's going to happen? They're gonna lose fat. No big surprise there. There's no way to trick the system.
And if they lose 18 pounds instead of 20? They shouldn't be pissed. They achieved their goal of fat loss and all they had to do was adopt a new behavior.
So that's what I mean when I say base goals on behaviors and not outcomes. You can't control the outcome.
T-Nation: Another one I remember is "The majority is always wrong." You're like the champion of quotable one-liners!
Charles Well, most people aren't terribly successful at what they're doing. I've heard numerous times that when people reach retirement age, only something like five percent have saved enough money to fund their retirement. If that's the truth, ninety-five percent of people are doing it wrong. So you need to do the exact opposite of what they're doing. It sounds simple, but it all comes back to doing stuff. It doesn't take a genius to know you shouldn't carry high credit card debt. But how many people are doing it anyway?
Everyone knows they need to eat well, get enough sleep, train hard, and recover, but how many are really doing it? Not a lot. Therefore, do the opposite and you'll see some amazing progress.
Another thing: I'm a huge productivity junkie. I'm fascinated by the kinds of books that show you how to be a better organizer or whatever. But really it's all mental masturbation. It doesn't matter what your system is.
To get anywhere you need to do stuff. You have to work. It's easy to distract yourself by making things complex.
T-Nation: Very good point. Well, let's end with the question of all questions: tell us something we don't know.
Charles Huh. Well, let me think. At age 16 I became the youngest person ever to be deported from Canada. Or at least that's what they told me at the time. I'm not sure if my record still stands.
T-Nation: Wait, what? You? How did that happen?
Charles Well, I had recently met this girl who lived in St. Clair, Michigan. I decided to hitchhike out there from New York to hang out with her. Looking at a map of the US, it seemed like a much more direct route to go above the Great Lakes [into Canada] than below them. So I decided to cross the border at Niagara Falls on a bus. Apparently, if you have no money, no ID, and no destination, you get deported. I was scared shitless since at the time I didn't even know what that meant.
So I had to stay overnight in a police station until the constable came in the next morning to take me back across the street to the US side of the border.
T-Nation: Ha! Well, that's not exactly what we were looking for, but we'll take it! Thanks for the interview, Charles.
Charles Anytime. Thanks to everyone at T Nation for reading!