Under the Big Iron

An interview with champion powerlifter Mike Miller


So you think you know what it takes to be a top powerlifter? Man, you have no idea. Are you the best bencher in your "fitness center?" Yeah? Well, you stink. Thinking of entering your first bench press competition? You'll get crushed. Not only will you get crushed by the men in your weight class, you'll get crushed by the men in the smaller weight classes. In fact, you may even get crushed by the women. These people are not dicking around. They'll eat you alive and grin doing it.

Powerlifters have always been a different breed of weight trainer. The higher up you go, the scarier they get. Elite level powerlifters are ferocious looking creatures. Some look like compact wild animals, wickedly evolved to explode with violence at a moment's notice. Others look like walking mountains, the type of man who can silence a room just by walking through the door. Whatever body type they possess, the elite of the sport have one thing in common: a thousand yard stare.

There's a certain aura that descends on a man when he benches over 500 pounds or pulls 700 off the floor. He doesn't need to brag about his lifts; that stare says it all. He doesn't need to act tough either; toughness radiates off him like waves of heat. Because of this, most of these men become soft spoken and can be the nicest people you'll ever talk to... unless it's meet day. Then it's better to just steer clear until it's over.

Powerlifter Mike Miller is just such a man. At 6' 4" and weighing in at 410 pounds, Mike fits into the "mountain man" category. He warms up for the bench press with more weight than most people will ever squat. His tattoo-covered forearms are bigger than most lifters' legs. Mike scares people just standing there.

T-mag wanted to do an interview with a powerlifter who was ready to tell it like it is, no holds barred. When we met Mike we told him that nothing in the interview would be off the record. He smiled and said, "Let's get filthy." We knew then we had the right guy to give us an unblinking look into the world of elite powerlifting.

Testosterone: Tell us about yourself, Mike.

Mike Miller: I'm 35 years old and my wife Deb and I have five children. I'm currently the owner of Nazareth Barbell Club in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. I started the gym after being a police officer for eight years. I've been involved in powerlifting competitively since 1999. I'm currently ranked ninth in the world with a 755 pound bench press and hold the world record in the open submasters division in the IPA (International Powerlifting Association). I'm ranked third all time in the super heavyweight division.

T-mag: So you're kinda a big wus, huh? Just kidding! Your whole family powerlifts, correct?

MM: The kids spend a lot of time here with us in the gym. My eight-year-old daughter bench presses 55 pounds. My other daughter's best deadlift is 165 pounds and she's benched 95 and squatted 115 at nine years old. My wife benches 235 and holds the IPA world record in her class.

T-mag: You got kind of a late start in the sport, didn't you?

MM: I didn't start competing until 1999, but I've been lifting since I was in high school where I played football and wrestled. I worked out off and on when I was a police officer. I've always liked strongman stuff and powerlifting, but there's just not a ton of people around who know how to do it. I basically had to teach a lot of stuff to myself and I talked to Louie Simmons a lot. My bench press I owe solely to Bill Crawford and Sebastian Burns of the Metal Militia.

T-mag: Were you always a strong guy?

MM: I was always a big kid. I was 6' 4" and 315 pounds as a senior in high school. I weigh 410 right now. When I get "on" I just get big. My body just fuckin' loves steroids! I'm 72 inches at the shoulder right now with a 64 inch chest. When I'm not using I'm around 370 pounds.

T-mag: Ever get interested in the bodybuilding side of things?

MM: I was never too interested in bodybuilding because of the dieting. I like to eat! When I started lifting I was reading Muscle & Fitness and things like that. I didn't realize at that point what crap that magazine was. They just don't tell the truth about anything. Then I found Powerlifting USA and Testosterone, magazines that really lay it all out and tell you what's going on.

T-mag: Tell us a little about the Metal Militia.

MM: Bill Crawford started the Metal Militia in upstate New York. Members share about the same training philosophies but it goes much deeper than that. It's just a whole mess of people who want the same thing out of powerlifting. It's a very intense, very cool group. The average member of our team benches 200 pounds over his bodyweight.

We believe in treating people how you want to be treated. We don't get on the internet and knock people. We're out there to have a good time. That's what it should be about.

It's not about, "Well, I'm fucking stronger than this guy," or "I don't like this guy because he lifts for this gym."

T-mag: What's the Metal Militia training style?

MM: The Metal Militia philosophy is a great deal of intensity combined with a lot of weight and a lot of volume. Saturday is our bench day and we train for around four hours. We start out with board presses and do heavy triples and then do heavy singles. Sometimes we just do heavy singles all day. We warm up raw then train in our bench shirts. When we're done with that we do tons of lockouts. Then on Tuesday we have a raw bench day. Right now I'm strictly training for bench; I'm not doing any squatting.

Wednesday we'll do shoulders and tons of shrugs. Shoulders and traps are an integral part of your bench pressing. I do trap bar shrugs. I start with 135 pounds for 100 reps, 225 for 75 reps, 315 for 50 reps, 425 for 25 reps, then 515 for 15 reps. Then I'll alternate with straight bar shrugs and work up to 495 where I use a little of my body weight to heave the bar up. Then I'll hold it there for five seconds. I'll go up to 600 pounds and do the same thing, letting my arms hang down low to get a good pull on my traps. Then I grab the 135 pound dumbbells and do shrugs, four sets of thirty, really strict. After that I superset front raises and side raises. Tons of assistance work for shoulders!

T-mag: Some guys say not to even worry about shoulders because they're involved in so many other lifts already, but you really nail them directly, huh?

MM: Yes. When I bench I don't bench straight up and down; I bench in an arc. The weight comes off my chest and goes back over my head. What I'm actually doing is throwing it back, so I have to have strong shoulders or the weight will come down and conk me in the head.

T-mag: What about other exercises?

MM: For back day I do lat pulldowns and low rows. That's it. I rarely do any curls and I don't do any assistance triceps work. The only thing I do is I'll train with a close grip when I'm doing board presses or lockouts. I don't do skull crushers or any of that business. I used to do a lot of that, a lot of bands and a lot of dips, but I found out it just hurt me. It would fuck up my shoulders and screw with my joints. I do pull a dragging sled from time to time.

T-mag: No leg training at all right now?

MM: I'm not doing any at all. I'm so freaking big, if I do any leg training I won't be able to wear my jeans. My legs are about 34 inches at the thigh right now. After I break 800 in the bench I'm going to do a three lift meet again. My goal then is to squat over a 1000 and pull in the sevens.

T-mag: You told me before the interview that you've never competed in a sport as cutthroat and political as powerlifting. Let's talk about that.

MM: There's a lot of federation bashing and I hate that. That's not what it's about. Just go to the federation that meets the standards you want and enjoy your time there. Don't belittle what I'm doing in my federation. Some federations allow you to use anabolic steroids and some federations don't. It's not cheating if the federation doesn't test for them.

I will say this: if you've ever used steroids, you shouldn't compete in a federation that doesn't allow it. Some federations say you have to be clean for five years, but that's crap. Once you've been on steroids you've changed yourself permanently. You'll have the advantage over a lifetime drug-free guy.

T-mag: What about all the controversy involving bench shirts?

MM: I get so tired of the guy who spouts off with, "Oh, I could bench 700 if I took steroids and wore a denim bench shirt." The funny thing is, none of them are willing to prove it. If it's that easy, why are there only 48 guys in the world who've benched 700 pounds or more?

These small groups of close minded, ignorant people speak the loudest among us, yet they're afraid to take themselves to a new level. So rather than challenge themselves, they take the easy road and sit back and make excuses as to why their lifts suck. You'll never hear great lifters make excuses for missing a lift. They'll simply walk off the platform, accept what happened, learn from it, improve and not let it happen again.

T-mag: How about drugs?

MM: Listen, I've been accused of taking steroids since I was benching 500 pounds, but I didn't start until I was at 655. Actually, this is only the second cycle I've ever done in my life.

It's true steroids increase your strength and bench shirts will allow you to bench more. No shit! But to sit back and discredit a lift because a lifter took advantage of these tools is ludicrous. The shirt didn't make the lift by itself and the steroids don't work unless you work out.

Louie Simmons has been on a cycle for twenty-one years. He made this great quote one time. He said, "I've got a bottle of Test and a double layer denim bench shirt sitting in the back of my gym and I've yet to see it bench 100 pounds." The lifter is still doing the work, man!

T-mag: I hear a lot of guys putting down those lifters who use equipment. Seems to be a bitter controversy within powerlifting.

MM: I challenge anyone to throw a bench shirt on and instantly add 100 pounds to his lift. You just won't. It takes such technique to work a denim bench shirt. It took me a year to get it right. It's not something you can just throw on and make work. You choose not to wear it, I choose to wear it. One person is not better than the other.

All sports have changed and progressed over the years. Pole vaulters aren't walking around putting each other down because one uses a fiberglass composite pole and the other uses a wooden pole. That doesn't go on. Tiger Woods doesn't decide to be more of a purist and start using a rock and a stick. No, he's going to use titanium clubs and the best damn balls he can find. He even weight trains. He's taking advantage of everything, including equipment, to make him a better athlete. Powerlifters do that and they get criticized for it because they're "not lifting raw." That's a bunch of bullshit.

T-mag: We hear a lot about how many "natural" powerlifting competitions really aren't natural. Are people cheating?

MM: Yeah, you'll have that everywhere. If a guy really needs to feed his ego that badly he's pretty pathetic. He uses steroids, then lies so he can whip up on the amateurs and get a trophy. Sad.

T-mag: What 'roids do powerlifters prefer?

MM: For powerlifters it's mainly Testosterone and tren. That's the powerlifter's mainstay. Some guys like to use D-bol, anadrol etc. They use much lower dosages than bodybuilders.

T-mag: What do they take, like a gram a week?

MM: Not even! More like 500 mg of Test a week. I'll tell you what I do. I do 500 mg of Test a week with 200 mg of EQ in the beginning to keep the water off. Four weeks in I cut the EQ out, keep the Test at 500 mg and I add a CC and a half of tren every other day. When I get off I take Clomid. That's what I did when I benched 755.

My first cycle I only used Testosterone and EQ. You don't need a gram a week. That's bullshit. I don't know anyone who does a gram a week. If a powerlifter does that much he's wasting it.

T-mag: What mistakes did you make in the beginning of your powerlifting career?

MM: Overtraining and way too much assistance work. I also spent way too much time searching for that magic set and rep scheme in the sky that doesn't exist. I didn't listen to my body and I would train hurt. Now I pay attention to my body and do what I need to do on a certain day. I know whether I should try a single or not. I change my workout plan when I need to.

I take two weeks off, get some Active Release massage, then come back twice as strong. A.R.T. works great. You'll actually feel toxic and tired for a day after releasing those knots and pressure points, but then look out! My energy level goes through the roof and I come back as strong as a freaking ox. I've had no injuries so far.

T-mag: What about the mental or psychological side to pushing big iron?

MM: The intensity you have to have comes with time. It comes from the people you're working with. It's hard to increase your intensity if you're already the strongest guy in the gym. You have to have guys around you who are stronger or at least know how to drive you. You can tell when a guy has that intensity, and you can tell when a guy doesn't have that ability to go inside himself, get on the bench and grind it out. That intensity just has to come with time.

T-mag: Right now you weigh over 400 pounds. What does it take dietary-wise to keep you there?

MM: My wife regiments what I eat. I eat mostly clean, unless my wife isn't around. Then I eat garbage and junk food. I love to eat garbage. [laughing]

I start the day with twelve egg whites and two or three yolks, some wheat toast, sausage and bacon. Around 9AM I'll have protein powder and two cups of yogurt. I drink goat's milk because I get indigestion because of my size. Sometimes I get a pizza, but I'll usually eat 24 ounces of red meat for lunch.

I'll eat protein bars all day. The GROW! bars are fucking awesome! I'll eat oatmeal, peanut butter and canned chicken throughout the day too. I call it "grazing." I just eat when I'm hungry. I drink about a gallon of water a day. I fucking hate drinking all that water but I know I need it because of the tren. I also drink three or four bottles of Gatorade during the day.

T-mag: How many calories are you taking in?

MM: Somewhere around 8000 calories a day.

T-mag: What about nutrition before a meet? Any interesting tips?

MM: I eat baby food at the meet during the day. My nerves are shot anyway and I don't even feel like eating, but I know I need it to keep my energy up. I like the Gerber stuff. Sweet potatoes, rice and chicken, things like that. Forty-five minutes before I lift I eat three cups of yogurt. I also drink tons of Gatorade to get a bloat on. By the time I lift I look like the Michelin Man. My joints are so lubricated that nothing hurts. The bloat helps you fill out the shirt and get it tighter; the bar just sinks into your palms. The next day you piss like a racehorse and drop ten pounds, but the bloat really helps on the day of the meet.

T-mag: Tell me, Mike, when a young guy comes into your gym and wants to lift the big iron, what mistakes is he typically making that you have to correct?

MM: He's usually overtraining and not eating. He wants to look svelte and trim and have a six pack, and he wants to lift heavy weights too, all drug free. That ain't going to happen. Go ahead and stay lean in the summer, but you'll have to add some fat in the winter when you compete.

Also, ninety percent of the guys I see are making mistakes in technique, usually very small ones. We get guys that come here and we show them little technique changes and they bench 30 or 40 pounds more in the same day.

T-mag: Since this article is giving people a peak into top level powerlifting, tell us what you think all great powerlifters have in common.

MM: Guys who are destined to be great at the sport are going to be great regardless. If these guys chose to be mechanics, they'd be great mechanics. If they were race car drivers, they'd be great race car drivers. If they wanted to play football, they'd be great football players. It's in their blood. They're destined to be great at something, no matter what they choose to do.

It's just something inside of them to begin with. Why would you powerlift if all you aspired to was to be "run of the mill?" Let's be honest, most people don't powerlift to be healthy; that's what the people who walk on the treadmills are looking for. They powerlift because they love the challenge. They want to be great.

When they get into the gym and into the right atmosphere where that energy can be harnessed, they just become even better. The atmosphere makes it. I feel bad for guys that have to lift at regular commercial gyms. You can't listen to R&B and try to bench 600 pounds. In my gym we turn the Slayer up until the speakers scream.

T-mag: Besides setting a PR, what's the best part of powerlifting for you?

MM: After a Saturday workout, everyone at the gym comes to my house. Their kids are playing with my kids, the wives are cooking and it's a huge bond. These are the best times and you have to relish them and enjoy them.

T-mag: Sounds good, Mike! Thanks for talking to us today.

MM: Anytime, Chris.

For more info on Mike, the Metal Militia and Nazareth Barbell Club, visit NazarethBarbell.com.

Chris Shugart is T Nation's Chief Content Officer and the creator of the Velocity Diet. As part of his investigative journalism for T Nation, Chris was featured on HBO’s "Real Sports with Bryant Gumble." Follow on Instagram