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Ten things I have learned from my strength coach

This past summer I had the chance to meet and chat with one of the brightest, most energetic strength coaches in his field. His name is Bill Gillespie. Bill is the former head strength coach at the University of Washington and is now the assistant strength coach for the Seattle Seahawks. Bill has officially benched pressed 700 pounds in competition and he is a lifetime drug free lifter. A mountain of a man, his enormous back and chest girth make him stick out in any crowd and made me feel like a little boy standing next to him. Bill was able to sneak away one night while the Seahawks were in training camp (Cheney, WA just outside Spokane) to come to my gym and watch me train in the squat. Here are some things I took away from our conversation:

1.. The greatest lesson to be learned in your quest for strength is to be humble and to constantly pursue knowledge from those that are experienced and qualified. — I see constant reminders of this at every meet I go to. I have seen coaches, fellow competitors, referees and even moms and dads help out lifters at meets. I have seen far better lifters who you would think wouldn’t take the time to help out a beginner and yet they do-sometimes even at the risk of hurting them for their own competition later. Being humble allows you to seek knowledge from others who can help you in your training and it also makes it easier for someone else to actually want to help you. No one wants to help a know-it-all. The most respected and admired lifters I know are ones who are humble and who offer their help either physically or emotionally and sometimes even by offering their personal time. For our sport to grow, and it is, we all need to remember this. So here is Bill, a world renowned strength coach, coming up to me for the first time and introducing himself and saying what an honor it was to meet me. Are you kidding me? That’s humble!!

2.. None of us are as strong as we think we really are. Some of us are stronger in our own minds. Some of us are stronger physically than our minds. — There are so many lifters that sell themselves short because they don’t think they are capable of doing a certain weight in their mind. They spend their short careers never believing they can lift a certain amount. Surprisingly, every so often, their bodies surprise them and overcome a weight they thought not possible. And then there are others who believe there body can overcome enormous weights but only to find their body fails them all the time. I see good and bad in both. The point is though, never sell yourself short and see yourself hitting the big weights. The key is not to tell everyone around you that you’re stronger than you really are.

3.. Strength comes and goes. So do people. People are more important. — I’ve never been involved in any other sport where I feel so alive. The friendships I have made and the people I have met have made the difference in my life. I owe that to the great sport of powerlifting. When I leave this earth, I would like to be remembered as a strong man. But when I say strong, I don’t mean how much I ever squatted. I mean that I was strong enough to care for my family, provide for them. That I was strong enough to get up each morning to go to work and grind it out. That I was strong enough to be there for my friends when they needed me most. That I was strong enough to bury my mother and father with great pride and be happy they went to a better place. That I was strong enough to have my children lean on me when times were tough and I could bear their pain. That I was strong enough to fight the disease of laziness and lack of caring and be strong for my community, my neighbors and all the people I come into contact with. True strength is earned I believe. In the end, no one cares how much you ever benched.

4.. It doesn’t matter if you have great speed strength or starting strength, all that matters is that you are strong. — Bill mentioned to me that I was probably lacking in starting strength in the squat and in the bench due to the fact that my band training has involved semi-loose bands in the bottom position. I’ve always understood the theory of having tension in the bottom but I never really thought it mattered. Why? I never thought it mattered because I got great speed at the top with some pretty heavy band tension. What I was missing is the fact that the starting strength I was getting was due to the fact that there was no tension in the bottom and I would actually get stronger in the hole with more bottom end tension and faster at the top due to a more explosive contraction.

Ultimately, all that matters is that you are strong. Each of us wants to be stronger or faster but the only thing that matters on meet day is if you overcome the weight.

5.. Sometimes the most technical things make the biggest improvements. — Absolute strength is arguably the most important thing a lifter can possess at meet-time. However, it’s important to note, that the stronger you get, you will find that the tiniest technical differences will soon become the difference between making a lift and missing it. With beginning lifters, there’s a greater margin of error that can be recovered with strength alone, but as your strength progresses upwards, technical breakdowns and concentration become just as important. Learn the finer things in technique in all three lifts and listen to those who know. All of us spend countless hours trying to find the perfect program or supplement to make us stronger, but how many of us research technique to see if there’s a more efficient and technically sound way of performing the movement.

6.. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it-unless you fix it and it gets better. — I told Bill I had no interest in doing box squats and no interest in adding more tension to the bottom movement of my squat and bench training. He then asked me why. My response was that I didn’t like to fix things that weren’t broke. In a round-about-way, he responded with the fact that maybe, in fact, nothing was broke, but maybe I could make things more efficient, and thus, stronger. He convinced me to try box squatting, which I detest. In theory, it makes perfect sense. In reality, I personally think it is stupid. However, only a stupid lifter goes through all his training and disregards tools that may make him/her stronger. Bottom line, try it!! If it works, keep it-if it doesn’t, get rid of it!

7.. Hard work, commitment and desire are foods that strength hungers for. — I’ve always been taught that what you put into a sport, is what you’ll get out of it. Hence, my passion for this sport is that I love to work hard in the gym. I feel good about it. I know that it will pay off. This is one area that Bill commented on during my workout. It reinforced the fact to me that he realizes its importance also. To be your best you have to go in the gym at night or in the morning and still hold down a job, provide for your family and live up to your responsibilities. (Just imagine what our lives would be like if powerlifting was a government sponsored sport-now, I know you could work hard thinking about the kind of life you would have then!).

8.. We all make gains in strength when we share our knowledge. It is when we keep things secret, we stop making gains for ourselves. — What you give is what you get. If you give knowledge, you will receive it. Give as much to others as they want. Ask for some in return. The knowledge you share about training, equipment, diet, competition etc, will help other lifters, who in turn, will want to help you and see you succeed. Bill shared a lot with me about his bench training and things I could do to improve my bench press. Bill gets paid big money to coach the Seahawks and train their players. He gets paid to give advice and share knowledge. He gave me knowledge for free. I respect that and wish to return the favor some day if possible. We all benefit by giving knowledge away at some time.

9.. Ignoring your back work for the bench is like driving your car with your tires half full. — I hate training back. I’ve never liked it since I was young. It’s often been said that back work is the foundation needed for a strong bench. Bill convinced me of this (AGAIN!). How many benchers have you ever seen that had tiny back development? I also learned from Bill that it’s ok to train your back with pull downs, not merely row movements. For years, I have subscribed to the Westside theory that pull owns where useless since they weren’t in the same plane movement as the bench press. What I think was ignored is that the pecs are still trained slightly in a pull down movement and so are your traps, biceps and smaller shoulder muscles.

10.. No matter where you go, someone somewhere is stronger than you! — I’m reminded of this almost every meet I go to or by some feat of strength that has been recorded. There are few men or women who walk this planet that can reach the far corners of the earth and find no equal in strength. As I hear Bill’s words ringing in my ear “…c’mon, you’re the world’s best squatter. Now do this!”… I think to myself, “yeah, I have the highest recorded squat, but I ain’t the best”. For me, I know I’m damn good. Every good lifter feels that way about themselves. I know I can accomplish amazing things. Every good lifter thinks this also. But that’s as far as my thoughts drift. We can all be humbled at any time. We can all be beat at any time and we all have bad days. The key is to know you are good, but not show you know it.

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