Any training space with big stacks of plates and straight barbells is legit, but most are exactly the same. They are familiar spaces built with utility in mind, which is great most of the time. But when it comes to developing maximal strength they are far from ideal.
Those remaining spaces are part gym, part circus side-show. No two in the world are the same. Each exists as the sum total of the rogue, gnarly crews that pool their resource and open the doors.
These spots are unique in culture and vibe, although far from g-rated. On the very best of days you can expect repeated provocation, a hyper-competitive platform and absolutely relentless coaching.
The stereo is pumps out a medley of early Metallica and Westside Connection (please, don’t think about touching the stereo). The programming is homegrown and intense, the result of relentless tinkering and escalation. On any given training day you can expect to have your flesh smashed from from head to toe.
In short, a powerlifting gym is built with maximal in mind.
We recently had the pleasure of training and recording at Supertraining Gym, the strongest gym in the western United States. You may not recognize the name at first, but you might know the founder. Mark Bell first gained notoriety after appearing in the 2008 film Bigger, Stronger, Faster, a documentary on America’s heavy performance enhancement culture. For what it’s worth, Mark only addressed the giant elephant in the room – High level performance and drug use go hand in hand, particularly in the strength sports. He wanted to compete at the very highest level, so he decided to step onto a level playing field. There was nothing more to it.
We had to start the podcast with some steroid talk. This remains a molten hot topic, especially in Crossfit and the competitive fitness scene. This is also not our first time around. We’re always interested in drug chat, just check out episode 72 with Dan Bailey, a top, heavily muscled Crossfit competitor. You can imagine the comments his shirtless instagram pics must receive. Also, we took the issue of steroids in Crossfit head-on inepisode 102 with Michelle Kinney and Mike McGoldrick. Make sure to check out those shows.
It’s safe to say that Crossfit is not immune to the drug issue. These are true athletes, and you can be sure that many will seek out every possible advantage. That is expected, it’s what athletes do, but it’s not an excuse for the rest. There are plenty of athletes that excel on a crooked platform, usually because they’ve invested a staggering sum total of physical work. There is no substitution for that work, not even all the drugs that supplement company sponsorship money can by.
As Lou Simmons once told me, “I’ve got a bottle of testosterone on a bench in the back. I’ve yet to see it lift shit!” Yeah, the example is a bit strange, but the point is true. Drugs are not a magic bullet. They are not a gift, they are just a tool that allows athletes to train much harder than they otherwise could.
If you are not grinding your bones under a heavy barbell then you are just waisting your time. As Mark would say, try training much harder before you play the steroid card. You might be surprised at the results.
A student of strength doesn’t discriminate when it comes to knowledge. There is no room for placing judgement on personal decisions. Keep an open mind. Assess methods carefully, and gain some personal experience before drawing conclusions. It takes all kinds, baby. Mentors and coaches need not be angels.
The same can be said of pop programming and exercise selection. Bodybuilding is a common target of derision in most fitness gyms, or perhaps it’s fair to say that most of these folks don’t see the point in the methods, not if performance is the aim. But this is a real shame. They are blinded by the banana hammocks and spray tan, I suppose.
The truth is that bodybuilding lies right at the root of physical culture. It predates modern strength sports. Its competitors are exceptionally dedicated, to the point of appearing psychotic to the rest of us. What’s more, countless strength athletes and fitness competitors owe their success to a foundation that was built one rep at a time with bodybuilding movements. Look close, the evidence is throbbing away on Rich Froning’s masculine chest.
Isolation shouldn’t be disregarded. These bodybuilding style movements are a tremendous way to add work and improve strength on the barbell lifts, particularly when what is needed most of all is some added muscle mass. As we discuss on the show, sometimes the best solution for getting stronger is just getting bigger. A larger muscle is a stronger, more resilient muscle.
Brawn is not the only consideration. All those bodybuilding reps are highly joint sparing. They allow you to get in some vital work when you are feeling beat up by the barbell. That is worth anyone’s attention. For more information on the importance of Bodybuilding methods, check out our chat with powerlifter turned bodybuilder AJ Roberts on episode 112.
Here’s the Supertraining lesson that everyone needs to hear – Never get set in your ways. Try not to take things too seriously, especially when someone calls you fat. Always be looking for new ways to get stronger, period. Experiment, tinker, change, and build upon your results. As Mark says, “If something’s working, stick with it. If it’s not working for you, get rid of it. If it hurts, don’t do it. If it feels good, do more of it. It’s that simple.”