Interview With Jim Wendler of Elite Fitness Systems by Mike Westerdal of CriticalBench.com
Critical Bench: Thanks for being here Jim. Tell our readers a little bit about yourself. Height, weight, best lifts, and background.
Jim Wendler: I am 5'10" and currently weigh about 240lbs. When I was competing in powerlifting I was in the 275lbs class. Here's a brief background - Grew up in Illinois and after high school I went to the Air Force Academy and quickly got tired of the lifestyle. I walked on at the University of Arizona and eventually earned a scholarship. At U of A, I had the opportunity to be part of a 12-1 team (as well as other teams that weren't as good). After football, I moved to Kentucky to be part of the Strength and Conditioning program at UK and also began seriously powerlifting. It was here that I met Kevin DeWeese who became a great friend and training partner. After my stint at UK, Dave Tate hired me to work at EFS and I also trained at Westside Barbell. My best lifts are a 1000lbs squat, a 675lb bench press and a 700lb deadlift. Fortunately, these were all done at the same meet and resulted in a 2375 total.
I've been training (and haven't stopped) since 13 years of age. I am currently 31 years old, so you do the math.
I am married and have a 2 year old son.
Critical Bench: Jim you were a standout football player at the University of Arizona. What position did you play? What is your favorite memory about playing college football?
Let's get things straight! I was not a standout player! I had a role and did everything I was asked to do to the best of my ability. Though I was not a star, I am very satisfied and proud of what I did accomplish. I played fullback at U of A.
I have a lot of great memories, mostly of the friendships I have made and the small stuff. I am not to proud to say that one of the finest moments of my career was taking my first carry in college for a touchdown. To top it off, the game was nationally televised on ESPN (Thursday night game of the week). I probably should have been flagged for excessive celebration, but it was pure happiness and joy. And no, I wasn't doing it to bring attention to myself; I'm not going to be dancing anytime soon. I don't know if many people have felt so much joy after completely committing themselves to one thing, one goal for so many years.
I should also point out that my parents came to every single game I played in; in high school and in college. That memory is incredible.
Let me take this time to say that a lot of what goes on in college football is glamorized and people think that the "world is for the taking" for a college football player. There are advantages to playing football in college, but there is also a lot of hard work, set backs, injuries, commitment and some real trying times, especially if you are a walk-on. If anyone thinks they know what goes on in college football by watching T.V., you are sadly mistaken. I often hear how easy a football player has it, and maybe some of them do. But strap on a helmet for 3 years without any of the coaches even knowing your name, get stuck in a different locker room than the rest of the team, get the crap knocked out of you everyday, pay your own way and then talk to me about how easy it is.
Crtiical Bench: Whew I hear ya. I was a D-1AA walk on myself so I understand what you're saying. What were the strongest football players on your team lifting compared to powerlifters of the same weight?
There were definitely some strong players; I've seen a 411 Clean and Jerk, 225x45 Ballistic Bench Press (drop and catch the bar 1" from chest), several 700lbs squats (below parallel, just a belt) and other great feats. But understand that strength is only one part of the game for a football player. You have to be fast, agile, flexible, and most importantly know how to play the sport. I'd rather be a good football player than be strong. Powerlifters always want to criticize how weak football players are, especially in regards to the 225 bench press test. I can think of a dozen other things that the football players can criticize the powerlifters for!
Critical Bench: I'm glad you pointed that out, I find myself defending football players to powerlfiters from time to time. When you were the assistant strength and conditioning coach at the University of Kentucky did you implement Westside Training Techniques to any of the athlete programs?
A little bit; but I really tried to concentrate on improving the form on the basic lifts, developing leadership, work ethic and getting the kids to believe in themselves and each other. If you develop these things, it won't matter what you do in the weight room as long as you are consistent, have good form and strive to get better.
Critical Bench: After football you turned to powerlifting to keep the competitive spirit pumping. How did it feel to come within 40 pounds of reaching Elite at your very first powerlifting event?
That was a great meet; I was green to the sport and had a great time watching and learning. Did I want that Elite? Yes. I remember Rob Fusner got his elite in his very first meet so I was kind of gunning for that. (I should point out that I am in NO WAY as strong as Fusner…he is superhuman.) As a side note, let me tell people that when I first started reading about powerlifting and saw the Elite totals, I was overwhelmed and thought that there was no way I could ever do it.
But it can be done if you go about it with the right attitude.
Critical Bench: What's it like working at EliteFTS.com ? Sounds like a dream job.
If you like working in your underwear, it's a great job. I love working for EFS although I'm not sure of the term "dream job". That's a true oxymoron. Honestly though, it's been a great experience for me.
I would venture to say that on a daily basis I talk to more people in strength and conditioning than anyone else. Lifters, coaches, trainers, etc. The network that Dave started and that EFS has built is amazing. But if I have to answer one more question about band tension…
Critical Bench: What's it like training at Westside Barbell? Who are your lifting partners?
I haven't trained as Westside for over a year now. I've taken a break from powerlifting, though I do still train in the same style as I did before. I had to lose weight due to some health issues.
While I was training there my training partners were Dave Tate, Louie Simmons, Chuck Vogelpohl, J.L. Holdsworth, Mike Ruggiera, Jeremiah Myers, Tim Harold and Joe Bayles. If you want to look at the success of Westside, don't look at the program - look at the attitude and expectations of the lifters. That is the most crucial part of the success.
Critical Bench: Since you're a strength coach you know I'm going to have to ask you to give our readers some bench press tips. What are your top five tips?
1. Get stronger - this sounds simple but sometimes you just have to shut up and put some weight on the bar.
2. Learn technique - This is critical, especially for injury prevention and to take your pressing to the next level. The better you are the more "tricks" you are going to have to learn. And one of them is going to be maximizing your technique for your particular style.
3. Train everything - Weak point training is great but I use the approach that everything is weak. So don't leave any stone unturned.
4. Don't fall for everything - Gimmicks come and go, but principles remain the same.
5. Fail at full speed - Like your football coach once said, "if you are going to make a mistake, make it full speed." Don't pussy foot around.
Critical Bench: Do you think all the powerlifting federations that have sprouted up over the past few years helps the sport or causes controversy?
I am all for choices and being able to do what I want. I don't want to listen to Mariah Carey, so I choose to listen to Iron Monkey. I have that right. Same with powerlifting; I want to be able to compete in the organization that I want to, not what some internet elite-typing jockey says is the "true" federation. If you like the IPF, then lift there! If you want to use a Monolift and wear two-ply gear, get in the IPA or APF. I don't know why everyone bitches and moans about this stuff. We are lifting weights and supposed to be having a good time. We are not curing cancer.
Critical Bench: So what's the deal with you and soap...you use a different kind everyday?
HA! I'm a big fan of not smelling like crap. I like to keep the B.O. to a minimum and keep the dragon breath at bay. Call me metro, but it's better than smelling like an old sausage.
Critical Bench: Haha Good point. 1000 Pound Squat. That is amazing. What do you attribute your squat success to? Have you always been a big squatter?
Thanks. I don't know if I've always been a big squatter, but when I was in high school, the squat was the lift that was always emphasized to me. Whether it was from coaches or from reading articles on Barry Sanders or other football players who had strong legs; the squat was always the corner stone of my training. Because of this, I worked like hell on the squat when I was growing up. Naturally, this became my strength. So while many may say that I've always been a big squatter, I say that I've always been a dedicated squatter. The opposite is true of my bench press. I could care less about my bench until after I was done with football. Because of this, this was a weak point for me for so long.
If you want to squat big here are some things you have to do:
1. Build strong legs
2. Build a very strong low back and abs
3. Find your own style of squatting and reinforce it every time you lift
For 99% of people, strength doesn't happen because of genetics. It takes years and years of work to get there. There is no secret to strength training. All the information is out there, but you better be willing to put in the time.
Critical Bench: Why do you think conditioning is important for powerlifters and what activities do you recommend?
This is a tricky subject. Conditioning is important for a powerlifter, but one must understand how and what to do. First, you must realize that your #1 goal as a lifter is to increase your total. Everything you do has to be geared towards this. If it is taking away from it, then drop it.
So with that in mind, is your current conditioning level keeping you from training optimally? If not, then don't worry about it. There is no need for conditioning. I have found this to be true for most people who are fairly light or lean. Not all the time, but enough for me to make that statement.
If your conditioning level is holding you back (and by this I mean: are you able to handle enough volume in your training, is your recovery level down, do your workouts take too long, etc.) then you must do something.
What this "something" is has to be in line with your goal: increase your total. So this is not the time to be performing 2 mile jogs or something similar. You have to find an activity to do that increases your conditioning, improves your level of fitness, improve your performance, and not deter from your training. Everyone got that?
Now where people crap the bed on this is sled training. The sled is great. But people will drag the damn thing until they can't move, thus making their legs exhausted, unable to perform their squat workouts and pretty much defeat their whole purpose.
So the right tool for the right job! Having said that, all conditioning work must be done minimally at first so as to gauge how it affects your training. Don't jump in head first - toe the water a little bit. So what should you do? The best thing is to walk. Get on a treadmill or walk your dog - I don't really care. Go for at least 20-30 minutes and you don't have to kill yourself. If you are on a treadmill, start at 3.0mph.
Sled work and the bike are also good options. Always remember though that what you do for this should NOT negatively affect what you do in the weight room. Keep this in mind and you will be ok.
Critical Bench: Makes sense. Jim I know you've explained this in the past, but what is the Conjugate Periodization system?
I'm not even sure what the hell it is anymore! To make it simple though, its combining the dynamic, maximal effort and repetition method. Instead of working in concentrated blocks, you work these qualities at the same time. Where things get screwed up is that people try to bring EVERYTHING up at the same time, with the same emphasis on each one. This is overtraining.
So let's say you are super skinny, and you are flexing more bone than muscle. You can still use the dynamic and max effort method, but your emphasis is going to be on the repetition method. And things can change for the same lifter during a training cycle. There is a lot that can go into all of this, so I'm just going to leave it at that.
Critical Bench: Do you take any supplements in addition to the standard protein, creatine, vitamin, anti-oxidant supps?
I tend to stay away from most supplements though. I'm not a huge believer in them, but see how people can get swept away in the advertising. I did when I was younger.
Critical Bench: What supplemental exercises to suggest for building a monster bench?
If I had to choose a couple, it would be the floor press, military press and some kind of row. Those things have always helped me quite a bit. Basically anything I can do heavy is ok with me. To be honest, I don't get caught up on the exercises that I do. It sounds weird. I concentrate on my mindset and getting that correct. The exercises are secondary to all of this. It's hard for people to understand this and hard to explain.
Critical Bench: You've mentioned that Chuck Vogelpohl is one of the most competitive people you have been around. Give
us a good Chuck story from the gym.
Dave has a ton of them and much better than I could ever tell. Here's one that he told me: a lifter was getting ready to squat (he was a training partner of Chuck's) and during his pre-lift ritual Chuck had gotten fired up and punched him in the head. Well, this punch knocked the poor son of a bitch out and left him writhing on the floor. Chuck picked him up, threw him under the bar and the guy passed out on the way down. All in good fun.
Seriously…Chuck is a great guy. Very humble and very down to earth.
Critical Bench: That's a story alright! What are you future plans or goals both personally or in your training?
I guess the big question is if I will return and compete again and that is something that I battle with. I still train heavy as I can and I still love to go in the weight room and get stupid. That is what this is all about.
Critical Bench: Thanks for taking the time to share your expertise with us. Is there anything else you'd like to say or anyone you'd like to give a shout out to?
Well I don't give shout outs, but would like to thank Dave Tate for everything he's done for me. He's a great friend and he's my boss, so I have to kiss a little ass. I also would like to thank everyone that I have come in contact with at EFS. It's amazing to have these resources.
And finally, you never asked me about my true passion - music. Tune low, play slow and support the bands that you love. Music is such a big part of my life and has been such a big influence with me as a person. If in doubt, listen to Sabbath.