10 Lessons from Westside Barbell
Build world-class strength with tips from the hardest-training gym in the world.
By Craig Bongelli
I love strength. For the last four years the pursuit of size and strength has consumed me. During that time I’ve gained 140lbs (150-290) and hit some decent lifts (squatting 600 pounds, deadlifting 650 and overhead pressing 365) but I realized that if I want to get really strong, I needed to learn from the people who’ve already achieved extreme strength. It was this idea that lead me to Westside Barbell, the most bad-ass, strong-as-hell gym in the world. I was fortunate enough to spend a week there training and learning from legendary powerlifting coach Louie Simmons, and I’m sharing here 10 lessons that he passed on to me.
But before I get down to brass tacks, know this: Westside is synonymous with strength. To give you an idea of how strong the lifters at Westside are, take a look at some of their stats: The gym has been home to 33 men who’ve benched 700lbs, eight who’ve benched 800, two who’ve benched 900, 17 who’ve squatted 1000lbs, six who’ve squatted 1100, and eight who’ve deadlifted 800! The owner and coach at Westside, Louie Simmons, is one of only five lifters in history to achieve an elite total in five weight classes, and he’s the only man to ever squat over 900 pounds, bench 600 and deadlift over 700 at over 50 years of age. Keep those stats in mind as you absorb the following chestnuts from Louie Simmons.
1. Singles build reps; reps don’t build singles.
Want to get strong? Then you need to lift heavy! If you want a lift to skyrocket, you have to push it sky high by going all out for one rep. Reps have a place in your training, but you’ll never build unbridled strength unless you’re regularly chasing you 1RM in the major lifts.
2. Turn up the volume for size.
Despite the (incorrect) idea that high reps “tone” and help you burn fat, higher rep schemes are really an important growth tool. Performing the major compound lifts in low ranges will add size — especially if your body hasn’t yet adapted to them — but if growth is your goal, you’ll still need to do some volume work. Performing more reps on your single-joint bodybuilding-type movements will increase your training volume (total poundage lifted in a given workout), which is the key to igniting growth.
3. Always consider the source.
When I asked Louie Simmons about some advice I read on a weightlifting forum, he told me that if I wanted to do something useful with my computer, I should used it as a weight for sled pulls! The point here is that there’s a ton of faulty information out there, and you need to consider the source. Go with books, magazines and websites from trustworthy sources, and stay away from nameless, faceless forum “experts.”
4. Attack every rep.
There’s a flag hanging at Westside that reads “Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out.” It’s a concept you should be applying to every workout. A lot of lifters never make progress because they think that limping their way through a proven program is enough to increase their numbers. But the ingredient those lifters are missing is the all-out mental effort. Add some serious intensity to your workouts, and you’ll be shocked by the results.
5. Embrace the things you hate.
We all have movements we hate. Some of us are born to squat; others are natural deadlifters. And then there are the weekend warriors who live to train nothing but chest. But focusing on your strengths won’t get you anywhere. To make progress, you need to man up and embrace the things you usually avoid because of how much you suck at them. Embrace the pain and improve your least favorite lifts, and you’ll be amazed at the strength you’ve gained when you return to your favorites.
6. Quit once and you’re a quitter.
You might need this advice when you start training the lifts you hate. Always remember that it’s a long, hard road to building a big body and big lifts, but it’s a crappy road without them. Everyone has their ups and downs, but as long as you don’t quit, you’ll always be further ahead than the guy who gave up!
7. Imitate before you innovate.
Want to know how to be great at something? Find the best in the world at what you want to do and mimic them. Someone has already blazed a trail straight to your goal–especially when it comes to moving major amounts of iron, so your best bet is to benefit from their mastery before you worry about blazing your own trial.
8. There’s only one right way to do something; everything else is a variation.
Louie Simmons said this to me while I was at Westside, and it clarified a lot of questions I had. Are you lifting with perfect form? Are you addressing all of the imperfections in your diet plan? Is your training program as good as you can possibly make it? I will guarantee that you can’t answer yes to all of those questions, so fix the basic things that you’re not getting right before you worry about fine tuning less-significant aspects of your training.
9. Yesterday’s training brings yesterday’s result.
There are two important considerations here. Have you been doing the same weights/sets/reps workout after workout while expecting your body to change? If so, fix it! Keep a log and make sure you’re progressing with every workout. And what about the routine you’re doggedly sticking to? Are you using the same program that lifters were using 30 years ago? No other athlete in any other sport trains the same as their predecessors did 30 years ago, so why should strength athletes and bodybuilders? Get reading and start using some of the advances in programming and equipment to make more progress!
10. Sometimes you just need to get stronger.
Lifters are always looking for the next trick or tweak to give them a bigger lift, but the truth is that sometimes there’s nothing to fix — you just need to get stronger. I saved this piece of advice for last because it was the most important thing I learned at Westside. I’m guilty of not making progress simply because I was too worried about my program, and I jumped around from system to system without giving anything a fair try. Don’t make this mistake! Find the best program you can and commit to giving it 100% for a couple months before you start second-guessing your results.
Westside for life! Author Craig Bongelli with Louie Simmons, owner of Westside Barbell.