An Interview with Jim Wendler - Mind And Muscle

interview chair
An Interview with Jim Wendler
by: Greg McGlone
First off Jim thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Why don’t you tell the readers about your background?

Thanks for letting me do the interview. After high school, I walked on at the University of Arizona (after a brief stint at the United States Air Force Academy) and eventually earned an athletic scholarship and 3 letters. I played fullback and I can’t say that I was an outstanding player, but I’m very proud of what I did. As for athletic ability, I am above average for most people, but on that level, I was average at best. I then went to the University of Kentucky where I helped train several sport teams, but mainly worked with football. I eventually began working with Dave Tate and EliteFTS.

As for my training background, I began training when I was in 8th grade and really haven’t stopped since. All of my training, at least until the last 5-6 years, was all geared to making me a better football player. After football, I knew I needed something to compete in so my natural choice was powerlifting. I loved to lift and thought I could do fairly well. I did have the opportunity to train at Westside Barbell the last couple of years, although I currently do not train there. As for my personal life, I have a 3 ½ year old son and plan on one day starting the heaviest, most destructive sludge metal band ever. I am already schooling my son in the way of music – he is a lover of Black Sabbath, Neurosis and the Wiggles. The latter is not my doing. I don’t know if this is relevant, but I find it amusing.

 A common thing on Mind & Muscle and other sites is people who aren’t powerlifters wonder if the Westside Template is for them. You’ve touched on this subject before in some of your articles on Care to explain this in greater detail?

I can see how some people can assume that the Westside Template is only for powerlifters. Obviously, its roots are in powerlifting, but if one can learn to apply the principles, than it can be used for a lot of things. A perfect example is Joe DeFranco’s WSB for Skinny Bastards training program. He took the principles and adapted them to the needs of his athletes. The biggest problem is learning how to adapt them for your needs and your training level. For many, a couple of cycles of the standard template, which has been outlined many times in Dave Tate’s articles, will give them an idea of what works for them and what doesn’t. The problem is that there are so many variations and once you throw bands, chains, circa-max phase, etc. into the mix, then everyone becomes confused and frustrated. I know because that’s what happened to me. Then you throw in information from other lifters and what has worked for them…it becomes an incredible headache. So what’s the answer? If you take a step back and analyze everything about the template we can come up with a few “absolutes.”

  1. Speed day has to be speed day; your training weights have to fall between 50-60% of your raw max. Once you start operating at a higher percentage then you will screw with your recovery for your max effort days.
  2. Max effort day has to be a training day, not a test day. While breaking records is great for self-esteem, you have to have at least 3 lifts @ or above 90% of your training max for that day. Remember you are training to get stronger over a period of time, not just for that day. There is a difference with this. Training is a cumulative effect and just because you don’t break a record on max effort day doesn’t necessarily mean that you aren’t getting stronger.
  3. Your assistance and supplemental work has to be geared to getting you stronger and strengthening your weak AND strong points. This is no time to be using fluff exercises that do nothing but sap your time, energy and recovery ability.

We have long been proponents of learning how to train yourself and learning how to train without the aid of programs. The problems lies in the fact that people need to learn how to train by using a template and by trial and error. So in order to get to the level of enlightenment, you have to go through the steps. You can’t expect a beginner to go to a weight room without a plan. I should also point out that people that want to use a WSB template should already be at an intermediate level; this is not a beginner program. You should have a basic idea on how to squat, bench and deadlift and be able to take off your shirt without it getting caught on your collar bone. So how does someone that is new to the template get started? Here are some ideas and some easy ways. 1. When establishing your 1RM for an exercise, you don’t have to go all out on the first day. For example, if someone has never done a floor press they often are confused at how to gauge their sets and reps. They have no idea what their floor press record is. But they do know how much they can bench press. Let’s say that their max bench press is 250lbs. We will assume that their floor press (or most other max effort exercises such as the two board, three board press) is at least 80% of their max bench press (raw). So their target weight on the first day of floor presses is 200lbs. This is a little low, but that’s ok; it’s their first time doing the exercise. So here’s how they would work up on max effort day.

1×5 @ 95lbs 50%
1×3 @ 120 60%
1×2 @ 140 70%
1×1 @ 160 80%
1×1 @ 180 90%
1×1 @ 190 95%
1×1 @ 200 100%

Now that 200lbs may be very easy, but it’s a starting point to work from. Remember it’s not where you start, but where you end up. The following week, you may want to shoot for 210 or whatever you think you can do. You adjust the weights judging by that max. Eventually, the lifter will know what attempts to make and how to structure their training. When a lifter is beginning this program, it’s best to shoot for numbers that are very feasible and that can be accomplished. Small steps…small steps… Again, the above percentages are just recommendations, but work very well.

What about exercises on this day? If they are not powerlifters, than they aren’t wearing shirts, so the exercises can be:

  • Floor press
  • 2 board press
  • Incline Press
  • Close grip bench press (index finger on the knurl of the power bar)

For max effort exercises for the squat and deadlift here are some of the more popular exercises:

  • Deadlifts off pins
  • Deadlifts while standing on elevated platform (usually about 3”)
  • Deadlift
  • Squat
  • Box Squat
  • Safety bar squats
  • Cambered bar squats

When gauging your dynamic weights, be sure to base everything on your best raw bench press and your best raw squat that you are capable of at this time. Not what you did two years ago. Most people know their best bench press so this is easy. The squat is a little tricky as some people use less than desirable form. Also, some people have this idea that you can only do dynamic squatting with a box. This is not true. If you don’t want to box squat, you don’t have to. I still believe in the box squat as being the superior way to squat, but it’s the principles of dynamic training that counts. 3. When choosing your supplemental and assistance lifts, the easiest ways to do this is to make a list of exercises that you feel are the best and the most important for each body part. You have to be honest with yourself and really put some thought into this. I will use myself as an example. Here are what I believe to be the best exercises for me in training.

  • Shoulders/chest – military press, dumbbell bench press, dumbbell incline press
  • Triceps (lockout) – 4 board press, 5 board press
  • Lats – pull-ups, chest supported rows, dumbbell bent over rows
  • Upper back – face pulls, rear lateral raises, seated dumbbell power cleans
  • Quads – EFS Power Squat, leg press, belt squat
  • Hamstrings/Low back – glute ham raises, reverse hyperextensions, 45 degree back raises, good mornings
  • Abs – weighted sit-ups, dumbbell side bends, hanging abdominal raises

By sitting down and thinking about what exercises are the best for me, I can easily choose what exercises I need to do during my training. I have a good list to choose from but too extensive that it becomes confusing. Here are the biggest mistakes that people make when trying this training:

  1. Too much focus on the small things. People bicker about rest times, grip width, stance, etc. Focus on the principles; dynamic, max effort and repeated effort. If you do this, then everything else becomes irrelevant.
  2. Speed day is too heavy and too slow.
  3. Max effort day turns into a test day, not a training day. You have to lift heavy weights to become stronger.
  4. The assistance lifts are not chosen correctly. Have a purpose!
How would you adjust the Westside Template for someone whose main focus is muscle hypertrophy (maybe for numbers 3 and 4 you could outline a very brief way to set up each template)?

The first thing that I would tell people to do is to eat more. There are a million articles on the internet that address this issue so I’m not going to go into it. But we all know that you need to eat, and need to eat a lot if you want to get bigger. We are not going over any new ground on this one. If you eat like a chicken, you will look like a chicken. So how does one address hypertrophy in a WSB template? This is exactly what I did – Dynamic days – remain the same Max effort days – remain the same The variable that I changed was my assistance and supplemental work. On my dynamic bench days, I would follow my dynamic work with 5-6 sets of 10-15 reps of a full range pressing movement. I would superset this with a lat movement for the same sets and reps. So it would look something like this:

  • DB Bench Press – 50×10, 80×10, 100×10, 110×10, 130×10, 100xAMRAP
  • Chest Supported Row – 6 sets of 10-15 reps; weight is adjusted accordingly.

I would follow this up with 5 sets of 10-15 reps of upper back work. On my max effort bench days, the max effort movement would follow the %’s I had given before and then follow it with these exercises (again, these two would be supersetted):

  • Lat movement – 5 sets of 10-15 reps
  • Triceps movement (extensions, pushdowns or JM Presses) – 5 sets of 10-15 reps.

Like my dynamic days, this would be followed by more upper back work.

On my dynamic squat day, I would follow this kind of template

  • Glute ham raises – 5 sets of 8-15 reps
  • Reverse Hyperextensions – 5 sets of 10-15 reps
  • Weighted Sit ups – 5 sets of 10 reps

On my max effort squat day, it was very similar:

  • Glute ham raises or Romanian deadlifts – 5 sets of 10 reps
  • Leg press or power squat – 5 sets of 10 reps
  • Side bends – 5 sets of 10 reps/side

As you can see, it wasn’t very fancy, but that overall volume was pretty high. This took some time to getting used to but it definitely worked. This is exactly what I did when I began working at the University of Kentucky. I came there weighing around 255 and quickly moved to 270-275. I got very, very big doing this. Why 5 sets? I don’t really have a good reason, but that number seemed to work for me. What I basically did was keep the speed and the strength as the main movements (dynamic and max effort) and did some bodybuilding work with powerlifting type movements. Understand that my main focus during this time was to get bigger, not get stronger or faster. So while I still trained heavy I understood that some of the volume of my assistance work may take a toll on my max effort and dynamic work. It did for awhile, but my body did adjust. I think the problem that many people face is that they try to do everything at one time and try to improve everything at once. That’s not reality.

How would you adjust the Westside Template for someone focusing on fat loss while retaining Lean Body Mass?

This is the age old question. The biggest thing is going to be manipulation of diet. What most people don’t account for is there is going to be an initial loss of strength when dieting. Some people can avoid this, but for the most part, it’s going to be true. If they can mentally prepare for this while maintaining an attitude that they will eventually regain their strength, they will be o.k. Unfortunately, most people have an “I want it and I want it now” mentality and as soon as something doesn’t go their way (i.e. loss of strength) they panic. Fat loss needs to be looked at as a long term goal and should be addressed as such. Take it slowly and don’t expect to look like a bodybuilder in two weeks.

A lot of message boards on the internet have been notorious for having entire threads that are powerlifters vs. bodybuilders. It seems a lot of people that are wrapped up in one just feel the need to disrespect people how have chosen a different path? What are your thoughts on that, aside from the fact that the debates get ridiculously out of hand?

This is the same kind of argument that you hear from English teachers and Math teachers. One is always trying to convince the other (without ever succeeding) that their discipline is better. Here’s a crazy way of thinking – don’t both of them have their positive aspects? From my vantage point, having competed in sports and powerlifting, there is no way that I could be a bodybuilder because I know that the diet would kill me. So I can respect that. The people that have these kinds of arguments are always the people that never did anything at a high level. Those that have understand the work, discipline, detail and strength of mind that it takes to achieve incredible results. Once you have achieved a high level (or the highest level that you can attain) you will understand the sacrifice to become great and really appreciate what it takes to get there. This applies to anyone in any line of work: a chef, a surgeon, a lawyer, etc.

I remember reading in some of your previous work that you think that things like O-Lifts and Leg Presses have their place in training, even for powerlifters. This goes against what a lot of people in your camp think. What’s up with that?

I should point out that I’m not entirely convinced that the Olympic lifts are for powerlifters, but I did write an article that really shook people up titled, “Why you should Olympic Lift”. In that article, I attacked some of the criticism that Olympic lifting has gotten as of late. I’m not saying that they are the be-all-end-all of training, but they do have their place. The problem with people in this industry is that you are either on one side of the fence or the other; you can’t sit be on both sides. Alwyn Cosgrove has written some articles on EliteFTS titled, “Bringing the Pendulum Back to Center” about the over and under reaction to training and diet principles that have graced our industry. The Olympic lifts have certainly fallen into this category. I think a lot of people, and I include myself in this category, simply rely on others to make our decisions, and don’t really think for themselves. Just because someone says something is bad, doesn’t mean you have to take that stance. Think for yourself! As for leg presses, a lot of very strong lifters have used this movement to build overall leg strength. You can pile some serious weight on the sled, work in a full range of motion, not have to worry about technique and just lift the damn thing. I know Steve Goggins uses or previously used leg presses in his squatting arsenal, so they are at least something to look at.

I’m probably in for it on this one, but I wanted to get your thoughts on nutrition, from a powerlifter’s standpoint, and what you think most people should be doing.

I’m still up in the air on this one; on one hand, everyone that I know that competes at a high level in powerlifting does not follow any kind of strict diet. They don’t eat crap all the time, but it’s not like they are losing sleep over it. When I was competitive I ate pretty much whatever I wanted and just tried to get enough protein. I called it the “’Nuff Protein Diet.” Just try to get 200g of protein from shakes a day and then eat whatever. Some days I would eat a ton, other days I would eat like an Olson twin.

But now, as I’ve lost weight and feel about 100% better, I feel somewhat differently but don’t know if I could compete at a high level eating like this. So I really don’t know the answer to this question. People have to understand that there is the real world and the world of the internet nerd. While it may look good on your computer screen and have some charts and graphs to support their theories, the real world says otherwise. There is a huge difference.

Here’s your chance to rant about all your pet peeves and go off into one of those senile type rants you spoke to me about. The topic is everything and anything that annoys you in this industry.

To be completely honest with you, I don’t really have any more pet peeves about this industry. If someone gets me started on a topic, I might rant and rave a little bit and throw in some humor. But what I’ve realized is that there are a lot of people and ideas that I don’t agree with but the bottom line is that I am very comfortable in my learning process and try to take something from everyone. It would be easy to say that I think most personal trainers suck or that being A.C.E certified doesn’t mean anything, these are stock answers that we can all laugh at and agree with. But at least these people are trying to help a very sedentary public to at least do something. What have we done today? Have we helped anyone out? Or are we too busy criticizing others to look at ourselves? That was my nice answer and how I feel most of the time. But to answer your question directly: my biggest pet peeve is people who have never been a strength coach at a university, high school or professional institution criticize strength coaches. Walk a mile in their shoes before you start telling them how they should train their athletes. Stuff like this is retarded. I talk to coaches everyday and they deal with things that most can never imagine. It’s like me telling the president how to run the country. There are changes I’d like to make, but I have no idea how the system really works.

Some people take the GFH mentality to far to the point where they are so out of shape they can barely drag a sled. Where do most people get off track with this in your opinion?

I think both Dave (Tate) and I have fallen into this category. This is very extreme and don’t know how many readers will ever reach this stage. I remember reading the following excerpt from the article, SWIS: The Best for Last, An Overview of the 2005 Symposium by Bryan Krahn in regards to John Berardi’s presentation. According to Berardi, the first step is to look at optimal nutrition as an outcome-based endeavor. The outcomes are the results of the nutrition plan, and the following three outcomes are what the trainers need to stay focused on: 1. Health outcomes: Things like blood pressure, LDL/HDL levels, etc. 2. Body composition outcomes: Body fat percentage, lean mass gained, skin fold measurements 3. Performance Outcomes: V02 Max, strength, power For many powerlifters, the third outcome (performance) becomes the most important and the only one that is desired. With this in mind, all things besides the number lifted become irrelevant and thrown to the wayside. This is when people get off track. But remember that most people don’t have the mentality of, “By any means necessary.” This is often the attitude one must take if they want to compete at a high level, especially those that don’t have a lot of natural talent. Understand that these people are applauded for their achievements and are given great status in the strength world. So it’s hard to not get caught up in it. A good example is those that compete in the Olympics. Americans want gold medals from the athletes and nothing else. Then when the athletes are caught using drugs, they are looked down upon. But isn’t that what the people want? Bigger, faster and stronger athletes that win gold medals? I’m not advocating drug use in the Olympics but people have to understand that this is part of the mentality. People want home runs but are they willing to accept that many people take steroids in baseball? What do you want from sport?

Aside from training at Westside Barbell, what type of people do you deal with for clients that want you services as a trainer/consultant?

As of now, I don’t work with anyone except those that I lift with and one high school football player. I have worked with high school athletes, college athletes (from all different sports) as well as the middle age professional and some senior citizens. I don’t really work as a consultant but a lot of coaches do call and ask questions. Nothing to brag about.

In your opinion, what are the most common mistakes beginners make in their training?

I think most beginners focus on one thing rather than looking at the big picture. If you break it down, every program should have the following things addressed:

  1. Weight Training
  2. Conditioning
  3. Flexibility/Mobility
  4. Diet

There are some others but these four things should be the cornerstones of your training. Most people, not just beginners, really focus on one or two things while neglecting the other things. Now everything doesn’t have to be given the same priority but should be addressed. Since most people want to know what beginners do wrong in regards to weight training, here is my answer:

  1. Poor Form
  2. Don’t use compound exercises

This is nothing groundbreaking but always needs to be said.

 What are your best lifts, both in competition and in the gym?

I actually suck in the gym so it wouldn’t make me look very good if I listed my gym lifts. For example, my best squat in the gym is 825. My best in competition is 1000lbs. I have also bench pressed 675 and deadlifted 700. All of my best lifts were done at the same meet (which is rare) in which I totaled 2375. I did this all in the 275lbs class. Compared to the WPO guys, these numbers suck.

Who influenced you in lifting?

The two people that have influenced me the most were my father and my track coach in high school, Darren Llewellyn. My dad is not a lifter, but he gave me all the support in the world and I would not be anywhere without him, both personally and professionally. He is the single greatest person (along with my mother, who may read this and want to kick my ass if I don’t mention her) in my life and have nothing but admiration, respect and love for both of them. They have always been there for me. When my dad allowed me to lift weights for this first time, he looked at me and said, “Once you start, you will not quit.” And I heeded his words. Darren Llewellyn was my track coach and my strength mentor in high school. The lessons he taught me in the weight room (and in life) are unparalleled. He not only taught me how to lift but taught me how to train. There is a difference.

What are thoughts on steroid use vs. steroid abuse for those involved in any aspect of the iron game?

Obviously there are a lot of people that are vehemently against steroid use and make sure that you know exactly where they stand and try their hardest to make you feel like a child molester if you have even know someone that has taken them. When people start on this topic, I look at them the same way that I look at someone that is a religious fanatic. If someone is at peace with their beliefs and their God, they don’t care what you believe because they don’t need you to support their beliefs. They are comfortable in what they believe in. Now I know a lot of people that don’t take steroids and have no problems competing against or being friends with those that take Beefwater. If someone starts ranting and raving about drug use, the first thing I think is that they are so unsure about their position that they want you to justify their thoughts to them. It’s actually very childish and exhausting. Now what about use vs. abuse; this is hard to answer because there is no absolute on what constitutes abuse. The iron game, whether it be powerlifting, bodybuilding or strongman training is such a small sport that we cannot afford to be at odds on this issue. If you take them, fine. Don’t compete in drug tested/drug free competitions. If you don’t take them, don’t complain if you compete in non drug tested events and get your ass handed to you. And then blame steroids. The best thing about lifting is that you are trying to beat your own numbers, not someone else. When you start competing against someone else, you are losing the main reason why you are lifting to begin with; to make yourself better than you were before. The best thing about the steroid issue is when people see someone bench pressing 700lbs and they remark, “I could do that if I took a ton of drugs.” Then shut the hell up and take a poke.

Although similar to a previous question, where do most competitive powerlifters go wrong in terms of training?

This is kind of an off-shoot to this question, but the hardest thing that powerlifters have to deal with is learning their equipment and taking training time to do so. You have a skill aspect of powerlifting now; the strongest guy doesn’t always win. It’s the strongest guy that has knows how to maximize their equipment. But understand that when you are learning how to use your equipment you are now handling weights that are so heavy and so stressful to your CNS that it’s difficult to train with your equipment all the time. So there is a fine line that one has to walk.

How important is overall health to the average guy or gal in the Powerlifting community?

For the average powerlifter, I think it’s very important. Most have families and lift as more of a hobby, not a profession. I really don’t think this is too much of a factor.

Any final thoughts you’d like to interject?

I remember something that Dan John once said or made reference to, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Life is simple, but not easy.” So here are some simple things in life that I believe in;

  1. Get sleep
  2. Don’t eat like crap all the time.
  3. Laugh a lot
  4. Help people and give back, i.e. don’t be a jerk
  5. Only music that is a derivative of Black Sabbath is worth listening to

Stick with those 5 things and your life will be golden.

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