Breaking Training Plateaus
Everyone has experienced a training plateau in one lift or another. Some can find a way to overcome a training plateau, while others cannot and stop training forever. There are many examples of Westside lifters having a difficult cycle, but then find a way to overcome it and continue to break gym and meet records. The training methods below that have helped our lifters break plateaus may or may not help you go on to break new records, but it should open your mind about training.
After accumulating 40 years of training knowledge, Westside has found most of the answers inside our walls, but many lifters and scientists have helped to solve our problems. Here are some of our success stories:
Mastering the Bench Shirt
Jay Fry came to Westside to train under George Halbert, a multi-class world record holder. At a meet in Dayton, Ohio, Jay benched 525 pounds at 181 body weight. He showed promise and started to train at Westside. With a 450-pound raw bench, George knew Jay had to learn to use a bench shirt more efficiently, so he trained in a shirt 23 weeks in a row on M-E day. The result was a 700-pound meet bench. Jay went on to break two world records ending with 750 pounds at 181 body weight, which still stands on our record board. After mastering the shirt, he would wear a shirt every three weeks and concentrate on his raw strength.
The author was going to sumo deadlift at a meet in West Virginia where he was looking for a 700-pound pull. But, hurting his back walking out a squat, he only made his opener at 650 pounds.
This put him in a bad mood and after arriving home at 1:30 am, he went out to the gym and loaded 315 pounds on the bar and pulled it for 15 reps. In an effort to punish himself, he pulled 315 for all the reps he could all week long. On Friday he set a new box squat record on a 13-inch box. The box felt high, but it was the same 13-inch box he always used. He measured his upper thigh and it was ¾ of an inch bigger. How? It had to be the high reps in the deadlift.
He called Matt Dimel, who had been stuck at 820 pounds for a year, and told him to give it a try. Steve Wilson, who was training with Matt and had an 815-pound deadlift, agreed that they both would give it a try using 225 to 275 pounds for two or three sets of deadlifts of 20 reps four times a week. In nine months Matt made 700 pounds easy. And in 13 months total time, Matt broke the all-time world record with a 1010-pound squat. He could squat the same in sweatpants and the power suit available at the time.
At the same time, Steve made an 865 pull at 265-pound body weight. The same deadlifts that put Matt’s name on the world record list gave Steve a 50-pound increase for a meet personal record.
The author has named the deadlifts Dimel Deads in honor of him becoming Westside’s first of seven world record holders in the squat. The deadlifts are done on all four major workout days and done as fast as possible in touch-and-go style.
An Alternative to Flat Bench
Doug Heath, a long-time Westsider, had shoulder pain starting in 1975 while benching on a flat bench. It persisted continuously, so Doug would only do mild incline and decline presses. Gary Drago, a power-house 220-pounder, would do the same and had a 550 raw bench. After Doug became accustomed to the mild angles, his flat bench began to soar to the point that Doug broke the 132-pound class world record at 405 pounds. This shows that there are many ways to overcome a plateau. I recall two powerlifters from Pittsburgh using the same system and both could bench 500 pounds in the late 1960s.
Greg Panora came to Westside with a 2250 total. I saw the unlimited potential he had, and in one year he broke his first world record total doing 2565 at 242 body weight. The key to Greg’s progress was to raise his bench volume. As you know, speed strength day calls for 9x3 reps between contests. Greg would do 9x6 reps—double the volume. Plus, Greg would wear 10-pound ankle weights on his waist to make benching more difficult. Today, you see Greg benching 570 raw without a handout.
A secret weapon was his training partners such as Luke Edwards who would battle it out every day, never giving an inch. Two things made Greg a multi-world-record holder—physical work and a strong mental attitude.
Building the Bench Lockout
George Halpert waited two years to show up at Westside. I asked him why it took so long. His reply? He thought we were dangerous and crazy. He came with a two-year-old 475-pound bench press, but after walking in the door at Westside, he made 628 in less than a year.
George was very explosive; always doing ballistic benching—dropping the bench as fast as possible then stopping it one- to one-and-a-half inches off his chest and blasting it to lockout. But now, he was having lockout trouble. His training partner Kenny Patterson had built 23 ½-inch arms on a 5’6” frame and could lockout anything that was on the bar. George knew he had to build a lockout like Kenny’s.
What was the plan? First, he did dumbbell extensions as heavy as possible, roll back with 110-pound dumbbells off the floor, incline, decline, and also seated French-press style. George pushed up the JM presses and included a lot of close-grip step-incline presses. There were also lots of pin presses with heavy band tension—up to 350 pounds of band tension—plus weight; and lots of elbow out to the side extensions. It started to happen. George had a strong lockout to go with the speed. He began to break all-time world records—not in just one weight class, but in three.
I recall a money bench meet in Daytona and The Great Dave Waterman, the current world record holder at 198 body weight with 632, was there. As George opened up with 633 and went on to bench 678 to cap off a three world-record rampage, Dave said to the author, “I got some competition now.” Yes, Dave, you certainly do.
Breaking World Record Squats
Phil Harrington first called Westside for help on his deadlift. It was low at 560 pounds for a 181-pounder. The solution was Goodmornings. Never having done a single Goodmorning, Phil’s deadlift shot up to 620 pounds very fast once he started this work. Phil was convinced of the Westside Methods and moved to Columbus, Ohio, to train with the gang.
We noticed Phil squatted fairly close when he broke his teammate Arnold Coleman’s 181 record of 854 with a half kilo 856 pounds. First Phil was taught how to box squat correctly and move out his stance. By doing wide box squats, he went on a record-breaking spree that ended up at 903 with a 680 deadlift, a 120-pound improvement in the deadlift.
Phil had reached a double plateau in the squat and deadlift, but Goodmornings for a stronger back and wide box squats to build his hip strength, left Phil a lifting legacy at Westside he can be proud of forever.
Vlad came to Westside wanting to squat 1100 pounds and deadlift 800 pounds. He had position problems in the squat and deadlift. Like Phil Harrington, the Goodmorning would be the special barbell exercise that would make the difference for Vlad.
Vlad met his first goals at a meet in Columbus, Ohio, making an 1100-pound squat and an 805 deadlift. Vlad pushed the Goodmornings working up to 865x3 reps, then, his new ultimate goals were a 1200-pound squat and a 900-pound deadlift. The Goodmornings along with lots of Reverse Hypers and extensive hamstring work made it possible to squat a world record 1250 pounds along with a 925-pound deadlift to total 2805 pounds.
Nowadays Vlad concentrates on his raw squat making a mind-blowing 1113-pound squat for the raw world record. His back strength is unbelievable due to the Goodmornings—almost a forgotten exercise, but take Phil’s and Vlad’s word on it, they work.
Accommodating Resistance (AC)
Chuck Vogelpohl, a long-time Westside lifter who won his first National in 1987, was strong from the start, especially in the back and hips, but he had to overcome two plateaus.
One of his plateaus was a sticking point near to the top of the squat. One reason he was having a problem was that he needed to gain more size on his legs. Westside had begun an 18-month experiment with using chains for AC. After three meets, the conclusion was that the chains had a very positive effect on the concentric phase of the lift. About 25 percent of the load was made up of chain weight and 50 percent to 60 percent was with the barbell. The result was a large number of new records being set at Westside. Because the chain would unload on the eccentric phase, no gain in muscle mass was noted nor was there a faster reversible phase.
Dave Williams of Liberty University asked Westside to do an experiment with strong rubber bands by a company called Jump Stretch, owned by Dick Hartzel. The bands were mostly used for stretching and conditioning. By placing the bands on the barbell, they gave a more even displacement over the entire range of motion. Two things became apparent: first, there was an overspeed eccentric phase due to the bands pulling you downward due to the elastic properties of the rubber itself and second, it caused an increase in muscle mass. Eccentric muscle action involves high force development. Most injuries happen on the eccentric phase, but highly trained athletes can sustain these forces.
These two factors build tremendous reversible muscular action. This made Chuck very strong and amazingly explosive and he became a world record holder in three weight classes. Using heavy bands on his squats and deadlifts helped Chuck break through his training plateaus.
Speed Strength Training
Wes McCormack came to Westside with an 800-pound squat, a 515-pound bench, and a 560-pound deadlift to total 1880 at 165 body weight. One type of special strength changed Wes forever. It was adding speed strength to his program. The result? In one year Wes totaled 2020 pounds with a world record 890-pound squat, a 585-pound bench, and 605 deadlift.
Nowadays, Wes has made a 900-pound squat, a 615-pound bench press, and a 620 deadlift. His total now is 2120, second only to Oleksandr Kutcher from the Ukraine. The key for Wes was to add three-week pendulum waves on Fridays at 50, 55 and 60 percent for 25 total squats and 25 total deadlifts. It was with 25 percent band tension. Eighty percent of his training is made up of small special exercises to raise his weak muscle group. Now that Wes has found his weakness, he works on his speed continuously along with his flexibility. It would be an honor to break Oleksandr’s total record and put it on the wall at Westside forever.
Special strength plays a great role in strength training, but it is important to know what you need and, more important, to train it.
Rob “Fuzz dog” Fusner came to Westside with zero experience in powerlifting. In his first meet he did not know what lift was first. I could not believe anyone could not know how a power meet was run. Well, Fusdog made an elite total at his very first meet. He caught on fast. All three lifts began going up, but his bench was really moving up fast.
The IPA National in York was Fusdog’s first big meet. Dave Barno, a power house 308-pounder was lifting. Dave is gone now, but he was a good friend. A short story about Dave: when lifting at the APE Nationals in Chicago he passed out doing a heavy deadlift. He hit his head hard on the floor. I ran over to help him up once he came to. He looks me in the eye and says, “What happened, Mom?”
It was really funny at the time … back to York. It came down to the deadlift and Dave could pull well into the eight hundreds. We called for an 820-pound deadlift on Fusdog’s third attempt to force Dave into an 865-pound deadlift, but changed the third to a makeable 770 pounds. Dave or his helpers did not realize we made the change and he was left to make a personal record. He missed. He came up to me after the meet and said, “You got me, mother f__.” We laughed, and he said, “See you at the next meet.” But, unfortunately, he passed on. Dave may be gone, but not forgotten.
This was good experience for Fusdog. The next meet was a money bench press meet in Daytona where all the great benchers would compete. A young Ryan Kennelly was at the meet to compete against Fusdog and later told me he thought he could psych out our lifters. But they could not be psyched out. Ryan bombed out and Fusdog broke the 308-pound world record for his first world record. Fusdog broke mental plateaus by lifting against the world’s best.
He had to retire early due to personal obligations and Ryan went on to become one of the greatest—if not the greatest—bench presser of all time breaking all-time world records and ending with a mind-blowing 1075.
Strength Work for the Squat and Bench
- A.J. Roberts came to Westside with a 2400-pound total and a 715-pound bench. He retired with a 2855 and best lifts of 2930 in three short years. He had to work through plateaus in the squat and bench. Here is how it was accomplished.
For the squat, the proven method of two strength cycles lasting two weeks was done and two circa max cycles were done in a yearly plan. The first strength speed cycle A. J. and Jake Anderson trained with were 700 pounds of band tension plus bar weight. Week 1 they used 430x3 sets of two reps. Jake was somewhat faster. Week 2 they maxed out with Jake making 700-pound band and 460-pound weight that equaled 1160 at top. A. J. made 700-pound band and 510-pound weight that equaled 1210 pounds at the top.
On circa max, Jake made 700-pound bar weight and 440-pound band tension that equaled 1140 pounds at the top. At the meet Jake made an 1135-pound meet personal record. A. J. made 740-pound bar weight and 440-pound band tension that equaled 1180 pounds at the top. At the meet A. J. made a 1205-pound squat.
The four workouts during the year raised A. J.‘s squat strength up to become Westside’s third 1200-pound plus squatter. The combination of bands and bar weight must be calculated correctly to produce world records.
- J.’s bench was going no where the first year at Westside. We told him he had to do triceps extensions. He said they hurt his elbows and we said it hurt because the tendons and ligaments must be conditioned to withstand the work needed to push a big bench. A. J. pushed them hard and as a result, his bench shot up almost 200 pounds to 915 pounds. The bench made it possible for him to break the world 308-pound total record three times while at Westside.
You must know what to work on to improve. Remember, it does no good to be strong in the wrong exercise.
Mental and Physical Plateaus
Most new to Westside are now accustomed to the high volume at Westside on speed strength days. Twenty-five squats and 25 deadlifts can add up to 23,000 pounds of squats and at least 15,000 pounds of deadlifts for a 1000-pound squat. Plus, 80 percent of the training is on small special exercises.
If you want to be a real champion, you must be able to handle larger and larger volumes throughout the multi-year training. But not only larger and larger volume, you also must correctly select the current special exercise. This requires many workouts a week, not just four. The GPP must closely match SPP for your sport.
And what about your mental approach? The author was instructed to read Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a spiritual self-help book about a seagull who wanted to fly as fast as possible. He was looked down upon from the elder seagulls for flying fast was not the job a seagull was intended to do. They kicked Jonathan out of the flock for good. Now, however, he could try to break his speed records whenever he wanted to. But soon he thought there must be limits to how fast a seagull could fly. One day on the beach Jonathan saw a silver seagull about 100 yards away. Then, in a flash, it was at his side. Jonathan said in amazement, “How did you do that?”
The elder seagull said, “Perfect speed.”
Jonathan asked, “What is perfect speed?”
The elder seagull named Chang answered, “Perfect speed is being there.”
After thinking very deeply for a long time, Jonathan realized there are no limits if you believe fully in yourself and if you don’t worry about what others think.
This small book did big things for the author and he still has the original copy in his cabinet today. So you see there are really no plateaus to overcome … just small delays.