Now is the time for First Pull’s second interview with Stephen Powell. Stephen has been involved in coaching many high level weightlifters as well as other athletes (MMA fighters, Boxers, etc.). He has studied under many renowned coaches, such as Coach Shin-Ho Kang (former head coach of South Korea). He is a very opinionated man and was kind enough to answer my many questions. The following is the result of a 2+ hours interview over Skype. It was a very interesting talk. I hope you will enjoy it too and feel free to ask your own questions in the comment section (or share the interview).
Without further ado… Here is the interview.
How did you discover weightlifting? You have been coaching for more than 12 years so I am guessing that you trained in weightlifting before becoming a coach?
I have been coaching now for about 14 years. I have been involved in weightlifting in some shape or form since the age of 11 when I heard Paul Anderson speak at a camp.
Was Paul Anderson a role model for you?
Profoundly! My parents were good role models and I was blessed with very good parents, but Paul Anderson has such a presence to him. Even when he was ill and sitting in a golf cart, his upper body was still massive. He could still walk around a little, but he preferred to get around in a golf cart. A couple of years later, when I was entering the sixth grade, I was actually invited to visit him at his youth home. We stayed in touch through letters and one day his wife Glenda invited me to visit. By that time his health had gotten worse. He was bed ridden by then and seldom left his room.
I spent the whole day at the youth home and saw how well the kids were treated and how disciplined they were. These were troubled kids who could ether go to prison or go to the youth home. I got to meet Paul in his room. Even when he was in pain, I saw 50, 70, 90 and 110lbs dumbbells by an incline bench about 10 feet from his bed and he would still do curls, shoulder presses and things like that with all of his dumbbells. He was still incredibly strong even when he was very ill.
Wow. With him being so big, did that play a role in you getting into weightlifting? Did you want to be big like him?
Oh yeah! When I met him and saw him speak at the summer camp I went to – which I believe was the summer of ’86 (may be ‘85) – I was 9 or 10 years old and I bought the very first biography written about him. I read the book may be 30 times. I didn’t really care about school work or math or geography. My mind focused on weightlifting and physical strength. I began to seek out every muscle magazine, power lifting books, and books on strong men or weightlifters or power lifters and not such much on body building. I just started reading anything I could about people like Louis Cyr and Doug Hepburn who were two very strong men from Canada.
As I started to read more about people, I started to read more about training and training philosophies. I began lifting in my room, which was above the kitchen I trained every other day after school. I shut myself off and trained. I didn’t have any idea about what I was doing, but every now and then I would snatch and clean and jerk. The barbell would crash through the floor or I would break my wrist or some other bones. All kind of accidents… but when the iron bug bites you, it doesn’t let go or leave you. I was bitten by the iron bug at a very young age.
You know, we have an 11 years old kid that trains with us, who is a very big kid himself. If I’m not mistaken, I think his bodyweight is 79-80kg. He is born to be big. Many people have said that training bigger athletes – or 75+/105+ athletes- is different in that they tend to be in their prime later on. What are your thoughts about that?
That is absolutely correct. It takes men, who are eventually going to be super heavy weight, longer to develop and continue to grow. In their mid-20’s to early 30’s they continue to fill out. There are exceptions in men like Aleksandr Kurlovich and Andrei Chemerkin. Kurlovich started around the age of 14 or 15. Kurlovich was lifting enormous poundage when he was 22. He outlifted Pisarkenko in ’83, at the age of 22, to win the Spartakade. But he did is life time best lifting in his late 20’s. Vasily Alexeev’s most memorable victory in Montreal he was 34. Andrei Chermerkin started when he was 15 and was doing 200 and 252.5 when he was 22, at the 1994 Worlds. You do see some weightlifters that are naturally very big. When I was 12, I was 5ft10 and 95kg. I was half a foot taller than everybody else.
I find that it’s very different in the way we have to train these kids. We tend to forget that they are 10-11 years old because they are as big as us.
Despite what size, you always have to remember their age, maturity levels, and things like that. It’s always a work in progress.
So what led you into coaching?
Ultimately, what led me to it was when I realized that my goals in weightlifting were not going to happen (in my mid 20’s). I eventually had to accept the truth that I was not built for weightlifting. I was exceptionally strong in certain ways when growing up. I could knock off a monstrous bench press in high school. I benched pressed over 230kg by very seldom training on it. I have deadlifted over 320 kg. I was always better at pulling and pressing movements, but I could never squat. I had structural imbalances that I did not know about at the time. It kept me from squatting well and it caused a lot of back pain and nerve damage. When I realized that I was not going to be as successful as I wanted to be, my first coach Richard Sorin, kind of pushed me into coaching.
One day, he said: ‘’Hey, there is a girl, a 14 years old girl that plays Football and they kicked her out of the team because she was hurting all of the guys. She squats over 300lbs’’. I was like: ‘’really?’’. He goes: ‘’my business is taking off, I don’t have much time to coach people anymore’’. He always worked with a few football players or lifters, here and there but his business really started taking off in 2000. So, I started coaching Jenna Bussard. Within a year she became state, national, and world champion in Powerlifting. I thought she had a lot of potential for weightlifting. Within 5 months, she won the junior schoolage nationals, Louis cyr tournament and junior Olympics
So you went to Quebec for the Louis Cyr tournament? That’s cool.
Yes, she won the 2002 Louis Cyr as a super heavy weight.
So is it fair to say that you have had success in coaching right from the beginning?
I think it’s fair to say that but I think it’s equally fair to say that I was just fortunate to be given such a gifted athlete that was as strong as Jenna was. The first day that she came in the gym, I did a few things to test her mobility and flexibility. To get any idea of what she could lift, I had her do some squats first. I saw her squat 315lbs for 3 reps like it was absolutely nothing. She had good flexibility, went all the way down, and exploded out of the bottom. We moved on to the deadlift where she preceded to deadlift 350lbs like it was nothing on the bar. She did some bench pressing with 185lbs for 3 reps. I had her try some dumbbell exercises. She walked over to the dumbbell rack and grabbed a pair of 75lbs dumbbells, shouldered them and started to press them. Richard and I just looked at each other and our jaw dropped. We had just never seen such raw strength like that and from such a young age.
As time went on, were your views on training challenged a bit by different athlete builds or preferences?
At the beginning, I was just really going by what I knew but didn’t really have experience in coaching. I didn’t really have experience in motivating athletes or digging in their psyche to be encouraging. I just knew how to take the knowledge I had and apply it to specific programs. When I first started teaching weightlifting, I had already read the USAW‘s manuals. I just didn’t really have any experience in teaching it. As soon as I was done coaching powerlifting, I became a strength and conditioning coach in a local High School. I knew enough about strength and conditioning in general to individualize programs based on the individual strength and weaknesses.
When I transitioned to coaching weightlifting full time, I really didn’t know enough about technique or how to really develop lifters of any levels. I started to go to Georgia and started seeking the mentorship of Don McCauley and coach Shin-Ho Kang, the former head coach of South Korea. I began taking Jenna down there almost every week end. Only then did I realize that’s how the rest of the world lifts. Before that, I taught what the typical USAW’s manual taught, which just was not effective.
I began learning from Don and coach Kang and slowly my mind could conceptualize what they were showing and demonstrating. The wheels of my mind started turning and I had an opportunity to move to Savannah and learn from these two men in the spring of 2004. When that opportunity presented itself, I jumped at it.
You used to bring Jenna to these men to improve her learning as well as yours. This is something I would like to bring up. Discussions with others led me to believe that in most training centers from abroad (Europe and Asia), you can see 4-5 coaches and some kind of cooperation which is something that is often neglected in North America. How important is it for the development of the athlete to seek the eye of different coaches and get different opinions?
When you are beginning a career in coaching, I would suggest being multi-faceted. I primarily prefer to coach weightlifters and develop weightlifters, but that’s not what’s making the most money. I am involved in training other athletes such as MMA fighters, athletes in football, baseball, etc. If you are going to become the coach that you want to be then you owe it to yourself to learn and gain as much experience as possible. You are going to make mistake, so learn from as many people as you can. Trash what does not make sense and retain what does. Keep moving on.
I had the fortunate opportunity to learn from coach Kang who produced several Olympic and World Champions. Before he built the program in South Korea, he studied in the Soviet Union. Koreans paid a lot of money for him to go there and learn that. He is fluent in Korean, Japanese and Russian. He is now training golfers in Atlanta. He has received awards from 5 different President of South Korea, for the development of such a successful weightlifting program and other sports programs as well.
You have been involved in coaching two Olympians and many national level lifters. How different is it to coach an Olympian in comparison to a regular recreational lifter? Any special considerations?
Let’s focus on Cheryl Haworth. By the time I got involved in coaching Cheryl Haworth, I primarily was a competition coach for her. Her primary coach, Don McCauley, laid the training programs and so forth. We would work out the strategies of warm ups. She had started battling injuries so her goal attempts for the competition were always in my head. If we could make the team with first or second attempts, we would skip on the next attempt(s) to not risk injuries.
With Cheryl, you don’t really have to coach her. She was born to do it. She had such an incredible ability to focus and put her energy into weightlifting. She just more or less figured it out herself. When she was just starting, I was actually training in Savannah myself to try and make it as lifter. When she began training, she was pulling the bar into her hip and she was really, really fast. It was shocking.
With her, it was very easy to coach because she is a fierce competitor when it comes to weightlifting or playing cards. If she snatched 120kg in training, she was going to do 125 or more in competition. Cheryl has two distinctions in her career. She has never bombed out and she has only missed one jerk in her entire career. She could definitely flip that switch.
I currently have a 94 kilos lifter named Kyle Ernst at the Olympic Training Center. He is a cancer survivor who beat cancer twice. He also has a law degree from U.N.C but is putting his career as a lawyer on hold to pursue lifting in Rio. He has hit some very good numbers in training recently.
I have another lifter named Nathan Mitchell whom I coached online and Jianping Ma, former lifter and coach for China, saw some videos of him training. He loved his technique and gave him a scholarship at Lindenwood University, where coach Ma runs the weightlifting program.
I recently wrote an article about women and weightlifting. It turns out that most of the lifters that I coach are women. Some men stick, but most women seem to stick. I was wondering why that seems to be the case and I made the reflection to myself: They might be attracted to the fact that I have a plan and a program whereas my males clients seem to want to argue and prove something. Did you feel that in your practice?
Absolutely. Men, especially young men, are full of testosterone. Young bucks who ‘’know’’ everything. They always want to go above and beyond their skill level. They always want to max out and test themselves. Women don’t have as much testosterone as men; it seems like they can focus their energy a lot easier. Not to say that coaching women does not have any cons, but in some cases I found that it’s far easier to coach them. They will be quiet and listen. Not that they won’t be upset or ever had a bad day or show emotion, but for the most part, they will listen and focus. I don’t have to repeat myself as much.
It’s hard because in the USA, a lot of athletes come into weightlifting from Football which is a contact sport. You can’t come into the gym and be a weightlifter with that mentality. You have to be focused and be patient. As a coach you have to draw the line in the concrete with every one that walks through the door. You have to ask them what are their goals and if they say that they really want to pursue weightlifting seriously, you have to be very clear: ‘’ Listen, this takes a lot of discipline, you have to make the right choices and you are either going to do it or not. You can either listen to me or there’s the door’’.
You told me that have studied under various coaches, like McCauley and Kang. Recently you have been interested in the Chinese methodology, through Coach Ma, Coach Wu and Kirksman. How did these coaches influence the way you view weightlifting and coach?
It was huge. The coaching of the Soviet Union/Russian style of technique has changed since the 80’s and 90’s and now you see the new crop of Russian junior lifters pulling a bit more like the Chinese lifters. You see a straighter pull and a more conscious effort to use the lats to bring the bar into the hips, once it passes the knees.
Coach Kang and Robert Roman taught the “S” pull when the rules changed to allow contact with the body (tights and hip). The bar was set up over the base of the toes, there is a very conscious effort to pull through the heels and to push the knees back right when you initiate the pull from the floor, to try and bring the bar back into the body so that a very quick and violent double knee bend occurs. You can see this in lifters like Alexeev or Rigert. You see that the hip, knees and ankles would extend in that respective order.
When I first started to pay attention to how Chinese lifters executed their technique (around the 2008 Beijing Olympics), it was clear that the bar was against their shins. Even though there were small differences in foot spacing and hip height, the shoulders were slightly above the bar and they all pulled slower from the floor than any other nations. It was much more controlled. I could see that the only emphasis they had was to get as low as possible, as fast as possible. They were pulling in such a way that allowed them to really get down as quickly as possible.
I started studying many videos using coach eyes and Kinovea. I found out that they pulled more through the mid foot. The bar was pulled straight to the knees; there would be a quick use of the lats to bring the bar in pass the knees and they would drive through the balls of the feet as they were bringing the hips forward to slice the bar up. When you pull like that, the knees extend last which makes them bend first in the descending phase of the lift. This literally propels you into the receiving position. Other non Chinese lifters, like Suleymanglu or Mutlu, pulled that way, too.
It was really hard to wrap my mind around the idea to pull as straight as possible from the floor to the knees because Coach Kang, McCauley and I taught for years to sweep the bar in off the floor and to keep the bar over the base of the toes, not up against the shins when starting to pull. That was very effective as it worked for the Russians/Soviets for over 3 decades. But the sport has changed, technique has changed and Russia no longer dominates like they used to.
However, the Chinese methodology can be broke down to three words: Close, Fast and Low. How they pull and how they teach technique is based on their ancient understanding of balance (Chi) and how you interact with the Earth’s energy.
We talked about technique and how different countries pull. What about strength? How important is it to pursue big strength (squats and pulls) numbers? Many people say that you only have to get stronger if you want to snatch or CJ more… They say a 150kg back squat should make a 120kg clean easy, for instance.
Let me quote Robert Roman: ‘’Technique is the ultimate expression of strength in weightlifting.’’
It does not matter how strong you are. If you don’t have precise, efficient and good technique, you are not going to lift what you are capable of. So when people do deadlifts, pulls and squats, every single kilos done on those exercises must be lifted with the aim to improve results in the snatch or clean and jerk.
There are many examples of this. Alexeev was not known for having the strongest legs. He was not considered the strongest super heavy weight but he was the better technician. He chose to stay with lighter weights but he would squat differently. He would pause at the bottom or at parallel, sometimes. He performed his squats to be explosive. Simon Kolecki could clean more than he could front squat. He was not built for the front squat as he could ‘’only’’ front squat 230kg but he clean and jerked 232.5kg.
It’s not about how much absolute strength you have but about how much of that strength transfers dynamically to the lifts and help you explode out of the bottom. Don’t get me wrong, there are many examples of very strong Chinese lifters but they don’t expect you to lift as high a number for your weight category, as the Bulgarians did. They just expect you to explosively front squat 105-110% of your clean, for up to 10 sets of 2.
Generally speaking, China is not going to win the strength game when it comes to absolute strength. They don’t solely focus on squats. They deadlift and pull everyday because having lower back strength is as important to their technique as leg strength. Leg strength is very important but they generally squat after they pull.
When it comes to the full lifts, how important is it to actually do them in comparison to variations of the lifts? Should you only stick to the full lifts?
It depends on the individual and how they react to training, especially if they are a beginner. If I want someone to learn how to use the hips effectively, I will try from the floor. I will teach them to how to pull to the knee, how to pull from the knees to the hips, then lifts from the hang, blocks etc. Whatever starts clicking, that’s what I start integrating in their training.
Even for more advanced lifters, there are always things that you can work on. For example, if a lifter is weak off the floor, than you can go through a pulling phase to work on their technique and timing. Everyone, no matter how good they are, is going to miss a lift because they don’t rapidly descend under the barbell fast enough. For this reason, you always have to have exercises in your bag to work on every aspect of the lift (to pull from the floor, to accelerate the bar and to descend under the bar)
About the state of weightlifting in the USA… It has been declining for years. Why do you think it’s the case?
If I had to answer that in one way, it would be that there is not an effective unified system of training in the USA that is implemented in every clubs and training center that we have. The soviets had a unified system of training. They had technique and a system that came from research and data. The USA became to decline when the press was abolished and the sport moved from a strength emphasis to a dynamic –explosive sport.
When the press was abolished, the numerous work of numerous of Soviet/east European researchers became to look into the nervous system and how to improve the rate at which muscles fire. They looked at how to become more explosive and more powerful.
Even Bulgaria has a very specific plan for 4 or 5 years on how to develop kids or very young adolescents. Kids they train for 4-5 years on squat, gymnastic exercises, etc. You can see it in the DVD by Abajiev that was issued by the Bulgarian federation. Some guy who has potential isn’t just thrown into twice daily max out training. There is a unified system of training. The USA lacks such a system that includes a comprehensive analysis of where the beginner his (assess his mobility and continue to improve his flexibility), continuing to work on strength and technique as the lifter develops and matures physically.
By a large, what the USA teaches in most clubs around the country is just archaic technique. They continue to teach to literally jump up off the floor and shrug up to continue to accelerate the bar when the works by Soviet scientist and coach Robert Roman, published in the late 70’s, said this was a waste of time and no longer necessary. Lack of knowledge in overall biomechanics and a unified system of how to develop lifters is what the USA has been lacking.
You said that you coach a lot of ex-crossfitters in weightlifting. How different is it to coach people that have/had a crossfit background?
In crossfit, they are basically told to just lift the barbell from the floor. I can’t tell you how many injuries I have seen from this. When they learn improper technique, they realize that they can lift well. When they realize how these lifts work and what technique really is, most of them don’t really care about crossfit anymore. They become addicted to weightlifting because of how much progress they make and how structurally sound they become.
What I was going to say is that when you have an athlete doing 30 snatches for time, at some point the athlete is mainly practicing mistakes. It is my opinion that it is harder to get rid of a bad habit/mistake than it is to create a good habit. Do you find that it’s hard at the beginning to get rid of the mistakes these athletes might have practiced from such workouts?
No, because when they seek me out, I am very clear about what I will teach them, what I think of crossfit and how they implement the lifts in their routine, and about the style of technique I teach. I ask that they have an open mind and that they are coachable. I say forget what you learned and act as if it’s the first day you learned about Olympic weightlifting and they improve. I immediately make them learn new habits, right from the start.
Any final words?
Yes, thank you Jean-Patrick for the interview. It’s always a privilege to talk about weightlifting and share my experiences. It has been an honor.
Thanks for your time Stephen and for sharing your knowledge with us,