West of Westside
As virtually any lifter who’s lived in the internet era knows… There’s only one side: Westside! The training split, the max effort and speed work, the bands and chains, Chucks. Louie Simmons has created an internet following of Biblical proportions. His lifters have conquered record after record in federation after federation. And via the internet, all of his teachings are readily available to be read, absorbed, implemented in your training and brought to heathens! And it doesn’t matter if you’re in gear or not, or if you’re on gear or not…Westside methods work -- Louie has said so. And with his gift to us all, we can all train to become champions.
But at the risk of blasphemy, allow me to ask: If you are a raw powerlifter and you’ve dedicated a significant amount of time to increasing your lifts by following a conjugated training program based on the tenets of Westside’s Max Effort, Dynamic Effort and Repetition Effort methods, are you content with your gains? Or are you tempted to wonder if there is something better out there? Something that, for the raw lifter, will work better than Westside? Something that will make the fruits of your labor a little sweeter?
You see, I had also trained using board presses, floor presses, box squats, heavy good mornings, speed work against bands and done so with the classic Westside split. I got better at a lot of these exercises but I was only progressing modestly in the real lifts and in meets. One side of me said I’ve got to examine the conjugate training method more closely—I must be missing something. But another side of me started to wonder if the wool wasn’t being pulled over my eyes. I was starting to see problems with the split and the exercises and the methods -- and despite the side of me that then felt like doubting Westside was like choosing to be evil, I was tempted. And so for the last three years, I’ve kept my eyes open and paid attention to what I observed in others that was good, that which was freakishly good, and also what lesser lifters consistently did poorly. The list that follows is pretty much a list of commonly preached Westside philosophy which—if removed from your training—will open up massive new potential for gaudy and continued gains.
Now this is not an attempt to bash Westside for what it is—an all encompassing training style that has reigned over the geared lifting world for decades. This is a challenge or a smack upside the head to those who unquestioningly follow and rejoice in the dogma that is Westside. And an argument against the idea that the Westside training methodology can be readily applied to the training of a raw powerlifter.
TRAIN YOUR TRICEPS FOR A BIG BENCH, NOT YOUR CHEST
When I’d followed the Westside template I used to hammer board presses and I would do all things triceps. I could rep 500 off a 3 board but only lock out 430 off of my chest. I had tons of triceps strength. When it came to pushdowns, extensions and JM presses I could smoke my training partners. But they had big pecs and I couldn’t beat their benches. I saw other lifters using wider grips and benching much more. I also wondered: were there any 600 pound raw benchers who were all triceps with a mediocre set of pecs. Pretty much no. And if Westside methods were so revolutionalry, why were there still so many bench records held by the men who’d set them back in the 70s? A lot of these men didn’t even arch or have tight setups. How did WR benchers like Mike McDonald lay absolutely flat on the bench and put up huge numbers despite not really even staying tight? Oh yeah… they used their chest to bench!
Another of the training tenets I’d followed and always believed worked was the speed work. I liked that it gave me a chance to repeatedly setting up my bench arch and getting tight, but eventually I realized that getting “tight” and arching is only going to barely affect your bench relative to the gains any reasonable lifter endeavors to make. Getting tight wasn’t going to take my 405 bench to 500. And I damn sure wasn’t going to arch my way to a 600 bench. I realized that the speed bench wasn’t doing shit for my strength and technique was pretty worthless if I didn’t get A LOT stronger.
Max Effort vs. SAID principle
I was fortunate enough to sort of piggy back on my training partners bench program, which was based on an extremely high volume of heavy benching—paused, touch and go, wide grip, close, whatever but all for rep ranges from 1-6. And it followed a linear progression—the weights increased every week and the volume was manipulated to ensure adaptation. Unlike Westside, where you are doing a different exercise every week or two and only cycling back to them once every several weeks, I was doing a few basic bench variations every week, and I was doing a lot of them. My body was adapting to the workload, and not just by gaining mass—but by becoming more and more efficient in the technique. This was a huge epiphany—Westside wants you to be just strong and by throwing different bars and loading parameters in the mix it’s said that you can power through lifts where you get out of the groove. But in my new training I wasn’t fighting to find and stay in the groove. Instead I was grooving it! Hitting the same motion so many times just made my body very efficient at executing it. This is where the SAID acronym comes in. SAID stands for Specific Adaption to Imposed Demands. So by bench pressing week in and week out with a pause on every rep, my body adapted and became very good at benching with a pause. That’s what I’d practiced every week and now I was not only stronger, but stronger in the actual lift I’d be performing in every competition I’d enter. And that’s the difference. I was stronger and better technically. My body had found and gravitated toward the groove that maximized my strength, which brings me to my next no-no.
Bench in a Straight Line / Tuck the Elbows in
This is a fun one, and I’m not the first person who’s understood this, but it’s clear that everyone doesn’t understand why the straight line isn’t the most ideal way to bench. Let’s start with Louie’s point: If the bar starts just below the chest and the lifter presses the weight directly upward, then this is the strongest technique because it minimizes ROM. Minimizing ROM is so key to powerlifting, but Louie’s thinking is based on the assumption that minimal ROM is always stronger. It seems logical enough that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line and therefore pressing the weight straight above the sternum makes you strongest.
I, however, would contend that the only distance that matters in a bench is the vertical distance you press the bar. Gravity is only acting on the weight vertically, so any motion that you generate horizontally is unaffected. And based on what I’d experienced from consistently benching every workout was that the sweet spot was not over the lower sternum but in fact over the upper chest. If the bar touched my chest at the base of the sternum and drifted back over the upper chest into this sweet spot then my chest and shoulders would gain the leverage they need to grind through heavy weights set after set. And by consciously driving the weight back over my shoulders I was utilizing that… I also noticed from all the paused work that when I let the weight settle on the chest that I could generate more speed off the chest. This goes directly against the ROM minimizing argument. The more weight that sank into my chest the more my chest could accelerate the weight and the more my legs could initiate the initial drive.
When my bench really took off was when I learned how to use my legs to drive along the bench to create a horizontal drive. Instead of popping the hips up to help move the bar upward, I was driving back and getting the weight moving back—back toward the sweet spot! This meant the bar was moving back toward the rack as I pressed it up. I could flare my elbows earlier to engage the delts and pecs because my leg drive was kicking in. Before I tried to barely touch my chest, and driving the weight up in a straight line meant using all triceps. Not exactly the bodies biggest muscle group. And if the weight drifted away from you then you’d really need to grind to keep it moving.
So with Westside the elbows stay tucked, the weight moves vertically in the minimal ROM and the triceps dominate the bench. But what I’d say the raw lifter can really benefit from is a slightly longer bar path that involves flaring the elbows to use the bigger chest and delts and forcing the bar back over the shoulders.
Moving along, I’ll readily admit that I spent the better part of 2 years focused on squatting off a box. Both for maximal lifting and for speed days. But what began to become quite painful was the fact that despite watching my box squat go up, my real squat seldom benefitted. Before my first ever meet I could squat 500. I trained the box squat for 6 months and could squat 565 off a low box with a wide stance. At my first meet I grinded out an ugly, ugly 500 and that was it. Of course that was just the first point in time where it became evident that although a box teaches you to drive with the hips to accelerate upward, in the real world there is no box, only your own ass and thighs to stop a weight in the hole! When I realized that I needed to squat without the box my squat steadily rose to 600 but then again was plateaued.
The reason my squats would always top out around 600--for no less than 18 months—was that every time the weight got heavy enough, my butt would shoot up and I’d find myself doing good mornings! There was a simple fix: do more good mornings. I’d read Louie’s articles. In several instances he says that as many as 7 out of 10 Max Effort workouts would be good morning variations. All I had to do was start doing more good mornings! Where I’d gone wrong was identifying my back as the weak link. I’d assumed that my back wasn’t strong enough to squat heavier. I pretty much kept thinking that was the problem for the next 18 months!
Squatting is based on Posterior Chain Strength…Quads are just Ornaments!
I kept on training good mornings and I kept doing all the glute ham raises and posterior chain work that I could. But then something happened: I was fortunate enough in December 2010 to be invited to compete in Moscow. I squatted a respectable 617 in knee wraps, but then watched as Konstantin Pozdeev squatted 815…easily. I asked myself what it was that he had that I didn’t. He was a lighter 220 than me and outsquatted me by 200 pounds! But the difference was pretty obvious. He had nothing short of the most freakish quad development I’d ever seen!
Knees out and back while squatting
Where I’d always squatted with a wide stance with my butt back, he stood more upright with a close stance and allowed his knees to travel way out in front of his feet. His knees would press inward as he reversed out of the hole—a major red flag for anybody who’d modeled their technique around the Westside technique. But again I was tempted. His quads draped themselves generously down over his kneecaps. Mine tapered off embarrassingly into the knee even though the upper portion was well developed. He had huge tear drop quads and I just had tears of sadness! His technique and quad development may have been freakish, but his astronomical squat world record spoke for itself! I had to make a change. If I kept squatting with my knees out and back and sitting my hips way back I was only going to scratch away and make modest PRs but I would never add 200 pounds if I didn’t overhaul my squat. I kept hearing Louie preach that quads were for bodybuilders. But then I couldn’t block the thought that: nope, Louie, quads were for world record squats!
No more than two months later I competed for the first time at the Raw Unity Meet and met some truly phenomenal raw lifters: Sam Byrd, Jeremy Hamilton and Jay Nera. What I was able to learn from these guys only went on to reinforce what I was starting to learn. And both Nera and Byrd had great squats, trained lots of front squats and seldom trained with maximal weights. They both had their own training styles, but both involved a lot of squatting!
One thing that they also both had in common was that both trained with a linear progression. Instead of the Westside ideology where you were supposed to always train maximally and be strong all year round, it was becoming apparent that if you started at a lower weight and simply trained hard and consistently progressed a little heavier whenever you trained, you could plan out a peak that would allow you to PR whenever a competition was trained for. Setting myself up with a linear progression also allowed me to build my technique around a more quad-dominant squat style without regressing to good mornings every time the weight was too heavy for my legs to stay under the weight. I could build my technique while training my quads directly after the squats. This way they’d always have a chance to be the prime mover.
Since steering away from the Westside principles, my squat has risen from a competition best of 617 up to 826—I knew that 200 pound jump was possible, just not if it was going to all come from my back and hips. My competition bench has gone from 413 to 518. And rising…
Next time around I’ll get into deadlifting and periodization. But for now…go west. West of Westside!