Brandon Lilly: My Life in Lifts

Brandon Lilly is the creator of The Cube Method and one of the strongest powerlifters of all time. Here’s what more than two decades in the gym have taught him. 

With world-class totals in multiple weight classes, both raw and equipped, strength coach Brandon Lilly has also helped over a dozen men total 2,000lbs or more, created The Cube Method and consulted with special forces and NFL teams. Here, he talks about what he’s learned from lifting, rowing, and Bill Kazmaier.

What’s been your proudest ever moment in the gym – or on a platform?
My proudest moment in the gym was very recent, actually due to a change of pace from going from lifting to lifting for my health. I finished a marathon on a rower. To be honest, until a few years ago it would have been an 840 deadlift after 11 surgeries, but… I was already good at deadlifting. I’m not good at rowing, I’m not good at distance stuff, so being able to do that was huge for me from a pride standpoint. With lifting, it was always like ‘Well, of course I’m going to be successful and hit PRs,’ but with rowing – well, I never thought I’d be able to do it. And I got it done in 3:31.

As far as lifting goes, it has to be the Backyard Meet of the Century at Mark Bell’s [where Lilly posted a 2,204lb total, the highest of the day]. I was pegged to come dead last, by the totals everyone had going in – even Mark joked about it, he was like ‘Well, we’ve got this kid from Kentucky to compete against these big boys, and he’s coming out for last place.’ It was him kinda ribbing me, but to be able to compete at that level, against guys like Stan Efferding, Dan Green and Eric and Ernie Lilliebridge, and not only that but have the biggest total of the day, that was an extremely proud moment for me. All that effort and time I put in at the gym, it all culminated in that moment and it was all worth it.

The rowing, on the other hand – it’s something that I suck at, but something that I’m happy to do because it’s hard. And also you can punch in the number you’re doing and go ‘Well, if you get up off this thing before you finish then you’ve quit.’ I did seven straight half marathons in 1:45. I’m doing a 100,000m row on my birthday in March.

Best of luck. What do you wish you’d started doing earlier?
I think what you realise as you get older is that if what you’ve always done continues working then you’ll have a hard time changing that, right? So when my injuries happened I got down, because I couldn’t lift or do conditioning like I was used to doing. So I started looking at other areas – I started looking at my nutrition, I started breathing, I’m doing all of these other things, and it’s like… if I’d just done these things a little earlier in my life then I’d have been so much better for it. I wouldn’t have had to work so hard to overcome and compensate for all the things I was bad at – but it’s hard to tell that to young guys.

What do you do in training that you don’t think enough people are doing?
Well, when I look at top facilities, everybody lifts well. Everybody’s doing that part right. It’s about what you’re doing outside of the gym, and I don’t think enough guys take seriously the efforts of meal prepping, taking 10-15 minutes to do a proper warm-up. Even just going for a walk – I can remember times in my life when a walk would have killed me. I’m still lifting at a fairly high level, but now I’m doing all kinds of conditioning. Guys need to understand that you can have health and strength, and lose any preconceived notion of what’s hardcore or what isn’t – it’s about doing what you need to do to get better.

What does (almost) everybody else do that you think is a waste of time?
It’s hard to say anything is actually a waste of time, because if you’re doing something and it works, keep doing it – but I think most guys go too heavy, too often. They don’t appreciate the fact that your body can maintain certain strength levels by doing less – more repetition work at lower percentages will let you heal and grow without always having 90% in your hands or on your back. Young guys go too heavy, too often – the top guys aren’t training heavy as often as you’d think. Social media can be tricky with that – maybe you’ll see Andrey Malanichev squatting 800 pounds, but that’s still only 80% for him. It’s humongous, but it’s easy for him, it’s a weight he can handle for 3-5 reps.

Every single person that I talk to who’s at a high level, who I aspire to being more like – when we talk, it’s about recovery. It’s not about weights we’re lifting, or programmes we’re doing, it’s about ‘are you getting massage, are you doing cryotherapy.’

If you could have one workout with anyone, past or present, who would you choose?
I want to give a past and present. Bill Kazmaier is someone that I’ve looked up to forever. Most people saw Arnold in the magazines: I saw Kaz, and I was like ‘My god, he looks like an action figure.’ As I’ve got to know him, spent some time around him, I would’ve loved to be in his presence when he was lifting – I know it would’ve pushed me from a physical standpoint, but also the guy has so much knowledge and information, I think that would be incredible. And in the present, I could say those very same things of Dan Green. He posts some stuff, some articles and video online, but he’s a very deep thinker. Also, he’s incredibly motivational through the fact that he just does it. He’s not some rah-rah motivational speaker, he’s a guy who’s just ‘Well, either you’re gonna do it or you’re not.’ To me, that’s real motivation. He’s also the kind of lifter I aspire to being like: the way he squats, his depth’s never questioned, his lockout’s never questioned. He just does things the right way, goes back to his corner, comes back out and wins the world championship, then goes right back to the shadows. There’s something very Dorian Yates-like about that – they’re both guys that just work hard in the shadows.

What do you focus on during a really big effort – a last heavy set, or massive single, or whatever else demands the most focus from you?
Well, if we’re talking preparation, I make sure that I eat enough the day before, I take hydration very seriously, sleep, and I also kind of visualise ahead of time. I try to imagine what it’s going to feel like in my hands or on my back – I go through it a lot. If you’re going to be the best you’re going to have to take that stuff into consideration.

What has lifting given you in life?
Life for us in the US – or the UK – really is easy. We’re afforded a very good life, everything being accessible. Weights give me a sense of grounding. You’re not going to go in there and nonchalantly get better. You’re going to have to go in there, and be willing to look at why you’ve failed – and you will fail – and accept it. Because if you don’t accept it… you won’t improve.

The number one thing is that I’ve learned that you just have to keep going. Life success and gym success never comes in big swings, it’s those little things that you chip away at and chip away at, and get better. I’ve never seen anybody say that they were too prepared for something, so… I want to cover everything so that when I show up on the day I’m the best. That extends to business meetings, everything. So for me, the gym has given me a sense of discipline. It makes me better at everything I do.

My Life In Lifts is a regular interview where we talk to some of the most elite athletes in strength training and bodybuilding history. To see every interview, click here