Christian Thibaudeau is a strength coach with competitive experience in bodybuilding, strongman, powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting. Here’s what a lifetime under the bar has taught him.
What’s been your proudest ever moment in the gym – or on a platform?
Probably when I decided not to compete any more.
The bulk of what I’ve been doing in recent years is understanding how the brain works and how to translate that into your programming – if you have this or that type of personality because you have this or that neurotransmitter. What I found in many years of trying every different strength sport – I’ve done powerlifting, strongman, Olympic lifting – is that I’m just not built for competitive sport. My self-esteem is very low – I always felt that I needed to be admired for something physical. I thought I needed to compete to show how good I was, but I’d find that the last months before a competition were hell – I wasn’t good to the people around me, and I never performed well in competition, whatever it was.
I believe that some people are neurologically designed to be great under pressure. If you’re not good, you can always become better, but you’ll never be great. And so, in an attempt to compete, I started doing stuff that was really bad for my health – my training was excessive. When I was doing Olympic weightlifting I was snatching 140kg before one competition, and I opened with 115kg, and I missed three times. I went back to the warm-up room crying and did five reps of the power snatch with 115. So then, I decided to get professional coaching, and every single day I would drive two hours to train, two hours back, train six hours a day, six days a week. When I started doing that I was squatting 250kg for 5 reps, and by the end I was barely squatting 200kg for a single.
That’s when I realised I was ruining myself to perform, and I didn’t enjoy training any more. So my proudest moment was accepting that I wasn’t a great strength athlete, which allowed me to enjoy the process, and help other people perform at the highest level.
What do you wish you’d started doing earlier?
This comes down to nutrition. People look at me on social media and go ‘Oh, that guy must always be in great shape, he must always be on a super-strict diet.’ But actually, I ate like crap for most of my life. I could be in shape for a shoot, but most of the time I was 20-30lbs over what would be good physical condition. When I was Olympic lifting, after every single workout I’d reward myself with five hamburgers and an order of fries – and I was training twice a day, and that was on top of regular meals – you do the math. I’d be eating candy… I was hardly eating anything healthy until I was 28, unless I was training for bodybuilding.
I had health issues as a result, hypertension, kidney issues, and for most of my life I figured I wasn’t eating much worse than most athletes I knew. I wish I’d started better habits earlier, because it made it tremendously hard to start eating properly when I was 30, 35, when I was diagnosed with a severe kidney condition. When you look at the strength sports people want to skip steps – and of course if you’re eating 7,000 calories you’ll get strong faster. I remember once I was benching 200kg, and then I went into the gym three days later and missed 160kg because I was dehydrated from going in the hot tub with my wife. Water retention alone will make you stronger. Body fat alone will make you stronger by stabilising your shoulders, so of course people these days will eat shitty because it’s a shortcut, but in reality it’s probably causing health issues that will be hard to correct. It’s hard to reverse direction once you’ve built those tastes. It took a long time, but now I’m eating a balanced, smart diet and I don’t get any cravings – I have to force myself to eat rice cakes on a cheat day.
What do you do that you don’t think enough people are doing?
Introspection. It’s probably because I have low self-esteem to start with, but I really tend to think hard about my shortcomings and my strengths, and it really allows me to focus on what I’m good at and push myself to do that at the highest level. For years I was like the normal personal trainer doing 50 hours a week, doing in the trenches work, but writing programmes for people wasn’t my strong suit. So then I had to think about my shortcomings, and I realised that what I wasn’t great at was long-term planning – my greatest strength as a coach is correcting problems and helping other coaches fix problems with their clients. So I decided to focus on that – working as a consultant, and working on the communication portion of things.
I know I’m a people-pleaser, I need people to like me. Nothing is harder for me in a presentation than when I see someone not enjoying what I’m saying. In the past I thought that made me a weak person, and then I realised that – look, you can go through your whole life thinking you’re weak, or a fraud, not intellectually honest, but now I take that and use it as a weapon. Instead of saying ‘I’m weak,’ I try to use that as a weapon to give the best presentations in the market. If you need to please people, you become great at reading people. You don’t change that much as a person – you need to know what you’re good at.
What does everybody else do that you don’t bother with?
Excessive assessment. I’m all for assessment, I think all great coaches do it to some degree, but I see a lot of people running people through these ROM, balance, imbalance tests, but then they design a programme and they don’t use the information. They’re doing it just to look professional. If you assess someone at the beginning and then see where they are six months down the line – fine, that’s a good first step. But the real importance of assessment isn’t a measure of progression, it’s to decide the strategy you’re going to use in the next stage of training. Most people are just doing it to charge one more session to the client.
If you could have one workout with anyone, past or present, who would you choose?
I really can’t give you an answer – my neurotype is that I’m a mimicker, I’m the type of guy who easily gets influenced by strong personalities, so it would really change from day to day. I need to train with people who are the best in everything. So right now I’m in a strength mode, so I’d say Louie Simmons at his peak, but if you’d asked me three months ago I’d have said Dorian Yates. I admire people who can stick at one thing for a lifetime because they become the best at what they do, but I’m a generalist. As a coach, I think that allows you to accumulate a lot of tools, and use them when they fit.
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?
Personally, I don’t do anything special. I’m not someone who handles stress well, I choke under pressure. You have to understand why athletes choke – it comes from anxiety and stress, your brain can either be activated or inhibited. So your neurons are firing faster, or you’re slowing them down. When you’re speeding up your neurons, you’re thinking faster, you’re reacting faster, your muscles are contracting more strongly – but if you’re getting over-activated then you start to lose control, and you get paralysis from over-analysis.
The reason athletes choke is because when their nervous system gets amped they can’t control it – they don’t have the neurotransmitters, the serotonin or gabba, to bring themselves back down. They overthink, they react too soon, and their mechanics change. So if I amp myself up, if I slap myself, bang my head on the bar, I’ll speed up too much – I get tight, I get injured. Especially in Olympic weightlifting – if I get amped, the bar will go forward. If I get amped on a bench – I did that twice, and I tore my pec twice. So I try to see the max-out set like any other set.
What has lifting given you that you don’t get anywhere else in life?
Everything, honestly. I would be pumping gas if it wasn’t for weightlifting. When I was 19 I was working at a hardware store, loading concrete plates onto trucks, and I went home – I was living with my parents – and basically had a breakdown. I was slamming doors, going ‘I’m no good, I’m not smart, I’m nothing, my whole life is a waste,’ and my mother said ‘Well, what do you want to do, what are you good at?’ and I said ‘Lift weights,’ and she said, ‘Okay, lift weights.’ And then I felt free, because I’ve always wanted my parents’ approval. So I went back to university at 21, and I became a research assistant my first semester, I wrote a book and started working with athletes – it just snowballed, and now I’m where I am today. If it wasn’t for lifting, I might not be alive right now.
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.