Louie Simmons is the owner of Westside Barbell, arguably the most famous powerlifting gym in the world. He has competed for more than 50 years, achieving elite status in five different weight classes. He is based in Columbus, Ohio.
What’s the first thing you do when you start working with a new client?
The first thing I do when someone comes to see me at Westside Barbell for the first time is look for their weak spot. They’ve all got one, and if I don’t fix their weakness I’ll never maximise their strength.
The most common weaknesses are hamstrings, glutes and hips for the deadliest and squat, and triceps and upper back in the bench. Correcting your weakness always depends on how severe it is. If you have weak arms, it might take two months to bring them up to speed.
A lot of folks focus just on the big three lifts and end up with real strong lower backs and no hips. I just had a female CrossFitter come to me. She had a 305lb deadlift and in three and half weeks so left to go to the Olympic bobsled training camp pulling 365lb. All we did was build up her hips and her deadlift improved by 60lb. This is a typical response I see when athletes come to us for the first time. We work on their hips, or any other weak muscle group they have, that they’ve neglected or don’t know how to correct.
What are the biggest mistakes even experienced lifters are making?
The biggest mistake I see in experienced lifters is not doing assistance lifts, and even if they do, they don’t do enough of them, or doing high volume. Take a look at a big bencher and they’ll have enormous traps, big rear delts, a big upper back and big triceps. Some of the greatest benchers I’ve ever worked with have said that a big bench is 75% triceps. Super-strong triceps will make or break your bench, so you need to work on your triceps first, then your upper back second.
You have to start with the triceps. You’ll see a lot of pec injuries and a lot of shoulder injuries from benching, but you rarely hear of any triceps injuries because they are rarely pushed to the limit.
And the upper back is the foundation of your bench. If you take a heavy weight of the rack and your upper back can’t support it, it’ll flatten and therefore limit how much you can lift. You need your rib cage to be up high to bench heavy. And many people have weak triceps, so they will always struggle to lock out their arms at the top of the move. So I get my guys to do a lot of dumbbell triceps extensions, straight bar extensions, football bar extensions, basically every type of extension lift to build their triceps strength.
What about the squat and deadlift?
We max train squat and deadlift together at Westside because I believe that a low squat will build a bigger deadlift, and a big rack pull will build a bigger squat. You do a real heavy rack pull and it teaches you how to strain. And there’s not a muscle in your body not getting worked when you pull heavy. If you look at a great squatter, his back doesn’t move and his shins don’t move. What stands him up is extended hips. You want monster-strong hips and that’s what we work towards.
You’ve got to put the hours in on the assistance moves to build up your hips, hamstrings, glutes and erectors. Do a lot of good mornings with a bent back and bent legs, plus back extensions and reverse hypers – you’ve got to do your reverse hypers. And for all these assistance moves you want to go as heavy as possible for high volume.
What’s your favoured approach for improving your squat?
The greatest squatters in the world do box squats. Nobody does it right because you need to sit fully down. We sit way back on the box. We put tremendous pressure on the hamstrings, glutes and hips. If that box wasn’t there we’d fall backwards down on the ground, but because the box is there we can get down into that position and overload all the critical muscles we need to squat. You have to push against the bar first. That’s what you’re trying to lift. If you try to push against the floor you just end up in a good morning position. And start squatting wide. A wider squat will build all the muscles a close squat won’t.
Do you believe in training abs directly?
Absolutely. The abs are the most important muscle group you can have. Everything starts in the abdominals. Your abs need to contract fully when standing up in the squat, and if you abs are weak you’re going to bend over in the deadlift. Plus build them up and you’ll never have a back injury. We train the abs from a static position a lot. There’s a lot of straight-leg set-ups, heavy side bends, straight-leg with bar behind neck, hanging leg raise, and a lot of stand-up static holds because your abs need to work from a static position for the big lifts.
Why is speed training so important at Westside?
A lot of people say you don’t need to do speed training. They are wrong and here’s why.
If you can bench 400lb, it means you were successful at 320lb, 340lb, 360lb and 380lb. So why can’t you do 420lb? Because you can’t bench it fast enough. You ran out of time. We can only be strong for so long, or hold our breath for so long, or take the pain for so long. Once that time is up, you better hope the bar is up, otherwise you’re going to miss the lift. Maybe that time is three seconds, so no matter what weight is on the bar, you have three seconds to lift it. That’s it. As barbells get heavier, physics tells us that they slow down. You’ve got so long to cover the same amount of distance. The more powerful you are, the faster you can move.
What else do serious lifters need to know?
There’s no reason on squat day that you can’t do a few sets of dumbbell bench presses and there’s no reason on bench day that you can’t do a few sets of reverse hypers or lower back work. And I believe you need to work your abs every day. Your body will adapt to that. If you’re doing manual labour six days a week, your body will adjust to that too. And you’ll never overtrain because you’ll keep switching the exercises, the volume, the intensity. You have to keep switching up everything and you’ll constantly make progress.
And get in the pecking order. Try to beat me, because I want to beat you. And I’m going to let you know it. You’re not supposed to like it. If you beat me, I’m sure as hell not going to like it. When we walk out the gym we’re back to being friends, but in the gym it’s a battle. You need competition and you need aggression to become as good as you can. There are two types of people in this world: prey and predators. You better find out which one you are, or you’ll find out soon enough.