Hypertrophy Strength

Matt Wenning: My Life In Lifts

Matt Wenning is one of very few powerlifters to ever total over 2,600lb – but now he’s focused on more than just his own strength. Here’s what he’s learned from a life at the bar.

With an all-time record of 2665 lbs in the 308-lb class, and a bench press over 800 lbs done in a full powerlifting meet, Matt Wenning is one of powerlifting’s all-time greats. He currently owns his own facility, where he trains firefighters and members of the military alongside members of the public. Here, he talks about his best days training, what lifting has given him, and the one thing he wishes he’d done earlier…

What’s been your proudest ever moment in the gym – or on a platform?
Well, this last cycle I squatted 850 pounds for two reps in training, and benched 585 for three reps. Those are recent. All-time it’s probably benching 611 after squatting the world record raw, and then doing a 1200 pound equipped world record squat. I broke the world record total in 2008 in the 308 pound weight class. So I think those are my biggest achievements in lifting, but in life I would say it’s probably getting a master’s degree in biomechanics and the training I’ve been doing with members of the military over the last 10 or 15 years.

Right now, I’m kind of weighing around retiring from the platform and focusing on being leaner and healthier. On the platform I’m pretty satisfied with what I’ve done over the past 25 years – if I have a good cycle I might compete for the hell of it, but right now I’m trying to hang it up and focus on my business. I feel like I can help more people as a coach and a public figure than I can just being a lifter. I’m trying to figure out how to make the biggest impact I can, and even breaking an all-time record might only reach a couple of thousand people. If I have to pick one thing to leave behind, I’d like to change the way people train, change the way the military and fire departments view their training. I’d rather have people remember me for that than my own personal lifting achievements. I’m 38, I’ve been doing this my whole adult life, and I’d like to keep my back and elbows and knees for my 40s and 50s to help other people.

What do you wish you’d started doing earlier?
Over the last four or five years I’ve focused on how to eat correctly to put on quality muscle, and I think if I’d done that in my early 20s it would have made a huge difference. But the problem with nutrition is that it’s individual even more so than training – one nutrition plan isn’t going to work for everyone. There are golden rules, but a lot of the lessons are hard-learned. Nutrition can be a very complex system of what works for you individually.

What do you do that you don’t think enough people are doing?
It’s about focusing and attacking the weakest links, not just going into the gym and training. I think fitness professionals…put it this way, we see a lot of people talking about training hard and doing the classical lifts and doing linear periodisation, and doing things harder to get better, but we’ve lost the thought pattern of ‘How do I get stronger with the least amount of work?’ I think that’s what a lot of people from beginner to intermediate and advanced, whether they’re recreational or competitive lifters, get wrong – they’re trying to figure out how to work harder when they could just be working smarter. That’s what increases the risk of injury, increases the mileage on the body and causes irreversible damage.

That’s what I’m trying to help people improve: for instance, my whole goal with my belt squat machine was to figure out how to get more squat volume in without giving so much of a beatdown to the upper back and neck and joints. People who squat, even with the safety bar, and deadlift a lot, end up getting a lot of spine compression, putting themselves under tremendous loads once they’re super-strong – but by getting more volume in a traction-based environment, I’m able to get my legs and hips world-class strong without the world-class mileage I used to put on myself. It’s about how to get the muscle mass of getting that raw, untamed strength without beating your body to a pulp.

What does (almost) everybody else do that you don’t bother with?
I don’t think anything’s a waste of time. I think stuff can be a waste of time if it’s done at the wrong time for you. Some people focus on conditioning when they should be focused on strength, or focus on strength when they should be more in shape, and some guys want to get super strong before they figure their diet out, so they end up hurting their health without putting quality muscle mass on. Everything has its place, but the magic question is when to apply what methods and means. I don’t use anything too long. I try to make sure my body doesn’t get too much wear and tear. I don’t use the exact same bench all the time, and I don’t overuse the same exercises over and over again – I have a vast rotation of movements so that my muscles get the proper stimulus to grow.

If you could have one workout with anyone, past or present, who would you choose?
Man, I tell you what – I’ve been so lucky, when I was a kid I got to train with Ed Coan, and it doesn’t really get any better than that. I’ve trained with Stan Efferding, I’ve trained with Flex Wheeler, Chuck Vogelpohl and Louie Simmons, Michael O’Hearn, George Halbert. So I would say that as far as lifters go I’m one of the most blessed people in existence. I’ve trained with a lot of real legends. I think the two that eluded me – I’ve always wanted to train with Kaz in his prime… and of course Arnold, back in 1980, 85 – not because he was really into bodybuilding so much at that time, but because he was such an icon back then. Me and Kaz are acquaintances, I wouldn’t really say we’re friends but he knows who I am.

Other guys? Mike McDonald who just recently passed away was a really interesting bench presser, one of the all-time greats raw, he was way ahead of his time. Not as a powerlifter but as a thinker. I would have loved to train with Vasile Alexyev from the Soviet Union, just to see his thought process. There’s so much aura behind him, I’d want to see how true that was, because it’s the baseline of a lot of my training.  I was friends with Larry Pacifico but I never really got to train with him in his prime. But I’ve been really lucky to train with a lot of all-time greats.

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?
In my 20s it was about trying to beat a number or person that was in a record book or online, but as I got older it’s been all about trying to relax and have fun and also stay focused. In competitions, I wouldn’t really turn the juice up until I was deadlifting – my squat and my bench were so technical, keeping everything straight

I’m over 6’ tall, so keeping my bar path perfect took a lot of concentration because I really didn’t have any leverages on my side. I’d have to turn it up for the deadlift because my body would kind of fight me on pulling really heavy. The deadlift’s the most technical but also the hardest for me physically, it’s a three and a half foot lift. Those kinds of lifts I’d have to dig deep, you know, think about pulling a car door off if the car was burning and somebody I loved was stuck inside.

What has lifting given you in life?
My lifting kind of turned into my career, but lifting as a child…my dad passed away when I was 13 years old, and it kind of left me a little bit…not depressed, maybe un-driven. I think the lifting gave me purpose. When I first started to train it gave me a sense of camaraderie with the guys at the gym, gave me hope that if I worked towards a goal I would achieve it. A lot of my teachers growing up weren’t very…weren’t able to figure out what to do with me. I probably had some sort of mild disability, and a few of them wanted to push me into something vocational rather than college. So when I found weights it was something that gave me passion and drive to be successful at something – and that’s what pushed me to get degrees and go to college and get my masters. I wanted to be the guy that, when I walked into a room, people would be like ‘Hey, that guy has a degree and he walks the walk. He’s strong as a motherfucker and he went to school to learn it, too.’ Versus just being the meathead going ‘Hey you should just listen to me.’ There’s some validity to that, but I wanted to be the guy that had both. Without lifting I’d never have pushed myself to succeed so far. It just took me to a completely different level.

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