Phil Learney is a lifter and coach with more than 20 years’ experience, having competed in bodybuilding shows and powerlifting and strongman events. He’s the founder of the Advanced Coaching Academy, which aims to improve standards for everyone from general gymgoers to elite athletes.
Since he first started training as an overweight teenager, Phil Learney’s gone on to deadlift more than 300kg, build a reputation as one of the most sought-after trainers in the world, and convince The Rock that he might be stalking him. Here’s what he’s learned from a life of lifting.
What’s been your proudest ever moment in the gym?
The one that stands out is when I was at university and having problems with my bench press. I was having real trouble getting through that mental barrier into treble figures [in kilos]. I told one of my coaches about it and then went to do my warm up. When I came back and he said ‘OK, let’s go’, and I lifted the weight I’d set up for three or four reps. It turned out he’d put an extra 10kg on each side and I’d just smashed through that barrier.
There’s also the time I first deadlifted 300kg. That was up at Genesis in Park Royal, back in the early 2000s. It wasn’t just that it was a heavy weight – it was triple-bodyweight for me. The first time you hit those big lifts, when you’re lifting multiples of your bodyweight, you always remember. The first time you press your own bodyweight overhead or when you squat double-bodyweight, these are the lifts that are really significant for me.
What do you wish you’d started doing earlier?
I wish I’d known more about lifting weights. I started training when I was about 12 years old. I was one of those kids who pleaded with his dad to get a multi-gym, and we kept it in the freezing cold loft above the pub where we lived. I started lifting ‘properly’ when I was about 14. I was overweight, but I was training a lot. I would get a lift home from a mate so I could lift for an hour and a half every night, and I was running and doing all the things I thought were right.
The problem was, nobody formally taught me anything. It was only in 1997, when I was training in a gym in New York, that an instructor approached me and corrected what I was doing. There were all these big bodybuilders in there, and I was in pretty good shape. But it was this tiny young woman, the only female trainer in there, who came over and corrected my form. Before that, nobody ever taught me how to lift, especially for different goals. I didn’t know how to contract my muscles, and that was much to my detriment in later years: I’ve always had problems with chest engagement and getting my hamstrings to fire properly. [I learnt that] getting properly set up at the start of a set makes a big difference.
What do you do that you don’t think enough people are doing?
People massively over-complicate weight training. I’ve come full circle: I used to have the most complicated weight training routines you could possibly imagine. Everything was down to a T, and the same for my nutrition. I used to have a fishing tackle box with every kind of supplement in there. I used to have my nutrient timing absolutely perfect – I’d eat every three hours on the dot. I had all these beliefs, and I think you search out the things that validate those beliefs and that makes them stick for longer. Earlier in my career I used to do that with clients as well: it’s not that [my approach] didn’t work, but it would have worked had I made it simpler too.
What does (almost) everybody else do that you don’t bother with?
With the world of social media the way it is, everyone’s trying to differentiate themselves by doing something different, rather than what they do better. What they should be doing is the basics, very well.
If you’re training for strength, progressive overload is a fairly simple concept. When training for strength or sport, ‘bar speed’ gets forgotten and people neglect the fact that the ‘intent’ needs to be there. It’s similar to lots of information being delivered without context, and so people often don’t know what they’re lifting the weight for.
When bodybuilding, people forget that we’re trying to engorge the muscle: we’re trying to make them swell and we’re trying to make them grow. Everyone’s looking at tempo and frequency, but at the end of the day we essentially know what works. For instance, bodybuilder-style bro splits aren’t best for natural lifters who need a higher-frequency approach to grow. We know how protein synthesis works, and have for many years. An analogy I like to make is that the golden-age bodybuilders always knew that pork wouldn’t get them as lean as other kinds of meat, so they cut it out. Those guys were bang on the money, and they were training correctly without knowing the science because they focused on doing the basics right.
If you could have one workout with anyone, past or present, who would you choose?
The Rock’s got to be up there. I’ve bumped into him in about four different gyms. I met him for the first time when he was in London for the premier of Tooth Fairy, and I had a chat with him. About a year later I saw him at another premier and in a gym in central London. The day after that I bumped into him again in another gym on the outskirts of London – he was on the cable crossover – and I think he thought I was stalking him! I know he doesn’t like people interfering with his workouts, but I’d like to see the intensity he trains with. I know he trains at ridiculous times of the morning to get his workouts in. He’s a hard worker, he’s a phenomenal businessman, and what he and his ex-wife Dany [Garcia] have produced with their company, Seven Bucks, is phenomenal.
Anyone else? Old-school, back in the day, it would be Arnold, obviously. I’d love to have been in that pit with them all as it was back then, doing the things they did. Plates clanking, that Gold’s Gym vibe.
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?
It varies. Sometimes I’m zoned in and I don’t know what drives me. Sometimes it’s things that have got to me that day, or historically, and someone’s face pops up on the bar – you know, that Waterboy kind of scenario. Sometimes something that happens in my day motivates me. At other times I’ve lost my mojo where I’ve been going ‘What am I actually training for?’ That’s what happened after I did a couple of bodybuilding shows – I just didn’t enjoy it. When I hear from people aiming to do them now, I usually ask ‘Why? What’s the purpose?’ I did it back then because I was bored. I’d never really trained for aesthetics and I thought I’d give it a go. These days [my motivation] varies – but I always maintain my focus.
What has lifting given you that you don’t get anywhere else in life?
Back in the day it gave me something to focus on when I was having a tough time at school. I didn’t believe that I was good at things and lifting was an outlet, somewhere I could put on my headphones and baseball cap and ignore everyone else. As I got older lifting improved my self-confidence. I owe a lot to weight training – it was a huge turning point in my life. That’s why I went into the profession: I want to give some of that back. All this weird stuff with weights and machines can be life-changing.
My Life In Lifts is a regular interview feature where we talk to the greatest athletes and coaches in strength training and bodybuilding history. To read previous interviews click here.