I hope you like reading.
As the first two flights began lifting, I had already reviewed with everyone our strategy for their lifts. At this point, I wanted everyone to relax, especially Chris. I mentioned yesterday how Brent and Mike were acting about as normal as a belligerent Asian and a obsessive compulsive weirdo can act, but Chris was having problems. He was a fucking train wreck sitting there watching the 90kg class start their squats on the platform 15 feet in front of us. I had talked with him last week about some deep breathing exercises that Bill Starr explains in his excellent book Defying Gravity, but it was already too late. His headphones seemed to not have any calming effect at all, and I finally said to him, “You need to get the fuck out of here, let’s go.” I walked him outside under an awning. It was raining lightly, and I told him to lay down on a picnic table and start to breathe very deeply while mentally removing himself from the situation.
It’s understandable why Chris was nervous; he had been waiting for his first meet for at least six months. Every training session in the past year culminated to this moment, and it must have been hard to remove that fact from his thoughts. Brent is an Olympic weightlifter, so this meet was secondary to him. It was Mike’s first meet, and he had always wanted to compete, but he had only been thinking about it a few months (not to mention he’s borderline insane anyway). Jorin and Allen just wanted to hit some PR’s, not necessarily make a huge splash. Chris was consumed by his thoughts, and if I didn’t get this under control, it could be his downfall.
While progressive relaxation may not be of the “old school” mentality that we sometimes divert to with 70’s Big, it certainly can be useful. I painted a relaxing picture for Chris, one that he could imagine with all of his senses to engulf himself in this image to take himself far away from the business of the meet inside. I like to think it worked, I really never asked him about it later. I just needed his nervous energy to get in check because I knew this would be a marathon meet, and I wanted him to have as much physical, mental, and emotional energy as possible. Meanwhile, it was getting closer for Jorin to warm-up.
Jorin was the only one of my lifters in the second round of flights, thus he had the luxury of my company for the entirety of his warm-up. Halfway through his warm-up, Allen started warming up. Remember that Allen is about to turn 40, and I recently started calling him the Tin Man because he has to oil all of his joints in order to be spry for lifting. The warm-up room was a 900 square foot room that contained five squat racks. I don’t know if that means anything to you, but this means that the room was only 30 feet by 30 feet, and it was crammed full of assorted lifting equipment. As is customary at meets (weightlifting or otherwise), we had to mix and match plates just to get the appropriate weight on the bar. But the equipment was pretty good, and the bars weren’t shitty, so things worked out.
I busied myself with checking how many attempts Jorin was away from opening. This helped me tell him when to take his warm-ups. In Defying Gravity Bill Starr mentions that you can take one warm-up for every three attempts on the platform, plus giving yourself time to “gear up”. I read the phrase “gearing up” as something that meant “getting psyched” since there wasn’t a whole lot of equipment in Starr’s days. In any case, I loosely based my warm-up recommendations on Starr’s formula, but paid attention to the speed of the lifting on the platform and how much time my lifter wanted before his first attempt. My judgment ended up working pretty well for everyone.
Jorin opened conservatively, as any new competitor should, with 365 (I have decided to use pounds in this article since they are more familiar to the majority of readers. Keep in mind that any USAPL meet is going to function in kilograms, and you should plan for such. I recommend getting to the point where you can easily distinguish between kilos and pounds.). Jorin’s goal was to squat 400 at this meet, and this would put him on par to do so. Keep in mind that I had witnessed all of my lifters completing whatever weight they were opening with for a single, triple, or a 5RM (depending on the individual). The first squat of the meet should be cake, and the lifter should annihilate it. This is exactly what Jorin did.
He took 365 out of the rack, buried it, bounced it, hip drove it on up. An easy first squat, and he took care to listen to all of the commands just like we practiced. I decided to have Mike and Allen, both 242 competitors, start warming up right after Jorin’s second attempt. I communicated this to them, went and checked on Chris (who had returned from his 20 minute time out), told him to relax, and swung by Brent to give him a hearty “Fuck you, Brent.”
I returned back to Jorin who was listening to headphones while sitting in one of the provided chairs. I updated him on how many attempts out he was, and when he was four attempts out, he started getting ready. For each lifter this usually meant pulling their sweats off that I had them bring and “gearing up” Bill Starr style. We were going after 385 on the second attempt so that the third attempt would be his goal of at least 400. Jorin walked the squat out, waited for the squat command, buried the rep, but as he drove his hips, he lifted his chest slightly. There was a slowing to his ascent, but he held strong and finished the squat. His mind must have gone blank, because he didn’t wait for the rack command, and he was red lighted for his effort. Jorin was irritated, especially because he wanted that 400 lb squat, but it was his idea to repeat the weight on his third attempt to make sure that he got it. This is exactly what we did, and he made a much more solid rep to make 385 competition official.
I made a mental note to cue everyone to wait for the rack command since everyone was inexperienced with lifting in meets. Unfortunately for Jorin it took his little mishap to sharpen up my coaching. I had told him prior to his lift to listen to the judge, but you forget important shit like that when you’re squatting with surging adrenaline. My pre-lift coaching was individualized to the lifter based off of their personalities, what their mood was, what cues they needed, what attempt it was, and whether I thought it would be hard for them or not. Sometimes I needed to amp the lifter up, and sometimes I merely had to direct their energy and rage to the appropriate cues that they needed to execute. But I always reminded them to listen to the judges after Jorin’s mistake.
Allen is one of those guys that will get pumped, but keeps his emotions in reserve. He looked good in the warm-up room and always squats well. His method is to descend slower than you, the reader, normally would, but then his hip drive accelerates at an alarming speed, like he’s got rockets attached to his ischial tuberosities.
Allen walked 385 out of the rack, waited calmly for the squat command, and the proceeded to make a mockery out of the requirement for the side judges to question his depth. He buried the FUCK out of this squat and hip drove the PISS out of it. It was routine, and he could have stood there and done a set of five. I’ll remind you that Allen told me months ago that his goal was to squat 400 by the time he turned 40. Well, my friends, he’d get his chance on the second attempt, because I called for 402.
Meanwhile Mike was sitting in a chair waiting for his opening attempt of 485. I knew this would be easy for Mike since he had squatted 500 a couple weeks before with a mock judge sitting in front of him. Nevertheless, he still got amped by watching the Mathias Steiner video Brent wrote about last week on his phone. This was refreshing, because Mike is usually listening to really shitty music to get pumped to (maybe he’ll create a log-in name so he can defend himself today). But, when he does get psyched, he seems to morph into a gargoyle of sorts; his face contorts, he is angry, and his head twists around as if Mr. Hyde was tearing through his skin. I held onto the back of his belt after he chalked up.
“All right, Mike, get some fucking tempo on this squat. You gotta have some SPEED if you want this bounce to be crisp. You better get some fucking SPEED here.”
…illegible grunting from Mike.
“Bar is loaded!”
“Get some SPEED, Mike. SPEED. And listen to the judge. Wait to squat, and wait to rack it. And get some SPEED.”
Mike stepped to up to the platform, un-racked the bar like he had been doing it for years, had a beautifully timed descent that produced one of the prettiest bounces you could ask out of his oddly shaped body. Autumn leaves aren’t as crisp as his bounce, and the lift was never in doubt.
Meanwhile Allen is waiting on his next attempt at 402. I stopped by Chris and Brent to inform them that they’ll probably start warming up once the other two guys take their second attempts. As I was about to leave, I turned back to Brent, presented my closed fist to him, and routinely went through our “fist pound with exploding shrapnel”. He smiled. I walked away without saying goodbye.
I returned to Allen, told him how many attempts he was out, did the same with Mike, and then had a few seconds to be stationary. This was over pretty quick because Allen was in the hole, and started to gear up, as they say. 39 year-old Allen took 402, a milestone for so many lifters, out of the rack. He set his feet, and shattered his goal to pieces. He basically simultaneously power bombed and choke slammed 402, but the damn thing was so routine. Quick congrats were in order, and I called for 413 for his final attempt. I stopped by Mike to update him on his attempts position, then I ran over to the warm-up room to check on Brent and Chris. Brent was his usual “I’m a 5’5” nerdy looking Asian with big traps, and I think I’m at the wrong meet” self, and Chris looked better than he did earlier, but you know he wanted to get that first lift under his belt. I gave them some instructions, then went and found out what order they were in their flight (I did this routinely throughout the day, and the crew working the table was very helpful since the flight order wasn’t posted). I told them their spots in their flight (Brent was in 7 or so, and Chris was 12th or 13th). I ran back over to Mike.
It wasn’t long before Mike was standing there, growling at the site of his bar like my pup Leda does when anybody walks in the gym. This was 501, and this is what he came here to do; get a 500 competition squat. Make the shit official. Again, I’m holding his belt, giving him the impression that he is a restrained animal that must be unleashed with merciless fury on his bar. Then he gets stereotypically meatheaded.
“On my back.”
I remind him about the SPEED and the judge’s commands, then clapped him hard on his back between his scapulae – I’m pretty sure Mike’s protruding ears vibrated from the impact for at least four seconds. Mike placed his hands on the bar and gripped it tight like he wanted to rip it to pieces and bathe in its blood. He stepped it out of the rack fast, eager to attack, and once he was given the “go ahead and kill” command, he descended with a gorgeous tempo and hip drove the bar like it was 135. He racked the bar, pleased with his three whites. We planned on being conservative to hit all of his lifts. The plan was to hit 507 on the third attempt, but I called for 513 (a 5 kg jump, meager by powerlifting standards, but appropriate in this case for a new raw lifter).
I checked on Brent and Chris (I’m pretty sure Brent was twiddling his thumbs or pushing his glasses back up his nose with the back of his index finger), then went back to the platform to see Allen. Now, this distance between the platform and the warm-up room was no meander through the park. I had about 30 yards to cover, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to risk messing up the timing for my lifters because I was moseying through the crowd. I literally ran to and fro, dodging lifters and punting children along the way (just because).
Allen had secured his victory with his second attempt, but now it was time to eat his cake too. 413 stood on his back, trying to press him into the floor. But Allen pretty much grinned at it right in the face as he, once again, buried the SHIT out of his squat, rebounded, and had to push a bit on this one, but was victorious in the end. I congratulated him with a body check and a slap on the back. It stung my hand.
Meanwhile Mike’s crazy ass is pacing around, one hand holding his music device while his head cranked around like a special effect in a creepy horror film. I would signal to him with my fingers how many attempts out he was. I had his belt strung across my shoulder. I glanced back at him, flicked my head towards the chalk bucket, and he ripped the earphones out and stomped his way to the bucket. He levered his belt in place, chalked his hands, and I gave him the lowdown again. SPEED. Judges. Last rep. Fucking get it. Goose bumps. Hard back slap. Hand stung. Get it, Mike. He thinks it’s only 507 because the crazy asshole didn’t want to know what was on the bar, but he walked 513 out and crushed it like a tin can. He stayed amped, and when he turned around I said, “That was 515, baby!” and his face contorted, and he slapped my body hard and grasped me in his gorilla arms. He was ecstatic with his victory. This is the kind of shit you live for as a competitor.
The fourth flight began, and I was able to focus most of my attention on Brent (who was on platform 1) and Chris (platform 2). Brent was up first, and he stood fifteen feet away from his 415 lb bar very calmly, as if he was waiting in line to pay for his groceries. He approached the bar, and one of the judges asked, “What’s that under your singlet?” Brent and I looked at his crotch – this would have been a funny time for a photo.
“Uhh, boxers?” Brent said.
“We need to check ‘em.”
Brent started rolling the leg of his singlet up, and the judge awkwardly pulled his boxer briefs down a few inches and said, “Nope, can’t wear those.”
“Can he still take this attempt?” I asked.
“(scoff), No.” the judge said, treating me like I was a total dumbass. The thing is that Mike had done a similar thing with his underwear, but it was noticed after his first attempt squat. That lift counted, and he changed between his first and second attempt
“God damn it.” I walked away with Brent, and I told him to go take his underwear off in the locker room as fast as he could, and to meet me in the warm-up room so he could take 405 (his last warm-up was 385ish). I called for 424 on his second attempt, an easy weight considering I’ve seen Brent triple 430 before, but it would still be his first squat at the meet, and I wanted him to destroy it. Meanwhile Chris was still in the warm-up room, and I asked him what he had under his singlet. He was aware of the rule, but wanted to wear his spandex pulled up short like a pair of whitey tighties.
“No, take them off.” I said.
“But they are pulled up.” He showed me.
“I don’t care, Chris. Don’t give them a reason to red light one of your squats like they did to Brent.”
Mike brought in a pair of his own underwear. For some reason, Mike wears whitey tighties. I don’t know why, but he had them ready like he had been waiting on the opportunity for Chris to wear his underwear all morning. Chris was starting to leave to go to the locker room to change his underwear, and I told him just do it there in the warm-up room. It was kinda funny, because every wall had a mirror on it, so wherever he turned, his dugan was staring back at him.
“Hurry the fuck up, just get it over with.” I said.
“Well, fucking [unintelligible mumbling].”
“I’ll block you.” I was standing in front of him, because there were several 14 year-old girls standing outside of the warm-up room, and none of them were ready at that age for a Chris Riley cock-fest. Right as he pulled the underwear on, four of these girls walked in the room. They were half a second from having the Best Saturday Ever.
Chris finished getting dressed, and I watched him take 515 in the warm-up room. It didn’t look sharp and fast like he normally does. I filed this info away, and went ahead with the plan of opening with 562 (we had toyed with the idea of moving it up to 573, but after seeing the warm-up I kept it the same). I had Chris walk to the platform, find a chair, cover up with his sweats, and relax while he waited for his first attempt. Deep breathing, Chris. Now is not the time for getting psyched. After observing the attempt cards, it looked like Chris and Brent were going to be squatting at about the same time; Brent on his second attempt of 424 and Chris at his opener of 562. I stuck with Chris, and Mike (who, by the way, looks like a ninja turtle in his singlet and neoprene knee sleeves) was with Brent. I kept them updated on how many attempts out they were, and then it was show time for Chris Riley.
I allowed Chris to pace around for a minute or two before calling him to the chalk bucket. We tightened his belt together, which was one of the more difficult things I’ve ever done. I helped Allen tighten his earlier, but Chris seemed to want his belt snug on his liver, and we struggled with it for at least 15 seconds. I was sincerely worried it took too much out of him to do the lift. Finally, it was time. Chris approached the bar, finally able to direct his nervous energy into the thing that he’s done hundreds, thousands of times before. Right before he stepped on the platform I said, “You’ve been here before. It’s just you and I in the gym right now. You’ve been here a hundred times before. Go over there and bounce the FUCK out of it. And listen to the judge.”
Chris un-racked 562 pounds, looked at the judge in the eye, was commanded to squat, and he descended for the first time in competition. As he hit the bottom his knees shifted around, but he returned at least part of the bounce into an upward movement that wasn’t very difficult. The looseness at the bottom wasn’t enough to deter him from conquering the first lift of his career.
Meanwhile Brent apparently “smoked the shit out of” 424. So much that I walked over as he finished calling for his next attempt of 457.
“Are you serious?” I asked.
“Why the FUCK would you make an AC Jump right now?”
“Woah buddy, settle down. I’m gonna get it.”
“You asshole, why didn’t you talk to me about it…that’s a…[doing some math in my head]…15 kg jump in your first meet!”
“Look man,” as he gave me an Asian version of the five finger point, “I’m gonna get it.”
I walked away without saying goodbye.
I ran back over to Chris, told him how many attempts he was out, and played the waiting game with Brent and Chris. I constantly updated their position so that they were never in wonder and they could mentally switch gears as their turn got closer.
I headed back over to Brent, who was sitting between two high school kids who were wedged into squat suits. He was totally out of place, calmly sitting there. I swear he thought he was at a bus station (in Hong Kong no less, although Brent would never visit). I put my hand on his shoulder.
“Well, we can’t change the weight now.”
“Yeah, so you better fucking make this or I will kick the fucking shit out of you, you asshole.”
I left without saying goodbye, but I could hear Brent in the background announcing, “Justin Lascek ladies and gentlemen, he’s my coach!”
It came time for Chris to squat again, and 584 was the next challenge. If he hit this weight, then we’d go on to 600, which was a goal we set quite a few months ago. A 600 raw competition squat ain’t no joke, friends, and this is what I wanted just as much as Chris.
We went through the gearing up routine of pacing, but I had Chris tighten his belt on an old basketball goal frame on the edge of the high school gym. He chalked up at the bucket, and I was in his ear. Judges. Bounce. Get this. You own that bar. Bounce. Judges. It’s kind of hard to remember what I said to him because my adrenaline is surging just as much as his. The only difference is that I’m holding mine in check so that I can direct energy to what he needs to do. But the timing of Brent’s third attempt and Chris’ second attempt was nearly simultaneous. I watched from afar as Brent hit a solid third attempt, getting his weight and thus preventing the act of me kicking the shit out of him.
Instantly back to Chris as he steps the bar out of the rack slow, robotic. It’s not quite 600 pounds, but he’s still raw, and it’s still 585. He gets set, and his knees fidget slightly because of his adrenaline and the weight. I think the god damn things were locked out, but the head judge commanded him to walk it back in. She said that his knees weren’t locked. I asked the back judge how much time we had. About 20 seconds.
“Hold on Chris. Take a breath.”
I had him wait a few seconds.
“All right, let’s get it!”
As he un-racked it a second time, I cued his straight knees. She gave him the squat command, and he sucked in as much air as he could, and descended. There was a bounce. Not a bounce that I’m used to seeing out of Chris Riley, but a bounce nonetheless. The rep wasn’t easy, and the crowd shouted with his effort as he rode the bounce up at an even, non-fast pace. He got the top to the crowd’s delight. That rep wasn’t easy, but I knew I could summon his effort to hit 600. We didn’t get all dressed up for nothing, so that’s what I called for.
It was the waiting game again. After a few hours of running around, standing their watching the attempts ticked by seemed to take an eternity. I showed Chris that he was 9 attempts out with my fingers. Then 7. Then 5. It was almost time. It was almost time to smite the mighty giant, that milestone barrier called 600 pounds.
Chris paced. He fumed. He gritted his teeth. I motioned to him that he was one attempt out. I signaled for him to remove the headphones and tighten his belt. He met me at the chalk bucket. This was it. Bounce. Don’t quit. This is what we’ve been waiting for. You own that bar. Listen to the judges, and then BOUNCE that shit up. You own that bar. Go take it.
His face contorted into a grimace. Tears welled in his eyes. His whole body shook. He was ready. He strode to the bar and lay his shaking hands on it. He let out a battle cry. Twice. He paused right before getting under the bar and gasped for air. He heaved the bar out of the rack and inched it back with pounding footsteps. This isn’t just Mr. Gravity boys and girls, this was 600 pounds on his back. He was wearing a singlet, shoes, and a belt. I cued his knees. He was commanded to squat. He began his descent. The 600 pounds tried to break him, it tried to slam him into the ground. But Chris didn’t show up on that day to get nailed, to get pinned. Chris took that weight lower, and lower, and lower. Suited lifters cringed, they had never been that low before. Chris took it just a bit lower, and the 600 pounds tried to laugh at him, tried to use its momentum to turn him into dust. But Chris wouldn’t be denied. His body tensed as it recoiled, it rebounded, and it bounced. His hips drove that bar out of the grave it tried to dig, and they drove him up…slowly. The crowd thundered throughout the gym, lifters and family alike were screaming one word over and over: UP. The weight tried to push him down, but Chris obeyed the commands of the hundreds of eyes that rested upon him. His face grimaced in strain, and he pushed harder and harder, up and up. At last, he stood once again, with that 600 pounds defeated on his back. Chris Riley was victorious.
He racked the weight, relieved the tension on the bar, and stooped down and howled like a barbarian who has conquered his enemy. He turned away from the 600 pounds, and looked me in the eye. My throat was raw. His eyes were as red as his singlet. He had almost been defeated, but his eyes told me, “We did it.”
Minutes later his family surrounded him, congratulated him. I hung back out of the crowd and fought hard to hold back a sob.
To be continued.