Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Interview with Elite Powerlifter Trevor Pfaendtner


Trevor Pfaendtner is extremely strong. In fact, he is the strongest guy I have seen in person, although I haven’t attended any powerlifting meets. I have seen him high-bar back squat 505lb for 3 sets (6, 5, 4 reps) and bench press 345lb for 8 reps.

Trevor is 27 years old, 6 feet tall, and 281lb. He has lifted weights for 14 years and competed in powerlifting for 8 years. As a raw powerlifter (with belt and knee wraps) in the open 275lb weight class, he has achieved the following elite numbers:

• 1RM (1 rep-max) back squat 666lb
• 1RM bench press 479lb
• 1RM deadlift 606lb
• Total: 1751lb (elite)

As a geared powerlifter in the junior 275lb weight class, he has achieved the following elite numbers:

• 1RM back squat 745lb
• 1RM bench press 710lb
• 1RM deadlift 625lb
• Total: 2080lb (elite)

As a geared powerlifter in the open 308lb weight class, he has achieved the following elite numbers:

• 1RM back squat 749lb
• 1RM bench press 722lb
• 1RM deadlift 604lb
• Total: 2075lb (elite)

Furthermore, Trevor is a doctor of osteopathic medicine, family medicine resident, and a consultant for Renaissance Periodization.

Given Trevor’s impressive accomplishments, I was eager to interview him and learn from him.

Note: unless stated otherwise, all exercises listed here are barbell exercises.



Many readers may be unfamiliar with powerlifting. Can you tell us briefly what powerlifting is? And what exactly is the difference between geared/multiply powerlifting and raw powerlifting?

Powerlifting is the sport of lifting weights—specifically, competing in the squat, bench, and deadlift. In competition, you perform three attempts at each lift. The heaviest attempt at each lift is added together for your total which is what determines the winner of the competition. Athletes are organized by age, weight, sex, and in some cases lifting equipment. Raw powerlifting is generally considered to be only using a belt, but some federations will allow knee sleeves or knee wraps. Geared powerlifting allows for supportive clothing such as bench shirts and squat suits to be worn. These devices were originally designed to help protect the hips and shoulders, but evolved to be far more than just safety measures as they allow the lifter to handle heavier weight than they could otherwise. In competition, geared lifters compete against geared lifters only.

How did you first get into powerlifting?

My brother introduced me to weightlifting when I was about 12 years old when he would go train for football (he is 4.5 years older than me) and I continued to lift for sports when I got to high school. Once I went away to college and wasn't playing any organized sports anymore, I would end up linking up with the powerlifting club on campus my freshman year.

Many guys lift weights through high school and college but stop once they enter the “real world” and start working “normal,” full-time jobs. What about powerlifting (or weight training in general) has made you pursue it for 8-14 years?

I really enjoy the process of building toward concrete goals. I want to bench press 500lb and when my bench increases little by little at each competition, I can tell that I have made quantifiable progress. Powerlifting is an avenue for stress relief as well. It offers an opportunity to be in control of a facet of my life when so much of the rest of my life is in other people's hands. I continue to lift because I love doing it and because I have goals that I have not yet met.

What are the three most important lessons you have learned from powerlifting?

Work hard, train intelligently, and don't let lifting be the only focus of your life.

What was your first strength training or powerlifting program? For how long (roughly) did you run it? How effective was it?

For the four years of high school, I did whatever the football coaches told us to do, which was basic linear kind of programming if anything at all. Then I started trying some routines.

How long were you training before you achieved a 315lb bench press, 405lb back squat, and 495lb deadlift (all 1RMs)?

Well in high school I benched 315lb as a junior weighing around 200lb. I squatted (high) 405lb for 6 reps at one point and deadlifted around 500lb with the trap bar, but all of this was with terrible form. At that point, I had been training as the football coaches told me for 3 or 4 years I guess. By graduation I was benching around 350lb with poor form and had more or less stopped squatting and deadlifting. Once I got to college, at my first competition I squatted 468lb, benched 325lb, and deadlifted 550lb at 204lb. That was after maybe 4 months of dedicated powerlifting training doing a basic 5 x 5 pyramid.

Many strength trainees follow a novice linear progression (e.g. Starting Strength), exhaust it, become early intermediate strength trainees, and then get stuck in the intermediate stage for a long time. They may hop from one program to another, since there are so many intermediate strength programs available.

What are some guiding principles you would recommend for an early intermediate strength trainee?

Learn the technique as well as possible and put in as much heavy, high volume work as you can until it stops working. Find people stronger than you and ask for help. Do what they tell you to do. They know more by default.

What are some guiding principles you would recommend for an advanced intermediate strength trainee?

Keep working on technique and more volume work. Chances are they are focusing more on strength than they should and neglect hypertrophy work.

What are some guiding principles you would recommend for an advanced strength trainee?

I couldn't say as I consider myself to be in the category above.

In the past, you’ve said that, for intermediate and advanced lifters, it’s good to cycle through different variations of a given movement. For example, instead of training the bench press 52 weeks per year, you could spend 4-8 weeks training the bench press, 4-8 weeks training the incline bench press, 4-8 weeks training the close-grip bench press, 4-8 weeks training the DB bench press, and so on.

Do you recommend cycling for the primary movement (e.g. the bench press) or only for assistance exercises?

I would say cycle everything, but keep it specific to the sport you are training for. Doing cleans could be fun, but it will do nothing for my bench. I cycle my main movements essentially every month to some degree and my accessory movements more or less monthly, but there are only minor variations on what I change them to.

What are the benefits of cycling through different variations?

Based on research, people tend to stop responding to repeated stimulation of the same kind. Variation in the stimulation allows for new adaptations to be made.

After a period of time, which is specific for each lifter, the body will adapt to a stimulus and no longer make improvements, or at least will not do so as effectively. This is more pronounced in more advanced lifters as they require greater and greater stimulus to achieve disruption in homeostasis that will promote meaningful adaptations. Variation can come in the form of volume, intensity, and exercise selection. Changing the movements too often does not allow the body a chance to adapt to the new stimulus effectively. I like monthly or every two month switches as they seem to be the sweet spot for allowing improvement without getting stale.

What if I vary the stimulus but it leads to a new adaptation that decreases my overall strength? For example, if I do stiff-legged deadlifts instead of deadlifts or incline bench press instead of bench press, then it seems that I may lose overall strength because I will be using lighter weights for the stiff-legged deadlifts and incline bench press than for the deadlifts and bench press. Or are the deadlift and bench press variations making you stronger overall because they’re strengthening weak points: the posterior-chain (lower back, glutes, hamstrings) for the stiff-legged deadlift and the upper chest, shoulders, and triceps for the incline bench press?

You want to pick exercises that are still relatively specific to the goal at hand. You pick exercises that will build weak points and promote improvement of the competition lifts. Getting better at SLDL will very likely improve your conventional deadlift, but high volume hamstring curls will do little to improve your deadlift as it is not similar enough to the main movement to carry over. The intensity that can be achieved with SLDL is vastly greater than that of the hamstring curl. If done correctly, these variations can help to build strength, not detract from it.

In particular, what exercises do you recommend cycling through for the back squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press?

I stick to low bar and high bar squatting, with rare months of buffalo (slight camber) bar squatting. For deadlift I switch between stiff legged, deficit, and full range pulling. For bench press I use close grip, medium grip, wide grip (rarely), floor press (rarely), and incline work of varying grips. I also incorporate a lot of heavy triceps movements such as JM press, French press, and rolling barbell triceps extensions on the floor. I rarely train overhead press as I have never found it to help my bench press.

When you compete, do you use the low bar or high bar position for the back squat? How do you incorporate each into your training?

I train both high and low bar depending on where I am in the cycle, but I compete low bar with knee wraps exclusively. My offseason (any time not in strength or peaking phases) I will mostly do high bar work to build my quads bigger. Closer to competition I do competition style lifting in preparation.

Do you think the front squat is ever a good substitute for the back squat? Or is the front squat only good as an assistance exercise for the back squat?

Front squat can be a good adjunct to the back squat. It can be great for building quad strength and size, but I can't perform the movement due to shoulder pain so I do not do it. Really it depends on what your goals are. I want my back squat to get better for competition, so I focus more on that anyway.

What do you think about the leg press as an assistance exercise for the back squat or deadlift?

It can be good for hypertrophy work as an assistance exercise.

What are you thinking when you’re setting up to perform a 600lb+ back squat or deadlift? Are you trying to focus only on executing the movement and thinking about nothing else? Are you practicing no-mind? Or are you telling yourself certain cues or affirmations?

Before a big lift I get excited because this is what I love to do. I used to be more into the idea of getting angry before a lift, but it gets to be exhausting to focus on negativity when lifting is supposed to be my time away from life stress. Most often I am just thinking that I will lift the weight and watch the video afterwards to see where I can make improvements. Sometimes I will make a conscious effort to focus on keeping my knees out or something like that.

Suppose someone lifts weights, weighs 200lb, eats Paleo, and wants to increase his weight to 210lb or 220lb. What is the simplest way for him to do this, while still eating Paleo (largely)? Just eat a lot more protein and a lot more starchy carbs (e.g. sweet potatoes, white rice, and brown rice)? Eat six meals per day instead of five?

Eat more than you burn. You have to be in a hypercaloric state to grow. Whether that is Paleo or Wendy's you need more calories in. People always say "I eat a ton." Well, it's not enough if you're not growing.

Have you ever had a serious injury that required surgery? If so, how long did it take you to recover from the surgery? How long did it take you to re-gain your previous strength levels? What was your mindset when you were going through the process of re-building your strength?

I have been fortunate that I have avoided surgery. I dislocated my elbow in high school during a wrestling match. I was away from lifting for three months to allow for healing and PT. While in a splint I was still doing the leg press and a lateral delt raise machine. In retrospect I should have done more. By the time the PT was done, I think was back to benching 325lb within two months maybe. I just kept training and was happy to be back at it.

In general, how do you motivate yourself? What are your most effective methods? For example, do you tell yourself certain affirmations? Do you listen to certain kinds of music when working out? Do you have certain role models?

I stay motivated just by how much I enjoy the process like I said before. I get antsy if I have to take time off. I would suggest finding something that keeps it interesting and fun for you. That way, there is no motivation struggle; it is just go do the thing you love. I like to listen to a fair amount of heavy metal, but I will also throw on Black Keys or something a little mellower. More often than not though, I don't listen to my own music while I train because it is one more thing to keep track of and can be a distraction. I look up to the top guys for their ability and technique, and I look up to the older guys who keep grinding away and putting up consistent results. Brian Schwab and Ed Coan come to mind.

What advice would you give to someone entering their first powerlifting competition?

Don't cut weight. Just go in as strong as you can and have fun. Try to learn something while you're there. Talk to someone stronger than you are and see if you can get advice. However, wait until they are done lifting. Not everyone is looking to mentor someone between squat attempts. Go for PRs. Don't worry about official records until you are more advanced.

What do you think about CrossFit?

CrossFit, like anything, has the potential to be really awful if not done correctly. I think that the longer it is around, the more intelligent programming coaches emerge. It can be a great way for people to get in shape and to get good at doing CrossFit, but I wouldn't say it is a good way to accomplish much else. It won't make you a better football player, soccer player, etc.

When it comes to learning about strength training, do you try to read and learn as much as possible? Or do you read very selectively in order to avoid information overload and not waste time? Do you just stick with your current knowledge base, which you have learned through experience and past research?

I have read different training methodology books over the years and tried to learn something from each one. I would say it is important to learn a lot early on, but don't overdo it. I have met lifters who read everything and over-analyze everything, but never got any real work done because they were too focused on the minutia. Try to find reputable, scientifically backed stuff that has been proven to work. My training really took off once I started following the style of training that Renaissance Periodization puts out. It is all research based and has helped to put hundreds of pounds on my total. I think that after lifters get some experience (years), then they can start looking at ways to reinvent the wheel.

What are your hobbies, outside of your professional life and athletic/fitness life?

Time doesn't allow for much else, but spending time with my wife and dogs, playing X-box and just hanging around with friends when I can.

How do you balance your professional life (being a family medicine resident), your athletic/fitness life (powerlifting), your hobbies, your social life, and your marriage life? How do you manage your time?

I try to compartmentalize and prioritize as much as I can. I focus on work when at work and focus on everything else when I am not at work. When I train, it is only about training, but I have gotten a lot better at being more efficient with my time in the gym. I used to spend 3 hours at each session, but now I get to be around hour and a half at most. I try to coordinate as best as I can with my wife's work schedule so we can spend time together and not neglect the dogs. This goes back to question #5: powerlifting is a huge part of my life, but it is only a part. Everything else is more important and once I solidified that in my mind while in medical school, my lifting improved. It took the stress aspect out of chasing numbers. It's great when it works out, but it's better when I get to spend time with family.

Did you play sports in high school or college?

High school: football 4 years, wrestling 2 years, track 2 years
College: powerlifting starting freshman year—bodyweight increased from 200lb to 260lb in 4 years

How did you meet your wife?

What is your favorite quotation?

"More weight."

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