How The Weightlifting Elite Get Psyched Up Before A Big Lift

In powerlifting we have a cliché, “there are four types of lifters: looks like Jane, lifts like Jane; looks like Tarzan, lifts like Jane; looks like Jane, lifts like Tarzan; looks like Tarzan, lifts like Tarzan.”

I looked like Jane and lifted like Tarzan, I was a “head” lifter, not a “body” lifter. Because I had a really good gym psych, I got more out of my body than it was actually capable of. I was a physiological over-achiever. I had a training partner that was built to powerlift: thick, dense, consistent and dedicated – yet his lifts were less than mine, me being 40-pounds lighter. He made two of me, yet because he was mild-mannered and unable to create gym psych, he was a physiological underperformer.

Optimally, the lifter channels the deep-seated primal psych that lies within all of us. Those that look like Tarzan and lift like Tarzan meld mind and body. Here are men I trained with, national and world champions. Each had memorable and identifiable psych up procedures….

  • Hugh Cassidy, world champion: despite being a reserved, non-demonstrative person, Cassidy was big believer in gym psych. He had devised a unique Zen-based psych where he took three “cooling breaths” that would make hairs on the back of his arms stand erect as goosebumps appeared all over his body. Another Cassidy psych tactic was “people psych.” Since we trained in a basement, when we headed to the competition lifting in front of strangers took our game to the next level. He recognized and formalized training psych to such an effective degree that he routinely squatted and deadlifted 50-pounds more in competition than he did in training.
  • Mark Chaillet, world champion, world record holder: Mark was ferocious for real. A natural athlete, had he been 6-inches taller he would have been an NFL center. Ape-strong, he was a natural gym psych master. He effortlessly redirected pure rage at a barbell. It is one thing to generate rage, all true alpha males are capable of that – the successful redirection is trickier. Mark had a formalized procedure. He would stride to the chalk box and after chalking his hands, either his brother Ray or I would open a small bottle containing the pent-up gases of four busted ammonia snappers. With chalked hands, Mark would stare at the barbell, his eyes would go wide and he’d shake his head and grunt. That was our signal to unscrew the lid. He’d shut his eyes (so they would not get burnt) and would take three inhales, each punctuated by a successively louder bellow. After his third inhalation and battle cry, he’d stomp to the bar and hurl himself at the 900 + squat or 850 + deadlift. Scary for real. With his power and quickness, he’d be able to rip a man apart.
  • Mark Dimiduk, national & world champion: this guy was bad-to-the-bone for real. By age 25 he was a DC undercover cop, a narc, right out of the Wire. Standing 5-10, he won the USPF nationals and IPF world championship with a 775-pound squat, 485-pound shirtless bench press and 775-pound deadlift weighing 219. Mark used music to work himself up. He was a huge ACDC fan, he’d play it at top volume to put himself into a stony trance state. I refused to work his corner at competitions; he was a difficult personality but a great lifter. He demanded subservience of his “students.” In one memorable training session at his condo, I side-spotted as he walked a 755-pound squat out of the racks. After he set it up and was ready to squat, one of his boys came up from behind and gently placed a pair of massive Koss headphones on the boss’ head. He repped it for five then screamed at the kid till he pissed his pants for being late to take them off. To me he tapped into some dark power to his advantage, a satanic gym psycher.
  • Don Mills, national & world master champion: quiet efficiency, Don was a mild-mannered man with a great job, a great wife and family. He also happened to be the greatest “master” (over-40) powerlifter in history. Don was short, squat, muscular, lean and built for powerlifting. Standing maybe 5-5, at 219 pounds at age 56 he squatted 700 (IPF style, 2-inches below parallel) bench pressed 500 and deadlifted 700. He won six IPF world championships in a row and could have won twice that had he not had a fear of flying.  He finally overcame his phobia (through hypnosis) in later years. I coached Don at a dozen competitions. He would stay calm as a cucumber all through the warm-ups, loose, funny, unfazed. As he stood and chalked his hands right before a big lift he would flip a switch and morph from Clark Kent into Superman. Like Cassidy, Don was not demonstrative like the younger lifters. It was only up close that you saw civilized man morph into killer-warrior. The instant the killer-warrior was not needed, he reverted, instantaneously back to Mr. Nice Man.
  • Kirk Karwoski, national & world champion, world record holder: I think Kirk got more out of his gym psych than any lifter I have ever seen. During the warm-ups he would listen to his Walkman, this helped drown out the cacophony and upset that is the backstage area of any national or world powerlifting championship. By staying under the headphones Kirk would stay centered and focused. Once the warm-ups were done, and while waiting to lift, Kirk would listen to music and pace: ten steps one direction, wheel, walk back ten paces, listening to the same song, the same music, over and over, getting deeper into the trance of pure psych. I would signal him with fingers how much time we had before he was up. When it was his turn he would whip off the Walkman, stride to the chalk box and begin to snort and vibrate. He’d stride onstage and electrify the audience with a final massive bellow that invariably brought the house to their feet, he would then attack the barbell. Kirk was a Rockstar in Europe. I felt his other-worldly psych made him 5% better.

About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He’s coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat and Ed Coan when he posted his earth shattering 2,464 total. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth” and numerous others.