Forged Passion - Powerlifter Brad Gillingham
This multi-time world champion has made more 800-pound deadlifts than any man in history
Powerlifting was very lucky to get Brad Gillingham. Usually topflight athletes are drawn to other more lucrative sports, or sports with higher profiles. Brad Gillingham took up powerlifting after an injury derailed his basketball career. He began weighing a super-lean 225 pounds, spread over a 6’5” inch frame. He entered his first powerlifting competition in 1990 and won his first national championship in 1997, just seven short years later.
I met Brad Gillingham that year. I had watched him lift and win his first national title and had been extremely impressed. I thought he was the most exciting superheavyweight lifter I had seen since Shane Hamman. I was initially struck by his sheer size. Brad is 6’5” with wide shoulders, narrow hips and long legs. At 300+ pounds he appeared trim and athletic. Brad was built all wrong for powerlifting, a sport that favors short, squat men with short arms and legs. Yet Gillingham quickly became one of the world’s best bench pressers and deadlfters. His long legs made squats problematic: the man built all wrong for barbell squatting eventually squatted 880-pounds.
His dad was Gale Gillingham, the NFL all-star lineman. Gale was Brad’s coach at the 1997 nationals. I remember watching Brad warm-up backstage for the squat. Despite Brad weighing 300 + pounds, his dad would grab his squat suit straps from behind and in an effort to make the tight squat suit fit better, Gale, dark and bearded and ominous, would lift Brad clean off his feet and shake him like a rag doll. It was a casual display of raw power that ran in this family of Ice Giants. Brad won that year in convincing fashion.
That night I left a note with the hotel desk to see if the new national champion would like to have breakfast with me the following morning. He came down to meet me and his eyes got big as saucers when he saw that I’d asked Ed Coan, Gene Bell, Bobby Myers and Anthony D’Arrezo to join us. I told him how impressed we’d all been with his debut. I took a picture of us after breakfast that is on page 140 of my book, The Purposeful Primitive. This was the start of a friendship that runs to this day. Brad was then at the front end of a twenty-year powerlifting career.
Brad Gillingham went on to win fourteen national titles. Brad is a six-time IPF world champion. He has deadlifted 800 pounds (or more) in competition more than any other man in history (102). Gillingham won the pro deadlift competition at the Arnold Classic for six straight years. He has deadlifted 900, bench pressed 633 and squatted 880. Notably, in a sport riddled with performance-enhancing drugs, Brad has been a lifetime 100% drug free lifter. He was inducted into the International Powerlifting Hall of Fame in 2006 and for a fifteen-year period he was the dominant American super heavyweight lifter.
Brad has two brothers, Karl and Wade, that are equally imposing. The Gillingham family is the very definition of genetically gifted. But genetics aren’t enough. At the top athletic levels, regardless the sport, everyone has great genetics – otherwise they wouldn’t be at the top levels. What separates the champions from all the other genetic wonders is work ethic and expert coaching. Brad has a savage work ethic. He trains heavy, long and hard; he is intensely curious and has a sophisticated training mind. He has riddled long and hard as to how best to overcome his structural disadvantages in order to become the best in the world.
Brad Gillingham is a high volume/high intensity trainer who likes to train and trains a lot. He is a co-owner of Jackal’s Gym and as a gym owner he spends a good bit of time in the gym. Brad is extremely intellectual in his strength training approach and he has developed a series of highly evolved protocols and strategies that have proven incredibly effective. Those built all wrong for powerlifting have to work twice as hard and be twice as smart. Because of how much thought he has given to the strength paradigm, Brad is a skilled coach. Despite living in a small town of 10,000, he has taken nine local lifters to the IPF World Championships.
Born in 1966, Brad Gillingham's father was Gale Gillingham, an eleven-year NFL veteran and the starting guard for (twice world champions) Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers. Brad is 6’5 and in competition weighs 330. Brad was athletic from birth. In high school he high jumped 6 foot 8 inches. What better indicator of explosive strength could there be? While a high school senior, Brad once shattered a fiberglass backboard with a power dunk. “That was one of the early athletic highlights of my young life.” He related. “A basketball coach had been riding me all session and I took out all frustration and pent-up anger during a layup drill.” This was an early indicator that the thin boy might have unusual strength.
An injury ended his collegiate basketball career. Brad graduated college and began a career (he has worked for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for decades) and a family (he has a wife and two teenage daughters.) He competed in his first powerlifting competition in 1990 and by 1997 he was the national champion. His rapid rise and continued longevity speak to his ability to lift world record-level poundage – yet avoid injury.
Oddly, his most serious injuries did not occur in powerlifting. He was a regular competitor in the Strong Man competition held every year at the Arnold Classic. During the Farmer’s Walk event Brad ripped his right bicep so badly it required surgery. Determined to comeback from the injury, he rehabbed the torn bicep for a full year. The following year he was recovered and returned to the Arnold. He sailed through the competition until the Heavy Medicine Ball Throw. He had tremendous trepidation and was worried about reinjuring the rehabbed arm. The injured arm held up fine: he tore the bicep in the other arm. Two identical injuries on each bicep in the same contest in two successive years. Thus ended Brad’s career as one of the world’s premier strongmen.
He found that conventional barbell lifting did not bother the damaged biceps and continued with his powerlifting career. In the world of international powerlifting, Brad had to deal with a continual and reoccurring phenomenon: Eastern European powerlifters would beat him at the world championships and then flunk the drug test. In the United States, the USAPL, the American affiliate of the IPF, is extremely serious about out-of-competition drug testing. Brad has been drug tested over 80 times and is routinely and regularly subjected to out-of-competition drug testing.
The attitude of the governing bodies of the Eastern European is different. They don’t do out of competition drug testing and will take their chances at the world championships: at the world championship, in every weight class, three athletes are selected at random for testing. The odds are pretty good that a cheating lifter will not be tested. The offending countries basically say, “All our athletes are clean. We’ll take our chances with the random testing.” This is a lot more cost effective than the USAPL sending drug testers all around the country on a continual basis.
Brad Gillingham is the last one to point out the reoccurring phenomenon: each year some new foreign lifter appears from out of nowhere and beats Brad – only to be banned. That guy disappears and next year some new guy appears. Maybe the new guy gets lucky in the random testing and doesn’t get tested. How maddening it must have been for Brad to have deal with state-sponsored drug cheats on a regularly reoccurring basis.
It is a testament to Brad’s character that he just plowed right through it. Instead of continually venting and emoting about the systemic corruption within powerlifting, instead of carping about the unfairness of it all, instead of bitching that member nations were blatantly sending gassed athletes to compete in drug-free world championships, Brad just showed up and took care of business.
This version of forged passion manifests in relentless application; regardless the competition, Brad Gillingham just shows up and throws down. Makes no difference who is competing because for Gillingham the battle is between him and the barbell. If he equals or exceeds his best efforts in that training cycle, then regardless if he wins or places 5th he has done his job. Insofar as the rest of it, that is beyond his control and as Lady McBeth once said, “Things without reform should be without regret.” We will get him on the podcast to talk about training and longevity.
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. 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, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.