Lessons from Powerlifter Ed Coan - GOAT
Ed Coan = Truth
It was glorious way to spend time. I sat ten feet away from Ed Coan as he guided a small group of lucky trainees through a four-hour-long seminar at Tyson’s Playground, a fabulous hardcore facility in Tysons Corner, Virginia. Owned and operated by Ken Stewart, this was one of the finest commercial gyms I had been in for over a decade. The gym’s motto, ‘We Box, We Lift, We Row’ struck a respondent chord in my alpha heart. If I lived in the area, this assuredly would become my gym.
Ed and I had spent a long day the previous day at a massive bodybuilding gym with a decidedly different vibe then Tyson’s Playground. Ed, powerlifting God Ray Williams, and I, gathered on a raised platform to provide live color commentary for the Virginia State Powerlifting Championships and a high-level regional strongman competition. To accommodate the massive number of competitors and spectators, the competitions took place at a much larger nearby bodybuilding gym. The Coan seminar took place at Tyson’s Playground.
I loved the contrast: the bodybuilding gym was all about shaping and sculpting the body in ways decoupled from performance. Ken Stewart’s gym was all about improving athletic performance. By dramatically improving performance the human body metamorphosizes of its own accord. As one of my two acolytes in attendance succinctly observed, “Marty, there are no mirrors in this gym.” referring to Ken’s alpha gym. Mirrors covered the walls of the bodybuilding gym, a kaleidoscope of funhouse mirrors populated with intense posers. Ken Stewart’s gym was the right gym to host a Coan seminar, i.e., the right vibe, the right strength equipment, a strength-training facility, not a body-building gym.
I hadn’t seen Ed, my friend of 40 years, in a long while. I was apprehensive. Time changes people. I had no need to be apprehensive about Ed: reuniting was as effortless as seeing a long-lost relative, it was a nonevent, Irish cousins reuniting, it was as if we’d seen each other yesterday. We worked together, we flowed, comment and counter comment, recollections, amplification on the recollection, all effortless, seamless. Ray Williams was joy: his insights profound and delivered with an Alabama patois that was like warm floral honey to my Arkansas ears. Ed, Ray, and I were together continually for two days, culminating in Ed’s Sunday seminar.
Coan’s seminar approach was pure gold. One profundity after another. Coan is the undisputable highest authority on the face of the planet when it comes to absolute strength, which differs from explosive strength, or sustained strength. Coan amplifies on his unsurpassable credentials with a “sophisticatedly simplistic system of strength.” With 30 years of seminar experience under his lifting belt, his approach is honed and refined to razor sharpness. His template is classic: workshop the core lifts, followed by sit-down Q&A.
Coan has the Irish gift for gab and the spoken word comes easy to him. He imparts his wisdom with a bunkhouse logic delivered in an easy, ingratiating way. He is one of a kind. Coan has been retired for quite a while and in his 59 years he has conducted hundreds of seminars. He has travelled the world and continues to travel the globe relating his idiosyncratic approach. He is known and worshipped in Russia and Eastern Europe, he has taught to overflow crowds in China, Australia, Europe, South America, Southeast Asia, Japan, and Scandinavia.
So here we were, on a lovely Sunday morning in northern Virginia with Ed Coan. A dozen incredibly lucky people were about to receive one-on-one strength training instruction, techniques and tactics, from the GOAT of powerlifting. Ed, as I explained in my introduction to Coan at this seminar, was, at his stratospheric peak, was 13% better than the rest of the world. That is unprecedented in any sport – never has a man been 13% better than the next best in the world. Ed is powerlifting’s Jim Brown, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordon…the greatest of the great.
The rest of the world that Ed bested were no crew of second-rate slackers: the next best in the world in the 220-pound weight class (when Coan was peaking) were future hall-of-fame guys: Fred, Dr. Squat, Hatfield (880-squat, 220-pound class,) multi-time world champion and world record holder Jim Cash, (837-pound deadlift @220) national champion Joe Ladiner, 9-time world champion Larry Pacifico, all these greats were clustered around the 2,100-pound three lift total for years. Here comes Ed Coan totaling 2,400, including the historic 901-pound deadlift. Our minds were blown.
I wrote the book, Coan, The Man, The Myth, The Method back in the 1990s. We snapshotted Coan and his training right at the apogee of his performance curve. Today that book sells for 500 euros all over Europe and $500 a copy here in the USA. Ed has always espoused what I term a “power-bodybuilding” approach.
Coan centers his training template around the periodization of four lifts: squat, bench press, deadlift, and behind-the-neck press. He augments these four core lifts with a wide assortment of assistance exercises, and auxiliary exercises designed to identify and address weaknesses.
The first part of the Coan seminar was a workshop. He explained how he wanted to proceed: everyone would work through their squat warm-ups on the way to a top set of 2-5 reps. Ed cast a sharp eye on every rep of every set and would offer pithy commentary and exacting specifics of what he wanted the lifter to change on the next set. This is where, for me, things got interesting.
Coan and I are members of the same Iron Church. We have been members of this congregation for forty years. We worship the same things. Both of us totally aligned and synced-up on techniques and tactics. Now, four decades down the highway, I am a Cardinal in this Iron Church and Ed Coan is the Iron Pope.
It was wonderful to sit back and watch his one man show, a strength training instructional tour de force. Coan disseminated enough strength wisdom to provide a serious trainee a lifetime’s worth of things to work on, to incorporate, to improve upon. The card game Texas Hold’em has a motto, ‘the game takes five minutes to learn and a lifetime to master.” I would paraphrase this pithy bon mot: a Coan seminar takes three hours to undergo and provides a lifetime of homework.
As a high priest in our Iron Church, and I too have put on dozens and dozens of strength seminars over the past four decades. My seminar approach differs dramatically from Ed’s. Ed is a solo performer; I work with a band. My natural inclination is to have some of my friends participate. Ed is Keith Jarrett or Glenn Gould on a solo piano tour. I have my expert friends offer their input and spin. I set the table, my seminar cohosts riff on the premise.
Whereas both our approaches stress the identical technical archetypes, how we get there differs radically. Ed is a master of modifying ‘what is,’ whereas we teardown and rebuild from the ground up. If, during a Coan seminar, a trainee needs five sets to get to their “top set,” that trainee is given five “course corrections” by Coan, five times Coan looks and corrects. He has a razor-sharp memory: firstly, did they successfully incorporate the previous technical correction? If so, he would give them a new refinement.
By the end of working through a lift under Ed’s eye, the trainee that successfully incorporates Coan’s corrections, is performing the lift far more efficiently and in a technically precise, non-injurious fashion. There is a scene the movie Zoolander in which Derek looks at Matilda and says, “Let me redo your hair.” Derek’s hands are a whirl for 10-seconds before revealing Matilda’s incredible makeover. So, it was like watching Coan work. “Let me redo your squat technique.” Ten minutes later they are squatting like Kirk Karwoski on a good day.
After replicating the same format on the bench press and deadlift, Ed sat everyone down and had an extended question and answer session. He patiently answered every single question and posed a few unasked questions to fill in some gaps. Programming and tactics were gone into at length and in depth. When it was over, after lots of photos and selfies, Ed hopped on a plane to his next seminar in North Carolina. My two young lifters were on cloud nine on the car ride home.
I sat in the back as they jabbered away in the front seat about ‘the greatness of Ed.’ For some reason I thought of the ending of the classic western movie Shane, where the little kid runs down the road shouting “Shane! Come Back Shane!” My boys up front, reduced to slobbering fanboys, were subconsciously shouting, “Ed! Come back Ed!” He has that effect on alpha boys.
About the Author - Marty Gallagher
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 multiple 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 for a more in depth look at his credentials as an athlete, coach and writer.