World's Greatest Powerlifter - Ed "King" Coan
Training mentors: similarities and contrasts
Ed Coan’s first world record (above) July 1984: deadlifting 791-pound weighing 180-pounds
I saw Ed Coan in action for the first time in 1984 when I was at the USPF National Powerlifting Championships coaching Mark Challiet in the 275-pound class. That weekend Mark deadlifted 852-pounds after squatting his first official 900. Mark lifted on Sunday and took second place. We arrived Friday and watched the smaller lifters on Saturday. The star of the first day was the winner of the 181-pound class, young Ed Coan.
Coan really got my attention with his lifting. He certainly did not get it with his physique. Do not get me wrong, Ed had a great physique, lean and athletic, a wrestler’s body. However, this was the national powerlifting championships, the land of the giants, and Ed was not going to scare anybody at this event. I would have figured this lean, fit guy for a 550-squat, a 350-bench press and perhaps a 630-pound deadlift, great lifting at 181-pounds. When he opened with something like 750 in the squat, I figured this had to be a misload or a mistake. Expecting catastrophe, I watched with real apprehension as Ed took forever wiggling into place under the squat bar. He manhandled the barbell, effortlessly squatting this ponderous poundage, sinking it unquestionably below parallel.
After he squatted 804, I had that same shocked look people on the street have when David Blaine cuts open a basketball and pulls out the 3 of diamonds card they had just picked out of the fanned deck and signed with a felt pen. I was equally incredulous. Coan then bench-pressed and equally miraculous 501 with arms could not have been 16-inches in circumference. I thought back a few years at how amazed I was when I saw Mike McDonald set a world record in the 181 class with a 521-pound effort. This youngster pushed 20-pounds less with yawning ease. He certainly had more bench press in him that day.
He put the cherry on the powerlifting sundae by using impeccable sumo deadlift technique to pull his first world record: a sensational 791-pound effort, again with strength to spare. The sport sculpts the physique and for this reason powerlifters are uniformly gargantuan, human mastodons with thick bones and oversized muscles; their comic book physical proportions make them proficient at moving massive weights for short distances.
Ed Coan was the unlikeliest world record holder I had ever seen, and I had seen a lot of them. He reminded me of one of the great Finnish lifters. At the 1991 IPF world championships in Orebro, Sweden I saw Jamo Virtanen (Jarmo’s brother) do three successive standing broad jumps that covered 30-feet. He weighed 165 and deadlifted 732 that same day. The Finns all pulled using the same flawless sumo style I saw Ed use. At 180-pounds, Coan had that same rugged, athletic, functional look the best Finnish lifters had.
I thought Coan had a great future career in the 181-pound class and envisioned him crushing all competition at the world championships. I saw him pushing the deadlift record up to 830 + pounds. Ed had other ideas: he went into the woodshed and added 20-pounds of pure muscle. He emerged to shock the world as a 198-pound class lifter. Coan began shattering the existing world records then continued by shattering his own newly set world records. He ultimately posted a three-lift total of 2,205 pounds in the 198-pound class. This was science fiction stuff.
This incredible feat exceeded the world 3-lift total record in the 198-pound class, the 220-pound class, and the 242-pound class. John Kuc’s world record total in the 242-pound class (2,201) had stood for 13 years – now a 195-pound youngster weighing 50-pounds less comes along to exceed the great Kuc!? This was unprecedented. Unfortunately, Ed had torn a quarter size hole in one of his pectorals during training and his bench press plummeted. Ed bench pressed 501-pounds raw at 181. When he set his 2,204-pound total record, he bench-pressed a mere 483. He was doing unprecedented lifting while wounded.
Had he not torn that pec, he most certainly would have gone on to bench press 540 in the 198-pound class and 600-pounds raw in the 220-class. As it was, he eventually benched 550 for a touch-and-go raw double weighing 225, which likely would convert into a 575-pound single. This with the damaged pec.
Coan stayed in the 220-pound class for many years. He powered ahead, setting record after record after record, culminating in the greatest feat in powerlifting history: Ed Coan totaled a mind-blowing 2,400-pound total weighing a miniscule 219-pounds. Simultaneously he became the lightest man in history (by far) to deadlift 900-pounds. This was incomprehensible.
At this juncture Ed Coan was lightyears ahead of his contemporaries. At the time Ed posted his historic 2,400-pound total, the next best 220-pound total in the world was 2,105. The 220-pound class was stacked with incredible lifters, hall-of-fame lifters: Larry Pacifico, Jim Cash, Joe Ladiner, Fred “Dr. Squat” Hatfield, John Black, Mark Dimiduk, Ernie Frantz, to name a few that come to mind immediately.
Ed was mathematically 14% better than the best in the world. And the rest of the best were great lifters, not some bunch of subpar slackers. Being 14% better than the rest of the world was unprecedented. As I point out, to equal Coan’s 14% bump, a high jumper would have to come along and push the current 8-foot world record to 9-feet-3-inches. Want to exceed the current 588-pound world record in the clean and jerk by 14%? That would require someone to clean and jerk 670.
His 2,400-pound total weighing 219-pounds exceeded the world total records in the 242 and 275-pound class. Only four superheavyweight lifters in history had at that point posted 2400-pound totals. I was Coan’s competition coach when he accomplished this historic feat. As it turns out, I am a real-life strength version of Forrest Gump. Somehow, I managed to get a front row seat when the greatest lifter in history performed his greatest lifting.
I have been a student of progressive resistance training my entire life. I have long felt that Coan’s approach to strength training was, and remains, pure genius. Underrecognized genius. Ed has always been a training innovator. The first thing to note about the way Ed trained was that each major lift was attacked once a week. Coan treated the press-behind-the-neck as the fourth competitive lift. He would periodize the PBN, something he would not bother to do for minor exercises, i.e. curls, chins, triceps pushdowns, chins, etc.
Ed trained at Quads gym and when preparing for a national or world championship would work his way through a wide range of exercises. Monday was squat day. After hitting the top periodized set of squats, say 855x5, Ed would work his way through thigh/calve/hamstring leg assistance exercises. He used tremendous precision and control when performing assistance exercises. Coan used a methodical pace when he trained, purposeful, relentless.
Wednesday was reserved for bench press. He would work to a top set as dictated by the periodized schedule before reducing the poundage and performing several sets of wide-grip paused bench press and then narrow-grip (touch-and-go) benches. Then onto triceps and abs. Thursday was dedicated to shoulders, Ed periodized the press-behind-the-neck. He felt improving the PBN improved his bench press. After seated pressing, Ed would begin performing various lateral raises. Ed made 400x1 and 350x5 in the PBN weighing 225. Incredible! Around that same time was when he raw bench-pressed 550 for a raw double.
Friday was deadlift day. After working up the his periodized top set of deadlifts, say 845x5, Coan would perform monstrous stiff-leg deadlifts (800+ pounds) and equally monstrous rows (450-500 for reps.) Not yet done, he would move onto auxiliary back work: weighted chins, bent-over laterals, perhaps some seated calves and abs. On Saturday he would come in for some light bench pressing, often with his feet on the bench and not going past 315. He would work his arms, triceps, and biceps.
His approach could be called power-bodybuilding, it was a hybrid system that covered all the bases. Another genius aspect to his approach to training was his insistence that in the off-season, (defined as any time other than preparing for the nationals or worlds) seek to get as strong as possible without wearing any supportive gear. Ed was a master of “disadvantaged” lifting. In the off-season he would experiment. He was able to stand on blocks or weight plates and perform deficit deadlifts with 800 + for reps.
Coan was strong in every movement, be it tricep pushdowns or grip shrugs. His off-season approach was innovative and created terrific contrast with his in-season grind. Make the off-season exciting, exhilarating, and different, then, when it is time to swing back into a 12-week competition prep phase, everything feels fresh and vibrant. Save the grind stuff for the middle and end of the competition phase.
Ed never forced his eating or sought to purposefully push his bodyweight upward. I do not want to say he was indifferent to nutrition, rather, he was hardly obsessed with nutrition. You never caught Coan calculating micro-nutrients or force-feeding, as most of his competitors did. Ed neither smoked nor drank and he was a big believer in the value of deep sleep for maximum recovery. His training strategy struck the balance between hardcore resistance training and nutrition. He consumed lots of nutrient-dense restorative foods that accelerated recovery - yet not so much as to create body fat. His training and eating were underpinned with lots of rest.
For decades I have been mystified as to why his “absolute strength” training approach is not recognized as THE benchmark standard. Instead his strategies have been largely ignored by the extended strength world. Which is their loss. Anytime someone uses Coan’s method as designed and intended, that user gets dramatic results. assuming the lifter follow’s Ed template and follows it up with proper nutrition and ample quality rest.
Ed Coan was one of the few original thinkers in the iron game. His training approach was completely the result of his own self-discoveries. As a training geek, I was totally transfixed when he first revealed to me, in depth and at length, his approach. There were so many truths he had discovered that Cassidy had also discovered and already shared with us: the love of the 5-rep set, the emphasis on ever-refining technique, raw lifting, deep squatting. His archetypical techniques closely resembled Cassidy’s prototypical techniques. Great Minds think alike.
Coan and Hugh liked to incorporate a few select “assistance exercises.” Ed had a wider training menu; Hugh had his “hallmark” back-off sets. Part of the reason Ed Coan and Doug Furnas hit it off so well was that the training that Doug had learned from his power mentor, world champion and world record holder Dennis Wright, were strangely similar to Ed’s evolving approach. When Ed and Doug began comparing training notes the similarities were many.
Doug Furnas told me that when he began repping 700 + for reps, squatting twice weekly became impossible. He had to fit deadlifting in during the training week and 700 + for reps in two squat sessions and one deadlift session became too much, there was no recovering, session to session. A balance had to be struck. Cut back on the volume, quality over quantity. Chaillet and I had been using the one-lift-per-week approach for years with great success.
Coan’s progress on a bar graph went upward at a 45-degree angle. His across-the-board accomplishments remain untouchable 30 years later. His training approach should be studied and widely practiced. His training template is as valid and result-producing in 2020 as it was in 1985, when it was first formalized. His periodized in-season approach is a study in logic grounded in ruthless self-assessment. Coan was realistic and patient: he played the long game and never got ahead of himself.
The smart resistance trainer will get on YouTube and start looking up Coan footage. It is all there, the actual feats, the Man himself discussing the feats, his training, and the templates he used for the actual training itself. The interesting aspect of the Coan approach is that it is very doable (and recommended) for all levels. Regardless your level, the template is kept, but the poundage and number of sets altered as needed. Perfect technique keeps the beginner safe.
Why not take your progressive resistance cues from the Michael Jordan of power athletics?
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 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 here.