Weightlifting Mentors and Influencers article by Jim Steel

Weightlifting Mentors and Influencers

Weightlifting Mentors and Influencers

Has anyone made it in their chosen endeavor in life without having some help from other people? No one that I know. Even the best and brightest scientists, authors, athletes, musicians, etc., needed some guidance, some mentors and influencers, along their journey.

I was lucky enough to have some wonderful mentors along the way that have helped me as a person, competitive powerlifter and bodybuilder and as a strength coach.

My father for sure was a mentor, a man who went to work everyday, encouraged me in sports, never cussed or drank and always put his family first. Never have I heard him bitch or complain. He still is my mentor to this day at 89 years of age. His favorite saying? “This too shall pass.”

I began training with weights because my friend in seventh grade gym class, Davril, bench pressed more than me on the Universal machine, and he weighed less than I did. He had some impressive arms and shoulders and pecs. I was pissed that he was stronger than I, but I was also intrigued. I began asking him questions about training, because I knew nothing about training with barbells and dumbbells besides the popular myth that it would stunt your growth. Davril brought me a few muscle magazines to read (Muscle Up! and Musclemag International with Tom Platz and Mike Mentzer on the covers) and he took me home with him to train at the local Boys Club where he lifted weights. At the boy’s club, some older guys had made it their mission to help keep kids off of the streets by encouraging them to lift weights. These guys were not into squatting or deadlifting, but rather lots of benches and curls. But that was okay with me, I didn't know any better. And even though I was weak, the guys encouraged me. I had a great workout and I remember leaving the gym and saying to Davril that my muscles felt weird and wonderful. “ That’s the pump, Jimmy!” Davril said.

I fell quickly in love with bodybuilding, but football was my real passion. I needed to know what football players were doing in their training to get bigger and stronger. Fortunately, my father was a professor at the University of Maryland and one of his best friends was the Head Football Coach, Jerry Claiborne. Coach Claiborne let me come to practices and he also didn't mind if I went into the football facility. My father would drop me off at the football weight room and I would stand right inside the door and watch the players lift weights. I didn't learn anything about technique or programming, but I did see that those players worked incredibly hard on the basic exercises, which definitely stuck in my head.

Early on in high school, Rich Salke came into my life. Rich, a frequent guest on the RAW with Marty Gallagher podcast, was a competitive bodybuilder in the 1980’s, the best one in the Baltimore/Washington area and one of the best in the country. Fortunately for me, Rich was a graduate assistant for my father at the university. My dad came home from work one day and told me about Rich and said that Rich gave him his phone number and that I could call him and ask any questions anytime that I wanted. I called him right away. The call was more about nutrition than training, but it helped me immensely. All I knew at the time was that the magazines were touting the protein shakes and “magic” supplements that would make you as huge as the pro’s. Rich cleared up the misconceptions from the magazines for me, explaining that real food was the way to go, real foods like steak and rice and yogurt and fruit rather than some laboratory engineered concoction. It was a relationship that is still going strong after all these years. Rich has helped me train and diet for all of my adult bodybuilding shows and we still communicate frequently, especially when I decide to train for something. Rich is amazingly knowledgeable about training and nutrition, and I rely on him heavily when I have questions or need advice.

Also in high school, we had a student teacher in our Physical Training class (weight training), Louie, who was a competitive bodybuilder and the cousin of one of my best friends, Carlo. Louie saw that I was thirsty for knowledge and took me under his wing. I followed him around like a puppy dog, soaking up everything that he told me about training. He believed in hard, heavy training and the basics, a common theme of all my mentors, and he also emphasized real food. He also had me keep a training diary, writing out every workout that I performed and  the food that I ate. He had me train for the Mr. Teenage DC contest, taking me from 218 to 169 pounds in 3 months. The workouts that he put me through were brutal. We did five sets of eight on everything, and most of the sets were to failure. I remember the front squat sessions in particular. We were supposed to do 8 reps a set, but at rep 8, Louie, standing behind me would yell, “One more!” until my legs were quivering and the bar was falling off of my shoulders. And then we would do another set, and another. Louie and I trained together for years afterwards, hoisting iron in my girlfriend's basement. He was there the first time that I squatted 500x3, encouraging and pushing me all the way.

After high school, I went to junior college, to play football, and there I became friends with Chris, an offensive lineman on the team. I was the team’s nose guard, so we went against each other all the time, but still became close. Chris was brutally strong, with a 610 pound squat, a 435 pound bench, and an over 600 pound deadlift. And this was done as a freshman in college. Chris taught me how to work up to an all out set on the basic exercises, and the importance of working oneself into a frenzy before a big lift. For example, Chris would be getting ready to bench over 400 and I’d be ready to spot him. He’d find someone in the gym and imagine that the person was making fun of him. He would say, “JIM! THAT GUY IS MAKING FUN OF ME!“ and then he would say how he was going to show that guy and how he was going to kick his butt. The first time he did all of that, I had no idea what was going on. I was like, “Huh? That guy is just talking to the guy at the front desk.” And then it hit me what he was doing , and I’d say, “Yeah, Chris! Kick his butt, man!” He would turn red and he’d be shaking with rage. Then he would lie down and crush his set. We had some epic workouts, some quality, crazy sessions. 

Although I didn't meet him until years later, Randy White of the Dallas Cowboys was a “model mentor” of mine, someone who I tried to imitate when playing football or lifting weights. Randy came from the University of Maryland where my father worked, and I was a huge fan of his, following him when he got drafted by the Dallas Cowboys. He benched 500 pounds and power cleaned over 400. But what Randy did in training that had the most influence on me was the Muay Thai kickboxing that the Cowboy’s strength coach, Dr. Bob Ward, had introduced to the team. These days, martial arts is huge and many football players make it part of their training, but back then in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, the Cowboys were true innovators in using Muay Thai as an integral part of their training regimen. I knew that the Cowboys were doing it, the Muay Thai, but I had no idea what exactly the training program consisted of. I saw a ten second clip on the “NFL Today” pregame show of Randy kicking some pads with Dr. Ward holding. Ten seconds. I analyzed the tape over and over and was determined to find some pads to kick. I had my girlfriend drive me all over town, hitting every Karate place around (remember there was very little Muay Thai in America at the time), until I found a pad that slid up on the holder’s forearm.

I was so excited. I was weighing about 265 pounds at the time. My girlfriend at the time was around 140. I had no idea what to do, I was just imitating that small clip of Randy White kicking the pads. “ I'm gonna do 100!” I said and I still remember her arm flying in the air. I still feel bad about it to this day. Later, Dr. Ward and Randy came out with an instructional Muay Thai tape designed for football and I taught that system, along with other martial arts techniques that I learned over the years, to all the football players that I ever trained. The system was revolutionary, improving kinesthetic awareness, hand eye coordination and conditioning. 

Jimmy Anderson, who coached with me at Gardner Webb University, became another friend/mentor of mine. We were always together, training and talking over beers. He was into powerlifting, and I had zero knowledge of it at the time. He taught me the deadlift and the programming of it, and he taught me loyalty. Jimmy’s loyalty and friendship over the years has never waned.

Kirk Karwoski had a huge influence on me regarding powerlifting. I was coaching high school football in Florida in the mid 90’s and decided that I wanted to squat 600. I trained for it, and was successful in my attempt, but then I came across a video of Kirk squatting 800 pounds for 5 reps and it made me feel pretty weak. Who was this guy? Turns out we were from the same area in Maryland and played against each other in high school football. I ended up getting in touch with him and I brought him in to give a seminar to the football team where I was coaching. He stayed at my house and we have been friends ever since. What did I learn from him? Plenty, but one thing sticks in my mind the most: Everything is important in the squat, from the moment that you approach the bar, the hand placement, where your body is placed when taking the bar off of the power rack, all of it. Nothing in Kirk’s technique was left to chance, everything was thought out and programmed. And he video taped his top lifts. I remember sitting in his house watching his training videos and him critiquing his form over and over. People think that Kirk is cocky, but it is more like he is a perfectionist in the sport, a person that devoted his whole life for more than ten years to being the best in the world. 

Coaching and training wise, Dr. Rob Wagner taught me so much. I had just taken the job as his Assistant Strength coach at Penn, and the first time that we sat down and talked training, my mind was blown. His knowledge of physiology, programming and Eastern European training was extraordinary. Along with Kirk, he taught me the proper bench form. Wagner would come back from the IPF World Championships and he would have new programming ideas gleaned from his conversations from lifters all over the world and he shared them with me. I still use many of his ideas in writing my programs to this day. His philosophy basically became my philosophy after a while. I learned to demand perfection from the athletes that I coached and to never accept mediocre efforts from them. One saying that stuck in my mind all of these years was that if you have a bad workout, learn from it and then forget about it, a bad workout is a learning experience not an excuse to get down on yourself or to quit. 

Dr, Phil Wagner taught me so much about nutrition. He turned me onto healthy fats, and he emphasized the importance of recovery and the science of recovery techniques. His Sparta software became an integral part of my coaching and is a genius invention. Phil is a “life coach” for me, someone who I can call and talk about anything with and when I get off the phone with him, I feel like a weight has been lifted off of my shoulders.

And last but not least, there is the wise sage, Marty Gallagher. I didn't know it at the time, but what I was learning from Kirk were tried and true techniques passed down from Marty, who passed them down from Hugh Cassidy, an Iron lineage, if you will. Marty became another confidant of mine, someone who I could discuss training, writing, meditation and life in general. He wrote me an email one time explaining his philosophy on life and I printed it out and still read it from time to time to get my mind right on what is important in life. Our late night conversations sitting on a hotel porch looking at the ocean in Virginia Beach or riding on the highways of Pennsylvania, brought many laughs and learning and great times. 

Anyone out there who has even a modicum of success in life has had a bunch of folks behind them guiding them, advising them and helping them. I am no different, and am fortunate to have had these wise, giving mentors in my life.

RAW Podcast with Marty Gallagher, J.P. Brice and Jim Steel


About The Author
Jim Steel has been immersed in athletics and the Iron Game for most of his life. He has been a college football player and coach, powerlifter, Muay Thai fighter and is currently a competitive bodybuilder. In 1999, Steel was named Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania, and moved up to Head Strength and Conditioning Coordinator in 2004. He is the owner of the blog basbarbell.com, and is a motivational speaker, frequent podcast guest and the author of two books,  Basbarbell Book of Programs and Steel Reflections.  Steel is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association.