Weightlifting Psyching or Psycho?
Why just do when you can overdo?
Powerlifters are born to overdo. The nature of the sport encourages overindulgence. Powerlifting is dead simple: powerful men must move massive poundage for a single repetition over a short distance with no regard for speed or duration. Since foot speed and endurance are not needed or required, men can grow massive without penalty.
The sport consists of combining the best single rep efforts in the barbell squat, bench press and deadlift to create a cumulative total. A 400-pound squat, 300-pound bench press and 500-pound deadlift creates a 1,200-pound total. The person within the weight class that posts the highest total is the overall winner.
The elegant simplicity of the lifts makes them prefect for all out psyching, psyching without restraint. If a sport, drill or exercise is multi-part and complex, the smart athlete tamps down the psyche. The more complex the athletic undertaking, the more psyche needs to be modulated. When attempting something intricate and complicated, too much psyche is counterproductive. The proper balance need be struck between mental arousal and precise technique.
In powerlifting the simplicity of the task - combined with the shortness and compactness of the effort – allows, nay, encouragesoutrageous psyche. The lifter performs a single repetition of a simple lift: short, sweet, uncomplicated – what a grand opportunity for any self-respecting muscled-up alpha male to go ape-shit crazy.
Everything was predicated on the irrefutable contention that that “fired up” trumps nonchalant when it comes to athletic performance. Powerlifters (chronic over doers that they are) naturally asked, “How fired up is fired up?” These power psyche pioneers sought to take “fired up” to unimagined new heights. They mused collectively, ‘if a little psyche is good would not a lot of psyche be better?”
Competitive powerlifters thought, why not take advantage of this unique opportunity and morph from Mr. Normal Responsible Guy into Mr. Primal Insane Lunatic? Why not unleash the madman that lurks just beneath our civilized veneer? And do so in the name of improved sport performance. Inside every alpha male solid citizen lurks a Hell’s Angel yearning to be let out to pillage, vandalize and assault. The power brain trust was united: when seeking to kick ass in a strength competition, better to have a Viking Mindset than an accountant Mindset.
Powerlifting encourages overindulgence on a multitude of levels: eating, drinking, training, sleeping. Thickness in relation to height is considered a virtue, a prerequisite for power success – skinny people do not become world champion powerlifters. Elite powerlifters build unimaginably thick physiques, compact, dense as plutonium, men that look as if they were raised on a planet with five times our gravity.
In powerlifting, high calorie, indiscriminate eating is encouraged. This also makes the sport extremely popular amongst alpha males. Powerlifting places an emphasis on sleep and rest, another plus and it was settled power science that beer aided recovery. So what is not to like? Get purposefully psycho, train like a maniac with a bunch of likeminded dudes, stuff your face, be encouraged to have seconds and thirds, drink beer, pass out (like a narcoleptic) and grow muscular, massive and powerful. No running or step aerobics and the only diet is the “see food” diet.
Repeat this cycle over and over for three straight months and grow gargantuan. Fulfill all your childhood superhero fantasies: all a result of acting out and indulgent behavior. Continual and copious caloric intake ensures the lifter (or anyone) stays anabolic, the optimal metabolic status for growing muscle. Anabolism is the fertile field, everything is in place and ready to grow – all that is needed is a kick-ass workout.
By eating a lot, by power training with bar-bending poundage, by training with partners that jack each other up, by getting ample rest, by staying stress free, by being consistent, over time any lifter that adheres to this Simple Simon template adds a mountain of muscle. It would be physiologically impossible not to. Will the muscle be accompanied by an unacceptable amount of body fat – that depends. But that is fodder for another article.
Training partners gather together and push each other; they spot each other, goad each other and offer profane encouragement to one another. The group has a collective dedication to psyching and each man develops an individualized psyche procedure. The collective intensity level generated by a group of topflight powerlifters is electrifying.
Everyone gets caught up in the mob psyche and performance increases on an across the board basis. A rising tide (of psychological agitation) lifts all (performance) boats. No need to worry about acting a fool amongst a group of elite powerlifters, as a newbie, your lunacy no doubt pales compared to theirs.
Outrageous psyche really came into its own with the dawning of the 1980s. The first significant feat of overtly “acting out,” truly outlandish psyche, was the studied use of the face slap as a psyche tool. The pre-lift face-slap became SOP, accepted behavior, and was used on a widespread basis. Somehow, at the time, this seemed like a breakthrough in behavior modification. Now, in hindsight, it just seems extremely entertaining.
As someone who has had his faced slapped – hard (preplanned and spontaneously) I can attest firsthand that getting your bell rung will, indeed, get you angry and aroused. If you can translate that instantaneous burst of hatred, retaliation and retribution, and successfully channel that burst of anger towards an inanimate object, like a barbell, you (like psyche King Kirk Karwoski) will perform past all realistic expectations – you psyche yourself, will yourself upward to the next level of performance.
The face slap became a hugely popular pre-lift last-second psyche strategy. Chalked, ready to lift, a high percentage of high-level lifters were having their training partners slap their faces – hard – right before lifting. The pain and shock catapulted many a lifter into the next level of performance. I demurred, I was a face-slap conscientious objector and refused to participate. I neither slapped nor was slapped.
That is until the 1991 world championships. As a coach for the United States, I coached world champion Dave Jacoby, a confirmed face slap lover. Dave loved a titanic wallop upside his pumpkin-like noggin right before stepping onto the weightlifting platform. I used to wince at the national championships when I’d see Dave get blasted in the face, nine times per competition, once before each of his nine total attempts in the squat, bench press and deadlift. That’s a lot of face slaps even for an episode of the Three Stooges.
Dave’s face slaps were administered by his longtime coach Pep Wahl. When Pep was unable to travel to the world championships in Orebro, I coached Dave. I had great trepidation about my face-slapping abilities. Sure enough, suddenly it was showtime. As we strode to the lifting platform Dave bounced of his toes. He chalked up, he was getting more and more amped-up, he was already on Defcon 5 when with crazed eyes he looked at me and said,
“Lay it on me Marty.” We stood in front of a packed auditorium of horn-blowing Swedish people rooting for Dave’s opponent. I slapped him. It was pathetic. I am pretty sure I heard some other lifters and coaches laughing. I imagine the effete euro-trash saying, “Look at the girlie man slap administered by their girlie coach to their precious world champion – perhaps they are afraid he will break apart and shatter into tiny pieces!” Dave glared at me incredulous through his massive glasses. His eyes bugged. He looked like a Martian. He yelled LOUD. It shook me out of my daze…
“SLAP THE SHIT OUT OF ME! NOT LIKE A F@#KING GRANDMOTHER MARTY!! THIS IS FOR REAL!!!!!”
I wound up, leaned back and blasted him so hard it left my handprint on the right side of his face. The SMACK was audible, the audience groaned. He grinned at me maniacally and actually said, “Thank you Marty!” He then wheeled around and crushed his 788-pound opening squat. I whacked his chops nine times that day. He was pleased with my ferocity. The next day, my hand had swollen to the size of a catcher’s mitt. Dave examined it and said, “Thanks for taking one for the team Marty.”
At some point, regular old face slapping slipped from hip and cutting-edge into passé and boring. Mighty Dave Colangelo (one of only two men to ever defeat Doug Furnas) took the face slap to its ultimate when he had a squad of his acolytes stand in a line and one after another slap Dave’s face with all the gusto they could muster. Dave went through his squad of boys like he was running an Iroquois gauntlet, he had four or five guys in a row slap his face.
At a bench press competition in Ocean City, when the fifth guy slapped Dave’s face a little too hard, the grizzly-like Colangelo slapped his boy back so hard he crashed to the floor unconscious. Dave, unfazed and unrepentant, stepped over his unconscious devotee and bull rushed the barbell, crushing his 550-pound opening bench press. He then stepped forward, took a bow and waved as the audience went wild. His boys gathered up their fallen comrade: he too had taken one for the team.
Powerlifters dreamed big: could there be another realm of psyche, a higher realm yet unimagined? The face slap seemed to have peaked; something new and exciting was needed. Psyche needed to go where it had never been before.
“The Board” was beyond the face slap: a short section of 2x4 was wielded by a training partner. A compliant lifter would lean forward, offer his forehead and the partner would crack the lifter HARD at an exact spot on the forehead.
Locally, board skull bashing was taken to high art by a bunch of longshoremen, powerlifters from Baltimore. There were no sissies in this band of brothers. They had such reverence for the board that they carried the board in its own gym bag. Their leader was a 50ish longshoreman union floor rep with a full white beard. Behind his back we called him Popeye. When a lifter missed a lift, Popeye would yell, “He needs the board! Get the board!” Popeye hit one lifter a little too hard on one occasion, knocking the lifter unconscious. Popeye turned to the head judge and said, “He’ll be passing this attempt your Honor!”
What was beyond the Board?
The authorities had to step in and draw the line at self-mutilation, which, to the dismay of the lifters, was outlawed. This final iteration of outrageous power psyche actually got banned: the slamming of one’s own forehead onto the squat bar center knurling, purposefully busting open the forehead, spurting blood from the wound.
The lifter, bleeding from the forehead, takes the squat bar out of the squat rack, steps back, sets up and squats. By the time the attempt was done, rivulets of blood, streams, run down the lifters face. Hard to top the dramatics of that.
Willie Bell was incredible; the multi-time world champion could blast his forehead on the center knurling of the bar with such force that it created a sound like hitting a coconut with a sledgehammer. At impact his head snapped backward, like whiplash in an auto wreck. “Remind me to never get head-butted by that guy!” Joe Ferry said to me as we watched Willie bash his head prior to an 870-pound squat.
Proponents of self-mutilation took psyche into the stratosphere. The gore and leftover blood were too much for even the incredibly tolerant powerlifting powers-that-be. Alas, the bleeding head slam was banned.
So the next time you are at the gym and a bunch of alpha punk lifters start acting crazy as they psyche up to lift their pathetic little free weights, please keep in mind that whatever you are witnessing, regardless of how distasteful and abhorrent, is mild sauce compared to the insane antics I have witnessed.
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.