I’m considered an aberration in bodybuilding. Why? Because I also compete as a powerlifter. That has brought me criticism, but to me, that disapproval is a badge of honor. Those who question me are the ones who have it wrong. Historically, functionally, mentally, physically and in every other “-ally,” any bodybuilder who does not powerlift is the aberration. Muscle building, not muscle shaping, was the genesis of our sport, and it continues to hold the greatest promise for our potential.

We hear all sorts of pontificating about isolating the muscle and feeling the burn. We’ve even made a virtue out of slacking by branding “overtraining” as a cardinal sin; yet, when you get right down to it, bodybuilding at its best has always been about survival of the fittest among a hard-bitten band of misfits who would rather give their lives than be beaten by a barbell. Regardless of how desperately some try to distance bodybuilding from powerlifting, the cause and effect are the same for both: lift heavy, get big. To put it another way: lift heavier, get bigger.

Powerlifting versus bodybuilding? I don’t separate the two, except in competition; that’s only because I can’t find a contest that combines them. In my training, they’re one and the same. I’ve been doing that from the start, ever since my brother took me to a gym in New Jersey when I was 12. Even then, the objective was simple and honest: lift as much weight as possible. You don’t do that with mind-muscle connection, but with mind-body connection; so I’d lock up my body cast-iron tight and explode like a depth charge. Man, that felt good!

2,400 REASONS TO TRAIN After my discharge in 1999 from a 10-year career in the U.S. Army, I joined a gym in the Fort Worth, Texas, area and got right back into that same style of training; yet, I still considered myself a bodybuilder. One day, Steve Goggins, who held the squat record at 1,033 pounds, was impressed with my lifting style and asked me to start powerlifting with him. Since then, I’ve competed in only four or five powerlifting meets, but I’m hooked. I intend to be Mr. Olympia someday, but I will also set world records in powerlifting.

On June 4 of this year, I started dieting for the Europa Super Show, the Montreal and Atlantic City pro shows, and the Mr. Olympia. I was also scheduled for a powerlifting meet on June 3, where I was supposed to total 2,400 pounds: a 900-pound squat, 600-pound bench and 900-pound deadlift. I was on the road to doing it, when I got a little overeager in my last week of training. I’d squatted 810 on Tuesday and deadlifted 810 on Saturday, but then decided to come back only a day and a half later to try an 855 squat for one more workout before the meet. That was too much in too short a time and I strained my quads. Nothing serious, but what’s embarrassing is that I did it while warming up. A bit more time and a bit more focus, and I’d have done it, easily. Next time, I will.

MASS IMPROVEMENTS Meanwhile, the more years I powerlift, the better bodybuilder I become. I’ve been told by just about everyone that I have the most massive back erectors in the history of bodybuilding. For wide lats and a detailed back, you need bodybuilding movements, but tree-trunk erectors come only from deadlifts.

The unique quality that powerlifts provide — which cannot be duplicated by bodybuilding exercises — is, in one word, thickness. It’s evident not only in erectors and in the depth and separation of back muscularity, but all over the body. The pecs and deltoids blow up bigger and spherical, hard as polished rock. Think about it: you really never see big chests anymore. A barrel chest is built only by bench presses and floor presses — all heavy. You gain and keep so much more dense muscle by training like a powerlifter and adding bodybuilding into it.

To perform heavy powerlifting movements, you have to involve every muscle in your body. You’re so tight. You tense everything and lift from the core. It’s core training. Because people are lifting so light these days, with weight that’s easy to control, they’re not forcing their bodies to gather up strength. They’re getting away from core training. I don’t train my abs at all because, to do my lifts, I have to activate my core. That works my abs tremendously, certainly more than small squeezes and crunches.

My weakest bodypart has been my legs. When I turned pro, they were worse than they are now, but through powerlifting — deep below-parallel heavy squats and heavy deadlifts — my legs have made tremendous gains, even though I still have to work on them. By the end of the year, they’ll be even better. I’m excited about the balance my body will have.

FEAR FACTOR The question remains: if powerlifting is so good for bodybuilding, why don’t more people do it? The answer: fear of injury — or, more often, fear of hard work. When someone sees me with an enormous lift, they seem to think I have the ability to make my muscles exert more strength than they possess, as if strength comes from something other than muscles.

It’s how you go about it. You need to train that way consistently, but not every day. Your body must be given enough rest, and you discover on your own how much is enough. I train two days on, one day off. It’s about being smart and concentrating on everything your body is doing during a rep, while still making sure you’re using heavy weight, not only to build big and dense muscles but for safety — the heavier the lift, the safer the lift. Injuries occur when the weight is so light that you don’t have to concentrate on your form, so you become complacent and loose. That’s what happened when I tweaked my quads while warming up with squats. The heavier the lift, the more compound the movement, which means that more muscles have to be tighter; i.e., less chance that the muscle will whip or snap.

I add an extra margin of safety by never maxing out on a set. I’ll take it to about 90%, not to such an extreme that I have to twist out of alignment or pry the weight to complete the lift.

Most bodybuilders pyramid by decreasing their reps and increasing the weight for each set, but I use the powerlifting style: I stay with the same reps for each set but take bigger jumps in weight. That allows me to reach a much higher poundage for my last set.

PERSONAL BEST Since I started bodybuilding, my training has not changed in any fundamental way. Maybe it’s the influence of my 10-year career in the army, but I’m very regimented. That gives me a baseline from which I can measure every successive workout. All of my workouts are at 2 PM — again, predictable. Over the years, some exercises have come and gone due to what I’ve learned from different people and from analyzing the comparative values of those exercises, but from the start, I’ve continued to use powerlifting and power movements in my bodybuilding. I don’t think you can be a consummate bodybuilder without them. Anyone who goes only for the burn will never build impressive mass or thickness because his criteria are subjective.

I want an objective goal. Powerlifting gives me that. Show me the numbers. My personal record, in pounds, for a given lift is the one I have to break. If I persist hard enough, my muscle mass will follow; if I exceed it, that proves I have grown. There is nothing more motivational than that. Power bodybuilding is not for everyone. You have to be somewhat of a masochist, in the sense that you have to appreciate the value of positive pain. You have to enjoy the pull on the body of all that weight, but what’s important about that struggle is that it generates even more motivation to work harder the next time. If you’re not testing your limits, it’s hard to be aggressive and have a good workout. You should never leave the gym feeling that way — never — especially if you’re a professional, but if you’re trying to top your own record, you have no choice but to be aggressive. I dig it.

Bench Press Keep a slight arch in your lower back and make sure your feet are solid on the floor. Push down hard with your heels; that starts your “kinetic chain,” in which you use your legs and hips to help press the weight. A lot of people bring the bar down to the upper chest, but I bring it further down my body, so that it hits the crevice between the bottom of my pecs and my upper abdominal muscles. As you press, push at a slight angle backward, toward the rack.

Squat Here’s where you’ll have to experiment to find the style that’s most natural or comfortable for you. Some guys like to grip the bar closer to their shoulders; that makes it easier to flex their traps and tighten their shoulders. Others may prefer a closer stance, with their legs providing more vertical support, as a bridge piling; this also allows them to squat lower and roll their butts further under their centers of gravity, giving their glutes and hips more power. For me, because of my thickness, it’s just the opposite: my stance is wide but comfortable, definitely beyond shoulder-width but not so wide as to stretch my hips. My shoulders, traps and chest are so tight and full that my grip has to be as wide as I can reach; I’m actually touching the inner-ring collars of the bar. I squat down to where my thighs are parallel with the floor, getting tighter as I go, so that I’ve built up so much potential energy on the way down that it’s an explosive release as I power back to the top.

Deadlift Flex your entire body from the floor upward. Start with your feet; then, tie it all together, all the way to the top of your head. Flex your abs and glutes as hard as you can; then, pull on the bar to take up the slack in your arms and shoulders. Squeeze the bar hard; the tighter your grip, the lighter the bar will feel. Keep your head up at all times because your body will go where your head is. If your head is down, you’ll pitch forward and lose your balance. Look up, so your body is erect and stays high, then lift by pushing your heels through the floor; you want to think the bar is so heavy that it’s going to push your feet all the way into the ground without any help from you. All the while, think tighter.

Floor Press The floor press is an ancillary movement on chest day. It helps you train your upper range of motion, as your range of motion is limited at the bottom when your elbows touch the floor. The floor press is to the bench press what the deadlift is to the squat. For both the bench and squat, you first do the negative part of the rep — lowering the weight — and then do the positive as you lift the weight. For deadlifts and floor presses, you do the positive part of the rep first, eliminating the advantage of the negative energy. (That lack of stored energy from the negative portion of the rep is why the world record for the squat is so much more than for the deadlift.) To perform the floor press, lie on the floor underneath a loaded barbell — you need at least 45s on each side for height. If you have a huge rib cage or can’t handle 135 pounds for this lift, you can also do the exercise by lying on the floor in a power rack with the hooks set low. Hold the barbell over your chest, lower it until your upper arms come in contact with the floor, pause a second, then press the weight up to full arm extension.

#1 Make sure you are mentally right when you walk into the gym. Your mind should be on your form. You have to feel your body tensed and taut, like a compressed spring, ready to go. Mentally, you have to have aggression, but it has to be controlled aggression. A lot of guys get really pumped up, so that they grab the bar and yank it up any kind of way. That’s how you hurt yourself. Stay in control at all times. From there on, it’s just a matter of getting over how the weight looks on the bar. Don’t be intimidated by all those plates. Realize that you can do whatever you want to do. Think of the superhuman feeling that’ll come when you lift all those suckers and have at it. Go for it!
#2 Train yourself to concentrate on tightening your entire body from the floor up as you begin any heavy lift.
#3 Time is your trainer. By making powerlifting movements part of your regular bodybuilding program, they will become so natural that you will not have to run through the checklist of mechanical points your body must adopt in preparation for a lift. I’ve been doing them for so many years that I no longer have to think about technique. My body automatically does what’s right, and yours will too, eventually.
#4 Bodybuilders usually pyramid by decreasing their reps for each set as they increase the weight, but the enormous weights I use for powerlifting have taught me to pyramid by staying with the same number of reps for each set as I increase the weight. Same concept, just a different rep scheme; this allows me to take bigger jumps in weight.