11 Feb Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell- One of my Greatest Influences
By Brian Carroll 2/11/18
Updated with editor’s note: 3/26/22
“You have beaten just about every one of his athletes at one time or another; you have a streamlined approach! You beat his best squatter’s All-time World Record within three years of doing your first full meet, then did it again in another weight class in their hometown, at their own meet! Look at the success you have found with your clients, philosophy, and lifting. Aside from your back injury, you’re in pretty good shape, and you know some of their stuff doesn’t make any sense; some say ridiculous. You didn’t have to have a guru yelling over your shoulder, calling your shots to create your own path to success. You don’t need anyone else’s input. You have it pretty much out; you know what you are doing.”
WRONG, but might any of this sound familiar? My internal dialogue at times.
The last 10-15 years of life have been a whirlwind in every word. I literally didn’t think about anything other than eating, training, cutting weight, and competing for many years. That was it. As you can imagine, with this type of approach to life, I’ve encountered lots of ups, many downs, successes, failures, and I have overcome some massive personal and professional hurdles. At the same time, I’ve sabotaged myself in other aspects of my life and stunted my growth. But, at the end of the day, I’ve learned, grown, and I believe I have come out a much better person, lifter, businessman, and coach (I feel) for it. This hasn’t always been easy, and I’m STILL not ‘there.’
As I reflected on the newly released book Gift of Injury, co-authored with Dr. Stuart McGill, the process of meeting Dr. McGill in 2013 and successfully rehabbing my back really helped me learn so much. In contrast, it also helped me realize how much I didn’t know. I wonder how my life would be right now if I had approached Dr. McGill’s methods with a closed-minded, know-it-all attitude. Every day, I thank God that I humbled myself and was open to change and total reprogramming.
The thing about messing up is you learn A LOT about yourself if you’re open to it. But, unfortunately, some of these “lessons” I’ve learned have been EARNED in some of the most absolutely dreadful and painful routes possible by being complacent, lazy, arrogant, stubborn to a fault, hardheaded, and close-minded.
The problem I’ve found with success is that for some, myself included, it can give you the feeling that you don’t need to change, grow, or evolve. This can make for an environment of stagnation, akin to a run-off drainage ditch that isn’t tidal – it only gets nastier and more stagnant until a thunderstorm or a force of water comes and flushes it out dries up. It only breeds and harbors mosquitos, snakes, frogs, and other distasteful things.
I would even say this “stagnation” pushed me toward a place I refer to as “devolving.” The more you learn, the more you realize how much you really don’t know and have yet to learn. Instead of pushing forward, hungry to learn more, it is in my DNA to become complacent, which made me think I knew enough to get by. To where? I have no freaking clue, but I was “good.” “Brian, do you want to go to this course, this seminar, or this workshop?” “No thanks, I’m good” (all the while thinking I truly didn’t need to go). “I don’t need to go! For what?”
Remember that everything is a trade-off. If not controlled and properly harnessed, a possible negative comes with every positive attribute. I understand; I really do! You must believe in yourself, even to a fault, to get under big weights or do anything worth a crap in life. BUT, your ego MUST also be controlled. I’ve teetered back and forth between not believing in myself enough, then tipping the see-saw to the other side, believing in myself too much, even when I probably shouldn’t have. Everything is a balancing act, and self-awareness is key. Self-awareness is an intangible that I’ve worked on honing in, and I understand it will never be completely perfect.
I know this is a little late, but I didn’t mean to start this article off as COMPLETELY negative or self-loathing. In contrast, this article aims to be more of an open book to express gratitude, give credit, acknowledge faulty thought patterns, show thankfulness, and apologize in some respects.
I remember the first time I met Louie Simmons. It was 2004 at APF Senior Nationals in hot-humid Baton Rouge, Louisiana, run by lifting legend Garry Frank. I met a lot of lifting legends and athletes I’d only seen in PL-USA (there was no true internet presence aside from Goheavy.com at this time). How fortunate my full meet lifting career started: I witnessed Gary Frank’s guest lift in 2 of the first three meets I entered. 1000lb+ squats, 900lb+ benches and 900lb+ deadlifts and the first 2800lb total (done in 2004) ever done in powerlifting history. This will ruin your perception of strength and spoil you really quickly because you won’t see much greater lifting, no matter where you go. I really had no idea how good I had it. How could I? I was just 20.
Back to APF Seniors in Louisiana… During this weekend of MANY firsts, I was fortunate enough to meet and speak with Louie Simmons, Chuck Vogelpohl, Matt Smith, and a few other MASSIVE Westside Barbell members I wasn’t familiar with until the very next day when they took the lifting platform.
I remember this weekend like yesterday, partly because it was the first time I’d entered a big meet – I was terrified. Actually, I wanted to leave and return to my hotel room instead of the competition or do anything else. I couldn’t eat; I couldn’t sleep. It was an experience, to say the least.
Before 2004, I had rarely traveled out of my home state of Florida. Needless to say, I was struggling on many levels and overwhelmed. Note to younger lifters: what I’m about to say is something you can learn the easy way and hopefully not have to deal with during your first national meet (at the time, there were anywhere from 10-30 people in your weight class at APF Seniors). Get rid of social distractions before meet prep and especially meet week! To top off the pressure I put on myself to execute at my first big meet, I allowed girlfriend problems to sidetrack me.
During the short time we chatted, Louie commented to me about how he could tell I was distracted. He said, “You sure look ready physically, but you don’t seem ready.” When I met Louie, he was always a straight shooter and provided words of wisdom whether I wanted to hear them. Keep this in mind.
Long story short: I lifted like crap, went 3-9, somehow clinging onto second place at 220, and finished runner-up to Adam Driggers, who had one hell of a day. Adam cracked the 2000lbs barrier for the first time, good for first place and best middleweight lifter.
Overall, the weekend was a big eye-opener for me. I wasn’t nearly as good of a lifter as I had thought. I choked hard-core, but again – I learned so much. I truly needed this weekend. Learning is what it’s all about and what’s required to get better. Not to mention, I was afforded the realization of just how far I had to go while witnessing some otherworldly lifting. I was simply in awe watching Chester Stafford, JL Holdsworth, and Marc “Spud” Bartley battle it out as they finished 1st, 2nd, 3rd respectively at 275 – all going over 2400lbs, with JL. I finished on top with 2430-ish!
This was my first encounter with Louie, but I can look back and remember just about all of my interactions with him like it was just the other day. I mentioned earlier, which stands out to me, each time I ran into Louie, he imparted wisdom and helped everyone when he could, almost like he had an agenda (I don’t take compliments well). Other than building me up with words of encouragement, or telling me what I needed to hear, each time we spoke, he invited me to live in Columbus and train at Westside Barbell (this may have been his agenda). Sometimes he’d mention coming up for “just a week.” He even offered to put me up in a hotel to train more than once for a week. As I write this, I feel really foolish for never taking him up on this. But again, see the opening paragraph.
In 2006, Louie asked to speak to Shawn Frankl and me at the WPO Semis in Lake George, New York, right after Andy Bolton pulled 1003 and the meet baby powder had just barely settled. Shawn and I had just tied at 220 via 2376.4 (only 40lbs off the then-current All-Time World Record of 2414 then held by Travis Mash) and were knocking on the door of the World Record pretty fast. Lou pulled us into a side hallway and barked, “you two, Panora… GREG…, where’s he at!? (he’s probably at the bar already…) anyway, you three and ‘Neutron’ are the future of the sport; keep doing what you do!” Who the hell is Neutron? I guess we know now.
In 2007, I let my bodyweight reach a ridiculous high of 255lbs before the Arnold WPO finals, planning to compete at 220. I somehow made weight, but I bombed on squats; Louie had some words for me. He advised me to go up to 242, and I listened.
In 2008, Louie pep-talked me for about 2 hours after weigh in on how I could win the heavyweight division. Keep in mind I was competing at this meet, and I was getting ready to go head-to-head with who was at the time Lou’s best-ever lb-for-lb lifter to ever train at Westside, Greg Panora. Who does this? I’ll tell you – a guy who’s spent his entire life dedicated to seeing the ultimate human limit exceeded and increased. And it came down to the very last deadlift between Greg and me.
In 2009, after a less than stellar performance at his Westside Pro-Am, Louie suggested that I go up to 275 (from 242), and once again, I listened.
In 2010, Lou told me how to rehab my torn biceps. He even called me on the phone to personally follow up. In 2011, at the SPF Pro-Am, Lou came over to talk to me before my third attempt on the squat. Lou encouraged/demanded that I go 1185 to beat Chuck’s All-time 1180 squat record while screaming about it like a maniac. Apparently, he wanted to see the record go up, no matter what. Why would he do this? Because it would only make his lifters have a higher mark to exceed; and everyone else in the world. *Chuck was no longer with Westside at this time.
In 2012, there was a ‘great divide’ in equipped powerlifting (like we needed this), as most of you who have followed the sport know. Westside Barbell and factions went one direction, and many of the other cliques went a different route to the XPC. It was actually foolish on both sides, in my humble opinion. I wish both sides would have given more and met in the middle, but that’s most things, I guess with that perfect rearview mirror 20/20 hindsight.
Fast forward to 2013, the years of pounding had caught up to me. My back was a beat-down mess from years of pushing too hard, but I was getting a handle on it and had just returned from my second trip to see Dr. McGill. I have always been open about how the path was steep and daunting. Admittedly, I was down and honestly a little sensitive about how many people were skeptical about me returning. At times, I would become discouraged about my lifting even though I knew I would come back stronger – I just wasn’t there yet. In my experience, we all struggle and question ourselves even if we have the perfect plan, believe in it and ourselves 100% and that we will see our goals through. I believe the process is normal to question – we all have doubts in weak moments.
Though completely pain-free, I had only just recently graduated to a whopping 455lb block deadlift, accomplished this particular weekend in September of 2013 at Elitefts HQ. So, it was a mixed bag of emotions, a benchmark, but one of only about 50% of the final goal.
This same weekend while in Columbus, Ohio, I handled and coached my good friend Mike Szudarek. Between flights, I walked outside, and I happened to see Louie in the parking lot walking up. I waddled over to him, but much to my surprise, he didn’t seem happy to see me at all, almost disappointed. What followed caught me off guard as Louie started the conversation, “Hi Brian, when will you do real meets again. NO, the big meets with the real lifters compete in the SPF with the big numbers.” He talked about the XPC/SPF split-off, and I knew what he was getting. Nonetheless, I politely muttered the best I could, still a little surprised, “I’ve always done big meets, and I’ve always traveled to your hometown to compete against everyone, including your gym’s best.” And with that, the conversation ended, and I walked off pissed.
Immaturely, I let our last conversation get under my skin, and my attitude slowly crept to indifferent, then, over time, slightly negative. The attitude reeks, “if you don’t respect me, I won’t respect you.” Which, of course, is wrong and ignorant. The most regrettable and painful realization about this situation was that I was too obtuse to realize that he was doing what every great from Westside has told me he does in the gym. In Louie’s own unique way, he motivated me to bring out my best against who he felt was the best – his lifters. But, just as he had done in the past, he did it differently, granted more abrasively. I really see this as clear as day now. Keep in mind; I haven’t seen him or talked to him since; this is just something that took time for me to see. But, again, hindsight is 20/20. I’m sure he was disappointed I wasn’t doing his meets anymore, but I shouldn’t have let it bother me.
The bottom line: I let what Louie said give me the green light to start downplaying a lot of what he has shown & proven works – the things he has discovered and developed over the last zillion years. Most of this was only a phone call or a short flight away for anyone who would listen to him. Again, who else offers this?
To be completely transparent, at times, I flat out didn’t like many of the Westside guys, and they, in turn, didn’t like me. There was most certainly a rivalry. I believe rivalries are good as long as they are kept in context. For years, due to my confirmation bias, I believed that the Westside guys only competed near or at their house, got favorable judging, didn’t weigh in, etc. (Dave Hoff made it a point to break this stigma in 2012 at APF seniors where he went 2900). As an outsider who traveled from Florida to Columbus many times to go against their best in ’07, ’08, ’09, ’10, ’11 (in a meet that Louie sponsored and ran), of course, I felt that I was at a disadvantage, and this did get to me.
I don’t think the many cling-on parrot types that claim to train Westside/Conjugate (and don’t know what they are talking about) or some of the goofballs that have come through Westside helped my perception at the time either, but I digress. I let all of this impact my feelings about the person and system, not separating the meet circumstances, my going a different competition route, and the nature of competition in general. This is faulty human thinking, nature, and reasoning. I was playing the victim.
With this said…
I truly believe that I wouldn’t be lifting at my current level, nor helping/reaching as many people as I have and will, without Lou’s wisdom, pioneering obsession and relentless pursuit, and love for strength. I don’t think you’d have a lot of what you see right now without Lou going before us and really pushing the envelope in every way.
Just think about this: Lou has produced some of the largest and strongest Human-Gorillas ever to walk the planet, yet he’s probably attacked 100x more than anyone in our industry. Further, I feel that Lou doesn’t get near the credit he deserves with who he’s helped and how many people for years to come will be strong because of his methods, influence, and expertise.
I feel that, at times, I have disregarded or not properly defended absurd attacks against his real-world validity just because I did and observed things differently than him. Disagreeing is good; in fact, it’s healthy. I’m sure Louie would disagree with my heavily linear periodization-based approach vs. his Conjugate, which I would expect. Even being openly critical of certain viewpoints is good when done appropriately. I don’t believe ANYONE should be given a pass if they can’t provide validity to back up their claims and be considered beyond reproach, regardless of who they are. There should be components we don’t agree with or would do differently with each approach. Lou has influenced almost all of us, even if we have been in denial or too naïve to be aware of it.
Here are just a few ways Louie has influenced my approach to powerlifting, training, programming, and coaching over the years:
In my first couple of years of training at Team Samson, we utilized more of a ‘Westside’/ Conjugate approach. I hesitate to say ‘Westside’ as it’s ever-evolving, and nobody truly trains Westside unless they train AT Westside. I learned a great deal about load, intensity, speed, and learning to grind. I slowly gravitated toward linear periodization. However, I kept many tools on my belt from this experience that helped lead me to later success.
The extra work (GPP) I do: circuit workouts, walking, carrying at the end of my training sessions, or off days was learned from Adam Driggers’s influence while training at Samson (starting in 2003). The “why?” stays in good enough shape to finish the meet strong. Many of us overlook endurance as powerlifters, and it’s an integral part of 10/20/Life. We don’t need to be able to run marathons, obviously, but there is no freaking excuse for gassing out after as few as 3-9 attempts spread over 5-8 hours. This is especially true for the bigger, fatter guys.
After first utilizing bands at Samson, I really dove in headfirst, learning about reverse bands, a.k.a “The Lightened Method” in Lou’s PL-USA article in 2005. This was the first time I truly understood the reasoning, and it clicked. Then in 2006, I learned a great deal more about reverse bands and their application from the Late Rick Hussey when I spent time at Big Iron Gym in Omaha, Nebraska. Reverse bands are an excellent tool utilized in 10/20/Life for overload work and yet another example of what I’ve picked up over the years from the greats.
I first learned about “CNS over-stimulation” (I believe it was stated as “overtraining”) in another one of Lou’s articles in PL-USA. Early in my lifting career, this stuck in my head “do not approach 90% load on a movement for more than three weeks in a row as it will likely lead to a regression in strength and power.” I have successfully applied this ‘nugget’ of wisdom (in my own way) to the 10/20/Life philosophy. Hello! This is a MAJOR reason I advocate a lighter load every 3-4 weeks – a DELOAD WEEK. Let me say again, this was first put in my head by Louie, whether it was meant to be three taken this way or not.
I’d never heard of prolotherapy until Lou gave me a 20-minute tutorial to help me understand how it works, who it’s worked for and why I should research it to help heal my biceps in 2010. This really helped kick-start me going down the rabbit hole of prehab/rehab, coupled with my massage therapy background and interest in anatomy and physiology.
Paul Key has been helping me with my bench for more than four years. Paul trained at Westside for years with greats like George Halbert and Kenny Patterson. I don’t know if Louie influenced how they benched, but I do know most from Westside benched this way. Paul tweaked my set-up to the same wide base style. Many Westside achieved extreme success, including Kenny, George, and Paul. This also helped relieve pressure on my back.
More recently, in 2014, when I was making my return to powerlifting post back injury, as explained in Gift of Injury– I used Lou’s adage of “go up weight classes until your deadlift suffers, then come down one class.” Again, my deadlift and back suffered from being too heavy, so I dropped to 242. This worked like a charm for me and was yet another key component to my return to pain-free powerlifting.
The Belt squat has been an excellent and a more recent addition to my lifting repertoire. Who else but Lou and the guys at Westside are responsible as they are credited with inventing this version of squat and have used this as a staple as far back as 20+ years ago. How many people recognize this picture of Dave Tate from God knows when?
I’ve been wrong about many, many things over the years. Not just incorrect, but wrong in my thinking. Much more than I like to admit. As a man who is still learning and maturing, I feel the need to admit I’ve been hard-headed and, in some respects, apologize for not properly acknowledging fully nor showing Louie Simmons the due respect that he’s shown me going back nearly 15 years. Whether you like him or not, agree with his methods, or think his methods are only for equipped lifting (ridiculous, but again, you shouldn’t agree with anyone across the board – think for yourself), he deserves our respect in the industry. If you consider yourself a leader in strength, he’s likely helped pave the way for you.
If you are new to the sport of powerlifting, coaching the barbell lifts, or participating in any strength sport, take a few years (ideally 10+ in the trenches) before you form your opinions into concrete facts. Take this from experience, as I’ve been in the sport since 1999 and have still gotten it wrong. Trust me; there is so much you can learn if you stay humble, patient and respect those who have forgotten more than you know about strength. Yes, by all means, create your own path – it’s rewarding, But remember, you likely still have a long way to go before you’re a true strength authority.
*Update: On Thursday, 3/24/22, Louie Simmons passed away. After I wrote this article in Feb of 2018, I stopped by Westside Barbell, and Lou was in the parking lot, sitting in his car listening to Fox news. I asked him if he had a few minutes, and he said yes, but I’d have to come inside as he had to train. As Lou did neck extensions, Reverse hypers, and ankle-weighted leg curls, we talked for about 3hours. I told him about the article that I wrote, how he pissed me off, and that I knew what was he was trying to do, but at the time, I didn’t understand. He smiled and told me he still thinks I should come there to train and that he could get me much stronger. We finished talking, and I thanked him and went on my way.
The last time I saw Lou was right before the pandemic for 2020 Arnold, randomly in London, Ohio, as Dave Tate and I were eating lunch. Dave and I just finished a Table Talk. We were literally discussing Westside, training, Lou, and my last trip to WS in 2018, and Louie came through the door. Totally bizarre. He came right over. We chatted for a few minutes, just like he would with anyone who wanted to talk strength. A pleasant and light conversation; about Westside, the movie Westside vs. the World, the current state of lifting, etc. He then met Doris at his table, and we said our goodbyes.
I didn’t know Lou like many of you did, but I did know him enough to understand his mission in life was strength. It wasn’t a goal – goals are short-term, and once achieved, one can feel empty and lost until the next goal is set.
Lou lived his strength mission on his terms.
I thank God for Louie Simmons and what he offered us all. During my 2018 visit, Lou told me that he hadn’t slept more than an hour a night in a long time due to a botched surgery that almost killed him. And it really impacted his daily life and had him feeling horrible more often than not.
If anyone lived by the cliche/saying “You can rest when you’re dead” or deserved it, it’s Lou.
Rest Easy, Lou. I see powerlifting becoming even softer and a lot more “geekier” because of your absence.