August 2013: Interview with Josh Bryantby Matt Meinrod on August 23, 2013
MATT: Josh thanks for taking the time out of your day to do this interview with me. For our readers, can you tell a little bit about yourself, how you got started in strength sports, and where your efforts are focused at these days?
JOSH: My passion is coaching hardcore iron heads. I train some of the strongest and most muscular athletes in the world in person at Metroflex Gym in Arlington, Texas, and via the Internet. I have Master’s degree in Exercise Science. I did my first powerlifting meet at 14 years old. Even though football and track were my primary sports in high school, I always lifted heavy and trained like a powerlifter. After our mandatory football workouts, I headed off to the gym to do my own strength workouts. After a year of college football I decided to primarily focus on getting as strong as possible. Along the way, I became the youngest person to bench press 600 pounds raw. I have totaled 2292 in the USPF senior nationals. My best competition lifts were 909 squat, 620 raw bench press and an 810 raw deadlift. My best lifts were always in meets. I also competed in strongman contests. My best events were log, yoke and farmers walk. I won the 2005 Strongest Man in America and a few of the highlights were an easy 600 pound raw bench press, 445 overhead press and a pull up with 130 pounds over my body weight weighing 306 pounds.I still train hard now days, but my mental energy is focused on the success of my clients. I love what I do, I love seeing people succeed and I love helping people reach their goals. Whether it is someone breaking a world record in powerlifting or someone’s first 200 pound bench press in their garage, my juices get flowing and I get fired up.
Some of the more well-known clients I have worked with are in bodybuilding: Johnnie Jackson, Branch Warren and Cory Mathews. In strongman Stefan Solvi-Petursson and some other pros and top amateurs you will know shortly. In powerlifting some of the more well-known would be Squatters: Chad Wesley Smith, Matt Sohmer, Robert Wilkerson, and Dan Kyser. Bench Pressers: Jeremy Hoornstra, Al Davis, Robert Wilkerson, Vincent Dizsenso. Deadlifters: Brandon Cass, Orlando Green, Dan Kyser and a number of other 800+ pound pullers.
I am the co-author of the best-selling Ebook: Metroflex Gym Powerbuilding Basics and my new Ebook Bench Press: The Science will be out this week and I will have a bodybuilding book out later this year. My Web site is JoshStrength.com, Twitter @JoshStrength and Facebook page is The JoshStrengthMethod.
MATT: Josh, the focus of this month’s discussion is on mental toughness. In your words, can you describe mental toughness?
JOSH: The best way to describe mental toughness is unresolved willpower to meet your objective.
Some people are disciplined with diet and never miss workouts, but they overthink everything. They could potentially have gone to a powerlifting meet and pulled a 50-pound PR. Instead, they settle for a 12-pound PR because somehow they had a preconceived equation in their head that became a limiting self-fulfilling prophecy.
Other people might get stuck at an airport all night before a big meet and choose to hang out in the bar, showing up completely hung over at the meet but somehow hit major PRs. This guy is convinced uncontrollable circumstances will have no effect on his performance. He is the daredevil type. Generally, this type of lifter will have a problem being organized and will miss workouts.
The best, most mentally tough lifters I have ever worked with exhibit the positives of both the aforementioned lifters, but don’t share their short falls.
MATT: How would you rate your mental toughness as an athlete when you were at the height of your competitive career?
JOSH: I would say it was extremely high. In all my years of playing football, I never missed a practice or game for any reason. I went nine years straight, 1997-2006, without missing a workout. This doesn’t mean I missed for a good reason such as an illness; I literally mean I never missed a single workout period. I have always, in every sport, performed much better in games/competitions/meets than in practice. Without wanting to sound arrogant, mental toughness has always been one of my strong points.
MATT: You’ve changed your physique quite a bit since your competitive days. Talk about the lifestyle changes you made to reduce your body fat. How has your training changed, it at all? And probably the most challenging part is diet. If you can, give me a glimpse of your nutrition as a strongman/powerlifter vs. where you are now having a very lean bodybuilder-esque physique. How did this transformation go about?
JOSH: in my powerlifting days, at my heaviest, I always made sure I ate adequate protein. Generally, my diet consisted of a big Waffle House breakfast, protein shake, some short of buffet for lunch, another protein shake and then BBQ or Mexican food for dinner followed by another protein shake. When I did my major cut down, I did my best with a carb cycling approach. I did not do as well with the ultra-low fat, moderate carb, high protein approach. I also did not respond well with the keto approach. Looking back on my initial cut, I do wish I would have included more healthy fats, grass-fed meats and things of that nature. It obviously ended up working well.
MATT: Working with world class bodybuilders, powerlifters, and strongmen you get to see all the different aspects of the sport. Of the three sports, which do you think is the most mentally challenging on the athlete?
JOSH: There is a different kind of mental toughness in each one. For the bodybuilder, the ultimate goal is obviously his appearance on stage. With that being said, his life literally revolves around the show. That means no more birthday dinners or “normal” fun stuff. The toughest part is the dieting, cardio, etc. For the powerlifter, the most mentally demanding aspect of the sport, is hitting certain numbers. Knowing you have to hit a certain number can be grueling. Generally, the workouts won’t be as tough as a bodybuilding or strongman workout. However, hitting certain numbers takes a lot of purpose-driven focus. Strongman takes a unique combination of speed, strength, athleticism and even endurance. The training for medleys, and things like that, can be more difficult than any normal iron athlete as faced in the weight room.
Each discipline has unique mental toughness requirements.
MATT: Do you think it is something that can be learned or is it a genetic trait that people either have or they don’t, or both? If it can be developed what are some of the things you have your athletes and clients work on or do to become mentally tougher?
JOSH: Mental toughness is partially genetic. Some people can take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’; they are just born that way. The kindergartener, who stands up and beats up the fourth grade bully, minus any sort of formal training, was born that way.
Mental toughness can certainly be developed. Unlike most kids, when I was in junior high, I used to listen to talk show host, G. Gordon Liddy. I also read his books. He had an extreme fear of rats. To overcome this fear, he caught a rat and ate it. He was no longer scared of rats. When there was a bounty on his life, he told the hit man he would meet him on any street corner so he could do his job and not harm his family. This is the same guy, in the Watergate scandal, was the only person that didn’t rat and actually took prison time. Back to the rat story; that is an extreme example, but if you are scared to compete you are going to overcome this fear by actually competing.
One of the main things I have my clients do is indirect. When they know their workouts are much tougher than actually competing automatically boosts mental toughness. I also give reading assignments that help in this area. I am a really big proponent on the psychological aspect of lifting. How I approach each individual is on a case by case basis. With a Dan Kyser or Orlando Green, if I take them outside before a meet, I am literally scared they might start chewing the tires off the parked cars. Other people might need a fire lit under their butt.
Basically, some people need to eat the rat and others just need to avoid it.
MATT: Many athletes look great in the weight room or during practice, but when it comes down to game day, when it counts, they choke. What have you noticed throughout your years working with different levels of athletes that might cause this to happen?
JOSH: In lieu of sounding touchy-feely, many times these athletes may have deep emotional scars. Sometimes a coach, parent or authority figure told them they weren’t good enough. There could be some underlying fear of failure. I guess the key is finding the issue and address it accordingly. People have to realize, man is happiest striving for goals.
MATT: Intimidation is a big factor in sports. Either a smaller guy is facing a bigger and stronger guy. A lifter is facing a P.R. in a powerlifting meet. Or a lower ranked team is going up against a giant. How do you psyche somebody up for something they think is going to be next to impossible?
JOSH: I think the key in lifting is simply realizing you are competing against yourself. If you keep setting personal records time and time again, you will start beating most people you compete against. Personal records beat over and over become state records. State records that are beat over and over become national records. National records that are beat over and over become world records. The key is to continually beat yourself and it will pretty hard for others to beat you.
MATT: Was there any lift you were scared of or had anxiety before attempting? For a lot of guys they get a mental block when they try 315 or 405 or 495 because they’re adding another plate. I imagine a 900+ squat or 600+ bench might make even someone as accomplished as yourself lose sleep or throw up in your mouth, lol?
JOSH: Of all the lifts, the one that took the longest to achieve was my 405 gym bench press. That is really the only mental block I remember having. Some oldheads and former jailbirds at the YMCA cheered me on and I smoked that.
MATT: What was a typical training week for you as you headed into a meet? Did your diet change to help you peak? Was your day to day lifestyle different? What was your routine like to psyche yourself up for crushing a huge lift a few minutes/hour before the lift?
JOSH: My training constantly evolves. One example would be I would squat on Monday, bench press on Wednesday, deadlift Friday and do overhead and close grip work on Saturdays. Sometimes I would squat and deadlift on the same day. It really depends on what I was trying to emphasize. I definitely did not have a certain split for years on end. In powerlifting, the main change to my diet as the meet approached was I would back off training at the end so I had more free time so I would eat more. Before a lift I would try to stay as calm as possible until 30 seconds before I was going to lift. Then, I would get an aggressive, explosive mindset and be ready to blow the weight up. Because of all the mental and physical preparation prior to the meet, in one sense, this was just going through the motions.
MATT: When you’re training your athletes how do can motivate someone when they’re ready to quit? And what is your response if someone does quit?
JOSH: Reminding people of their goals and keeping things fun is how I motivate. Generally, this isn’t a problem. I only train motivated people. If someone wanted to quit, not only would I not try to stop them, I would open the door and beg them to leave.
MATT: Apparently Metroflex attracts motivated athletes! Were you training at Metroflex during the Ronnie Coleman days?
JOSH: My first year at Metroflex was Ronnie Coleman’s last year in contention for the Olympia title. There have been very few people that just blew me away, and he was one of them. That’s the most muscle I have ever seen packed on a human being. He wasn’t all show and no go, either. He could throw around some serious iron.
MATT: Tell me about one of your more memorable training sessions either with a big time pro like Branch or Johnnie or even somebody under the radar that works their butt off.
JOSH: When I was training Johnnie Jackson for the RAW Unity meet, everybody started showing up on Tuesdays. It was like certain energy was in the air. Before that, no one ever deadlifted on Tuesday mornings. All of a sudden, everyone and their mother decided to start deadlifting on Tuesdays trying to feed off the energy. I finally had to call a few of these people aside and tell them they are welcome to deadlift on Tuesdays, just not in the area we were training in and not with the bar we were using.
MATT: Once an athlete hits their end goal, like earning their pro card or setting a world record, how have you helped others maintain focus to keep pushing for higher marks and future success?
JOSH: We always make sure to briefly celebrate the small victories. People need to be praised for their efforts and accomplishments. They have actually done studies that prove achieving small goals over and over actually increase testosterone levels. The key is to keep setting small goals and not just focus on the ending.
MATT: When working with an inexperienced athlete when do you recognize it’s time for positive reinforcement vs. taking a no-nonsense attitude and pushing them no matter how much they plead for you to ease up?
JOSH: Generally, in person, I will read body language. I don’t want my clients to feel defeated. I definitely error on the side of praising a lot over not enough. I view people like ATMs. Every time I say something positive, I make a deposit. Every time I say something negative I make a withdrawal. If the deposits and withdrawals are equal, they are still broke. This is a big problem, in my opinion, in a lot of sports that have a macho aspect. Too much negative and not enough positive.
MATT: Confidence is always talked about amongst athletes yet many athletes, regardless of their sport, lack confidence. How do you think confidence affects performance and do you have any strategies you can give an athlete to increase their outlook?
JOSH: Confidence affects performance in a lot of ways. In lifting, if you are not continually doing more in meets than you are in training, assuming you are training somewhat logically, there is some sort of confidence issue going on. I wrote an article not too long ago called “Psychology is Physiology.” I found a study that demonstrated the same improvements in people that got their knees scoped and a group that got a placebo surgery. There are tons of studies that show the power of the placebo effect. Basically, this proves that what you believe physically affects how you perform.
Repetition is the mother of skill. Doing things right over and over makes that a habit. When excellence becomes a habit, confidence sky rockets.
MATT: Since you brought up surgery. Injuries play a big role in the psyche of an athlete. Doctors often tell an athlete they’re ready to return to competition, but the athlete is apprehensive. Do you think there is a way to speed the learning curve of the athlete to trust that he’s healed?
JOSH: For lifting, many times, it is greasing the groove, as they say. You can be better off finding the groove at a 315 deadlift than pulling 450 out of the groove and with poor technique.
MATT: You mentioned you work with Branch Warren. Did he have any mental blocks while training legs after his quad tear or upper body after his triceps tear? Obviously he came back strong and won a 2nd Arnold Classic title, but was it a struggle?
JOSH: I don’t think Branch had any mental blocks. The only potential issue for him was becoming overzealous. His only problem would be being too aggressive too quickly.
MATT: Let’s talk about ego lifting. One of the hardest things for most guys is checking their ego at the door when it’s time to lift for hypertrophy. We all know two of your guys, Branch and Johnnie, have looser trainer form than most. From a technical standpoint, what kind of approach would you advocate, strict or a more ballistic style? And secondly, most guys want to lift heavy and hard all of the time. What do you tell a young trainee who constantly wants or asks to ‘max out’ or never lay off the throttle on their weights?
JOSH: When Branch and Johnnie are with me, I make sure their form is tightened up quite a bit. I think generally, I would advocate a stricter style, but there is certainly a time and place for “cheating.” I like to do time under tension training, for instance. So, if we are doing a set of pull-ups for 30 seconds, once we reach failure, we will continue with partial contractions. On a deadlift, this probably wouldn’t be a good idea. It depends on the person and the movement.