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Remember Laszlo Bencze, the author of the "Competing with Ixtal," an essay on the inner drives and motivations of the average lifter (article #52)? Well, he's back, this time to tell us about the motivations and peculiarities of an Olympic lifter who's anything but average, his friend Bill Brian, 9-time national masters champion. It’s a character study about a guy who refuses to compromise his principles. It’s a good story, an interesting story. But it’s more. It’s a story with an important message: Persistence pays.
While he lacked the talent to be a world or national champion in his prime, by sticking with it he became an outstanding national champion in his maturity. As you’ll see, Brian is an intense, passionate personality, some might say a little weird. In fact, that may be a major reason for his eventual success. Laszlo will explain, in his own inimitable way.
My Friend Bill
by Laszlo Bencze
The drunk was barefoot and his dirty tee shirt exposed a roll of pasty flab just above the belt. He was pleading, in that muzzy, incoherent way that drunks do when they're not far from passing out: "Hey. Let me try that. Hey, come on. Let me try that." What he meant by "that" was to spin around with a 16-pound ball of iron at the end of a wire and see how far he could throw it. That's what Bill and I were doing in Laurelhurst Park in Portland Oregon on that Saturday afternoon back in 1978. It's the sort of thing that strongmen do. We were practicing for the Portland Highland Games, which in those days was still a home brew affair that attracted local eccentrics like us.
Bill hates drunks passionately. They represent for him everything that’s wrong with life, all that is loathsome and corrupt. He wasn't inclined to share the hammer. Instead, he started swinging it around his head – with one arm – and saying to the drunk, "Stay back. Don't come any closer." It was then that time started to slow down for me. I could see that the drunk was going to keep walking towards Bill as if he had an appointment with a locomotive at a crossing. And I could imagine the awful hollow thump of iron striking a skull, and the blood and screams and being booked at the police station and the investigation, the hearings, the trial and a very different life for both of us.
That's when the drunk's girlfriend noticed and rushed up to him screaming, "Don't hurt my baby!" and dragged him off to safety. Bill and I finished up our workout with a bit of caber tossing and went our ways home without much discussion of the incident.
I guess you could say Bill is a man out of time. He would have fit right in with Andrew Jackson and Jim Bowie – brave intolerant men who had dispatched many opponents in duels. Probably he would have been the strongest man in the world in 1820. But in our time, he has to content himself with being just another strong guy.
As a younger man (starting in 1969), Bill accumulated shelves full of trophies from local and regional meets. His best lift ever (which I witnessed) was a 396 lb C & J in 1978. In 1999, he placed 9th of 15 in the American Open Championships competing as a 51-year-old against the youngest and best this nation has to offer. He's been a National Masters Champion for nine years in a row
This photo, taken by Laszlo, shows Bill in 1998 with 341 pounds overhead
in the Clean & Jerk. In October 2000, at the age of 52,
he made 370 at the World Masters Championship.
On 12 October 2000, he made the heaviest overhead lift of any man over 50 in official competition: 370 pounds at the World Masters' Championship in Orlando, Florida. It's this lift that Bill considers the greatest lifting achievement of his life. (Sadly, though the lift passed the judges scrutiny, Bill was denied credit because of a complex timing controversy.) He also holds the national records for men 50-54 weighing over 105 kg (231 lb.): 264 lb snatch and 358 lb clean and jerk.
So what keeps Bill competing all these years when most Olympians of years past are probably playing golf? It has to be his intensity. He cuts himself no slack. (And as you've seen he cuts no one else any slack either.) It's what has taken him from an asthmatic childhood to an extended strongman career. When Bill does an exercise, he does it right or not at all. He has never done a squat to any depth but rock bottom, hips on calves. And he does that regularly in the high 400's for reps – no super suit, no knee wraps. Just watching him train is tiring!
Here's what he has to say about typical gym lifting:
"I hate training in standard chain gyms. It's not aesthetically pleasing. In fact it's downright demotivating. I look around at a bunch of 25-year-olds who are lifting wrong and not getting anywhere. They're just going through the motions. It's discouraging to see – like being in a junkyard. When I see some fool doing a quarter squat with a 400 lb barbell that he can barely wobble out of the rack with, I'm waiting to hear a loud crack as his spine snaps. It's frightening! And it doesn't pay to talk to any of them. Their motivation level is so low. I've talked to management about starting a serious weightlifting class – for free – but there's no interest.
"Once I was in the gym watching some 'expert' from corporate headquarters do a ‘show and tell’ for the club trainers. He was showing them how to do perfect quarter squats because 'people might hurt themselves if they go any lower.' On the platform next to the 'expert' I was doing full squats with 480. So much for the modern gym scenario. All I see is misinformation, mediocrity, and stupid advice."
As I said, he'll cut you no slack. On the other hand, if you’re serious and you want to learn, he’s most generous with his coaching help. He has a keen eye and can spot lifting flaws instantly and accurately. If you're cutting your pull, not extending your back, not looking up, moving the bar too far from your body or any number of technical flaws, he'll spot it and help you fix it.
But if you're a goof, however, you’ll probably respond to his intensity like a jungle monkey responds to the brilliant crimson and orange of a poisonous tree frog. Which reminds me of another thing that Bill hates: smoking. Bill spent his entire professional life in the world of Dilbert cubicles. (He was an analyst for Pacific Power.) Back when smoking in offices was still permitted, the occupant of the cubicle next to Bill's was a chain smoker. As Bill tells it, he had asked the man to stop smoking several times. Finally Bill purchased a small but powerful electric fan, hooked it to his partition and pointed it straight at the man's head. The poor sap tried to kid around about the fan, which was bothering him, and made some wisecrack about how someone would have to shoot him to get him to stop smoking. But Bill just stared at him – for a long time – and did not smile. The smoker stopped and soon transferred.
As for Bill's advice to recreational lifters, as you might expect, it's opinionated and a bit idiosyncratic:
"Man or woman, young or old, regardless of your goals or what sports you like, the first thing you have to do is squats. I will teach you to squat. I will start you with a very light weight and make you go all the way down into full squats, which means as low as you can go without relaxing your legs. You will do four sets of ten.
"If you are doing it for recreation or general conditioning, then you will be doing four sets of ten for the rest of your life. This is the one exercise that will strengthen 90% of all your muscles and keep them strong for your entire life. If a beginner can't learn to squat, he will never learn to do anything else and he will get hurt.
"You must develop your supporting strength by squatting. It is the base of the strength pyramid. Never Deadlift or do any heavy lifts of any sort before you have developed your squatting strength. When you can do 4 x 10 with body weight in the squat, then you're ready to add deadlifts. Again, you will start with a light weight, lighter than what you're squatting, and work up.
"For arms shoulders and back, I recommend windmills. These are done with light dumbbells. Lie on a bench on your back and allow your arms to move in great circles from your thighs to behind your head and up again. Allow the weight to stretch you and keep your elbows locked. I can take any reasonably healthy person and put them into fantastic shape with only windmills and squats. It's 95% of what I do in my training. Only 5% of my training is dedicated to the Olympic lifts and deadlifts (except in the six weeks before a contest)."
So what's with the windmills? OK. I do them myself every so often. They are devilishly hard and, being a strongly leveraged movement, fairly dangerous. When I first tried them years ago, I was capable of benching 280. So I tried 10 lb dumbbells. Much to my surprise, these were way too heavy! I had to start with five pounders and it took me about a year to work up to the tens. After five years I can safely do them with 30s, but I doubt that I will ever go much heavier than that. The movement is just too risky.
Will windmills provide the big boost to upper body strength that Bill thinks they will? I really don't know. I've never known a soul who does them besides Bill and myself and maybe Bill Pearl (they're in his Keys to the Inner Universe) . Just be extremely conservative with the weight if you decide to give them a try.
When Bill was a kid, his dad kept a 143-pound, 18-inch anvil on the work bench. Once in a while, Bill would wrap his puny arms around it and try to shove it; but it wouldn't budge. A year ago, 52-year-old Bill decided to discard it with a bunch of other housetrash. He carried the anvil out to his driveway and – just for kicks – pressed it over his head and tossed it into the dumpster like a sack of flour.
There is no better way to sum up the key to Bill Brian's success than in the words of Winston Churchill, spoken during the darkest hours of WWII: "Never give up. Never. Never. Never."
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