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Interview with the Expert- Phil Stevens Part II

Quick Hit Summary

In Part II of this interview, Phil discusses differences in his training routine when preparing for a Highland games competition vs. powerlifting meet. Other topics touched on include tapering for big events, nutritional supplements, non-nutritive recovery modalities and the use of anabolic compounds by athletes.

Recap of Part I of Phil Stevens’ Interview

Figure 1 Phil Stevens- preparing for a squat.

In part I of this interview, Phil Stevens gave us an inside look at the life changing experiences that molded him into the athlete and more importantly, the all around good guy he is today. He also provided us with a mental roadmap for how to find and pursue our true athletic calling. Luckily for us, Phil has a few more pearls of wisdom that he’d like to share with us.

Ok, returning back to your training. You compete in many differing types of strength sports. Although most of my readers are familiar with powerlifting and strongman competitions, far fewer are familiar with Highland games. Could you explain what the Highland games are for us and how it differs from the traditional strongman competition?

Sure I’d love to… Highland games or Scottish games, as I tell people, are like track and field throwing events on steroids, created by a bunch of drunken Scotts in skirts.A Highland games event is made up of 8, sometimes 9, of the following throwing based events:

1) heavy hammer
2) light hammer
3) heavy weight for distance
4) light weight for distance
5) braemar stone put
6) open stone put
7) weight over bar
8) caber
9) sheath toss (only in selected events)

At all times the athlete is expected to propel an heavy object for height or distance, or flip a tree. You take three attempts at each event with exclusion of weight over bar and sheath where you get three attempts at each new height.

Phil completing a throw at a Highland games competition. May 2010

The main difference between Highlander competitions vs. from powerlifting and strongman competitions, aside from the obvious kilt, are the explosive or dynamic strength needed, along with max strength and decent strength endurance to last a LONG day of competing. After that you need a great deal of rotational strength and the patience to learn the skills of driving a throw with the hip first, NOT the shoulders and arms. It’s a tough sport, but an addictive one and very welcoming by those involved. It’s also the only sport I’ve taken part in where one can actually drink alcohol on the field of play.

Then there is highlander, for which I am the state chair. The North American Highlander Association. It is a 50/50 mix of traditional Scottish Games and strongman events. The organization is only in its second year but we are getting a great reception at each event, and it’s a great place for newbies to get a realistic feel of both sports. It’s also a place where athletes from each individual sport can compete head to head on an even playing field against one another.

Curious, when training for powerlifting competitions, training for the traditional powerlifting lifts (bench, squat, deadlift) are the end goal. In contrast, when preparing for Highland games or strongman competitions, traditional lifts serve as a means to an end (ie- getting stronger for moving/tossing heavy implements around). When training for either of these latter competitions, how does your traditional weight room training differ? Do you reduce the volume of your traditional weight room training or just add the specific training (for Highland or Strongman competitions) on top of your normal weight training?

You pretty much hit the nail on the head. We (athletes, trainees) each have a limited pool of resources. We have to take our goals and aim the training at them. For me personally, now that I’m training for the Highland games I can drop my very heavy limit strength lifts to a minimum and possibly need to even more. I’m still trying to figure out the balance. Although I’ve been successful thus far in competitions, I am very new to the sport (5 months).

I keep my basic strength training very intense. I say intense using the classic definition, meaning heavy loads, maximal or near maximal triples and singles. At the same time, I drop the volume very low on those to allow time for training my weaknesses, dynamic strength (relatively speaking), and technical skill work.

I’m training more frequently now and in smaller chunks. I don’t need to go have a two and a half hour squat session. I need short, intense strength workouts, and then sessions of throwing the various implements.

That said, I 100% believe in keeping the heavy intense lifts when training both myself and any other athlete, no matter the sport. Aiming to at least maintain strength, if not gain it, as I work on my other attributes. Why? I am already stronger than most highland games athletes, but it’s that very strength that led me to winning my second ever B class event and moving up to A class on $hit technique. There is one thing that can trump subpar technique in any sport or action in life. That is, being stupid strong above and beyond the demands of the sport. When all else is equal it’s always the stronger athlete that wins. So if I can couple elite strength with even decent form I can go far, elite strength with good or excellent technique watch out.

As a competition approaches, much like in power or strongman, I drop the basic strength training even lower. 1 week prior to competition, I drop it from my training routine 100% to allow my body to recover. In that same time I raise the actual throwing / implement work and keep it going the last week, at least the light stuff, until a day or two prior to the event. Much of the time is spent just honing technique and not worrying about the distance; proper form is the emphasis of these final sessions.

Other than that I eat like it’s my job. There are no weight classes in Highland; well, aside from the under 198 class and I am not going to be that low ever again without the loss of a limb. It’s nice not to having to worry about weight, just get heavy. Assuming that it doesn’t slow you much, bodyweight, can really aid you when throwing. It acts as a counterweight when you’re spinning around to throw a 56 lb implement as far as you can without falling on your @$$.

I hope that helps clear it up some. Ask me the same question after my first full year in the sport and Ill have it honed better, but I’m also sure I’ll still be aiming to get as strong as I can to aid the sport.

On a similar note, what about selection of traditional barbell/dumbbell lifts… how do these vary while preparing for strongman and highland competitions?

They don’t really differ for me. I still use primarily very basic lifts. Many of the same rep set and loading parameters I have found to work in the past. I identify my weak points and train those specifically.

What does differ now is the much higher amount of dynamic work. Power versions of the Olympic lifts. Dynamic pressing moves. I also do more rotational work which I’m not used to doing. My sports in the past were all on a linear plain and as such demanded getting tightness to actually inhibit rotation. I’m learning how to loosen up which is now very unnatural for me. It takes years to learn the required tightness for powerlifting. It’s that hardest thing I have found to teach my athletes and now I find myself having to let go of that (the anti-rotational tightness) when doing Highland games.

Other then that I’m also getting creative and finding and making up new lifts to help aid in my explosion and hip drive in a rotational pattern off of one leg.

For individuals looking interested for more information on how to prepare for Highland or Strongman competitions, do you recommend any books, websites or authorities that one should pay attention to?

Me and you can find me here, here, and here. LOL

First, I would look for people in your area that actually train and compete in the events. Nothing is more powerful than getting in a group of like minded athletes and learning from them. Look for your state chair in the North American Highland Association (above) You can kill two birds with one stone there and learn highland games and strongman. Find your state chair of NAS (North American Strongman) and the states Caledonian Society. They can point you to the Scottish games chairman.

Those are really the best bets for most people. Get people near you living it. Do a general search on the web for either organization and you can find tons of information. For the throwing, look at text on shot put and such. Almost more than any other sport there has been tons of research done on this subject. If you are able to get to this area (Gilbert, Arizona), I would love to work with you here at Charles Staley’s Bed and Barbell. There are tons of athletes in this area and my friend John Godina, along with Ryan Vierra, has regular Highland games at the World Throws Center just down the road from me here in Phoenix.

Let’s switch our focus back over to powerlifting. Your accomplishments in this sport speak for themselves. A 720 lb RAW deadlift. That’s ridiculous!!! When training for deadlift, approximately what percentage of your training is done from actually pulling from the floor vs. from the rack? Does it vary as you get closer to a competition?

True training loads. It’s about 3 or 4 to one out of the rack compared to from the floor for me now. I will warm up from the floor but then go to the rack 3-4 weeks straight at varied heights for my work sets.

Working mainly the top half of the lift may seem strange for a raw lifter. (For reference, raw refers to the fact that I wear no suits that aid the starting portion of the lift). However, I know this works for me, and my clients for the most part and allow us to train at high intensity without getting beat up. Full heavy pulls from the floor (600-700 lbs) just beats you up if you take them week after week.

Figure 1 Phil Stevens making a 7 plate deadlift look easy.

As I get closer to the meet it doesn’t really vary as far as the position I am pulling from just the loads and rep schemes. Usually my last pulling is done very heavy and high in the rack. Just above the knee.

In general, how far out from each competition do you usually start to taper? Do you taper by decreasing volume and/or lifting intensity?

Well depends on which taper were talking. I actually ramp training up consistently over the weeks and months coming up to competition, slowly lowering the volume, in general, and upping the intensity. The final 4-6 weeks are very heavy and hard but very basic low volume with only mandatory assistance work.

4-6 weeks out I will take my last heavy pull from the floor, 2 weeks out my last heavy squat and bench. The final week is complete rest and recovery. I will go in and do some blood flow work with say 10-25% but that’s about it.

In my experience working with the general public, a large majority feel that powerlifters are juiced with every anabolic substance known to man. Based off your experience, is this accurate?

They are. So are MLB players, NBA players, NFL players, cyclists, Olympic athletes, movies stars, soccer players, wrestlers, body builders, figure athletes, cover models, and more… It’s the flat out truth and people need to wake the hell up and realize it. They are here and they are not going away.

I’m not saying everyone is but a HUGE % are on something. I personally have no problem with it and some of the best people I know in the world are taking them. I can’t blame them. How can I look down on someone for doing something to make themselves better and reach their personal goals? In most cases it’s totally legal as far as their federations they compete in. Hell, it’d be legal if they lived in any country but the USA.

You have to simply accept it, and ignore it. It is part of sports and always will be. If you’re worried about what someone else is taking you’re failing yourself by not putting the attention into your own training. You’re wasting your time on worrying about others.

I’m not telling you to do drugs, and I am not saying I do. What I am saying is who gives a $hit what others are doing? I have no time to worry about this. I am in this for me, and if you take up strength sports you need to be as well, or you’re in it for the wrong reasons. Number one, above all, go in for the simple reason of doing better tomorrow then you, yourself, did yesterday. That’s it; you are the only one you can control.

Never go into this for the reason of winning a trophy or record. That’s an empty reason. Go in for yourself, and if you attain that stuff along the way awesome!!

I go into this stuff for me, that’s it. I make plans and goals to better myself. Like my desire to rank elite in powerlifting at 1900+ lb total, and to make the A class in Highland games. Each of those I can strive for to make myself better and under my moral and ethical beliefs, as well with the negatives which I am able to accept. This is why I don’t say I want to win the WPC worlds, have the largest powerliting total ever, or when I was in strongman I never had the dream of becoming world’s strongest man. Why? I won’t do what it takes to reach that title. Those titles demand what I am not willing to give of myself, and that’s OK, I accept that. I have all the respect in the world for those who will. They are fighting there noble fight, their own dream, and doing what it takes to get it. They have accepted the negatives and are making it happen. That alone is worth looking up to. Hell, I want to see people go bigger, lift more, run faster than ever before, jump higher, hit harder and everyone does as well. The human body only adapts and evolves so much in 100 or 1000 years. If we want to see those things happen, like all else in this world (computers, cars, phones, etc) you have to embrace science and technology to see it happen.

While we are on the subject I will say one thing. If you are in a federation or sport that does not allow drugs, don’t do the damn things or any other banned substance on that list. Join a federation that does allow them, there are plenty. Plain and simple, it’s as easy as that. For example, don’t go into highland games all hopped up on gas. They don’t allow it. If you want to do that sport accept the negative, that you can’t do the substance you may want to, and compete on a fair playing field.

I really think the steroids issue is blow way the hell out of proportion, and it’s an excuse now for the weak and small to stay weak and small because they won’t work hard. That’s sad as I don’t believe in excuses. I only believe in “I will” and “I won’t”. That’s it. I know hundreds and thousands of BIG strong men and women that are not, and have not touched a thing. So who cares if Johnny down the street is on tren and deca, and the guy next to you in the competition is on so much high octane gas he’s purple and his heart rate is more like a nuclear reactor than a well timed thump thump. Live your life, your passions, and concentrate on making yourself the best you can be under the constraints and definitions of your goals and the negatives you have accepted.

I will add that I feel that they should be allowed in professional sports. The players have been and will always be doing them any way. They are professional not amateur. Let them come out of the closet and do this under doctor’s supervision. Then at least they will be able to better know what negatives they are accepting and if it’s worth it. I can tell you for a fact that if I was an NFL owner and I just signed you for a 100 million dollar contract, you better well do anything it takes to make you the best for me. Much like a race horse would be jacked up on anything available. You’re getting paid more in one year than many get in a lifetime, and all that to play a game.

That’s enough about that.

For individuals looking interested for more information on how to prepare for powerlifting competitions, do you recommend any books, websites or authorities that one should pay attention to?

The links above to contact me LOL.

Go to a meet first; find people in your area again doing the sport. See what its like and enter one. You won’t know until you do one. Go in have fun and get a competition under your belt.

Powerliftingwatch.com will be the best source you can have as a powerlifter. All your federations and meets and news are on one site. You can search by state to find meets, gyms, etc… Useful articles and all that are on it as well.

Dave Tate and his crew at EliteFTS have an endless supply or knowledge and writings on the subject.

Due to the intensity of your training routine, I’m sure you take many measures to assist with recovery. What are your thoughts on dietary supplements; do you take any yourself?

Mainly for recovery I preach learning your boundaries and how far you can go. Always remember that the harder you work, the harder you need to pay attention to rest and recovery, which includes eating.

As far as supplements, they ones that I use on a regular base are more food based. I use whey protein on a regular basis, usually a concentrate, just to easily meet my daily protein requirements. Fish oil ranges anywhere from 5 – 30 grams a day, a basic iron free multi-vitamin, and creatine monohydrate. These are the staples I would have anyone use… Creatine in particular is really the only, non food based, proven supplement on the market at all. With all the recent findings of its aiding cognitive function and bone health you’re doing yourself a disservice to not take it now that it’s so cheap.

I have recently started taking as well a good dose of vitamin D and magnesium which I think is smart for anyone training hard. Additionally, I get plenty of salt and potassium in the diet.

After that it’s hit and miss. I will use simple carbohydrate beverages during times of hard training and during/prior to meets. But I like to eat and rely mainly on that. I suggest any other supplement you try, do them one at a time. In other words, add only one thing to your basic everyday foundational regime and track the results. Then try one more and track the results.

You’ll find that most products sadly aren’t that great. I do have a few brands that I will use and have had great results but other than that, the market is sadly saturated with $hit.

I think mostly people miss the boat on progress by 1) what they put in their mouths and 2) their training and rest. There is no magic pill that will replace real food or intense training and recovery.

Oh yea I do love caffeine and some of the energy based supp’s for a nice pick me up, and a big ole dose of vitamin I (ibuprophen) prior to most training.

What about non nutritive recovery measures such as massage, ice/contrast baths, etc… Do you use any of these techniques and if so, what are your favorite?

My favorite technique is called Jay Bell HA! He is a soft tissue therapist we use here, and a great friend. Look him up if you have a chance. I can’t give you any one modality as he is versed in, and uses so many depending on the problem.

I have tried most all of them. I think contrast baths and tubs have their place. I regularly foam roll and use tennis balls and steel shot puts to hit spots. Rollers are nice for just general work but if you have a target problem area it kind of like using a shot gun to do a job which requires the expertise of a sniper with a high powered rifle. Get someone to work on you when you’re injured.

Learn to take time off and relax, get plenty of sleep as well. Make time to play, just go and have fun and not push things at a serious venture or goal. That can be more therapeutic than nearly anything.

A good pint of Guinness cant hurt either, Ha!

Similar to myself, I know that you’re a fan of using science based training or nutrition principles. Can you share with us any topics from any of your most recent Pubmed inquiries?

Hey thanks. I think of myself more as an under the bar, behind the fork type of guy but I do tend to get a bit nerdy at times. Not as much as many I know but I do not believe ignorance is bliss. I feel we should all continue to learn as much as we can until the day we take the big dirt nap.

I have been looking more into dynamic training on pubmed.gov as I am doing a bit more of that in my training. I think this topic has been hit on a ton. I likely will research it again when I get more in the meat of my dynamic training.

Recently, I also did a quick look into sodium. I am one of the few that actually preach for my athletic and fitness minded people to make sure they are getting enough sodium. They need MORE than their sedentary counterparts. Between losing so in our training, tending to eat more real, unprocessed foods (which lack added salt), and a general trend to be salt/sodium phobic, many hard training athletes don’t get enough.

I’ve seen problems arise again and again in people that I train or train with that could be cured by a bit of sodium. So I looked into it again just to refresh my previously formed educated opinion and wrote a short article about it here and on the Staley Training web site.

And the final question of the day…You’ve built up a wealth of knowledge over your coaching career. For someone new to the performance training field, are there any specific individuals or books that you’d suggest that they read/follow?

I really do agree with what Jim Wendler says on this … I think everyone should go in the gym for 10 years and get some real under the bar knowledge, then start worrying about it. I don’t know a good coach that doesn’t have under the bar experience. Other than that I’ll give you a short list of people I’d read in no particular order: Pavel, Dan John, Mark Rippetoe, Wendler, Gray Cook, Tudor Bompa, Meg Ritchie, Ann Fredrich and more. Read, Read Read! Go meet them and see real athletes train. People- learn!!! Build a big box and believe in what you do. Always keep open doors and windows to new ideas.

I realize that thoroughly answering these questions takes a lot of time and effort on your part. Thus, on behalf of the readers here at CasePerformance, I want to once again thank you for taking time out of your busy day to join us.

Don’t mention it thanks for having me. If any of you have questions, comments, etc, feel free to drop me a line. I can be contacted here, and here.

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Written on August 19, 2010 by Sean Casey
Last Updated: February 05, 2013

This information is not intended to take the place of medical advice.Please check with your health care providers prior to starting any new dietary or exercise program. CasePerformance is not responsible for the outcome of any decision made based off the information presented in this article.

About the Author: Sean Casey is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison with degrees in both Nutritional Science-Dietetics and Kinesiology-Exercise Physiology. Sean graduated academically as one of the top students in both the Nutritional Science and Kinesiology departments.
Field Experience: During college, Sean was active with the UW-Badgers Strength and Conditioning Department. He has also spent time as an intern physical preparation coach at the International Performance Institute in Bradenton, FL. He also spent time as an intern and later worked at Athletes Performance in Tempe, AZ. While at these locations he had the opportunity to train football, soccer, baseball, golf and tennis athletes. Sean is also active in the field of sports nutrition where he has consulted with a wide variety of organizations including both elite (NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars) and amateur athletic teams. His nutrition consultation services are avalable by clicking on the Nutrition Consultation tab.