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Interview with the Expert- Phil Stevens Part I

Quick Hit Summary

In this segment of “Interview with the Expert” we have Phil Stevens with us to discuss his experiences as a coach, strength athlete and “liver” of life. Phil explains to us how he went from being a 300 lb “fat body” to a 165 lb distance runner before eventually finding his true calling as a strength athlete. He’s now a 240+ lb strength machine, with a max deadlift of 725 lbs (raw), 580 lb squat (raw) and a 405 lb bench. Phil gives us an “inside” look at his mind during each of these body transformations and gives advice to those searching for their true athletic passion.

About Phil Stevens

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

In this installment of “Interview with the Expert” we have the privilege of talking strength with Phil Stevens, director of training/coaching for Staley Training Systems. Besides holding this position, Phil Stevens is an accomplished strength athlete with considerable experience inp powerlifting and strongman competitions as well as Highland games. Phil was the 2007 APA World Champion in the 242-pound class (total). He has held the APF 275-pound class raw National bench, squat, deadlift, and total records. Phil’s marquis lift was his 725-pound raw deadlift, performed on February 14, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona. Phil has been ranked in the “Top 10” in the deadlift nationally across all powerlifting federations.

Due to a degenerative hip, which lacks any remaining cartilage, Phil has recently shifted his training towards Highland games competitions. He recently progressed to the A class in Highland games after only his second meet. Despite his physical setbacks, Phil has a two year goal of winning the A class and pulling an 800lb raw deadlift.

In addition to his coaching duties at Staley Training Systems, he also serves as the Arizona State Chair for the North American Highlander Association, co-host for Iron Radio, founder of Lift For Hope, an annual strength-competition with proceeds donated to charity, and is an accomplished artist with a masters degree in oil painting.

Coach Stevens, on behalf of the readers here at CasePerformance, I want to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to join us. It’s a true privilege to have you with us today.

Hey, don’t mention it. It’s my pleasure really. The best thing I can do is pay it forward. Much of that is in the form of sharing what I know has worked for me in real life, under the bar and behind the fork.

How did you ever become so involved with strength sports?

That’s a rather long story from a long long time ago and a galaxy far far away… I’ll try and give the abridged version.

At the age of seven I was ran over by a dual bucket truck as I rode my bicycle around my neighborhood. The truck pretty much crushed me leaving me with my left leg all but severed including the main artery in my leg, broke my pelvic structure in 16 places and left me for dead. After hours of surgery, months in ICU, and years of recovery I proved all of the doctors wrong… All the docs that had told my parents I wouldn’t live through the night. They then said I would lose the leg, and that I’d never walk again. I proved them all wrong through hard work, my “never taking NO as an answer” attitude and the love/support of my family.

It was there at the early age that I got my drive and my passion for life. I received the best gift I could in life —> The mental will power that I could accomplish anything that I set out to achieve. It was from that time forth that the worst thing anyone could tell me was “you can’t do it.” It’s those few words spoken to myself or others that sets me ablaze to prove naysayers wrong.

What I also received from this experience was a fat little body that remained with me until about the age of 22. Prior to this accident I was a skinny active kid. Due to the inactivity of being bedridden that all changed. The nurses also fell in love with my cute little butt and always brought/offered me ice cream, candy, etc. I ballooned up pretty quick. That extra weight stuck with me following my leave from the hospital through no ones fault but my own. I gained a passion for eating and man I was good at it!

By the age of 22 I was well over 300lbs and untrained. Though still active and naturally strong, I was a “fat body”. At the time I was working construction, hanging out with friends, partying, fighting, yada yada, doing the typical 14-20 year old male thing.

I’ll try and speed this up… One day I made the decision that I was done being overweight. I dropped fat like a bad habit within 90 days I dropped 95+ lbs and was a stud. HA! Once I made the decision it just happened it was easy. You can see more of how I did that in this last month’s Muscle and Fitness magazine paper copy, and the follow up to that can be found online. Besides the changes mentioned in that article, I also trained 3 days a week and worked construction.

Figure 2. On the left is Phil’s physique in 2001. The picture on the right was his physique 2 years later.

Upon losing this weight I was 6’1” and 215 lbs. Honestly though, I knew not a damn thing about training and nutrition. I just had a great work ethic and belief in myself. I dropped the fat and had a great deal of lean mass saved just from being so heavy and active prior. It takes a lot of muscle to move a fat body around!

How long did you maintain this body frame?

I lived happily at 215 for a few years without really trying. Then one day, after a few circumstances in my personal life, I decided to drop more weight. Unfortunately, I started reading the wrong things, defied my genetic gift for strength training as well as my injury riddled past and decided to take up running twice a day. This was in addition to circuit training. I dropped to an all time low of 165 lbs. I was a drip; my body, health, and life suffered for it. Yet, popular culture told me I looked great, offering me modeling spots, etc, due to the fact I had “the Look” of Brad Pitt in “Fight Club.” I was at my best with respect to the views of society, but I was physically and mentally at my worst.

I had to make changes. I began to educate myself mainly on diet. I found and contacted a then young pre-PhD John Berardi who pointed me in some great directions and lent me some great tips. I delved in and studied everything I could, meeting whomever I could in the training, and more so, sports nutrition field. I tweaked and turned, tried and succeeded. I weighed and measured my foods, and gained some great weight back. I was like a sponge, learning all I could and putting it to action. I knew diets, I knew food. I could spit of the exact calorie and macro nutrient ratio of pretty much any food in 100gram increments. I found a passion aside from my art.

At this point I was headed to grad school, still not 100% healthy, but well on my way and looking damn good! Mentally I was a wreck due to beating my body took from running 2x/day and the low calorie diets that got me so lean and tight. Take it from me, you can’t live that lean year round it will wreck you. So I pretty much got a self taught PhD in nutrition from reading and talking to people like JB, Dr Lonnie Lowery, Mauro DiPasquale etc.

At this time, I was in master’s school and caring for my mother who was dying from cancer. I graduated with a 4.0 grade average and Suma Cum Laude from American University. Yet, I spent the majority of my time learning nutrition and training on my own. From this passion and drive I landed my way into this industry, befriending many of the top strength coaches and nutritionists in the world. During my second year of grad school I began working for one of the largest internet forums and supplement companies in the world for about 6 years. This further fueled my passion and desire.

I dove in even further, training mainly for physique but loving heavy lifting. My mother, who was always my greatest supporter, passed away right before my graduation. During the time we had together, she constantly urged me to explore my obvious love of strength sports and pursue my love of travel. Although she was gone, my mother left me with her desire and passion. It was time, I took off and traveled, taking strength sports head on.

I began to eat to gain weight and perform better. I took what I knew of nutrition and put it to work. I threw out what I didn’t need to know and kept what I did. I turned my attention towards “learning to train” as opposed to simply exercising.

Similar to nutrition, I jumped in head first and it worked. Within 18 months I was 35 lbs heavier and a LOT stronger. I bounced around for a bit and then settled momentarily back in my home town of Kansas and finally entered some competitions. I trained like an animal, signed up for 5 strongman competitions before ever doing 1. I was doing what it took to win. On my last training weekend before my first comp my “all out, never say never” training attitude got the best of me and I blew my distal biceps tendon doing atlas stones. POP.

Ouch! Bad timing for sure; how long were you out?

This slowed me momentarily but taught me a ton; just like every other obstacle I have faced. I had a cast for 10 weeks after this injury. However, just three weeks out of my cast I did my first strongman comp. I did OK for a one armed guy, finishing in the middle of the pack. Once again I proved naysayers wrong and made it through with no further injury. I had only been cleared by my doctor to lift up to 5 lbs with my arm yet I went and ran with heavy farmers flipped a 700lb tire, pressed logs and dragged an 18,000lb tractor trailer 75 feet. I did a few more competitions that year. My best was at a heavy weight show. I came in about 50-100 lbs lighter than my competitors but I hung in and did well. It was the first time I touched an atlas stone since the biceps tear.

About a month after my first strongman competition, I competed at my first powerlifting meet, the APA worlds. I weighed in again very light for the 242 lb class (220 lbs) but still made a good showing. Had a decent squat and bench (which I am never great at due to my damn long arms and the fact I am working on about one and a quarter legs). I hit my first 650 deadlift which got me the 242 class that year.

From there I was hooked mainly to powerlifting. I left my previous employer of 6 years, where I had a great run, memories and met some of the best in the business. I was soon hired to work for and with one of the best in the business, Charles Staley, owner of Staley Training Systems. Pushed my weight up. Right after moving to the 275 class I went on to hit 700 numerous times in the deadlift. It’s actually an easy opener for me now. My best lifts include a 725 lbs deadlift (competition), 905 lb deadlift (out of the rack), 580 raw squat, and a 405 bench (yea I suck at bench but it’s now a mission that the hip is gone.)

As mentioned above, I have zero cartilage remaining in my left hip. I’ve had to limit squatting to a few inches above parallel. So while keeping an eye on powerlifting and my desire to rank Raw Elite (see below), plus deadlift 800+ lbs, I decided to give Highland games a try and was instantly hooked. The sport is great for me as it’s something new and it doesn’t require me to place a large amount of stress on my bad hip. I instantly did well thanks to the raw strength obtained from powerlifting. In my first comp they moved me right to B class instead of the usual C and I finished middle of the pack despite being new to the event. I then trained a bit for about 8 weeks and went to my second event winning the B class, qualifying me to compete in the A class. In order to progress any further, I need to put my time in and get better technically.

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

Just to clarify what I’m saying when referring to raw elite … I need to define that my goal is not the new so called raw elite totals of around mid 1600’s which I have already surpassed. I am talking ranking real raw, the numbers that were set years ago prior to being watered down, just under 1900 but with no equipment. I’m a firm believer that ELITE should mean something and only the few ELITE should be able to attain it with hard work and dedication. The current numbers in my opinion make the title a much less meaningful status.

WOW! Sorry about that as I see my answer turned into a long story. I tried to keep it short.

No problem, I’m always game for a good story. I’m sure most individuals would never have guessed that you were at one time an overweight guy and later an aerobic machine prior to switching over to strength sports. What inspired each one of these lifestyle changes?

I guess the best route is to take these one on one.

Fat to Jacked

To be honest with you this was by far and large the easiest transformation of all. Being a fat guy and we’re talking FAT, I will still tell everyone that losing fat is the easiest part of the physical transformation game. It’s much easier than gaining an appreciable amount of performance or muscle.

I just woke up one day and made the decision to dedicate myself towards losing the weight. I went low carb, dropped the cases of beer for whiskey straight or bourbon and drank diet soda. Resistance trained three days a week and just stayed active.

Losing fat is not rocket science; it’s just about taking a few simple steps and being consistent. Making those choices lifetime long changes. Again within three months I was down 95+ lbs and stronger than ever. Physically speaking, I was in the best health of my life and to be a bit coy, I’ll just say the women noticed as well.

Jacked to Runner

Another simple one really. I had a lot of stress in my personal life and needed an escape. I decided to just go balls out on my training. I took up running twice a day 6 days a week and brief resistance training twice a day brief.

It (the running) sucked for about a week or two. The neat thing about endurance and endurance strength, unlike max strength, is that it comes to you very, very quickly. Literally in one week, if you’re consistent, you can make huge stride and in one month what was hard is cake.

You just learn to hit a stride, much like a drummer keeping time and then just go. It’s really that easy. Ten minutes into any run the hard part, starting, is done. You hit that pace and just roll with it. Couple that with a diet that looked more like that of Calista Flockhart, and I quickly got pretty damn good at running despite my build and injuries.

I must add, unless you really enjoy distance running, there are much better things you can do for your body health and physique. Nothing harmed my health (knees, hip, muscle, hormones, mental health) more than it along with an extreme diet to get light and lean.

Runner to Jacked again

Harder than the prior but still not to bad. This battle was mainly mental and a fight with the fork and spoon. Even with sub par training, as long as you have diet in check, you can use one of those crap training programs out of a muscle mag or from some self proclaimed internet gurus and still get a hell of a physique… One like most magazine models or the pop culture icons you see now a days with a fairly defined six pack and some kind of muscle tone.

Largely what led to this transition was simple me needing to back lash from the damage I had done getting so light and good at running. I made a 180º turn from being concerned at how damn lean I can get, to focusing on my health and regaining some sanity.

Jacked to Strength Athlete

Above all this was my hardest, longest, and yet most worthwhile transformation to date. Like I said above, most of this started with my talk and my mothers support and push for me to go for what I was good at naturally. Picking up heavy $hit and proving the people wrong yet again. Go against popular opinion and culture and do what I loved. She passed and I went for it.

A few others helped me on the way as well. Going to, meeting, and befriending Charles Staley, Dan John and more at one of Charles’s training summits. Then throwing my own seminar a few weeks post grad school where Dave Tate and Dan John spoke. The passion of these people, in particular Dave Tate and crew, were right in the realm I was interested. They wanted to get stupid strong and large. It lit a fire in me.

A few short months later I was on a flight to live in Thailand for a year. There I met my good friend Calvin Neff. Calvin is a machine and one of the most influential people in my strength sports life. He was a multi-time and mutli-weight class elite back in the days of old. This was before every Tom, Dick and Harry could train a few years and earn a watered down elite status. He was also then a runner, rider, back to power, string man and hell of a coach.

It was with Calvin I learned how to train as opposed to exercise. We trained in a group, but as one. We fed off one another, and learned to push ourselves beyond our limits. We each gave and learned from one another. It is also the first place I learned just how great the people involved in strength sports and heavy athletics are. They are by far the most driven and goal oriented people on earth. At the same time they are the most kind hearted and giving; the first to lend a hand and help another person on their personal journey. By far and large the best people in the world, as long as you don’t wrong us, step in the way of our goals, or piss us off or do any of the above actions to those we care about.

From there, the last transformation in this chapter of my life began, one of the most important to date and still goes. That is, looking to build my body, my mind and my friendship; always aiming towards perfection at every turn and loving that there is always another hurdle or 1 more pound to put on the bar.

What’s next after this? I’m not sure yet. I can tell you though that whatever it is, I’ll continue to do what I know best – Take it on and kick its @$$!

After going through the body/mind transformation yourself, do you have any advice for those looking to do it themselves?

Number one above all would be learning to choose your goals, your job, and your whole life. You need to learn to live your life by the “I wants” and not the “I shoulds”. Sit down and have a deep session with your own head looking at you and figure out what your real passions are. It is then and only then that you will make great progress, more so then ever before, and enjoy every minute of it.

What do I mean by this? Too many people are living there life and choosing there goals by “I shoulds.” I should have this type of job, I should have a wife, 2 or 3 kids, 2 mortgages or 3 cars. I should be in this exercise routine, defined by this definition of fitness to get this look, etc, etc.. All of “shoulds” are defined by someone else.

I say you need to step back and find not what others want, but what YOU truly want. I lived and exercised by “you shoulds” for years. The 9-5 job, the running, training and eating for physique only. I made great progress but in reality I hated near every minute. That’s no way to live life.

All of the best things I have done have been passions. They have been the hardest, much like the resistance Steven Pressfield speaks about in the War of Art (read it). Yet they have had the best return. I loved every minute and got the greatest return as I had true passion for it. Examples for me are when I dropped everything I had to seek a Bachelors and then masters in oil painting despite the fact that’s NOT what people should do. When I finally identified and accepted my passion for strength sports, I took them head on. These choices were for me. By seeking my own passions, I found joy and advancement that in-turn bled to the rest of my life and from me to others.

The second thing, once you think you know what you want, is to sit down and figure out the negatives to your passion or goal. Any goal, I don’t care what it is, has negatives that we must first accept. Once we accept them we can then ignore them and let ourselves free to seek the progress and positives of the endeavor. The more extreme the goal, the more things one must give up. In aiming to be an elite powerlifter I had to accept that I would have to put many things on the back burner. In seeking my career, good Lord did I have to give up certain things. But all that giving was more than worth the payback of seeking what I loved.

Again your goals should be YOURS and realize that NO one’s goal is more noble than anyone else’s as long as they are their own and not someone else’s falsely imparted on them. I don’t care if you’re a marathon runner, a triathlete, a skater, a skier, a powerlifter, strongman, bodybuilder, or highland games athlete. If that’s your passion, you give it your all and accept the consequences, you are on the right track so enjoy the ride. Find what you love. It a lot easier to complete something if you’re truly passionate about it. If you want a hand reaching it, look me up. More likely than not, I have walked in the shoes you’re trying to fill or have helped, consulted with and/or trained those who have.

Last, shameless pimp, would be look up and listen to Iron Radio each week. It’s a free podcast that I co-host along with Charles Staley, Dr. Lonnie Lowery, and Rob “Fortress” Fortney. We pass on the nutrition and strength training wisdom that we’ve gained over the years to you, the listener. One episode in particular, #55 in the archives, covered this very topic—> Going from overweight and out of shape to a trained, focused athlete. Look it up and please send us all comments and questions we can answer on our upcoming shows. You can find all the upcoming Friday live podcasts on our facebook page.

Iron Radio, that’s definitely a great source of information for any competitive or recreational ball/strength/speed athlete looking to improve their performance. What was the motivation behind you, Dr. Lonnie Lowery, Charles Staley and Rob “Fortress” Fortney starting up that podcast and article library?

First off, it wasn’t for the money. I can tell you that for damn sure. We haven’t made a dime and in actuality we have lost money floating the cost of the show production each and every week. We give our time and the service each week for free to the listeners.

Plain and simple it’s our avenue to give back what we have learned over the years, and also a place we can give our friends and colleagues an avenue to do the same without all the advertorials. It’s our way to fight back against the ever growing cloud of crap in the industry out there now, and provide a no BS database by those of us who are living and breathing it in the real world.

More to Come!

And with that, Part I of this interview comes to a close. Luckily for you, 1 interview could not contain all of Phil’s wisdom and advice. Check out Part II of this interview where Phil discusses differences in his training routine when preparing for a Highland games competition vs. powerlifting meet. Other topics we’ll touch on include tapering, the use of steroids, nutritional supplements and non-nutritive recovery modalities.

Please note, I have no financial interest with any of the organizations mentioned in this interview.

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Written on August 05, 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.