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Dragon Door Interviews AJ Roberts

February 16, 2013 05:30 AM

AJDeadlift 1600
Dragon Door:  You originally came over from the UK on a basketball scholarship?

AJ Roberts:  Yes.  I came over as an international exchange student, mainly to play basketball. 

Dragon Door: 
How did you go from basketball to powerlifting?

AJ Roberts:  In high school, the rule is you can play only one year as an international student and there’s no way around it.  I came back for my second year and we thought we had found a way—my legal guardianship was handed over to my host family, and the school and state recognized me as an American resident—but the sports governing body didn’t. 

Long story short, it was a big battle to become eligible to play sports.  But, I became a three-sport athlete.  Obviously being competitive, I looked for sports that weren’t under the governing body.  Powerlifting became my main thing because I was already lifting while training for other sports.  This was my first exposure to the world of powerlifting, and I was really bitten by the iron bug, just from the atmosphere and the competition.

My junior year I played football, basketball, and was on the track team.  My senior year was powerlifting and bowling. 

Dragon Door:    What led you to train at Westside Barbell?

AJ Roberts: I had been competing for about seven years and reached the top ten in the world.  But, I really had stagnated for a long time without making any progress.  I was bashing my head against a wall, trying different things without finding much success.  After moving from gym to gym, I ended up training alone in my garage and was at the point where I was really ready to quit. 

At the time I knew Dave Tate, who owns EliteFTS and is also a former member of Westside.  I had spoken to Louie before and thought about moving to Westside, but never had really seriously considered it.  When I spoke to Dave, he explained what Westside was, and if I was serious about wanting to be a world record holder, then that’s where I had to be.  He just explained the culture and history of Westside and really gave me a deep understanding.

So I reached out to Louie and began driving four hours each way every Friday, eight hours total, just to train for two hours.  My whole Friday was driving up there to train.  I did that for about a month and a half, then Louie suggested that I think about moving.  Out of frustration from the lack of progress during the previous year and a half, I just took that leap of faith.  I quit my job and moved to Columbus, Ohio.

Dragon Door:  How did you decide that you wanted to become a world record holder?

AJ Roberts:  When I started training, my first powerlifting coach was a guy named Brent Mikesell.  At the time he held the world record in the squat.  The minute I began training with him he asked me what I wanted to do.  Being a naïve young kid and not understanding limits, I said, "I want to be like you.  I want to be a world record holder."  So I seeded that thought way back in the beginning.  My entire journey of training with him was interesting because I got to watch a guy warm up with weights that most people would consider heavy.  He was squatting 600, 700, 800, 900, 1,000 pounds in training.  At the time I was squatting about 450 pounds.  What might seem impossible to most people just seemed normal to me. 

I struggled along the way and definitely failed many times in competition, then I’d have to come back around, rebuild, reevaluate, and reattack in order to move forward.  But since I had seen what was possible, the idea of moving past 1,000 pounds in the squat never seemed impossible to me—it was more a case of when would it happen.  I just expected it to be a process.

When someone else has already achieved it, it becomes achievable. Everything I was chasing had already been accomplished by somebody else.  So for me it was a case of when would it happen, and do I have enough determination?  Do I have enough commitment to go and fight through the battles, failures, and to make the sacrifices that most people wouldn’t make?

When I was contemplating quitting, I realized that I wouldn't be able to do it in my current situation.  It's said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result, and that’s what I was doing.  The doubt set in and I needed that pep talk from Dave to reaffirm that it wasn’t me that was impossible, it was my situation.  So I embedded myself in the place that has routinely produced champions and record holders, and I went for it.  If I hadn't made that decision, I would have chosen not to be a world record holder.  I had to decide if I was all in, or if this was really even something I wanted to do.  I chose to go all in.

Dragon Door:     After you moved to Columbus, what was your training like, and how long did it take you to set a world record?

AJ Roberts:  I was at Westside for about three-and-a-half years—close to four.  After about two-and-a-half years, I set the world record in 2011, then I was there for another year when I squatted 1,205lbs.

When I first went to Westside Barbell, the world record for powerlifting was around 2,665lbs.  I had a 2,400 pound total at the time, 260-odd pounds away from that world record, which is manageable.  During the time I was training, the world record went up to 2,799lbs!  So by the time I was coming close to the previous record, the goal had increased by about 140-odd pounds.  Obviously, I now needed to go beyond what I originally needed to achieve. 

During the first six months, I had to adjust to the new style of training.  Even though I had incorporated Westside methods in my training, I'd never before studied directly with Louie.  I had his books and DVDs, but it was still very different than what I imagined.  We trained harder, and it was a lot more intense.  My bench press and deadlift were moving in the right direction, but my squat actually went backwards for a little while.  I was literally going two steps back to take one giant step forward.  It was frustrating to lose ground with the squat while getting stronger on my deadlift, the true test of strength where equipment doesn’t help.  The deadlift is also the only lift that incorporates nearly every muscle group in the body.  But I trusted in the system and believed in Louie.  Eventually my squat began to move forward again, and it moved forward quickly.  Now I had the right mechanics and really understood the leveraging. 

I walked into Westside weighing about 280 pounds, having always competed in the 308 weight class.  When I left, I was 320 pounds.  Gaining 40 pounds was a sacrifice.  As a fitness professional, it was very mentally challenging.  To gain serious weight you can’t just eat healthy, clean food.  You have to have a dirty diet, because you can’t get enough calories in with rice and chicken. It was a real commitment.  I remember times when I had to force feed myself.  I’d start to feel sick, but I'd wait a little bit then eat more.  Of course the weight gain caused health problems like high blood pressure and mobility issues.  I got to a point where I could barely put on my shoes and socks.  When I woke up in the morning, I would need to stretch to stand up straight.  I began to have severe sleep apnea, and would wake up choking and gasping for air.   Many times I was afraid to go back to sleep, further disrupting my sleep patterns.  At the time, I saw these things as sacrifices necessary to add pounds to my lifts.  So, when I set that world record, my mindset became, "What's next?"

My next goal was a 1,200+ pound squat, and that was all I really had left.  I had the world powerlifting record, and surpassed my goal of a 800-pound bench press with 910lbs.  All that was left was chasing that 1,200 pound squat, which kept me at Westside for another year.  When I finally hit 1,205lbs in competition, it was the biggest squat at Westside and still is—though, it’ll probably be broken soon, as records seem to continuously change at Westside.  But, when I set that record, I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders—even though I still had to finish the competition for it to count. 

When I squatted 1,205lbs, it was a euphoric moment.  I knew there was nothing left that I wanted to achieve and I could start to getting back to what I knew was healthy.  And in a way, reclaim my life.  I had sacrificed my quality of life, my relationships, and money.  But I sacrificed them in my pursuit of strength.  No one else knew, but at that moment, I was glowing inside.  It was almost a bittersweet moment because I had to go on to the bench press and deadlift. 

During the bench press, we get three attempts.  You have to hit one of those attempts in order to move on.  During my first attempt, my bench press shirt tore.  So I used my backup shirt for the second attempt—and it tore too!  So I put on a third shirt and managed to complete the bench press.  It was probably the hardest bench press I’ve done in the last two or three years because I was wearing an unfamiliar piece of equipment.  So I managed to squeak through, but it had taken so much energy out of me that when we rolled into the deadlift, it took all I had in me to finish the competition.

Honestly, if I hadn't been able to complete the competition, I’m not sure if I would have been able to continue on because of the emotion and everything I was going through at that time.  It was kind of like when I hit that world record, you think you’ve reached the top of the mountain.  Then the next day I wasn't satisfied—I still had the bigger goal of the 1,200lb squat—so I was back to work the very next day.  When I reached the top of the mountain and the clouds cleared, there was a bigger mountain.

After setting the world record, I went through a really weird time in my life.  I quit another job, and ended my marriage.  I went through a big transition because I was searching for something.  The world record had not given me satisfaction.  What I realized, and ultimately why I believe I was able to get to the 1,205lb squat after such a crazy six months—including a complete reevaluation of my life so to speak—was the realization that the destination, the end of the rainbow wasn't as important as the rainbow itself, it was the process which should be enjoyed. 

I was in a very flow-like state for the six months before the 1,205lb squat.  I just thoroughly enjoyed training and where I was with my training partners at the gym.  This mental shift allowed me to push the boundary one more time.  Also, I had set an end point in my mind which that let me really flourish.  I just had a blast during those last few months.  Looking back, I miss powerlifting and Westside, but it was time to transition.

Dragon Door:    When we were speaking earlier, you mentioned a "champion mindset or mentality."  How would you define it?

AJ Roberts:  It’s tough to explain, and it's difficult for a lot of people to understand.   The truth of the matter is, to be successful in terms of athletic achievements, many times you have to put your sport or yourself ahead of everything else.  You can't miss training, even if it happens to fall on Valentine’s Day, a birthday, or Christmas.  On Thanksgiving, I was in the gym training.  There was no ‘I’ll just go tomorrow.’  If I was on vacation I would find a gym and get in my four hours of training.  Often, people around you won't understand why can’t just skip training. 

The mindset is about making the ultimate sacrifices, and an understanding that if I'm not training, someone else is training harder than me.  I have to put in the hours, study the craft, and almost become obsessed with it.  I constantly visualize and think about the technique, performance, and search for better ways to recover.  If a job got in the way, I  would quit the job.  I've missed family weddings because they fell on a training or competition day.  Many people will feel like that’s selfish, and it is, but in order to break a world record, you can’t make up for missed training days. 
AJNosebleed 1600

My first powerlifting coach told me when I was in college that to be a record holder there’s no drinking, partying, staying up late, or missing training.  He gave me the ground rules.  College was still a fun time for me, but not in the same way.  I was in bed early on a Friday night because I had to get up early on Saturday.  I didn't go out to fraternity parties or experience that part of college life because I was resting, recovering, and getting ready for the next training session.

Then there was also the conscious decision to go beyond the boundaries by increasing my weight.  We often talk about how there are multiple ways to get strong.  Someone can increase their relative strength by recruiting more muscle without changing their weight.  Or someone learn and add the use of equipment.  Finally there's the issue of leverage, which is dependent on body weight.  What I found was the bigger I started to get, the stronger I became.

The more weight I gained, the more my raw strength, equipment strength, and overall total increased.  I started the journey at 170 pounds in high school, and eventually pushed my body weight up to 320 pounds.  But it also put me at a point where, I felt like the movie title, "Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead."  I started to question the value of real strength if I couldn't put on my shoes and socks, or if I couldn’t play with my dogs.  I couldn’t even take my dogs on a walk without getting out of breath.  Just going to the mall was a nightmare.  I just wanted to sit on the couch when I wasn’t working out.  I began to question if I was really strong if I couldn't even lift my hands over my head, and needed help putting on my jeans.  At the time I set my world record, only Donny Thompson was ahead of me.   He was a super heavyweight weighing 380 pounds. 

If I wanted to move into the next level, I would need to push my body weight up even more.  But I was so uncomfortable that I wasn't willing to do it, especially since I had started getting little nagging injuries here and there.  At that point I knew I wasn't going to have the right mindset to continue to pushing the boundaries.  That’s how I knew it was time to step away before I got hurt, or had a heart attack—several super heavyweight competitors that I’ve known for years have had heart attacks.  That's when I knew I no longer had the champion mindset, I was no longer willing to do whatever it took. 

It is difficult to explain that level of dedication, and many people really see it as being a selfish act.  In reality it really is selfish, but that’s what it takes.  I think if you talk to any Olympian or any successful athlete, you’ll find they struggle with balance more than anything because it is hard to lead a normal life and yet be so dedicated.

It's almost like the people in my life were battling against my sport for my attention.   They can't always understand why it’s more important than they are—at least at the time.  I would never change anything I did, it's why I am who I am today.  I had an amazing journey despite the failures, struggles, and injuries.  It was everything to me.  But, if I had to go through it all again, I’m not sure I would make the same choices.

Dragon Door:  What are your new goals, and what inspired them?

AJ Roberts:  As soon as I was done, I wanted to lose weight. But I found that I need to have to have some kind of goal or purpose.  Inspired by the new Sport of Fitness craze, I decided to focus on trying to be the fittest I could possibly be.  I think that even if I fail to become the Fittest Man on Earth, I can't lose because I’ll reclaim my health and add years to my life. 

I’m going to enjoy this process, especially coming from a sport where I only performed variations of powerlifts.  Now I'll be working on Olympic lifting, gymnastics, Strongman, kettlebells and more.  It’s fun.  I’m finding exercises I can’t yet do because of range of motion, inflexibility, or mobility issues—things that were hindered by powerlifting—and now I attack them!

It’s exciting to be in the process of learning and challenging myself in a way that will ultimately result in a healthier lifestyle.  It’s funny, because as I’m raising my game in terms of health and fitness, the other areas of my life—family, faith, and finances—are improving at the same time.  I'm already happier.

I don’t think someone can be over 300 pounds, even a world record holder like me, and be happy.  I know Olympic wrestlers who are also big, and they always say when they’re done, they’re going to lose weight.  I know when Donny Thompson broke his world record, and the 3,000 barrier, the first thing he did was lose 50 pounds.  For me, losing weight was the goal, but I couldn’t like go to the gym with that in my head.  I had to go to the gym in order to improve myself as an athlete.  My weight loss has been the byproduct of training for fitness.

It’s been a phenomenal journey.  I retired in the 2nd week of March, last year.  And nearly one year later, I'm already down 75lbs.    My original goal was to lose 100 pounds.  But I'm happy at being just 25lbs away from that in under a year.  Ultimately, I don’t have a final target weight, because I just want to be as healthy as possible.  To me, that means being in peak physical condition, at that point, what I weigh is no longer an issue.  It’s more about my blood work, and cholesterol—if that’s good then I’ll be happy!

Dragon Door:  Speaking of the other aspects of your life, you’ve worked with Yanik Silver’s Underground Marketing for awhile, how did you get started?

AJ Roberts:  I met Yanik through a fitness mastermind and we became friends.  I started helping him with his business a little bit here and there, and we became partners on the Underground.  This is the second Underground I’ve done with him, and it’s been really awesome.  The whole internet lifestyle really plays into the fitness lifestyle too, because I’m able to travel and do so many fun things now.  I’m a thrill seeker.  I love theme parks and I love the idea of skydiving.  When I was my heaviest, I didn't want to do any of those things.  Sure, they looked cool, but there was no way.  I was too heavy to skydive, and trying to fit into roller coasters was nearly impossible because I was so wide and dense. Shopping for clothes was a nightmare because I could never find decent clothes in my size. 

With my new lifestyle, I’m able to travel and go anywhere.  I’m not tied down to an office.  I moved out here to San Diego because to me it’s like paradise.  Every day is a vacation if I want it to be.  If I’m stressed or overwhelmed, I can just take a time out and go to the beach, meditate, and appreciate nature at its finest.  Even just 15-20 minutes is a quick break from reality, like a real vacation.  Then I come back and I’m focused.

So yes, I’ve been online for a long time and now I’m moving towards more of the internet lifestyle instead of just being a drone at the computer.  It’s been a great process and Yanik is one of the coolest guys you’ll meet.  I’m very lucky to be partnered up with him.

Dragon Door:  Very cool.  You recently attended the Marketing Mastermind Intensive (MMI), what did you gain from it?.

AJ Roberts:  I was attracted to the MMI in the first place because I know how well John Du Cane tells stories.  I learned a lot about telling my own stories, and also about telling my customers' stories.  We learned how to dig into our character, and pull out the information that that will magnetically attract followers and build our tribe.  For me, that process was  invaluable.  There's no one better than John to learn that from, because of his experience—he's done this with nearly every author and all throughout Dragon Door Publications.

I liked the whole process of really figuring out all the different stories for different situations, and how each will attract different followers.  It was an incredible learning opportunity, and really allowed me to focus to something that I knew I should be doing.  So, we not only learned from John, but in the workshop portion we actually worked on our own businesses—the MMI isn't just about sitting, learning, and taking notes.  It was a really powerful combination and I think it’s going to serve me well.

Dragon Door:  Very cool.  What’s one of the first things you'll implement?

AJ Roberts:  Definitely the storytelling.  I've started to map out different stories along my journey.  Alwyn Cosgrove was also there at the MMI and said something to me that I hadn't thought about before.   He said, "As far as I know you’re like a super hero that doesn’t have any kryptonite.  The story I know about you is that you came from England to play basketball in America.  Then you decided to powerlift and became a world record holder.  In business, everyone you've worked with has been successful, and now you're working with one of the very top people.  To me, you’re a genetic freak because everything you touch is gold.  Its harder to learn from or have a personal connection with someone who's a superhero without kryptonite.  You need to tell the stories that show how you’ve failed many times. You haven't told those stories yet, so no one knows them."

The biggest lesson for me was to start being more of an open book, and to tell the stories that people could resonate with, instead of always showing my strong side.  I need to stop being afraid of telling a story that might make me look weak.  That was super powerful for me.

Dragon Door:  Can't wait to hear more of your stories.   I know how powerful the MMI is and am envious that I wasn't at this most recent workshop.

AJ Roberts:  It was an incredible weekend.  There were many of us there who’ve been in the industry for awhile, and it was good to see everyone.  I said to John, we’re in the grind so much there’s a lot of stuff we're overlooking.  The most dangerous words we know are "I already know that."  For those of us in the marketing industry, some of the seminar could have fallen under "I already know that."  But "I already know that" and "I’m already doing that" are two totally different things.  Many times we learn new concepts or strategies and think we'll come back to it.  At the MMI, we found what we weren't doing and then had time to plan it out.  That was a big thing because we left with specific, ready to use action plans.  It was a great weekend for sure.

Dragon Door: Earlier you mentioned goals revolving around improved health and fitness.  Do you have any competitions coming up?

AJ Roberts:  Yes, I’m competing in the CrossFit Games.  This year, I'm really just testing the waters, because I have a three-year journey in mind. I need to assess my fitness skills so to speak.  I know I need a lot of work on overhead squats.  But I also want to compete in a powerlifting meet at my current body weight.  I also want to do an Olympic weight lifting competition at some point.  And there’s a Strongman endurance competition coming up that I’d like to try, too.

I'm looking at my new take on fitness like the MMA world where many different techniques and ideas come together in workouts and in competition.  I don't want to overwhelm myself or do too much, but I’d like to test where I am with competitions of different types of fitness; Olympic lifting, powerlifting, Strongman, kettlebells and I want to try a 5K at some point too.

The first thing I’ll do is the CrossFit Games.  Then probably the next thing will be a powerlifting meet, aiming to compete in the 220 class.  An Olympic lifting competition will probably be next.  It’s fun to not have the structure or limitations that I had for the past 10 years.  I feel childlike again with this kind of freedom from specialization.  That’s the best way I can explain it.
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Dragon Door:     Are you using kettlebells in your training, or have you in the past?

AJ Roberts:  I was originally exposed to kettlebells through Donny Thompson, and they became a big staple in my training, especially at Westside.  Donny taught me how to do double kettlebell swings, the get up, and the basics.  Donny brought kettlebells into powerlifting and he was the guy that I’d always admired and followed, so I started using them to raise my GPP (General Physical Preparedness) and conditioning.

Dragon Door:  It's interesting to hear that kettlebells were included in your powerlifting training.

AJ Roberts:  Yes, they were definitely a big part of it.  I’ve used them a lot to bring up weaknesses and for conditioning (especially using the swing).  When I was 320 pounds, I didn't want to run for my conditioning, so the kettlebell was the perfect tool to raise my GPP. 

I don't think many people realize how important GPP is in powerlifting.  A powerlifting competition can last eight to 10 hours—it’s a very long day.  So you need to maintain a certain level of conditioning to make it through a competition.  Many people fail when they don’t have that conditioning.  They'll shortchange a lift later in the day, and will wonder what went wrong.   In powerlifting, there are weight classes, so some people will be as out of shape as they want.

One of my biggest advantages was often being in better shape than most of my competitors.  On squat day at Westside, we did repetitions and speed work—every minute we were doing squats.  I was able to complete these workouts without fading or getting tired,  while some of my training partners would have to skip reps or take longer breaks.  I attribute a lot of my success with conditioning to the work I did with kettlebells.  They became a staple of my training and favorite tools.  Even to this day, I program kettlebell swings and other drills into my training.  They're tools that I’ll always have in my arsenal.

Dragon Door: What does your programming look like right now?

AJ Roberts:   I still follow the Westside Conjugate Method principals by using max effort days and dynamic effort days.  The difference is in the exercise selection.  Now, I incorporate Olympic lifts along with powerlifting, and have a larger selection of exercises for my main movements. Most of my specialized assisted work is actually more corrective, working on weaknesses and mobility.

For conditioning, I mainly do metcons or complexes.  Previously, my workouts were about one main movement and an assistance exercise, now I have a main movement, an assistant exercise, and conditioning with weights.  This incorporates different elements from powerlifting, Olympic lifting, Strongman and kettlebells.  It’s a more wholesome training program, but I still follow the basic parameters of the Westside system.  I still have two days for strength, two days for speed, but now I have days in between for aerobic conditioning like rowing and cycling.

I’m also more focused on mobility and restoration.  When pursuing absolute strength, you can neglect the other facets of strength to some degree.  And now my training program is designed to increase all the facets at once, along with relative strength, endurance, and conditioning.  Because no one is strong when they can't breathe, I am raising my conditioning so I don't easily fatigue.  And of course I will continue to increase my absolute strength.  I want to balance all these different components of fitness, for my complete program by blending Westside, CrossFit, and Olympic programming.  I get to go and play in the gym.  It’s a lot of fun.

Dragon Door:     That sounds great!  I really appreciate you giving us so much of your time today.

AJ Roberts:  I appreciate you taking time to interview me and hope to talk with you again soon.

aj roberts speaking 

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