By Alex James Williams
In a 2016 powerlifting competition Jonny Watson deadlifted 301kg at an abs-lean body weight of 94kg. Here is a video of him doing it:
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This broke the regional record and more importantly punctuated a transformation from awkward, unconfident boy to happy, self-assured man. Looking at him now you’d think he came out the womb squatting 3 plates, but he actually spent his childhood uncomfortable in his body. He hated PE in school and was bullied by his peers for being ‘fat’. His story is one of balance, failure and perseverance, with some unexpected lessons on the way that extend far beyond getting Hercules strong. I sat down with him to discuss his journey.
Despite his significant physical presence (a 6’2″ slab of muscle) he isn’t an intimidating character. His baby face helps, but it’s also his matter of factness and humility that disarm you.
Q: So, how did you lift 300kg?
A: I just stood up as hard as I could.
Q: (Laughing) Yes, but how did you make your ‘hard as I can’ 300kg?
A: As soon as you asked me about this I was like “ahh 300kg sounds like a lot of weight but in the powerlifting world it really isn’t much. There are people doing way more than that.”
Q: That may be true but the vast majority of people they would consider that really heavy.
A: I appreciate that it is objectively a lot of weight, and most people never reach that so I guess the two key determinants for ‘will you ever lift that weight?’ are: How long you are willing to just deal with the boredom of training past a certain point? Because training for a year to add 10kg to a deadlift is just attrition. You vs Time, how long are you willing to put in the sessions, dealing with the reality that your rate of progress will be constantly declining from here on out?
Q: And the second?
A: The second is just leverages – what your body’s physical morphology allows you to lift given the ideal training conditions. So that’s just a pre-frame but in terms of my journey I started lifting when I was 16. Which is this story of ‘fat as a kid’ then saw a Rocky film one Christmas, literally went for a run that night, then a few days later got some concrete filled dumbbells in my parents garage and started doing exercises out of Men’s Health magazine. About a year after that I joined a gym and was actually introduced to deadlifting at school.
“If it’s pure strength you’re going for, it’s going to include an element of fear in the training.”
Q: In a lesson?
A: Yeah, it was a PE lesson where we learnt to do clean and jerk, bench press and deadlifting. I just remember thinking ‘deadlifts are where people lift the most weight, so I want to do that.’
Q: What did it look like from there?
A: That probably triggered a dive into the fitness world, reading Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness then moving into the less PG versions like Flex Magazine and Muscle and Fitness, following body builder and power lifters, stuff like that. I think the first kind of line in the sand for my journey was before I went to uni and after I started. Prior to that point I really had no idea what I was doing, I was just lifting regularly. I was kinda doing like chest on Monday, back on Tuesday that sort of split. I didn’t keep any training logs so I don’t remember specific numbers but I know that when I arrived at uni I had deadlifted around 180kg. My first year at uni I began training with a friend who was a little more advanced than me, and I started doing a couple of programs like 5×5, but still it was really more turning up to the gym every day and being like ‘What seems fun this time?’ There was a guy at the gym who could lift 230kg (just over 500 pounds) and I remember thinking ‘That is out of this world, I’ll never be able to do that’. And then, a year later, I hit 500 pounds.
In the interview Jonny breezed over this section of his story, but I want to make a couple of observations that I believe to be important. 1. Even though he didn’t ‘know’ what he was doing, he was still consistent with training, 4 or 5 times a week. 2. Most youth athletes that end up having success have played multiple sports until specializing around 18-21. This ‘doing what seems fun’ kind of lifting apprenticeship, and not immediately zoning in on a specific thing could be the reason that Jonny managed to stave off burnout and boredom, therefore increasing his eventual ceiling.
Q: Damn, so it was just up from there?
A: Yeah, but slower and slower. I think of deadlift progression in 100 pound increments so it was a year to get from 400, which is around 180kg to 500. And then from 500 to 600 (around 272.5kg) was two years. Then after that, the journey from 270 to 300 was just a slog fest. I the first time I ever pulled 300kg was in a competition at 25, so it took another 4 years of training to add just 30kg.
Q: Basically just exponentially less progress?
A: Exactly. And then from 300kg to 312kg (My PB) my deadlift did not change between 2015 to 2018 at all, then I moved up a weight class and added 12 kilos. Which is a perfect example of what I was talking about earlier, your leverage and physical limitations are going to max out at some point. I mean everyone’s progression curve is going to look a little different. Say you have a long torso and short arms and low muscle mass, it’s very unlikely that you’re ever going to lift 300kg. But let’s say that is possible, 305kg is your max genetic potential, and we’re discounting steroids or anything like that, then you’re going to have to be consistently building for 15 years, and trying really hard every step of the way, and if you don’t, you’ll never get to that peak.
Q: What does ’trying really hard’ look like?
A: That’s a great question. I mean, I’ve done many programs over the years that vary in difficulty but I think if it’s pure strength you’re going for its going to include an element of fear in the training. It doesn’t matter if it’s 5 reps, singles, or 10 reps, you’re going to look at that session and think ‘I don’t know if I can do that’ and that requires you, I suppose, to tap into a frame of mind that you probably aren’t in during the day. That could be super focused or it might be angry, taking an anger out on the bar – generally anything that gets you hyped up to lift the weight. It’s interesting because recently I’ve tried out Crossfit and that’s a different kind of a ‘trying hard’ that is more about not giving up during the session, like throughout the course of the hour its more like ‘I want to stop’ and deciding against that. Whereas with lifting the decision has to come from the place of ‘I am just going to get under the bar and try and move it’ and the rest is very much determined by your capability that day. It not like I ever miss 310 because I give up half way. So the ‘try really hard’ in the powerlifting sense comes with a higher level view which is that the programming you are following has to be by definition testing your limits and capabilities, and then obviously its the willingness of it’s a Thursday evening and you’ve got 6 sets of 6 on deadlift at a weight where you look at it like ‘I’ve never done this before and feasibly I’m not going to be able to’ and you just put everything into that session, ignore that voice and try and keep up with the progression.
“I’m fed up of people who think the reason they can’t get to 1.5 times bodyweight Deadlift is because they aren’t doing enough pause reps or rack pulls, or don’t have the right knee wraps. It’s because you don’t progressively overload or train with enough total volume.”
Q: What was the first program that challenged you in that way?
A: I think that would have definitely been Jim Wendler’s 5-3-1 program, which is super popular. And that’s the program I stuck to for the longest throughout uni. As brief explanation of what that is, every session has a set in it that is a rep out set and the goal of that is to do more reps with more weight than you did last cycle, which is a month ago. So for example day 1 of week 1 you might be pulling 180 for 10 and then day 1 of week 5 you’d be pulling 182.5 and aiming for 10 or more reps. This is great for people like me who are competitive, as it is baked in that you can shoot for a new best every session and really test your limits. I think very few people approach a set with the mindset of ‘I need to try my hardest on every rep if Im going to complete this’ and it’s a crucial headspace if you’re trying to add weight to the bar.
Q: And what gave you that competitive desire?
A: I think the reason for that is because being an overweight teenager definitely put me on the side of ‘I can’t do as well as others’, and I constantly had it reinforced like when I’d try and play 5 a side football against my friends and couldn’t ’t do as well as them, or when I couldn’t complete 3 laps of the playing field in PE. So going on my own journey of training and getting stronger, experiencing moments where I pushed through my perceived limits in the framework of 5-3-1 allowed me to build that self-esteem and made me hungry for more.
Q: Does pushing through your limits mean you’re compromising on form to get it done?
A:The way I look at it, if you go back to the framework I gave at the beginning where your ceiling is determined by the amount of time you can progressively overload for, and your genetic potential, they are both dependent on using the best form for your body. If you are using a form that is inefficient for the levers of your body you are never going to reach that ceiling. Equally, keeping form that works for your body is going to reduce your injury risk and therefore increase your chance of spending more time under the bar. Over a lifetime of training this will mean you become much stronger. A stat that exemplifies this is that the average age of someone who medals at the IPF world powerlifting championships is over 30, which is not what you’d expect. The only advantage they have over competitors in their mid 20’s (the so called physical peak in most sports) is simply the time under the bar.
Q: So really the answer is no, you don’t compromise on form?
A: (laughs) Exactly. I mean look at me, conventional deadlift took me to 270, but then I started to notice I was losing balance at the top of the rep and getting lower back tweaks. I had hit a plateau. So really I had two options, either add a lot of muscle mass so holding good form at 270 and beyond wasn’t an issue, or find a more efficient way to do the movement. So working with my coach, we managed transition to sumo stance(wider legs than conventional from, with feet pointing further out). And for anyone reading this who is thinking ‘i’m pulling conventional and sumo is the answer’ it’s important to note it was first put in as an assistance lift, so many people injure themselves trying to max out straight away on sumo because the muscles that are put under strain in sumo are so different to conventional. It was really light for a while, then around 10 weeks into making the switch, I pulled 240 sumo and the bar just floated up so, off program admittedly, I went for it and the same session I pulled 285 and then 290. I remember walking away from it thinking ’that’s how deadlifts are supposed to be’, because comparably I felt like I had much more control, and the limiting factor was bar speed as opposed to my lower back giving out or losing balance. I was able to maintain the same shape it was just happening slower and slower.
Q: You said that reaching a plateau resulted in the decision to alter your form, how would you define a plateau?
A: It all depends on your training age. As that increases so does the length of time until you can call it a plateau. When you first start out if you’re doing everything properly, working with a coach, eating right, planning well then you would be expecting to go up in reps or weight every week for the first 3-6 months. and then after that you might expect to be at the same weight for a few weeks but able to do slightly more volume – reps and sets. That’s probably your first year and for the next year or so it becomes the 5-3-1 style kind of progression where you’re expecting to progress every month. Going into year 3 its more than likely to be every 2-3 months. That of kind of slowing progression continues until you get to the pros who are 6 or 7 years in and maybe change their max by 1kg a year, if ever. So if you’re 6 months in and stalling then its more than likely something with your programming, but if you’re 6 years deep and it seems slow then you might want to alter your expectations for progress and see if its possible that your form might need to be overhauled.
Q: That’s great. If someone new to lifting was to attempt to emulate your achievements how would you advise them to do so?
A: To start with I’d have them do 2 years of pec deck and leg press just trying to get progressively stronger at that. Because I’m fed up of people entering weightlifting, who have never been in a gym before and they follow all the insta pages and buy all the gear and think the reason they can’t get to 1.5 times bodyweight Deadlift is because they aren’t doing enough pause reps or rack pulls, or they don’t have the right lifting belt. That’s ridiculous, it’s because you don’t progressively overload or train with enough total volume. It’s really simple.
If you train 4 times a week, Push your limits, manage fatigue, and stick to the program it’s very hard to go wrong. The only other thing I would say that is essential is hiring a coach. That way you are accountable to an objective source and you have a set of eyes that can help figure out things like technique.
“You’re either going to have to take steroids for the rest of your life or be ok with never being as strong the version of you on steroids.”
Q: What would you perceive as the biggest mental hurdle within that journey?
A: The hardest thing is just sticking to what you’re doing. For me I loved training, so I was never thinking ‘ugh I’ve got to go and deadlift. But I did get distracted by shiny things, new programs, new methodologies. And that’s natural because when you aren’t getting the results you want from what you’re doing (which no one ever is because we’re all so impatient) then you look at the other thing and think, well it must be because I’m not doing that. But honestly, sticking to what you and your coach have agreed on is always going to work out better accumulatively over time. Instead of accepting that it’s really just more hard work needed to progress we look for ways to hide from that tough reality.
Q: I know you just said sticking to the program is key, but you also talked about going off program to perform that max Sumo at 290kg, and that felt like it was an important part in making you believe that 300kg is possible.
A: (laughs) That’s true. I think the ability to deviate is something you earn after a few years of doing the same lift consistently. Paul Carter has this rule: 80% of your training is going to be bang average, just punching the clock and following what’s written down for you that day. 10% is going to be awful and you’ll have to dial it back. Then there’s that final 10% where everything is flying, and in those sessions you should go for it. If you can learn to see where those points are then that’s great but it takes time and I cannot state that enough.
Q: Wonderful. Okay just a quick fire round to wrap up with.
Q: Bands and chains, have you used them and did they do anything to improve your performance?
A: I have done all of those kind of gadgets, like I said, it was my biggest flaw. I would say that 99% of people who think they should be using bands and chains, should not be using bands and chains.
Q: Speed reps?
A: For strengths sake, you should always be trying to lift the bar as fast as possible.
A: I know this Scottish guy who is way stronger than me, he’s lifted like 360kg. And we were visiting him at this gym in Edinburgh, some guy came up and asked him for advice saying he was struggling to squat because of his weak glutes and were there any variations that might help that. He replied.
“I’ve got shite hamstrings, weak Glutes and my quads aren’t particularly world beating. I’ve just been training for 20 years.”
Q: Wow. A: It’s like a gut punch.
Q: Okay a kind of silly one. Now you can lift 300kg, does 200kg feel light?
A: The answer to that is yes, but only for deadlift. I think it’s because there’s a moment in both bench and squat where you unrack, and your frame has to deal with the weight, whereas a deadlift is from the floor, and you are maximally contracting through the whole movement.
Q: Have you ever taken performance enhancing drugs?
A: No. But I’ve been close. Like when I was 19/20 just wanting to be the biggest, strongest and leanest.
Q: What stopped you?
A: It was a conversation with a friend, he told me ‘If you make that decision and you Deadlift 340 then you’re either going to have to take steroids for the rest of your life or be Ok with never being as strong the version of you on steroids.’ And now, I’m so glad I didn’t. 300, 400, 500 they are just arbitrary numbers. Like I said at the beginning its not much weight to some people, it’s a ton of weight to others. The real reward from lifting comes from bettering your previous self. When I hit 301 in competition for the first time I basically cried. And I know that sounds kind of ridiculous but all my friends and family were there, it was the culmination of years of hard work. If I’d just done a cycle of steroids it wouldn’t be earned.
Q: That makes a lot of sense man. So just to round it off, now you’ve decided to take a break from powerlifting, the thing that gave you these moments and focus on CrossFit. What motivated that decision?
A: There were several things that did it. The first is that there were multiple lifting meets in a row where I got injured right before competing. As much as I love powerlifting I care about my overall health more, and as I move into my 30s I’ve got to look at it from a longevity standpoint. I also moved up a weight class which did a lot for my PBs (my max went from 301 to 312) but not much for how I feel. I started lifting to help my body image and I think that part of it is always going to be there for me. At 105 (kg) I’m not as lean as I want to be and I find myself getting out of breath walking up stairs etc, it just doesn’t feel as good. The final part that made me move away from powerlifting is the culture that has developed in recent years. I feel like when I started out the only thing that mattered was people trying to lift heavy weights, but lately its more about having a beard, wearing a singlet and going ‘beast mode’ whatever that means, it’s an identity as opposed to something you just do. It’s also not the most supportive community, everyone is eyeing up each other’s totals, wanting the person next to them to fail.
Q: Why Crossfit?
A: For all the reasons that I moved away from Powerlifting. With Crossfit I don’t have to get heavier to improve my ceiling, in fact it helps me to lean out, which feels better. There’s also a bunch of cardio and mobility benefits that powerlifting doesn’t provide that are going to impact my all round health considerably. The community is so supportive, and all the coaches and classmates (at least in my experience) really want me to succeed. Also me and Yusef (his business partner and fellow Propane Fitness coach) pride ourselves on having tried out between us basically every major gym based methodology so we can have that perspective for our clients. CrossFit was the only one left on the list that we hadn’t done for any considerable amount of time and now that ticks it off.
Q: That’s just about wraps things up, thank you so much for sitting down.
A: No worries man, I’ve enjoyed it.