Brain Pick: Q & A with John Brozby Jen Sinkler
The guy at the front desk had a CrossFit shirt on, and was of average size and build. Definitely not John Broz.
“He’s in there,” he said, thumbing toward the office behind him. As if there was any doubt — in the desk chair sat an absolute mountain of a man forking spaghetti into his mouth. Not Paleo.
If you know anything about Olympic weightlifting, you already know at least something about John Broz. He’s a believer in the Bulgarian system, meaning his athletes lift super heavy, super often — as in twice a day six days a week, and once on Sunday (ahhh, a day of rest). He includes only bare-bones lifts in his programming: the snatch, the clean and jerk, power snatch, power clean, back squat and front squat. Anything outside of those six lifts is deemed extraneous.
He’s had enough success with his system to turn heads — not that there haven’t been low points — and I’ve been wanting to pick his brain for years. Presented with an unexpected free day in Vegas, I jumped at the chance to get in a lift at Average Broz’s Gymnasium. (He sells great t-shirts, by the way, and will wax poetic about the softness of the dye-sublimated logo.)
The weightlifters share a facility with CrossFit Las Vegas, but the two businesses are run separately, and there is plenty of space between the two. As we enter the training area, a slight, nimble man is whirling around on a set of rings, clearly not doing CrossFit or Olympic lifting.
“Hey, it’s Vegas,” shrugged Broz.
I promised I’d ask him three questions. This is what happened instead.
John: Testing. This weirds me out holding this, just so you know. [fiddles with recorder] Is this close enough?
Jen: Maybe like right about here. You have big enough pecs, just set it on top of them. OK, introduce yourself.
John: This is the Boogeyman.
Jen: In some weightlifting circles, probably.
John: This is John Broz and stuff.
Jen: Tell me a little bit about your background. Do some bragging.
John: I’m not that guy.
Jen: Well, okay. Just the facts then. Tell me about your history.
John: Okay. So I started lifting weights when I was 10 out of necessity. Let’s see.
Jen: Out of necessity meaning…?
John: I got beat up a lot.
John: Just like every kid, you’re small and tiny so you want to lift weights to get stronger. You get tired of getting punched with your own fists, so I started lifting weights out of necessity, and then I just never stopped. I just turned from necessity into — well it’s still a necessity, I suppose, something I’ve got to do. It never stopped being an obsession. So then over the years, I started doing Olympic lifting. I did powerlifting. I did bodybuilding. Then I came back to weightlifting, so I pretty much tried it all.
Jen: And that’s your love, Olympic lifting?
John: Yeah. It’s the one that was always was most appealing from the beginning, but I wanted to experience all of it, so that after I experienced them all, I came back to it because it’s the coolest. You know, my goal was to be able to strong enough to pick up a car, and then jump over it.
Jen: Did you ever try that?
John: Yeah, I did.
Jen: You did? Did you make it?
Jen: Is there video?
John: No, it was a long time ago. Yeah, I picked up the back of a Saturn and I literally jumped on top of the car. So it was cool.
Jen: That is cool. I see some photos of you on various podiums on the wall here. Tell me about the meets you won.
John: Honestly, in my opinion, I was just an average lifter. I was never great. You know, I was in the top ten in the country for like ten years, but when you’re in the cesspool of U.S. weightlifting, how good are you really? I don’t think winning U.S. Nationals is very difficult, so that’s why I view myself as just an average lifter. That’s why the name of the gym is Average Broz — I love weightlifting, but I don’t think I was ever great.
Jen: Are you coaching any athletes you’d classify as “great” now?
John: They’re pretty good. They’re not great. When you win an Olympic medal or World Championship, then you’re great. Until you get to that point, you’re just average, above average or good.
Jen: Tell me about your training methodology, which is pretty different and seems to really piss some people off.
John: Well, it’s different to people here in the United States. It’s not different to people in the rest of the world. You know, I mean the training methodology is pretty much, you train. You do more work, you get more results. It’s a simple equation, work in equals results out. It’s no more complicated than that. You know, I was reading a story this morning about a Hungarian guy that took bronze as middleweight in the 1960 Olympics. I can’t pronounce his name. [Editor’s note: The man’s name is Győző Veres — take your best shot.]
He ended up beating Tommy Kono, who was ranked the best lifter ever in 1962 for the World Championships. The first Hungarian World Champion in weightlifting ever, and he pretty much had his own style of training. What he did was, he just lifted seven hours a day, and he became world champion. I really think that if you look at the history of people who were great, it’s because they put in the time and the effort, and they train more than everybody else and they mastered their craft. It’s no more complicated than that. People here think that you need to periodize or you need to schedule days off and blah, blah, blah, bullshit, bullshit.
Jen: So would you call it intuitive training or you just always go heavy? What if your body says no that day?
John: Well, the way I really think about it is this: There are two forms of motivation. There’s motivation from desire, and there’s motivation from necessity, and if you’re coming from point of desire, it can always change — day by day, minute by minute: “Yeah, I want to lose weight, oh there’s a candy bar, it looks really good. Maybe I’ll eat this.” Your desire can fluctuate, so the problem with that is you float above or below the line of success all the time.
But, if you’re coming from a point of necessity, you can’t fail because you never see that as an option. You won’t allow yourself to fail. So when you look at things from point of necessity — “I must do this. I don’t have an option” — you can’t fail. Those people always succeed.
“I want, I want” is different than, “I need. I know I have to.” If you come from a poor country, and you must do this to support your family and have a place to live, or they’re going to execute your family or provide food to eat, you’re going to train when you don’t want to train. You’re going to hate your coach just like you hate your job, but you’re going to go to work and you’re going to try as hard as you can because you have to. It’s not a choice.
The problem here in this country is people are hobbyists. They want to be great: “I would love to do this. I want to make a team.” Yeah, you want. You don’t need to, and that’s the difference. If I asked you this simple question — it’s been all over the net, I think Bret Contreras even posted it in his article about me — but if you said, “Hey, if you were on an island, and everything was paradise and you could train whenever you wanted, how often would you train?” Everyone basically spout the information that has been brainwashed with: “I would train three days a week. I would max once every so often.”
Now, you’re in the cell. You’re locked up. Everyone you love will be executed if you don’t hit a certain weight by a certain date. Are you going to still train three days a week?
“No, I’ll train every day.”
“Because, well, I have to.”
“Well, no shit.”
If you have to, now it’s different.
Jen: Yeah. Sold.
John: It’s kind of like the doctor telling you, “Hey, you’re going to die in six months if you don’t quit smoking cigarettes right now.” All of a sudden, now you find the willpower to quit smoking. Well, where did that come from? Well, because now it’s not a desire anymore. Now it’s a necessity: I can’t do this or I’m going to die. When you have that mentality going against people that simply have a desire mentality, you’ll beat them every time. That’s really what it comes down to, so it’s not a matter of training differently. It’s training with a different mindset.
Jen: Yeah. Well, your perspective changes.
John: Everything changes. How you see failure, how you view what you have to do, how you feel when you train when you’re tired, all those things go out the window because it’s different now because you have to succeed. There’s not an option, so either you go to emergency room because you broke something, and if that’s the case then you get it fixed and you go right back to the gym, or you’re in the gym. What’s the choice?
That’s another difference here. Most people don’t want to admit that they’re lazy or that they made a mistake. If people believe something their whole lives and then somebody else brings a different point to their attention, even if it does make logical sense to them, they refuse to accept it because if they did accept it, they’ll also have to admit that they were wrong. They’d have to think back about all the years they trained and say, “Maybe I could have trained harder. Maybe it was up to me, and I could have done more,” instead of using the excuse, “Oh this guy took drugs. He’s got better genetics. I did all I could. It wasn’t my fault. I did what I could.” They don’t want to admit the truth that, “Hey, you know what, maybe I could have trained a little harder, maybe I could have been better.”
Jen: Yeah. OK, so you’re American.
Jen: Why are you the only one training this mean?
John: I’m not the only one. There are a few others. They all interpret their programs a little differently, but everybody who knows what it takes to get to the top all understand one basic primary thing: You have to train harder. When the Turkish team was really successful 10 years ago and then they fell off and they didn’t medal at the World Championships, they had a very simple resolution. They said, “We’re going to abandon the Bulgarian program, which is training all the time, and we’re going to adopt that plus 30 percent more volume.”
Jen: Oh shit.
John: “So, we’re going to do more work. We didn’t succeed at the World Championships, we need to try harder.”
Jen: Did it work?
John: Yeah, they had some people medal after that, but you know, there’s a lot more involved in that. But their mentality was very simple: “We didn’t get the results we want, we need to work harder, and everyone on the national team — including the guys who were World Champions — either have to follow the protocol or you’re not going to compete for us. They understand, pretty much everyone in the world understands except here that work equals results.
Jen: So you say that even the programs that are similar to yours interpret the programming differently. What is it that makes your programming different?
John: That’s a really difficult question to say, and it really it comes down to intuition.
Jen: OK, and that’s where we started.
John: Yeah, but it’s not their intuition — it’s mine.
John: Right. It’s me, how I interpret things that I see, when it’s time to push, and when it’s time to hold somebody back.
Jen: And that’s athlete by athlete?
John: Yeah, it’s by minute-by-minute, day-by-day. A coach had made the observation one time that he watches every attempt his athletes make. He watches every attempt, and he always asks, “How do you feel? How did that feel?” Like he has to get in their heads and understand what position they’re in and how they feel.
I try to step in their shoes, and I know when there’s a time when they need to be pushed, and a time when they need to be reigned in, and that’s intuition from a coach, and that’s not something I can really explain but the bottom line is you have to push people as hard as they can be pushed and sometimes even a little bit more, and sometimes even a little bit more, and there are some times where you’re like, “OK, they’re full throttle,” and you have to hold them back a little bit.
Jen: So what are the improvements you’re seeing with your athletes based on this idea?
Jen: But you say they’re not great yet.
John: A great lifter is someone who accomplishes something great: world record, world championship medal, multiple world championships. Let’s say that somebody makes a world team. Does that make him a great lifter? No.
Jen: Damn, your standards are high.
John: Well, how else are you going to compete against guys that are trying to win to support the family?
Jen: So you have to win a wold championship to be great.
John: No. I think that if you win the a world championship, I think you’re a good lifter. If you set a world record, you’re a great lifter.
That’s how it needs to be. I mean, in the gym, I have those videos playing of international competitions. I have the world record numbers hanging on the wall. Nothing else matters.
Jen: I do love that mindset.
John: Who cares about what the Americans do? Like here’s a perfect story. Okay, Josh [Gilbert] was in the gym one day training, and he was weighing about 60 kilos at the time, and he’s trying to do a snatch one day. He’s trying to snatch 120. He made 115, and he’s trying to snatch 120. He’s 18 or 19 years old, trying to snatch 120 at 60 kilos.
He’s like, “I want double body weight. I want double body weight.” So he’s trying to snatch 120, and he made 115. All of a sudden, somebody goes, “By the way, what’s the American record?”
We all looked at each other. There’s ten of us, and we’re like, “I don’t know.” Nobody knew. So we had to look it up.
All I have is the world record on the wall, and everyone knew the world records right off the bat. Yeah, we know what the world records are, but nobody knew the American records. So we had to get on the computer and look.
“We’re like, dude, that’s like 9 kilos over the American Record, and you’re already like 12 over the Junior American Record.” He’s like, “Oh, that’s cool. Whatever.”
Jen: The world record is what matters.
John: That’s all that matters. I’ve won the World Master’s three times. People are like, “Oh, you won the World Masters’ three times. Wow, that’s great.” And I go, “Who gives a shit?”
I mean, honestly, it’s cool to go, “Yeah, I was a world champion.” Of what, though? Old people? Like whatever, I really don’t care. The thing I’m shooting for this year, I’m shooting for a world record in June. If I break the world record, at least I go, “Okay, the world record, at least nobody else has done that before.” Then I can be like, “At least it’s something.”
But if I barely break the world record, like by one kilogram, I’m not going to be satisfied. I need to smash it by 10 kilos — then I’ll feel like I actually did something worth saying I did. If it’s nothing less than that, like the world record in snatch is 142. If I don’t do at least 155, I’m going to be disgusted with myself. [Editor’s note: Shortly after this interview, Broz went on to snatch more than the current world record — at a 24-Hour Fitness, of all places.]
Jen: I want to hear the Frisbee analogy you used when I first walked in.
John: If you want to be a world-class discus thrower, you don’t throw a Frisbee every day. OK, look. If you’re going to be a professional dart player, and I give you two darts a day to throw, how long is it going to take you to learn how to throw darts?
Jen: A long-ass time.
John: You’ll never do it. You’ll never be great. Well, it’s the same thing with lifting weight. If I never train heavy, I never touch a heavy bar, how am I ever going to learn how to lift that?
You can’t. It’s a skill. You have to know how to get under the bar, how to move quickly, how to use all your power. If it’s a light weight, you can cheat and still get by, but when you add more weight, you have to become more efficient. You have to sharpen the tool. You have to become sharper and sharper, and you can’t do that by not pushing yourself. It’s not possible. It’s not possible. So you have to train heavy to learn how that bar feels, learn how to move around the bar —the weight changes, your timing changes, everything has to be sharper and crisper.
Jen: Best recommendations for someone interested in Olympic Lifting, where should they start?
John: With the bar.
Jen: Ohhhhh-kaaaaaay. I mean, how do you start out if you’re not in Vegas and can’t come train here. Do you find a local coach? Do you research technique? Do you watch a DVD?
John: You use my new website. I’m launching this thing soon called LearnLifting.com. That site has about 15 tutorial videos so far, with more to come.
The site hasn’t officially launched yet because I’m still uploading content, but basically, it’s going to be an avenue for people to ask questions. There’s going to be a panel of coaches and other athletes that people can ask questions and get feedback from. If somebody is learning how to lift, they can watch tutorials and learn the right way to do them from the very beginning. There’s going to be a way they can upload videos where the coaches can watch and give them feedback on what we see.
Weightlifting is still an underground backyard sport where people train in their garage and other gyms and pretty obscure places, and they don’t have the resources to have somebody there in person. I get e-mails and calls from literally all over the world, and people are like, “Hey, can you watch this video I got from Italy? Hey can you Skype?” I’m like, “Dude, when the site’s up, you can just go on there.” [Editor’s note: In the meantime, you can hit up the Average Broz’s Gymnasium YouTube channel.]
Jen: What are the monthly rates for something like that?
John: There will be three different membership tiers right now. We’re working out the details now, but it’s going to be anywhere from free to 20 and up. Certain content will be available to everyone, and then other stuff will be limited.
It’s going to be a cool site. I’ve been working on it for two years, so it should be pretty neat.
Jen: Single best piece of form advice you can possible give a newbie?
John: Well there’s two. The two common mistakes everyone makes when they lift is you’ve got to keep it closer, and keep pulling. Those are the two mistakes that almost everybody makes.
You stop pulling and try to sneak under the bar, or the bar gets away from you and now you’re chasing after it, so if you keep it close and keep pulling, chances are you know you can make it because what people really seem to forget is the name of the sport, it’s weightlifting. It’s not weight hit-and-sneak-under, it’s not weight pull-and-pray, it’s not weight trickery or weight wizardry. It’s weightlifting. It’s not like you can just say “Hocus Pocus,” and somehow magically get under the bar. You’ve got to lift the bar.
Jen: OK. I’ve been a little fucked up since I went to a weightlifting seminar with Zach Krych in Minnesota. You know who that is?
John: Of course. Mr. Broken Wrists?
Jen: Mr. Broken Wrists, yeah.
John: Really good kid, I like Zach. Glad he was able to come back from that and make lifetime PR’s. He’s a tough kid and really strong in the clean and jerk. Unfortunate what happened, and it could have been avoided.
Jen: Oh God, that video. I can’t watch it the first part of it, it looks so painful. How could it have been avoided?
John: Because what happened is that there is a time to use straps, and there are times you don’t use straps. There are only two instances to use straps: snatches and pulls. You never use it for cleans, you can’t.
My coach told me a long time ago: Never use straps for cleans unless you’re a pro with like 15 to 20 years of experience, but it’s better to just never use them in cleans.
Jen: So, straps for snatches and pulls only.
John: Snatch and pulls. But never in cleans, and that’s something very basic. Just like when people hit their elbow on their knee because they never learned how to miss properly. The first thing I teach lifters is how to miss: how to miss if you lose your balance when you fall backwards on a clean, how to miss the clean up front, how to miss behind, how to miss a snatch, how to miss a jerk properly. If you know how to miss properly, then you’re not going to be afraid to take an attempt.
Those tutorials are very, very important. Learning how to miss is the first thing I teach any kid because we’re going to push, and you’re going to miss.
Jen: So how can you safely miss a clean going over backwards?
John: You just don’t panic. You just don’t let go of the bar.
Jen: Ah, because if you don’t let go of the bar because then your elbows stay high?
John: Yes. All you do is sit down, all you do is when you start falling backwards is stay in a squat and just sit back. What happens is your butt will hit the ground. It’s not going to feel great. But you’re going to fall like how far? Five inches? Because the bottom of your butt’s almost on the floor anyways, how far you going? Five inches and then you roll back. The plates hit the ground, but the distance is nine inches from the center of the plate to the ground. Your neck’s not nine inches thick.
Jen: The weight isn’t going to crush you.
John: It’s not going to crush your neck, and all you do is turn your head to the side and the bar goes right by. You just can’t panic.
If you do it the right way, you go, “I remember watching Pete Kelley when he was competing at the Nationals, and he missed and lost his balance with 200 kilos. He just fell backwards, and rolled back. No problem. Stood up.”
Jen: That makes sense. But back to the part that fucked me up about this workshop. I went through USAW, the Level-1 course and then the senior course, and the scoop is taught, and it’s more of a graceful bar near-your-body situation but it’s…
John: There is no scoop.
Jen: Wait…what? Zach Krych is teaching people to slam their hips against against the bar. Agree or disagree?
John: You should.
Jen: How the fuck do you coach that successfully, though? I felt like I was chasing the bar with my hips, and my hips were coming forward instead of the bar going back, and shouldn’t the bar be going back? [Editor’s note: Just to clarify, I very much enjoyed Zach’s seminar; this is just a technique I need to practice more.]
John: This is a very simple answer to a very complicated question. You know people think, “Oh I’ve got to pull the bar in and I’ve got to do this, and the bar’s going to to that, and if I push my hips then I’m chasing the bar.” They don’t understand the basic very simple thing with physics.
Look, hold this for a second. [hands over the recorder] So if I’m standing here like this, right? My arms are loose. If there was a bar in my hands, where would it be?
Jen: Straight down.
John: It would be over my toes, right?
John: So if it’s heavy, what’s going to happen to me?
Jen: You’re probably going to need to lean back.
John: Yes, because if the weight’s here, I’m going to fall forward, right?
Jen: So you’ve got to lean back.
John: All you’ve got to do is sit back like this, and if I sit back in my shoes — which is why we have heels on the shoe — if I sit back like this, where are my arms at?
Jen: Over your ankles.
John: Right. So how do I have to think about holding the bar and scooping the bar in?
Jen: OK. It gets rather impossible to “scoop” a giant weight anyway.
John: Yeah but you don’t have to. All you have to do is switch your balance and the bar. You’re not pulling. That’s the thing, you’re pushing off the floor. You’re not really pulling. As soon as you think pull, what happens is people change. They pull their shoulders back.
Jen: They try to use their arms.
John: Then their back angle changes, so it’s not that. Really the whole thing becomes way too complicated because it’s really not that difficult. It’s really not. Honestly, I’ve had people come here like this girl, Camille, just came here. She was in the Cross Fit Games, and she had two things fucked up in her snatch
Jen: Oh, Camille Leblanc-Bazinet.
John: Yeah. So she came here. She was here for a like a day and a half. Her and Dave [Lipson] trained twice. I fixed two things in her snatch. She went for a clean and jerk PR here and missed it because she was tired, but like she did it three days later.
John: It’s not hard. There are just a few things, and when you fix them…
Jen: And what did you fix?
John: With her?
John: Just to turn her elbows.
Jen: Point her elbows out?
John: Yeah, and just sitting back a little bit more, but she has pretty good technique — just a very few small things.
Jen: Sitting back, launching up rather than thinking about scoop, etc., etc.
John: Here’s the thing, man, it’s like you can’t think about any of that shit when you’re lifting. You can’t. There’s not enough time. The time it takes for the bar to leave the ground until the time it gets over your head in the snatch is about 0.8 seconds if you’re a decent lifter, 0.55 if you’re like the fastest lifter ever, but usually under one second so from the time the bar leaves the ground and arrives overhead. So let’s say 0.8 seconds — how much time do you have to think about anything? You don’t. As soon as you think, you slow the whole lift down, so you can’t think about anything — it has to be an automatic response. When that’s the case, you have to just make mistakes and fix them, and then after you fix them, after a while it becomes natural.
Jen: So you fix them from lift to lift, under the watchful eye of a coach?
John: After thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of reps, you’re fixed. I asked one of my athletes, “What do you think before you take this?”
“Dude, I don’t think nothing, I just got to make it.”
Jen: Cool. So then how do you correct a mistake? If the bar is too far away from somebody, how…
John: You’ve just got to pick what the reason is. See the thing is with coaching, and with lifting is this, there are very few people, in my opinion, that can really see the cause — the true cause, right? Decent coaches, they can see the effect, but they don’t know why that effect happened.
I’ve gone to meets before with Pat [Mendes], for example, and Pat has a really good eye — I’ve taught him so much over the years that he sees things. We compare notes because he’s developed such a good eye.
We’ll go to meets, and I remember one time, in particular — there’s this lifter and we’re watching the warm-up, and he missed four attempts, all for different reasons. The coach couldn’t see the real reason. Each mistake was having the same effect, but each miss was for different reasons. The coach was giving him the same cue every time.
Jen: “Legs, legs, legs!” right? [laughs]
John: Pat just looks at me, and I look at him, because we both knew that’s not the reasons he were missing the lift.
Jen: So is it the same with coaching as it is with lifting? Thousands and thousands of reps to figure out the why?
John: How do you become a better coach? Watch about a gazillion videos.
If you find yourself in Vegas, stop by Average Broz’s Gymnasium at 7540 Dean Martin Dr. Drop-ins are welcome at a rate of $20, but don’t expect any coaching or coddling — you’d better arrive knowing what you’re doing. Oh, and don’t forget to buy a t-shirt.