Interview of Mike Westerling – Strength Coach Extraordinaire

Interview of Mike Westerling who trains many contest winning Strongman athletes in the U.S.  Mike began his career at Golds Gym in Venice and currently trains all of his clients virtually.  I met Mike at a local Strongman contest in Arizona and we realized we have a lot in common and mutual friends in physical culture.  Let’s learn about a man behind the success of many strong humans!  

Interview of Mike Westerling:

I was recently able to interview Mike and this is what I was able to learn:

Please tell the readers your age, and occupation. 

I am 53 years old and have been a strength coach full time for over 30 years. I actually started as a personal trainer at Gold’s Gym in Venice California in the early 80’s when I was a teenager. However, I had to cut back to only taking clients part time when I moved back home to go to college. Then for the first few years out of college as I tried a career as a lab tech so I was only taking clients part time during that period also. I hated working in the lab and decided to go back to personal training clients full time in 1997 and never looked back. 

How long have you been lifting weights?

I actually started lifting weights when I was very young. I moved in with my grandparents when I was 8 years old due to problems with my mom. I was a very sickly kid and had been to the hospital pretty much every week I had been alive for asthma treatments. This was before portable rescue inhalers came out so if I had an attack I had to go to the hospital for treatment. My grandfather had been a pro boxer and didn’t like the idea of boys playing with GI Joes and Star Wars action figures and figured my lack of inactivity wasn’t helping my health either so he tried to keep me occupied hitting the heavy bag and speed bag and lifting these little black Iron 10lbs dumbbells he had laying around.

It wasn’t anything regimented or anything I would just randomly pick them up and start curling them or pressing them over my head when I felt like it. Every weekend we would cut down trees or dig out underground forts to keep busy and then fill them in when we were done. I didn’t realize it at the time but he was using this “play time” to keep me physical. As I got stronger and in better shape I slowly outgrew my asthma to the point that it was very tolerable. I started being able to play sports with the neighborhood kids without having to worry about a trip to the hospital. When I was 13 I decided I wanted to look like Lou Ferrigno and joined the local gym “Pep’s Gym” in Maynard Massachusetts. They were primarily a powerlifting gym and the owner was kind of anti-bodybuilder so he always tried to steer me towards the power-lifts. There were also a couple of weightlifters there that were nice enough to teach me how to clean and jerk. But my heart was still in bodybuilding. When I was 15 I read Arnold Schwarzeneggers book “Education of a Bodybuilder” and 6 month later I moved to Venice California to pursue my dream of becoming the next Arnold. After a few years I realized it wasn’t happening and my grandfather had been diagnosed with Alzheimers so I moved back to Massachusetts to go back to school and help my grandmother out with him. 

How long have you been competing in strength athletics?

I did my first powerlifting meet when I was 15 years old. Over the years I competed in a few full meets and a bunch of bench only meets. I competed in bodybuilding. Played Rugby all through college. Ran spartan races. Did BJJ and competed in grappling tournaments and eventually got into Strongman in my early 30’s after watching Mariusz Pudzianowski demo the atlas stones at the Metrx booth at the Olympia Expo in Las Vegas. Bill Kazmaier was making fun of us as we tried to load the stones saying mockingly “You know these young men are sitting at home watching World’s Strongest Man thinking “I could do that!”. I was so pissed that I couldn’t load it that I went home and started researching it and came across the late Jesse Marunde on a bodybuilding forum and we struck up a friendship online. Later on he invited me to be a moderator of his board for a while and I learned quite a bit interviewing pro strongmen for his website. Eventually I figured out a good template for strongman and began helping others. 20 years later I now make my living primarily coaching strongmen. 

What are your best lifts in Powerlifting?

Honestly, I never really did anything that impressive worth taking about. Don’t get me wrong, I am very happy with and proud of the progress I made from a sickly kid who dropped the empty bar on his nose the first time he tried benching and was afraid to exert himself to being able to compete and have fun in all the things I eventually got to do. I don’t mean to be evasive but I would prefer to talk about my athletes instead of my self. Please feel free to check out all my athletes on my ig account @builtbymike.

Any best lifts in Strongman style of events or training?

The thing I was most proud of in my personal strongman competition career was winning the stones in my third show with a faster time than Kaz had with similar weight stones at worlds after not even being able to load the lightest stone at the Metrx booth with him making fun of me just a year earlier. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying I was comparable to the great Kaz. When Kaz did it was probably the first time he touched a stone and I had been training with them and I had tacky which I don’t believe they were using back when Kaz did it. However, in my mind at the time it was a great personal achievement. 

Have you ever done any other type of lifting events such as strict curl, Olympic lifting, bear wrestling, or dwarf tossing?

I have actually done dwarf tossing at a bar in Florida decades ago and I talked about it when I tried my hand at stand up comedy a few years ago and it didn’t go over well. However, at the time the little guys were lined up out the door volunteering for it. It looked like a casting call for the wizard of Oz. They didn’t used to be sensitive either. They were like a miniature biker gang. Getting drunk and doing lines in the bathroom and stuff. If there was a stiff breeze it would’ve looked like a snowball fight at the North Pole. 

What gyms do you currently train at?

I currently train at home in my garage with my wife. Once in a while we will go to a commercial gym for a change of scenery but I prefer doing my own thing and not have to wait in line for equipment. These days I do a lot of super-setting and circuit training style workouts aimed at heart health and longevity so I like to keep moving and not have to wait for stuff or have people get in my way. 

Who are your training partners?

My wife and sometimes one of my friends if they are out visiting. 

Can you describe your current training system?

For me now personally it’s like crossfit without the kipping lol. I do a lot of bodybuilding style stuff in circuits with the air dyne or rowing machine to keep cardio output high and weights down as I re-hab a lifetime of accumulated injuries. I like to do a lot of low weight carries like a 1/4 mile farmers walk with kettlebells while wearing a weight vest and stuff like that. I still deadlift and overhead press heavy “Ish” once in a while but for the last couple years I have been focusing on heart health and fixing my knees and shoulder that have been a mess since I was 19. 

How did you develop your training system?

Mike Mentzer (Photo Courtesy John Corlett)

My current training system is just stuff that feels good that I like to do that I consider fun for me to stay in shape and re-hab my joints. 

The system I use to train strength athletes was developed through a lifetime of training myself and others. Learning from the horrible mistakes I made myself while simultaneously standing on the shoulders of giants. The base is Mike Mentzers basic philosophy of doing the least needed to stimulate the adaptation you are looking for and allowing the body to recover and grow from that. From there I have added in linear periodization popularized by Ed Coan and added in speed work that was made famous by westside. The basic format/weekly template was something that Steve Kirit gave me when I first got into strongman and found myself overtraining from original suggestions made by Jesse Marunde.

I have refined a lot of my ideas on strength training when comparing notes with my best friend Al Bianchi. We grew up together and kind of went our separate ways training and coaching wise but we have always bounced ideas off each other over the years and he has helped me clarify a lot of ideas I have come up with and I am sure he would say the same. I have incorporated ideas from the Lillibridge method. I have used rehab concepts I learned following the @kneesovertoes guy. I have used assistance exercises I got from Jouko Aholas, Svend Karlson and Magnus Samualelsons videos. I have stolen pre-hab and re-hab techniques and squatting templates from Super D Donnie Thompsons videos and writing. I don’t think anything I do is my own just a well thought out conglomeration of all the things I’ve tried and found value in over the years. I never give any of my clients something I haven’t tried on myself first and seen work. I have however, asked clients if they wanted to experiment with an idea I had and see if it would work. I am sure there are plenty of other people I have learned from and have added into the mix but that’s what comes to mind right now. 

How would you train a 13 year old Mike?

Well 13 year old Mike was a handful and probably wouldn’t listen to a word I say. I would teach him how to do everything correctly. The one thing I was coachable on was technique. Unfortunately most people I came into contact with in my younger years didn’t really understand what good technique was or how to teach it. I had the most terrible squat form for my early years and ruined my knees. By 19 I had old man knees that hurt to get up and down out of chairs. Of course I just worked through it and lived with the pain. I wrecked my shoulder not understanding how to set up right on bench press and when I finally learned the correct form I was able to get a lot better at it but the initial damage was already done. I used to do heavy behind neck press grinding out max efforts sideways not realizing the damage that could happen until it was too late. Back when I first got into it most people would only lift hard through high school and maybe college then quit so technique wasn’t as important to them because once they got hurt they were done and moved on. No one was thinking “down the road”. As a matter of fact people used to tell me all the time that once I graduated and got a real job I wouldn’t lift anymore anyway. 

Anyway, if 13 year old me would listen I would have him split his movements over 3 days a week with good technique and inch his weights up only when they were perfect. I would tell him to break in new exercises slowly and be careful not to overtrain. He was a mad man who wasn’t afraid to take risks so I would have to reign him in vs trying to push him harder. I would have him focus on the big 3 power lifts plus clean and press, bent over rows, pull ups, and carrying the different strong man implements. I would have him focus on the weekly or monthly numbers (in good technique of course) and tell him that if they aren’t going up a little each month you are overtraining. I spent years followup programs that I thought were gold only to be exactly the same a year later more times than I can remember. I always hear this “trust the process” and yes to a certain extent you just need to get on a plan, buckle down and do the work. But if you aren’t making little gains each month and feeling stronger you aren’t going to magically one day be up 100lbs on everything. I believe you need to be inching your numbers up slowly but consistently all the time or you will not ever get to your destination. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying you need to make a gain in everything every workout but I feel like if you aren’t making a gain in at least something every week you are probably just spinning your wheels. 

I would have told him not to bother bulking up and just stay lean as he would be healthier and look a lot better when he got older instead of going over board trying to gain weight and putting on too much fat that he would later have to deal with. 

Any serious injuries you have overcome? 

I tore my right achilles and had to have it surgically re-attached. I tore my right pec many times over the years until it finally went and I lost like 70% of the muscle and stupidly didn’t have it reattached and by the time I wanted to it was too late. 

I had an inguinal hernia on both sides a year apart. First time doing farmers walk. Second time deadlifting. The doctor said it was genetic and just a matter of time. 

 I tore my right bicep tendon off at the shoulder and when they went in they found a ton of bone spurs and my rotator cuff muscles looked like a peice of cotton someone had pulled into a weird starburst shape. 

I tore my left bicep off at the shoulders year later and my doc didn’t want to repair it since I still had full strength in all directions. He said it was probably going for years and it was holding on by a thread and everything else had bud up enough to take up the slack so it wasn’t worth the risk of surgery as I should be fine without it. I wish I had pushed harder to have it fixed but it is what it is. 

What was your rehab like for those injuries?

I rehabbed them all by myself. Typically I would go to the physical therapist and see what the treatment plan was then do my own version of it by myself. Maybe not the smartest way to do it by I always liked to drive my own ship. After the shoulder surgery (which I had on Valentines Day) I went to the PT for the first few weeks till I got the sling off and he started me doing light resistance bands. I then went off on my own and a few months later did the crossfit workout Murph (on Memorial Day) which consists of 100 pull ups and 200 push ups so I’d say my rehab plan worked out well. 

What is your diet like? Please describe a day of eating as well as a training week of eating.

Diet? What is that? Lol just kidding. For the most part I like to eat a fairly high protein diet of mostly chicken, bison and eggs plus fruit and veggies. Although I do enjoy my snacks far more often than I probably should. I spent the better part of 3 decades eating like it was my job so now that I’m in my 50’s I try and enjoy life a little more than I used to. I don’t really get too hung up on it other than trying to eat fairly healthy most of the time. 

What is a normal week like in taking care of your family, work, and training?

I am a terrible night sleeper so I usually sleep fairly late in the morning. I work 100% online right now so I can work whenever I want. I spent decades having to be in the gym every morning at 5am sharp so it’s nice not to have to be on a fixed schedule. I wake up and drink a big cup of black coffee while I return emails and texts and review videos sent from the night before. Then I write up the first half of however many programs are on my schedule for the day. Then I train for one and a half to 2 hours depending on how I feel. Then I have lunch with my wife and do the other half of whatever is on my schedule. The rest of the day I answer texts or review videos as they come in. Around 5pm we eat dinner and then we hang out and watch tv or whatever. I think we drive each other crazy though because she does the social media for the local zoo so between the two of us we are constantly pausing what ever we are watching to answer questions or edit comments. It takes us 2 hours to watch an hour show sometimes. 

Your state, Arizona , has a long tradition of strong motherfuckers and bad motherfuckers. Who are some of the baddest mofos you have trained with?

I would say the most impressive strength athlete out here in Arizona that I’ve trained with was Ryan Bakke. He was a pro strongman that I worked out with when I first moved out here and later he became a client after we had a long conversation about what I thought was wrong with his training. He eventually got me Marshall White and Kristen Rhodes which is how I really got my foot in the door training strongmen athletes. Anyway the first time I trained with Ryan he had so much band tension on the Safety Squat Bar when I stood up with it I almost folded me in half and stapled me to the box. We did a set of 10 with the empty bar then he put the bands on it before we added weight. At the time I really hadn’t trained with bands, only chains for accommodating resistance so I didn’t realize how much tension was on it just by looking. At the time I was squatting 500 raw for a single so I didn’t think I would have any trouble. When I stood up the band tension ripped me back. I was able to stay up and not embarrass myself thank God! There had to be at least 300lbs of band tension on there. I was like what the hell? He just laughed and said “yeah the bands are tough”. He then worked up to a triple with 585 plus that ridiculous amount of band tension and smoked each rep like it was nothing! To put it into contrast I worked up to 225-275 that day with one less band and my reps were much tougher than his. He was huge weighing about 330 and he was also fast and very agile. He would dive under 365 on a snatch like a lightweight and behind the neck jerked 500 plus with such speed you would think it was an empty bar. I remember him power cleaning 405 and his hips would snap into the bar so damn hard you could hear it across the gym. He did many impressive things he box squatted 850ish raw, deadlifted 765 raw, ran so fast with a 900 pound yoke the pates were jumping up and down so hard it sounded like a train was coming don’t the street. Seeing Scott Porter putting a 375 log overhead and deadlift t high 700’s as a lightweight was pretty damn impressive too. Jerry Pritchett is impressive as hell too and I think stronger than Bakke was in most things but I really haven’t had the opportunity to spend much time around him so I can’t really say I’ve seen him do much in person. 

Are you sponsored by any products or company? What can you tell the reader about those products?

I am not sponsored by any products. I do use Alive Liquid Multi vitamins and Carlsens Norwegian Fish Oil but I don’t think they’re looking to sponsor any 50 year old coaches-lol! 

What are your plans to support and grow the sport in the future?

I am always open to helping out judging or writing articles or whatever I can do to help out when people ask but I can’t say that I really have any specific plans to grow the spot. Don’t get me wrong, I want to see it grow and am hoping I will be able to help out Julia Smay with any shows she may put on in the future (or anyone else that asks). But I am personally not in a position to do much to put on a show or whatever if that’s what you mean. 

What are you going to do to achieve your next goal?

Hmmm, I am actually looking for a “next goal” maybe I will run a spartan race again or maybe take up something new like golf. 

What do you do to recover from a training session? 

I usually stretch out right after while everything is still pumped and warm. I know static stretching has gotten a bad wrap lately but I have found that since I started stretching my injuries were less and I could achieve the proper lifting positions much easier. Also, I eat good and try and sleep well.

Who are some of your friends in the Powerlifting world?

Al Bianchi is my best friend since we were kids and a hell of a Powerlifting coach. He has had many world champions under him and was inducted into the WABDL hall of fame a few years back too. 

Any hobbies of interest? What do you drive?

Hobbies? Working out and reading about working out-lol. Is Netflix a hobby? Haha! I guess I’m not well rounded-lol. I like to hike once in a while or play pool or go bowling but not often enough that I’d call it a hobby. 

I used to drive a Dodge Ram Pickup but it got horrible gas milage and I never used it to haul anything so I sold it and bought a Kia Soul only because I got a great deal on it. 

Tell the Strength World something that they do not know about you sir.

I thought I was going to die of a heart attack a few years back. I went to the hospital and my Troponin level was 10 times what would normally be seen in a heart attack. The surgeon told me with levels that high he was most likely going to be doing open heart surgery and I should call my kids in to say goodbye just in case. So I said my goodbyes to my family, said a prayer to God and went in to get a catheter snaked up through my leg to check out how bad my heart was clogged and they found… nothing. No more blockage than to be expected for a healthy person in their 50’s. Nothing to explain the symptoms or elevated troponin. To this day the doctor has no idea what happened but I have been extra careful to make sure I get my cardio in each week just in case. The one thing I did find that my faith allowed me to be at peace with the thought this would probably be the end and I went in with zero fear of the outcome.  

Who would you like to thank for their support, fellowship, or inspiration.

I would like to thank my wife for always being my biggest supporter and all my athletes for allowing me to make a living doing something I love. 

Mike, thank you for your time, sir.

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