Lifting Heavy with Stephen McKenzie, Canada’s Five Time National Powerlifting Champion

“As soon as your hands touch the bar your brain turns off. There are no thoughts. There’s no anything. You just do what you have to do.” – Stephen McKenzie, Elite Powerlifter

I arrived at my gym one Saturday to be met at the door by my son, Will, who worked there. Something was up.

“Stephen’s here,” Will said.

“Great,” I replied. And then, “What’s wrong?” I couldn’t figure out why my son looked so serious. Stephen was my Personal Trainer. Why shouldn’t he be at the gym?

“He’s with a group of powerlifters. They’re training in the pit.”

Well, I don’t think I have ever gotten myself changed and down to that weight pit any faster than I did that day.

Of all the lifting sports, powerlifting involves the athlete lifting the most weight relative to his or her own bodyweight. While Olympic lifters hoist more than twice their body weight in explosive overhead lifts, powerlifters slowly move weights that are from three to five times greater than their own bodyweight, something I had never seen before in real life.

I arrived at the weight pit and entered with some trepidation. I did not want to disturb large men who were practicing lifts of bone crushing, joint ripping weight. I quietly made my way to a far corner of the gym and began performing trap bar deadlifts which Stephen had insisted that I do during my rehab training. I watched in the mirror as the powerlifters went about their business. I was surprised by how quiet and focused they were: no grunting, no shouting, no smashing of plates and bars on the gym floor. Just lifting – one man at a time – with fully loaded bars, while the others acted as spotters.

At one point during a break, Stephen looked over at me and shook his head and waved his finger, “No, no, no,” he laughed when he saw me eyeing the “big boy” bar which was on the floor, loaded to the max. Although I am not a powerlifter, I love deadlifting, but Stephen knew I wasn’t ready to handle any real weight. Not only did I need to heal and strengthen my shoulder, I needed to build up strength in my glutes, hamstrings, and core.

It was a true lesson in humility to be trained by Stephen McKenzie. I will never forget it. His work with me changed how I see training, changed how I see the body, changed how I see lifting, and was – in many respects – an element in the genesis of this blog.

Here’s Stephen.

BETH: Stephen, thank you for agreeing to a second interview for Lift Heavy, Make it Beautiful. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to learn from you once again. First things first. I understand that you and your wife are expecting your first child.

STEPHEN: Yes, July 6.

BETH: Congratulations to you both.

STEPHEN: Thank you.

BETH: Is this why you decided not to compete this year? 

STEPHEN: I might do something, but it won’t be until the fall, obviously. I have to concentrate on my wife right now. I have a feeling she’s going to be a bit early, I don’t know. She’s pretty big right now. She’s having trouble sleeping. The baby’s kicking all the time.

BETH: All the best to both of you and to the little one. 

STEPHEN: Thank you.

BETH: Powerlifting. I’m trying to get my mind around the kind of weight that you athletes handle. I mean, there is an element of illusion in the sport of bodybuilding. You meet bodybuilders in real life and, although they’re big, they are smaller than they appear on stage. There is an element of illusion in Olympic lifting, too, as the lifter is actually “getting under” the loaded bar, not muscling it overhead, as it appears to the lay person. But, with powerlifting, there is no illusion, is there? 

STEPHEN: No, no, no. The guy’s actually lifting the weight that you see. And it’s really hard. A lot harder than you would think. The only way you can appreciate it is if you actually try it. You know what I mean? Because once you get into that range that’s past 50%, it’s hard, whatever your 50% happens to be, everybody’s is different, but once you get into the 65% – 70% zone, every rep is difficult. There’s no easy repetition.

BETH: I watched a video of you squatting over 700 lbs – which is more than three times your body weight of 232 lbs – and my first thought was, “Why on Earth would anybody want to do that?”

STEPHEN: Once you start lifting, you just want to see how far you can go. How much weight can I lift, especially compared to what other people have done? You look on some forums and you see somebody who weighed 100 kilos at the World Championships who lifted this much weight and you say, “I wonder if I can do that?” And then you train for it and see if you can – or see how close you can get to it. It’s all about yourself and pushing yourself. Sometimes, just being able to lift the same weight you lifted before is a victory, never mind increasing it.

BETH: At that level, yes, I would think so. 

STEPHEN: Just being able to reproduce that lift under different circumstances such as having lost weight, or having to lift in different countries, that can be a victory. Being able to squat 500 lbs in your own gym is not the same thing as squatting 500 lbs in Poland at the Worlds. You have to travel, you’re not eating your same food, you haven’t slept in your same bed, all these different things. And then, being able to exceed that weight is even more challenging. So competition is a whole other thing. Some people can’t do it. They can lift a pile in their own gym, but then they go somewhere else and they can’t do it. There’s another element on top of the physical aspect. There’s a mental and emotional component that’s equally as important as being physically strong.

BETH: I totally get that because there’s a bar that I like at my gym and if it’s not available to me I get upset. So I can’t imagine going to Poland and lifting with their bar!

STEPHEN: (laughs) Different bars, different weights, different everything. In your head, you have to realize that it doesn’t matter and you’re going to do it regardless of what the situation is, it’s just going to happen and you make it happen. They call it “turning your brain off”. You have to be able to do that. As soon as your hands touch the bar your brain turns off. There are no thoughts. There’s no anything. You just do what you have to do. If you don’t have the ability to turn your brain off, powerlifting is not for you. It’s just too difficult. You can’t listen to that voice telling you, “Oh, I’m tired. Oh, this is too heavy.” You can’t have that going on when you’re trying to lift 110% of your maximum. You have to think, “OK. This is going to happen.” That’s all that’s in your head. If you have anything else in your head, you’re finished.

BETH: Do you use visualization techniques?

STEPHEN: I just see myself lifting it before I lift it. I just go through the whole thing: walking up, grabbing the bar, getting underneath it. I see myself squat it and walk away and it wasn’t that bad. And then I just say, “OK, I’m just going through the motions now.” And I do the same thing: go out there, pick it up, do what I have to do. You have to have that confidence because sometimes the confidence is what gets you through. The difference between the guy that can squat 715 lbs and the guy that can squat 720 lbs, there’s not that much strength difference, it’s just a matter of mental toughness and fortitude and attacking it with enough aggression to get out of there. If you’re tentative in any way, if you think in the bottom, “Oh my God, this is heavy, this is heavy”, it’s not gonna happen. I mean, it will happen when you’re at 85 – 90%, but when you’re over 100%, that little tentativeness will stop you from getting through. You have to just know that you’re going to do it. No questions. It’s done.

Stephen McKenzie Back Squat
Stephen McKenzie – Back Squat

BETH: Wow. 

STEPHEN: When you’re competing, you can see the guys that have that and the guys that don’t. Because when it starts to get really hard, the guys that have that, they’re the same. When they’re lifting their openers, they’re the same as when they’re lifting their second, their third. They’re just like, “Whatever you put on there, I’m going to lift it. I just don’t care.”

BETH: Have you always had that mental calmness, that ability to focus?

STEPHEN: Well, the training is what gives you that. You train in waves, but there has to be a point in your training when it’s so difficult that you have to be able to do that or you won’t make it. You’re training at 90 – 95% of your maximum for two or three reps and every rep is so incredibly difficult that if there’s anything else in your head, you will fail.

BETH: Again, I ask the question: Why? You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to do something this difficult.

STEPHEN: But I want to. (laughs) I want to be as strong and as powerful as I can be. I want to prove to people that just because I’m not 25 that doesn’t mean I can’t make the same improvements as somebody that is. I can be much stronger than I look and I can maintain that and still be able to do other things. That’s one of the challenges I’ve taken on since I’ve been working here. People say, “Yes, you’re really strong, but can you do anything else?” And I say, OK, I’m going to start running, I’m going to start playing squash, boxing, and I can still lift the same weights or more. So, just to show people, look, you’re not limited. If you want to do Olympic lifts, go ahead, but you can still run, you can still play tennis, you can still be active and do all these things. It’s not impossible. You can be a woman with a feminine physique and still be able to lift heavy weights and do all these other things. It’s not mutually exclusive. You can do all these things at the same time, if you’re fit, if you change your training to accommodate all these things, you can do it.

BETH: What is the best way to train in the gym, generally-speaking?

STEPHEN: The most efficient way to train is to train your whole body every time you go to the gym. Do some legs, do some back, do some upper body every time you go in. If you want the most growth and the most progression in your body, you have to do everything, get the most stimulation you can get every time you go in there. Working out this way also allows you to train more often because when you overload one part of your body, you do too much legs, for example, then you can’t train them for four or five days. If you do a little bit every day – some lunges today, some deadlifts tomorrow, some squats the next, some stairs the next – it keeps you dynamic and it allows you to be able to do many things and you don’t get as sore either, plus it takes less time.

BETH: When you were training me, after my CrossFit experience, when I was recovering from a shoulder injury, we worked the whole body each time, but we didn’t do any heavy compound lifts. We did some isometric exercises, we used dumbbells for chest and shoulders, cables for back and rotator cuffs, and a Swiss ball for leg curls and back extensions. We did goblet squats. We trained abs directly. Why didn’t you let me do any heavy squats or deadlifts like I wanted to do?  

STEPHEN: I wanted to get you to Ground Zero. I wanted every joint in your body to be working within a normal range, with stability, and without pain. Then, after that, we can start doing those things.

BETH: So multi-joint or compound movements such as back squats, deadlifts, pullups, and overhead presses are not for everyone? Many trainers think of these movements as “functional”, as beneficial, as being great for everyone, even beginners. 

STEPHEN: Compound lifts only work if you’re balanced and healthy because every time you introduce another joint into an exercise, that’s another way for your body to figure out how to cheat, to compensate for any weaknesses. If your body is completely fine and you have strength and stability everywhere and you don’t have any problems, then maybe. But who has that? You have to look at the person’s body and say, “OK, where are the problem areas? Where are you weakest? Where are you strongest? Where do you have the most limited ranges of motion? How complicated are these movements and what kinds of ranges of motion do they demand? The overhead lifting that you were doing requires a huge amount of range of motion and stability. If you can’t stabilize that bar overhead, it’s going to cause a lot of damage because the bar is going to go places it shouldn’t. You have to get yourself to a level where your body can handle this and that involves doing the stuff that you’ve been doing: simple, single joint movements to try and help stabilize your shoulders, your hips, your knees, your back.

BETH: So compound lifts are great, but you have to have the strength and stability to perform them?

STEPHEN: You have to be prepared for them. You can’t take a Toyota Corolla and decide to be a rally racer with it. You have to prepare it. Change the engine, change the tires. You have to prepare your body for whatever you want to do with it.

BETH: But that’s not what’s happening. With CrossFit, with the so-called “functional training” that I’m seeing in my gym lately, full-time cubicle dwellers – absolute beginners in the gym – are being given the most complicated athletic routines imaginable.

STEPHEN: And they’re all going to pay for it in the end.

Stephen McKenzie Lifting
Stephen McKenzie in competition

BETH: Let me get your reaction to something that world renowned elite powerlifter Dave Tate wrote on Facebook on June 23, 2012:

“I know I will catch hell for this one, but I’ve seen enough pictures of people lifting warm up weight with quotes that say ‘liftin’ heavy things’, ‘going heavy’ and the like. I think it’s time to define WTF ‘heavy’ really is. I know it’s relative, but a 135 [lbs] deadlift is not heavy for anyone, nor should it be tagged ‘heavy shit’. Maybe if these people knew how light the weight is it might inspire them to lift more.”

STEPHEN: Yes, well, I’m sure that Dave Tate is tired of hearing people celebrate their mediocrity, but if that keeps them training, then all the more power to them. Not everyone is a powerlifter, nor should they be. And, like he said, it’s all relative. For a 100 pound woman, deadlifting 135 pounds is pretty damn heavy. That’s 1.35% of her body weight and that’s not easy. Yes, for a man who weighs 220 pounds and has been training, that’s not that heavy. But there are some 200 pound men who that would be heavy for because they don’t have the strength or the form or the stability to lift that weight. It’s all about you. It’s not about comparing you to someone else. It’s about comparing you to you. Are you stronger than you were last year, are you stronger than you were last month, are you stronger than you were last week?

BETH: Is it disrespectful for non-athletes to brag about their achievements in the gym, their “personal bests”, even though they don’t come anywhere close to the achievements of the elite athlete? Is that what he’s feeling?  

STEPHEN: He’s trying to inspire people to want more and to train harder and I can understand that. That’s the kind of comment that I want to hear from somebody like that. If somebody’s lifting more than I am and I’m training to be competitive, then yes, that kind of talk is fine. But it’s different for each person. For somebody that’s not competing and that’s not dedicating their life to lifting, it’s a whole different world. He’s dedicated his life to lifting. That’s what he does. Not everybody can do that. Some people have jobs and kids and they get to go to the gym three times a week for a couple of hours. They are never going to be at the level of a Dave Tate who has been lifting since he was very young, hard core, many times a week. And he can’t expect that. It’s not the same.

BETH: Shouldn’t the professionals be calling out bad trainers or bad training rather than fitness consumers who have moved from the elliptical machine into the free weight area and are proud of their accomplishments in the gym?

STEPHEN: Yes, you want to inspire people to keep coming to the gym. You don’t want to depress them, telling them, “Oh, you’re not doing this right.” Our industry is strange because it’s not regulated, so there are a lot of bad trainers out there, a lot of trainers that don’t really know what they’re talking about, they’re just spewing information that somebody else has told them. Like you were saying about some people who are proponents of CrossFit – although CrossFit is fine for some people – if you’ve never done any Olympic lifting and you’ve never really been in the gym, CrossFit will probably hurt you, unless you have a really good instructor. It’s too complex, too difficult. For your body to acclimate from not working out to working out, that’s a big adjustment to begin with. But then to be learning these really complicated movements and then trying to master them under conditions of total exhaustion, it’s too much for a beginner.

BETH: Most people in the world don’t go to the gym and even fewer hire personal trainers. What is the fitness industry doing wrong? 

STEPHEN: Well, like I said, there’s not really any accountability in this business other than the accountability that you put on yourself. I mean, a lot of people are just in the industry to make money and, because they like working out, they figure that’s the easiest way for them to make a living. They’re not really all that concerned about the health and well-being of their clients. It’s like “We’re going to do a CrossFit workout today”. Well, maybe that’s not what the person needs or what they can handle. You have to think about what that person can handle and slowly acclimate them to the point where they can actually do this workout. A really good CrossFit trainer will do that, but a lot of them don’t. It’s hard for a regular consumer to find a trainer who’s really good and who will go through all these different steps with them, patiently. I’m training a powerlifter right now who is 255 pounds, he can easily bench four plates for reps, he’s a big squatter, he’s from out East, nice guy, and we’ve been training for a month and he hasn’t done one bench, one squat, one deadlift, nothing.

BETH: Wow. 

STEPHEN: We’ve been doing a lot of dynamic movements, bodyweight movements, and he’s dying. Cardiovascularly, he was just so unfit. So I said, “Look, we’ve got to get your cardiovascular system working, we’ve got to get your ranges of motion increased, we have to increase all the things that you’re weak in.” And I said, “Don’t worry about the other lifts because when we’re done this, you’re going to be stronger. You’re going to be able to lift more.” And he said that on his day off he went in and tried a little bit of benching and he said he felt stronger, even though he hasn’t been benching. And his squat felt stronger. And I said, “Yes, you’re going to feel stronger because your body is more efficient.” So, it’s all a matter of looking at what the person needs, not what they want.

BETH: That’s what you did with me. I wanted to do back squats and deadlifts with you, but you wouldn’t let me. 

STEPHEN: If somebody comes up to me and says, “I want to bench more”, that doesn’t mean that we’re going to bench to make you bench more. Sometimes you have to do other things. So you always have to look at training that way. Forget what that person is telling you they want and figure out what that person needs. My powerlifting client was telling me that he felt heavy and even though he was strong, he felt slow. And I said, “Yes, you’re too heavy, your body’s not using oxygen efficiently, you don’t have the ranges of motion that you need, your blood pressure’s too high, your heart rate is too high, your diet’s not clean enough.” So, he’s going to lose weight, but be stronger and feel better and be lighter on his feet.

BETH: Your philosophy is all about balance: be a good, strong, healthy, total athlete. 

STEPHEN: Yes, be a total athlete. Be able to use your strength for anything. I want you to be able to go and play baseball and be better than you were before, or play hockey or volleyball or tennis. Whatever you want to do, you’re going to be better at it because your body is better prepared for any physical activity. That’s the most important thing. All while being stronger at what you want to be stronger at.

BETH: Do powerlifters have to plan complex cycles of training? 

STEPHEN: It depends on what stage of powerlifter you are. If you’re an elite lifter, you’ve done a lot of lifting, then that means your cardio can’t be that bad. If you’re at that level, your cardio must be half decent. This guy’s cardio was really bad. So, each person is different. Some of the lifters that I’ve met that are elite lifters, they need to take some time off and do the type of training I was describing before. Some of them need to go in and hit some heavy weights, a cycle of eight weeks of training really heavy and getting their reps in. Sometimes you have to go in and do a cycle of light weight repetitions. That’s the hardest training, I find, doing squats for sets of 20. Those are really tough workouts. The most I ever got to was 315 or 330 pounds for three sets of 20. I thought I was going to die, it was so hard. But you do those workouts and that gives you the stamina and it also increases your muscle mass. You’d be surprised at how big you get from doing a lot of repetitions. So I go from sets of 20 to sets of 10, to sets of 8, 6, 4, 2, and then singles. And by the time you get to the singles, it just seems so easy because you’re so used to doing sets of 20 that the idea of just doing one is nothing.

BETH: My previous trainer used to test my one-rep max. Do I really need to worry about my one rep max, if health is my goal?

STEPHEN: No, you don’t. I’m more concerned with your five rep max. The one repetition max doesn’t really mean all that much. For a regular person, the ability to lift a weight many times is much more important, more useful. So worry about that. You’re more likely to injure yourself and cause damage and wear and tear on your joints trying to lift one massive weight once than you are lifting a lighter weight ten times. In powerlifting workouts, you want to be able to get 30 reps in of each movement that you’re doing. The reps are way more important than the weight. So if I’m supposed to get six sets of five reps at four plates and I can’t do it, then I go down to a weight that I can do it at. I have to get those reps. It doesn’t matter what the weight is. What matters is that I get those 30 total reps.

BETH: So if I come into the gym and just go for my one-rep max, I’m not working my body.

STEPHEN: You’re not doing anything. Who cares? If you come in, lift one weight one time and go “Whoo hoo” and leave,  you haven’t done anything. And it’s terrible for your body. You haven’t had any time to warm up. Your muscles are cold, your joints are cold. There’s no fluid in there. You’re causing damage. No. The safer, more beneficial thing to do is get in there and lift 55, 60, 70% of your perceived maximum. As soon as it starts to get really hard, dial it back. You should be able to finish your last set and get your last rep and it won’t be easy, but you should be able to get it.

BETH: Are you talking for me now, or for everyone?

STEPHEN: For everyone. You should be able to complete the amount of reps that you’ve set out for yourself, and if you can’t, the weight’s too heavy.

BETH: So we do need some volume to get stronger. 

STEPHEN: Volume is crucial. You have to get those reps in. If you have a squat workout and you’re not doing 25 reps of something, it’s not a squat workout. You’re pumping up your ego, you’re not actually doing work for your body. You need to get time under load. You need to get under the bar and be moving it for repetitions.

BETH: So you do not agree with this advice of just get in there for 35 or 45 minutes and do a few big, heavy lifts and get the hell out?


BETH: I know I need more time than that. I need to warm up. And I just need more time to do everything I want to do! 

STEPHEN: (laughs) Your warmup should almost be the same length of time as your actual workout.

BETH: People don’t do that.

STEPHEN: I know. People don’t understand that. I worked out this morning. I get in there, I go on the treadmill and run for a few minutes. I lie on the floor and do some stretches, do some abs. I hang from the bar. It takes a while. And then as soon as I start to sweat a bit and everything starts to feel OK, then I’ll start doing light weights, then medium weights, and then my working weights. But that’s like 35 or 40 minutes after I’ve started. You can’t just walk in there and be like, “OK, I’ve started”.

BETH: I don’t see anybody else do that and look at you. How old are you now?

STEPHEN: Forty-four.

BETH: So clearly that works because you’re still fit, strong, muscular, and still competing as a powerlifter. 

STEPHEN: And no joint pain. It’s the only way. If you don’t do it, you will get injured. Guaranteed. And it won’t take long either. And you’ll have advanced joint wear. Your knees start to hurt, your back starts to hurt, all that stuff.

BETH: So warm up properly and get some volume in. 

STEPHEN: Yes. I just find that if you come up to somebody and ask them, “What are you going to do today?”, they’ll say, “I’m going to do some bench.” “Well, what are you going to do?” “I’m going to bench 225.” Nobody ever tells you how many repetition they’re going to do. They just go by feel. That’s ineffective. You have to go in there and say, “You know what, I’m going to do 25 repetitions of bench press today. Whatever weight I get to is what weight I get to, but I’m going to do 25 repetitions.” That’s a much more beneficial workout.

BETH: The weight is not the issue, then, it’s the work?

STEPHEN: It’s the work. You’re not doing any work if you’re only lifting 225 lbs twice.

BETH: So heavy enough is better than too heavy. 

STEPHEN: Exactly. So if you can go in and squat 100 pounds and get a good workout out of it, do it! You know. I’ve proved it to myself. I started at 135 pounds one time and I said “You know what, I’m going to squat sets of 20.” And that was so hard. My legs got sore from that. I could squat over five plates at that time (about 500 pounds), but 135 pounds was killing me just because I was training in a different way. It’s not hurting my knees, it’s not hurting my back, it’s not heavy enough, but it was killing me. So, if you can get a good workout with less weight, why wouldn’t you? If it’s not impeding your ability to lift heavier weight, why wouldn’t you do that?

BETH: What about form? 

STEPHEN: Form is the most important thing. Putting it simply, say I give you 25 pounds to squat. You’d be able to do an absolutely perfect squat with 25 pounds on your back. Wouldn’t bother you at all. Then, if I changed that to 50 pounds, you’d probably still do a perfect squat with 50 pounds. But if I put 100 pounds on you, things would change. So, the easiest way to tell people how to train is find out when your form changes in any way and then go down from that weight and work there. Whatever the highest weight that you can use and have absolutely perfect form without any change, just work in that zone. As soon as something in your form starts to change, it’s too heavy. It means some muscle group in your body cannot handle it. It can’t take it. So if you’re bench pressing and you can take it down, slowly touch your chest, and smoothly bring it up no problem, that’s great. But if I add weight and all of a sudden you’ve slowed down, you’re struggling, it’s too heavy. I want you to keep that same pace, the same groove, the same smoothness, the same everything. As long as you can maintain that and it looks perfect, that’s the zone that you want to workout in. Because you’re not overloading certain muscle groups, everything can handle it, the small muscle groups are still involved and they can still do everything they need to do. But as soon as you start changing, it’s too much.

BETH: Isn’t this bodybuilding? 

STEPHEN: Bodybuilding uses a lot of these same principles. But, I mean, it’s just that you have to think safety, joint wear, recovery. These are all things that should be at the top of the list and not the bottom of the list. People put them at the bottom of the list because they think it’s going to stop them from being able to lift these huge weights.

BETH: Aren’t those who want everything to be hard, heavy, and complex every single workout causing a lot of damage? 

STEPHEN: Yes, they are. That’s not what I do with myself. I don’t have to. I figured out a while ago that I don’t have to lift heavy to be strong. I don’t. I can lift light, medium, and still be strong as hell. As long as I keep my repetitions up there, I can be just as strong.

BETH: As you said, bodybuilders use a lot of these principles: moderate weight, a good amount of volume, good form, and safety. But their training has gotten a bad rap in the last decade or so. Why? 

STEPHEN: It’s because of the dieting demands. And the drugs. But the training principles are fairly sound. And bodybuilders train hard. They’re more well-rounded because they do different things all the time. They don’t just do one thing. They’ll train incline, decline, pushups, all kinds of stuff. So, just in terms of training, they are quite good. They have less injuries than other sports.

BETH: That’s what they’ve been telling me. No injuries or just minor aches and pains. Whereas every single CrossFitter that I’ve ever spoken to or whose blog or Twitter feed I’ve read, is talking about injuries. Every single one. I’m not kidding. And powerlifters get injured a lot, too, some of them really badly. 

STEPHEN: Yes, they do. Because they don’t train properly. They’re thinking, “How much can I lift, how much can I lift, how much can I lift?” Instead of “How strong am I?” or “How long can I maintain strength? How many times can I lift this thing?” They just go in and do some triples and some doubles and, you know what, that’s how you get hurt. Because you’re going from being totally unloaded to lifting this massive amount of weight and you’re not prepared for it.

BETH: What about plyometrics? Explosive movements?

STEPHEN: It’s a tool that can be useful for some people. In normal life, you don’t really use Type 2 fibers very much. You need strength fibers, Type 1, for walking up and down stairs, just walking around in general, carrying heavy things. But the explosive muscle fibers, in normal daily life you don’t really use them. So you’ll find a lot of people have a really hard time with that. So you have to do some type of explosive movements with them, if they can handle it, to stimulate that. I’m still surprised at the percentage of people who cannot jump, cannot leave the ground. You would be shocked to find out how many people cannot jump four inches off the floor. They just can’t do it. Because they don’t do it in normal life. Especially tall people.

BETH: What about box jumps up to here (knees) for beginners? 

STEPHEN: No, that’s bad. Very bad. Terrible. Those are the people who are going to have joint problems.

BETH: Or fall and break their wrists. 

STEPHEN: Or fall and kill themselves. It’s dangerous. It’s a highly dangerous movement. If a person is not prepared for it, then they’re not going to be able to do it. It’s a progression, right? You’ve got to get them doing a lot of different things first. Long jumps are a lot safer. There are lots of other things you can do.

BETH: What about speed in powerlifting? 

STEPHEN: Same thing. Speed is crucial. It’s hard to generate speed without those Type 2 fibers so during every movement you have to think about speed. Either you’re going slow deliberately to generate those Type 1 fibers or you’re going fast deliberately to generate those Type 2 fibers. Yes, speed is crazy important, crucial.

BETH: You are a Fitness Director. Do you have guidelines for professional ethics for your trainers such as remaining within their scope of practice and maintaining client confidentiality?

STEPHEN: Yes, we have that all mandated. It’s crucial. You have to do those things. And you have to be sensitive to your client’s needs. You have to make sure their health is paramount. Their safety is very important. They have to trust you. They’re putting their life in your hands, right? So they have to trust you and to know that, when they come to see you, you have their best interest at heart and you’re trying to make sure that you’re putting them in a position to be able to do whatever they need to do outside of the gym, without having to worry about being unsafe or getting injured. All my guys like to go skiing, play tennis, do all these things. Well, I want to make sure that they’re prepared to do all those things. Look at all the people this winter that died shoveling snow because they just walked out of their house and started shoveling snow. Well, guess what, you’re not physically prepared to do that. If you’re 90 years old and you haven’t done anything to prepare for it, you can’t go outside and shovel four feet of snow. And that’s the same thing in the gym. If you haven’t trained, and all of a sudden you say “OK, I want to go to the gym”, well then something like CrossFit is not for you.

BETH: What I discovered from training with you, after my CrossFit experience – and this was a hard lesson – I didn’t really like it – is that training is not about ego. 

STEPHEN: No, it’s not.

BETH: This is serious stuff here.


BETH: This is my body we’re trying to get working to the maximum. I mean, you were fun to train with, you have a good sense of humour and you laugh and talk to people in the gym, but you’re not letting anyone show off. It’s not a competition. 

STEPHEN: No. It’s not the place for that because you get hurt.

BETH: Thank you for getting me back to Ground Zero, Stephen, and for two memorable interviews. I am truly grateful to you for helping me out the way you did and for sharing your knowledge and experience with me and my blog readers. Thank you, again. Best of luck to you with your lifting. 

Stephen McKenzie

Stephen McKenzie is a 5-time national and 9-time provincial Canadian powerlifting champion. He has also attended the World Powerlifting Championships four times, placing 6th at Osaka, Japan in 2000 and winning the Silver Medal at the Pan-Am Championships in Chicago in 2002. At the age of 44 and weighing 231 pounds, Stephen squats and deadlifts over 700 pounds and benches over 500 pounds.

Beginning his lifting career as a bodybuilder, Stephen became the Sudbury amateur bodybuilding champion in 1983. He is also a boxer, becoming the Ontario boxing champion in 1985. His most recent fight was last Spring at the Adelaide Club. Stephen has a black belt in Go Ju Ryu Karate, having trained for seven years and taught for two.

Stephen is currently the Personal Training Director at The Cambridge Club in downtown Toronto and he trains clients at the Adelaide Club, as well.