Interview with Matt Gary

MG-Lead-PhotoMatt, thanks for taking the time to be with us here today. Could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?

Thanks for having me, Mike.  I’m really honored to be here.  I have always admired your approach to performance enhancement and specifically your attention to detail.  I really appreciate the opportunity to connect with your followers and hopefully I’ll shed some light on my approach to strength.

Matt copyI’m 41-years young and have been involved in strength and conditioning for 20 years.  My journey began in 1990 at Baylor University in Waco, TX.  I was a walk-on for the football team and the head strength and conditioning coach really turned me on to strength and movement.  I had no idea you could go to school for that sort of thing back then.

Meanwhile, I wasn’t as fond of Waco as I had originally thought.  So, I killed two birds with one stone when I came back home to the University of Maryland (UMCP) and enrolled in the College of Health and Human Performance where I got my Bachelor’s Degree in Kinesiological Sciences in 1994.

While at UMCP I interned with the strength and conditioning staff where I soon realized my initial dream of becoming an S&C coach for an NFL team would be more about networking and less about ability or knowledge.  Upon graduation, while everything was still fresh in my mind I got a personal training certification and obtained my Certified Strength and & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) credential.

Shortly after graduation I started working as a personal trainer for one of Washington DC’s largest fitness consulting firms.  I was fortunate that the firm’s owner had dealings with the Georgetown University basketball program and a contract with a very high-profile local sports agent who linked us to training lots of professional athletes – mostly NBA players.

So, in addition to working in-home with general population clientele and some high school/collegiate athletes at a variety of gyms around the suburban area, I had the privilege of training a handful of NBA players like Sherman Douglass, Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, Chris Webber, Alonzo Mourning, and Allen Iverson.  At first I was in awe of these guys but quickly came to the realization that they weren’t the group I was destined to work with.

In 1995 I landed a job as the head strength and conditioning coach at nationally renowned DeMatha Catholic High School.  I oversaw the training for the basketball, football, and wrestling teams with the primary focus on varsity football.

I absolutely loved working with kids who were hungry and came to me with no training experience.  It was like painting on a fresh canvas where most of the kids didn’t have to unlearn bad habits or motor patterns.  Nor did they have lots of physical constraints from sitting at a computer all day.

I ended up revolutionizing their program but sadly it came down to finances and I just couldn’t stay at DeMatha.  I was making too much money working with the NBA guys and in-home clients and had to put food on the table.  I would have stayed at DeMatha in a heartbeat if we could have arrived at a mutually beneficial arrangement that would enable me to dump the other stuff.

After leaving DeMatha, I consolidated my clients and moved everyone to one facility where I continued coaching.  In the spring of 2007, a friend of mine landed the assistant strength and conditioning coach position with the Washington Redskins.  He needed help during their off-season conditioning program so I did a few months internship with them.  It was fun and even more illuminating than at the college level.  My experience in 2007 really cemented the fact that I didn’t want to work with teams nor professionals in a group setting.

In 2008, I really grew tired of the scene at the gym where I was coaching my clients and knew I had to make a change.  This is about the time when the idea behind our facility was born.  I began brainstorming with other strength coaches, some mentors, and my wife to determine a feasible way of opening our own place.

On January 12, 2009, our dream became a reality when we opened the doors to Supreme Sports Performance & Training, Inc. (SSPT) in Rockville, MD.  We just celebrated our fifth birthday and couldn’t be happier.

SSPT is a small 2,000 square foot warehouse facility dedicated to serious trainees primarily involved in powerlifting, weightlifting, and strongman.  We’re also home to local high school and collegiate athletes as well as people who are just serious about their training and don’t want to belong to the typical, local fitness offerings.

We are blessed beyond belief because although we are located in a very saturated gym market with eight other facilities within a one-mile radius, we are the only game in town when it comes to top-notch free weights and sports performance.

We are minimalistic in our approach and don’t have to twist anyone’s arm when they come in to look around.  SSPT is exclusive by what we offer and by what we lack.  We’re either exactly what people have been looking for or we’re happy to steer them in the other direction.  Unlike many gyms, our members truly want to be here and train often.

In addition to owning and operating SSPT, I also work as the Chairman of the Coaching Committee for USA Powerlifting (USAPL).  At just over 6,400 members, the USAPL is the largest American powerlifting federation.  My role is to oversee the nine Senior International Coaches who coach our lifters at international events in either the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) or the North American Powerlifting Federation (NAPF), which is a branch of the IPF.

In addition to providing oversight for those coaches, I’m also the director of the USAPL coaching certification program.   I took over as chairman of the committee in 2012 and helped revamp the program.  My short-term goal was to streamline our processes and get all of our current club, national, and international level coaches on the same page.

My longer-term vision is to raise the bar of this program to the point where we become the absolute gold standard of certifications for anyone looking to learn how to perform and coach the powerlifts.  That includes industry practitioners as well as any other USA affiliated sports program.  It’s disheartening that we have people in this industry, claiming to be leaders in the field, who can’t even coach a proper squat.  I aim to change that.

I love it – you’ve done a bit of everything, so it’s great to get your perspective on training.

How did you originally get into powerlifting?

I was first exposed to powerlifting in 1983.  I was eleven and couldn’t comprehend the notion of putting myself through so much anguish to reap so much reward.

600 -15 wideThat rather comical story is highlighted in Discipline and Regret.   Long story short, I casted off powerlifting as some silly venture but eventually warmed back up to it about 10 years later when I stumbled across a mention of it in the back of a Sports Illustrated.  I began talking to people in the University of Maryland weight room and met a few guys who knew about local competitions.

I attended a few and was immediately drawn to it.  I ordered a subscription to Powerlifting USA magazine and began reading everything I could get my hands on.  In the summer of 1995, I entered my first competition and was hooked.  Since then, powerlifting has been at the forefront on my athletic endeavors.

You’ve talked quite a bit about specificity in your writing, and that strength is a skill. For anyone that hasn’t heard that saying before, could you elaborate a bit?

Strength is expressed in a myriad of ways.  For the purpose of our discussion here and for many of your readers, strength is often expressed with a barbell via compound, foundational movements like the squat, deadlift, overhead press, bench press, clean, etc.

Obviously the body undergoes numerous physical processes during and after training, which produce a training effect.   The most important effect is neural because the brain controls everything.  I liken the neural process to throwing darts.

Let’s imagine neither of us has ever thrown darts before.  We each have 10 darts and take turns throwing them at the dartboard.  Since we both suck at throwing darts, the first few don’t even hit the board.  But the more darts we throw, the more improvement we see and by the eighth, ninth, and tenth dart, we’re getting closer the bulls-eye.

Strength training is the same way because strength is a skill.

In our case, it’s a movement-specific skill expressed with a barbell.  Skills are refined through extensive practice. So, in this sense, strength training is our practice. Like learning to play an instrument or speak a new language; training needs to be consistent, frequent and of high-quality in order to lead to technical mastery.

Swedish researcher Anders Ericsson claimed that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert (master) at something.  Malcolm Gladwell supports that belief in his book Outliers.  I’m not certain either are entirely correct because people learn at varying rates and for purposes of strength training, 10,000 reps may be a more appropriate analogy.

In either case, the theme holds true.

It takes an awful lot of consistent and quality training to master these movements.  When strength training with barbells our brain is creating a motor pattern and the more we practice those patterns, the more refined they become.

The great reward is that technical mastery leads to more pounds on the bar.  Mastery is not necessarily a destination per se’ but more of a perpetual journey that we should all aspire to.  Technical adjustments may always be made based on changes in age, bodyweight, injuries and other physical limitations, mobility and the like.

All this being said, it’s imperative to understand that the closer we mimic our sport’s skill (aka sport form), the greater the return we get in terms of skill acquisition.

By way of a powerlifting example, squats in training should be done exactly as they are in competition.  The squat should be walked-out, controlled, squatted to a below parallel depth, then lifted to a completely locked-out and erect position before being returned to the racks.

Any other type of squat qualifies as assistance.  This includes box squats, squats with bands and/or chains, front squats, pin squats, those done with a specialty bar, pause squats, bottom squats, zercher squats, or any other imaginable variation.

They are not squats as they are contested in a powerlifting competition and while they may, at times, have value – they should never take the place of your true sport form movement.  In our training, they are done on a limited basis and always after regular, competition-style squatting.

If you’re an expert violinist, are you going to spend any time practicing the guitar?  Sure, they’re both string instruments but they’re quite different?

When we select assistance exercises, they most often closely resemble our competition lift and/or are directly related to our lifter’s specific weakness.  Exercises aren’t selected because they’re in vogue or popular.  Obviously, there’s always going to be a handful of exercises that provide universal benefit but they’re largely specific to each trainee.

As time is such a rare and precious commodity, our training needs to be deliberate, methodical, and purposeful.

Wow that’s a great answer! And building on the idea of practicing your lifts, I’ve also seen that you like to use Prilepin’s table in your programming.

Could you give a brief overview of the table (for those who haven’t heard of it before), as well as how you use it in training?

Without going into a tremendous amount of detail here, I’ve made a short video explaining Prilepin’s Table and how we use it to regulate volume.

(Note from MR: I’ve embedded the video here for you to review)

In short, it’s a table created by a former Soviet sports scientist who studied the habits of weightlifters.  He tried to determine the appropriate number of repetitions per set and then the optimal total number of reps per session in order to gain the greatest training effect.

By way of example, when training at loads of 80-89%, Prilepin found that two to four reps per set worked best in providing sufficient training stimulus.  That’s not to say that lifters aren’t capable of doing more reps at that intensity.   However, when you perform more than four reps per set at that intensity, he found that form begins to break down and when that happens you’re reinforcing a negative motor pattern.

When you reinforce a negative motor pattern, skill is lost and in a sense, you’re no longer practicing the skill anyway.  That’s why we build our training volume through the number of sets we perform rather than the reps/set.

Additionally, increased sets gives us more opportunities at setting up each lift correctly.   The range provides a guideline for volume.  At loads of 80-89%, Prilepin recommends 10-20 total reps with an optimal total of fifteen. The beauty of that range is that it can be achieved through a variety of set and rep schemes affording trainees flexibility to auto-regulate based on how they feel that day.

Some days you might feel like you can hit four reps per set at 80% and other days only two with good form.  Either way, you’re getting high quality training in without reinforcing bad technique.

We use Prilepin’s Table for the squat, bench press, and overhead press.  The deadlift is a completely different animal due to the fact that it’s essentially a concentric-only lift.  Accordingly, we train it using only singles. Following the same logic of Prilepin’s Table, I created SSPT’s Deadlift Table.

Overall, we currently use a blend of percentage-based training along with auto-regulation via Rates of Perceived Exertion (RPE).  Our percentages provide an outline while we auto-regulate based upon RPE, feedback from trusted training partners, video analysis, and data from the Tendo Unit.  Our training is both simple and scientific at the same time. 

That’s awesome, and I think a lot of people such as ourselves are trying to merge various forms of feedback to customize and refine the training process. 

Switching gears a bit – let’s say you get a total newbie that comes into your gym and wants to get started. What do you do with them to get them ready for that first meet?

After an initial movement assessment including items like bodyweight squats and pull-ups, the first thing we do is get them into a pair of weightlifting shoes.

Proper footwear is the single most important piece of apparel you’ll ever purchase.  Shoes are more important than a belt, knee sleeves or anything else you can think of because just like tires on a car, the shoe is the only thing connecting the lifter to the ground.

Shoes clean up many movement-related issues immediately.  That’s not to say we avoid or ignore things like movement deficiencies or mobility constraints but the shoes can fix a lot of those on the spot.

The second step is an introduction to the powerlifts.  We go over each lift in great detail, perhaps taking a few sessions to coach them through each lift.

Once we’re satisfied they’ve achieved a rudimentary understanding of the lifts and the lifter is secure in the mind that they’re not going to hurt themselves, we’ll have them start by performing each lift at least twice per week (sometimes three if their schedule permits) on some type of linear progression most often using multiple (3-5) sets of five reps.

Depending upon the lifter’s initial abilities (which is often related to their genetics and/or prior athletic endeavors), this trend continues for a couple months or until their progress begins to stall.  When that happens, we reevaluate technique and if they’re still on point, we drop the reps to four and continue for a period of time until progress stalls again.

We reevaluate again and if things are still tracking, as they should, we may even drop the reps to three per set.  A reduction in reps with an increase in sets allows us to maintain volume at a higher intensity and afford the lifter the ability to gradually acclimate to heavier loads.  It’s simple, safe, and very effective.

As a meet draws closer, we’ll begin to implement the proper commands and rules they’d have to abide by at a powerlifting contest like the squat command, press command in the bench press, etc.

We rarely have novices test or max in the gym unless they’ve come to us with prior training experience.  A novice’s max is a moving target changing from week to week so they just need a heavy dose of training the skill.  By virtue of frequent practice, their max increases from week to week anyway.

We may have them hit a heavy double prior to the contest so we can estimate their abilities and even if they take a few singles, they aren’t limit lifts.  We save those for the contest where they’ll open with roughly their best triple perhaps even a little lighter.  Beyond that, we’ll select second and third attempts based on their own perception of how the lift felt and more important what we see as coaches.

And following that same line of thought, what changes do you make to someone’s program, as they get stronger?

As lifters accumulate more time under the bar, become more skilled and stronger, we may augment their program with specific and non-specific assistance exercises.

After lifters have been working with me for some time and have a true 1RM, I’ll often direct them to my friend and colleague Mike Tuchscherer over at Reactive Training Systems (RTS).  Mike uses software that breaks down lifts frame by frame and determines the exact point of lowest force.

This Individual Weakness Analysis (IWA) proves invaluable.  We can notice breakdowns and technique in real-time and in our video review, but Mike’s report confirms those assertions and establishes firm data points in terms of precisely where the force decreases.

This is super-helpful because to the naked eye it’s easy to see a lockout issue in the bench press but the area of least force production often occurs much lower than what our naked eye can catch.  This enables us to program specific assistance exercises based on each lifter’s own weakness.

Oftentimes coaches program movements because they’re in vogue or popular.  The only exercises we care for are the ones that work.  Once we have those exercises we can toss them into the plan like spices in a good pasta sauce.

While they’re never the main ingredients, they add flavor to the plan and address specific areas in need.  No matter one’s strength level or experience in the sport, our lifters always get a heavy dose of the competition lifts.  Non-specific assistance movements that work the muscles like glute ham raises, rows, and abs are added in at the end of training.

I like it – anything that can take the guesswork out of programming can make a difference!

What is the biggest mistake you see in the average gym-goer who wants to get stronger?

The biggest mistake of the average gym-goer is the lack of a plan.  Most novices have no clue what they’re doing so when they first walk into the gym, they pick out the guy or girl that most resembles what they want to look like and start copying them.

This is foolish because they don’t posses the same genetics or experience as that person and have no idea how long they’ve been training.  So, not only do they start doing all the wrong exercises, but they’re technique is putrid in favor of adding more weight.  These crucial mistakes end up setting people back months and more often years. 

I see this all the time myself – follow a program people!

Now you’ve been on both sides of the powerlifting bar – as a lifter, and as a coach. What are the differences between the two? How is your mindset different going into a big competition between the two different roles?

BallerGaryThe biggest difference between competing as a lifter and coaching is control.

I love to compete — measuring myself against my pervious personal records (PR) and against my peers.  Competitions are enforced deadlines that hold you accountable for your actions.  I don’t know anyone who likes taking a test they haven’t studied for so competitions are good in that they force you to train at times when you may not want to.

But frankly, competitions are easy for two reasons.

Firstly, when I compete I’m in total control because I’m driving the bus.  I get the final say on whether or not I make a lift and what happens on the platform.  Having that control is liberating and helps put my mind at ease knowing that all I have to do is stay true to my process, uphold the standard, and execute.  When I do those things, I’m increasing my probability of success.

Secondly, competitions are easy because my training is so much harder.  My frequency and volume are so high that the competitions are an absolute breeze.  All I have to do is warm-up and hit nine singles at 90% and above.  That’s laughable when compared to my average daily, weekly, and monthly workload.

The main toll from the competition is psychological.  As a competitive lifter, I become so emotionally invested in the journey leading up the day and the meet itself, that my focus is through the roof.  Add in the adrenaline component and I’m pretty fried afterwards.

On the other hand, coaching is much harder on all fronts.  It’s a labor of love that I wouldn’t trade for anything but it can be brutal.

First of all, I’m no longer in control and I hate that because it makes me nervous.  I’m more nervous when coaching than when I’m competing.

It’s not that I’m so much of a control-freak; it’s just that I want so badly for my lifters to perform well.   But once they walk out onto that platform, there’s nothing more that I can do for them other than shout cues and encouragement.

Because of that fact, I’ll never take credit for a lifter’s PR.  Just like players make plays, lifters make lifts.  A good coach just steers them in the right direction.

I teach them proper technique, design the training, instill confidence, install the game plan, get them to the dance, and at times become their therapist.  Bu ultimately they have to do their job and execute.

During a competition, I basically do everything for my lifters and I mean everything.  The only thing I want them focusing on is lifting the weight.  They need to concentrate on their process, executing, and nothing more.

I handle all the timing, warm-ups, getting them food and beverage, at times even help them get dressed (if competing equipped), run their numbers, all the while riding that emotional roller coaster on all nine attempts.   It’s all worth it though because the thrill of watching one of your lifters achieve their personal best is unparalleled.

There’s really no way to describe how good it feels until you’ve coached someone and helped him or her realize his or her potential.   

Absolutely, and I think we can all attest there’s definitely an addictive component to coaching as well.

Last but not least, I love wrapping up with this question. What is one mistake you’ve made along the way (either as a coach or an athlete), and how have you learned from that going forward?

The biggest mistake I made in terms of my own development as a lifter was using equipment too soon.

When I started competing there was no such thing as a raw division.  Everyone was wearing squat suits and bench shirts so I followed the herd.  Although I already had a solid foundation of raw training, I would have liked to continue developing my raw strength a little further.

Having said that, my strong recommendation is that all novices train at least two to three years without any supportive equipment at all.  Buy a good pair of shoes, learn the lifts from a qualified coach, and start consistently busting your ass with the basics.

While genetics are out of your control and are undeniably a huge variable in one’s overall ability, they’ll only take you so far. After that, most everything else is within your control.

Those who train the smartest, hardest, and most consistently usually reap the greatest rewards.   Get your body stronger first – your connective tissue, bones, and muscles.  You can always add all that other stuff later.

Okay I lied, one more question. How does it feel being married to one of the strongest ladies in the world? 🙂

SMMy wife Sioux-z is, without question, the best person I have ever known. As beautiful as she is on the outside, it doesn’t even compare to who she is on the inside.   She has the kindest, most caring heart and gets along with just about everyone.

She’s as genuine as the day is long and would give you the shirt off her back.  Her attitude is incredibly positive and she’s happy.  She always looks on the bright side and sees the good in people.  She’s my best friend, the sunshine of my life, and I’m blessed beyond belief to call her my wife.

All that said she’s the single most competitive person I have ever met.  The beauty of it is that while she’s trying to rip your heart out, she’s smiling and being happy in the process.  It doesn’t matter if it’s Yahtzee or powerlifting, she wants to crush you.

She continues to amaze me with her tireless work ethic, consistency, and level of mastery.  With 22-years in the sport, she’s seen and done it all and has truly achieved greatness.  She’s arguably the single most dominant American female powerlifter of all-time.  No other American female, regardless of weight class, has achieved what she has across both the equipped and raw genres of the sport.  Her resume includes:

  • 21-time National Champion (16 equipped, 3 raw, 2 bench press only)
  • 15-time IPF World Team member (13 equipped, 2 raw)
  • 4-time IPF World Champion (1 open, 3 masters)
  • 2-time IWGA World Games competitor (this is the Olympics for the non-Olympic sports)
  • Current IPF Open Raw World Record holder in the squat 319-pounds (145kg) at 114-pounds (52kg) bodyweight
  • Current IPF Masters World Record holder (equipped) in the squat at 385-pounds (175kg) and in the total at 975-pounds (442.5kg) at 114-pounds (52kg) bodyweight
  • USAPL Women’s Hall of Fame member
  • USAPL National Referee
  • USAPL Women’s Committee member
  • USAPL Athlete’s Rep

She inspires me to lift to my potential and be a better man.  Thank God she puts up with me.  Being married to her is pretty awesome.  I suppose the greatest compliment I could give would be to say that for all Sioux-z is as a world-class powerlifter, it pales in comparison to who she is as a person.  She is the strongest person I have ever met and she lifts weight too.

Matt, thanks a ton for your time. Where can my readers find out more about you?

Your welcome!  And thank you again for having me.

You can find out more about us on Supreme Sports Performance & Training (SSPT), Maryland powerlifting, and the USAPL Coaching Committee web page.  Your readers can also connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Thanks Matt!

3 Comments

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  1. Matt Gary provided for me my first ever structured training program that I received from him online. That program, his lessons and genuine sincerity for my success as a coach has stuck with me now that I am a coach. What is even crazier is that at the time SSPT was in its first year of existence, I was in about my first year of consistent strength training, and thanks to Matt’s excellent programming and principles, I have safely made it to today. So to see SSPT’s evolution really gives me a different perspective of my own and appreciation of growth.

    I am thrilled to see Matt, Sioux-Z and the rest of the crew (is Manuel still SSPT’s go-to Oly Coach?) doing so well. I am excited to see what the future holds for those guys and my wish is that are around for as long as they want to be, and for as long as the strength and conditioning community needs simple, practical and effective guidance from experts like those found at SSPT.

    Thank you so much Mike for writing this article and bringing Matt and his crew into the spotlight. They deserve it!

    Be Well,
    Samuel Stuard

  2. I’m definitely gong to incorporate his philosophy on the % charts… I’ve never seen anyone break them down like that.

  3. Matt and Sioux-z are by far the most amazing couple I have ever met. I am blessed that I am only about 45 minutes away from them so any chance I get to go down to Rockville for extra coaching from Sioux-z, I take it. I run a small gym in Baltimore so making the time to get there is tricky, but I do it. I competed in my first Push/Pull meet this past October and Matt was there as a judge. I was so nervous and Matt quickly got into coach mode and helped me re-evaluate my attempts. He also called the cues for me which I was so grateful because his voice is BOOMING and I was not afraid that I would miss a command. Matt’s comments about Sioux-z could not be more beautiful. She is amazing and I am very lucky to be able to call her my “coach” at times. 😉 Great interview Mike. Now if only YOU were closer. 😉

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