Interview with Dr. Robert Wagner

by Jim Steel

Rob Wagner is one knowledgeable, experienced dude when it comes to the Iron Game. He is a former world record holder in powerlifting and has squatted 799 at 198 lbs. In addition he has been a National Champion multiple times.  Wagner had a hugely successful career as a collegiate strength and conditioning coach and is also my former boss at Penn.   In addition, Wagner has his Doctorate in Sports Psychology from Temple University. He is the guy who I learned the most from in my career as a coach, and I am proud to know him. I checked on with him recently and picked his brain some. Enjoy.

Why did you decide to give up coaching?  What are you up to these days?

I left the collegiate strength world to pursue a life as a businessman, opening and running a sports performance/fitness center in 2004.  It was a major change for me.  Initially it was great, building a dream facility that had most of the bells and whistles that I wanted.  Having people come in and comment on what a great facility it was did a lot for the ego.   However, when it came time to run the business the ego went out the door.   I had two partners that were business guys—one in fitness and the other in finance.  I found out neither of them had much of a handle on running a fitness business in the 21st Century.   I ended up spending very little time training or coaching athletes that first year and was running and learning the business as I went.   To cut to the chase, it was a nightmare: I became totally dissatisfied with the fact that I was working with athletes minimally, spending most of my time trying to keep the ship from sinking and neglecting my own training and health as well.  After 4 years I walked away from it.  I left everything I put into it to my partners and wished them good luck.  It was the best thing I ever did.

The coaching I did in the facility was rewarding and I worked with about 10 teams from local high schools.  It was a variety from crew to wrestling.  I had the honor of training some good kids that went on to win state championships in their sports during that time.   After I left the business I continued to work with a few football teams on a consultant basis and stayed with one team as their regular strength and speed guy.

Currently I am teaching Phys. Ed and science in South Jersey and I was recently appointed AD at my school.   It is unique in that we’re starting to develop our sports program so I have the opportunity to develop not only teams but also the support structure to help develop and maintain a winning attitude in the entire department.

I still work with a handful of athletes and ex-athletes ranging from runners to former football players.

I know your dad was involved with lifting which piqued your interest in weight training, but there’s an interesting story behind it.  Can you share that with us?

My dad was famous for the old “go look it up” when asked questions, but instead of it being a way to get rid of me he was serious.  If the question was beyond the “what does this mean?” type for which the dictionary or encyclopedia would provide the solution he would do something that was pretty cool.  A day or so after asking a question, I would find a text book in my room that contained the answer.  I was probably in seventh or eighth grade when I had asked my dad for a training program.  I just wanted him to write out a guide for me to follow.   Since I could first remember my dad was always lifting so I figured it would take him a minute or so to do this.  Well after asking for what seemed to be a couple weeks I came home one day to find a book on my bed.  It was a Joe Bonomo Barbell Training Routines.  Inside, Bonomo had put together 10 weekly workouts and illustrations of how to perform the exercises.  My dad had crossed out anything that might have been a little too challenging for me like the bent press.  You would perform the same workout daily and increase the volume daily as well.  The next week it would be something completely different.  As strange as this approach may be, it brought immediate feedback and I was hooked on getting stronger.  I think that his approach also allowed me to take ownership of the program and develop a passion for it.  This approach also taught me a valuable lesson: the answers are out there, you just have to find them.

In regards to your powerlifting career, how did you get started in competition?

I joined a gym in the late fall of ‘81 after football season during my senior year of high school.   Up to that time I had trained mostly at home.   A friend of mine convinced me to go to the gym, I was a little bit reluctant not knowing what to expect.  My first day in the gym, the owner asked to see me deadlift.  I warmed up and he asked what I could pull.  I told him I did 450 at home (keep in mind this was on a smooth five foot, one inch diameter bar that I was using at home).  So after warming up I did 400 and then he suggested I put on 450.   It also went pretty easy, compared to what it felt like at home.   He then suggested I do 500.   I pulled it with some struggle and set it down.   I guess the longer bar and knurling had added a little better grip and the bar flex made it feel relatively easy.  At the time I weighed roughly 155 to 160 pounds.  After completing the rep the owner said, “You’re going to be a powerlifter.”  Two and a half months later I was headed to my first competition—the NJ States.  Seven months later I was bombing out at the USPF Teenage nationals, but that’s another story.

Alright, let’s change gears a little.  What motivated you to get strong?

Wow, there are so many factors and they constantly changed as life went on.  I think the initial thing was trying to get strong to play football.  I knew I was small in my early HS years so I made a commitment to get stronger so I could play.  From there it was a challenge of how strong could I get.  I remember reading about Joe Bradley and how he squatted 600+ at 132.  This stuck in my head a little bit along the lines of making me think, “Okay, since I weigh around 150, eventually I should be able to do that.”

As I got into competitions the motivation changed a little.  At that time there was a hierarchy of events that you don’t see in PL anymore and I believe this is one of the current flaws with all the organizations.  The goal then was to qualify for Nationals but the qualifying totals were not the crackerjack numbers you see today.  Another thing I had in my head was to get on the cover of Powerlifting USA.  Each of these was a real driving force when I started in Powerlifting.  I also had the underlying motivation of having people see me squat and be amazed whether it was in training or at meets.   Unfortunately, I wasn’t amazing folks in the dead and BP and it would be later in my lifting that I would focus on these two lifts more.

After I had met some of those earlier goals the motivation was to get to the worlds and once I got to that point the goal was to keep going back.  I enjoyed the travel and the competition was awesome.  As you know, my focus at Nationals was to make the team and then the real goal was to try to have a great worlds.

Did you ever use any motivation tricks to get yourself psyched for a workout?

Same as the above question, I used different approaches and as time went on they changed.  Early on I would use anger the most, thinking about what I had to do and create a variety of scenarios that might help me generate this.  In college I had the luck of meeting a sports psychologist who helped me immensely in terms of how to use imagery and how to do what we called mental practice.  I may have trained each lift maybe one or two times per week in the gym, but I probably trained over a hundred times in my head during that same period.  We also created scenarios involving different issues like having to wait for a squat rack or how to keep control when I was having a great day and not overshoot the training plan.  You know as I answer this I don’t know if I had to get psyched for a workout, it just seemed to happen.  I wanted to train: It absorbed my mind most of the day particularly when I was younger and when I got to the gym I would go to work.  I think as I got older this was less the case and when I didn’t think about the training and just tried to jump in it was usually not a good workout if the workout even happened at all.

When training with you over the years, I noticed right away that you were really quiet when you lifted, but inside it seemed that you were boiling.  Did you, in your career, ever yell and make noise when you trained?

Fred Hatfield has a great quote in one of his books and I remember seeing it in PL USA while still in college.  It dealt with raging primordial emotions and how these would be let loose during the lift.  In my early years I would yell similar to a shot putter after they release the shot.  I would do the same in a controlled but forceful exhalation as I went through the sticking point on the squat and dead.  Then I went through a head banging stage for 2 to 3 years.  I would find something metal and head butt it.  It was like what the wrestlers do; create a nick and when the blood pressure elevated under the weight, you would get this nice trickle of blood.  Seeing my own blood always got me going whether lifting or playing football.  Then I had an epiphany in 1990.  I was lifting in the same flight at the USPF nationals as Ed Coan.  I would see him getting ready being outwardly calm and then he would stride to the bar, get set and lift.  No show, noise, or gesturing.  I thought it was awesome.  So I started to tone down what I was doing.  I also noticed that I seemed to have better control when I did this.  I think it goes back to arousal.  Whether you believe in the inverted U or catastrophe theory they all basically say optimal arousal is optimal anything else is either not enough or too much and will result in less than optimal performance.

For example, the way I prepped for a lift was along the lines of the following scenario.  I would use my imagery prior to walking up to the lift, seeing myself being successful with it.  Just prior to going up to the bar (during the squat) I would use the emotional stuff and just keep it inside.  Again back to the positive picture imagery just prior to going under the bar.  Under the bar I would come back to a mental performance checklist (things like chest up and speed).  On the start and to the bottom still with the mantra (checklist stuff) and then noticed that I went blank after the hole until I came to the top.  I used similar approaches with the other two lifts with some minor changes here and there.

If you could pick 3 exercises one must do when they train for either sports or powerlifting, what would they be?

For sports it would be the clean, the press, and the squat.  I think these lifts address a variety of areas depending how you look at the lifts.  These are in no particular order of preference.

The clean is a power movement helping in the development of explosive strength.  I also think there is also great value in receiving the bar at the catch; it teaches the body to handle deceleration.  The utilization of the hamstrings, glutes and quads mimics what every athlete needs – powerful extension of the hips and knees.  The key is doing it correctly.  Like many others, I started out in the self taught version: the old speed deadlift to the shoulders, not understanding how to rack or pull the weight with much technique.  Once I developed the proper technique it became a completely different lift and like many lifts I am still learning more about it as I continue to perform it.

The squat is the greatest and most efficient lower body and core strength developer, sorry Mike Boyle fans.  People (including everyone that correlates the squat to some physical detriment) avoid this lift for one reason—it’s hard, you can’t escape the pressure on your body when you take the weight out and then you are expected to do a deep knee bend with it.  Another thing is that it’s one of the few lifts where you can’t see the weight.  It freaks people out.  It’s funny when I teach high school kids this lift because the first thing they complain about it is the bar on their back/traps and the discomfort they feel.  However, once you master the set up and particularly the bar placement the lift will take off.

The standing press is something that I came back to much later in my lifting career.   It was part of the Bonomo program.  I believe I started incorporating this into mine and my athletes’ training in the mid to late 90’s.  I read an article by Bill Starr and he had an interesting hypothesis.  He stated that the onslaught of rotator cuff problems seemed to blossom as the press went by the wayside and more people started Benching.   The press is a fantastic upper body lift.   Not only strengthening the shoulder girdle and shoulder but also the abs and low back.  The stability required trains the mid section quite effectively and also teaches athletes to stay connected to the ground.

As far as Powerlifting goes, I would stay with the three competition lifts.  So I’m assuming we would be looking at three assistance or special prep exercises to add to the mix.  I would include the Olympic or high bar squat, the RDL and the close grip bench press.   I personally squat with a narrower stance and felt the Olympic squat really prepped my legs and low back for my competitive stance squat.  Some of this was psychological because the power stance felt much shorter and the weight always felt lighter after having trained in the Olympic style.

The RDL is really a great tool for powerlifters to learn how to use their hams and glutes when they are pulling.   I hate to think about it, but I spent years squatting my deadlifts.    Once I started to RDL I actually learned how to lockout my deads more effectively using these muscle groups.

The close grip does a couple things.  First, if you don’t bench correctly (lowering the bar below the pecs) it will teach you the correct motion naturally.  This can be seen in lifters whose raw bench and close grip are 20-30 lbs different from each other.   I know I kept my elbows in when I close gripped, and let them flare when I benched.  Over time and through a lot of questioning and reading I saw the errors in my bench press.  The other part of this exercise I like is that it forces you to use the triceps in a manner similar to when you bench.  The added range of movement can be a killer especially when the reps go a little higher in to the 8’s and beyond.

Who has been the biggest influence in your life?  In other words, who did you use as a role model?   (It could be multiple persons.)

This could be a really long answer but I will keep it brief.  First and foremost, my dad was a huge influence.  I think this is something that both of us share and unfortunately many kids today do not.  I can remember telling a class in elementary school that he was my hero, while most of the other kids were naming sport stars and Hollywood types.  Now with my dad it was not anything that he said, it was more to do with his actions.   He was regimented when it came to his physical pursuits.   He did not preach this in any way that I remember but he was always following his plan almost to a fault.  I remember in a blizzard he ran laps around the living room and dining room because he couldn’t run outdoors.  As crazy as it sounds, it was his way.  It definitely rubbed off and I am glad because without this quality I don’t think my lifting would have ever reached the levels it did.

I’ve had other influences including Robert McBrien, my first sport psychologist, Mike McGlinchey, my collegiate football coach, Stan Bergman who has been a longtime family friend and boss.   I am not sure if I have emulated these guys in a way that you might normally think, but instead have taken aspects of how they treated me and have tried to deliver that to others.

Some may think it’s strange that I didn’t list any lifters.  I did look up to lifters—not just powerlifters but also Olympic weightlifters.   I think I always wanted to blaze my own trail and didn’t want to be a fan.   I had an opportunity to compete with some of the all-time greats and it was inspiring but at the same time you had to come back to reality because you were still competing against them.

How about the strongest feat you have witnessed?

The two things I’ve seen in person that stick out in my mind was Tom Eiseman pulling an 800 DL at 181 in 1986 or ‘87 that was turned down for a hitch.  The other one was Shane Hammonds 1008 in King of Prussia which was fast and looked effortless.

How about the Ed Coan session that you witnessed? Can you give me some background on that workout?

I was in Chicago speaking and competing at the 2000 NAPF (IPF) Pan Americans.  Ed is from Chicago so he was around the venue during the four days we were there.   I had met Ed formally in 1994 in Chicago through my good friend Stephan Korte who was with me at Nationals.   I would meet him again and spend some time with him at the IPF worlds in Salzburg and again in Prague the following year.  To be honest I forget how it came up (I think someone was taking some photos of one of his sessions), but I asked if I could watch his Deadlift workout at Quads in Calumet City (suburb of Chicago).  It was a great experience, being able to see how he used his leverages to pull with the conventional stance.   I actually took notes on the workout.  This is what he did from when I witnessed the workout.  He had finished doing stiff legs; I don’t recall the weights used that day.   On the DL he warmed up with 420 then 573 for 2.  Then he pulled 650 for 1 and moved to his top set.  He pulled 700 for 6, rested 1 minute and then did another 2 reps.  He explained to me that he used this rest pause approach on all his top sets.   Looking back it was a good way to get in the volume without having to fight the fatigue of 8 continuous reps.  This was all done with no belt.  As soon as he completed the DL he broke the bar down, put a 50K plate on the floor and did bent rows starting at 400 for 6.  I believe he did 3 sets and then followed that with 2 sets of lat pulls, 1 set of wide grip cable rows and 2 sets of rear delt raises.  I also recall him doing some abs at the end.  The simplicity of this training session was awesome.   Pull some heavy weight and just keep the assistance work short and sweet.

The other thing that I had noted was his approach to the bar (and you can see this in the photos).  He would get this gag reflex, like a dry heave, before he would perform a set.  Then he strode up to the bar keeping his shins fairly tight to the bar.  He crowded the bar like he was trying to engulf it into his body.  His head would be downward, almost looking at the floor about 4 to 5 feet in front.  He would take the tension out of the bar and then bam, it was off the floor.  Looking back, I am glad I took notes and seeing the pictures brought back memories of how cool of an opportunity it was getting to watch one of the all-time greats train in his gym.  Witnessing this whole workout was a tipping point for my approach to pulling and back assistance.  I really tried to imitate this approach to set up on the dead and also started to incorporate the bent rows into my own training.  My deadlift did significantly improve from that time forward.


Photo of Ed Coan from the above mentioned workout.

What is the best advice you would offer for a beginner lifter?

Learn technique that works for you.  I remember people constantly telling me to squat with a wider stance.   I attempted and returned to what felt good to me and was successful.  The other thing I would say is do not be afraid to ask for advice.  I think my ego got in my way when I started competing and instead of asking I assumed I had it right.   Well I learned that I didn’t have it right and wish I could have started out with that in mind.

I want to thank you for taking the time for the interview. As always, it’s been a pleasure.

No problem, any time.

 

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11 Responses

  1. Mitch

    awesome stuff.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:22 am

  2. sapper09

    That handlebar mo’ is legit.

    Great article, too, Steel!

    May 11, 2011 at 9:24 am

  3. Jim Steel

    Thanks, he is so freakin knowledgeable. The interview just skimmed the surface.

    May 11, 2011 at 9:31 am

  4. Very cool. this quickly got my attention
    “has squatted 799 at 198 lbs” write up flowed like an easy conversation. Thanks for the read.

    ltr Pat

    May 11, 2011 at 12:38 pm

  5. sara

    This is cool, Dr. Wagner is my gym teacher now!! 🙂

    May 17, 2011 at 11:47 am

  6. Watson

    Coach Steel great interview. Totally agree with Coach Wags on how he focuses before his lifts and mentioning the reason why most people will never get under the bar and SQUAT. Thanks again for the read.

    June 4, 2011 at 4:16 pm

  7. nunh

    Very insightful – thanks!

    June 20, 2011 at 4:48 pm

  8. Michael Sheridan

    Rob trained me in high scholl for college football. He is atruly knowledgable guy and tremendous source of information. I know the gym venture was a disaapointmnet but am glad to hear he has found a new adventure. Where the hell you been? Michael Sheridan

    October 13, 2011 at 12:35 pm

  9. Robin Cudworth

    Dr. Wagner was a professor of mine in college. I am trying to get in touch with him. Is there any way you could provide me with his email?

    November 8, 2011 at 6:42 am

  10. Keith Thomas

    If anyone knows Stephan Korte’s e-mail or postal address, please let me know. I have been using his program to achieve a lifetime PB in the deadlift (at age 62) and I’d like the opportunity to ask his advice on how to top that at age 63. I can be contacted at keith {at] evfit.com.

    April 19, 2012 at 11:30 am

  11. Nick Singleton

    Saw Rob lift in Prague in 1997, his close stance squat was amazing to see. Met Ed Coan there as well.

    March 18, 2014 at 6:29 pm

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