New year but we’re still grinding as usual. This week for our interview series, we have Charles Staley, an accomplished strength coach who specialises in helping older athletes get back their physicality and vitality.
At 56 years old, Charles is a true inspiration; he is leaner than ever, injury-free, and in the best shape of his life – a few of his recent bests:
- 400-pound squat
- 510-pound deadlift
- 17 chin ups
Balance The Grind had the pleasure of chatting with Charles about what he’s learnt over his extensive training journey, his opinion on the most underrated exercises, staying healthy and injury free at his age, why the deadlift is one of his favourites, and plenty more!
1) As someone who has been doing this for a long time, can you give you a quick overview of your training journey?
Oh you bet. I guess first I should make it clear that to call my current level of success “unlikely” would be an overstatement to say the least. When I was 15, after 4-5 years of dedicated karate training (I always thought that my destiny was to be a martial arts instructor) a friend’s sister unceremoniously pinned me in a backyard wrestling match.
Fast forward a few years to age 19 (an age where most guys are at or near their physical peak), I can remember getting literally stapled by a 95-pound bench press. And just so you’re clear, I’m not saying I missed the 20th rep — I was unable to bench 95 for a single frikken’ rep.
Also right around that time, I can remember being positively stunned that my buddy Rich could bench 135 for 10. I just couldn’t comprehend how someone could be that strong. At about age 21 or so, I weighed 140 at 6’1” and amazingly, I had a gut on me even at that weight.
Anyway, in 1992 at the age of 32, after about 6-7 years of resistance training experience, I was recruited by Dr. Fred Hatfield to work for the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA), and that was an incredible opportunity that launched by career in the fitness industry. I met and spent time with many of the industries brightest minds.
Anyway, over the years my own training has gradually evolved and improved, and I’ve managed to do OK in master’s weightlifting and powerlifting competitions. Today at age 57, I’m more excited about lifting than I’ve ever been, and knock on wood, I’m still hitting occasional lifetime PR’s.
Finally, I guess I should let people know that I run a popular online coaching service (targetfocusfitness.com/get-coached) and I’m also working on a book which is tentatively entitled The Staley Strategies: Confessions Of An Unlikely Fitness Pro.
2) You’ve written over a thousand articles for leading fitness publications and websites and have lectured around the world. What are some of the most controversial topics that always stir up heated discussions?
I’m always surprised when one of my articles gets people all upset, and I’m very bad at predicting which ones will have that effect. A while back a wrote a piece called The Jogging Delusion, which became an absolute vortex of butt hurt on the internet.
My take-home message in that article was that if you’re mostly interested in being big, lean, and/or strong, jogging shouldn’t be the first type of exercise you think of. Obvious, right? But for whatever reason, people felt compelled to point out every possible rationale for jogging, including the fact that “it’s better than doing nothing.” People often get too emotionally over-invested in a particular tool or method, when they should really be focusing on the result that they hope that tool or method will lead to.
I’ve also been very critical of planks, which doesn’t make me a lot of friends either. Sure, almost anything might play some possible positive role, but if you’re in reasonably good health and you want to be stronger or leaner, planks are a bottom of the bucket exercise.
3) In one of your recent T-Nation articles – The 6 Most Overrated Exercises Ever – you listed exercises like the barbell bench press, planks and box jumps. I’m curious to know what you think are the most underrated exercises?
A few things come to mind:
1) Barbell military press: Amazing deltoid, tricep, and core-stability drill. Also, when you do them correctly, military presses encourage good shoulder and upper-back mobility. This is how guys used to measure their strength before benching became a thing.
2) Farmer’s carries: Amazing for anaerobic endurance, grip strength, and core stability. A real gut check. When I think about “functional” strength, this is what I think of.
3) Machines: I’m guilty of dismissing the value of machines in the past, but I was wrong. In addition to the fact that most machine exercises require less psychic stress, less setting up, and less warming up, they also, in many cases, hit the target muscle better than corresponding free weight drills.
For example, if you have a lot of trunk inclination when you squat, that exercise won’t be a very good quad builder for you. Sure, you can and maybe should still do squats, but also investigate things like the hack squat, leg press, and Smith machine.
4) What’s a typical training routine for you like at the moment?
I lift 4-5 days a week typically, using whole-body sessions of 4-5 exercises per workout. Typically I’ll do a “hard” movement for both upper and lower body (such as squats and chins for example) and then 2 less-taxing movements (such as leg curls and tricep extensions for example).
Typically I do between 3-5 work sets per exercise/per session. I use probably 60-65% free-weights and 35-40% machines. In addition to that, I walk and/or ride my bike every day, but nothing awe-inspiring — maybe between 2-4 miles. And that’s pretty much it!
5) Over the years as a strength coach, what are the key mistakes you often see people make – nutrition, training, recovery, etc.?
There are a handful of things that come to mind:
1) Poor ability to contextualize information. In the fitness genre, there are a number of factors that together, account for the overall result that you achieve. However, some factors are far more important than others. And ironically, the factors that everyone loves to debate about are often the ones that don’t matter a whole lot.
For fat loss as an example, total calorie intake is the most important factor (by far), yet what everyone loves to argue about are things like food quality and supplementation, which don’t really matter very much at all.
2) Inability to distinguish between pain and progress. I do feel for people who make this mistake, because the willingness to work hard on a consistent basis is critically important to overall success. However, of course, not everything that hurts is beneficial.
Planks, which I talked about earlier, are a prime example of this — sure, if you have a legitimate medical issue requiring physical therapy, planks may be warranted. But, if you’re healthy, and your goal is to be stronger and leaner (98% of us), planks are a waste of time. But, they hurt like hell (if you do them long enough anyway) and that’s what makes people think they’re worthwhile.
3) Inability to appreciate the importance of consistency. The hallmark of beginners is that their efforts are both extreme and temporary — think Biggest Loser. The training of experienced successful trainees however, isn’t nearly so dramatic.
They come in every day, do their thing, rarely miss a rep, rarely get hurt, never fall off the wagon. This is the key to success —sustainable levels of intensity on a consistent basis. A lot of guys pat themselves on the back after an all-out effort in the gym, but fail to consider how it might affect their next 2-3 workouts.
4) Perfection vs. progress. There’s an old saying that “perfect is the enemy of good,” and I couldn’t agree more. This is because (and it links back to my last point) perfection isn’t sustainable.
Physical adaptation is, by necessity, a gradual process. Imagine how silly it would sound if you said you were planning to get a perfect tan in one day. Fat loss, strength, and muscle development are the same way.
6) You’ve said that at 57 years old, you’re leaner than ever, injury free and in the best shape of your life. What are the key things that you attribute to this?
Well honestly, I guess I got these by following the advice I’ve just given. However there are a few other things to note:
1) I’m careful by nature — for good or for bad, I’m not an adrenaline junkie. So when something hurts, I move on. I don’t attempt a weight unless I think I’ve got a very good chance of making it. This is probably why I’ve never deadlifted 600, but it’s also why I’m pulling over 500 at age 57 — it’s a mixed bag I guess.
2) Also, to be quite honest, I’m a slow learner, at least when it comes to my own training. It really took me a long time to fully understand the training process, how to apply good nutritional tactics, and more globally, how to instill good work habits — delaying immediate gratification, optimizing my environment for success, and so on.
7) As a 3-time raw powerlifting World Champion in the 220 and 198-pound weight classes, can you provide some insight into the training and mentality required to separate the champions from the rest?
Well by no means do I think of myself as a champion, I guess because I’m acutely aware of all the guys my age who are stronger than I am. So whenever I won a meet, I just figured it’s because the strongest guys just weren’t there that day.
I guess in my way of thinking, there are more productive and less productive mindsets in athletics. For me, I simply look to gradually better my own best performances — I’m really not concerned with how well I’m doing compared to one of my competitors — I’d much rather lift well and come in last than lift like shit and come in first.
Another mental strategy that’s really critical is to focus more on the habits and actions that lead to the desired outcome rather than the outcome itself. This applies to everything from weight loss to winning an Olympic gold medal. Goals are best framed around behaviors, not the outcome itself. You can see this phenomenon when you look at New Year’s resolutions — all the focus is on the outcome, and little attention to the strategy that gets you there.
Bottom line is, be clear about your goal, and then identify the behaviors that will be necessary to get you there, and finally, how to get yourself to consistently perform those behaviors.
8) What is it about the deadlift that makes it one of your top exercise choices?
Well to start with, it’s important to appreciate that the deadlift isn’t the best exercise for any given muscle — there are far better choices for glutes, hams, quads, and so on. That being said though, there are a number of compelling reasons to deadlift, including core stabilization, grooving the hi-hinge pattern and lifting mechanics, and maybe most importantly, the conventional deadlift is a very good assessment of your overall strength.
If you think about it, when someone says that they squat “x” amount of weight, you still don’t really know what that means. But you hear that some has squatted, say, 700, OK, it might be from blocks, or they might have poor technique, but you know they’re strong.
Also for me, the conventional pull is a very good hamstring drill, but that’s not the case for everyone. But I like to use the deadlift as a test drill — I use it (along with other lifts) as a proxy for lean body mass and strength levels. And I actually don’t to competition-style pulls that often either — over time, I rotate them with block pulls, deficit pulls, RDL’s, trap bar pulls, and so on.
9) And lastly, what has been the most memorable moment of your training journey?
Wow, I’m not sure if I’ve ever considered that? So I guess it surprised me when I pulled 500 pounds for the first time at age 50. If you’d have asked me if I thought I’d ever lift 500 pounds when I was (say) 20 years old, I would have said no chance. But to do it at age 50, wow, no way in hell. So I guess that was the most memorable moment.