Known as “the world’s strongest gym”, Westside started out as a powerlifting facility in Columbus, Ohio opened by Louie Simmons. This was made in the image of the original Westside barbell club, in Culver City California.
The documentary opens with a brief history as told by Louie. I was aware of him through Bigger, Stronger, Faster but it was great to hear a more in depth story of his life. He was a successful powerlifter for years before rupturing his L5 doing Good Mornings and ruling himself out for 10 months.
His desire to heal quicker led to the creation of the Reverse Hyper machine, which is an excellent exercise for the lower back, glutes and hamstrings, and one of the cornerstones of Westside. After his recovery he returned stronger than ever, breaking records in his main sport of powerlifting (single best lift in Bench Press, Back Squat and Deadlift, with the weight lifted in all three added together to represent your “Total”).
8 years later he broke his L5 again, dumping a squat forward while failing to set the pins high enough to catch the bar. He decided that the prevalence of injuries in powerlifting meant there is likely something fundamentally wrong with the way they train. It used to be that powerlifters started with lighter weight and higher reps, gradually increasing weight and reducing reps until competition. Louie spoke of how this reduces conditioning, or fitness, which you can see on the graph as tracking downward with volume.
He spent a lot of time reading up on Eastern Bloc (Soviet Union etc.) training methods, reading texts like Verkhoshansky’s Fundamentals of Strength Training in Sport and Zatsiorsky’s Science and Practice of Strength Training. The latter is a great read for anyone with a passion for lifting.
From a combination of the Max Effort method, Dynamic Effort method and Repetition method, Louie devised the Conjugate method. This allowed volume to remain relatively constant, along with fitness, while cycling exercises to avoid the Law of Accommodation (de-training effect from repeating the same exercise).
These principles can be seen clearly in training templates such as WS4SB 3, which uses the “Westside barbell method”. This incorporates all three of the above methods on separate days, while encouraging a variety of exercises to be used.
The training methods were what interested me most about this documentary, though they spent a large portion of it telling the stories of the gyms most famous members. They cover Matt Dimel, Chuck Vogelpohl, Matt Wenning, Kenny Patterson, George Halbert, Dave Hoff and several female lifters like Amy Weisberger. As someone who doesn’t really follow powerlifting or know the big names and what they could lift, it was interesting to see. That being said, there was a rift between two training groups and the re-telling of that did lose my attention midway through the film.
Matt Dimel: I want to be the world’s strongest man, what do I do?
Louie: You get as big as you can, you take all the drugs you can.
It also tracked the rise of single and double ply lifting suits, which allow for greater totals. As they mention in the film, most powerlifters have no interest in Raw numbers (lifting without “gear”, the specialised clothing that helps you lift more) because they just want to lift the most weight. The specialised Bench Shirts were likened to wearing two tight T-shirts, but when you see the PRs with and without gear you know it’s more than that. I’m part of the generation that seems to value raw numbers more, so I personally found it hard to be impressed by the numbers put up wearing clothing that takes three people to help you put on.
If you’re interested in the difference this specialised clothing makes then here’s a great article which compares various personal records. The conclusions were that an “equipped” male lifts an average of 23%, 35% and 3% more in their Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift, improving their total by 18%. For women those numbers are 33%, 42%, 6% for a 24% boost to their Total.
Overall it was well worth the watch, and my friend who’s also into lifting but not necessarily powerlifting felt the same way. It’s not going to get an incredibly high rating for me purely because my interest is in lifting in general and not specific to powerlifting, so I give it 7/10.