Over the last couple of weeks I’ve featured some amazing coaches in my article series, The Smartest Coach in the Room. That’s where I talk with a wide variety of experts from the fitness, sport, and performance industry about the profession they’ve dedicated their lives to — and the tips, tactics, and trade secrets they’ve used to get to the top of their field.
This article is in the same vein… but also a little different.
Instead of highlighting a world-class coach we can all learn from, I instead want to share some words of wisdom from a truly world-class athlete: Patrick Castelli.
Patrick is a two-time North American Strongman National Champion and the 2015 Arnold Strongman World Champion. He’s also a long-time friend of mine and a former employee at my gym.
Patrick is astoundingly strong. His most recent deadlift PR is 675 pounds—while at a bodyweight of just 183 pounds.
In this article, I let him tell his own story (with frequent interruptions from me) and share how he transformed himself from a 135-pound wrestler to a 175-pound Strongman world champion.
For me, the most important aspect of Patrick’s story is something I’ve seen across the board from great coaches and great athletes alike: The internal drive to learn from as many different experts as possible—and the quest to become a little better, every day.
Patrick Castelli: From 135-Pound Wrestler To a 175-Pound Strongman Champion
A Lot of Weight For a Little Guy (And Too Chicken To Say No)
“I didn’t start lifting seriously until I was in college; my only real goal was to get stronger so I could become a better wrestler.
One day in the weight room this guy comes up to me and says, “Wait, are you lifting that? That’s a lot of weight for a little guy.”
He happened to be one of Jesse Marunde’s [former Strongman competitor] protégés. He told me I should consider doing Strongman training. I was too chicken to say no.”
From 16th Place…To Winning a National Championship
“The first year I went to Nationals for Strongman, I competed in 175-pound division and finished in 16th place. Every other guy was cutting down from like 190 pounds just to get to 175. But I was just trying to gain enough wait to meet the cut-off.
I was one of the stronger guys pound-for-pound, but I was getting literally out-muscled. I was way too small.
So my senior year of college I decided to focus and give Strongman a fair shot. In March of that year, I finished out my wrestling career by competing in Nationals in the 149-pound weight class. Then six months later I went back to the Strongman Nationals and competed in the 175-pound weight class, just like before.
Things were different this time.
I placed high enough in all my competitions leading up to that final event that in the end I won the overall. Which meant just six months after competing in wrestling at 149, I was a National Strongman Champion at 175 pounds.”
Find Your Unique Advantage — And Then Exploit It
“What happened was this: Of course, I got bigger and stronger in that six-month gap. But I also realized that I could only get so big and so strong in that short of a timeframe. So I decided to focus on the movements themselves. [Deadlift, overhead pressing, etc.]
I told myself, ‘Well if I can’t be the strongest guy, then I’m gonna be the fastest guy.’
Or ‘If I’m not gonna be the fastest guy, then I’m gonna be the best conditioned guy.’
I needed to find ways to make the Strongman events so technical that I could simply be the most proficient at each one and dominate them. I broke Strongman training down into specific categories and started to train those.
I figured that at every competition, there would almost always be some kind of overhead event (like a clean and press), some kind of deadlift event, some kind of grip test (like farmers walks), some kind of moving medley, and some kind of loading medley.
So I identified those events, and then looked around at all the best athletes who were at the top of their class. I studied Olympic weightlifters, powerlifters, everyone. Studying all those different athletes and learning from the best was what gave me my edge at Nationals.”
[Note from Joel: This is a huge insight. Instead of trying to simply “get stronger”, Patrick identified where he could have a powerful advantage over his competition — in his case, improving his technical skills and learning from the best — and then he did everything he could in order to exploit that advantage. That’s how you win championships, no matter what sport you’re in.]
A Questionable Nutrition Plan — and a Humbling Experience
“Things don’t always work out. Hopefully, you learn from your mistakes and move on.
When I first got invited to the Arnold [the pinnacle of Strongman competition] I had someone help me with my nutrition. I was trying to get bigger and he had me eating a really high-fat diet with lots of carbs. It was questionable, but I figured I had nothing to lose.
Long story short, it didn’t work. I was very disappointed in my performance at the Arnold.
That was an eye-opening experience for sure. I had just got done competing at the national level and then I was suddenly on the world stage— and I saw how much talent was really out there. It was incredibly humbling.
When I left my hotel room, I had a notebook filled with all the things where I went wrong and all the things I’d need to do in order to get better. It sent me back to my training with a ton of questions.”
[Note from Joel: This is another important insight. Patrick is a high-achiever, just like me and probably everyone else who’s reading this article. As high-achievers, we understand that when we don’t perform at the level we want, instead of getting caught up in all the negative emotions, we need to look at what went well— and what went wrong. Only then we can commit to doing whatever it takes to come back stronger next time.]
Back To The Drawing Board To Formulate a Better Plan
“People who compete in Strongman have a tendency to try and do everything at once. They want to improve everything across the board at one time. That may be fine when you’re just starting out, but you can’t do that at an elite level.
I realized one huge thing when I lost at the Arnold: I needed to set up a periodized program.
I needed a dedicated block to get bigger, a dedicated block to get stronger, and a dedicated block to work on all the technical aspects of the Strongman lifts.
That periodization plan was a game-changer.”
[Note from Joel: I was in the room when this happened. We set up a whiteboard and me and few other coaches contributed to Patrick’s periodization plan. It’s important to realize that whether you’re an athlete or a coach, you can’t do everything at once. You must prioritize the most important aspects of your training in order to give them your full attention. This becomes increasingly more important as you move to higher levels of competition.]
You’re Not a Champ Until You Defend Your Title Once (Plus, A Little Redemption)
“At this point, I had won the National Championships but lost at the Arnold. I took some time to really periodize my plan and focus, and when I came back I came back strong.
The next year, I was the National Championships again, and became the second person ever to win back-to-back titles in that class. It felt really good to prove it wasn’t a fluke. It said, ‘I’m consistently dominant and I’m here to stay.’
Then I went back to the Arnold and just crushed it. Thanks to my training, I was so far ahead that when we got to the last event all I had to do was not die and I would win. That was a crazy redemptive feeling.
The last event, I had to carry an implement all the way up these giant pyramid steps. I made it up there and looked out over the crowd and there all these people.
That’s when I knew I won the world title.”
What We Can All Learn From Strongman Training
Strongman training is a great way to break up the monotony of training, and it has a ton of carryover. [Note from Joel: I completely agree. In my opinion, not enough coaches understand how to properly coach Strongman techniques.]
Strongman teaches people how to put themselves in positions where their strength will be successful. Think about it: a lot of sports don’t actually have anything to do with a barbell. So if you don’t know how to take the strength you have and apply it in different positions, it won’t do you much good. That’s where Strongman shines through.
All that being said, it’s also possible to get hurt, especially if you’re not training [or coaching] the movements correctly. Tire-flipping is the event from Strongman where I’ve seen the most injuries. People will either throw their back out trying to pull it up like a deadlift, or they’ll tear a biceps while trying to curl it. It’s a completely different movement, and one I think all coaches and athletes would find helpful to learn.
A Two and a Half Pound Plate In The Pocket
“I started competing in the 231-pound class just for fun. I’ve won both times I’ve done it, which feels great. Recently, though, I took it one step further and tried to do some contests as a heavyweight.
Weighing in is now hilarious for me. While most people are standing on the scale after having cut a ton of weight, I’m up there wearing jeans, sweatpants, two t-shirts and a hoodie, with a half-gallon of water and a two-and-a-half pound plate in my pocket.
It’s a blast.”
How are you becoming the strongest person in the room?
If there’s one trait that all great athletes have, it’s this: They’re constantly striving to be better than the day before. Whenever they find that they’re they’re reaching their limits, they find a new person to learn from and a new method to try.
That’s how you improve day after day. That’s how you challenge yourself to grow. That’s how you win.
So my question to you is this: Who are you learning from—and how are you using that information to become better?