Bud Jeffries on Getting Your Mind Right to Reach Your Physical Potential

In Part 1 of my interview with powerlifter and strongman Bud Jeffries, we focused mostly on his physical accomplishments. This is a guy who once squatted 1000 pounds and creates workouts with 700lb squats, boxing, and 150lb dumbbell presses. Oh, and he cools down with a little knife throwing.

These feats of strength don’t come without an even stronger mind. In the second half of our interview, Bud and I chatted candidly about his mental and philosophical approach that helps him accomplish amazing physical feats. Bud Jeffries is literally changing the world with his talents, and he can teach us all a thing or two about tapping into your own potential and using it for the greater good.

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I think most of us understand the mental aspect of pushing to lift more weight, but most people don’t have the mental strength to endure the the sort of cardio you do…like walking a mile with a 300lb weight vest on. What do you say to yourself in the middle of these things to keep yourself going? How do you sustain that level of suck?

There are mental things you do all over the place, and I think it’s a very individual thing. I have years of practiced movement, so I sort of opened that mental door progressively. I had years as a heavy lifter. Heavy lifting is about getting that mindset, but for super short periods of time. It’s gutting a deadlift out or a squat out, but it only lasts three or four seconds.

I started to expand the time period on that mindset. I said I need to be tough for 10 seconds, 15, now it’s a minute. Pushing through the first few endurance cycles, where I really pushed that way, kind of opened that door where I now sort of embrace it. I opened that door incrementally until it was just so open that I stopped feeling that suffering the same way. I stopped interpreting that suffering the same way. That same feeling of accomplishment that I used to feel from getting a new PR squat or making a heavy set, I now feel that same thing from doing 1000 snatches.

There are times when I know it hurts and it sucks but it rarely enters my mind to actually stop, unless I get the idea that the damage incurred is worse than the possible win.

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Do you ever have days like the rest of us normal humans, when you’re mind isn’t really in it?

There are slightly up and down mental days. I just spent a lot of time in that situation so I don’t interpret it [as good or bad] anymore. I changed the way I was going to allow myself to think about this. I’m concentrated on getting the job done. The pain is irrelevant until it pushes you to actually stop for a second. I don’t allow stopping to enter my mind anymore. I’m just going to do this, and that’s all there is to it.

So much of your philosophy and success has to do with incremental change — making small changes, slowly, over time. The current landscape of strength and wellness is so much more about quick fixes and 12 week cycles. We’re not really taught to think about super long term goals, like decade-long goals.

That’s why you still see me working out all the time. These are permanent changes that have been made over a long period of time. It’s part of my life. I lost 100 lbs after I got to my peak of size and strength and I decided that okay, this is too big, period. That was a huge change for me. I’d spent years and years adapting to how I was, so the change came about a little at a time, a little at a time.

I’ve watched so many people fail from trying to radicalize everything. They say, I’m going to diet! Which pretty means that in six weeks you’re going to want to kill everyone on the planet. My wife told me, you can diet if you want but don’t diet like that otherwise I’m moving to another city. Little, permanent, non painful changes work. They make adaptations into how you are. It becomes something you can absorb verses “I’m going to radically change everything.”

I also think that having a clear vision of what you truly, truly want makes a huge difference. You don’t care about a thing unless you’re willing to do the work to get it. You can say you care about it but you don’t.

One of the reasons why I don’t bother or I don’t care to get super lean is because it’s not something I truly want enough to suffer for. I’ll be as functional as want and as lean as I feel like being, but I’m going to enjoy life and eat the food I want and do whatever I want.

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You program for yourself, and mentioned [in Part 1] that so much of what you do is based on feel and intuition. How does your intuition manifest itself?

I’m kind of all over the place with that. I actually started coaching myself at 16. Competitive groups of strongmen and powerlifters kind of run together for a year or two, and then someone gets divorced, or somebody leaves, somebody sells the gym because they get mad. They just roll for a little bit of time and you have to find somewhere else to lift.

[When I first started lifting,] I got in with a couple of guys, and they did all the programs and the coaching, and then they got different jobs and girlfriends and whatever. I was still going to the gym and they weren’t showing up, so I had to figure out what to do. Over a period of years, I spent a lot of that time studying other people’s programming and reading about it, and then I just began to pay attention to what was working and what wasn’t. I began to trust myself about what I thought versus what other people wrote down. I experimented over time to see what worked and what didn’t. That’s just how you do it.

As far as my intuition, some of it’s going to sound normal some of it’s going to sound…not. I think hard physical effort opens energetic mental and spiritual doors. Once you begin to really notice it, if you are a person who can pay attention, you can begin to get your own messages about it.

If you’re a person who can begin to listen to yourself and trust what you feel, then it’s okay to follow [that higher mindset.] My wife and I talk about this…we’ve been married for 20 years so she’s seen me at every possible crazy and seen me do such insane things on a regular basis that it’s not even dinner table conversation anymore.

“What did you do today?”

“I lit a barbell on fire last week.”

“Ehh, okay….”

Wait, do barbells burn?

No, but if you take clamps and put cardboard wrapped around them and soak it in alcohol, it does burn. Steel won’t burn, but you can make it look like it’s on fire.

Anyway, my wife said, “Over a period of years of watching you grow, you spent time developing a higher mindset in that you’re less bothered by things. You’re more peaceful, more prone to caring about other humans in that way…but on another level you’ve become closer to primal living and primal reactions.”

I knocked a lot of the barriers down through absorbing and paying attention to my intuition. Most people get feedback but can’t read it. I don’t have that barrier anymore. Whatever is happening in my mind is coming up right away, during or after that physical effort.

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Can you expand on the the “messages” you get about yourself during and after physical effort?

I’m that person who wants to see all the sides and all the variables of things. Over a period of time, that hard physical effort combined with learning to breathe and learning to relax under extended effort has allowed me to read my body like an animal would. You’re putting yourself closer to the intuition that your body is born with, that we walk away from as we grow in society.

Society doesn’t want us to be physically primal anymore, but physical training can open that door. I think it’s an awesome place. The vitality it creates in your life…in the way that you react and the way you embrace things, in the way you can begin to learn what works for you. You can literally, at some point, begin to feel it.

I’m kind of woken up to it because this is my life’s work and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. Sometimes it’s on the fly, too, like I’ve had a dream about doing dumbbell cartwheels.

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Why do you think most people can’t access their intuition?

I think a lot of people behave in certain ways because they’re afraid of the societal ramifications if they behaved the way they wanted to. I’m not talking about being an idiot, but it’s like they’re afraid to laugh too loud because somebody might judge them. We’ve got to get out of our own judgement and just begin to think and move and let it happen. Get those barriers out of the way, and then you can just do things. 

You have your bones, your ligaments, your tendons, your muscles, your actual coordination and mindset, but you also have this esoteric energy and all of that flows together. When you can get all of that pointed in the same direction, and you’re not missing a factor, then wow! You can do stuff you never even thought was possible.

Most people have three or four of them pointed in one direction and the rest pointed in another. If you turn everything where it all points the same way, on some level, you’re literally willing a lot of it to happen, in that sense. That will is affecting your body and affecting what’s going on around you, but you’re literally tapping into it. All of those things are related.

As humans, we have become so segmented. We’re spiritual here, mental there, physical there. The reality is that all of that should be in exactly the same pace, all functioning together. When you move all of that together there’s no disconnected pieces in life. It’s hard to say, but I think what one man can do another man can do. If I can develop it, somebody else can too if they dedicate the time and effort and want it badly enough.

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Has this philosophy developed over time, or have you always felt this alignment? Or was there a moment in time in which things clicked?

It’s grown over time. I think I had stronger pieces of it than most, but the whole car accident thing…I think it kind of opened a part of my brain. Most people interpret what I do as physically “reckless.” I don’t see them as reckless at all. Maybe that’s the part of my brain that opened. I’m not afraid of the things that most people are afraid of, at least not in that way.

I do think there was a long period of time of learning some unlearning. We learn societal habits of stopping ourselves, and I’m not talking about politeness and whatnot. I’m talking about things that are truly non destructive but you stop yourself because you were taught to.

What parallels do you see between meditation and lifting?

In weightlifting, guys do their their psyching ritual and it’s like a hard style, Western, Qigong…they just don’t know it. Their idea is, “I’m going to ramp up my adrenaline in my mind and body to force my body to do a thing,” In the Eastern philosophy, it’s “I’m going to set everything in motion in a calm way and get my energy to make my body more capable than it is.”

They’re opposite doors into the same room. When I began to notice that, when I began to consciously develop the fact that I could do things more easily when I got things working the same way, I could begin to do things almost effortlessly. It made a huge difference. Over time, when you pursue the freedom of thought and the freedom of movement, it makes a huge difference in how you are and what you believe you’re able to do. The convergence of all the things over a period of time is how it’ll happen.

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As if it wasn’t enough to squat 1000lbs and figure out the secret to mental and emotional clarity, you’re also passionate about anti-bullying and dedicate a large portion of your life to teaching kids how to be nice to each other. How does strongman tie in?

I use strongman to get kids attention, but people don’t hire you to be a strongman. They hire you to be an articulate, teaching human being, who does things that get things attention. I think that [bullying] is one of the biggest problems in America…in the world.

We haven’t taught our children how to treat each other. We haven’t taught them how to be nice to each other. We haven’t taught them that strength isn’t about oppressing other people, it’s about helping other people. No matter what you think is funny, hurting someone else is not an okay thing to do. Standing up for people is not only your responsibility, your right and your privilege, it’s the right thing to do.

So much human potential is wasted because people are crushed by how other people treat them, and it’s done at a time before they have an ability to stop it for themselves. They carry these scars from their life from how they were treated as kids. What I hope to give them is the ability to stop some of that before it happens or as it happens, or to help them realize that nobody has the right to treat you that way, period. You just stand up for it one way or another. These are things I learned as a grown up.

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At one point, you were traveling around the country giving strongman demonstrations that were actually anti-bullying lectures. What was your life like then?

I did that full time. I was literally on the road for nine months a year. Different hotel every night. Different city every day, across the country four times. Forty thousand miles a year. It was a bucket list thing, because very few people had actually performed over a 1000 live strongman shows in their career as an old time strongman. I can literally count on less than both hands the number of guys on the planet who have done that amount of shows as a single performer, carrying the entire show themselves and speaking to a crowd. To be able to physically replicate those feats over and over and over again, all the time, is a pretty good thing. It helps you get very connected and gets all the energies in the right direction.

I got the opportunity to talk to over 300,000 kids, live, face to face. That was an amazing part of my life. I still do it, but I’m not traveling quite the same way. Anything you can do to help inspire other people, especially kids, how can you not?

Strength is a universal language. People like to make fun of crazy stuff that I do because it’s funny, but what they can’t realize is that it’s meant to be funny. On a primal level, children will react to and respect strength. They’ll listen to you when they won’t listen to other people, because you’ve immediately gotten their respect.

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They get talked at all day long. You walk in and take a 12 inch spike and bend it in half, and then grab one of their teachers and press them overhead, and they’re like yeah….maybe I should listen to this guy. You’ve entertained them. You’ve opened their mind. You’ve got their guard down. You’ve done all the things necessary to really get them to listen. We are responsible to use whatever talent we have to help other people, one way or another. It doesn’t have to be the biggest thing in the world…maybe it’s just being nice.

The truly strong people are the ones who can truly be nice to other people. They’re not living in fear. They’re not afraid. They can actually be nice to people and withstand criticism. Once and a while you’ll see it because maybe someone has a personal beef. Occasionally you’ll see some physically strong people who are very mentally insecure, but you will rarely see the truly strongest people, whether they look like a biker who just got out of jail or not, criticism other strength athletes or talk about them in a nasty way. They spent so much time building physical strength, which lays the bricks for mental strengths. They’re just not threatened by others anymore, and we can pass that on.

To the normal people, we’re all still freaks. If you’re a CrossFit girl doing 100 muscle ups or I’m standing with an 800lb barbell on a couple of rocks in my yard, or you’re a geared powerlifter or a guy on an Olympic platform, we’re all freaks to them. There’s no reason for us in the industry to hate each other.

I do want to be as mainstream as possible, but the truth is, this isn’t for everybody. You don’t have to love what I love for us to be okay with each other as human beings.

Featured Image: Bud Jeffries (@budjeffries)