Deadlifting in the Wilderness (w/Clay Cooper)

Today I’m talking to Clay Cooper, better known online as @discoverydeadlift. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Clay took his weight plates and barbell outside and began doing his deadlift workouts in the great outdoors. Since then, he’s rucked barbells and plates to mountains, riverbeds, beaches, and deep into the woods. He’s deadlifted across the United States, had interesting encounters with wildlife (and people), and is planning to take his project international in the near future.

Clay Cooper on the BarBend Podcast

On this episode of The BarBend Podcast, host David Tao talks to Clay Cooper about:

  • Clay’s strength background and finding solace in strength (1:30)
  • The first time deadlifting outside (6:10)
  • “Hey, I think this is who I am now…I bring weights outside” (9:00)
  • How to structure ruck-deadlift-ruck workouts (12:30)
  • His BEST animal encounters (15:00)
  • Where Clay is deadlifting next (18:30)
  • Who Clay has inspired (20:30)

Relevant links and further reading:



That’s happened in a few different locations where people either have been hiking or they’ve just been like, “What are you doing?” More often than not, it’s a bewildered look and then an eventual conversation.


It’s affirming because most people are just really cool. It’s a nice connective thing to the people around you. We don’t know each other. We’re out in the mountains, and I have weights. All of a sudden, we’re having a conversation about something.

David TaoDavid Tao

Welcome to the “BarBend” podcast, where we talk to the smartest athletes, coaches, and minds from around the world of strength. I’m your host, David Thomas Tao, and this podcast is presented by


Today, it’s a really interesting one. I’m talking to Clay Cooper, who is better known online, at least on Instagram, as Discovery Deadlift. Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, Clay decided to take his weights outside, and he’s been deadlifting in the outdoors ever since.


He drives a set of plates and barbell to different parts across the country, rucks them out, does his work out, then rucks them back. I mean, we are talking mountains, streams, beaches, riverbeds. You name it, Clay’s probably deadlifted there. He’s had some interesting wildlife encounters along the way, and he’s about to take his project international.


Clay and I talk about deadlifting in the great outdoors, as well as a number of other topics in fitness. I hope you enjoy this one.


Clay, thanks so much for taking the time to join me today. For those who aren’t super familiar with you or might be new to following your various journeys, let me just give that as a little preview. Give me a rundown of, I was going to say your athletic background, but I think you’re transcending that at this point, your background in physical culture. Let’s make it highfalutin here.

Sure. I appreciate the question. I think just growing up, organized sports were always a big deal. Basketball, in particular, was my favorite sport. I played football and baseball. Weight training, in particular, was introduced to it in high school and trained during the season. Didn’t really get too enamored with the weights until my wife got pregnant with our firstborn.


My dad had passed away a few months before. I was just preparing to become a dad. I don’t know, the call of the weights came to me. I’m not sure what it was, but I started lifting more significantly when I was 26. Then obviously, with what I do now, nature and the outdoors have always just been a core component of where I can get some peace and resolve. I’ve always liked to be outside.

David TaoDavid Tao

That makes a lot of sense. Finding the way to 26, take us in that evolution over the next, call it four or five years after that.

Weight training was something for me to…it’s cathartic. There’s plenty of empirical studies that talk about the mental benefits of training. Anybody who gets more serious about their training, they start to notice the physical changes. Then that also compounds with how they feel mentally.


Those 26 years, most of my training was more of a bodybuilding type split where I was pretty new. I was like, “Oh, here’s bi’s and tri’s day. I’m going to look up something online, and it’s going to tell me to do three sets of 10 of this, and I’m going to superset it with this.”


The first gym that I was lifting at was Planet Fitness, too, so everything was on a Smith machine. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

All the stereotypes and jokes, you’ve heard all of them at this point. You’ve seen that.

I’ve heard all of them. Then, there’s the evolution until eventually when I was about 31, I found myself at the gym with a deadlift platform. I’d seen girls and guys in there pulling great weight before and I always wanted to try, it was a little intimidated.


Then I loaded up some plates. No one was there to see me, and I pulled the ugliest deadlift you could probably ever pull. It was a sumo conventional hybrid thing.


I don’t know, something changed. I thought, “Oh man, I’m literally picking something up.” It quickly became my favorite movement and that introduced me more to the world of powerlifting.

David TaoDavid Tao

If we know the deadlift…Is the deadlift still your favorite movement, just to clarify?

It’s still my favorite movement, yeah.

David TaoDavid Tao

You are discovery deadlift, so that would make a lot of sense. Least favorite movement. We’re going to jump ahead here for a second.

 I love talking about my least favorite. Probably the Bulgarian split squat, [laughs]. That’s a pretty popular one. I make myself front squat regularly, but damn it if I don’t hate front squats.


I love back squats. Front squats in particular, my wrist mobility needs to work, so I’m putting it on my shoulders and then it starts to roll. The split squat is probably my least favorite thing.


David TaoDavid Tao

I don’t ask that on every podcast, but if I ask that 10 times, 9.5 of the answers will be some split squat variation because they’re tough, whoever you are.

They’re tough. The thing that makes it so insidious is they’re tough, but damn it, if they’re not great at building muscle and strength. That’s maybe a microcosm of life. Some of the stuff that’s the hardest to do is the stuff most worthwhile doing.

David TaoDavid Tao

It’s almost the stuff that gives you the most challenge, builds the most muscle and increases strength and resilience, it’s almost like we have to go through tough times in order to get better. It’s weird.

I know. What a novel concept.

David TaoDavid Tao

What a strange thing. I’m going to work backwards a little bit here because, cats out of the bag, you are perhaps better known…Do people know you? Do they know you as Discovery Deadlift and they don’t know your actual name? Does that ever happen?

My wife pointed this out. Yes. Just basically knew me as Discovery Deadlift. I had my first name on there, so people are like, “Oh, this dude’s name is Clay.” I think like six months ago, I added my last name. Maybe people now know me as Clay Cooper, but Discovery Deadlift online is definitely probably the nomenclature I’m most known for.

David TaoDavid Tao

What was your first experience taking a barbell out into the great outdoors and picking it up? Were you even recording it? Tell us about that process.


It was the spring of 2020. Obviously, a lot was going on right then with the pandemic and with gym closures. I had cobbled together from classified ads just some different Olympic plates and a clang and bang barbell and was a makeshift garage lifter.


During that time in particular, the cabin fever was really starting to set in for me. I have quite a bit of anxiety, so it was the Olympics for those of us that have anxiety or any mental health struggles. One day I thought, “I need open space and open air.” I started loading the weights into my wife’s Subaru Outback at the time.


I joke that she’s like looking out the window and seeing me put barbells and plates in her Outback and be like, “What the hell is going on here?”

David TaoDavid Tao

By the way, that’s the perfect car to start this journey. If you had told me to guess, in my mind’s eye, that’s what I imagined, you loading up a Subaru.

That’s what it was. 2014 Subaru Outback. I just loaded it up. I didn’t have a particular destination in mind. I knew that there was a network of dirt roads near my home. I live next to a pretty gorgeous lake. I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll go explore it a little bit.” I went out there to work out.


I set up the camera with a makeshift tripod with just some rocks and mostly to just hate watch my lifts because I’m a self-taught power lifter. I was getting an idea of like, “Am I squeezing my laps? What does my back look like?” More of a positioning thing.


Then as I was out there, it sounds silly maybe to anyone but me, but it was a little bit of a transformative experience being in that open air and feeling small, but feeling small in all the right ways. I was a part of this larger world that was going through this significant thing at the time.


That rest and the piece that nature usually would lend me, combining that with the other thing I do, which was weightlifting, that would help my mental and physical health, it was transformative. On the drive back, I played back the video and I was like, “Oh, damn it. That’s actually pretty.” It was a little accidental.

David TaoDavid Tao

Did you go back out for the next training session? When were you like, “I got to start recording these and I got to start pushing out this content”?


A lot of people found this stuff. A lot of people who found social media success and audiences during the pandemic, it did start out of a desire to break out of whatever funk state or fugue state we were in.

Exactly. On the drive back, actually, I called my wife and I jokingly was like, “Hey, I think this is who I am now when I do this thing now…


where I bring weights outside.” She’s like, “Yeah.” I remember literally driving and there’s this herd of deer running across the dirt road and me just being like, “This is where I want to be.”


I came back, I’d showed her the video. I had had this little rudimentary like fenced out where I would post some of my workouts, and it had absolutely no traction. Then I was like, “Oh, I just uploaded it on there.” I was like, “I’ve done this by a lake there.”


Then the next day I went out again and worked it outside. Then it just started to snowball. I was working from home, so when I’m finished work or before work, I’d head out and go work out and then come home and put in the office hours.

David TaoDavid Tao

What is the better workout? Doing the deadlifts and barbell movements outside or getting the equipment to exotic locales?

Each destination is quite a bit different. There are some locations, like when I went to the Oregon Coast around Astoria, I literally could drive my truck right out onto the beach, so I just pulled the weights out.


Then that set resembles more of what I would be doing in any given day on a deadlift platform. Whereas the ones that require multiple miles or rucks and multiple phases, there’s no question for those that the actual getting the weights there and back is what’s the hardest thing.

David TaoDavid Tao

What is the most challenging location? Take us through what it was, as far as getting the weights there, and the process to get the weights there, because if people, hopefully after this podcast or during this podcast, they’ll check out Instagram it’s like, this isn’t like two 10-pound plates and a miniature barbell.


I assume that for some of these rucks, you’re going back and forth multiple times to get them out there and then to get them back.

Exactly. Typically, I have a big frame bag and then I have a backpack. My heaviest phase or my heaviest ruck phase is typically a 55-pound plate in my pack and then two 45s in my hand, so I have about 145 pounds.


Then, I literally just walk, hike, ruck it to the spot. I drop it off, walk back and go get another 100 to 130 pounds until I’m at whatever the working weight that my desired programming would be that day. As far as the most difficult destination, there was one day in particular where it was just so cold.


I was by a frozen lake in the Wasatch National Forest, which is in Utah. I think that one stands out because the ruck was probably all in like a mile and a half or so. I’ve done longer distances and that’s accounting for all the trips there and back, but it was so cold.


I remember not being able to feel my hamstrings or quads and be like, “It’s too damn cold out here.” Then trying to pull the barbell.


That one was really a crucible of difficulty. As far as consistent environments that are hard to pull in, sand dunes are really tough because eventually you’re pulling from a deficit. If you’re going up any type of incline, it’s not the easiest thing.

David TaoDavid Tao

I don’t like walking on sand just normally with me. Does the barbell go out first or does the barbell come out last?

The barbell usually comes out last. I mix it up. Usually, my first phase is going to be my heaviest phase when I’m feeling the most fresh or when the pre-workout is the most in me. Usually, it’s the 55 and the 245s and then there’s another 55 and 245s after that. Then it just goes from there.


When I do bring the barbell, I’ll have a pack too with at least one or two Olympic plates in it as well. Then I’ll carry it either on my shoulders, like a back squat or out in front of me or sometimes I’ve used it as this makeshift walking stick. [laughs] I’m a little hard on the equipment. Just whatever I have to do to get it there.

David TaoDavid Tao

Has anyone ever seen you doing? Obviously, you’re doing this in a lot of relatively remote locations, but sometimes I’m sure you’ve come across other folks enjoying their time outdoors. Has anyone ever joined in? Has anyone ever seen you and be like, “Hey, can I work in”? [laughs]


Yes. Actually, that has happened. We were on the Snake River in South Idaho and we kayaked to this place called Pillar Falls. I brought the weights out of the kayak and there’s little island there in the middle of the Snake River. It’s a fairly popular spot for people to kayak, so there were people coming around. I was trying not to make a spectacle of myself, so I went off to the side.

David TaoDavid Tao

Says the guy deadlifting on the side of the river.

That’s kind of ironic, right? If there’s too many people there, then I’m literally posting myself online doing this, so you think, “Oh, he’s not going to be shy about this.” If it’s in a place that’s really populated, I’m like, “Uh.”


That’s one of the things I like about it, is the remoteness typically where that’s never even a consideration other than maybe the wildlife wondering what’s going on over there. He jumped in and worked on it in a couple of sets.


That’s happened to a few different locations where people either have been hiking or they’ve been like, “What are you doing?” More often than not it’s a bewildered look and then eventual conversation. It’s kind of affirming because most people are really cool.


I think that it’s really odd, but it’s a nice connective thing to the people around you. We don’t know each other, we’re out in the mountains and I have weights and all of a sudden we’re having a conversation about something.

David TaoDavid Tao

Any memorable wildlife run ins?

Nothing too significant. No. I got close to a moose one time. I believe it was a moose. I didn’t catch a full glimpse of it, but the bush was…It was something big and I was sitting down in between sets and there was some rustling behind me and then like a quick gallop and move.


I stood up and walked into the middle of the river and turned around. By the time I turned around, I didn’t see anything. That’s basically it. Nothing too significant. There was a time I saw a badger and a coyote together, which was really cool. I guess they are friends. They hunt together sometimes.

David TaoDavid Tao

That’s an actual thing. I’ve actually heard about this here. Badgers and coyotes they have complementary hunting skill sets.

 It was really cool. We saw the coyote crossing the trail and I was like, “That’s the coyote.” Then the badger soon afterwards.


Then I found that footage. I think there’s some like UDOT footage or there’s some highway footage over there in California where it shows them hunting or walking or playing together. I’ve seen some cool wildlife, nothing too scary or threatening.

David TaoDavid Tao

That’s a little bit like when a sumo deadlifter and a conventional deadlifter meet up and train together. You know what I mean?


That’s what I like to think of. That’s an equivalent of the animal kingdom.

That is a great comparison. The funny thing going back to my original deadlift, I guess that would make me whatever the offspring of that would be because my first pull was, I don’t know what I was doing between sumo and conventional deadlifting. [laughs] It was a terrible hybrid, but I think that’s a good analogy.

David TaoDavid Tao

Are you always pulling conventional these days?

I am. I don’t particularly feel tribal about it. Nothing but love for sumo pullers. I think conventional is the movement feels more natural for me. It’s ultimately what I cut my teeth on.


I’m a stronger puller from a conventional place too. The posterior chain is something that it’s a…We all have different strengths or weaknesses. It’s a strength of mine. My leverages lend themselves well with conventional.

David TaoDavid Tao

I can imagine you in some exotic location, you’re training, you’re halfway through your working sets, someone comes, a hiker comes up and they’re like, “Oh, my goodness. It’s Clay, Discovery Deadlift. I’d love to work in. I’m so happy I found you.” Then they start pulling sumo and you’re like, “No man.


No. You can’t. Not with this. Not up in here.”

I’ll be like, “Listen man, don’t you know I pull conventional?” Live and let live. “You want to pull a sumo deadlift, that works for me too.”


There’s all kinds of arguments about the range of motion and whatever, but I can legitimately say I can pull more weight. The last time I tried sumo, which was a long time ago, I can pull more weight conventionally than I can from a sumo position.

David TaoDavid Tao

Also, I would think if you’re actually deadlifting on unstable surfaces, outdoors, rocks, sand, beach, dunes, loose-packed dirt, sumo might actually be tougher than it would normally because you’re getting more like, I don’t know if it’s torque.


It might be tougher to actually stay in that sumo position. I think your feet closer could be an advantage.

That’s a good point. You could run into an unfortunate situation where…I’m not the most flexible guy, so all of a sudden I’m doing the splits or something…


that grounds a little bit more malleable.

Let’s talk about what you’ve been able…This is a very cool thing that you started, coming up on three years ago, so congrats on stick-to-itiveness. Let’s talk a little bit about the impact of that and how…really where you’ve tried to leverage that impact. Look, you’re a powerlifter going outdoors, picking up weight. That is enough to get on the “BarBend Podcast.” Don’t get me wrong.

David TaoDavid Tao


You’re doing more with your audience, and I’d love to hear a little bit about some of those efforts and goals.

David TaoDavid Tao

Yes. First off, thank you. I appreciate that. I don’t know what you do. Happy anniversary for somebody who deadlifts outside after three years, what do you say like, “Way to stick with it?”

In the weightlifting world , and it crosses gender divides as well, I assume. I know men in particular sometimes have a hard time talking about our feelings. If you’re in a hyper masculine space like the gym or powerlifting or strongman or bodybuilding, I think that sometimes…The idea is to be stronger, to be macho, is to be extra stoic, and there’s a place for stoicism, for sure.


For me, I found weightlifting in a period of time where I was grieving the death of my father and I was preparing to become one myself. There’s an intrinsic connection there between my physical health and getting stronger physically and mentally.


As Discovery Deadlift has given me an opportunity to speak more candidly just about that, and if it helps anybody feel like it’s normalizing or demystifying the fact that like, “Hey, we all have struggles, we all have things that are difficult for us mentally, emotionally, and that’s OK.” We can be a community together.


We can take actionable steps, give yourself some grace, normalize talking about what’s difficult for you, because in my experience, when you talk about it, whether it’s with a loved one or a professional, things get better.


The connection between physical and mental health has been something that I’ve been able to speak with. It’s been really affirming to get direct messages from folks that are saying like, “Hey, I feel a little bit more empowered to talk about this.” It’s really cool.

David TaoDavid Tao

I was going to ask the feedback you’ve gotten from your audience. The question isn’t “Have you gotten feedback?” The question is “What type of feedback?” Thanks for preempting my question and doing my job for me, Clay. I appreciate it.

Yeah. Anytime, my man.

David TaoDavid Tao

Have you thought about working…and thank you for going into that, by the way. I know that I can be a little bit of a snarky podcast host sometime, but I did want to give some space and not at the very end to talk about what’s the impact of this beyond.


You leveraging the platform for something else. I really do appreciate you sharing that. Sometimes that is the hardest stuff to share, right? Sometimes the self-reflection is challenging, so I do appreciate that. I am curious, do you know if Discovery Deadlift has inspired anyone to do similar but slightly different things outdoors, like outdoor squatting, cleans, pressing, anything like that?

eah, it’s actually been pretty cool. I pretty regularly will get sent videos in my Instagram or TikTok of folks deadlifting, squatting. There’s been some bench pressing. Kettlebells, people just bringing kettlebells out there to an open space, and it’s not always an exotic location.


Sometimes it’s just the park by their house or their backyard, but just this idea that, “Hey, I want to go into the open air and breathe in some fresh air and train when I’m doing that.” I’ve actually received dozens and dozens, if not more than that, of folks out there working out.


There’s actually a group of, I think, 40 people, something like that, in Tunisia that they joined together and they hiked this mountain. They all carried the load and then they all deadlifted at the top. I don’t know if they did anything besides deadlifting. It’s been cool to see other people be like, “I’m going to try it.”


David TaoDavid Tao

The thing is, if you’re deadlifting, there’s a lot of else you can do. Take some of the weight off, do some cleans, do some shoulder presses. We can talk about your big enemy. If you can clean it, you can front squat it.

That’s right. You guys had this on your site. I went out onto that frozen lake, but actually, so obviously, my weight, I only had 225 with me there for obvious reasons because I didn’t want to break the ice on the lake. We had a lot of fun there, actually.


I did some floor presses with the bench, we did some front squats, I’ve done shoulder presses plenty. A lot of rows, obviously, to warm things up. There’s been times I try to stay authentic to what I would be doing in the gym as far as what I would be doing outside.


Obviously, I augment that sometimes just depending on the length of the ruck and the elements, but if I’m going lighter for a deadlift day or for its active recovery, yeah, I’ll maybe incorporate a few other movements in there, too.

David TaoDavid Tao

Let’s talk about dream places to deadlift that you have not been able to visit just yet.

I love this topic. I’ve been relegated to the States so far. I’ve been to about 10 different US states. I think we’re in 170 plus locations right now and just seeing some beautiful things. Dream locations is we’re talking internationally, we have some potential international plans this year actually. Iceland is a place that I really want to go, just considering the history there for strength sports.


Then to see the Northern Lights. They have volcanoes. They have mountains. They have rivers, beaches. Iceland is one, Norway. I’d love to get to Japan at some point. Once you get that wanderlust, it’s hard to tamp it down. I think Iceland would be the most immediate destination.

David TaoDavid Tao

Well, Clay, where is the best place or best places for people to follow along with your I was going to say journey, but it’s really a lot of journeys and a lot more to come here.

You can follow me on Instagram, @discoverydeadlift. You can also follow me at TikTok, @discoverydeadlift. We’re looking into a YouTube channel here that should be up relatively shortly.


Yeah, I appreciate the opportunity.

David TaoDavid Tao

Clay, thanks so much for joining us. Very fun to hear about the evolution of your journey with more to come, I’m sure. I appreciate you joining us.

Thanks, David. Appreciate you, man.