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Jen Thompson: A Powerlifting Legend’s Training Routine

Today we’re talking to 11-time IPF World Champion and Hall of Fame powerlifter Jen Thompson. Summarizing ALL of Jen’s accomplishments in strength in a quick intro is frankly impossible. She’s one of powerlifting’s all-time greats and still very much a dominant force in the sport, both when competing on the platform and through her contributions as an organizer and advocate. We talk about Jen’s current training and programming split, her favorite accessory movements for a legendary bench press, and how powerlifting has changed over her 20 plus years in the sport. We also talk about where there’s still room for improvement, especially on the international level.

Watch the interview on YouTube: 

On this episode of The BarBend Podcast, host David Tao talks to Jen Thompson about:

  • What her training look like right now (2:25)
  • Getting back to basics at local meets (4:00)
  • The Lift Together charity event coming up in September (5:50)
  • How Jen lets loose after the competition is over (9:15)
  • Rehabbing a broken hip from 2019 (10:35)
  • Training frequency for an elite powerlifter (16:00)
  • The major changes in the sport of Powerlifting (18:50)
  • How Jujimufu lives right up the street [in country miles] (24:25)

Relevant links and further reading:

Transcription

We’ve obviously stepped up with the quality of the meets and how they’re run. If you’ve ever been to the Arnold, the panels they put behind the lifters and the acoustics, they’re like rock concert-style setups.

 

Our nationals would be in a VFW hall [laughs] in hell. It would take forever and you were writing on paper. It was crazy. We’ve just really stepped-up our game.

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 barbend.com.

 

Today, I’m talking to 11-time IPF World Champion and Hall of Fame powerlifter, Jen Thompson. Summarizing all of Jen’s accomplishments and strength in a quick intro is, frankly, impossible. She’s one of powerlifting’s all-time greats and still very much a dominant force in the sport, both when competing on the platform and through her contributions as an organizer and advocate.

 

We talk about Jen’s current training and programming split, her favorite accessory movements for a legendary bench press and how powerlifting has changed over her 20 plus years in the sport. We also talk about where there’s still room for improvement, especially on the international level.

 

Also, I want to take a second to say, we’re incredibly thankful that you listen to this podcast. If you haven’t already, be sure to leave a rating and review of the BarBend podcast, in your app of choice. I also recommend subscribing to the BarBend newsletter, to stay up-to-date on all things strength. Just go to BarBend.com/newsletter to start becoming the smartest person in your gym, today. Now, let’s get to it.

 

Jen, thanks so much for joining us. We absolutely love working with you at BarBend and I was hitting myself because, when we were chatting last, I realized you hadn’t been on the BarBend podcast. You should’ve been one of the first people on. I’m so sorry about that oversight, you’ll have to forgive me.

I will think about it.

David TaoDavid Tao

Well, Jen you’re a legend in the sport of powerlifting and you’ve been one of the most visible strength athletes on the planet for a number of years now and still going strong. I got to ask, what does your training look like these days, during a time when a lot of competitions have been canceled or postponed, is there anything in your sights that you’re training for, specifically?

Not really. I was training for Raw Nationals, October obviously isn’t happening. Overcoming an injury that I’d been rehabbing for a while. I just extended the rehab to make sure I was ready to come back. Now we have the Hometown Showdown going on pre-USA Powerlifting.

 

I don’t know if you saw that. You enter any local meet, and you go into the rankings for these cash prizes and awards. Now I’m thinking I definitely need to do a local meet this year [laughs] so I can get in on that YETI cup giveaway, or something like that. We’re doing the Lift Together. I don’t know if you’ve seen that.

 

The Lift Together challenge that we’re doing on Twitch the second weekend in September. That’s going to be big fun. Although I was just sort of lackadaisically training now I’m like, “Oh my God, I better get going. I’m over this stuff.” [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

I love the Hometown Challenge here because it encourages a lot of strength athletes who are at that elite national, international level to compete in local meets. How long has it been since you’ve competed in a local meet?

I bet it’s been at least 10 years. Because I’m the state chair for North Carolina here, for USA powerlifting, I’m usually running the meets, or overseeing the meets, or refereeing the meets. I feel like a lot of times those local meets are for local lifters. The ones that I have done, I went in as a guest lifter. [laughs]

 

You get to a point when you have a number of nationals, and the Arnold and the Worlds. That’s plenty for one year, you don’t need any more. The last time I did one was after I had my son Brody, that was 2005. I had to requalify to make nationals again. I think that was the last time that I lifted at a local meet.

David TaoDavid Tao

I have to say, it’s going to be awesome for folks who have seen you as an event organizer, and as someone who’s doing the admin and is competing locally.

 

I wonder if it’s a little demoralizing for some lifters who are like, “Yeah, I’m going to go for top lifter at this competition.” Then Jen Thompson one of the best to ever do it shows up like, “Well, there goes my chance.”

[laughs] I think I’d probably still do like a guest lifter as long as my total went in there. Hopefully it’s more aspiring than defeating people.

 

It is with these power gimmicks, I don’t know. If you’ve never run an event, they’re super hard and exhausting to put on. For all the people that just lifting them, and never volunteer, you should totally volunteer.

 

Even when I consider going in one, I usually end up not lifting because some splatters called-off, or referee called-off. It’s an undertaking, so if and when I’ve entertained the thought, I end up just helping out instead. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

I’ve had to explain this to a lot of people in the weightlifting community how complex a powerlifting meet can get. I’m like, “Imagine a weightlifting meet which is already a big undertaking. It takes a village to put on. Now I add another lift to that, and also make it such that the weight can go up and down.”

 

“In weightlifting, over the course of a session, the weight just increases.” When you explain that, you get understand why a powerlifting event is a 12, 14, sometimes 16-hours-a-day, for event organizers. It’s a long slog.

I dread the event coming up, and then when it gets there, it’s fun. I’m excited to see everyone, and it’s always good vibes. Every time we do them, it’s exhausting. You keep doing it for the love of your sport. You want to keep people in it, and share that love with everyone. Keep it going, and see it be successful.

 

It keeps you coming back, but it takes a good army of volunteers to make these events for our people to love to come to.

David TaoDavid Tao

Tell us a little bit about the Lift Together Event that you’re doing on Twitch the second week of September.

I’m super excited about that. There is a whole bunch of us coming together to Colorado Springs, Colorado, obviously. It’s in the name. [laughs] It’s going to be a Twitch event, so you can watch it live on Twitch and donate to the causes. It is Suicide Awareness month in September.

 

Part of our funds will be going to that, and then part of it will be going to the NAACP to support the Black Lives Matter movement, which are two big things in our lives right now. It’s pretty exciting to be a part of that. It’s going to be a weekend of heavy lifting, but high jinks.

 

Just the other day, Bryce Lewis is one of the guys putting it out, and he sent us this picture of these [indecipherable 07:57] blow-up fat-suits, like those big Sumo suits.

David TaoDavid Tao

Yeah, you put on like the county fair.

You guys like, we’re going to have [laughs] [indecipherable 08:05] laughs with these things. Even though, it’s going to be some fun seminars heavy lifting, but a lot of it’s going to be goofy stuff like pizza strength, and weird wrestle laugh. I’m looking forward to it. Ben Pollack’s going to be there, and Megsquats, of course, are some of the big headliners, Matt Vincent.

 

We’ve got a whole…Blaine Sumner. I mean if you just look, probably you would recognize almost all the names. We are going to be careful with the social distance. It’s not an audience to come watch it, and it’ll be broken up into small groups so that we are maintaining a good quarantine skills, I guess. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

 It’s what we have to do these days. I have to ask, when it comes to high jinks and powerlifters, say this was a normal competition, say this was Nationals, or the Arnold’s, when elite powerlifters are done competing and they’re looking to let off some steam, what’s your go to?

 

Some people go out to a big buffet, some people have that favorite drink. What is your…just like, “the meets’ over, accomplished my goal. I can just relax a little bit, enjoy myself.”

We definitely hit the bar right after. [laughs] Some beverages are top priority. [laughs] Usually it’s a few shots, we’ll order some grungy food.

 

I tend not to eat too much of the food, because for training you have eaten so good, so long, and then you do the dieting and then the whole ritual. I usually end up feeling horrible if I eat too much. I usually just go with the liquid approach.

David TaoDavid Tao

You would have to wait, you…

Usually it’s fun.

David TaoDavid Tao

Do you want the regular hangover or the junk food hangover, which is worse?

I don’t know they’re both pretty bad. [laughs] I try not to go with the liquid hangover too often, because my mass is two, or three Ks, [laughs] I’m just like that.

 

It is fine around nationals. Usually, it’s in some sort of hotel. Usually, it’s the hotel bar. You’re just seeing the other athletes. For the prime time, you’re seeing the other people that were cheering for you. It’s like a huge party atmosphere. It’s so much fun.

David TaoDavid Tao

It’s half the reason to compete. I do want to ask, coming back from this injury and rehabbing the injury, how long was your rehab, if you don’t mind me asking? How has that been going? Are you feeling back to 100 percent right now?

It’s been like a year. I broke my hip at the Arnold in 2019, I think, or whatever it was. It was a stress fracture they realized I had. I had torn my obturator muscle at the Arnold. I rehabbed and thought I was great, and started pulling some heavyweight, and then I fractured the stress fracture.

 

It was kind of a bummer. It’s been about a year. I’m starting to feel good. As long as I’m working up to the weights slowly, it’s going OK. I tried to come back a little bit too fast originally. Then I had to back off a little bit. Now I feel like I’m on a good small, steady incline back to where I was.

David TaoDavid Tao

Will you be competing in September, or will you be…? Are you an organizer of the Lift Together, or are you actually going to be hitting the platform, you think?

I’m going to be hitting the platform. I don’t know that I’ll be in 100 percent shape, but probably 90. [laughs] The bench is always there. The bench is 100. That’s good. It’s the other things that [laughs] are always messing me up a little bit. The bench is making standby. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

I have this image in my head of you. Thankfully, I’ve never had a bad hip injury but something more like you’re having trouble walking, or you’re not able to do any of the lift, but you’re still showing up for the bench and getting onto the bench and absolutely crushing it. I do have to ask a little…We got to talk about the bench press. Jen Thompson is on the podcast.

 

You’re the best bencher of all time. I don’t think there’s too much competition.

 

I know some people that might argue about this, but they’re probably wrong. Maybe I’m biased.

Probably not.

David TaoDavid Tao

One thing that you’ve been, I know, focusing on a lot more and the content you’ve been putting out on YouTube, on Instagram, on social media is bench accessory work. No one knows it better than you. What are some of your favorite bench accessories that you’re recommending people train with these days?

Oh, my gosh. The thing is we do so many. We do a bunch one week, then we flop them the next week, then we flop them back. I can get bored with my workout really fast, so I try to keep a lot of variation in it.

 

For us, one of the key things, especially if you’re having technique problems, is what we call a T-Shirt press. It’s like a Spoto press, but it’s on your T-shirt. The rule is you do it at the very end of your workout. You do it with probably your heaviest warm-up weight.

 

Basically, work on how fast you descend the bar. You’ve got to hold it on your chest for an exaggerated one to two count. It has to be on your T-shirt, not your chest. The idea is that you’re not relaxing. You’re staying tight. Then using leg drive to throw it up as fast as you can. You do them in fives. It’s a rep of five, but they’re five singles within that set.

 

It doesn’t seem like much, but it allows you to build what we call bottom-end strength, which is off your chest, and work on the speed of the bar. Another area that most people can make improvements are bar speed and leg drive.

 

Leg drive, I just posted on Instagram today, lockouts. You can work on your leg drive on lockouts. We do lots of those. Other than that, we do a lot of the band presses, the reverse band presses. We do the slingshot, of course. I love overloading everything. Of course, my heavy holds because those are way fun. I do think they have a ton of benefit to them as well.

David TaoDavid Tao

What are some of the weights that you’re using on the heavy holds? I’m curious to what percentage above a maximal lift people go on those.

It’s a lot, but it takes a while. You have to practice doing them. For me, it’s 500.

David TaoDavid Tao

That is cool. You mentioned it’s cool and it’s fun holding 500 pounds. It’s just this great number.

It’s just unracking it and letting it settle onto your shoulders a little bit. It’s just an isometric hold for about 15 seconds. It works to stabilize your muscles. If you ever get a shitty handoff, you’ll be fine if you’ve been doing heavy holds because you have so much stability and strength from that unrack. I always think that that is a good thing.

 

There’s tons of studies that prove how isometric holds help with your concentric strength. It’s something we started doing. A friend of ours was in chiropractic school many years ago and doing a lot with isometrics. Then we thought how we could apply that to the bench. We’ve been doing that ever since.

 

If you want to start them, you probably start with a number that was just over your max and then start making jumps from there. I’ve been doing them for so long, I can go almost 200 over my max. [laughs] You probably can’t start off that way. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

Wise words. Take it slowly. Let’s talk about training frequency a little bit. Now, you’re at a very elite level. Your tolerance for training volume is going to be a lot different than someone who might just be starting off, and things change.

 

How frequently are you training the bench and bench accessories? Generally, for someone who’s an active powerlifter, maybe not at that international elite level, what do you think is a good frequency in training volume?

We train way differently than everybody else. [laughs] I just got to lay it out there. It’s going to seem weird, and we always have. People always tell me I train more like a bodybuilder than a powerlifter. That’s OK.

 

As I’ve gotten older, I have noticed that I need more rest. I just turned 47 this year. I started in my 20s. It’s been a long road. We’re actually on what we call a nine-day cycle. Instead of doing it seven days in a week, we do our workouts in nine days. The workouts we do are hugely intense for about two hours.

 

Honestly, I only have a bench workout once every nine days. I have an accessory day once every nine days, which probably doesn’t seem like a lot for what most people are doing because they’re been benching two or three times a week. I just do it once every nine days, but I go all out when I do that. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

What kind of sets and reps are you doing on the primary lift and accessories during that once every nine days session?

We flip them from week to week. We work on speed one week, and we work on the heavyweight one week. We’re always mishmashing and moving things around. Generally, if you’re talking on our heavy week, we do a heavy hold. We do three sets of five on flat, three sets of five in incline and decline.

 

We do what’s called upload presses or reverse bands where you hang them from a squat rack, and you move some super-heavy weight, so I’m doing 360, 370 on those.

 

Then we’ll end with some dumbbell presses of eights, and then we do our little funky push-ups on a push-up board with a ball. [laughs] We do that.

 

The other weeks, we work on speed. We’re doing singles. We’re doing, again, flat incline-decline. We’ll throw in some bands the other way. On accessories, we’re doing slingshots and lockouts and more band work and some shoulder work. It’s complicated — I’m not going to lie. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

Yeah, in my head…

We keep messing with it. I looked, because we keep track of them on our computer, and we’re on version 30.

 

We just keep the things that gave us good success, and we try new things, and if we didn’t like them or if we didn’t see any improvement we chuck those and put in some new ones. It’s an evolution.

David TaoDavid Tao

You mentioned that you’ve been in the sport for a while and the sport has changed a lot. This is well over 20 years in powerlifting and strength sports. Hey, 20 years ago some of the sports that we cover on BarBend didn’t exist, the CrossFit Games didn’t exist 20 years ago. What have been some of the main changes that you’re most aware of or want to call some attention to, in the sport of powerlifting over that time period?

Obviously, we have way more women doing it, which is really nice. Because, when I started in ’99, and there wasn’t the social media, obviously, so you would just rely on magazines and you would have to wait months to hear about a competition or look and see if there was one in your area. It was in a whole different way, it was just so much on a smaller scale.

 

That has been a huge change. I love that we see more women in it and it sort of lost that taboo that women have to be big ugly men to be in this sport. I like that that is gone and more women are into trying it. There are so many examples of nice strong-looking women that don’t have any masculinity at all. [laughs]

 

That’s been a nice change. I think the men have been very supportive of our sport. We used to separate everything, there was a woman’s nationals and a men’s nationals. Finally, we all came together and said “Look, these men are our training partners and these women are training partners. We’re tired of going to two separate meets, just put them together because we all live together now anyways.”

 

That’s another really good change, is that you have men and women working out and lifting together. That has been really good. We’ve obviously stepped-up with the quality of the meets, and how they’re run. If you’ve ever been to the Arnold, the panels, they put behind the lifters, and acoustics, they’re like rock concert-style setups.

 

Our nationals would be in a VFW Hall, [laughs] in hell. It would take forever. You were writing on paper, it was crazy. We’ve just really stepped-up our game, as far as, just making it more of a mainstream sport and making it more available to everybody. I mean, it’s night and day, in a good way.

David TaoDavid Tao

What are some things that you want to see change about powerlifting moving forward? Some things that you want to see develop, or maybe places where there’s more room for improvement?

With international powerlifting, with the IPF stuff, which I know doesn’t affect everybody, but I would like to see more women in the admin roles there. It’s still a very much white man dominant organization, [laughs] I feel like. I would like to see more diversity in its leadership, that’s definitely one area.

 

Although, they were are making some strides with adding more Muslim countries, and adjusting some of our rules to fit more people in it. We definitely have a lot of room to change for that. With USA powerlifting, in itself, obviously there’s a big issue with the transgender, and that sort of thing. Really, we want everyone to be able to do this work, we all love it.

 

I know they are looking at making some changes in 2020. I don’t know if you listened to Larry Maile’s speech but we do have some change coming. Allow more diversity among our lifters that maybe hadn’t felt comfortable lifting before but can now, so I like that. I would just love to see it on TV. [laughs] I’d love to see athletes be able to make a living at the sport.

 

That, we can definitely grow, [laughs] and everybody wants that. We’d love to see some bigger name sponsors, some more money coming into our sport, and us being a little bit more exposed on TV.

David TaoDavid Tao

Is there anyone outside of the powerlifting community, it could be athletes, or it could be event organizers that you look to and you say, “Oh, what they’re doing is really cool and I’d like to keep my eye on that as well”?

Well, that’s a tough question. [laughs] I don’t know, now we have things like “The Titan Games” on TV. We have some more fun game shows sort of sporting things. I think they’re on to something with some of those shows. I think O’Brien James is also got one coming out or had one coming out.

 

When you look at some of these sports, I mean, CrossFit’s done a great job at really accelerating their sport in a small amount of time to where they got Reebok and got their games going, I mean, definitely I don’t want to do CrossFit, I think Powerlifting’s way better but we can definitely take a page out of their marketing book. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

The other thing I promised myself that I’d ask about is, you mentioned that you’re heavily heavily involved…you can’t think of North Carolina’s strength sports without thinking of Jen Thompson and that’s as both lifter and event organizer and ad name. You’re not the only strength celebrity in your neck of the wood so to speak, you actually live pretty close to Jujimufu is that right?

Oh, yeah. He lives like 40 minutes from me. He moved here from Mississippi and he actually contacted me [laughs] and we’ve actually become pretty good friends since he’s moved here and got to know his wife a little bit and Tom and actually my sister-in-law did Tom for a little while. Gossip on the [indecipherable 24:55] .

David TaoDavid Tao

He rose to Internet stardom, where do you get started with, with his tricking and his flips, being the anabolic acrobat. But he’s actually been focused a little bit more in on Powerlifting, in recent years he’s competed a little bit. Do you two ever train together, swap stories, swap wisdom, does he come to you for training advice?

Yeah, every once in a while. Depends on what he’s doing because he bounces around a lot of different things. I think he probably needs to do that to keep everything new and refreshing. He’s come here lived with us a few times and I’ve come to his place a couple of times and then he got into arm wrestling for a little while, and then I think he’s getting into bodybuilding right now. He always returns back to Powerlifting and so I’ll probably hear for him.

David TaoDavid Tao

Maybe, he’s not the best example, because he does bounce around so much, that’s his job, is to explore different things in strength.

He’s a social media influencer in the truest sense. He’s an entertainer for sure and super super nice person and his wife is just so sweet and wonderful too.

David TaoDavid Tao

He’s one of the many just amazing fun people in strength that are even more fun to interact with in person, then you might you might imagine after seeing yourself.

 

If you had to explore one other strength sport, it could be something as big as weightlifting or — you said you’re not going to do CrossFit — you already said that. Or it could be something as specific, that’s a little more niche, like arm-wrestling, what if you could train to be a lead in one other strength discipline what do you think it could be?

It would probably be ninja warrior stuff. We actually did a YouTube video with Juji and Tom where we went to one of the gyms here. A lot of it’s upper body strength and I have a lot of upper body strength. I do tons in our training. We do tons of pull-ups and dips and all sorts of things. We had the crew there, they were showing us how to do the different advance systems. I truly enjoyed it. I really, really liked it. I could totally see myself giving that a go.

David TaoDavid Tao

It’s definitely something more just like The Titan Games. It’s giving just a ton of mainstream coverage and it’s interesting to see athletes who’ve been a ton of CrossFit athletes and powerlifters that you’ll see on The Titan Games and we haven’t seen too many cross-over strength sports athletes to ninja warrior just yet.

No, we didn’t have.

 

Maybe, I’ll be the first one.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

Maybe, we’ve seen a lot of gymnasts. Right?

Although, DLB went on there one time. She was on the preliminary trials, Dana Linn Bailey.

David TaoDavid Tao

Oh, I didn’t realize that. I completely missed that, that she was trying out for that.

Well, she didn’t last for long, but she made it.

David TaoDavid Tao

One problem with having strength athletes on that is it’s mostly upper body stuff. There’s some running and there’s some lower body stuff. If you got these big heavy quads, it’s not necessarily going to help you when you do a Salmon Ladder.

I don’t think anyone’s told me that I have big heavy quads before, so I think I’m going to be all right.

David TaoDavid Tao

 I didn’t…

 

At least, I didn’t call you skinny which you did to one of BarBend’s editors a long time. The poor guy never recovered. Jen was being so nice…

[laughs] I feel so bad. [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

This is legendary in the office. For all, I’ll link the video in the in the podcast page we have. You were trying to remember Jake’s name and…

I’m terrible time with names. I have terrible time and if I’m on the spot, I can forget my sister’s name.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

The way you did it, you were so nice. You’re like, “He works for BarBend, he’s from Missouri.” You knew all these specific things. You’re like, ‘Kind of skinny.” The next day after that, we gave him a good ribbing on that, it was all in good fun.

There’s Jennifer Thompson’s husband, right there.

David TaoDavid Tao

Jennifer Thompson’s husband. This is a two-for-one. We’re just getting a bonus appearance on the podcast.

 

Is that a Detroit Lion’s shirt?

Yup.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

I’ve to tell to my girlfriend, she’s a huge Lions’ fan. I’m a Bears’ fan, so I’m sorry.

We’re all in [indecipherable 29:26] zone.

 

We are just so used to losing and not expecting too much.

David TaoDavid Tao

The NFC north, it’s a tough division for success, unless you’re a Packers’ fan in the past decade.

For sure.

David TaoDavid Tao

Jen, that actually sums up what I wanted to chat about today. I wanted to definitely ask where are the best places for people to keep up-to-date with the work you’re doing, training tips, and advice. I know you’re big on a few different platforms, so where all can we find you?

Of course, Instagram, @jenthompson132. I was trying to post something meaningful and helpful, not just a booty pic or something.

 

Something that you can take something away from. I have my YouTube channel, 132poundsofpower. I’m working on a bench variation series where I’m going through the different exercises I do, and how to do them. How to set them up in the gym, and where to start out.

 

I always feel, one of the things that’s made me so successful is technique. If you don’t have great technique and you’re not executing the exercise correctly, you’re really missing out on a big piece of it, that’s pretty important.

 

I do have a website it’s 132poundsofpower.com, where you’ll be able to see this. I always put my latest stuff on there, and just information, and results, and stuff like that. Those are all great places. I do Facebook, I do more family stuff on Facebook versus power and stuff.

David TaoDavid Tao

Jen, thanks so much for joining us. Really appreciate your time, and looking forward to seeing you as you get back on the platform. Wishing you the best for the rest of 2020.

Thank you. I do want to let you know that I have been following Jake, and he’s looking way more buff during this quarantine.

 

He’s been eating more, and he’s definitely sticking out with two Cs.

David TaoDavid Tao

 

I will have to link this video in the podcast page. Jen Thompson, thanks so much for joining us.

I enjoyed it. Thanks for having me.

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