Why the World’s Strongest People Aren’t Always Role Models (w/Joe Sullivan)

Today we’re bringing back one of the most popular guests in BarBend historyrecord-breaking powerlifter Joe Sullivan. Joe joins us for the second time to talk about training, overcoming injury, and why elite strength athletes are probably not the best health role models. He also gives his thoughts on how to bring more unity to the powerlifting world, and whether or not the sport can shift to an abundance mindset instead of focusing on scarcity.

Joe Sullivan on the BarBend Podcast

In this episode of The BarBend Podcast, David Thomas Tao and Joe Sullivan discuss: 

  • Joe’s current training and upcoming competition schedule (2:10)
  • New recovery protocols and why stubbornness can hamper great lifters (5:00)
  • Why setting out to be the best version of yourself is often in tension with overall health and wellness (08:00)
  • Drinking water and eating chicken breast at Las Vegas clubs (12:00)
  • The good and the bad of modern day powerlifting (18:00)
  • The history of powerlifting and bringing unity back to the sport (24:00)

Relevant links and further reading:

Transcription

…people like me who are like competing at the top end of the powerlifting or the strength sports spectrum. It’s like some of the stuff that I say isn’t necessarily meant to be applied to the vast majority of people, which is the vast majority of people that are following me.

 

95 percent of the people that are following me, they’re not setting out to be the best in the world. They’re setting out to be the best version of themselves, which is amazing. There’s a separation there.

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. This podcast is presented by barbend.com.

 

Today, we’re bringing back one of the most popular guests in BarBend history, record-breaking powerlifter, Joe Sullivan. Joe joins us for the second time to talk about training, overcoming injury, and why elite strength athletes probably aren’t the best health role models for most of us.

 

He also gives his thoughts on how to bring more unity to the powerlifting world and whether or not the sport can shift to an abundance mindset instead of focusing on scarcity.

 

A quick heads up, this podcast does contain profanity and some adult subject matter. Before we get into that, I wanted to give a quick shout-out to today’s episode sponsor, Athletic Greens.

 

I first tried Athletic Greens back in 2012. It was already a massively popular daily supplement. Since then they’ve undergone dozens of formulation tweaks. It’s the rare all-in-one green supplement that’s NSF certified, a must for competitive athletes and also taste delicious. Interested in trying it, visit athletic greens.com/ barbend to get a free gift with your purchase. Now, let’s get on with the show.

 

Joe, thanks so much for joining me. A repeat guest on this podcast, which might be risky. I don’t know. You were brave enough to come back. Now I appreciate it, man. How is training going and how are you feeling these days?

As a whole, everything is feeling really great. I am currently like six weeks out from my next competition. I’m doing the USPA Pro Raw championships, which is the same meet I’ve done the past two years. It’s formerly called the Showdown. They had a rebranding thing because it’s a different federation, now. Part of the USPA Pro series.

 

As a whole, everything is feeling great. I had a shitty day in the gym today, like lots of external factors, like our AC is on the fritz. We have a repair guy coming, and we’ve had some life stress stuff. Nothing bad in the gym, but I was like, “Eh, I don’t want to be here today.” It was one of those days.

 

As a whole, everything is moving really well. I know our last conversation, we were talking about the bar bend incident and how that resulted in herniated discs in my neck and ended up resulting in a compression injury to the nerve on my left arm.

 

I’ve been working with a coach named Jake Benson, who’s also my best friend. He’s incredibly intelligent and we’ve been applying a lot of unconventional stuff to my situation, ranging from phantom limb pain, physical therapy modalities because same principle like nerve damage, can’t feel it.

 

It’s essentially paralysis all the way to different styles of training, like glycolytic style training, where I’ll intentionally deplete my blood sugar in order to rely on the neurology to get better. I’ve been doing all this crazy high-level whoo-wee-woo-wee bullshit. I’ve seemed to make a lot of progress.

 

As a whole, training is exciting right now because I know last year or whenever it was, I was talking about how I haven’t been able to get my bench to where I want it, whatever.

 

Last week, I hit 490 pounds for a double, which is unfathomable compared to where I was over the past five years. I’m on track to match a platform PR, which is amazing. I’m pretty excited about everything right now.

David TaoDavid Tao

That’s fantastic. If you’ve been around strength sports for long enough, I am not a fraction of the athlete. I never happened that you are. Give it a long enough time frame, we’ll all come across as you say, some whoo-wee-woo-wee bullshit.

 

When something like that works for you, it pisses you off for a second, because you’re like, “Damn it, I thought that was bullshit. I thought that I was overthinking it.” It made my performance so much better. When I’ve done that in the past, it’s pissed me off in away where I’m so close-minded and stubborn. I’m mad about how stubborn I was.

Absolutely. I’ve had this same conversation with myself because the injury occurred in 2018. I kept square pegging and round holing it and being like, “Fuck it, I’m going to fucking figure this out…”

 

Then finally, I had someone who…I don’t know why I listened to Jake. The dude talked to me in a way that I responded really well to. It’s why he and I are such great friends now. We’re going out to eat later today. I was like, “OK. I trust you,” and we completely pulled everything back.

 

It wasn’t even the training stuff that made that much of a difference. It was the lifestyle stuff to get me in a position where I could actually relearn how to move rather than just headstronging my way through it.

 

Now, I’m like, “Shit, I seem to have made progress.” I thought I was done forever. I thought I was going to be the squat guy for the rest of my life. I still very well, maybe, known for my squat, my all-time world record squat, how good I am at squatting, but it’s like, “Fuck, I actually have a bench press again.”

 

I’m like, “Dude, if I did this four years ago, who knows where I’d be right now?” [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

What you’re telling me is you’re a naturally stubborn person. I wouldn’t have gotten that. I’m completely joking, by the way. That’s clear as day that we share that in common.

If you do anything as dumb as powerlifting or lifting weights for over half your life, you have to have some stubborn qualities. You’re pretty much guaranteed to.

David TaoDavid Tao

It’s funny. I spent a lot of my career, talking to some of the strongest, most physically capable people in the world. They’re at the very end of the bell curve as far as what they can do with a barbell, a stone, or with their body weight across the different strength sports or endurance, whatever it is.

 

Then, you talk to someone who maybe isn’t so into strengths, maybe they’re just lifting to get a little healthier. They say, they’re like, “Oh, I don’t know. I’m not squatting 900 pounds. I’m not a super elite record-breaking lifter, so what do I know?”

 

My response is often like, “Good for you. That’s a much healthier lifestyle overall than trying to compete at the highest level. You probably have a better quality of life over.” [laughs]

No, there’s this weird dichotomy that people…I hate speaking like this because it’s like, “Oh, he’s an elitist,” or whatever.

 

People like me who are like competing at the top end of the powerlifting or the strength sports spectrum, some of the stuff that I say isn’t necessarily meant to be applied to the vast majority of people, which is the vast majority of people that are following me.

 

I know that 95 percent of the people that are following me, they’re not setting out to be the best in the world. They’re setting out to be the best version of themselves, which is amazing.

 

There’s a separation there. I don’t know if you saw or if anybody who’s listening to this, my significant other, Brianny, she just transitioned from powerlifting to bodybuilding, competed in her first Women’s Physique show, and then went on to nationals, got fourth at nationals, had a very, very successful season.

 

On one of her posts, she was talking about, I can’t even remember, but it was going the next level on whatever endeavor she’s finding herself in. I commented something, where it was like, “Showing up isn’t half the battle. It’s the bare minimum,” or something like that.

 

I had people respond to me and be like, “Man, this is bullshit. What the fuck, Joe. Sometimes, that’s the hardest thing for a lot of people.” I get that and I understand that, but that statement isn’t meant for the people who are saying, “Well, I’m not squatting 900 pounds. I’m not doing it to that level.”

 

The people in that position, they can afford a lot more balance, a lot of much “healthier relationship” with what it is that they’re doing in order to achieve all-time world records, certain physique looks, levels of body fat, or whatever achievement that you set yourself out to.

 

There’s a point where you can’t really expect balance. You can’t expect moderation. If you succeed, you’re either one of the most genetically gifted people on the planet and you should consider yourself blessed, or you’re delusional because you’re not getting to where you could be otherwise.

 

It’s a matter of perspective because I am, sometimes, incredibly jealous of the people.

 

I live in Las Vegas. This is a very party-centric, have fun, go out, hang out type world. A promoter friend of mine who is one of the big guys at some of the clubs here, texted me today. He’s like, “Hey, do you want a free table today at one of the clubs because I think Kygo is playing or something?”

 

This table would go for $7,000 because it’s on stage and I’m like, “No, man. Sorry. I’m benching right now and I have a podcast later. I need to rest because I have a heavy squat on Sunday.”

 

Part of me sometimes, I’m like, “Man, I wish I could be like, ‘Yeah, we gonna do that because that’d be really fun,” but being in the position that I’m in, you can’t afford that level of balance at this point in the training cycle.

 

People that are more relaxed about it, you could argue it’s a bit healthier relationship. It’s not so much healthy in terms of their peak physical achievement, but healthy in terms of like, “Hey, it’s OK if we don’t do this and it’s OK if we do this.” I’m jealous, sometimes.

David TaoDavid Tao

 I’m not a smart man, but the lesson I’m getting from this is that a balanced lifestyle includes stage-side tables at Kygo concerts. [laughs]

It’s context.

David TaoDavid Tao

It’s sub-level regularity.

Context. I’m just lucky because I’m a bullshitter and I end up talking to people. That I’m like, “Hey, I’m Joe Sullivan, what’s up? How are you doing?” blah, blah and then I hit it off with random people. They’re like, “Hey, I like having that guy around,” and then, I end up going to concerts in Vegas, because it’s Vegas and I know people, and [inaudible 12:00] . [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

You could just be at the table drinking water and eating chicken breast with some plain seasoning, just bumping along and staying hydrated. I’m sure that happens occasionally.

Dave, I’ll tell you, I have done that. I’ve done that before. It’s fun for 15 minutes, and then, it’s like, “Man, I would really like a margarita right now.” [laughs]

David TaoDavid Tao

Hey, you know what, being a not elite athlete myself, I balance too much in the other direction, sometimes.

Being an elite athlete myself, like further away from competition, I balance a little bit too far on that side also.

David TaoDavid Tao

 I think a lot of people who are elite and athletics, there is a work-hard-play-hard mentality. If you go that intense in your training and your preparation, when you are going to let loose, you’re not going to half-ass letting loose, or at least, you’re not going to tend to half-ass that, right?

Absolutely. That’s an interesting topic that you could talk for forever on. It’s like that work-hard-play-hard mentality. You could even go so far as to say, like, “What is this pursuit of performance?” because it’s somewhat obsessive.

 

Then, you could make the argument that it’s just a variation or an offshoot of addictive behavior. It’s like, “Why do some people gravitate so hard towards stuff like that, and then, in their offseason, why do they tend to do, like, drink more heavily, party more heavily?”

 

When you’re so focused on something, like I was saying earlier, where there is no balance, it’s either 100 percent on or nothing, the problem with that approach with a lot of people and something that I’ve struggled with in the past is when you’re 100 percent on, your ways are focused in a 100 percent on, but you lack the ability to dial it back to 75 percent in an offseason.

 

It goes from, either 100 percent all the way to nothing. I know people that struggle with that. It’s big in the bodybuilding scene. I’ve got more familiar with it just training at Dragon’s Lair and living in Las Vegas.

 

I have friends of mine that…Being a local in Vegas, you know a lot of people that are at the clubs and whatnot. I do too. I have some friends that are going out three or four days a week and it’s like, “I don’t know how you’re fucking surviving, man.”

 

It’s a weird balance. This stuff that we do, it’s productive and it’s enriching and it’s fulfilling, but it could be argued to be somewhat an addictive behavior. This learned behavior where it’s like, “I do this thing, I get this thing. I do this thing, I get this thing. I do this thing, I get this thing.”

 

It starts to become an aspect of controlling what you do. There’s value in moderation, but it’s also a struggle to achieve it, too.

David TaoDavid Tao

 I don’t want to go too into the weeds here, but there’s a physiological component of this because exercise creates an endorphin feedback loops in your brain, and you become addicted to that feeling.

 

Sometimes it’s not so much, “Oh, I really want to work out.” It’s, “I know how not good I’m going to feel, how not good my brain is going to feel if I don’t work out relative to if I actually trained.”

Yep, exactly.

David TaoDavid Tao

It becomes this pattern matching that you have to do a certain number of times per week.

Learned behavior, dude. I know, we don’t want to get too into the weeds, but it’s dopamine and fucking neurotransmitters. You know how bad you’re not going to feel if you don’t work out that day.

 

Remove the working out as the variable, it’s like, “Well, I know how bad I’m going to feel if I don’t take that bump of cocaine or that energy drink or that whatever. If X is working out, then act like, why could be this?” It’s the same learned behavior of anything. It’s figuring out which avenue that is going to be the healthiest and the most productive way of doing things.

David TaoDavid Tao

We’ll get back to the conversation in just a moment, but first, a quick shout-out to our episode sponsor, Athletic Greens. It’s the daily all-in-one supplement with vitamins, minerals, probiotics, adaptogens, and more to help your body perform at the highest level.

 

It mixes easily, tastes delicious, and is a personal favorite way for me to start the day. Visit athleticgreens.com/barbend to check it out. Now, let’s get on with the show.

 

As humans, we lean on heuristics about what’s going to make us feel good. You hope that a balance of healthy eating and activity in moderation is going to get you there, at least, you’re going to fall into something sustainable.

 

Let’s take it in a slightly different direction. I want to take it outside of the Vegas mindset for just a second, as much as I want to stick with that. Let’s talk about the current state of powerlifting. This is a sport that…Man, you blink and it changes, when it comes to federations, when it comes to who’s doing what.

 

I’m a little bit removed from editorial at “BarBend” these days because we’ve hired people who frankly are much more talented than I am. I’m not involved in the day-to-day content production for a while, like, “Oh, this person squatting this, this event just got announced here, this federation’s doing this.”

 

When I plug back in, more on a weekly basis now, I’m like, “Damn, this is moving so quickly.”

 

It’s been probably a year and a half, two years since we chatted. What about the current state of powerlifting really jazzes you up and fires you up in a good way? What about the current state of powerlifting maybe gets you a little bit down in the dumps?

I don’t want to sound like a broken record. A lot of my answer is going to be like a similar-sounding answer as to what I would have said a year and a half or two years ago because it’s ongoing issues. Starting with the bad is how fractured the state of powerlifting is. Like I said it just now, I’m doing the USPA Pro Raw Championships this September. It was formerly the WRPF Showdown, the past two years.

 

It switched federation because there was somewhat of infighting and just disagreements in terms of what direction that should go in and whatnot. The problem with powerlifting or one of the main problems with powerlifting that is limiting what it could be is the inability amongst people that are organizing the meets to collaborate with one another.

 

I can’t remember if we talked about this. I feel like we did. If you’re familiar with the abundance mindset versus the scarcity mindset where the abundance mindset is like, “Hey, if I win and I help other people win, everybody’s going to win harder.”

 

A rising tide raises all ships. There’s more than enough to go around for everyone. We can all succeed if we all not pool our resources, but understand that, this person’s success does not take away from my own success versus the scarcity mindset, which is very, like, “I need to get mine and protect mine and fuck you because if you are not with me, you’re against me.”

 

It doesn’t even have to be that malicious. There’s this limit or this barrier that prevents people from collaborating or trying to lift up the collective. There seems to be quite a bit of that in powerlifting these days.

 

That’s the biggest thing that at least on the untested side of powerlifting, that’s what people struggle with because it limits the growth of the sport because then you end up having certain lifters will only go to these certain meets because it’s my friends or they treated me well and they didn’t treat me well last year.

 

Or my friends said that these guys are dicks, blah, blah, blah, so I’m not going to do that. It’s just this weird little infighting type shit that prevents the growth as a whole, but in terms of the positive, there seems to be a push to get away from that.

 

As imperfect as it is, there seems to be a resurgence of people viewing the sport in terms of the abundance mindset. It’s exciting because I really have to give a shout out to the American Pro, which just occurred about two or three weeks ago. It’s a WRPF meet. It put theme to push everyone towards one location. It was one of the biggest meets that I saw.

 

I wasn’t able to be there because it was the same weekend Brianny competed in USAs, but it seemed to be an actual professional level of production. It seemed to not be just about how they could make the federation look good, or they could make the meet look good. It seemed to come down to this is for the lifters and it’s making the lifters experience the best it could be.

 

There seems to be a bit more willingness to collaborate with one another in order to bring up the entire experience of powerlifters in general. Because after this meet, I spoke with Micah Marino. I don’t know his title, but he’s one of the main players on the WPRF side.

 

I tend to lean more towards the USPA. I don’t dislike the WRPF. I just had some disagreements with the way that they were approaching their pro powerlifting circuit this past year. Speaking with Micah, he took my feedback from over a year ago and the feedback of everyone else who was dissatisfied with the way it was organized.

 

They seemed to be trying to innovate and trying to make things better, and not just make things better for the WRPF. From speaking with Micah, he was very, very willing to collaborate and communicate with the USPA side and other sides and be like, “Hey, let’s start organizing our meets so that it’s not like there’s a big WRPF meet on September 12th, and then a big USPA meet on September 18th. Let’s try to space these things out.”

 

I don’t know if this is actually going to happen. I don’t know how far this is going to go because it’s going to require the willingness of the opposing side to communicate and collaborate as well. At least, in my discussions with Micah and my conversations that I’ve had with them, I feel a bit excited about it.

 

It seems promising that we might be able to have a little bit more cross-federation communication and a willingness to [inaudible 23:43] back and forth between them so that everyone can have a better experience rather than one federation being like, “Well, we just want people here and fuck everything else.”

 

David TaoDavid Tao

Are you going to host the Peace Summit in Las Vegas? Everyone’s going to fly in. You’re going to rent a venue. It’s going to be like the accords. Everyone shakes hands. It’s a photo opportunity. You in the middle, holding their hands while they’re shaking. I’m thinking, you know what I mean, like what are ’70s Peace accord things?

I keep thinking about it because I actually recorded a podcast yesterday with Omar Isuf and Eric Helms if you know those guys. We talked about the history of powerlifting. I don’t know how familiar you are with it, but the raw unity meets, do you know what those were?

 

Back in the day, it was a meet that was unsanctioned. It was cross federation. Everyone was invited. There was a set standard of rules, and it didn’t matter what fed you lifted in. There was only an entry fee. It was invited only.

 

It was where the best of the best showed up to compete and prove that they were the best of the best regardless of federation, regardless of affiliation, and regardless of equipment. This was back in the day when single-ply was much more prevalent than raw powerlifting. Everybody took the equipment off and competed with one another. I have a dream.

 

I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to do it because I’m already stressed as is. I have three different professional ventures that I have my fucking hands in right now. I’m busy all the time, but I really wish in three to five years if I could somehow find the funds, the means, and the allies, maybe the Micah’s of the world, maybe the J.P. Price’s of the world.

 

If there is this willingness to collaborate, I definitely think Las Vegas would be a very, very interesting place to hold something like a raw unity meet one day. I have no realistic plans of doing that, but it’s this idea that I would love to see take off in the future if at all possible, so who knows?

David TaoDavid Tao

I think it needs to be in late July. It needs to be in the sun, in the desert, a little bit outside [inaudible 26:09] .

Death Valley.

David TaoDavid Tao

There needs to be just a rack, a single rack in the middle of Death Valley.

In fact, why don’t we coordinate with EDC, and we’ll have a dual event…

 

…where it’s like EDM concert, a bunch of people on Molly and Ecstasy, and then powerlifting right here. I think that would go over really well.

David TaoDavid Tao

You’d finally have an audience for powerlifting.

 

You would finally get the spectators that federations have wanted for a long time.

Absolutely.

David TaoDavid Tao

You could set up a separate stage. I think EDC has a bunch of different stages, right?

They do.

David TaoDavid Tao

They have The Chainsmokers playing here. They have David Guetta playing here. I don’t know. I don’t actually follow this stuff. If these aren’t actual people that play there, I’m sorry. I’m old. I don’t listen to this stuff.

 

It’s accurate enough to be convincing. Cool.

David TaoDavid Tao

I’m not Gen Z. I don’t know. I don’t know how all this stuff works. I don’t go to cool concerts. Man, I’ve been to two Billy Joel concerts this summer.

Good.

David TaoDavid Tao

That’s my life.

That’s awesome, though. Billy Joel, fucking rocks. You’re going to hate this because it’s my parents, but they came out here. I went to a Billy Joel concert because I got them tickets as a Christmas present, so they came out here, fucking loved it. It was great.

David TaoDavid Tao

I took my mom to a Billy Joel concert last month, made her freaking year, made her year.

That shit’s fucking bomb, dude.

David TaoDavid Tao

I’m also going again myself without her later this month just to clarify. [laughs]

 Awesome. Good. That’s awesome.

David TaoDavid Tao

Anyway, I think it should be a separate stage at EDC with just powerlifting. You know what? People would probably enjoy it.

 In all reality and in seriousness, the way that some of these players in powerlifting have been communicating, there seems to be a little bit more willingness to collaborate. I’m really hopeful that one day in the next two to three to five years, I don’t know, there’s going to be one meet that occurs, where it’s not going to matter the federation or the affiliation.

 

It’s just going to be like this is the place to go to have head-to-head matchups. I’m hopeful that that’s going to happen. It’s looking like it might. Even if it turns into the meet that that is, might be the American Pro, or it might be one of the USPA Pro versions. It’s going to depend on a lot of variables.

 

I’m confident. I’ve said it recently. I genuinely believe that we are currently in the golden age of powerlifting. The positives outweigh the negatives by a mile. It’s because of social media.

 

Because of the willingness of people to critique, it puts the negatives at the forefront. People have that. It’s a negativity bias. We like to complain and talk about the things that are wrong rather than celebrating the things that are right or that have improved over the past years. That’s human nature.

 

I am really excited for the future of powerlifting, especially the way some of these meets have gone and how the lifting is gone. There’s stuff happening that is completely unfathomable, like five years ago.

 

You tell someone five years ago that John Haack has a realistic chance of spotting 800, benching 600, and deadlifting 900 in a full meet. They would laugh at you. That is a realistic possibility soon.

David TaoDavid Tao

Joe, you couldn’t have ended on a more optimistic note. Where is the best place for people to get your own brand of stubborn optimism and follow along with you on social media?

Social media? I am easy to find. It’s just joesullivan_aod on everything. Instagram, TikTok. I never post on TikTok. I still don’t know how to. I literally just watch food videos like chefs stuff on that app. Occasionally, I’m on there. That’s social media.

 

My website is theaodcollective.com, The Adapt or Die Collective. That’s my coaching business. If you guys want to get a hold of me, I definitely recommend using my contact me button on there. It goes directly to my email rather than getting flooded with Instagram DMs or anything. If you want to get a hold of me, email on the website.

 

I have variety of stuff to purchase or talk about if you want to. If anyone ever wants to, just hit me up. I do my best to check all my DMs. I just might not get back to you for a week, or two, or four. I don’t know.

David TaoDavid Tao

 [laughs] Joe, I appreciate you getting back to me. It’s a pleasure chatting with you once again. Really excited as your training ramps up to the meet in six weeks. Sorry, it’s a little more than a few weeks. You know what I mean. Cool.

It’s close enough for me to be stressed about it, but I’m excited.

David TaoDavid Tao

Awesome, thanks so much, Joe. I appreciate it.

Thanks, Dave.