Sean Waxman: Where Does Weightlifting Go From Here?

Sean Waxman is one of America’s most accomplished — and outspoken — weightlifting coaches. The USA Weightlifting Board Member and Waxman’s Gym founder talks about his career and approach to coaching. He also explains the most pressing issue in American weightlifting and shares the story of how he discovered CrossFit, which is one of the most incredible tales we’ve ever heard on the podcast. 

In this episode of The BarBend Podcast, guest Sean Waxman and host David Thomas Tao discuss:

  • Sean’s introduction to strength & conditioning and finding the sport of weightlifting (2:42)
  • His first strength & conditioning business (6:00)
  • Sean’s introduction to CrossFit (it’s an incredible story) (7:37)
  • How Sean defines his coaching style (13:19)
  • Tough conversations with your athletes (16:39)
  • Focusing on the “why” of weightlifting training (21:00)
  • Creating self-reliant athletes (22:00)
  • Why America is still missing in weightlifting (23:15)
  • What happens to weightlifting when CrossFit’s growth slows? (27:19)

Relevant links and further reading:

Transcription

David TaoDavid Tao

Welcome to the “BarBend Podcast,” where we talk to top athletes, coaches, influencers, and minds from around the world of strength sports. Presented by barbend.com. In this episode, I’m talking to Sean Waxman, one of the most well-known and accomplished active weightlifting coaches in the United States.

Sean has been active in weightlifting for decades and he opened one of the West Coast’s first weightlifting-only training facilities. He’s coached athletes at the local, national, and international levels and he currently sits on the board of USA Weightlifting.

Sean is prolific when it comes to coaching, hosting seminars, and working with athletes from a variety of backgrounds and skill levels. In addition, Sean was one of the first dedicated weightlifting coaches to embrace the sport’s growth potential via CrossFit, and he’s had a presence in that community for over a decade.

In our conversation, Sean brings up a fascinating story about how he discovered CrossFit and his immediate thoughts on what it could mean for the growth of weightlifting, both in the US and abroad. It’s definitely one of the more interesting stories to ever come up in a BarBend Podcast recording.

Just a quick reminder, if you’re enjoying the BarBend Podcast, make sure to leave a rating and review in your podcast app of choice. This helps us stay on track in bringing you the best content possible week after week. If there’s someone you’d absolutely love to hear on a future BarBend Podcast episode, let us know in your podcast review.

I personally read each and every review so your suggestions will be seen.

Today, on the BarBend Podcast, we’re talking to an old friend of mine and the name fans of American weightlifting are very familiar with. That is Sean Waxman, creator and owner of Waxman’s Gym and coach to many top athletes and certainly a personality in the space. Sean, thanks so much for joining us today.

 

Sean WaxmanSean Waxman

Thank you, David. It’s an honor as always to chat with the likes of someone of your ilk.

David TaoDavid Tao

 You should hang out with different people. That’s my advice if that’s your response.

Sean, just to give folks a little bit of a background, how long have you been involved in the sport of weightlifting and how long has coaching been your primary, your day job, really?

Sean WaxmanSean Waxman

I got involved in weightlifting because I wanted to coach. I wanted to be a strength and conditioning coach initially after I realized that I would probably kill somebody if I went to medical school. After I walked away from medical school, I wanted to coach. After doing research…Our research back then obviously wasn’t the Internet. This is over 25 years ago.

I realized that the snatch, the clean and jerk were the best tools for a strength coach to be able to learn. Not just snatch, clean and jerk, but all the exercises that surround it to learn it. The squatting and the pressing in my observation nobody does those exercises better than a weightlifter.

We have to do them with precision or else snatch clean jerk won’t get better. I said, “OK, I got to learn this stuff.” For me, I’m a kind of all-in guy. I said, “I’m going to be a weightlifter, so I can really get a deep understanding of these movements and how to teach them how it feels and what it does to the body, all that stuff, so I could be a better teacher.”

That’s why I started weightlifting, actually. I gave up football. Football was a path that I was on. I needed someone to fill that void, where I wouldn’t have crippled. I was having some neck stuff. Weightlifting was just…it checked a lot of boxes for me. I came out to California in ’94 to start grad school to learn the biomechanics of weightlifting.

I studied with John Garhammer, I think one of the best biomechanist in the history of the sport. I might be…I’m probably biased. I know I’m biased, but he was definitely the most influential biomechanist in this hemisphere. And to study under, who at the time I thought was the best coach in the country, Bob Takano. He was a science guy, biology guy. I was a biology guy.

I read some articles from him early on that made sense. He was talking about weightlifting in a way that made a lot of sense to me. Talking in the language of science. I said, “This is probably going to work.”

I came out, drove out to California and started this journey 25 years ago, and became weightlifter and a student of biomechanics. It was cool. At the same time I was coach. Soon after I came out, I got a job working as the strength coach for Los Angeles City College, men’s basketball.

From that point on, I worked my way through different coaching jobs, professional level, college level, high school. I eventually opened up my own strength conditioning business, which is Pure Strength, a million years ago.

About 10 or so years ago, when CrossFit came into the scene, my goal was always to open up a weightlifting gym, because that was my first love. I wasn’t sure of the condition, don’t get me wrong, but I love weightlifting the most. There was no opportunity. There’s no way I was going to have a business which was just selling snatch, clean and jerk.

When CrossFit hit my radar it was a weird sequence of events. I realized this was time, this was the moment that I was talking of, now we’ve got to seize this moment. I took a chance and opened up Waxman’s Gym, which was at the time, I believe — now, somebody might dispute me on this, and I welcome the dispute — but I think it was the first weightlifting-only gym.

All I did was snatch, clean and jerk. I didn’t have like, I wasn’t on the back of a CrossFit. It was a stand-alone building, towards snatch and clean and jerk. That was my only income. I think I’m the first guy that did that, but I don’t know.

David TaoDavid Tao

What was your first perception of CrossFit? I’ve talked to a lot of different coaches, a lot of the weightlifting coaches in the US and even internationally right now who have big programs.

They’ve got a lot of lifters, they’ve got international level athletes, they’ve got youth programs. They all had different impressions as far as this this CrossFit thing. Everyone’s perception of it right now is generally thankful, because they wouldn’t be in those positions if CrossFit hadn’t grown awareness of weightlifting.

If you talk about that first impression, some people are like, “Oh, I thought it was the coolest thing.” Some people are like, “Can you get a load of this crap?” Where were you on the spectrum?

Sean WaxmanSean Waxman

I know the exact moment when I first saw CrossFit. Mike Burgener contacted me 10, 11 years ago, whatever it was. At the time the only way that coaches could make a living — not a living, but make money teaching weightlifting — was the courses, the certification courses that USA weightlifting, were giving.

There weren’t a lot of them to give, as there weren’t a lot of people interested. I talked to Mike Burgener and he says, “Man, I’m teaching these weightlifting certifications for this thing called CrossFit.” He said, “It’s crazy, these people are nuts about weightlifting.”

He says, “They can’t get enough of it.” I was like, “What the hell are you talking about?” He says, “Yeah, they having their major competition,” which was the CrossFit Games, which was the second one in enrollments at the Ranch.

David TaoDavid Tao

It was 2008?

Sean WaxmanSean Waxman

What’s that?

David TaoDavid Tao

This is 2008, the second ever CrossFit games?

Sean WaxmanSean Waxman

Yeah, that sounds about right. He says, “You’ve got to come up.” He said, “I’ll introduce you to the guy that owns it and he started it, and all the people that are involved. You’ve got to come and check this out.” I was like, “Sure,” so I did. I drove up to the Ranch and parked my car…I really have very vivid memory of this.

I parked my car and those of you that haven’t been there, there was like a huge open area where you park your car. There was this little bit of an incline up and then it goes down and there was the event. You park, you really can’t see much. I parked car and I walked over and I came down.

The first thing I saw, the first thing, it was like this roped-off area. It had 10 or 15, maybe 20 people on the dirt with mats doing clean and jerks. I said, “Holy shit, I haven’t seen 15 people ever in one space doing clean and jerks, and they’re paid to do it.”

I said, “Holy shit, now this is the time.” My first impression was like, “Oh shit, I think I can teach weightlifting for a living,” because they needed help, obviously. Back then it was terrible.

It’s come so far now. I said, “Oh shit, this is going to be my opportunity.” On the way home, I stayed at the weekend, it was great. That’s where I met John Welbourn and spent a lot with coach Glassman, and Dave Castro, it was great. I got a chance to really bond with those guys.

On the way home I said, “All right, I’m going to shake hands on this conditioning business,” which by the way, I was killing it. I was making a ton of money with the strength and conditioning business. I said, “I don’t care.” I’ve never was a money-motivated guy, anyway. I said, “I’m stopping that, I’m rebranding. I’m going to teach weightlifting.”

David TaoDavid Tao

This is all over the course of one day, this happened?

Sean WaxmanSean Waxman

Dude, it happened within 30 seconds. I saw that and I said, “OK, now it’s time.” Look, I had this vision. I can’t talk about how I got the vision. It’s a G-rated show.

I got this vision in ’95. I knew exactly what I wanted…No, actually, it was before, that, it was like ’93. I knew exactly what I wanted. It’s like my mom tells a story. The first time they came out to visit me in California, they were sitting in the living room. I was in the kitchen, where I was living.

I was telling my mom, “I want to open up a gym, the weightlifting-only gym. I’m going to teach weightlifters and I’m going to coach coaches.” My parents looked at each other and they said, “Oh my God, we’re going to be supporting him for the rest of our lives.”

David TaoDavid Tao

[laughs] They’re very patient parents. I’m sure it was cathartic to eventually prove to them that hey, this could be a business, this could be a thing.

Sean WaxmanSean Waxman

One thing my parents know about me is, if I say I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it. That’s the kind of person, the kid I was, kind of the man I am. They were surprised because it was very off the beaten path.

But they would expect that from me because I never did anything that I should have done, or that everybody else does, so par for the course.

David TaoDavid Tao

Let’s talk about coaching style. You are someone who I’ve gotten the pleasure to know over the past few years as a broadcaster doing color commentary, working on other projects at events. Fortunately or unfortunately, I’m a little bit old now, but I’ve never been coached by you.

I don’t know firsthand what the Waxman coaching experience is like. How would you describe your coaching style? How would that compare to some of the other styles or general coaching approaches that people might be familiar with, especially in the United States?

Sean WaxmanSean Waxman

 It’s a good question. My coaching style is long-term [laughs] . I’m not a yeller. People must think I can scream and yell. I don’t know the last time I raised my voice to somebody. I don’t know if I have a style. I focus on what I need to get done.

The thing that drew me to weightlifting is the problem-solving part of it. My brain’s constantly going. I’m looking at what I’m seeing and I’m figuring out the angles, and I’m figuring out what’s the best approach? I’m not a ra ra guy, either.

I think I got that from Takano. He’s not a cheerleader. I’m not a cheerleader. If you’re expecting fire and brimstone, you’re not going to get it from me. I expect my athletes to be motivated. I’ll kick you in the ass when I have to, when you need it.

If you can’t bring a certain level of commitment to the sport with you, I’m not going to give it to you. I don’t know what my style is. You’ve got to ask my athletes, man.

David TaoDavid Tao

That’s a fantastic point. You’re not going to be objective about yourself. That’ll be cool.

Sean WaxmanSean Waxman

I am who I am. I’m 50 years old, man. This is it, I’m not changing now. I don’t know. I’ve had a pretty good relationship with my athletes, other than a couple [laughs] that have left under tumultuous circumstances.

People tend to stay at my gym. Once they join, they don’t leave. Maybe that tells you everything you need to know.

David TaoDavid Tao

Here’s a question that I’ve actually never asked a weightlifting coach before, but it’s something that I’ve been told by a weightlifting coach. I’m curious as to your perspective on it. If you have to have these conversations — and weightlifting coaches do have these conversations.

You’re a realistic guy, where you have to tell an athlete, “Hey, maybe your hopes and dreams, maybe that elite level you think you’re going to get to, maybe it’s not a reasonable expectation. Maybe you’re not going to be an Olympian, maybe you’re not going to be an international team member. Maybe you’re not going to be a national champion. Maybe you’re not going to be nationally competitive.”

How do you approach those sorts of conversations with those athletes, people who might come in with lofty expectations and they need a little bit of a dose of reality? You’re someone who’s always told me in our conversations, you’re always told me things very straight.

I’m curious how you approach these conversations with athletes, because I know it’s something that every coach has to do. Anyone telling you otherwise, saying they’ve never had this conversation, that’s a bunch of baloney.

Sean WaxmanSean Waxman

It’s an interesting question. I look at that a little bit differently. If you’re going to do this sport — I’m talking about weightlifting. I’m not saying this is unique to weightlifting, but weightlifting has some unique things to it. To come to this thing every day, to put in the work and to sacrifice, all the stuff you have to do.

Everybody’s got to have the “why.” Why are they doing it? It’s more than a medal. It’s not the medal. What’s the thing? What’s your why for coming? That’s what I try to keep my athletes focused on because you really don’t have a lot of control over those other outcomes. “Am I going to make the Olympic team?” Because you don’t have control over that. Either three or four spots and you’re the fifth best lifter, you did all you could do and you didn’t make it.

It’s really not about the outcome. It’s really about the process, because that’s where the benefit of the experience lies. I really try to keep my athletes focused on the process. Their whys rather than the outcome. I can say with pretty fair certainty that the chances of anybody becoming an Olympian are slim to none.

That shouldn’t be a carrot that’s been dangled out there. Until you know, you don’t know. A lot of shit can happen. It’s a red flag to me if somebody comes in to my gym the first day and says, “I’m going to be an Olympian.” They’re focused on the wrong thing.

They should focus on about showing up tomorrow, and then we’ll worry about them showing up the next day. Because that’s what most athletes can’t do. I’ve never had to have that conversation to be honest. I’m not lying to you.

I think that it’s dangerous…Nationals and things like that differ. A kid, “Oh, I want to play in the NFL.” All right, well how about you want to make your high school team?

If you haven’t made the nationals yet, let’s not talk about the Olympics. You make the nationals, great. Let’s talk about making an international team. If you make that international time, then we can start to think about it differently. It’s OK to have that thought in your head, but what’s the next goal? What’s the next step in the process?

I think that keeps people focused on the right things and it aligns their goals and it clarifies their whys.

David TaoDavid Tao

That makes a lot of sense.

Sean WaxmanSean Waxman

What’s that?

David TaoDavid Tao

That makes a lot of sense. It makes a lot of sense. Think about it sequentially. You can’t skip steps two, three, and four between one and five.

Sean WaxmanSean Waxman

No. I try to set it up to where the athletes can…They can color in their own coloring book and they figured it out themselves. What I want to do is I want to create self-reliant young men and women. They don’t need me to hold their hand through the whole journey.

They’re going to need me to steer the car a little bit so they don’t whack into the tree, but they’re not going to need me to drive that car. That’s what I strive to do because that to me is the greatest gift you can give them, is this confidence and this self-reliance. Not that I’m absent, I’m a 100 percent present. I’m building the road, but they’re driving on the road.

David TaoDavid Tao

Let’s take it out to the macro scale a little bit. You serve on the Board of USA Weightlifting.

Sean WaxmanSean Waxman

I do.

David TaoDavid Tao

 I know that weightlifting’s development in the United States is something that you are particularly passionate about. It’s something that you spend a lot of energy, and waking hours, probably some sleeping hours. I’m sure you dream about it, too. You’ve been witness to that over two and a half decades in various forms, now in a very intimate level.

What do you think the US is doing correctly in weightlifting right now? What do you think is still missing? Could be at the organizational level, could be down at the local level or among small clubs. What do you think is still missing in the United States when it comes to competitive weightlifting?

Sean WaxmanSean Waxman

I can think of two very big areas, and I take these things from our mission statement, because every organization has a mission. Our mission is twofold. It’s a competitive edge. It’s to develop competitive excellence and it’s to promote and grow weightlifting in the United States. That’s essentially the two parts of our mission.

The first part of our mission, to improve competitive excellence, we’re doing a better job now than we probably ever had done. Under the guide of Phil Andrews — because certainly, those other people — I don’t want to curse the other gentlemen that were before him, not such a great job. But Phil has done a great job improving our competitive excellence.

David TaoDavid Tao

Just give context for folks listening who might not be familiar with the governance of USA Weightlifting, Phil Andrews is the CEO of USA Weightlifting and has served in that capacity since roughly 2016, end of 2015 early 2016.

Sean WaxmanSean Waxman

He also had influence before then on our events when he was the event coordinator. He did a really good job getting our events to be better. He definitely had some influence even before he became CEO. He definitely was a catalyst in taking care of the competitive excellence part.

The second part of our mission is to promote and grow weightlifting in the US. To me, it’s a little bit of a mystery. I don’t know what we’re doing with that, because for a number of different reasons…I’m involved with a number of businesses in the barbell space.

I’ve got to pay attention to what’s going on. I’ve got to recognize trends. I’ve got to recognize threats and opportunities. I’ve got to act appropriately based on what the environment tells me.

I’ve been getting this feedback from a number of different places that our membership numbers are not growing like they were. Our coaching course participation is definitely down from five years ago.

Gyms are having a hard time staying open. Some people thought that once our competitive excellence was better, that now it trickled down into growth, and it hasn’t. I’m saying, “OK, what are we doing for that?”

This is a big concern of mine, especially now, because we looked at CrossFit, which really if you think about it was our number one third party promoter. USA Weightlifting did not really do a good job promoting themselves because they didn’t have to. CrossFit did it.

We had this huge exposure because of CrossFit, which is great. That’s changing now because CrossFit’s moving away from the elite performance. They’re moving towards the average person, they have their videos now. It’s people getting off the couch. The models in the video are older people. I’m involved with a lot of CrossFit gyms, a lot of influencers and CrossFit.

They’re telling me that they’re not recommending the Olympic lifts anymore, for general fitness. Not because they’re against them, it’s just because they don’t necessarily need their complexity for the average person.

David TaoDavid Tao

It has to be the most useful. Are you going to get the most bang for your buck to teach a 70-year-old how to do the squats, or maybe how to do a really good bodyweight squat? What’s going to be more effective there?

Sean WaxmanSean Waxman

Right. From personal experience, the majority of people that come to my gym now are not coming from CrossFit, whereas 10 years ago it was only CrossFit. Our number one promoter is changing its focus and we see some of these numbers of gym owners having a hard time with keeping the gyms open.

Our numbers are down on some of the metrics as far as coaching course stuff and membership growth. I’m thinking, “What are we doing to promote?” I’m going to a board meeting this weekend, I’ll find out a little bit more. I’m not saying we’re not doing anything. I’m saying, I don’t know what we’re doing.

I’d like to know what’s our plan? What are we going to do with that plan? What’s our message, all that stuff. I don’t know the answer to that, which I’m hoping we can figure that out as a board, because I think we’re going to need for the first time, we’re going to need to take the reins and take control of our own destiny. We can’t rely on a third party to do that.

David TaoDavid Tao

Sean, I really appreciate you taking the time to sit down and discuss some of these questions, big and small, and weightlifting, and the surrounding environment. I definitely want to make sure we get the opportunity at the end of the conversation here, to chat about where folks can follow along with the work you do, with work at Waxman’s Gym, and some of the other cool projects that you’re involved within the strength training and weightlifting spaces.

Sean WaxmanSean Waxman

Absolutely.

David TaoDavid Tao

Where can folks keep in touch with you and follow along with what’s going on with you, your athletes, and Waxman’s Gym? What’s the best place to do that?

Sean WaxmanSean Waxman

Waxman’s Gym if you’re in LA, we are located in Los Angeles. It’s Lawndale, which nobody knows what Lawndale is. We are in LA. We’re online at waxmansgym.com, on Facebook and Instagram, and all that good stuff. I’m one of the instructors for USAW for their level one. That’s always on USAW website.

We’re doing our coaches’ course, which is our own method. We have really good feedback that people really like. It’s to teach people about how we teach. It’s for coaches, and our next one is November 15th to 17th and it’s three days. It’s pretty intensive. The last thing I’m involved with is Training IQ, which is customized online, down to your phone programming.

It’s customized to whatever problems that you’ve got. We take that into consideration. The program is designed specifically for your weaknesses. It’s been pretty cool. We just partnered with RP, Renaissance Periodization, where the two of us work together. They’ll be shredding them up and we’ll be making them snatch, clean and jerk better.

David TaoDavid Tao

[laughs] That’s a potent combo there, Sean.

Sean WaxmanSean Waxman

That’s right.

David TaoDavid Tao

Sean Waxman, thank you so much for your time. I look forward to touching base in person, whether it’s at a weightlifting event, doing color commentary, or maybe at a hotel bar or restaurant in the very near future for a big event.

Sean WaxmanSean Waxman

Are you going to Thailand?

David TaoDavid Tao

I will not be in Thailand. I won’t be in Thailand this year, but I’ll definitely see the AO finals. You’re going to that, right?

Sean WaxmanSean Waxman

I am. I will have athletes, so maybe you and myself and junior, we can do something. We can bring the band together.

David TaoDavid Tao

[laughs] That sounds dangerous but good to me. Well, Sean Waxman, thanks so much for joining us. Always a pleasure.

Sean WaxmanSean Waxman

Thanks, David.