Travis Mash is one of the most influential figures in contemporary American weightlifting, crafting athlete after nationally competitive athlete at his North Carolina gym Mash Elite Performance. During his long career in strength he’s been a world champion powerlifter, competitive weightlifter, and at one point he was even recruited for the U.S. men’s bobsled team. He’s spent the last fifteen years coaching every level of weightlifting and honing his methods to produce world class athletes, and BarBend caught up with him to talk accessory work, weightlifting culture, squat jerks, and more.
BarBend: You’ve competed in both powerlifting and weightlifting at the elite level. What are some of the cultural differences you’ve found between those two sports?
I think powerlifting seems to be a lot more friendly. Backstage it felt much more like we had much more in common than it was a competitive atmosphere. In weightlifting, especially at Nationals, I guess we’re all vying for international teams or it’s like Team Mash Mafia is trying to beat Cal Strength who are trying to beat Juggernaut, it’s more competitive. There’s not a lot of joking around in the back.
When training weightlifters, what are some of the most noticeable differences between Junior and Senior athletes?
It’s way different. It’s more about how you relate with them. Juniors are entering a unique era of their life where they’re starting to question authority, starting to question everything, and if you don’t get that Junior early and you take him on later — say you get someone when he’s 18 — it can be a real challenge. It’s like breaking a wild horse. Especially for a male, it can be challenging.
But all in all it’s pretty fun, they seem to have a lot more fun in the weight room, they’re still laughing a lot. With Seniors it becomes more of a business, as there’s a shorter window to make their dreams come true as far as Olympics and Worlds team. They’re not laughing and joking around as much as the younger guys.
What about with regards to training protocols?
Juniors are at an age is when their testosterone is peaking, so I take that era to build hard, I go heavy more often, frequency is much higher because their bodies are at peak for that. As you get older, things to start slowly diminish and you have to start being wiser. So Juniors are really at the time to go at it, go heavy, get as much of those Junior gains as you’re gonna get because I noticed all the way until that first year of being a Senior, those guys are gaining kilos and size every year. It’s easy to be stronger, and you won’t ever get that back. The key is to do that without getting hurt.
Let’s talk squat jerks. We’ve been seeing a lot of videos of CJ Cummings performing heavy squat jerks and we were wondering how you decide which jerk is best for an athlete.
I haven’t talked to his coach but I’m assuming that one of the reasons has to be that CJ can find himself in some pretty awkward positions when he does that split jerk, where his shoulder is getting strained. Most people’s torsos are straight up and down, his torso goes more of a diagonal direction so that really puts a lot of strain on the shoulders and on the back. So I’m assuming if he’s got the mobility to do that squat jerk then I would go with that too because it’s gonna be safer. Longevity is the key: how long they can keep going without getting major injuries will determine how well they end up doing as Seniors.
So the main factor is the torso?
Yeah. To put it simply. if the butt goes way behind the shoulders in the catch of a split jerk then the arms and the shoulders are going to have to accommodate for that, which means the shoulders are gonna have to be a lot more mobile. If you look at CJ’s jerks his arms are further back than most people because he has got a diagonal torso. You’ve got to keep the weight over the center of mass. That can put a lot of strain on the shoulders, and already in weightlifting in general there can be a lot of strain on the shoulders.
The other pat of that is you have to have great mobility. Luckily, he’s very powerful so that helps. But the power jerk and squat jerk on average aren’t as high percentage a lift as the split jerk. You have to think about that too, but I’m sure Ray (Jones, Cummings’ coach) has thought of all that.
Your site talks a lot about a “powerful neural activation technique” that can instantly increase your strength. Can you tell us what it is?
Really it’s Post-Activation Potentiation. It’s not something I invented, it’s something I use more than most people.
For example, the most common way you can do it is if you want to set a PR in the squat you can perform a heavy walkout. Let’s say you want to get 400 pounds in the squat. You can perform a walkout with 420 first, hold it 15 seconds, rack it, wait 30 seconds, then squat 400. What happens is the muscle fibers will remember the most recent weight that’s handled. That’s about as simple as I can put it.
We do do that too. It works people’s rate of force development. It’s squats and jumps, but we also do like a heavy pull with snatch, or heavy jerk dip squat with a jerk. There are all kinds of ways that we’re experimenting.
I used it a lot as a powerlifter, I’d warm up with bands. I’d work up to a heavy single or double with green or blue jump stretch bands, which are super heavy. At the top of the movement, I’d end up going way past what I was going to do with straight weight. When I took bands off, my body was prepared to handle weight greater than I was about to max out on.
Your site also talks about an “Eat what you want, lift what you want” nutrition program. That sounds a little like an “If It Fits Your Macros” approach to dieting, is that accurate?
It is, but we try to be a little more healthy. I’m not gonna say pop tarts are just as good as eating healthy carbohydrates and protein, it’s not. We’re definitely not going to jump on the bandwagon tell you to eat donuts eat pop tarts. There’ a time and a place to enjoy yourself, but all macros aren’t the same.
Obviously you need protein, but you’re gonna need carbohydrates for fuel. For some rason, carbohydrates in the past few years have gotten a super bad rap, which is ridiculous. You need energy to get through grueling workouts. In weightlifting or any other sport the person who can perform the most work efficiently is the one who’s gonna end up winning.
[Does tracking macros drive you nuts? Here are 6 tips to make it way simpler.]
Do you stick to 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight?
We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. As far as protein, 1 gram for every pound of bodyweight is reasonable. We don’t try to get crazy. Some people in the past have recommended 1.5 or more. There are a lot of studies out there that contradict each other but from most of the literature that I’ve read that I trust, 1 gram is about as much as the body’s gonna be able to assimilate.
As far as fats or carbs it really becomes an experiment. Some people handle fats more efficiently than carbs and vice versa. The best way to find out is spend a few weeks eating more carbs than fats and then try the other way round and take note every time you eat: thirty minutes later, do you feel a burst of energy or do you feel more tired? If you have a burst of energy, that food’s gonna be used best.
Do you focus on micronutrients very much?
One of our sponsors is MG12, so magnesium is a big one. As far as recovery and especially for sleeping, it’s so good. Did you know mixing magnesium with epsom salts in a bath improves recovery better than epsom salts alone? One opens up the pores for the other. It’s crazy.
Let’s switch gears: why do you feel hypertrophy is so important for weightlifters?
The easiest way to get stronger is to get your muscles bigger. You can only work on efficiency so long until you have to get the muscle bigger. Every one of our blocks contains some form of hypertrophy, even down to the last 4 weeks before competition. The focus becomes more strength of course, but there are still elements of hypertophy. Watch Chinese weightlifters, they’re doing lateral raises and dips the week before they’re going to compete.
What do you think are the most underrated accessory exercises?
We love our belt squat machine. We’re lucky enough to have a good relationship with Louie Simmons and he actually gave us one. It’s great because you don’t always load the spine. If someone’s starting to get overtrained they can do belt squats and not load the spine. We have over 60 exercises that we give to our athletes, so I love that machine for a million reasons.
Glute ham raises, they’re another one. I don’t know about every day, but I know if you’ve got a weak pull, I’ve watched people do that 3 days a week every week, in 6 weeks they go from having a weak pull to one of the most vicious pulls in the gym.
So I’d definitely say glute ham raises and belt squat would be my two go-tos for weightlifters.
[Check out our favorite accessory exercises for overhead performance here!]
Speaking of glutes, do you guys use hip thrusts very much?
I love them. I’ve used them ever since I was a powerlifter. I know a lot of powerlifters give them a bad name, but I used them and I was a world champion powerlifter so they were pretty good. If your glutes aren’t working your knees’ll hurt, your back’ll hurt, everything hurts. All of our athletes use them. Hunter Elam uses them three times a week and she’s had really good results.
Cool! Thanks so much for your time.
This interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.
Featured image via @coachtravismash on Instagram.