Review: Westside Vs the World Is the Perfect Powerlifting Documentary

The long-awaited documentary delivers for powerlifting fans (but probably not for anyone else).

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“It’s a bunch of violent, mean motherfuckers that aren’t kind or gentle in any way.”

“Westside was a cult.”

“They were the crazies.”

The name Westside Barbell evokes images of rattling chains and monstrous dudes bleeding while they max out, but to the average powerlifter the gym is still pretty mysterious. What exactly is it that makes the place so powerful? Why are so many world record holders forged within its walls?

After years of development hell, which included launching a kickstarter campaign after one of the developers stole production funds, Westside Vs the World is finally available to stream or watch on Blu-ray.

[See our list of the 12 best strength sports movies, ranked]

For diehard powerlifting fans, this film will be a godsend: no other movie has ever dived this deeply into the sport of powerlifting. Bodybuilding has the Pumping Iron and Generation Iron films, strongman has Born Strong (among others), but powerlifting remains a niche sport. Director, writer, and producer Michael Fahey has brought out the big guns for powerlifting’s coming out party and his film includes interviews with Ed Coan, Mark Bell, Dave Tate, Dave Hoff, Laura Phelps, Amy Weisberger, and of course the enormously influential founder of Westside Barbell Louie Simmons.

Simmons takes center stage throughout the film and as it follows him, with an impressive array of archival photos and film footage, from his childhood (he worked as a mason at age twelve) to his stint in the army, his time as an Olympic weightlifter, his discovery of Soviet training methods, and how it all led to a career as one of the world’s most influential strength coaches. As we learn more about Simmons we learn more about powerlifting, a sport that grew and evolved alongside — and in no small part because of — Simmons himself.

The births of the Conjugate Method, single ply, and multi ply lifting all unfold as Westside pumps out record holder after record holder, but if you’re tuning in to learn about the drama behind the gym you won’t be disappointed — its chaotic inner world is put on full display.

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Image via Westside Vs the World / Gravitas Ventures / Michael Fahey

The rise and death of his volatile protégé Matt Dimel, who made Westside’s first world record with a squat of 1,010 pounds and later died of a drug overdose. The infamous split between Westside and another of Simmons’ longtime students and world record holders Chuck Vogelpohl. Brandon Lilly’s dramatic departure. Greg Panora’s dramatic departure. There’s a lot of drama here, to the point where it’s not unfair to say that juicy gossip is a cornerstone of the film.

Westside Vs The World moves chronologically and while it’s a terrific look at the history of powerlifting and at Simmons himself, it falls a little short once it lands in the present. These days, according to Simmons, Westside is “5 percent powerlifting and 95 percent sport,” and it shows that his gym has been coaching athletes like boxer Stipe Miocic, CrossFit® athlete Sam Briggs, and mixed martial artists Kevin Randelman and Jessica “Evil” Eye.

The film spends much of its time discussing the evolution of strength and the big three but little time exploring how powerlifting exercises have exploded in popularity in practically every other sport, which would have given the film a greater sense of completeness.

Image via Westside Vs the World / Gravitas Ventures / Michael Fahey

But at its heart, it’s a story about Louie himself. A hardass all the way through, his best quote comes at the film’s close as he’s pondering his mortality and his desperate wish to still be able to compete.

What else I got? I’m hooked onto that white whale. I go nowhere else to go, what else am I going to do. I’m gonna go down with that white whale. He’s gonna drag me to the bottom eventually. And I don’t’ care, that’s what I want.

It’s well edited, the music is great, and the cast of characters is perfect. That said, this is not a film for people who aren’t interested in powerlifting — there’s just not enough mainstream appeal. It’s more for folks whose eyes will widen when they see Ed Coan shed tears. If you’ve been lifting long enough to hear the words “Westside” or “Conjugate Method,” you’ll be rapt.

Buy the Blu-ray on Amazon or stream Westside Vs the World on YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, or Google Play.

Featured image via Westside Vs the World / GravitasVOD / Michael Fahey