Zack Telander: Weightlifting Vs. CrossFit (and Lifting in America)

Weightlifter, coach, and YouTuber Zack Telander joins us to talk about transitioning back and forth between CrossFit and weightlifting. Zack also talks about setting realistic goals for weightlifting athletes, along with changing the paradigm of which sports are “worth it” in American culture. Zack also gives his thoughts on dealing with weightlifting data and the most underrated coach in American weightlifting.

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

  • Zack’s background in strength sports and finding weightlifting (1:50)
  • Taking weightlifting to YouTube (3:30)
  • Sharing an alma mater with multi-time CrossFit Games Champion Mat Fraser (4:05)
  • The benefit of having weightlifting as a background in CrossFit (6:20)
  • Zack’s current weightlifting goals — and setting realistic aspirations (7:30)
  • “The sacrifice becomes greater and greater…putting on an additional 10 kilos, that’s more and more sacrifice to my free time, to actually coaching people really well” (9:50)
  • What Zack has learned about weightlifting through content production (11:00)
  • The amazing amount of nuance in weightlifting training and technique (12:32)
  • Early feedback from followers online — and a lot of hard-to-swallow pills (16:00)
  • Deleting all his CrossFit vlogs (17:00)
  • What weightlifting demands beyond technical skill (20:00)
  • CrossFit’s impact on other strength sports moving forward (22:00)
  • Changing the paradigm of which sports are “worth it” (27:30)
  • What Zack would change about weightlifting and changing the “back end” of weightlifting data (28:12)
  • The most underrated coach in American weightlifting (30:02)

Relevant links and further reading

Transcription

Zack TelanderZack Telander

But now, we have the children of crossfitters, we have kids who are growing up with parents who have snatched and clean and jerk. Even though it’s just a hobby, even though the parents still go to a nine to five, they know what weight lifting is, they know what the gym is like, they know what real training is like.

Regardless of what people say about CrossFit it really is real training I mean you get people back squatting, jumping, running you can’t argue that that is much more effective than going to a Globo Gym.

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 weightlifter, weightlifting coach, and YouTuber Zack Telander. Zack is a coach for Juggernaut Training Systems in addition to being a nationally competitive heavyweight lifter. He’s also built one of the fastest growing YouTube followings in the weightlifting sphere.

We talk about transitioning back and forth between weightlifting and CrossFit. What it takes to put up nationally competitive snatch in clean and jerk numbers and where Zack thinks the sport is headed in the United States and beyond.

Also, I just want to say we’re incredibly thankful that you listen to this podcast. If you haven’t already, please be sure to leave a rating and review of the BarBend podcast in your app of choice. Now let’s get to it.

Zack, thanks so much for taking the time to join us today. For those who might not be familiar with you and your career in strength sports, give us a little background. How did you first get interested in weightlifting?

Zack TelanderZack Telander

Oh man, it’s a little bit of a longer story. I started lifting weights when I was 14 just like a lot of other teenage kids, but I got into…There was seriously regimented strength training obviously in high school football, and then I ended up getting a scholarship to play at the University of Vermont.

That was much more regimented, so I actually got into strength there. After I graduated I felt like I still had some more of a potential as far as strength and fitness goes. Like a lot of washed up collegiate athletes, I started doing CrossFit.

I got interested in being a coach from there. I became a CrossFit coach. Then that ultimately led into weightlifting. I had a definite weightlifting bias because I was finding success, snatching and clean and jerking.

I got a bunch of different certifications. I found out that I didn’t really like being a CrossFit coach. I wanted to do strength and conditioning at the collegiate level. That was where I kind of stopped weightlifting. Stopped really caring about CrossFit, and just wanted to focus on education.

I did two internships at…one of them at the Northwestern University and the other at Texas A&M University. They were both very arduous internships.

Actually when I was at Texas A&M, I started weightlifting again. Then my internship kind of ended there. I wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted to be in strength and conditioning anymore.

 

That’s about the time I started making YouTube videos and started focusing on my own weightlifting. I’ve sort of built something out of that. I hope that answers your question.

David TaoDavid Tao

No, that’s good. It does make me think that the University of Vermont is very good at producing strength athletes and crossfitters. I’m thinking of course of Matt Fraser, who I believe is also an alum. Maybe there’s something in the water there.

Zack TelanderZack Telander

Interestingly enough, Matt and I are think are…we were in the same grade or we were in the same class, if you will, but because I was involved in the sports at University of Vermont, we were very secluded.

CrossFit was big when I was in college, or at least, as big as it is now. I didn’t really have many friends outside of my team, if that made sense. I wouldn’t like…there’s no way I would train outside of the regimented training hours.

Looking back on it, it would have been really cool to go up to this guy in an engineering class or something, but I wouldn’t be in an [laughs] engineering class. He’s a super smart guy. To just walk up to him and just start talking to him, I think would be cool. We were the same age.

I think he graduated a little bit later than I did. I think Danny Horan was also at that gym as well, at the same time.

David TaoDavid Tao

Yeah, Danny Horan, another multi-time CrossFit games athlete.

Zack TelanderZack Telander

Right. I just never knew about it. Even then, I started doing CrossFit out after college. I still didn’t know who Matt Fraser was, and then he started winning a lot. Then I realized he was at a, whatever that CrossFit gym is, and I could have gone there.

 

David TaoDavid Tao

I believe it’s Lake Champlain.

Zack TelanderZack Telander

Right. Yep, Lake Champlain.

David TaoDavid Tao

It’s interesting because Matt was a very high level on elite youth and junior lifter, and then moved to CrossFit after that. You found weightlifting after CrossFit. I guess opposite paths.

It just goes to show the different twists and turns that people take in order to find the strength sport they settle into, or at least they settle in because a lot of people will take up new sports as they get older, too.

Zack TelanderZack Telander

I’ve always been a fan of Matt Fraser because his movement is so good. That’s because he was a classically trained Olympic weightlifter, Olympic style weightlifter before doing CrossFit. I’ve always admired him as an athlete for sure.

 

David TaoDavid Tao

It’s always funny when you watch the CrossFit games or a CrossFit competition, and Matt, obviously moves extraordinarily well with a barbell, especially in the Olympic movements.

I’ve heard people exclaimed, “Where did he learn to lift?” It’s like, “Well, he learned to lift in Vermont as a youth athlete over the course of 10 years and spent a lot of time with the barbells.” It’s not like he picked up CrossFit and a few months later was snatching like that. You know what I mean? He grew up with a barbell in his hand.

It just goes to show what kind of importance, or what kind of impact that movement pattern can have when you’re young. No question on his Olympic weightlifting. That’s always been a strong part in his game.

It’s interesting to talk because I don’t think we’ve ever chatted in person before, but I believe I’ve done Color Commentary on some sessions where you’ve competed in weightlifting. One that comes to mind was the 2018 American Open finals. That was about a year ago as of this recording.

You had a 305-total at the AOE finals that year. How are your lifts and numbers feeling these days? Just to give folks a sense of where you are and how your training’s been going?

Zack TelanderZack Telander

I just competed about a month ago and I did a 315-total. I’m about to compete this weekend at the American Open. I’m hoping to eclipse 315 and getting into the 320s.

David TaoDavid Tao

 I’ll hold you to that because I’m running the Color Commentary schedule. If I’m not on that session…This episode will come out after that competition. If I’m not on that session, I’ll make sure whoever’s on that session knows, Zach Telander, call him out. He has to beat 315 in the total.

Zack TelanderZack Telander

 [laughs] Yeah. That’ll be good. That’ll add some good motivation. I’m excited though. I really am. This has been a crazy year of training for me, man. I’ve put in a lot of work.

David TaoDavid Tao

How many times a year do you generally compete?

Zack TelanderZack Telander

I try to do like four or five, but my main concern is going to be coaching. It’s interesting. The more and more intense my training goes, the harder and harder it is to be a coach and an athlete. I’ve never been elite in weightlifting by any stretch.

I’m looking to crack maybe the top five at the American Open finals, but that step to winning a weight category is so massive. The guys at the top right now, Kaiser Whit and Kane Wilkes, they’re looking at trying to get 400-kilo totals.

That’s obviously going to forever be out of reach for me. For me, it’s like, if I can keep improving on my total every year, I want to keep doing that. The issue is the sacrifice that it takes becomes greater and greater.

To put on another an additional 10 kilos, that’s more and more sacrifice to my free time, to coaching people well. I love the sport as an athlete, but I’m 29. It’s not like I’m a spring chicken. I’m not an 18 year-old who has a big quad ahead of him. I know where my place is, but this has been a really crazy year. That’s all I can say. As far as training goes, it’s just been nuts.

One thing that I think folks might know you best for, is the content you push out on YouTube. You have a pretty big following. It’s how I first came across a lot of what you were doing, was via YouTube and social media. You’re someone who’s really pushed I’d say the envelope a little bit.

I don’t mean that in like a weird, or extreme, or like click baiting way necessarily, but pushed the envelope a little bit as far as what weightlifting content can be, in giving a look inside the gym and the life of an athlete. Coach, what kind of spurred you to start creating that content, and what have you learned about the sport of weightlifting through producing content for YouTube?

Well I think it starts with being a weightlifter, and teaching yourself these things, and like I’ve said, making continual sacrifices. It really shapes you as a human being. When you look at my YouTube channel I’m growing as a person.

A lot of the things that I say on that channel I’m really trying to tell myself. That growth has really led to my process on that channel. There are very few things that are absolute in this world. Obviously gravity is absolute. Right? You know that the weight on the bar…

 

David TaoDavid Tao

You can make an argument either way. I’ve heard some people argue some strange things in this sport.

Zack TelanderZack Telander

[laughs] Matt’s always said like, “You can try arguing against gravity. Jump off a building and see how that works.”

David TaoDavid Tao

It’s still just a theory. It’s still just a theory.

Zack TelanderZack Telander

Right, right. You know the weight is always going to be the same, no matter what room you’re in, no matter what place you’re in. Outside of that, we try to systematically approach everything, and weightlifting is no exception. What I try to do is say there’s a lot of nuance to be seen. In just two movements, the snatch and the clean and jerk, there is a lot of nuance.

My goal for my channel is to explore that nuance. Not only as someone who can appear as somewhat of an authority, but as someone who’s actively learning. I’ll give you an example. Something like bending your arms, in either of the lifts — in the snatch or the clean. That is, to many people’s knowledge, an absolute no. Right? Why?

Are we to say that it absolutely across the board has to be that way? I’ve seen a lot of elite athletes bend their arms. I’ve seen a lot of elite athletes not bend their arms. There is nuance to be seen there, and how am I exploring that?

That’s all I’m trying to do on my channel, is say, “Hey guys. Here’s what’s working for me. Here’s something I’ve explored recently. I’ve implemented it here, here, and here usually with coaching and being an athlete myself. Let me know what you think. Let me know if this helps you.”

Sometimes people are like, “Wow, this is amazing.” I’d say actually oftentimes people are like, “Wow, this is really great. Thank you so much.” Other times people are like, “Hey, Zach, this is complete bullshit.”

That’s great too, because then I’ll learn my lesson and try to come at it from a different angle. That’s really all I’ve done since I started this channel. Really, that’s it. I’ve done it long enough now to grow some sort of a following.

David TaoDavid Tao

What are some of those moments where people have called you out, or called BS on something? You did change your approach, your perspective, or the way you thought about a particular aspect of weightlifting.

Zack TelanderZack Telander

Oh man, it’s hard to think of a specific time right now. I get a lot of comments.

I really, really do. Honestly, the weird thing about getting a lot of comments is that you really do focus on the negative ones, even though a vast majority are going to be positive.

David TaoDavid Tao

Right, because that’s just the way the human mind works. You’re more worried about what you’re doing wrong than reinforcement for what you’re doing right.

Zack TelanderZack Telander

What you’ll find is, people who consume your content, they want to be on your side. Because they’ve just spent time, they’ve spent a portion of their lives consuming your content. They want to feel secure in that decision, so they’re going to root for you. It’s really great. You get this nice community behind you. I think times where they’ve called me on my bullshit.

Well actually, to start off the channel, not many people know this. This is a really funny story. After the strength and conditioning stuff, I was thinking I’m going to get back into CrossFit. I started doing blogs of my CrossFit. I had a lot of cool cinematography, cool music, a bunch of different stuff. I tried posting it to Reddit one time. I posted it to the Reddit CrossFit page.

One guy was like, “Hey man. So this is the thing. There’s really no story here. We don’t know you, we don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish. You’re not particularly good looking like any of the mainstream crossfitters. You’re not particularly that good. So it’s hard for us to latch onto you if neither of those things are happening.”

First off, I was like, “Hey man, screw you. I’m not that ugly.”

David TaoDavid Tao

[laughs] That’s always the first response. First off, I’m not that ugly. Second, to your real point…

Zack TelanderZack Telander

Yeah, I basically was upset with that. One of the things this anonymous commenter said was, “Hey man, what are you good at? Why don’t you just like… Do you have professional level knowledge in something? Can you tell us about it?”

I was like, “Oh, dude, weightlifting. I know how to coach the snatch and the clean and jerk. I know that there are issues with the way that it’s taught in a lot of CrossFit gyms.” What I did was that I deleted all of my CrossFit blogs, and I deleted them so no one can see them. Don’t ask for them. No, they’re gone.

David TaoDavid Tao

So if you’re looking to find a place to see some mediocre exercising for time. For someone who…

Zack TelanderZack Telander

Yeah. No, I’ve been asked a lot for these videos.

I’ve told this story before. I’m never going to show anyone them. I actually think I’ve erased them entirely off my hard drive. I immediately made my first YouTube video on my new channel. That was the first one right after that. It was certain aspects of the snatch that aren’t talked about specifically.

I used examples. I had drills. I had a bunch of different things. I posted that, and it got a thousand views or something. For me that was just like, “What? A thousand views. That’s insane.” At that time when I would get a subscriber, I would get an email. I got 20 emails saying I had new subscribers. It was the greatest feeling on Earth. I was like, “OK, let’s keep doing this. There’s a lot more to be done here.”

I continued to push myself in CrossFit just a little bit longer because the Open came up. I actually did pretty well in that Open.

Then after that — I think that was three years ago, maybe two and a half years ago or something like that — I was full time back into weightlifting. I used to bounce back and forth weightlifting, CrossFit, weightlifting, CrossFit. I actually made the American Open Final in 2015. It was way different back then but after that point I went for full on into weightlifting.

David TaoDavid Tao

What are some of the misconceptions…Since you exist in coach at this intersection between CrossFit and weightlifting, what are some of the main misconceptions or misinterpretations you think that crossfitters have of the weightlifting movements?

Zack TelanderZack Telander

I think the refinement is not what meets the eye, a lot of it is physiological. The difference between being able to hit something in training when there’s no pressure and…It’s so much more finely tuned when you want to be a weightlifter at optimal levels and I don’t think people realize that. You can snatch a lot of weight as a crossfitter.

There’s no doubt about it especially if you’re talented, but that is meaningless when you get to a weightlifting meet, and you have to compete. It’s not just about technical skill. It’s about these long drawn out cycles of training that prepare you for this very pointed movement, very specific, and very, very finely tuned.

It’s like the difference between NASCAR and Formula One or there’s similarities. Actually, a lot more similar things than you would expect. Let’s say it like this. Formula One would be CrossFit and then, the drag racing would be weightlifting. The fine-tuned aspect of literally just going in a straight line and being perfect in that four seconds. There’s no mistakes. There’s no chance to make mistakes and come back.

I think what the biggest misconception is that it’s easy or that the transfer from CrossFit. You go to CrossFit or you go to weightlifting from CrossFit and you’re immediately up your total which you might do, but you won’t optimize your total for quite some time.

 

David TaoDavid Tao

You posted a video about a month ago or maybe a couple months ago as of this recording and it was titled “Thank You CrossFit.” I want to talk a little bit about what you think CrossFit impact has been and it will continue to be on other strength sports moving forward.

Zack TelanderZack Telander

Weightlifting as a sport was most likely never going to get into the fitness culture really at all. It’s not an economic. America being this flourishing capitalistic economy, we focus on the sports that make money. Therefore, the sports that make money draw the youth because the youth can get jobs, they can get scholarships at big universities, and then hopefully go on to play pro.

That doesn’t exist in weightlifting or at least it didn’t exist in weightlifting until CrossFit. Crossfit did two things. It exposed people to weightlifting and that exposure has a few branches, but then it also created a system for youth. The exposure starts with really just a massive amount of people who would have never snatch or clean and jerk, now snatching or cleaning and jerking.

It’s as simple as that, but then also it allowed for that need to have maybe a weightlifting facility within a CrossFit gym. Some people want to get better at the snatch and the clean and jerk, naturally because they’re doing them in class so they want a little bit more specific coaching. Some weightlifting coaches have found success opening up their Barbo clubs in CrossFit gyms.

After that, you start to see people transfer over into weightlifting. You start to see people on the world team who made their start in CrossFit, have transferred over into weightlifting, and they would have never been on this world weightlifting team if it weren’t for CrossFit.

The exposure is, it’s right there, but now we’re looking at a system. In other countries, systems just meant we were able to take youth, make them stronger, make them more athletic, and then specify them to a certain sport. Weightlifting was one of those sports.

In America, weightlifting was never one of those sports. We would never specify kids for weightlifting, but now we have the children of crossfitters. We have kids who are growing up with parents who have snatched and clean and jerk.

Even though it’s just a hobby, even though the parents still go to a nine to five, they know what weightlifting is. They know what the gym is like. They know what real training is like. Regardless of what people say about CrossFit, it really is real training.

You get people back squatting, jumping, running. You can’t argue that that is much more effective than going to a Globo Gym. Basically, what’s happened is we’ve created this bridge from one sport weightlifting to this pop culture movement, and that’s CrossFit.

Now there’s hopefully going to be more of a systematic thing in place where, if we are able to see talented kids, we can take them and bring them into wave of thing. It’s happened many, many times. As far as the future, because I think that’s the second part of your question.

David TaoDavid Tao

That’s right.

Zack TelanderZack Telander

What it will continue to do, it’s hard to say. I’m not so sure that the boom is going to be as great, but I also think the damage has been done. Weightlifting is becoming more and more pop culture. What I mean by pop culture is like more like fitness pop culture.

There’s a lot of the mainstream that will never pick up on fitness trends or things like that, but there’s also a massive amount of fitness people who would never know what weightlifting is. Now you have larger voices. You have bigger followings. You can just be a very good weightlifter now and get a lot of traction from that.

We’re seeing that a lot. Guys like West Kids, people like Maddie Rogers, Catherine Nye. Across the board, a lot of these people are getting massive amounts of Instagram followers, sponsorship money where it didn’t matter how good you were at weightlifting 10 years ago no one would care about you.

Regardless of whether CrossFit can continually supply weightlifting with notoriety, if you will, I think the damage has already been done. You can see success in being a weightlifter. Imagine telling a kid who’s very talented at high school.

You can go and play under the lights, or on college football game day in front of 100,000 people for a scholarship for free, but right now, a little Joey, you snatch 150 kilos and you can go to the Olympics, but you’ll be in a dark gym.

No one will know who you are and no one will care about you until you go to the Olympics, but there’s this chance that you might be able to go to the Olympics and get beat by 20 other people. It’s just a no brainer. You choose football.

Now, we can show kids these bigger weightlifters. We can say, “Look at how much notoriety they have. Look at all the…” This sounds petty but look at all the Instagram followers West Kids has. Look at how big of a name he is and he came from a division One AA school, a nothing school.

We are offering a lot more to our youth. That’s just the nature of the business. It’s the nature of sports in general.

David TaoDavid Tao

If you could change one thing about the sport of weightlifting, it could be at the American level, on the national level, or it could be at the international level and just how the sport is contested, what might that be?

Zack TelanderZack Telander

I would like to see more of the objective nature of the sport projected in a refined way. I think that USAW needs to step their shit up and get a refined database of everyone’s numbers and with thorough graphs. It’s a numbers game at the end of the day.

All that matters is your snatch clean and jerk total, and your Roby score, and all of these things. We should be able to click on someone’s profile and see all of these things displayed very thoroughly. I just think the back end should be better. That goes for coaches as well.

If you’re a coach, you should have a profile. You should have your lifters who are registered under your name. Their total should be under that as well. There just should be more data. I think that’s really it. As far as just certain ticky-tacky things, the press-out rule can be or should be fixed.

I’m not entirely sure that it would matter if people were pressing out lifts or not. The most efficient way to lift a barbell is to not press it out, but if you happen to press, I don’t know, maybe that should count as a lift. Certain things like that. Those are my biggest gripes as of right now.

David TaoDavid Tao

Let’s keep this in the realm of American weightlifting right now. Who do you think in American weightlifting is the most underrated, or maybe just they’re not really on enough people’s radar? It could be an athlete or coach.

Zack TelanderZack Telander

Tim Swords is very underrated. He’s had a lot of successful lifters. The most notable being Sarah Robles. She’s a world champion and Olympic medalist. Anytime you metal at the Olympics in weightlifting, you’re pretty much the best.

Underrated weightlifters? It’s hard to say what, because again, it’s an objective sport. You’re going to look at the best weightlifters, and they’re going to be ranked at the top with their Robey scores. I don’t have an underrated weightlifter at that as of right now. Right now, Tim Swords is incredibly underrated as a coach.

David TaoDavid Tao

Makes a lot of sense.

Zack TelanderZack Telander

Debatably the best coach in American weightlifting and maybe even American weightlifting history.

David TaoDavid Tao

Zack, where can folks keep up to date with what you’re doing next as far as content production, your competition schedule, things like that?

Zack TelanderZack Telander

Just my YouTube channel. I’m just going to continue to pump out content and you can follow me on Instagram as well. That’s mainly it. Also, if you’re ever at Meats or anything like that, come up and say, hi.

I love to talk about weightlifting. That’s my passion, [laughs] so it’s not hard to get me to talk to you. If you want to keep up with me again, YouTube and Instagram.

David TaoDavid Tao

For folks who might not be reading the show notes, what are those YouTube and Instagram accounts?

Zack TelanderZack Telander

Just search Zack Telander, Z-A-C-K, T-E-L-A-N-D-E-R, and then the Instagram is, @coach_zt.

David TaoDavid Tao

Awesome. We appreciate your time, Zack. Thanks for joining the show.

Zack TelanderZack Telander

Thank you so much for having me.

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