Chelsea is a raw elite powerlifter competing in the USA Powerlifting federation and International Powerlifting Federations. In 2016 she was ranked #2 in the 72kg weight class in the world with her 492.5kg (1,085lb) total. She broke the open American Record in the bench with a 118kg (260lb) raw bench press in a full-meet. She has won the Arnold in the 72kg class in 3 consecutive years (2014, 2015, 2016) and placed 2nd at USAPL Raw Nationals 3 times (2013, 2015, 2016). Her best meet lifts are 172.5kg (380lb) squat, 118kg (260lb) bench, and 202.5kg (446lb) deadlift. She has been competing since 2013.
Would you say that you have a coaching style, and what do you think the qualities of a good coach are?
I came from a gymnastics background, and I do believe that a high level of fitness and conditioning was a very important foundation for powerlifting. Considering that I excelled in the sport pretty quickly, I am an example of how athleticism translates over to success in powerlifting. It’s not just about being strong. As a coach, I take a holistic approach to powerlifting. In addition to being strong, you need to be mobile. You need to have a decent amount of fitness and conditioning. When I program training, I’m not just programming squats, bench, and deadlifts. I’m programming a lot of other stuff to make you an athlete. That foundation will keep you healthy and will help you have a long career in the sport.
I really try to coach my athletes on proper mentality. For newcomers, it’s very easy to fixate on short-term goals. Many newcomers focus on how fast they can get really strong, whereas I work to instill a long-term goal-setting process and mentality with my athletes. The way to stay level-headed in the gym is by having a long-term goal, not by thinking, what am I going to lift this week, or what am I going to lift this next meet?” It does not matter in the long run what you lift this week, or what you lift this meet. What really matters is what you lift 5 meets from now or 10 meets from now. It’s really important to instill this long-term mindset into an athlete so it keeps them from stressing about the day-to-day and about their next meet coming up in a few weeks. Powerlifting is supposed to be fun and a way to become your best self over years. It’s not about stressing over the short-term. Too many people suck all the fun out of lifting by stressing over their next meet.
I program autoregulation into my clients’ training because I don’t necessarily think you have the same strength levels on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis. We have to autoregulate the weights that we select in order to accommodate fluctuations in strength levels on a short-term basis.
Another thing on mentality: I try to discourage my athletes from fixating on their bodyweight. For people that just get into powerlifting, they start out at a certain bodyweight, and they think they’re going to be that bodyweight forever. A lot of times, you’re going to gain weight from lifting. If you don’t allow yourself to put on muscle mass, then you’re going to hit plateaus and stagnate. I tend to have that uncomfortable conversation pretty early on. If someone tells me, “I’m going to do a meet in six months at my current body weight,” I encourage them to think about it for a second. I don’t want my athletes to hinder their success by fixating on staying in a certain weight class, especially as newcomers (but even as intermediate and advanced lifters). I think that weight manipulation is only something you should think about doing if you’re really at the top and looking to win big competitions.
A good coach is someone who thinks about the whole picture. There are definitely a lot of good coaches out there, but you need to find one with whom you have a good personality match. The ability to have open communication and honest feedback is so important in being able to effectively coach someone.
What’s your best advice for building strength in the bench?
This also has to do with mentality. I think that a lot of women believe they are destined to have a weak bench. So, they go in the gym, and they go just through the motions of bench. Half of the battle of improving on the bench or any lift for that matter is mentality. You need to fully believe that your bench is going to go up and that will cause you to train harder to make it happen. If you think you are destined to be weak, you are probably correct because that attitude will most definitely negatively affect your training.
I was actually one of those girls. I started off benching 115. When I found my powerlifting club, I skipped bench day. I only showed up for leg day, and I always made an excuse for skipping bench day.
I met my now husband and he asked me, “Why are you skipping bench day?”
Anyway, I had a preconceived notion that I was destined to have a weak bench, because women don’t bench much, right? You have to get rid of any mental barrier you have to attacking bench day in the gym. I’m not going to lie, I currently have a mental barrier on squat, so I struggle with this myself sometimes, but I definitely don’t have it on bench anymore!
Wow, I’m surprised you have it with squat, because your squat is wild.
Thank you. I need to hear that sometimes.
So you need to start telling yourself that you’re going to have a big bench, and that you love the bench, and that you’re going to attack your bench training day in and day out.
Another thing that made a huge difference in my bench was finding the perfect technique. I added ten kilos to my bench in two months by figuring out how to squeeze my lats in the setup and tighten my chest on the descent. I went from benching 220lbs (100kg) at a meet in December 2014, to benching 242lbs (110kg) the Arnold in early March 2015. So, that was huge.
Technique is so important in powerlifting. Once you can find that technique that you can dial in for each rep, then you are practicing the same exact movement pattern each time you go to squat, bench, or deadlift. If you do not have consistent technique, then when you train your competition form on bench, you are training with a different movement pattern each time. You could be getting stronger overall, but you’re not getting to improve your competition bench press, because you’re not practicing the same exact movement pattern every time. Of course, we like to use plenty of close variations of the bench press as well, but when your setup and technique is consistent, all of those variations will be carrying over to your competition lift better.
So, mentality and technique are crucial for a big bench.
What intensity do you typically train bench at, and do you have women train bench at a higher intensity than men?
Though there are no absolutes in training principles, it is often true that women typically respond better to higher volumes and frequencies than men do. I train in all intensity ranges, but it really depends on where I am in my training cycle. If I’m doing a hypertrophy block, I’ll stick to the 65-75% range, and I’ll have a lot of reps in there. But I will do this relatively far away from a meet, because I’m trying to build muscle to ultimately have that carry over to bigger lifts.
When I’m getting closer to a meet, I’ll amp it up to 80-90%. So, it really depends on where I am in my training cycle, or in my yearly plan. That’s what guides what percentages I’m using.
However, most times my “percentages” are actually driven by RPE charts. So, if I’m working in the 75% range, I will use RPE charts to determine what amount of sets and reps corresponds to a certain percentage. If I’m in a hypertrophy block, at most I’ll do 7 or 8 RPE with medium to high-rep set sets, but then when I’m getting closer to a meet, I’ll lower the reps I do per set, and use 8 or 9 RPE.
Do you have advice for women looking to put on more upper body mass?
You obviously need to do a lot of bench. You’ll also want to practice the opposite movement of pressing, which is pulling – if you want to improve your bench. I personally do heavy barbell and dumbbell rows. I also do a lot of pull-ups, band pull aparts, and rear delt work. I also do dips and a lot of assistance work for the pressing muscles, in addition to benching with a wide grip, close grip, tempo, long pauses, bands, and chains. I’ll also do overhead press and incline bench.
On a side note, all of the heavy upper back work is also crucial for squatting and deadlifting. In my opinion, the majority of lifters do not do enough heavy upper back work and it shows in their movement patterns on all three lifts.
I do bench overloads as well, so I use some sort of supportive equipment on my chest like a BenchDaddy. This allows me to bench with a full range of motion, while getting accustomed to heavier weight in my hands.
So keep eating and benching! Ok.
Do you feel the need to vary long term training programs much from person to person? Or do you find that most of your programs operate around a similar template?
The thing with templates is that they serve only as starting points. You’ve got X number of bench movements, Y number of squat movements, Z number of deadlift movements in a week. You have to decide how to organize the movements in a week. You have to decide what variations to use to attack weaknesses. You have to decide on how the periodization will work. So we start with a template but the actual training is very individualized based on experience level, injury history, training history, access to equipment, short term goals, long term plan, strengths and weaknesses.
The experience level of the athlete should dictate their ratio of hypertrophy to strength training to peaking, in that order. There’s usually going to be a muscle building phase, there’s usually going to be a strength phase, and there’s always going to be a peaking phase for a meet. Beginners need to spend more time on building muscle, but for people like me who have pretty much maxed out on the amount of muscle they have, we need to spend more time in a strength phase. What’s going to vary is the proportion of time you spend in each of the training blocks.
That said, even though we operate around basic principles, I do strongly believe that anyone who wants to be successful needs to have a coach. It is not just about the template. A coach is so much more than a template. A coach can be objective with you when you cannot be. A coach makes weekly adjustments to optimize your training. A coach can spot areas of improvement that you may not be able to. A coach hears out your concerns, provides feedback, and shares in your good times and bad times.
You wrote that you incorporate elements from your years of your gymnastics into your powerlifting training, what in particular has made the largest impact?
Again, I think that it’s really guided my belief that you need to be an athlete first. When I ignore my conditioning, I can’t do as much work in the gym. The gymnastics really ingrained in me the need for an athletic foundation. Also, I don’t feel good unless I’m mobile. I do my same gymnastics warm up that I’ve been doing since I was ten- and fifteen-years-old every day. I do the dynamic, mobility and stability, warm up that I did then, and I do it now.
What does that look like?
It’s actually called the National Gymnastics Team Warm Up. It’s an official thing. You circle your arms, move your hips around, it’s kind of like dynamic stretching. There’s core activation, jumps, kicking, a bunch of stuff.
I do a slightly modified version of that warm up. There are some things I have substituted with powerlifting-specific warm ups. I don’t run across the floor with my knees up, for instance. Instead I’ll do overhead squats with a PVC pipe. That modified warm up has kept me feeling good every day!
Is there anything about your current programming that you wish you would have incorporated earlier in your career?
Grip work. Upper back work. It’s easy to ignore these things, because a lifter won’t necessarily build grip strength and upper back strength just from doing the compound lifts. You need to be doing pulls and rows because none of the compound movements have you do either of that. And, if you’re like me, with tiny hands, deadlift is not enough to build grip strength.
What’s your favorite grip exercise?
Still trying to figure it out! I mainly practice holding deadlifts for time, and I’m going to start doing one-arm pulls in the rack, so we’ll see how that goes.
Is there anything else that you want to add?
Surround yourself with people that you want to be like. If you can’t find people near you who you want to emulate, remember that we’re in the age of the internet and social media. Reach out to them. Most of us are responsive, and want to help people that are interested in the sport. Your heroes are more accessible than you think.