“They just came out of nowhere. I mean, this band just put out an album and it will revolutionize the music industry for years to come!”

If you follow music, you'll hear something similar to that quote. However, if you play music in a band or know someone who does, you know that the real quote should be more along the lines of: “They started in their garage. They learned how to play as individuals and then as a group. They developed their style and learned how to compose music. They practiced their tails off for years and years playing every hole-in-the-wall club there was, and after building up enough of a fan base, writing enough great music, and learning by trial and error, they got to play for a record company. Well, that didn’t pan out, so they did the same thing for another four years. This time it worked. They made an album and a few people bought it. They toured around the country for ten months, sometimes playing three shows a day, and then some DJ played their single on the radio. Now, they actually have enough money to buy a van with air conditioning to travel in. Fast forward another two grueling years and a new record and boom—it's a legit hit.”

For people close to the band, they know what it took to get there. But to Joe Blow, “They just came out of nowhere. I mean, this band just put out an album and it will revolutionize the music industry for years to come!”

The same thing happens in powerlifting. If you're someone fortunate enough to train at a powerlifting gym, you'll see this. You'll see that guy or girl training for years and years, putting in the time and getting strong(er) and strong(er) with the gym numbers get bigger and bigger. In fact, after years and years of training, some days their training numbers are right up there with the big boys and girls at their big meets. But alas, just like the difference between the band practicing in their basement versus playing a huge concert in front of record company executives, there is a difference, a world of difference between a guy or gal smashing weights in the comfort of his or her own gym and doing so when the pressure is on and all the variables of a meet are contrary to what the gym lifter is used to.

MGG tire flip mike strom 071514

So first off, very few gym lifters get to the point where they're putting up huge, big boy or girl numbers. Even fewer are putting together those big numbers and totals in the big meets. This is more rare than you might think, as we see big meet results all the time from those few standout names. But if you think about it, for every one of those big names, there are a thousand guys/girls who fill out the rest of the meet. It's a pyramid of powerlifting. The elites, the few, stand atop the pyramid, but the base of the structure is comprised from the hundreds and thousands of folks hoping to one day total elite or maybe win that big important meet.

There are many obstacles in a powerlifter's path. The biggest obstacle is getting that great gym lifter to be able to do his thing but in the big meet. For those reading this who are under the impression that if you can put up big numbers in the gym, those numbers will be a given in the big meet, you have a long way to go on your powerlifting journey.

My goal with this article is twofold. I want to show that being a great gym lifter takes years and that this is actually the norm (it only seems like great lifters are an overnight success). I also want to show that turning those big gym numbers into meet numbers takes a far different skill set and that is the mental part of training beyond the training programs, nutritional programs, and all the physical aspects of the game.

Since my first meet back in 1989, I've trained with countless powerlifters—most good, a few really good, a rare few who are great, and the precious few who are legendary. One of the lifters in this group who stands out is a powerlifter I've watched closely for some years now.

Mike Strom is, in my mind, a perfect illustration of a powerlifter who has, over some sixteen years of training, put together the right combination of training knowledge, unmatched work ethic, consistency, passion, natural lifting talent, and competitive drive to develop into a truly great gym lifter. However, there was an essential and final component that he needed for success, one that was right in his grasp yet oh so elusive. This component, when combined with the aforementioned, transformed Mike from a successful gym lifter into a successful meet lifter. It was the component of perspective and retrospective with regards to seeing the meet as a similar yet vastly different creature altogether than training at the gym. I feel it is Mike’s journey as an overnight success, some sixteen years in the making, that can serve as a guide to help you as a reader to the next level in this game of power that you, too, love so much.

With all that said, this is my conversation with Mike Strom, 2014 APF Senior Nationals winner and best lifter and top fifty all-time American bencher in two weight classes.

MGG deadlift meet mike strom 071514

Eric Maroscher (EM): Mike, many reading this might know about your benching prowess because you're in the top fifty all-time American bencher list for two separate weight classes. But for those reading this who don't know you, can you walk us through the following the weights and weight classes that got you on to this very prestigious list?

Mike Strom (MS): So far, I've benched 562 at 181 pounds and 628 at 198 pounds. I feel that these are good but not great. I feel honored to be a part of these lists, but I also know that I have much more in me. I also realize that I require a good bench to succeed, especially because the deadlift is a major struggle for me.

EM: Mike, as a gifted bench only competitor, you've actually power lifted for years and years. When did you actually begin competing?

MS: I began competing in the bench only in 1998, some sixteen years ago, but I always trained my squat and deadlift. I did my first push/pull fourteen years ago and my first full meet ten years ago where I totaled 1485 at 181 pounds.

EM: So you've been in the power game in some form or fashion for sixteen years with really good training numbers. Your most recent win was a huge one. You won first place at the APF Senior Nationals with a talent packed division and took best lifter as well. Because I know you so well from the MGG, I know that your gym numbers are some of the best 198-pound numbers out there. I also know that for some time those gym numbers didn't materialize on the platform. I see this at meets quite a bit. This is a common occurrence. I think lifters feel that if they train like mad and have a great program, both of which you do amazingly well, that will turn into big meet numbers. However, we know that this isn't the case. Walk the readers through how seemly “all of a sudden” you went from being a great gym lifter to winning such a huge meet in a division that was packed with the top 198-pound lifters from all over the United States.


MS: Eric, it has been a long process for me because I'm a stubborn SOB! I feel that I let my ego dictate my actions too much for too long. I knew my capacity and felt that I had to show what I could do at a meet. I put too much pressure on myself. I would open too heavy, choose attempts poorly, and go 100 percent too often in the gym rather than trust in my training and abilities to shine through on meet day. As is often the case, those who display confidence seldom actually have it. When you're truly confident, you have little concern about how you appear in the eyes of others. In my opinion, this isn’t something that you can force, but having great training partners who you truly respect and who respect you and your abilities goes a long way. At least that has been my experience. The numbers I’ve hit recently have been within my grasp for a good three years, but I had to learn to do things differently to actually post these numbers.

EM: So Mike, break it down for the reader out there who is stuck where you were. What are the ingredients or steps if you will?

MS: First, I had to develop absolute confidence and belief that I had earned those lifts beyond any doubt in my mind. Second, I had to experience failure to accurately and honestly assess myself. A major hurdle for me was consistent squat depth. Another was attempt selection. Third, I had to adapt my training to account for technical mastery of the competition lifts. Essentially, at some point, you need to realize that powerlifting is only partly about strength training and largely about practice and execution under adverse conditions. Being strong is simply not enough to warrant success in geared lifting.

Finally, I had to learn to compete again. One of the negative side effects of the proliferation of federations in our sport is a watering down of true competition. When you become accustomed to winning without the serious threat of losing, it becomes difficult to stay in touch with the killer instinct required to truly compete. This is why I enjoyed training more so than competing for a long time. My experience at the APF Senior Nationals required me to flip this switch to on, and I’m extremely thankful for the depth of talent that I faced that day, as it brought back competing at the competition rather than in training for me. I respected my competition enough that I knew I had zero margin for error that day, so I had to be much more careful and calculating in my attempt selection. In short, I made decisions with my head rather than with my heart. I hope this will help other lifters gain insight into any struggles they may be having. I went through my share of meet day disappointment and I feel incredible relief to see the other side again!

MGG mike strom awards david kirschen 071514

So just like the appearance of the awesome rock band that you were so sure you discovered, that band had already been on the road working on their musical chops for years. By the time a lifter like Mike Strom becomes a top fifty all-time American bencher or the best lifter at the APF Senior Nationals, he's put a lot of miles on his Chucks.

If you're a beginner or intermediate powerlifter, take heed in this knowledge, as the road can be long and there isn't one thing wrong with earning your numbers over time. Lots of powerlifters talk about what they'll total but never do. Or they open huge to impress, but without a total, a huge opener is less than impressive. Those lifters who discuss their poor meet showing with a could’a, should’a, would’a fall into the same category.

Mike is an illustration. There are other great meet lifters out there who model for us that it isn't just slow and steady that wins but slow and steady with a great plan, superior work ethic, some experience with failure, and the ability to learn the vast difference between lifting big numbers at the gym and lifting big numbers at a big meet when the competition is keen and the pressure is huge.

Don’t get caught up in the numbers of the high squatters in your gym. Stick to the plan and learn from your successes and failures. Rome wasn't built in a day and neither are big meet winners.

To illustrate this point of ‘things take time,’ here is a list of Mike’s meets and those meet numbers starting back some sixteen years ago to the present. The road to success looks different for everyone, and often those truly great lifters make it look so very easy. For every powerlifter who looks so polished, powerful, and at ease at the meet, know that he was once a powerlifter struggling in the gym, perhaps just like you. Powerlifting has always been and will always be about the journey, not the destination, as there will be many destination points along the road that is this amazing journey.

MGG Mike Chain Box Squat 071514

Mike Strom Meet History

  • August 22, 1998: Teen division 181-pound class, bench press 240 pounds
  • October 17, 1998: Teen division 181-pound class, bench press 248 pounds
  • January 31,1999: Teen division 181-pound class, bench press 237 pounds
  • April 24, 1999: Teen division 181-pound class, bench press 275.5 pounds
  • July 17,1999: Teen division 181-pound class, bench press 305 pounds
  • October 24,1999: Teen division 181-pound class, bench press 330 pounds
  • March 12, 2000: Teen division 181-pound class, bench press 315 pounds
  • May 21, 2000: Teen division 181-pound class, bench press 335 pounds
  • May 21, 2000: Teen division 181-pound class, bench press 335 pounds
  • July 22, 2000: Junior division 181 class, bench press 275 pounds
  • September 17, 2000: Junior division 181-pound class, bench press 350 pounds; deadlift 450 pounds
  • December 9, 2000: Junior division 181-pound class, bench press 355 pounds
  • May 20, 2001: Junior division 181-pound class, bench press 375 pounds
  • September 21, 2001: Junior division 181-pound class, bench press 380 pounds
  • November 18, 2001: Junior division 181-pound class, bench press 355 pounds
  • March 10, 2002: Junior division 181-pound class, bench press 320 pounds
  • August 12, 2002: Junior division 181-pound class, bench press 400 pounds
  • May 17, 2003: Junior division 181-pound class, bench press 390 pounds
  • July 19, 2003: Junior division 181-pound class, bench press 415 pounds
  • August, 9, 2003: Junior division 181-pound class, bench press 425 pounds
  • October 25, 2004: Junior division 181-pound class, bench press 440 pounds
  • February 15, 2004: Junior division 181-pound class, bench press 460 pounds
  • April 18, 2004: Junior division 181-pound class, bench press 455 pounds
  • May 15, 2004: Junior division 181-pound class, bench press squat 530 pounds; bench 450 pounds; deadlift 525 pounds; total 1485 pounds
  • July 17, 2004: 181-pound class, bench 480 pounds
  • October 30, 2004: 181-pound class, bench 450 pounds
  • February 13, 2005: 181-pound class, bench 50 pounds
  • May 14, 2005: 181-pound class, squat 600 pounds; bench 460 pounds; deadlift 490 pounds; total 1550 pounds
  • October 29, 2005: 181-pound class, squat 610 pounds; bench 510 pounds; deadlift 470 pounds; total 1590 pounds
  • January 15, 2006: 181-pound class, bench 520 pounds
  • February 18, 2006: 181-pound class, bench 520 pounds
  • May1 3, 2006: 181-pound class, squat 590 pounds; bench 525 pounds; deadlift 530 pounds; total 1645 pounds
  • May 21,2006: 181-pound class, bench 555 pounds
  • July 15, 2006: 198-pound class, bench 580 pounds
  • August 12, 2006: 198-pound class, bench 600 pounds
  • November 11, 2006: 181-pound class, bench 545 pounds
  • January 20, 2007: 181-pound class, bench BOMB
  • Marc h 18, 2007: 181-pound class, bench 585 pounds
  • September 1, 2007: 181-pound class, bench 529 pounds
  • January 26, 2008: 181-pound class, bench 562 pounds
  • March 16, 2008: 181-pound class, squat 617 pounds; bench 551 pounds; deadlift 529 pounds; total 1697 pounds ELITE TOTAL
  • July 12, 2008: 198-pound class, bench 600 pounds
  • November 8, 2008: 198-pound class, squat 685 pounds; bench 580 pounds; deadlift 535 pounds; total 1800 pounds ELITE TOTAL
  • January 31, 2009: 198-pound class, squat 760 pounds; bench 606 pounds; deadlift 562 pounds; total 1934 pounds
  • April 25, 2009: 198-pound class, squat BOMB 733 pounds
  • June 27, 2009: 198-pound class, squat 766 pounds; bench 573 pounds; deadlift 534 pounds; total 1874 pounds BEST LIFTER
  • September 12, 2009: 198-pound class, squat 722 pounds; bench 567 pounds; deadlift 534 pounds; total 1824 pounds BEST LIFTER
  • March 21, 2010: 198-pound class, squat BOMB 727 pounds
  • April 18, 2010: 198-pound class, squat 683 pounds; bench 545 pounds; deadlift 567 pounds; total 1796 pounds
  • June 27, 2010: 198-pound class, bench 611 pounds BEST LIFTER
  • August 14, 2010: 220-pound class squat 727 pounds; bench 628 pounds; deadlift 578 pounds; total 1934 pounds ELITE TOTAL
  • March 20, 2011: 220-pound class, squat 771 pounds; bench 617 pounds (American record); deadlift 584 pounds; total 1973 pounds BEST LIFTER
  • June 26, 2011: 198-pound class, squat 777 pounds; bench 578 pounds; deadlift 523 pounds' total 1879 pounds
  • March 24, 2012: 198-pound class, squat 705 pounds (opener only); bench 567 pounds (opener only); deadlift 551 pounds (opener only); total 1824 pounds
  • August 25, 2012: 198-pound class, squat 670 pounds (opener only); bench 575 pounds (opener only); deadlift 550 pounds (opener only); total 1795 pounds
  • December 15, 2012: 198-pound class, squat 804 pounds BOMB
  • August 3, 2013: 198-pound class, squat BOMB
  • March 23, 2013: 198-pound class, squat 793 pounds; bench 589 pounds; deadlift 578 pounds; total 1962 pounds
  • July 6, 2014: APF SENIOR NATIONAL 198-pound class, squat 782 pounds; bench 628 pounds; deadlift 578 pounds; total 1989 pounds 1st PLACE, BEST LIFTER