WATCH: Branch Warren's Desire to Win

TAGS: tanning, training effort, lagging body parts, ronnie coleman, posing, jailhouse strong, branch warren, discipline, training partners, cardio, focus, bodybuilding, Josh Bryant

COACH

I had the opportunity to visit the Wicked Cutz headquarters and sit down with bodybuilding legend, Branch Warren. Not only has he won tons of competitions and bodybuilding accolades over the course of his career, he’s also been tested mentally, navigating obstacles that initially seemed impossible to overcome. Although many of my viewers align more with the strength side of the house, everyone has something to learn from Warren’s incredible journey. From his bodybuilding roots, to advice around nutrition and training, much the story centers around Warren’s mindset and values – hard work, self-discipline, and an undeniable desire to win.

Bodybuilding Roots

When I ask Warren about how he started lifting initially, he dives into his small-town, Texas roots. He grew up on a cattle ranch, where his closest neighbor was eight miles away, and there wasn’t much to do except go hunting and drink beer. However, after moving to Grapevine, Texas for high school, he realized that he needed to put in some work in order to make it onto the football team. He started sneaking into a fitness center to work out – it was there that he met a local bodybuilder who offered to show him how to train. Warren was just 15 years old at the time, but he took him up on the offer, and eventually made the football team.

After some time, bodybuilding competitions came part of many discussions. As Warren explains it, that’s when he was taken to a “real gym” and introduced to the owner. That gym happened to be Metroflex, a training facility owned by Bryan Thompson. Although Warren didn’t have enough money at the time to pay for a membership, Thompson said that if he was able to train him such that he won an upcoming competition, then he didn’t have to buy one. Needless to say, Warren admits that he hasn’t paid for a membership since.

Metroflex was somewhat of a crazy place to start training. Warren explains that the mix of people back then – everyone from bodybuilders, to cops, thugs, and construction workers – often led to fights breaking out at the gym. The rule was that if you got into a fight, then you had to take it outside to the parking lot – the winner got to come back and finish their workout, while the loser had to leave for the day. And yet, despite the sometimes-chaotic environment, Warren emphasizes how fortunate he was to have the opportunity to train with legends in the sport:  Bryan Thompson, Ronnie Coleman, to name a few. From the get-go, he was able to learn proper nutrition and training, thereby creating a valuable foundation for his future career.

School, Work, and Bodybuilding

Although Warren’s initial lifting experience was in preparation for bodybuilding competitions, he quickly incorporated powerlifting into training down the line. Not only did this help him to build the dense, thick muscle that he needed for his physique, but it also solidified his personal training philosophy. He admits that although bodybuilding was his “first love”, with a crazy schedule balancing work and school, he leaned primarily on powerlifting during this time period.

Warren was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, so to speak. He states that he got his first job when he was just 14 years old, and worked multiple odd jobs during his school years to make ends meet. From detailing cars, to mowing lawns, painting houses, driving a delivery truck, and working as a bouncer, Warren did what he had to do to make it through – and he still managed to work out in the process. 

Creating the Total Package

This kind of grit and work ethic extends to Warren’s bodybuilding approach as well. For instance, he tells the story of when he was training for the 2001 Nationals, he didn’t do any formal leg workouts for nine months. He knew that he had great legs, but needed to improve everything from the waist up (with the exception of his chest), if he really wanted to win. He shifted his training focus entirely to the upper body: back, arms, chest, shoulders. He would drag sleds in the parking lot of the gym for some basic stimulation of the legs, but nothing more than to just get the blood flowing.

In the end, he came in 18 pounds heavier for that show, all of which was additional weight in his upper body. When I ask Warren why he decided to go this route, as opposed to being known for having great legs (like a Tom Platz), he says, “I didn’t want to be known for great body parts; I wanted to be known as a great bodybuilder.” For Warren, it was much more about creating the total package that, at the end of the day, would lead to winning.

Role Models

When I ask Warren who he looked up to when he was getting started in bodybuilding, Warren had three role models that pretty immediately came to his mind. He first names Richard Gaspari, noting not only his physique, but also his incredible work ethic. He then cites Dorian Yates, saying that although his physique was not necessarily deemed as “pretty”, it was perfectly symmetrical – a rarity even among great bodybuilders. He adds, “He was beating incredible bodybuilders with beautiful physiques.” Finally, he names Ronnie Coleman. Warren had the privilege of watching Coleman come up from amateur to pro, and become arguably one of the greatest bodybuilders that the sport has ever seen.

As we discuss his role models, I note that there seems to be a common theme emerging. All of these bodybuilders have some sort of background in powerlifting, or at some point started training heavy, compound lifts. They were known for training super-heavy, with high-intensity workouts. Nodding, Warren acknowledges that it’s a theme for a reason – this approach works.

Key to Bodybuilding

I move to discuss a somewhat controversial topic when it comes to bodybuilding: some people claim that bodybuilder form is cheating, but in reality, in-person or on-camera observation reveals that the muscles are working harder. Shaking his head, Warren says, “I take issue with this, because what’s ‘cheating’?” He explains that in a powerlifting competition, lifters are held to certain standards and movements. In bodybuilding, he is not being judged as to whether or not he pauses with the bar on his chest; rather, he is being judged based on how his chest looks.

In bodybuilding, it’s all about getting as much blood as possible to the muscles. Although some people claim that this approach can lead to injury, Warren counters that he never got hurt in the gym. He says, “The key to bodybuilding is intensity.” This means training intensely and to failure, in an effort to get as much blood into the muscles as possible. Nonetheless, this intensity must be paired with proper rest and recovery in order to be truly effective.

In listening to his response, I question whether all lifters can really do this, and ask Warren what his secret is. He responds by saying, “It’s something I learned over the years…I train by feel.” He says that although some bodybuilders are genetically blessed, his gains stemmed almost entirely from hard work. He trained hard, heavy, and intense. He also doubled-up by training high-volume as well, but was careful to allow his body enough time to recover.

Diet and Cardio Strategies

When I ask about diet, Warren admits that he initially tried low-carb diets and found that they didn’t work for him. He explains that he looked his best on high-carb, high-protein diets. He ate lots of gamey meats, like venison, elk, and buffalo, and also consumed some chicken and fish. With the protein, he paired carbohydrates like rice, potatoes, or oatmeal. He notes that he would continue to eat this way right up until the show or competition.

When it came to cardio, Warren recognizes that his habits have changed over time. In the early days of his career, he would do a significantly higher amount of cardio – this is common for many young bodybuilders. Yet, as he grew older, Warren says that he was able to better learn his body, and what worked for him. As it turns out, he found that about 20 minutes of cardio per day was sufficient. Whether that’s walking his bulldog around the block in the morning, or hopping on the Stairmaster, that’s really all he needs.

Mindset and Control

I acknowledge that Warren is not only differentiated by his physique, but also by his mindset. In response, he says, “I never wanted to lose a contest because someone outworked me.” Although no one has control over their genetics, they do have control over a lot: training, diet and nutrition, effort, discipline, cardio, posing, and tanning, to name a few. Warren describes his mindset as going into “concentration camp”, or adopting “tunnel vision”, when it came to preparing for a meet. He refrained from going out, staying up late, or drinking, simply because none of those things would contribute to winning. He exercised an incredible amount of control and maintained a focused mindset. As Warren puts it, “If you’re going to bust your ass, why not do 100 percent? No matter how much you suffer, when you’re the last man standing, it’s always worth it.”

Training Partners

Of course, there are few legends of any sport who can say that they accomplished what they did on their own. Warren acknowledges that he has been very fortunate to have been surrounded by a number of really great training partners over the course of his career. He emphasizes, however, that when it came to training partners, he was less interested in how much strength they could bring to the table. Instead, he was much more concerned about the effort that they put into the workout. In the spirit of “no company is better than bad company”, Warren certainly was protective over his time in the gym and with whom that was spent. Candidly, he says that this is the kind of mindset that is required for anyone that really wants to win.

Advice for New Bodybuilders

When I ask Warren what advice he has for up-and-coming bodybuilders that are trying to get into the sport in today’s world, he first states that it is a different game than it used to be. Indeed, social media creates a whole new component of the sport that never before existed. Suddenly, it’s not enough to just win – bodybuilders today must also put effort into building a fan base, putting on events, networking, and offering up good content. In response, I ask whether he has seen this mindset evolve into “lifting for likes”. Nodding, Warren recognizes that there are certainly guys in the gym who seem to be there more for the perfect selfie, as opposed to their training. It’s a balance that bodybuilders are still struggling to strike.

Nonetheless, Warren says, “My advice to young guys is: be consistent with your diet; be consistent with your training.” In addition to this lesson in work ethic and discipline, he also notes that it’s important how bodybuilders treat their fans. Do they take the time to meet people after competitions? Do they talk to everyone who is willing to stand in line for an autograph at a meet? Ronnie Coleman is a great example of this – although he was an amazing bodybuilder, the world ultimately loved him because of how he treated people. Warren says that he remembers when his bodybuilding idols would take the time to meet him. Now that he has the chance to do the same, he always makes a point to pay it forward. “It humbles me,” he says.

Bringing Up Lagging Body Parts

When it comes to bringing up lagging body parts, Warren is firm in that bodybuilders must be objective and honest in assessing their physique. The truth of the matter is that everyone has weak areas, and they must come up with a plan to actually address them if they ever seriously want things to change. Once a weakness is identified, Warren says, “You need to prioritize that body part.” This may mean changing training styles, nutrition, or rest and recovery methods.

Warren explains that he had his best results when he trained one body part per week. Furthermore, he says that he actually made more progress when he cut his training down to four days per week, as opposed to seven. When he made this switch when he was 18 years old, he took his bench press from 350 pounds to 450 pounds in a year. For him, it simply came down to allowing his body enough time to recover.

Future in Bodybuilding

In terms of professionally competing in the bodybuilding world, Warren is done. He explains that he did his last show in March of 2016, and retired the week that he turned 41 years old. He says, “I always told myself when I was around 40 I’d be done…I wanted to go out on my terms.” As such, he did everything that he wanted to do in the sport; he won everything in the world except for the Olympia.

Although he is no longer competing, Warren is still very much involved in the sport. He promotes a number of different competitions that incorporate elements of strength and conditioning, as well as other sports like CrossFit or wrestling. Readers can check out www.thebranchwarren.com for a complete listing of related upcoming competitions and festivals. Additionally, Warren notes that he’s recently launched his own line of Wicked Cutz Jerky, complete with seven different flavors. Not to mention, he also has his own product line of sports supplements that currently spans 13 countries.

The Great Outdoors  

It’s safe to say that Warren certainly keeps busy, between bodybuilding competitions and running his various businesses. Yet, he somehow finds time for other interests outside the world of bodybuilding as well. He says, “I’m a big outdoorsman…I love to hunt and fish.” Having been raised in Texas, these were activities that he grew up doing, and that he still finds peaceful today. He adds that he has a farm outside of Dallas where he has several horses. Though taking care of them can sometimes be a headache, he admits that he loves to ride – as does his daughter.

Work Ethic

When it comes to his work ethic, Warren says, “Everything I have in life, I’ve learned in bodybuilding. There’s no substitution for hard work.” He is of the mindset that if he wants something, he is going to have to work for it. In addition to hard work, Warren adds that bodybuilding also taught him self-discipline. Achieving anything really great in life requires some level of sacrifice – and it also requires a certain resiliency and grit. Warren quotes Rocky, saying, “It ain’t how hard you can hit, it’s how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” In other words, how many hits can you take?

Warren is no stranger to challenges – he’s torn his bicep, both triceps, and completely detached his quad over the course of his career. Despite everyone claiming that these injuries would be the end of his career, he always managed to keep going. As he puts it, “As long as you’ve got hope, and you’re willing to fight, you can overcome anything.”

Looking his Best

I ask Warren to think back to when he looked his best. In considering my request, he names the 2009 Mr. Olympia competition at which he received second place, as well as the 2011 Arnold Classic. Looking his best, however, required some intentional changes to his approach. Warren says that he tapped George Farah to develop his nutrition program in preparation for the 2009 Mr. Olympia competition. With his guidance, Warren ate more protein and more carbohydrates than ever; over time, he grew bigger and stronger.

Warren acknowledges that there has to be a significant level of trust in order to hand over any element of his programming to someone else. There are lots of good trainers out there, but there is also a fair amount of bad ones. The important thing, he says, is that they can work with an individual and really tailor their program based on how that person’s body is responding. There cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach – good trainers realize that.

Strength and PR’s

When asked about his strongest period in his career, Warren cites the time when he was 28-33 years old. It was during this time that he got very strong, setting numerous personal records during his training. He says that he was able to bench press 495 pounds unassisted for seven reps (with a pause). He was able to squat 10 reps at 675 pounds, and deadlift five reps at 700 pounds. This was just the beginning, considering the strength that he displayed in the different bodybuilding-specific lifts and movements.

It’s clear that Branch Warren's journey transcends the sport of bodybuilding. We all have a lesson to learn in terms of work ethic, grit, mental toughness, and strength. Thank you to Branch Warren for taking the time to share his story with us!

By the Minute

  • (0:45) – Bodybuilding Roots
  • (5:35) – School, Work, and Bodybuilding
  • (7:35) – Creating the Total Package
  • (9:35) – Role Models
  • (12:30) – Key to Bodybuilding
  • (16:42) – Diet and Cardio Strategies
  • (18:42) – Mindset and Control
  • (20:01) – Training Partners
  • (23:10) – Advice for New Bodybuilders
  • (26:58) – Bringing Up Lagging Body Parts
  • (29:11) – Future in Bodybuilding
  • (33:52) – The Great Outdoors
  • (35:30) – Work Ethic
  • (38:45) – Looking His Best
  • (39:44) – Strength and PR’s

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