What I Learned Squatting with Ray Williams

TAGS: unilateral assistance work, Ray Williams, Squat Setup, squat training, John Gaglione, assistance work, warm up


In this day of powerlifting, there is so much information out there it can be confusing which program to be on and where to start. One of the things I personally like to do is learn from athletes and coaches who have been in the sport for a good amount of time and are breaking world records.

We got the opportunity to bring in IPF World Champion and all-time record holder Ray Williams. Ray even matched his WR squat of 1052 right inside our gym walls. It was inspiring to say the least.

I learned a lot from Ray, talking with him and watching him lift. Here are some tips you can take away from my time with Ray.

Importance of Assistance Work

One of the things I thought was really cool was that Ray still does a lot of accessory work — very simple things like leg extensions, leg curls, lat pulldowns, rows, and dumbbell bench. One twist that may be a little different for most is that he makes sure to get in a lot of unilateral work for his assistance work. For example, when doing leg curls or leg extensions, he uses one leg at a time. Sometimes for his dumbbell or machine work, he uses one arm at a time.

Ray believes this really helps keep him healthy and correct imbalances. Many lifters are stronger on one side and may be pushing more on one side. Doing unilateral and dumbbell work can be very beneficial for laying a foundation for more strength in the future.

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There is an old adage you are only as strong as your weakest link. If you only do the competition lifts, you are always going to favor your strong muscle groups and often times not hit the muscles that are actually holding you back. I remember Dave Tate saying something to the effect of, "If your lats can bench 315, your chest can bench 315, and your shoulders can bench 315, but your triceps bench 275, your bench will be 275."

Takeaway Point: In this day and age, programs with lots of frequency and specificity are getting more and more popular. But if you don’t take the time to build your foundation with general exercises, you will only get so far. Remember, you can’t flex bone, so don’t neglect your accessory movements.


Having A Plan

When we worked out with Ray, he had very specific warm-ups and work sets planned. On a heavy day, he tries to take similar jumps and working sets as he would in a contest. We made sure to break out the calibrated plates so his weights would be exact and he would get the same load as he would on the platform.

I believe the more times you can execute your warms-ups and openers in training, the more comfortable it is going to feel when you get to the contest. Of course, you need to take into account how you are feeling for that particular day, but the more practice you get with a similar routine, the better it will be each time you do it.

We figured out all of Ray’s weights and what we would need to put on the bar for each set. This allowed Ray to just be an athlete and focus on his workout. He didn’t need to think about loading or adding; he just focused on squatting. If you have training partners or handlers at a meet, this can be a huge game changer to allow less stress for the athlete competing.

Takeaway Point: Whether it is a max effort day, AMRAP, volume, or a speed day, it is good to write out your warm-ups and have a plan of attack. Ask yourself what the intent of the day is. Are you trying to hit a certain intensity? A certain volume? Working on speed and technique? Once you know that, you can start planning out your warm-ups.

Once you get to the bar, maybe you need to adjust some things based on how you are feeling, but it is always good to have a plan and adjust it, rather than just flying by the seams of your pants. Some people don’t even do this for a meet, which I think is crazy, but you can do this for your workouts too. By planning ahead you can focus on execution versus crunching numbers.

Challenge Yourself

One of the stories that had me intrigued was Ray challenging his brother to a bench contest. It wasn’t just for a day. The contest was who could get to 500 pounds first! This made sure they were pushing constantly and striving for progress each week. Eventually, Ray ended up winning the bet and went on to do his first meet. The rest is history.

Takeaway Point: Besides personal goals, I think friendly competition is a great way to stay motivated and push yourself. A relevant example: when Ray told us he was going to get a squat workout the weekend of the seminar, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work out with him. I had only been handling weights less than 500 pounds raw in my training, but I wanted to try to hang with the big man. Around 500 pounds, I knew I had a good squat in me that day. I ended up at 705 for an all-time PR, which I was super happy with, considering I wasn't peaked or doing any heavy raw work for a few months.

It is important to listen to your body and train smart, but learning to deal with pressure and having some friendly competitions with training partners throughout the year can be very helpful for busting through plateaus.

Have A Consistent Setup

I feel like we hear this a lot but it’s always a good reminder. The greatest lifters always pay the most attention to their setup. They always grab the bar with the same hand, they step back with the same foot, and every little detail is perfected into a dialed-in routine.

If you lift in meets out of squat stands like Ray, I believe the setup is even more critical. When you have a grand on your back, you can’t afford to have a misstep. It will cost you the lift, or worse, lead to a catastrophic injury. Ray has a ritual after he walks the weight out. He lets the weight settle and he takes a few breaths. Once the bar is motionless, he goes into the hole aggressively, times the whip of the bar, and explodes up. It is truly a work of art. I couldn’t believe how effortless he made 1000 pounds look. When everything is firing properly, his squat is really a special thing to see.

Takeaway Point: View strength as a skill. A better start yields a better finish. Before you unrack the bar, make sure your body is in perfect position and everything is executed the same way every time.

Bring Energy to the Bar

One of the things I love about Ray is that he brings a lot of energy when he lifts. He is able to turn it on and off. He is super focused as he is warming up and is able to turn it on once he grabs the bar. I think each lifter needs to find a style that fits them, while making sure they don’t waste too much energy. Ray starts to turn up his energy more as the bar load increases. So while his setup is the same, he certainly gets more fired up as the weight piles up and the intensity increases.

I remember Dave talking about his alter ego “Zippy” when he was getting ready for a big lift. You could only play a “Zippy card” once in a while because it would take everything out of you. That is a good way to think about it. Save your ace in the hole for when you need it.

Takeaway Point: A lot of people talk about staying calm and conserving energy, but you have to find a balance of having fun and not burning out. Throughout any training cycle, you are going to have heavy days or movements that are designed to test your strength to see where you are. Those are good days to let loose, have some fun, and bring lots of energy to the session. If you are always grinding and showing no emotion, I don’t think that is the best thing long-term. Have fun, challenge yourself, train smart, and listen to your body. You need to find out what works best for you in the end.

These are five tips I learned from one of the greatest of all time. They say success leaves clues, so I am sure some of these you have heard before. It is good to have a reminder of some basic tips to help keep us grounded and give us guidance moving forward. Train hard, train smart, and if this post helped you don’t forget to share it!


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