Squatting 650 pounds is just routine for kinesiology faculty member Mike Willet
Mike Willett holds 24 state records in powerlifting, a strength-based sport that includes three events: the squat, the bench press and the deadlift. Willett, associate chair of the Department of Kinesiology in IU Bloomington's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, talked with Elisabeth Andrews, IU Media Relations, about his sport, his workout routine and his recent competition.
EA: At the Dave Martin Memorial Powerlifting Meet in Bloomington last month, I watched you squat 650 pounds and I thought, this man is insane. What is the appeal?
MW: I've been powerlifting since I was 19. It's what I enjoy doing as a competitive sport. Part of the appeal is that I'm always lifting for records. I hate going to a meet and not setting a record. If I can't set a record, I don't consider it a successful day. I try to compete against myself, and if I can't do better, it means I didn't train hard enough or lift smart enough.
EA: The competitors look big and scary, but the atmosphere at the competition was very friendly and welcoming. What's it like backstage as you prepare?
MW: The powerlifters I have met are all really good people. The atmosphere is very friendly as we're getting ready. We'll help each other warm up and get into the gear. It's the kind of sport that if someone has a personal record -- even someone you compete directly against -- you celebrate the accomplishment. But the atmosphere changes before the final lift. Then it's all the business of seeing who's going to win.
EA: For the squat you wore a one-piece suit that looked like shorts with suspenders attached. What is the purpose of the suit?
MW: You can get quite a bit of help from your gear. The suit helps control your descent as you squat down. It won't help you get back up, though. Wearing the gear changes the way you lift, so it takes some getting used to. For the bench press, we have a shirt that works like the squat suit. The tightness of the gear will help you lift more weight by assisting the eccentric phase of the movement, but it doesn't store energy -- you still have to get the weight back up again. The gear is also protective in nature. The type of gear that can be used is regulated by the USA Powerlifing Association. It creates a level playing field so no one has an unfair advantage when it comes to equipment.
EA: How do you train for a competition?
MW: It takes four or five months for me to train for an event. Some other competitors and those who are younger can get ready in two or three months or less. For this competition I used a Russian squat routine that had me squatting in the gym four days a week. It's not comfortable -- no one is ever in a good mood when they're doing it. I go to a 24-hour gym -- the Iron Pit in Bloomington -- so I'll be in there lifting at 11, 12, one in the morning. It takes a long time because you need plenty of recovery in between sets. You also need to cycle through a routine so you have recovery weeks when you let your body rest and repair itself.
EA: Unlike most athletes, part of your training involves putting on weight. Has that been a pleasure or a challenge?
MW: It can be difficult to put on the right kind of weight. I moved up a weight class to go after some of the records in the 220-pound class and to have a better chance of winning nationals. Unfortunately, I don't feel good with the extra weight, and I feel kind of fat. I'm trying to integrate more cardiovascular exercise into my routine so I can be more healthy and fit. And it's probably not good that I have to wear my wedding ring on my pinkie with my increased weight gain.
EA: You are the director of the President's Challenge at Indiana University. How does powerlifting tie in with your career?
MW: Actually most people don't know that I compete. It doesn't relate to what I do at work -- powerlifting and fitness really are not the same. With powerlifting you basically push big weight. The President's Challenge is concerned with fitness, physical activity and health, not with performance. The important thing is that I'm active, and I try to promote an active lifestyle no matter what sport or activity one is involved in.
EA: You have had some back problems in the last few years. How has that affected your performance?
MW: I've had problems with my lower lumbar vertebra getting pushed forward and taking my spine out of alignment. I went to a back specialist and found out that my problem is genetic in nature and my involvement in lifting has delayed problems associated with the injury. I've had to modify my technique in the squat and deadlift to accommodate the pain and protect myself from injury. The outcome from these changes is that I can't deadlift over 700 pounds anymore but have had to refocus my efforts on the bench and squat. I used to bench around 400 pounds, but with the injury to my back and the dropoff in my deadlift, I have refocused on the bench in training and now bench around 470 pounds.
My back hurts, and if I wanted to I could get surgery to resolve it, but then I wouldn't be able to compete anymore. It's not worth it to me at this point in my life -- I enjoy the sport too much.
EA: You've been competing for almost 25 years. When will it be time to retire?
MW: It's like being a soldier. I want to go down fighting. I love the sport too much to ever quit, so the only thing that would stop me is an injury that would prevent me from competing at a high level. I always tell myself that when I can no longer be the best I think I can be, it will be time to consider another sport. My philosophy for lifting big weights is, "What you used to be able to do doesn't mean a thing." You have to challenge yourself every day to be better than the day before and to not live in the past. That's what keeps it exciting for me.