An Interview with Ed Coan
by John Koenig
When you go to the gym tomorrow, I want you to head to the squat rack and load it up with twenty 45 pound plates. That's right, put ten on each side. Now just stand back and look at it and try not to pee your pants. Guess what? Ed Coan has squatted about 50 pounds more than that. Over the next week, see how much you can squat for a single rep. Then do the same with the bench press and deadlift. Add those numbers up. If you can squat 500, deadlift 450, and bench 300, well, you're only at about the halfway point to equaling Ed Coan's total. Scary, huh?
There are many legendary names in the world of powerlifting, names that almost stop traffic when they're uttered. Of current competitors in this field, few have the cachet of Ed Coan. Coan holds more than 100 official and unofficial world records in the squat, bench press and deadlift. At a bodyweight of 240 pounds, Coan has totaled nearly 2500 in competition, and plans to break that barrier this year in a meet. Break down 2500 pounds into three lifts and think about it. That's some mind numbing weight getting tossed around.
In real life, Ed Coan proves to be quite a regular guy, with no ego problems, a sense of humor and a real straightforward, shoot-from-the-hip attitude. Ed recently took time to speak to Testosterone.
Testosterone: Are you, pound for pound, the strongest man alive?
Coan: In powerlifting, I'll say yes. But I can't do what Olympic weightlifters do, for example.
T: What do you think about guys like Greg Kovacs? His handlers like to tout him as one of the world's strongest men, yet I don't think he competes in powerlifting or strongman competitions.
Coan: Based on his size the guy has to be pretty damned strong. That's obvious.
T: Yeah, the guy supposedly weighed 240 before he ever picked up a weight.
Coan: A lot of these numbers claimed by some are done while using Smith machines and machines in general. Do the Kovacs claims bother me? Well, the claims are made in the context of advertising. It's mentioned in the ads to sell more products. So it's no big deal; you just take it for what it's worth.
T: Why are you a powerlifter, as opposed to an Olympic lifter or a bodybuilder?
Coan: Probably popularity in my area. When I first started, I entered a bodybuilding contest and did horribly. This was before they even had music. It was pretty bad. I was sixteen years old. Right after that I went into a powerlifting contest as a Class 3 Novice. I won and was awarded the "best lifter" award. I thought, "I don't like to lose weight and get smaller and stuff like that anyway." Not that I was very large at the time, I was very light ? in the 165 pound class. At my first meet the squat racks didn't even go low enough. They had to take the weights off and put them on my back!
T: But you're not that short. What are you, five-foot six?
Coan: Yeah, now, but I was four-eleven in high school.
T: How long have you been a competitive powerlifter?
Coan: 21 years.
T: So you continued on as a powerlifter and moved up into the 181 class. What were your lifts there?
Coan: My squat was 782 pounds. I actually did 804 but the judges said I was high. I deadlifted 791 and I benched over 450. I had done 485 in the gym but I tore my pec. Back then, I was benching three days a week, thinking that was better!
T: Many high school kids still do that today. Now, these are pretty unusual weights for anyone, much less a teenager. Did you understand that you were different; did this feel magical to you?
Coan: Every time I touched a weight when I was younger, it would just go up. It didn't matter what it was.
T: Did you know anything about nutrition and proper training then?
Coan: I just had the magazines mostly. We had Ernie France; he was an hour's drive away. We had James Vrouss; he was a great bencher at 165, did a 479 bench without a bench shirt. He managed a Chicago health club I worked out at. I just kept doing what felt good to me, read everything, and tried everything to see what worked.
T: Did you compete in other sports in school?
Coan: The only sport I competed in was wrestling. My first year in high school I was 98 pounds.
T: What notable competitive lifts took place along the way?
Coan: In the 181 weight class it was the 791 deadlift, which actually wasn't hard. At 198 I was totaling over 2200 and actually made my first 500 bench at 198 pounds. This was before bench shirts. I squatted 859, benched 501, deadlifted 791.
T: My shoulder hurts just hearing these numbers! December of '99 you had a 2463 total and you recently attempted 2500. What happened?
Coan: It's actually not a matter of "attempting to do it." If conditions are right I'm strong enough to do it.
T: Have you done it in the gym?
Coan: No, I don't go that heavy in the gym. I always leave the heavy ones for meets. They don't mean shit in the gym and I'll end up overtraining. That's what I used to do when I was younger, but I could get away with it then. Overtraining is really common in powerlifting, just like bodybuilding.
T: Take me through a typical week of your workouts.
Coan: Monday is squat and other leg stuff. Depending on the season, like now in the off season, I don't wear any equipment ? no belt, no wraps, nothing. I'll do pause-rest squats. I just stop on the bottom until someone says "up." Then I work up to whatever reps I'm supposed to for the day, take 45 off, then do high-bar, close-stance pause squats, which is more quadriceps work. That's pretty much my weak point, my quads. From mid-thigh up to my mid-back is where all my strength is. Sometimes I rep out on a squat machine or a hack squat machine for some blood movement into the area. Then I do one-legged leg curls.
T: Do you do lunges?
T: Leg extensions?
Coan: I used to, but as long as I do high-bar squats and pause squats, there's no need for them. They end up screwing up the track of your knee ? just as going all the way down screws it up right away.
T: Do you ever do box squats?
Coan: No, I don't need them, though some people get a lot out of them. The only problem with box squats is the majority of people who do them end up squatting high. When you go off the boxes to the regular squat, you'll end up sticking your ass far back, feeling for something, and ending up bending over too far and squatting high.
T: What about chains and bands?
Coan: I've never used them.
T: You're old school, huh?
Coan: Well, I tried floor presses, but they aggravated my shoulders. Next I'm going to try some board presses as an assistance exercise. At least you're still laying on a bench. Take different height boards, set 'em on your chest, and bench like that. But I'll only use these as an assistance exercise. As opposed to a machine, you keep your normal groove.
T: Back to your weekly program. Monday you squat?.
Coan: Tuesdays off. Wednesday I go in and do all chest and triceps, usually two sets of regular bench, two sets of extra-wide grip inclines, a set of high-rep flyes, then I'll go to triceps. Lying dumbbell extensions with a hammer grip, stretch it as far as I can, for three sets. Then I'll do pushdowns for three sets; sometimes I'll throw in some dips, depending upon how my shoulder feels.
T: Low reps?
Coan: No, in most of my assistance work I never go below eight reps. The rest of it is traditional powerlifting type of work, lower reps. There is a time after meets when I'll do some regular bodybuilding stuff. Gotta build some muscle! Thursday is usually off. Friday is deadlifts and all back work. This Friday, since it's off season, with no belt or anything, I'm deadlifting off a 4-inch block. It actually teaches you to push more with your legs since you have to bend over so much farther. It's a lot ****ing harder!
Most powerlifters I know who no longer compete, they'll squat and bench, but won't deadlift! It's too difficult. Then I do stiff-legged deads off the blocks, then rows, regular pulldowns, then some type of Hammer pull-down machine, like high rows. Afterward, I'll do chins for reps, then bent-over laterals. I do my rear delts on back day.
T: That's a big workout.
Coan: Yeah, I like working back.
T: Do you do anything for your traps?
Coan: No, if I do too much trap work it seems like everything gets tight up there. I can't lock out and rotate my shoulders back for deadlift.
T: Do you work out over the weekend?
Coan: Saturday I come in, do some close-grip benches, then I work my shoulders, which is usually behind-the-necks or seated militaries. Then I do front and side laterals, maybe a couple sets of curls, then I work my forearms and a little grip. I've been working my forearms and grip more lately.
T: Do you use straps on anything?
Coan: Yes, on my stiff-legs, if I go real heavy;I don't want to use the same grip I deadlift with. I'll go double-overhand and hook it.
T: What's "real heavy" for you?
Coan: This cycle, I'll go up to 600 for five reps, off the floor squat, no belt. Rest-pause at the bottom. Once in a while, while getting ready for a meet, I'll stand on the block, do bent over rows and go up to 551 for three, no belt.
T: Something that really jumps out at me is that you're very much into periodization. Give it to me in a nutshell; why is periodization critical?
Coan: You need to change your intensity; you can base that on reps or the amount of sets. Sometimes I'll even do more sets to change the intensity rather than go heavier. Or I'll change the speed at which I work out. I'll grab a stop watch and go faster. There's a time and a place for everything and if you beat yourself up all the time in the gym, you're not going to last that long.
If it was good enough for some of the guys who came before us, who actually invented periodization, it's good enough for us. We just put our little changes in it here and there. Some assistance exercises help. Louie Simmons has some cool ones, so sometimes we throw something in to keep us from getting stale. But, I think sometimes it's more a matter of getting stale in the mind, because if you switch assistance exercises it changes your whole mind set and you can push it hard for the next few weeks.
T: Is technique important in powerlifting or do you just heave the damn weight up there?
Coan: It is, but it's easier to just muscle your way out of things than it is in something like Olympic weightlifting. But if you put enough weight on your back you're not going to lift it if you're out of form.
T: What do you do on your off days? Do you do any cardio?
Coan: I never do cardio! My off day consists of active rest: stretching, writing routines, some personal training, that's it.
T: Do you have your workouts all planned out ahead of time?
Coan: Sure, I know what I'm going to do that day and for the next so many weeks. The assistance exercises can vary, but I generally have it all written down. In the off season what I like to do is not to wear equipment, deadlift off a block, do pause squats, and change stuff around like that. You want to find out where your weak points are or where you need to get stronger. Just don't wear equipment when you squat or deadlift. You'll find at weak point really fast; you'll find out by how fast you bend over. Some peoples' noses will be touching the ground.
There was a powerlifter by the name of Uri Splinoff from the Ukraine. He had a big gut, but it wasn't fat; it was like a big muscle belly. I saw him squat 947 without a belt and he stood straight up. He didn't even bend forward. He did a squatting type of good morning with over 800 pounds. I asked him about wearing a belt and he just laughed, tapped his belly, and said, "We build our own belt."
T: You're five foot six; what do you weigh these days?
Coan: Anywhere from 230 to 240 pounds. I eat five times per day, try to get a lot of protein in, and when I cheat, I cheat.
T: You're not tracking your calories, grams of this and that, etc?
Coan: I'd go crazy. Working out is tough enough. I think that's why all the bodybuilders I see are so crazy. We have some bodybuilders in the gym who don't compete anymore, but they try to stay on these diets, and they're all crazy. It's one thing to try to eat good, make sure you get this and that, but give it a rest. If you've got a purpose, a contest for example, that's one thing, but come on, you have a regular job, you have to train, have a life!
T: Do you use many supplements?
Coan: Yeah, vitamins, minerals, primrose oil, some stuff for energy, couple of protein drinks per day, liver, aminos, etc.
T: Do you use anabolics?
Coan: I have. I don't think anyone is going to squat over a thousand pounds if they don't use a little something, whether it be for recovery or whatever.
T: I wouldn't think so either, but it's a topic people are fascinated by.
Coan: Everyone already assumes someone is doing something anyway. Louie Simmons caught so much shit on all the powerlifting forums for saying in his T-mag interview that he hadn't been "off" for 28 years. That's the kind of publicity nobody wants, but I'm not going to be hypocritical and say that I haven't done things.
T: Is this type of assistance something you employ in the off season or during the competitive months?
Coan: Vice versa ? during the season. Now with the money involved in some meets, up to ten grand a meet for winners, a lot of people are going to do whatever they have to do. You want to be healthy enough to do it. For example, there's one at the end of this year in November where there's supposed to be a $25,000 prize.
T: Are you going into that meet?
Coan: [Laughs] Heck, yeah!
T: Now, you're 38 years old. I've read that powerlifters don't peak until they're in their 40s.
Coan: If you can stay healthy. That's the hardest part.
T: So are you in your prime?
Coan: I'm in my prime as far as using my intelligence more when I train. I may have been stronger at 198 and 220 than I am now, but that could be from the little injuries that I've had that have held me back a bit.
T: Genetics verses intelligent training. What's your take on that topic?
Coan: Genetics come into play to limit you, like say if you had extremely long arms. You won't be great on the bench. If you have extremely short arms, you won't be a great deadlifter. On the other hand, if you train like shit, good genetics don't mean anything.
T: What king of genetic profile makes for a good powerlifter?
Coan: Big hips, big ass, and between medium to long arms. Most tend to be shorter guys. If you're six foot or over, you'd have to compensate by weighing 350 pounds to balance out your leverages.
T: What do you think of the supplement industry today?
Coan: It's good and bad. You've got some shysters out there, and since you have to keep ahead of the other guys, some people are coming up with some unique stuff. You just have to weed through it. A lot of stuff is like the "supplement of the month" type of thing. Those stupid double-blind studies are a bunch of crap; they make up some results and fund the studies themselves. For the most part it's good, though. The competitiveness makes people stay on their toes.
T: Do powerlifters use creatine?
Coan: Yes, but I don't. I end up dehydrating and having to drink too much water. It wouldn't be worth my while, but some guys swear by it.
T: What's the deal with all these different powerlifting associations?
Coan: At one time it was only the AAU, then the AAU got rid of powerlifting, I think, and it was the USPF. While the USPF was still in operation, because there was no testing at all then, the people who wanted to compete drug-free started the ABFPA. Then Ernie France wasn't happy with the way the masters competitors were being treated on the world level, so he started the APF, which was only meant for masters competitors when he started it. Then because the USPF started testing at their nationals and such, that's when the APF arose. No drug testing.
T: Were you kicked out of some organization once?
Coan: Oh yeah, the IPF. I failed the drug test. Actually, I failed three times. First time, in '85, I got caught for Deca. I hadn't taken any for more than nine months. Only now everyone knows how long it stays in your system. At the time they had just come out with testing software for Deca, but none of the Americans knew this, so we all got nailed.
Then the next time was in '89 where I got nailed for a ratio test. I asked for my appeal, traveled to Holland for my appeal, but when I got there the powers that be said, "No, we're not going to hear it." It was definitely against my due process, even though under the rules, I was supposed to get a hearing.
Then this last time was in '96 where I got nailed for a Testosterone ratio violation. You're going to love this: there was no chain of custody documentation. I'm walking down a hallway with the general public, thirty feet, with an open container. You went to choose your cup to pee into; it was on a desk in a room, an open stack of plastic cups. They just said "take one." There was no control, nothing; they were opened and unsealed. They were in the room with everyone else in there.
T: The potential for tampering was overwhelming!
Coan: The head of the international federation coached the guy who took second to me on stage, who was from his country. After your last lift, someone stays by your side as your shadow. If you want a drink they go get it for you, etc. You know who was my shadow? The brother of the guy who took second to me! So he went out and got me things to drink. This was in Austria. Then, from the time I gave my piss sample to the time it ended up in Sweden (the sample was driven to Sweden), there's no documentation of where it was or who had it. Only people saying, "I had it, put it in an unlocked and unsealed cooler, and put it in my hotel room."
In the IPF rules, they have no rule about this whole testing thing. It was a bunch of horse's asses. I'd admit it if I was wrong, but I don't even know.
T: Let's play word association. I'll throw some names at you and you tell me what comes to mind. Don Reinhout.
Coan: I never met the man, but you know what? He just went through six bypasses just this past week in Cleveland. Heard he's doing real well. I watched him in the strongman competitions when I was a kid, but never got to see him compete or meet him. He was one of the first big monster lifters. Those were tough dudes.
T: OD Wilson.
Coan: Broke my heart when he died; he was a big, huge, monster teddy bear. He was six-six and 420 pounds. Had some fat on his waist, but everything else was pretty darn hard. I used to get him fired up for meets; I'd stand on a chair and call him racial names to get him mad! His eyes would turn unbelievable colors and I'd just shit in my pants. I walked on a nude beach with him in Perth, Australia. It was like the parting of the seas! He was the only huge black guy on the beach; the sight of all these scared white people running out of his way was hilarious!
T: The World's Strongest Man Contests. Do you watch them?
Coan: Oh, yeah, I like them. I like the old days the best. I think now there's a bit too much of the running stuff. Especially if they're carrying big weights, they're going to have more injuries with the big guys running. Look at Filippi's knee; it's popped twice already. I know Kaz, I know Jamie Riez really well, I've met and talked to John Paul when he was still alive, and I met Magnus von Magnussen last year at the Arnold Classic. He's bigger than I expected; he was also a genuine guy.
T: Bill Kazimer.
Coan: I started powerlifting because of seeing him on TV. Very nice guy. At one of my meets, he came and had a special award made for me, a huge cup saying I was the greatest powerlifter in the world! In Sports Illustrated he even mentioned me, saying I'm the strongest powerlifter in the world.
T: Louie Simmons.
Coan: I've known Louie since the old YMCA days when I was a kid, and he's always been the same guy. He's never changed; he's just Louie. I like those Westside guys; they're all real. Some of the new guys I don't really know, but I know Kenny, Angelo, Chuck, some of those guys. Usually you find in powerlifting a great deal of camaraderie; people are very nice.
T: Ian King.
Coan: I sat in for a little bit of one of his sessions in Canada. That bald-headed dude knows his shit, doesn't he? I've not known him for long, but he's a nice guy, knows what he's talking about. He's not afraid to try different things and always has a reason.
T: Is there anything in the world of powerlifting or weight training that's really got you pissed off these days?
Coan: I like good judging. I think the equipment is getting a bit out of hand. But you gotta go with the flow. You can't compare my 2463 total to Kaz's 2425, except I wore a bench shirt, a single ply, loose shirt. I only wore one skinny old squat suit, and I don't wear a suit to deadlift.
T: Do you know Anthony Clark? Why does he bench with a reverse grip?
Coan: I think it's easier for him; he can lock it out easier. I think that's the only reason. If that thing slips though, he's gone. It can only happen one time.
T: We get a lot of questions from athletes involved in sports with weight classes. They want to know how to "make weight." Some of them resort to some risky behaviors. Got any tips in that area?
Coan: Too many people wait until the last minute before they try to drop their weight. Just start long enough before. Most powerlifters just don't know how important nutrition is. If you up your protein and start eating cleaner carbs, all of a sudden your joints start feeling good, your weights start going up and you feel bigger and tighter. As for making weight, some guys still do Lasix, of course.
[Editor's note: Lasix (furosemide) is a prescription-only drug used to treat fluid retention (edema) and high blood pressure. Bodybuilders and athletes use it for its diuretic effects.]
T: But doesn't Lasix make you feel weak and physically drained?
Coan: Well, some organizations have 24 hour weigh-ins. So by the time you compete, bam, you're big and hydrated again. In most tested competitions Lasix is banned, so the answer is to diet or just find another weight class. This is what I did. I just got sick of losing weight so I just kept going up in weight classes. Also, there comes a point where you could get hurt being that lean while lifting that heavy. I just wanted a challenge so I kept moving up.
T: Tell me about Quad's Gym.
Coan: There are two locations in Chicagoland, one in Calumet City, one in the city itself. Both are hardcore, black equipment, no chrome. I train there.
T: Sounds good. Listen, thanks for the interview, Ed. Good luck with 2500!
When we left Ed he was headed off to a Henry Rollins concert. Rollins learned of Coan when he was interviewing Dennis Rodman for MTV and saw a picture of Coan up on the wall. Rollins contacted him and has been a huge fan of Coan and powerlifting ever since, even hooking him up with tickets when he comes to town for a show.
Learn more about Ed Coan by reading Marty Gallagher's new biography of him, entitled Ed Coan? The Man, The Myth, The Method. Ed also has a series of three training videotapes, detailing the squat, the bench and the deadlift. Watch Coan squat 975, deadlift 901, bench 575, even do a 400 pound behind-the-neck press. Each tape is about 50 minutes long. Both the book and videos can be purchased through Coan Quest, 745 North Torrence Ave., Calumet City, IL 60409. Call 708-862-9779 or visit QuadsGym.com for more info.