“Welcome to the iron pit,” says a smiling Joe Pascone as I enter Ocean State Gym in Johnston. It’s an appropriate description. Calling itself “the last true powerlifting gym in RI,” the place looks like something out of the training montage in an ‘80s boxing movie. It’s big and cold (Joe swears there’s heat, they just don’t turn it on); the equipment is old and uncompromising and seems to hold up because it’s just too stubborn to fall apart. What Ocean State Gym lacks in aesthetic charm it more than makes up for in utilitarian function. As Joe likes to point out, “It’s not pretty but it all works, and it’s got everything you need. If you can’t do it here, you can’t do it.”
Joe is an Olympic hammer throw coach and personal trainer who invited me here to learn a bit about his approach to fitness, which draws heavily on the Westside Barbell Method. Westside Barbell is an invitation-only gym in Columbus, OH where champion powerlifter Louie Simmons pioneered a unique approach to weight training that has made it “the world’s strongest gym,” home to several world powerlifting records. But I’m not here to max out my bench press or squat three times my body weight. “You’re a runner, so I want to make you the best runner you can be,” Joe informs me. “Strength is speed,” he notes, and with that in mind he works me through a session that takes several of Westside Barbell’s principles for pumping iron and adapts them to pounding pavement:
The Conjugate Method
When you train the same way all the time, you gradually build strength… until you don’t. This is because our bodies (and minds) learn to compensate for things to which they become accustomed, and eventually progress stalls. Westside Barbell overcomes this through constant change. For example, if you want to increase your bench press max, you will seldom do a standard bench press.
Instead, you will focus on variations of it (i.e. incline or decline press), and never do any one for more than three weeks in a row. This allows you to build the same muscle groups without letting them get comfortable. To apply this to running, Joe had me power walk while pulling a weighted sled behind me. I was engaging my legs in a familiar motion, but with an unfamiliar type of resistance, forcing them to work in a different way.
Each Westside Barbell training session begins with a main move (i.e. box squat or bench press variation), followed by a series of accessory moves, or special exercises, intended to improve on weaknesses. There is no one formula for this part, as it must be uniquely tailored to each person. One of my weaknesses is a difficult-to-describe imbalance in my movement – it’s almost as if my center of gravity imperceptibly twists forward and to the right as I move. To help identify and correct this imbalance, Joe had me do a series of upper body exercises that involved pulling weight across my core at an incline or decline angle, forcing me to focus on correcting that imbalance.
The use of bands, chains and other forms of resistance in addition to weights is one of the most unique aspects of Westside Barbell. For example, one might alter a traditional squat by attaching bands to the bar to increase the level of resistance at different points in the movement. This forces the muscles to adjust to an additional challenge. In my case, Joe hooked a stack of weights around my waist and instructed me to walk in place, but not before adding ankle weights. This meant that the central resistance I was trying to overcome (the stack of weights at my core) was being augmented and altered by the additional weight at my extremities.
It was an educational hour, particularly given Joe’s penchant for quoting Einstein as often as Louie Simmons, and I continue to apply some of Westside Barbell’s principles in my own ways: focusing on exercises in which I’m weak, exploring variations of workout staples like push-ups and lunges, and carrying bricks while running to add resistance. The result is that I’m not just running faster, but running stronger.
Ocean State Gym
10 Morgan Mill Road