20 Minute Read | 33 Minute Listen (Podcast)
Dave Spitz joined BarBend Podcast host David Tao to discuss the California Strength origin story, online programming, Wes Kitts’ journey to qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Games and more!
Dave and host David Tao discuss:
Dave goes into his athletic background (starting in the 3rd person!) and how he found a passion for weightlifting in some unlikely circumstances (2:31)
Dave’s experience with the foundation of the Bulgarian weightlifting system — including a coaching trade that ended up taking Dave to Bulgaria (3:40)
Cal Strength’s growth online in the early days of YouTube (6:28)
Cal Strength’s role in training pro athletes in team sports, and how that functions within the rest of the business (8:05)
Is America losing its best weightlifters to other pro sports? It’s complicated, and Dave has a pretty firm grasp on why (10:06)
How long Dave needs to determine if someone has a future in elite weightlifting (13:20)
Why Wes Kitts is the culmination of over a decade of work building Cal Strength (18:54)
How Wes feeds off fan energy and excels in the sport’s highest-pressure moments (25:00)
The athlete Dave has learned the most from in his coaching career (28:00)
Listen to the full episode on your preferred podcast platform.
Want to improve your Olympic lifts, Squat and Bench Press? Use code: BARBEND for 30% off your first month of Barbell WOD Programming written by head coach Dave Spitz!
WRITTEN TRANSCRIPTION OF THE PODCAST
Today on the BarBend podcast, I’m talking to Dave Spitz, founder and coach at Cal Strength. A former standout track and field athlete, Dave’s journey in weightlifting has taken some incredible turns. He spent years of his time and energy — not to mention personal money — to build one of the most influential weightlifting programs in the United States and online.
Dave was also one of the first people to take weightlifting online, helping launch Cal Strength to success and visibility in the early days of YouTube. Through Cal Strength, Dave has coached top American athletes, including Wes Kitts, Jon North, Donny Shankle, Spencer Moorman, Jared Enderton, the list goes on and on.
In 2019, Dave is heavily focused on Wes Kitts preparation for the World Championships and 2020 Olympic Games. Dave says, “Wes is many ways a combination of more than a decade of program building at Cal Strength.”
We also go deep into Dave’s experience with the Bulgarian weightlifting system. Along with the lifters who have been most influential in his career as a coach and just a quick reminder if you’re enjoying the BarBend podcast make sure to leave a rating and a review in your podcast app of choice.
This helps us stay on track in bringing you the best content possible week after week. If there’s someone you’d absolutely love to hear on a future BarBend podcast episode, let us know in your podcast review. I personally read each and every review so your suggestions will be seen.
Today on the BarBend podcast, I’m joined by a very special guest and the name a lot of weightlifting fans in the United States and abroad will recognize. That is Dave Spitz of Cal Strength. Dave, thanks so much for joining today.
Thank you. I appreciate you having me on. Can’t wait to dive in.
Now, Dave, I know this is something we’ve covered on BarBend.com before, some content we’ve done with you, and Cal Strength but I would love to give listeners a little bit of background on your history in the sport of weightlifting and how you came to be the Godfather of Cal Strength, so to speak.
Oh, geez. All right, five-minute origin story, you ready?
[laughs] We’re ready.
Dave graduates from USC with a bachelors degree and a track and field career that was not as successful as anyone including himself thought was going to be the case. Went to work. Actually started a small oil and gas company with a buddy of mine. Parlayed that into a finance career, and then went down the rabbit hole with that aspect of my life.
Trying to figure out how to make money, how to make friends and attained all that and then realized something was missing, that I needed sports in my life. It was just this void that I just could not replace so I started Olympic weightlifting because I always enjoyed the lifts as a vehicle to train for sports.
Track and field, obviously, we spent a lot of time in the weight room doing snatch, clean, and jerk. I thought I was strong so I looked up a local coach, started lifting, and then devoted my time at high school to coach throws while I was lifting. Some of the, crossed a man named Alex Krychev who was basically the first Bulgarian wonder boy out of Abadjiev’s system.
He was responsible for setting multiple world junior records and ultimately took a silver medal in 1972 Munich Olympics. I coached his son and he decided that it would apropos to take me on as a pupil while I coached his son in throws.
We worked together for about, I don’t know, half a year. I went up to 135, 175 as a 105 and then he said, “You know what? We should go to Bulgaria because Abadjiev is out of a job and we could tap him for some of his expertise.” For those of you that don’t know about the Bulgarian system, basically country of six million people producing the strongest humans that ever walked the face of the earth.
I thought that would be good idea. Went over to Bulgaria, trained in some of the halls, met Abadjiev, and then used some of my wealth to create a non-profit called americanweightlifting.org, and brought over Abadjiev. Wrote visa’s for him, for two Bulgarian athletes, and sequestered ourselves in a garage in a suburb of Northern California.
Trained, lived, worked, ate, shat weightlifting, and then started recruiting American athletes to work alongside us. Names like Donny Shankle, and James Moser and Max Aita, ultimately were a part of that movement.
Once I realized the perils of the Bulgarian system as it applied to an athlete like myself without a sufficient foundation of technique and strength and hours under the barbell, I sent Abadjiev packing and started Cal Strength. So this is what led me down the weightlifting road.
What year did you officially start Cal Strength? What year did that…?
’07, yeah, we went to the for-profit model so I got tired of feeding my own nonprofit with my money. I thought, “You know what, it would be better if I could just create a situation where a gym pays for itself.” And so, I started down the road of strength and conditioning using what I had learned.
My approach to weightlifting and my approach to track and field, and my love of just strength sports to utilize for high school athletes and junior high school athletes in our area. Then that would hopefully be able to continue to fund weightlifting and, maybe, I could smuggle in weightlifting and teach it to a couple of these athletes and see if I could get a few of them to convert.
One thing that when I was first looking at weightlifting online and was getting to the sport myself, around like 2009. Cal Strength was one of the first to really go online, produce videos.
Some of those videos now they have hundreds of thousands of views and you can go back and I will actually sometimes re-watch them for motivation to see Donny Shankle, Jon North, Spencer Moorman throwing down those intense training sessions. What was the motivation to take some of what was happening in the gym and start putting it online in a time when no one had really done that?
People definitely hadn’t monetize that or like use that to really advertise their gyms.
We basically knew that we had a bunch of characters. Anybody who listened to Donny Shankle talks or just observed practice, I knew I could build a business around these personalities, irrespective of what they were doing. They could have been solving Rubik’s cubes in a corner and been just as funny as in entertainment.
It just happened to be that that was the sport that they were doing, that coinciding with the popularity boom because of the CrossFit movement and because of the Olympic variations. We’re starting to use more and more in colleges and in high schools for strength and conditioning.
It was very, very fortuitous nexus of just like us having a bunch of whack jobs that were entertaining that we could put on the Internet to help grow the brand and grow the awareness and the rise of the Olympic lists across other vehicles.
Now, Cal Strength is also a facility known for training a lot of pro athletes, especially a lot of NFL players, prepping players for the combine and the draft, things like that, when did that start becoming a part of the business? Is it’s still a vital part of the business as far as running an operations funding today?
Yeah, absolutely. My first NFL Draft class was back in 2010. I basically forged relationship here with a young man and his family. His name was TJ Ward, he was a strong safety in Oregon. He really wanted to utilize the relationship with his dad to coach him on the sports specific side.
He was his defensive back coach all the way through high school, and he just wanted to get back to his roots on that front, wanted to live at home and train and there was really no options around. So he basically tapped me and said, “Hey, can you take care of everything else?” That was the first athlete we had to the program.
He was drafted in the second round and went on to win a Super Bowl and be a pro bowler. He basically allowed me to look into this industry and figure out how to create opportunities within it. If you look at NFL scouting, combine preparation or any peak performance type endeavor, like that, it’s very closely tied to what we do with weightlifting.
So figuring out an anchor date and time and getting an athlete to perform at their best at that anchor date. It’s what we do very well. And so, the skill set just really clicked for me and learning how to coach the 5-10-5 and the L drill and understanding the drive phase and acceleration phase of the 40. And then working towards producing a rep max with the bench.
All these things were just natural fits for me.
Now, this is something that gets thrown around a lot on weightlifting forums, people debate this ad nauseum and it’s whether you take these high performing, top caliber, all-pros in a sport like football in the NFL, and if you were to get them started at weightlifting at a young age how they would compare to the top weightlifting athletes in the US or the world.
As someone who has a lot of experience with NFL pro-bowlers and Super Bowl champions, what are your thoughts on that? Do you think that the best athletes, the potential best weightlifting athletes in the United States are always lost to these other sports, or is the question a little more complex than that?
It’s far more complex than that. If you look at the number of NFL athletes that exist, there’s roughly 1,700 that are in the NFL today. I probably have, of that 1,700, I have relationships with probably close to 50 of them. Not one of those athletes do I think I could pluck out of the NFL and make in a weightlifter that even comes close to rivaling what Wes Kitts can do.
It’s a misnomer to think that those are our absolute best athletes. They are good athletes, but what makes them great football players is their ability to execute on a sport specific level that is above and beyond what other people are doing in a tactical level.
If you take probably our most famous Cal Strength alumni Zach Ertz, who has set an NFL reception record at the tight end position as a pro-bowler, as Super Bowl champion. He is just master of the game of football, from a tactical and a sports specific side. His route running, his understanding of the game, his ability to create opportunities to make receptions.
That’s his gift. It’s not athleticism. I do think there’s a lot of good athletes that participate in football. The washout of athletes from football is far greater than what we have playing the game today. If that’s our argument, that’s really poor one.
What we need to do is figure out a net to grab some of those top-tier athletes from that sport that are washing out because Wes is the perfect example. Great athlete, good football player, not enough exposure to play at the next level, and wants to invest his time and energy in something else. We just have to have a mechanism to support those athletes.
That’s what we’re working on right now USA weightlifting.
I definitely want to chat more about Wes’s development as a weightlifter in just a second. You talk about building the net.
If you had infinite resources and infinite power to build that net of folks washing out of other sports to find the next Wes Kitts, to find the next 10 Wes Kitts across weight classes, what might some of those steps look like if you were in charge and had infinite power in that?
I would take an approach where we do a 90-day trial. I feel like at the end of 90 days I know whether you’re a high baseline, high responder, or whether you’re just a high baseline mid-range responder, or a high baseline, low responder. I need 90 days.
What I would do is I would say, “All right, anybody interested in trying weightlifting that meets these basic athletic thresholds.” It could be a broad jump. It could be a vertical leap. It could be a power cleaner, back squat, whatever you’re looking at as baseline numbers to access the 90-day trial.
Then from those, I would say, “OK, now we’re going to give you a one year trial. We’re going to pay you a living wage every month. Call it two or three thousand dollars a month to train full-time for one year.” From there, we can assess whether at the end of the year, if they’re not already at the top of the national level, it ain’t the right fit so move on.
If they are, then create opportunities for performance type incentives so big money payouts for medals at relevant meets. That’s pretty much how I would structure it if I had unlimited resources.
Cal Strength’s origins, or your origins as a weightlifting coach and a lifter really do borrow a lot from the Bulgarian system and you mentioned earlier you saw some of the failings of the Bulgarian system for yourself as an athlete and some other athletes. How has Cal Strength, since 2007, the last 12 years, how has Cal Strength approach to programming and training blocks for athletes evolved since 2007?
Yeah. Great question. There are only two systems in Olympic weightlifting. Everything else is some sort of deviation from the systems or some sort of adaptation of those systems — Bulgarian and Russian. The Soviet system basically relies on exercise variation and organized block periodization to produce qualities in athletes. Then, Bulgarian system is the exact inverse of that.
It’s the hyper-specialization and the high-intensity approach that is ultimately responsible for the strongest athletes that ever lived. Unfortunately, what we failed to understand early on is that all Bulgarian athletes that had any level of success started in a Russian system. All those provincial Bulgarian systems were very, very, Soviet in nature.
They had all of the things that we know and love about these Russian programs from exercise selection to undulations and volume and intensity. All the classical mechanisms we know that get people strong over time and produce a well-rounded, balanced, technically proficient athlete.
Once they attained a certain level, got sent to the national team and were put into this hyper-specialized, uber-extreme, motivation structure that produces these outside results. My theory as it stands today when I produce a quad plan for an athlete like Wes, we’re looking at a four-year time horizon.
The training blocks in each annual plan are slowly shifting from more variation to less variation over time. We’re looking at correcting deficiencies in movement and correcting deficiencies in strength imbalances along the way. Starting from about ten months out of the Olympics, you better believe all he’s going to be doing is snatch and clean and jerk. Quantity of quality.
We will go straight as Bulgarian as Bulgarian gets with a lot of self limiting intensities assigned throughout the program.
I do want to talk about Wes a bit. It would be a disservice to any listeners [laughs] and also to the program not to talk about one of the most successful athletes in the program’s history and one of the strongest American athletes we’ve ever seen on the platform.
When I first came across Wes, and was kind of aware of who he was, he was this former football player who had tried the CrossFit thing. He was competing in the Grid League at the time. Look, he was strong. He was strong as a house and he was a pretty darn good weightlifter. Really, we’ve seen a lot of this come onto the scene in America, and we see a lot of them reach that high level national potential, but they’re not really making dents on the international stage.
Wes is someone whose progression has come as a pleasant surprise, I think, to a lot of people, myself included, in that his numbers keep going up. He’s not making a 20-kilo jump every single year, but he’s worked his way up, and he’s competing for medals at almost every competition he goes to on the international stage.
How did you first get introduced to Wes, how long have you been working with him, and what has been your approach to training him to this point? You talked about the approach leading up to Tokyo next year, which we’re going to hit that 10-month mark here pretty soon. What is your training history with Wes been?
I, like you said, found Wes while he was participating in grid league. I saw him moving a barbell in a warmup for a competition. He cleaned 200 kilos. I was like, “Holy shit.” He had no idea what he was doing. His positions, his tension, his tempos, timing, everything off.
Still, his rate of force production was so profoundly different than what I had been accustomed to seeing. You start to develop an eye. You say strength. He was strong, but he was not that strong. Spencer Moorman, for example, was much stronger than he was.
The angles of pination, the collagen density, and his ability to store that kinetic energy in tendons, his fiber-type ratios — all of those things — his limb lengths, they combine to create this ability to maximize the rate of force production, especially in the pole in a way that I was just not aware existed whether that co-optly.
I saw him. I had to have him. I brought him out for a three-month internship just like I alluded to before. He was paid $500 for three months. We worked together to start down the rabbit hole. I remember pulling up a chair, sitting there, and watching him snatch for the first day he was in the gym.
I didn’t say a word through all the way up to about 90 percent. He’s looking around. Rob Blackwell happened to be there. Rob says…Rob kind of smiled. Wes said, “What’s he doing? Is he ever going to say something?” Rob said, “He’s waiting to find an opportunity. He doesn’t know where to begin.”
There was that much wrong. He could make such profoundly different errors. Great athletes are compensators and Wes is the best compensator. At any rate, that’s kind of the origins of him. I think that to your point, he is a very special athlete between the years.
He has this ability to trust and to lean in and solve problems together to be able to have that buy-in that athletes struggle with from time to time. The second things go wrong with a lot of athletes that are following a program, it’s like they start chasing a shiny penny and they get distracted.
They start searching for answers instead of just working through what we know to be true in solving problems as a team. Wes is really good at that. He’s the most determined individual I’ve ever met. He really values the opportunity that he has. Competing for the United States, competing for himself and his family and his gym. It sounds hooky, but he is like a Captain America figure in that sense.
He really just has these home grown values that he just is appreciative. We talk about this all the time. Love and gratitude, those things are the fuel that drives Wes Kitts. Anyway, his training…I think that I’m much better than I’ve ever been when I got him. I had already cut my teeth on a lot of different athletes and seen a lot of things tried and a lot of things failed.
Wes is basically the byproduct of…he’s getting the best of me and he’s the best athlete we’ve ever had so the combination is powerful.
Wes is an athlete who I always really enjoy watching on stage. There have been several examples, especially the first few competitions that I was aware of, that I was following after he started training with where he had some real do-or-die lifts.
He had some third attempt snatches that he just missed the first two attempts, went up in weight and somehow made it. A lot of athletes are not really capable of that. That’s something that you just don’t see very often in a weightlifting competition. The fact that he’s done this several times, and the fact that he might miss an attempt, and then adds five, might miss that, and he goes up again and somehow makes that third attempt do or die on the international stage.
Do you think that goes back to his mental toughness or is that a combination of his own internal mental state as an athlete and any particular coaching cues? What accounts for that ability?
We’ve learned that over time, as many times as you can remember us going up after a missed second attempt. I typically won’t go up after a missed opener. If he misses a second attempt and I feel like it was a quality attempt, that he knows what he did wrong and we can make a mental adjustment, then I’m fine pushing him to that higher weight.
There’s lots of times where he failed, especially in the clean and jerk. There was a time where he could only ever make one clean and jerk. The most memorable was the Pan Am Championships in Florida where he had 208 kilos on the bar on a second attempt to secure a gold medal.
He got called for a little pressout and then we put the same weight back on the bar. This is a weight that he crushed in practice routinely. He overpulled it and, basically, set himself into blackout mode on the recovery, and took a silver medal home as a consolation prize.
Those types of things, we’ve had to learn from. That’s all we talk about here now. It’s like we either win or we learn. There is nothing else. We never lose. We win or we learn, and so learning accountability, learning to crush those opportunities when they’re before us.
If you watch Wes today, like at this Pan Am games event where he had to do 217 kilos for gold medal, he walks up to the bar with the biggest grin, with that shit-eating grin, pointing to his fans. He knows that it’s time to shine.
There’s no anxiety about these attempts. There’s only the appreciation of the opportunity and the joy that that brings. That’s how he frames it. He can’t be stopped right now.
To give the listeners a little perspective if they haven’t been following Wes over the years, what year did he start training with you? Because you mentioned that Pan Am competition in Florida, I was actually doing color commentary on that one. Seeing that happen live was a pretty cool treat and was one of my highlights from that week.
What year did you start working with him? What kind of numbers did he come in with, maybe a bit inconsistently? Where is he now, and are there any goal numbers heading into Tokyo?
I started working with him about two months before the American Open Championships in 2014, right before American Open 2014. He moved out here in January of 2015.
He was starting to do some programming up to that American Open. He totaled 360 kilos at that meet. By the time he’s moved out to Cal Strength, 360 to 399. He has had the benefit of moving from a 105 to a 109, so that’s not insignificant.
He’s definitely made a really good, systematic, reliable progression starting with the snatch where we fixed the snatch, then working through the clean, and then finally arriving at the jerk. Now, we’re back to snatch because we got to move the needle from those mid-70s to the low 80s now to have a shot at medalling in Tokyo.
What athletes in your long pedigree of coaching, in the long pedigree of Cal Strength, what athletes do you think were most influential in you becoming the coach you are today?
You say you cut your teeth with some of these big personalities that we saw on YouTube over the past decade. Which athletes helped make you the coach you are today and that most stick out to you?
Rob Blackwell, Spencer Moorman, Nicole Lim, those athletes certainly. Jon North, Donny Shankle and Kevin Cornell, those athletes are…I was more in a management role trying to corral their personalities and worked with Glenn behind the scenes to figure out a program that was actually doable for them based upon the insanity that was Cal Strength at the time.
I try and learn from everybody, but I think that Spencer Moorman, if I’m to pick one, he was the first kid that I coached to multiple national titles to an international team. He was the kid that really kind of helped me hone and sharpen a lot of my skills from coaching eye to programming.
He did a 208 kilo clean and jerk as a 105 with probably a fraction of the athleticism that Wes has, was still, and still is, I think a tremendous feat. I would pick him.
You mentioned that atmosphere in the gym corralling these big personalities and the craziness from half a decade ago, even a decade ago. How does that atmosphere compare to Cal Strength today?
Cal Strength today is not nearly as fun, but its way more professional in terms of our application of what we’re doing.
I’ve said this before, in many respects, I was playing a long con to see if I could generate enough buzz, participation, information, motivation out there in the world and find an athlete, cherry pick an athlete that I thought could actually do the sport on the highest level.
This has always been a part of the process is trying to uncover the Wes Kitts athlete. Once I got him, things buttoned up a little bit. I felt like we had to rely less on the show…I could lean more into the actual nuts and bolts of what we do well from a programming side, from a movement side, from a motivation and competition mindset side.
We’ll see if that’s the case. I’m certainly 100 percent invested day in and out in that young man’s success because nothing makes me happier than watching him succeed on the platform.
What is next beyond, obviously Wes’s preparation heading in to the Olympics, what’s next for Cal Strength?
No clue. I literally, I think, [indecipherable 30:25] said the other day, people are in love and addicted to tomorrow. We’re focused on today. I am enjoying my moment with this athlete. I’ve said it a million times. I’ve been on four continents in the last eight weeks with Wes. There’s not a week that goes by away from my family that I regret being with him because he understands sacrifice.
He understands the importance of this journey. That’s really what’s being prioritized. We have some chicken left on the bone from world championships coming up in Thailand where this is our only other anchor date in this 2019 calendar. We had Pan Am Championships where he totaled 399. Then we had this Tokyo test event and the Pan Am games. We’ve been training through these events.
There’s been no taper, no peaking. Those are train through events, which to his testament mentally just amazing that he overcame all of those individuals [ 31:31] in Lima because those guys were peaked and ready for war.
We have the World Championships coming up and it’s now to put that 400 kilo plus total together on stage and show people what we’ve actually been working on, and then set that up for if we have to do one more event, an IWF event in the third trimester to lock in his Olympic birth and then it’s head down, eyes forward all the way into the Tokyo 2020.
Awesome. Dave, if folks want to follow along with that journey, where can they follow you? Where can they follow Cal Strength and where can they follow along with Wes’s training and progression?
Awesome. Dave, if folks want to follow along with that journey, where can they follow you? Where can they follow Cal Strength and where can they follow along with Wes’s training and progression?
Shit, just about anywhere on the Internet these days. It’s his own Instagram is @weskitts22 I believe. Our Instagram is Cal_Strength. The website’s californiastrength.com. The YouTube channel’s California Strength. We try and make ourselves very visible and easy to find. You guys always help amplify our message. Very appreciative for what you guys do for the sport.
I feel like I have to do a lot less heavy lifting on the media side thanks to people like you actually getting our message out there for us.
Well, I really appreciate that, Dave. Our hope is that the listeners use this opportunity to learn a little bit more about what you’ve been doing and the culmination of over 10 years of effort at Cal Strength. It’s really fantastic to see what that’s producing.
Just want to say thanks so much again for joining us and best of luck heading into the World Championships.
Appreciate it. You have a great rest of day and I will hopefully be talking to you soon bringing home a medal from this World event.
Let’s hope so.