An interview with the British Power lifting Champion Tom Sheppard

This week I was lucky enough to meet Tom and ask him the following questions about how he got into powerlifting and why, he kindly shared his insights with me which I am sharing with you; I am sure you will find this an interesting read.

How did you get into Powerlifting?
I found powerlifting after I had been lifting weights for a few years. I got into the gym off the back of some issues with eating disorders. So my first goal in the gym was to start putting back on the weight that I had lost over a previous couple of years, with the view of maybe one day competing in bodybuilding.

However, even though I enjoyed the positive changes to my physique that my training caused, having my appearance as my main motivator seemed to create the same problems all over again, just with a different end goal. So I decided I needed to go at my training from a different angle if I was going to break the bad mental habits I had developed during my teens. So along came Powerlifting. Powerlifting appealed to me for 2 main reasons. Firstly, success was not determined by how you looked but rather how you perform, which was a much healthier goal for my mind-set. Secondly, it is judged objectively rather than subjectively. You either lift more than last time or not, there is no grey area. At this point, myself and my now wife, Naomi, were training together and set ourselves the task of competing together. Having been a natural-born runner I didn’t have any great expectations of myself but the fact I was choosing the hard path only motivated me further.
Once I and my wife did our first competition it confirmed we had made the right choice. The atmosphere and the people there were terrific. You cheer on complete strangers as well as the people you are competing against because you are not there to beat other people; you are there to beat yourself.

How does your training differ from your average male in the gym?
My training is a lot more basic and streamlined than most people’s training. Competing in a sport gives you a very specific set of goals to achieve and if something doesn’t contribute directly to it then it is wasted effort. I’m also a big believer in focussing on only a few lifts and getting very proficient at them (regardless of your goal). If you want to change how your body looks and performs then you need to be very skilled at a lift to be able to push yourself hard enough (and use enough load) at it to give your body enough stimulus to change. These two principles of my training mean I’ve probably done a grand total of 6 or 7 exercises more than a handful of times over the last 12 months. It’s only once I started to focus on mastering a few lifts rather than being a jack of all exercises that I really started to make any progress in terms of strength and muscle gain.

What is your pet hate when working out?
To be blunt my pet hate is excuses. People are often so full of them and use them as crutches to lean on. This mindset benefits no-one, especially you and is the complete opposite to how people need to approach life. Nothing great ever happened fuelled by self-doubt and pessimism. We could all sit down and come up with 100 reasons why we might not be able to exercise regularly, but who does that benefit?
So often I hear “must be nice to have that much time to work out” or “I wish I could do that but …..”. At the end of the day, it is all about priorities and you always manage to make time for the things you truly see as important. If watching 25 hours of TV a week or going on Facebook every evening is important to you then I am not going to say that is wrong. But likewise don’t tell me that you CAN’T make time to train for 60 minutes a day.
All of the people who have ever achieved anything great had the same amount of time in each day as you do, they just used it a lot better.
Likewise, most of us will have certain things that we literally cannot do for various reasons (injuries, medical conditions, work/life conditions etc). You need to focus on what you CAN do and go at it with everything they can.
Here’s a little story to sum this up for me:
At the last competition, I did I was feeling pretty rubbish for one reason or another. I had done my 3 squat attempts and came up with 15-20kg short of what I wanted. So naturally I threw a huge tantrum and decided I hated powerlifting. At this point, an announcement was made for a guy who was competing in my weight class as he was attempting a personal best lift and they wanted to the crowd to get behind him. So I went up to cheer him on and noticed that he looked a bit unwell/worse for wear. After he completed the lift for a 10kg personal best it was announced that he was CURRENTLY ON CHEMOTHERAPY FOR KIDNEY CANCER. He had purposefully postponed his next treatment to the next day so he could lift at this competition. Nothing could have given me a bigger slap in the face than that and within a few seconds, my entire mindset changed. I went on to hit 15kg personal bests on both bench press and deadlift after that. That gentleman went on to take 2nd place in my class behind me, hitting what I believe was also a personal best in the deadlift at the end of the day also. My only regret is that I didn’t get a chance to give him my trophy because he sure as hell deserved it more than I did.
Everyone can achieve something great you just have to be willing to work for it because no place worth going has any shortcuts to get there.

Are there any common problems you see with people working out?
I often find people are lacking patience and a willingness to learn when it comes to working out. In part, I guess that is due to the way our society is going. Now we seem to be able to get everything we need instantly at our fingertips or (god forbid) the next day at the latest. Sadly our bodies don’t work like an iPhone and it takes years of hard work to get to a high level. If it took you 5 years of no exercises and crappy eating to get to where you are then you’re not going to be magazine cover ready in 3 months.
Yes radically changing your body takes time and effort. It is hard. But it is precise because it is hard that it is so rewarding. Similarly, you need to invest the time to learn the appropriate techniques for whatever endeavour you are undertaking. You can’t just start running/lifting/swimming out of nowhere with no previous knowledge and expect to be technically proficient. Invest a lot of time in either teaching yourself or getting help from someone experienced because you can’t get very far with faulty technique/movements patterns. Again, this goes against our society’s “everything right now whenever you want it” attitude but it’s the only way to get long-term progress.
However, I do think though that the biggest issue is people’s work ethic. Most people simply don’t work anywhere near hard enough in the gym to make the kind of progress they want to. Our bodies are designed to be moving and active the vast majority of the time, that’s how they function.  If you are training for 60 minutes every other day do you really think a half-assed workout is going to undo the hours of sitting and inactivity? It won’t. You’ve spent 47 of those 48 hours essentially inactive, so how hard do you think that hour-long workout needs to be to tell your body it needs to change? Chances are a lot harder than you are training now.
When is the last time a workout left you feeling sick or left you unable to get up off the floor for a few minutes? Probably never. Your only goal when you leave the gym should be to know that couldn’t have worked any harder. If you focus on that and that alone then the stage is set for you to be better than you ever thought you would be.

What is your advice to someone who wants to get into powerlifting?
My advice would be to find a group of lifters/coaches around you and get in touch with them. The best thing that has come out of powerlifting for me personally is the community I’ve found and the friends I’ve made. Being around motivated individuals with similar goals will spur you on to work harder. Training with people better and/or more experienced than yourself is also the fastest way to raise your own expectations of yourself and that inevitably means faster progress.

My other piece of advice would be to compete as soon as possible. It doesn’t matter what competition you do or how well you perform. The simple act of putting yourself out on that platform is a huge step and confidence boost. If you can lift the bar then you can compete and the earlier you do it the earlier you will start accumulating competition experience. You are never too inexperienced or too “weak” to do a competition and trust me once you get there and see the support you get from complete strangers then you will only wish you did it sooner.


1 Comment

  1. An enjoyable interview. I liked the comments that were so true about time and effort – and excuses. He knows exactly what he’s talking about.


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