Squat Record Holder Ray Williams Shared His Best Strength Advice

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Ray Williams occupies a class all his own. The 6’1”, 400-pound powerlifter not only became the first man to surpass 1,000 pounds in the back squat—accomplishing that feat at the 2016 USAPL Raw Nationals with a 1,005-pound lift—he has since pushed that staggering total even higher, squatting 1,080 pounds at the 2019 Arnold Sports Festival.

For anyone who has squatted even 315 pounds to parallel, this feat should seem appropriately mind-boggling. Williams’ superhuman status was confirmed in a University of Limerick case study. There, ultrasound testing revealed that although the powerlifter weighed 403 pounds, his body-fat percentage was a mere 24.3%. 304 of his 403 pounds were determined to be “fat-free mass,” giving him the highest recorded total of fat-free mass of anyone in human history.

When I spoke to Williams, he explained that the back squat was the single most important lift at Demopolis High School, where he and his classmates engaged in a fierce competition about who could squat the most weight. Although his high school football coaches weren’t the best in terms of teaching technique, Williams excelled at the lift and credited it for earning a scholarship to play football at the University of Tennessee at Martin, where he became a Division I FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) All-American at defensive tackle in 2008.

After working out with professional football teams in Canada and the NFL, Williams chose to leave the sport for good. The wear and tear on his body, he says, had kept his squat artificially low—he says he was squatting “only” 675 pounds during his playing days—and after he transitioned into powerlifting, his meet performances, particularly his back squat numbers, shot into the stratosphere. With only a half-decade of serious competition under his belt, he had already become the greatest squatter of all time, mastering a lift which many legendary lifters had devoted their entire careers to perfecting.

Williams, who continues competing and believes he can add to his own world record, now operates Prime Predator Performance in Texas alongside strength and conditioning coach Dave Garcia, who befriended Williams at the 2018 IPF World Classic Championships in Alberta, Canada. Together, the pair develop individualized training programs for athletes involved in various sports, such as football, wrestling, powerlifting, and soccer. Given his gym’s focus on developing programming around athletes of many different ages and skill levels, we asked Ray to share some general training tips as well as some insights into his own training regimen.

What do you wish you had known when you were a novice trainee, long before embarking on a record-setting run as a competitive powerlifter?

You know, even though I had a very successful run as a college football player, I think what I had to learn about most was dedication. I hadn’t understood dedication and consistency in the sense that it is required for world-class training until I became a powerlifter. To an extent, I was coasting off natural ability. I grew up poor, and a lot of things related to lifting just came naturally to me. They had to come to me because I didn’t have a lot of specialized attention or training to get them any other way.

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Squatting was the lift all the kids cared about at my high school, and I squatted all through college. Still, I never squatted more than 675 pounds when I was playing ball because I was always so beaten up and tired, which limited what I could do in the weight room. But when I decided to commit to powerlifting, that’s when I discovered dedication and consistency. Everything clicked and my lifts went through the roof.

If you’re just starting out in strength training, what sort of background learning should you do? What coaching styles or programs should you read about?

You need to go into this with an open mind. Also, you should get an experienced coach for the sport you’re trying to learn, because you will likely need that guidance. A good coach can catch errors before they become bad habits.

What do you recommend eating to build strength?

Seeing as how I’m a 400-pound man, my diet is a little bit different. I have to be extremely careful about certain things. I used to enjoy soft drinks, but now I don’t consume much sugar. I don’t want to develop diabetes. And even though I love pork, my wife—who is a nurse—makes sure I’m eating primarily chicken, brown rice, and eggs. That’s where I get a lot of my calories and protein from. I’ll go through two 5-pound bags of brown rice each week. I’ll eat 6 to 8 eggs at a time.

What about for people who aren’t training to become the world’s best squatter?

These are good tips for anybody if you do it in moderation: Replace white rice with brown rice, because you’re getting more protein and more fiber with each serving. Replace pork with chicken. I like those Tyson chicken tenders that are trimmed up already. Eat some eggs and you’ll feel full pretty quickly. Make these simple changes and you’ll see a difference in no time. But you shouldn’t be eating like a 400-pound man unless you’re competing with me!

How much sleep do you need to stay strong?

First, you have to figure out what “good sleep” is. I’m talking about that deep sleep, a close cousin to death. That kind of sleep where you’re totally unconscious and when you wake up, you’re scratching your chest and confused about where you are. You need six to seven hours of that, at least, out of the sleep you’re getting, because sleep is when everything in the body resets itself. Sleep is when your kidneys do their work, hormone regulation occurs, the lymphatic system is working—everything is getting flushed out. When you’re in the gym, you’re tearing muscle fibers. That’s part one of training. But you need sleep to grow those muscles, because that’s when they’re being repaired.

How do you know if you’re overtraining?

I have to be very careful about how I prepare for each meet. Everything has to be planned out in advance. If I’m off, I can sense it immediately. There’s bodily fatigue, which is just your muscles not being able to move the weight. But more importantly, there’s tremendous neurological fatigue that comes from having just performed a huge lift. Your brain is like a governor. It says, “This is all I’m going to give you” and then it shuts down. You have to deal with both types of fatigue as your training progresses. If you can’t figure out how to manage bodily and neurological fatigue, you will plateau. The gains will stop.

For someone who is just starting out, what equipment do you recommend buying?

I’m going to throw you for a loop here. I know some people will say lifting shoes with a good heel or a good firm belt. But I have a lot of stuff I carry: I have chalk, bands, you name it. And I have my cell phone, other clothes, and food. If I forget that stuff, I’ll have to drive home from the gym and get it. That’s a lot of wasted time. So my advice is to get yourself a good gym bag, so you don’t have that excuse. “Oh, I left my stuff at home, guess I’ll just turn around.” Put it all in the bag.

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What is the most common mistake you see trainees making in gyms?

When it comes to people who have been training for a little while, I would say the most dangerous mistakes relate to the deadlift. The squat, yeah, you see problems, but you can get those fixed quick, and people who don’t understand the squat usually just don’t do it. But with the deadlift—man, like these kids in Mississippi, they’re all trained to do sumo deadlifts and they’re wearing so much equipment.

They only pull sumo style, not conventional. Their backs round in a real unsafe way. And if you say anything to them, they think you’re hating on them. Well, okay, sure, but you can ruin yourself with one bad pull. So make sure you understand how to do the deadlift properly before you start messing around with it and develop bad habits.

What would you say to older trainees—people 40 years old and up—who want to start strength training?

You still see people forty years and older doing great things in powerlifting. That’s an entire division, masters-level powerlifting. And some of these older folks started powerlifting late in life. But one thing those late-life lifters have in common is a good coach, because as you get older, you need to make sure your form is excellent. If you haven’t learned those movement patterns early in life, you need to pay special attention to make sure they’re right when you’re older. Otherwise, the risk of catastrophic injury is a lot higher.

What’s the best way to motivate yourself to hit the gym on a regular basis?

Remind yourself that a prerequisite for growth is sacrifice. When I got into powerlifting in a major way, I realized kicking it with my frat brothers wasn’t the best fit with my new lifestyle. In my twenties, when I was playing ball, I lived off the Dollar Menu at McDonald’s. I changed that because I realized that what I put into my body had a direct effect on what I could do with that body. Powerlifting hammered that home.

One of my old coaches used to refer to what he called the “12 Ps”: Piss-poor preparation promotes piss-poor performance and piss-poor performance promotes pain. I finally began to understand this when I saw the results from my improved lifestyle. Your results can be anything that matters to you as a trainee, though mine were specifically about powerlifting. But they could be you noticing your traps are bigger, or your quads are bigger, or whatever. You notice that and your mind grasps the benefit of sacrifice. Then it becomes easier to stay consistent.

What changes have you noticed in your body as you’ve gotten stronger?

The more I’ve trained the muscles in my body, the more I see how they help me perform certain activities. I walk up the steps, I feel one group of muscles engaging. I pick something up, I feel another muscle group engaging. It’s crazy. I experience so much feedback from all these muscle groups. And the longer you do this, the sharper that feedback gets.

What did it feel like to squat more than 1,000 pounds?

Truly an amazing thing. First, I have to get myself angry. I don’t care about how I look up there. I get like that bull in the Looney Tunes. Snorting, eyes red, totally in the zone. Then, when you get under that weight—all 1,000 pounds—you understand that this amount of weight doesn’t so much sit on your back as it becomes part of you. And your core as you squat this, combined with the tight, thick belt—that area becomes like steel. You go down, come back up, re-rack the bar, then step back and admire your work. It’s incredible.

What is your least favorite barbell lift?

One barbell lift I don’t like to do is the front squat. This is partly because my elbow tendinitis makes it very difficult. So when I want to squat with a motion similar to the front squat, I use a padded safety squat bar, which lets you follow that same general movement pattern. It isn’t so much that the front squat is a bad barbell lift, it’s just not comfortable for me. Other folks might find they have lifts they can’t perform or don’t want to perform for similar reasons.

What are the least effective exercises you see trainees perform?

There’s a reason for almost every exercise out there, even if they’re not always done correctly. We might put together a program at Prime Predator Performance for one sport using exercises we’d never program for a different sport. So it all depends. Same goes with fitness methodologies. I won’t say anything bad about something like CrossFit. CrossFit has worked for some people. It really got people interested in barbell exercises again, and it introduced a lot of different women to lifting.

Any final words of advice you’d like to share?

One thing that will definitely help you achieve your training goals is a support system. Like I said, my wife is a nurse. She’s on top of the stuff I’m doing because she knows how important this is for us. If she sees me eating pork on Monday, she reminds me about that throughout the week. She’s always looking out for me that way. Now for you, that might not be a wife, that could be friends or family or a training partner. But no matter what your goals are, you can go a lot further with a good support system behind you.

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