Interview: James Tatum, Champion Weightlifter and Coach [Expert Tips]
Colton: Hi, this is Colton Tessener with Exercise.com and on behalf of Exercise.com, I have with me, James Tatum. James is a very high-level weightlifter, competing on the international level. He’s also a coach, he’s also a business owner. How you doing today, James?
James: Pretty good, man. Thanks for having me on.
Colton: Yeah, it’s really good to talk to you and catch up a little bit. And for everybody watching, I say catch up because James and I were actually college classmates back in the day. James, I don’t really want to talk about how long ago that was. Do you?
James: No, it’s all right with me.
Colton: It’s been longer than I wish.
James: Yeah, people are starting to call me the old person in the sport.
Colton: Yeah. We both took separate paths, but we both ended up opening our businesses now. You reached out to me whenever I opened my gym, Arise Athletics, and you’ve got your business now, House of Weightlifting, which we will definitely dig into and talk about.
Training and Competing
Colton: Why don’t we start, James, with just you letting us know a little bit about your background? Maybe where you started in athletics and what got you into training in the first place?
James: Yeah, man. I guess I started off wrestling. I was a wrestler. A buddy of mine just beat the crap out of me. After training, or after practice, he came up to me and he’s like, “Hey, you should come train with us to get stronger.” And it was with his powerlifting coach. I was like, “Well, he beat me up. I should probably go train with him, so I can get strong, too.”
And really down to its basics, that’s really what got me in the weight room. Then from there, I just started working with the powerlifting coach all through high school and college. Then slowly, but surely, you know…
Powerlifting is the sport where you compete in the Squat, the Bench, and the Deadlift. Weightlifting is a sport where you compete in the Snatch, and the Clean and Jerk. There’s a lot of overlapping with them.
It was during college, and I had some training partners, and they all moved away to a different college. [Then] doing powerlifting by myself wasn’t very fun. I didn’t want to do bench press by myself. That seemed dangerous. Yeah, so that’s what led me to the decision to try something else out and that something else was the sport of Weightlifting. I tended to … it turned out that I was a little bit better at Weightlifting. That’s pretty much the basics of it.
Colton: Yeah, and it’s interesting, a lot of stories of people’s beginning training or beginning athletics start with a humbling moment like you had after wrestling. If you’re humble enough to take it, then it can really benefit you in the long run. There was a similar thing for me.
Getting into … you mentioned having done powerlifting competitively, and then specializing and becoming even more advanced in the sport of Weightlifting. I was curious, how much do you think that background of everything that you build up, and the experience that you get in powerlifting, how much of a benefit was that to you in Weightlifting, compared to maybe somebody that did not spend years developing that base of the strength you built in powerlifting?
James: Yeah, man, that’s an interesting question. I think it was huge. Like I said, there’s a lot of carry over between those two sports, so there’s a lot of similarities. There’s a few things that hinder your progress making that switch. Luckily, my transition was pretty easy.
Powerlifting, you just … you get a lot of basics. You get the base, and you get it very well. You get strong. The sport of Weightlifting, it is a strength sport. You just have to get strong. I think powerlifting was huge in that. We did a lot of variety of different exercises, got our backs really strong. We got our legs strong.
There’s a few things that I would do differently, if I had to start over, but not many.
Colton: That actually leads really well into what was my next question: is that the way everybody should start, is start out, develop the base of low speed strength in the squat, bench, and deadlift? [Those] being somewhat technical, but not nearly as much as snatch and clean and jerk.
If there’s a few things you would change, if you could go back, what are those and, in short, how should a brand new person with a clean slate get started?
James: You know, that’s an interesting question. USA Weightlifting, the national governing body for the sport of Weightlifting in the United States, they’ve been working with trying to reach out to other sports. They did a lot of research, they did a lot of questionnaires to all of us athletes, finding out where we came from and where they should start looking for the next potential in Weightlifting, whether it’s from this sport or that sport.
I’m trying to think of the main sports that they got. One was football players, who were just a little too small, or something didn’t quite work out with football. The next one, powerlifting was a huge one. You get a lot of people from powerlifting especially.
So there’s a few people, like if you do bench press too much, you get a little bit tight in the chest, and you can’t really hold weight overhead that well. There’s a few people that once they get around that and they get that fixed, that they do really well.
Our 1996 Olympian, Shane Hamman, who still has all the super heavyweight records, was also a world record holder in the squat. I think it was like, 1000 pound squatter. He came from powerlifting.
We have our female super heavyweight, she won the world championships in 2017, I think. She came from competitive track. So, she was a thrower. We’re getting a lot of people from swimming, which seems surprising to me …
Colton: Yeah, that does surprise me.
James: Swimmers are getting strong. I think that’s one of the things that’s taken over in the sport of swimming now, is that they’re finding out how much strength training helps their performance in swimming. You’re just getting a lot of strong swimmers. They’re doing a lot of different polls and they’re finding a variety of sports that are good for Weightlifting.
Really, there’s a big pool that you can do. Gymnastics is another one. Gymnastics and cheerleading, into Weightlifting. They do really well, on the female side. Men’s gymnastics is more focused on upper body strength. I haven’t seen a lot of men gymnasts coming in through that side, but female gymnasts and cheerleaders are big.
With the powerlifting, the other thing that powerlifters do is, they don’t always lift the weight in a way that’s biomechanically correct. They lift it so that they can lift the most amount of weight, because that’s their sport. Rightfully so. If I had to go back and change one thing, it would be that. I wouldn’t … I would lift it biomechanically correct and just get to top potential that way.
I was never great at the powerlifting, competitively. I think I got one … a North Carolina state record in the deadlift once. I don’t think it would have hurt me that bad to just sacrifice a little bit of weight to focus on a different squat, a more upright squat, and things like that. I think that would have transferred over into Weightlifting better.
Colton: Yeah. You mentioned one of our female USA … Team USA female weightlifters that was a national champion, and you actually have a few of those under your belt in your training history. I bring that up just to build, maybe, our viewers’ knowledge of your background and why you are one the major names in the sport of Weightlifting in the United States, and are very sought after to do seminars.
You’ve trained with, also, some of the biggest coaches, some of the best in the US, and that is my next question: Could you talk about some of the coaches, some of the mentors you’ve had, throughout your career as an athlete?
James: Yeah man, thank you for that.
Yeah, I’ve had a variety of different coaches. My first coach was a powerlifting coach, and he coached me all through high school, and a little bit of college, too. I learned a lot from each of these coaches. I learned good things and I learned things that I would do different. I think both are very good lessons, as long you’re paying attention when you’re working with somebody.
I got a lot of good things. There’s certain things that I got from my first coach about atmosphere, and about how to make the atmosphere in the gym exciting, an atmosphere of progress.
My second coach was a guy named Glenn Pendlay. He’s probably one of the more famous coaches. He was a good coach. He’s the coach that I made the most amount of progress with. He took me as a raw powerlifter and transferred all that over into Weightlifting.
That’s another thing about creating atmosphere, his program was always designed around atmosphere. It was always designed around the team atmosphere, the training environment, and the competitiveness of going back and forth with your training partners. That really … it pushes you. It makes you really go up to that next level, really push yourself.
Once I started working with him, we started training nine times a week. Some of these sessions were probably like, two to three hours long. Some of them were a little shorter. But once I started doing that, it was just like, wow, that’s a lot of training. It really shocked you. You could see why all of that adding training volume and competitiveness really spiked that progress.
He was a good coach because he was very practical. He didn’t necessarily think of things through like … I don’t know how to describe it… he wasn’t restricted. He would think outside the box and he was very practical. “Oh, you have this issue? Let’s try this.” It would be like, “That doesn’t make any sense.”
But then after you think about it for a while, it’s just like, “Okay, yeah, that does make sense.”
For example, one of my training partners, he was a really high-level weightlifter before coming to Glenn. Once he came and started working with Glenn, Glenn had him doing this series of exercises, these back exercises. He had him do it every day, and it was a lot of volume.
My first thought was, “How is he ever going to recover? It doesn’t make sense if he does the same thing every day. He’s not going to have a chance to get stronger or get better.”
But he was just very practical with it and he just observed, and he watched, and he made sure he had progressed. He just had that supercompensation thing going into, and his back got a lot stronger, and it got a lot healthier, and he ended up lifting a lot more weight. It was really cool to see that, just to see the different approaches that he would take, outside of the normal idea of training.
One time, he had us train 16 times a day. It didn’t work for me, and it was really hard, but another one of the guys that I trained with did really well on it. He was just … he wasn’t afraid to try stuff and I think that was one of the cool things that I learned from him.
Colton: That’s interesting, how some of the people with the very high level, we think of … to us it looks like they’re breaking the conventional wisdom or the common understanding that most coaches have. But it’s like, “oh wait, the conventional wisdom came from them.” They’re the ones that are right on that cutting edge that are … they’re creating what it is. They are free to go outside that box and figure out more things. And who knows, maybe 10 years from now, that’ll be the thing that everybody’s doing.
James: Yeah. Yeah, it was really neat to see.
But I’ve worked with a lot of coaches, so that coach is a … he used to own a company called Muscle Driver USA. They made barbells and a lot of gym equipment. They were huge in my Weightlifting career, because that whole company really supported us as a team. They were the first company, since York Barbell, that really supported athletes in the sport of Weightlifting.
They brought in a lot of coaches for us to work with. I learned a lot from each of those, too. I learned a lot from Don McCauley. He just had a completely different way of coaching. He’s definitely influenced me, too. I was writing programs this morning, and I was like, “Oh, this is something that Don would write.”
That was a big influence. Just the way he thought about things was, again, it was just different. He’s pretty controversial out there because he had such a different way of thinking about things. You put that beside, and you actually sit back and listen, and try to understand. You actually do learn some cool things from him, so that was fun, too.
Colton: Yeah, that goes right along with a theme that I’ve noticed as I follow you on social media, and everything. And something I’ve seen repeated in content that you put out, is to say, “there’s more than one way. If you’re getting results, if you’re getting stronger, then who’s to say there’s only one way to get strong?” There are other ways, it sounds like, and you learned it from these coaches, even the ones that are going against the grain. If it produces results, who’s to say it’s wrong?
James: Yeah, really. Yeah, that’s … that hits the nail on the head.
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Colton: Let’s switch gears just a little bit, James, to talk about you as a coach. We’ve talked some about you as an athlete and who you were coached by. It’s always good, I think, before starting a coaching career, to have been coached by somebody, and know that role.
Now after having so much history and success in your athletic career, and during that time, and you’re still in that time of competing, but you’ve maybe switched gears a little bit to where you coach athletes in Weightlifting.
Do you coach exclusively for the sport of Weightlifting, but do you have also some athletes of other sports, or the general population?
James: Yeah, yeah. Let me also preface that, too.
Like you said, I’m still trying to compete in the sport of Weightlifting. With that being said, I’m working with another coach, a guy named Leo Totten, right now. Before him, a guy named Jay Fleming. It’s funny, because the work that I’m doing with them even right now as an athlete, is influencing my coaching right now.
It’s really neat. I’m always trying to learn and trying to pick up things, and you pick up a lot of different things. It definitely influences the way I’ve been coaching now.
But yeah, I’m making that transition into more and more coaching, and so … sorry, I lost my train of thought. What was that original question?
Colton: Just what’s that transition been like, as you … not that you’re leaving the athletic side, but you’re going more towards the coaching, and do you just specialize in coaching Weightlifting athletes? Do you coach athletes of other sports, and maybe some of the general population, too?
James: The transition has been interesting. I’m also a dad now. I’ve got two kids and a wife. A lot of my attention goes that way. When I’m in the gym, too, it’s kind of balancing everything out. In a way, my training does take a little bit more of a backseat to these other things, which is important. I talk to my coach about that a lot and we balance everything out and make sure the training fits. But I still train.
Sometimes, I’ll train with some of my athletes so that they can see me train. Then we can go back and forth. That makes it fun, too. It’s a little bit of an interesting juggle because you’re in a coaching role and you’re in a training role. It’s just keeping it common sense, keeping your sense about you, making sure that [your attention is spread] appropriately.
I think it’s definitely fun to see … let them see the way I move. That makes them connect about what they’re doing. If they see somebody lifting, they see the tempo of it, and the timing, and how it works. Sometimes that will be the thing that makes it click for them, to make them get better at something.
Yeah, so the … a few things that I’ve got to get used to is finding that balance. Yeah, it’s still fun. We always just try to have fun at the gym. Everything in my gym is about making that atmosphere exciting.
Colton: Yeah. It’s interesting to hear you say that, because you’re talking about some people that are at the forefront of the sport of Weightlifting, and you as a coach are certainly climbing to where you’re becoming recognized for that, as well. It’s interesting to hear you talk about making it fun. That’s something I’d certainly agree with.
Digging in more to a little bit of your philosophy, and if we can get into some of the real nuts and bolts of your training and how you coach people, if you could distill it down into one sentence that describes your philosophy as a coach?
James: It’s not really … I might be going into more than one sentence. This is pretty much it: are you making progress? If the answer’s yes, good. Keep doing what you’re doing. If the answer is no, okay, we’ll try something new.
Really, coming down to the basics that I do. So far, that’s the number one rule for Weightlifting or sport. You’ve to get better. That makes you … keeps you grounded, keeps your eyes on the most important things. Sometimes, us as coaches, we can get sucked into the next thing.
Like, oh this is pretty cool when really you have to bring it back to: “But is it working for my athlete? Is it working for this person?” Yes? Alright, let’s keep doing it. No? Alright, let’s try something else. That’s one of the [most fun] things about being a coach, too, I think.
For example, I was working with one girl. I think in the beginning, she was a little bit afraid to communicate with me, and tell me that things were not working, or if they were. Until finally, we started really getting the hint that she just wasn’t making progress. She was getting frustrated, this and that. And then we tried a pretty complete switch, a drastic program, and she’s making crazy fast progress. It’s just like, “Oh, that’s what you need.”
We just needed to communicate and make sure we knew what page we were each on. Now we see that you weren’t making progress, so we changed it up. Let me do this other program that … and that just skyrocketed you up. Since then, we’ve really been making steady progress for probably the past six months, or so.
Colton: Yeah, awesome. Now for the next thing I wanted to ask, you already got into a little bit, so I think I know the answer. When you’re coaching somebody, is it pre-designing a program and trying to follow it pretty strictly, or are you more intuitive on a day by day basis with what you observe that they need?
James: I try to plan out for about three to four weeks. I never plan for more than that, just because it’s too hard to plan, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Even within that three to four weeks, I would say I’m definitely more on the flexible side.
There was a guy I was training, I was coaching this guy, and I’ve been pushing him for a while, since I think 2014, I started coaching him. For the past two years, he’s been stuck in a rut and he hasn’t made a snatch PR. He had a little elbow injury and then he had a back injury that was unrelated, and then this, this, and that. Then he bought a house and couldn’t train. Now, he’s back in training.
Then he had a day where’s supposed to work up to 70%. Instead, he was feeling great. His training had been going good that day, [so I] gave him the green light, and then he did a four-kilo snatch PR, which after not hitting a PR in two years, four kilos was a big deal.
Everybody in the gym was super excited. He always comes in, when he’s in there, he works hard, gets after it, and he just hasn’t seen that PR. He hadn’t seen the progress in a while. That day, he came in and he was like, “All right, I’m feeling good.”
And he hit that four-kilo snatch PR, and then he went on and he ended up hitting a clean and jerk PR by, I think, a three kilo clean and jerk PR. That was his day. We had to change the program. 70% would have just been wasting that day for him, and it paid off because what’s more important, following my strict program or letting him see progress that’s been trying to get for the past two years?
Colton: That’s a great point.
James: There’s different circumstances. Some people are like that and other of my athletes aren’t. Some of my athletes, I hold them back on purpose so that they stay fresh for competition day. Or, like if some of my athletes, they’re … Weightlifting is a very technical sport. If one person has very inconsistent technique, I might hold them back to where I make sure they have all consistent good technique.
I don’t let them go and attempt heavy weights because I need to keep that technique consistent, so on competition day, they can go out and have consistent technique. And then go after it on competition day.
Colton: Another thing, and this is maybe traveling backwards a little bit to when we talked about the element of powerlifting and other things like that. One thing that’s different from those two strength sports, powerlifting and Weightlifting, is the speed of it, what somebody will call the slower speed strength versus the high-speed strength, or power.
When it comes to that explosive power element, there’s a big debate that’s probably just going to go on forever about how much is that even trainable? How much is that something that’s genetic? Do you just have your mom and dad to thank for having that trait?
What’s your experience say to you as an athlete and a coach in a sport where that is such a huge, huge importance [to have] that explosive strength?
James: Yeah, that’s always a fun debate. I definitely think there’s a genetic component to it. Definitely can’t deny that. But then we’ll go on the other side of the coin:
On my family, I’m really the only one that’s really pursued athletics. My brother did a little bit in high school, but my dad was a Marine. There’s definitely some athletic qualities in being a soldier. My mom really wasn’t an athlete.
But when we were growing up, we were very active. We worked a lot. I grew up living on a sailboat. What we did… living on a sailboat is a lot of work. You’ve got to dive down, you’ve got to scrape barnacles off the bottom of the boat. You’ve got to climb the mast, you’ve got to pull sails up. You’ve got to pull the anchor up. Go spear fishing. Just in general, it was just a very active childhood.
I think that plays a big role, because growing up, I was rowing boats. You know, I had a rowboat and I just rowed my boat everywhere. Once I became a landlubber, once I got on land, I rode my bicycle everywhere. That was my main mode of transportation. I was always outside doing stuff.
I think a lot of people underestimate that. It’s not early specialization, it’s just early exposure to a wide variety of activities.
Then you definitely have to have the genetic predisposition. For example, I was not genetically predisposed to be a great powerlifter. I was just so, so. But I was significantly better at Weightlifting. By no means am I one of the all-time best. I think my best performance … I think I got sixth place at Pan Am’s. That’s North, South, and Central America. That was my best performance, internationally.
So there’s definitely people out there that were better, but I never would have gotten that high in the sport of powerlifting, no matter how much I tried. There are some people out there that are powerlifting, they’re genetically gifted to be powerlifters. They have the right proportions, they have the right training stimulus, and they would just be better at it than me. But then, at the same point, I might be better than them at Weightlifting.
It’s really, I think, finding the right sport for you and … or, if you just enjoy doing it. If you enjoy doing it, just keep doing what you enjoy. If you end up being all right at it, then that’s pretty good.
Colton: Yeah. You mentioned some people that just may be because of predisposition, in addition to their hard work and training, can do some pretty impressive feats of strength.
I remember from when you and I were in college, you did some things that I was like, at the time, wowed by. We were at the same maybe… education level on paper, but you had a lot more training experience than I did, which led me to actually ask you [for] advice sometimes.
I’ve definitely seen you do things that I was like, man, that’s crazy for somebody that was only around my weight, but I think at the time, and this video is out there of you deadlifting 500 [pounds] for five [reps], stuff like that.
You have do have a remarkable quality of having an immense amount of strength for your weight class, which is … now, I know you did some of your competition at 77 kilos. What is your current weight class for Weightlifting?
James: They switched up all the weight classes. During the last quad, I was a 77-kilo athlete for most of it. Then I made the switch up to 85 [kg], right before Olympic trials, to try to make it as the next weight class up. I’m still sitting around that weight class, but now the weight class is 89 [kg]. Actually, I had to gain some more weight again. 89 [kg] is like, 196 pounds, I think. I’m still about 185.
Colton: Okay. Yeah, you can do some incredible things for your body weight. But my question was, what are … just whether it’s maybe in an athletic competition, or just in the gym in a training scenario, what are … if you could think, is there one thing that stands out as the most impressive feat of strength that you’ve seen anybody do?
James: Yeah, in the sport of Weightlifting, and they’re working really hard at it to clean up the sport, because there’s a lot of PEDs, performance enhancing drugs, in Weightlifting. Being a lifetime clean athlete, I … I don’t know. You just see how prevalent drugs are and you see how many people get popped, that I don’t give a lot of credit to a lot of lifts that I see, unless I know that the person is drug-free.
You never know 100%, but there’s people out there that can be like, “All right, I am 99% sure that this person’s drug-free.”
James: I limit my impressive list to who I think is drug-free. There’s a couple of famous weightlifters, like the best of all time, like Ilya Ilyin is one from Kazakhstan and he just lost his two gold Olympic medals from 2008, and 2012, and he did some crazy amounts of weight.
I really don’t find his stuff so impressive. I find the lifts that somebody does, that’s at the max of their potential, or as close to it as I think is possible, clean [most impressive].
The first one that comes to mind is talking about my same buddy I mentioned earlier. His name is Jared Fleming. His dad was actually one of my coaches for a little while. He was the one that had the weak back, and my coach, Glenn, started working with him and does all this stuff just to make his back strong.
He had that weak back, so that when he would pick up a bar off the floor, it looked like a million pounds. It would just be so slow. But then once he got into the hip, he would really explode. That’s where he really got all of his power and make these huge lifts that it looked like he could barely pick up off the floor, and then he would snatch it.
On that same token, he was really good at hang snatch. That’s when he’s got the bar all the way up at the hip, and then he just does … lowers it just a little bit and then drives it up. The American record at the time was 169 [kg]. In training, he picked up 175[kg] off the floor, and he barely picked it up off the floor. Then he had it at his hip, and then he hang snatched it, and it just, boom, went up easy. It was so shocking that he could hang snatch that much more than he could pick up off the floor.
175[kg] is like, 385 pounds. He’s a 94-kilo lifter, so just a little over 200 pounds. So, super impressive lift. After that, he tried 180 kilos, which was right under 400 pounds, which was over 10 kilos above what the American record was. That was just impressive for me to see, because he was so weak, but he still had that confidence to go after that lift, even though it felt so heavy off the floor.
There have definitely been some other ones in there, some notable mentions. That’s the one that sticks out the most.
Colton: Yeah. You’ve been around so many great people, from whether it’s the Weightlifting side or in your powerlifting, you’ve been around a lot of really high performing people.
Actually related to that, whether it’s some of the other athletes that you just … were your peers, or your actual coaching clients, is there something that you could identify as a common trait to what are the most successful weightlifters, or just anybody, what are they doing? Or a mindset? Just if there’s a common thread between all those people that see the best success, what would that be?
James: I think what I would say is consistency. Just consistency in training. Sometimes, it just takes a long time to get strong.
You can learn the technique pretty quick, especially if you have a good coach to start with. You learn the technique correctly. You can learn that and you can start developing consistent technique. Then, it just takes a long time to get strong. You just have to get volume, and volume, and volume.
Really what you see is, you see these athletes, the ones that stay in the sport the longest, and that they just keep getting a little bit better, a little bit better, nice and slow, and slowly progressing. They’re just consistent. They always come back and they train.
On the same token, those are also the ones that know their bodies enough to stop before they get injured. You know, you get injured, you can’t train. You’re out of the sport for a certain amount of time, and then you can’t get better.
I think that’s the most important thing, is knowing your body, knowing how to make it … how to, pretty much, not get injured. How to stay at that level before you fall down and go over that cliff of getting injured, or overtrained too far, that you can’t progress.
I think, for example, of the biggest ones is, there was a guy named Chad Vaughn and he’s won national championships nine times. He’s 37 or 38 now. He’s a two-time Olympian, he went to 2008 and 2012. I might be wrong about which Olympics he went to. He didn’t go to ’12. I think he went to ’04 and ’08.
Until 2014, he had never been beaten in the United States. That was his … he had already one nine national championships. That was five years ago, and now he’s still training, and now he competes as a Masters athlete. He just broke all of these Masters records. That’s his biggest thing, he’s just … he was just consistent. He just kept training, getting a little bit better.
He’s got a really cool story, too, because he was born with a club foot. That made him predisposed to not be good at Weightlifting, what you would think. But he was just consistent, he worked hard, he had the right mentality, and he just didn’t let things get in the way.
I think that was the biggest thing, because he didn’t have all the genetic markers to say he was going to be great, but he was consistent. He worked hard, and he stayed away from injury. So he trained smart, too.
Colton: Yeah, that’s a really good point because sometimes, just that consistency can yield a lot better result than those things where it’s just like, pound yourself to dust, and then you can’t train as much, that kind of thing. A lot of people will go wrong that way.
James: Yeah, it’s not sustainable. It might be for a few years, but if you’re thinking 10 years, it’s not going to work.
Colton: And certainly, if somebody has that kind of track record of longevity, that in the latter half of their 30s they’re still competing on the high level, then they … that’s something right there, he’s got something figured out.
One more thing on this side, and this might be a question I want to throw in there, kind of a fun one. That is, who are Frank and George?
James: So, Frank and George are … I don’t know. One day, I was just sitting around and I wanted to make a point. I think it was on Instagram. I had tried to say things on Instagram before, where it’s just like … I was just trying to … I don’t really know, it was just some training thought. Whenever I posted those, they just never got any attention. People are like, “Oh, another piece of unsolicited advice. Nobody cares.”
So I was like, “All right, let’s make it a little bit more personable.” I think my first one, I don’t remember exactly what it was, or it might not have been the first one, but it was like, “Frank gets strong by doing low reps, but George gets strong by doing high reps.”
So like, Frank gets strong doing sets of three and George gets strong doing sets of 10. Just to portray that there are different ways to do things, there are different ways to get strong.
You know, it’s funny how they evolved, is all the weightlifters, we don’t like being tired. We don’t like doing sets of 10 because we’re explosive athletes. 10 reps is too much. You lay down on the floor and you’re about to throw up. That’s not what us weightlifters like to do, so we … automatically, everybody was like, “George is the man because Frank likes doing 10s, so he must not be that good of a weightlifter.” Which wasn’t my original point, but it’s funny that it got turned into that.
And slowly over time, I just evolved it into [Frank] doing the right thing, and then [George] being the goofball that keeps making all the mistakes. Really, [it was] just a medium for me to send my thoughts out, like the thought of the day that I have about training. Whatever that might be, I just mix them into the story.
Colton: Yeah, that was a really interesting way to do it and kind of cool, too, that I can see why that worked better than just the dry, factual statement: “this is better than that, or these are …” like the first one that was different training methodologies work.
Nobody got excited about that, but they did catch on, and obviously, because that was several years ago you started that, and I remember it. I remember it to this day, seeing some of them. So I think that was a great way to make your points, and sort of a marketing form. That was content, in a sense.
Colton: Thinking about marketing, that brings me into that third segment that I want to talk to you about today, and that’s from the business side of things. A little bit about the gym, where you do your training, obviously you can’t just be a great coach but have nowhere to train, and no way to get clients. It’s a very important to be good, or at least working on things, on the business side.
Would you just tell us a little bit, in brief, about your facility? The House of Weightlifting?
James: Yeah, man. We opened up in January of 2018. You know, since then, it’s been a blast. It’s fun. I’ve had the plans to open up a gym for a long time, and I was actually going to do it probably a year earlier.
The funniest thing was, I had the hardest time finding a place, real estate, that would let you be loud. I even went to one place that was next to train station, and they were like, “No, dropping the weights is going to be too loud.” I’m like, “There’s literally trains that go by. They’re like, twice as loud. But dropping weights is not going to work for you?”
Pretty much what we did, we finally found a spot. It was a guy that was actually … he trained Spartan Race, you know, people that did Spartan Races, out of his facility. He was slowly progressing away from it, because he got job in a different field. He let us slowly take over his space while we were growing, which was huge.
Since then, now he’s off and he out doing his own thing, and we’ve got our whole space to ourselves. That little transition right into owning our whole space has been nice, because now we can handle the whole space ourselves and it’s a lot of fun.
Colton: From the pictures and videos I’ve seen online, you post a lot of training videos, it’s a great looking facility. It’s the kind of place I like, that’s chalk dust and clean enough, but not so much. It’s not a health club, that’s for sure. Real work gets done there.
James: It’s tough. It’s tough getting chalk cleaned. We definitely use chalk because it’s the sport of Weightlifting, but yeah, that chalk gets everywhere. Yeah, it’s a lot of fun.
Colton: When it comes to keeping the business, keeping it going, you’ve got to … in order to fulfill your passion that is your own training and coaching other people to be their best, as much as we might not like it and might find this stuff boring, you’ve got to have those clients, and you’ve got to get revenue for the gym. Otherwise, you’re not going to have anybody to train.
So what’s been your most effective way of getting new clients?
James: I will say that I used to manage a gym right after I got out of college, and while I was in college for a little while. I had the hardest time with marketing. I was doing a lot of things wrong.
But then once I became a well-known weightlifter … I tell you what, it’s almost like cheating, because so many people knew my name and they knew me as an athlete, and some of the other content that I put out there. It made people know who I was and it made it a lot easier to get people in the door.
And now, looking back, I see that we did a lot of good promotion, self-promotion, with … we did podcasts, we did YouTube videos, training, we competed, and all that stuff really made the difference to be able to get us started.
Surprisingly enough, I was very well-known on the national level, so I had a lot of remote clients that were all over the United States. [But] I only had so much influence locally to where I was at, right there, because I didn’t grow up where I’m at right now, which is just south of Charlotte, in South Carolina.
That was one of the struggles that I had. I had a little bit of influence. Some of the people, I brought them in. But then the biggest thing was just word of mouth, after that. We continually put out content and stuff, but really most people with word of mouth, just friends telling their friends, “Oh, this is James’s gym. You should come to train. Check it out.”
And another thing, the other thing that was big that helped me … this is kind of an odd thing. I had this video, where I actually told my landlord, I said, “Hey, we need to get rid of this mirror because it’s probably going to get broken.”
He was going to come in the next week and do it. I was Weightlifting and I missed a snatch behind me, and I broke the mirror. That video went viral.
Colton: I remember that!
James: Yeah. I was on Fail Army and everybody was like … that just got a ton of exposure for the gym. And then everybody in Charlotte was like, “Oh, that’s right down the road. I’m going to go check that gym out.”
That was my … that video couldn’t have happened at a better time. It wasn’t on purpose, but it was like, that was a huge thing to be like, “James has got this gym, where he breaks mirrors, right down the road. We should go check it out.”
But yeah, since then, the biggest thing has been word of mouth. I get clients that grew up in the area that know a lot of people. And really, I’ve got a lot of times, you hear you get that one client that tells most of the other people, that gets most of the people. That’s been one of the biggest things for me.
Colton: Yeah. Now speaking of those kinds of clients, and I know exactly what you’re talking about. Your really good promoters and the people that are natural salespeople, maybe more than you. You’re natural as a coach, maybe the client is a natural salesperson. Do you do anything to promote getting them to work and market a little bit for you and give you referrals?
James: Yeah, so I … this is a very unique situation. I don’t have any traditional things like that, where like, the referral program. That one person that was my client actually wants to be a coach, too. A lot of it has been, I’ve been training him. He actually just became one of the interns at the gym. Now, next month, I’m actually going to start … I’m going to hire him to be a coach in the gym.
That’s been an interesting transition. It’s almost like helping him develop his coaching side and then he’s been huge with marketing for the gym. He’s getting developed as a coach, and now he’s going to start working for us. It’s been a good relationship. I think that goes back to a little bit of my coaching style. I just try to find out what makes sense.
I’ve done some other things, where I’ve tried … I don’t know, marketing sales things. In my mind, they don’t feel genuine. With that, I think that portrays to the person I’m trying to sell, and it doesn’t feel quite genuine.
Once I found this one person, that I found the thing that seems a little bit more genuine, it seemed more natural. I was able to sell it a little bit better. It felt more natural to me. It’s made more sense for our gym. That’s the main thing that I follow with marketing.
Colton: Yeah, that’s great. That reflects my experience a lot, as well.
So It sounds like one of the best ways to get new clients is to be a legitimate expert in what you’re doing, and it’s not really about a scheme, or a clever promotion. Maybe the first step is, actually be everything that people are looking for. Right?
James: Yeah. Yeah, I’ll tell you what, I get so many ads about schemes. Grow your business five times. Gym businesses. I get them, I get ads for them all the time. It’s just … that’s not the way. That’s not how it works.
Colton: Yeah. You had to put in a lot of years to develop a reputation, and those kind of things, and that’s been your most valuable asset you can now leverage to help the business.
One other side of business, another thing that you’ve done, is actually released a book. It’s called The Physically Prepared Weightlifter. It’s available through your website, jamestatumusa.com. What’s a quick breakdown of that book, and who’s it geared to, and who can benefit from it?
James: Yeah, thanks for mentioning it.
I wrote the book in 2017. In Weightlifting, I guess I had this idea. You know how we were talking about how I came from a different sport. I came from powerlifting and I got that base of strength. There’s a few schools of Weightlifting out there that start … they specialize young. It was made popular by this Bulgarian coach, where they just do snatch, clean and jerk, and front squat, and they max out all the time. They get that super specialized type thing.
You start seeing a little bit of influence of that, and you get some … I would start seeing some of these weightlifters that just had these huge things missing in their just general athletic ability. They could snatch, and clean and jerk a lot, but they couldn’t walk straight. They’re knees hurt so much. They’re like … you’re like, “That’s not good.”
They couldn’t just do some general things. They always ache. There’s always aches and pains, and things. That was my thought, was like, “Oh, well, they just only do these three or four exercises and they never get any variety.”
One of the ideas is, is every exercise that you do, you adapt to the good things of it and you adapt to the bad things. The easiest one, to say, is on bench press:
The good things that you adapt to on bench press is it’s a great shoulder, tricep, and pec exercise. You can really do a decent amount of weight on it and get stronger. The bad things are, is that you run into some rotator cuff impingements, if you do too much of it, overdeveloped pecs causing the rounded shoulders.
There are a few of the bad things that you adapt to, so it’s really about balancing things, make sure that you don’t adapt to too many of the bad sides of each exercise.
Every exercise has that. Snatch and clean have very few downsides, but jerk has a lot of bad things that you adapt to, that you really need to help balance out. Really, what that whole book was about [was] how to do some GPP, how to get stronger, how to keep your knees balanced so they don’t hurt as much when you’re doing Weightlifting. How to get your back strong so that if deadlifts aren’t … if you’re hitting a plateau with deadlifts, you just need to get a variety of exercises.
Really, just becoming a more balanced athlete in the gym. There’s a lot of different ways to achieve GPP, general physical preparedness, and this was all focused on things that you can do in the gym.
Other things that I don’t cover in the book is, the great thing of GPP, is just do a different sport. You know?
If you need to take a break for a month, and go do a different sport, try something else out. Go try rock climbing. You’re still going to get a lot of good grip strength. You’re going to get a lot of stability. It might give your knees a little bit of a break. Or, go try something else out. Try one of these other sports that people are coming from. Try some gymnastics out.
Those are all just good forms of GPP, just general athleticism. I think that transfers over to sports really well. I’m definitely not one of the proponents of highly specialized. You’ve got to have a broad base. That goes back to that longevity thing, too. It gives you a mental break, if you need it.
Colton: Yeah, that a really good point that maybe goes against some of the hard-line, conventional wisdom, that doesn’t necessarily take into account the human side of it. Sometimes the best thing, in the long run, is actually for you, mentally, to recharge a little bit and then I can come back and be more excited about training.
So, wrapping things up, getting into the last couple of things I wanted to ask you, what is on the horizon for you as a competitive athlete, and what’s also next for your business?
James: The next thing for me, as an athlete … so, I had an injury right before Pan Am’s 2017. That really slowed my training down, but I’m on the way back up. I had some nerve damage in my shoulder, which is kind of a freak accident that doesn’t really even happen that often in Weightlifting. That nerve is finally … the muscles around that nerve are a lot stronger now, so I am on the way back.
My main goal is to win another national. We just had these most recent nationals a couple … maybe a month ago. I ended up getting fourth overall. The last time I competed at nationals in 2017, I won fairly easily. Then I went from first [place] … first one back, I got fourth [place]. I’m on that way, I’m climbing back up. I’d like to win nationals again, as an athlete.
And then the next thing after that, as far as the gym goes, really, we’re just continuing to grow. Keep growing and hiring a new coach, so that’s going to be fun. Adding some more people to the team, seeing him develop as a coach, seeing where his path goes off to, and let the gym grow. Keep it a great atmosphere to train at.
And I think after that, I think I need to grow just a little bit more, and then my next big thing I think I’m going to focus on is hosting more quality events in this area. More local Weightlifting competitions, more … just more things that I think people outside of my gym might need too.
There’s a lot of potential on that side, so I’m looking forward to seeing where that goes, too.
Colton: Yeah, and certainly with your expertise and everything like that, I think that does sound like a great idea to further utilize all the work you put in, and the name you’ve built for yourself. I can definitely see people coming to you, even if they’re traveling from across the state or even out of state, to come to something that James Tatum is hosting.
Well, that is a good place for us to wrap, I think. James, I really appreciate you taking the time and for your insights today. Appreciate it so much, man.
James: Yeah, thanks again for having me on.
Colton Tessener is a Strength & Conditioning Coach and gym owner from North Carolina. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science from UNC-Wilmington and has 10 years of hands-on experience in coaching clients of all types on improving physical performance. His gym, Arise Athletics, has been recognized locally as Small Business of the Year and named one of the Best Gyms in Wake County (Raleigh, NC).
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