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World Super Heavyweight Powerlifting Champion, Donnie Thompson, Sees Kettlebells As Key For Gaining Performance Edge In All Sports

January 18, 2011 09:39 AM

World Super Heavyweight Powerlifting Champion Donnie Thompson discusses Kettlebell success gaining a performance edge in all sports
Donnie Thompson, Powerlifter discusses his success gaining a performance edge in all sports with Russian kettlebell strength training workouts
Powerlifting Champion Donnie Thompson discusses Kettlebell strength training success

Dragon Door: Tell me about your athletic background, and your accomplishments in powerlifting.

Donnie Thompson: I got into football during my senior year, when I started public high school. Then I got a scholarship to a small school called Shepherd College. In my junior year of college I started playing pretty good. I became a center, which is what I’d always wanted to be. My senior year I made all of the awards, you know, best lineman, All-Conference and a Conference title.

I went into the NFL after that. I got to play in the NFL’s player strike in 1987. I played for Tampa Bay. We played for five weeks in three games and then they cut us off. Then my agent got me into Arena Football in 1988. I started in New England and played six years from ’88 to ’93.

After ’93, I decided to stop playing and start my own gym. It grew and grew and after six years, I sold it. I’d had enough of the health club business and I’d been giving 110% to it, you know? I gave everything.

In 1998, I went to find Louis Simmons, of Westside Barbell. I made a pilgrimage out there for nine days and decided to learn powerlifting. He told me I was way too thin. I’d kept my body weight down?I think I weighed 257 lbs. when I met him.

I started pulling a sled, and doing bands and chains. I was training twice a day and I ended up dropping more weight. A burst of power down to a 220-lb. weight class. I was way underweight, and I was going through a lot of stress with work. I’ve lifted at five weight classes, and I’ve pretty much won something in each.

So I couldn’t gain weight; I was very lean. But I was getting better and better, and I started really picking up right around the time when I finally sold my gym. I sold it to Marc Bartley, my training partner. He still runs it and he enjoys it.

Marc started training with me and a few others, but Marc and I were the only ones that lasted. My goal from the beginning was to be number one. So I kept going and finally I totaled 2,400 lbs. my first time in 2002, as a super heavyweight.

I also placed second at my first pro meet at the Show of Strength, which starred Gary Frank, the strongest guy in the world. Then in 2003, I had a really rough year. I tore my hamstring in two places, and my knees got really bad from that tear. But I worked through it and managed to qualify for an Arnold. Then, when the Arnold came, I hurt my back. I almost quit. But I set up my life to not fall back on anything.

I was in such pain that I couldn’t walk. I remember being on the kitchen floor for three hours. I weighed 355 lbs. at the time, and when you weigh that much and you can’t walk, it’s pretty hard. You’re like a turtle with no legs.

For 2004, I finally came back and I was stronger than ever. At the Show of Strength, I placed second with a total of 2,551 lbs. Then, I went to the Arnold Classic again for the WPO Championships. It was there that I won first place for the super heavyweight title and belt.

Anyway, Mr. Haney, my friend in Columbia, SC and the former track-and-field star at USC, kept preaching these kettlebells to me. He’d say, “You ought to try them. I’ve been doing them for the last couple of years now.” His back was really bad, and he said that they were relieving his pain. So I decided to look into them.

We ordered them, but they weren’t going to arrive before we left for the Arnold. So I went to Pavel and I said, “I need to get better here. I’m missing this meet because my back’s out.” I told him that I deadlifted 804 at my last meet, and that I was a super heavyweight. He got all excited. He pulled me aside and he told me, “I’m going to teach you some unorthodox things that I’m not responsible for. Do you understand?” I said, “The way I train with bands and chains and stuff, everything is unorthodox!” So he showed me some things that would help my back get better.

Those sessions with Pavel were the best half-hours I’ve spent learning from anyone…

At the Arnold, I sat and watched backstage while Spud took second place in his weight class, got on the winner’s podium and got his check and his medal. I was back there just helping them. It was awful. It was the most awful experience. I was happy for him, but no one likes to sit on the bench.

Our kettlebells came in the week we got back. We started using them and I quickly adapted to them. Pavel wasn’t sure what they would do for my upper body. He said they probably wouldn’t help my bench, but they’d help my back.

My back is still tricky. If I wasn’t doing kettlebells, it would go out about five times a year. It’d be a five-to-seven day thing where I’m walking kind of crooked. But that hasn’t happened since I’ve been on kettlebells.

Kettlebells hit hamstrings where I needed them strong. They hit glutes were I needed them strong. And they do a tremendous amount of ab work. I’m not sure most people understand how much ab work kettlebells do. They are very beneficial.

I kept with single movements for a couple of months, and then I ordered enough KBs so we have doubles now. In Hard-Style Magazine, there was an article that explained how I pulled 832 at…I weighed 384 lbs. I was at like, 176 kilos when I weighed in. Ridiculous! I had never weighed that much in my life and I didn’t even know that I weighed that much, because my waist is smaller.

But the kettlebells put so much mass on my upper body, and I couldn’t get that with conventional weights.

D.D.: Interesting!

D.T.: Yeah. My shoulders were weak all of my life, but the kettlebells helped me put on mass immediately.

D.D.: Which exercises did that for you?

D.T.: Well, I do a myriad of exercises. I did a lot of swings from the side, not just in the middle. Because the middle, for me, is a lot of lower body. And I do dual kettlebells, or with the 88-kilo, I’ll do single-line kettlebells.

Then I’ll take 72s and go double. I’ll do pull-throughs with my legs, and that really gets my lower body. I’ve got to be careful with those. I do them after I squat, because if I did them the day before something, my glutes and hamstrings would be too sore to actually squat. Some of my other powerlifter friends were sore for five or six days the first time they tried double-kettlebell swings between the legs. Then I do the outside, and then I make my deadlift. I use the 72s for that.

Then I’ll have two upper-body days. A lot of snatches, snatch presses, and bottoms-up presses. It really has made a difference in my shoulders. As for deltoid work, I’ll hold static kettlebells like this, plopped over my arms for a ten count, and do a set of three to five. Or I’ll hold them out here, and then bring them back up and then flip them over, bring them down, or I’ll have them here, and bring them back up, then flip them over and bring them down. It takes about an hour and a half for a small group of us to get through it.

Marc and I will tell you the same thing, because we are pretty much at the same level of powerlifting: We honestly have not seen anything that 100% transferred over to a sport like kettlebells. I mean there is nothing about KBs that doesn’t transfer over to powerlifting.

I’m happy, because now I have something that I can do when I’m done powerlifting. I can do kettlebells all the way into my twilight years.

I’m tickled to death about that and I only have to buy KBs one time! [Laughter' Nothing is going to happen to them, because those little iron balls, they are indestructible. It’s like finding a treasure or something.

Kettlebells will never be easy. When you get stronger, your reward is to do a harder task. But I’ll keep doing them to stay ahead of my powerlifting competition.

I’ve got a large group in South Carolina that has been doing kettlebells. I have to bring the KBs from where I work to my gym, because I don’t have my own set for the gym yet. And if I don’t bring them, everybody’s mad. “How come you didn’t bring those kettlebells from work?”

We are all going to do doubles for powerlifting. The doubles have been the best thing for a load. Mostly, everything is doubles. I teach single arm, but for me, I do doubles.

D.D.: Excellent! So how has the certification been for you?

D.T.: It’s been exciting to do stuff that I haven’t done in so long. I haven’t been out in a field like that barefooted, training. Not since football practice ten years ago. It’s really fun!

Also, being around people with different backgrounds is nice, because I’m only exposed to top-level powerlifters right now. It’s nice for a change to see the regular world out there. Seeing people with basic needs, who represent the kind of clients that we teach kettlebells to. But my biggest reason for coming out here and doing this is that I want to be a strength coach after my powerlifting career. That transition will happen in one or two years.

As a strength coach for football players that specialize in offensive and defensive line, the key is kettlebells. My kids train with bands and chains and stuff, but when we put the kettlebells on top of that, you are talking about a turbo-type of training. In four to five years, these kids are going to be dominating their opponents. They’ll dominate to the point where other teams are afraid to play them.

That’s my goal. Because the strength coaches are going to have to change in big-time college football and in the NFL, because we are on the way up. People like me are coming into the business now.

I went to my hometown college, USC in South Carolina. In the state paper, they showed how the strength coach has the team doing full squats. They haven’t done this since the 1980s. Now that’s a crying shame! But how do you discover full squats? I mean, they’ve been around forever.

They’re a major S.E.C. football team that is just now discovering full squats? I would love to be a coach in another S.E.C. school that plays them, because my kids would have been doing squats with bands, box squats, sled pulling, and we’d add kettlebell work on top of that. I’d go to South Carolina licking my chops. I don’t care if Steve Spurrier is the coach or not. My guys would kill their guys! We are coming. We are on the way! We are going to break into this, and then everybody’s going to wonder how it’s happening.

Just like Pavel said, “It’s growing. Kettlebells are just growing.” He was the first. Your organization, Dragon Door, was the first organization to push this ahead. You pioneered it.

You can contact Donnie at