Roger Estep- The Bodybuilding Powerlifter Everyone Knows By Sight, But Not By Name
“Train hard… party hard… makes the body hard.”
If there has ever been a single better quote from a lifter about his methodology, I have no idea what it could be- this ranks right up there with Carl Panzram’s last words for utterances of badassery. Roger Estep has existed perennially as the low key, full homo man crush of muscle hustling powerlifters for forty years, and as such is considered to be the best built strength athlete of all time. What people seem to have forgotten, however, is that Estep was the first powerlifter of whom we know who traveled to another gym to learn their secrets and put them to use, in addition to being one of the most brutally strong 198 pound powerlifters in the history of the sport, in addition to being the first elite powerlifter the world saw who relied almost entirely on the power of single rep sets. Yep- if you’re a fan of doctorates of bullshit like Israetel and Schoenfeld, a frequent poster on Reddit or 4Chan, or otherwise inclined towards sucking at everything gym- and intellect-related, you might want to grab a sharp object and find a vein, because you’re going to want to kill yourself in short order (and remember, it’s down the road, not across the street- no one gives a shit about your cries for help).
“Roger Estep got a letter the other day…. In it was the statement that, if he became a full-time bodybuilder, “I’m sure you could make $100,000 a year.” The letter was from Joe Weider…. He’s got a nice framed picture in his apartment from Frank and Christine Zane… it’s signed… “to the most beautiful body in powerlifting” … some strong support for the claim that Roger Estep is the best built man in powerlifting, but Roger doesn’t make that claim himself… he doesn’t have to… he carries the evidence around with him every day of the year. As you can see from the cover photo, he possesses tremendous thigh mass… same for the delts and arms… and in between, a narrow waist and trim hips… especially for a man weighing 205 lbs. It wasn’t always that way though….” (Lambert Roger)
That sort of unbridled man-love is typically reserved for gay dating sites and anything involving Zyzz or Calum Von Moger, but it’s been going on for four decades with Estep because not only did he look like the ultimate man to slap on a leather codpiece and do some seriously bloody anal punching, but he was so goddamned strong he pulled off a raw 815 squat and 670 for 7 reps at 203lbs, two weeks out from breaking the world record in the squat. To any guy harboring some barely closeted, sweaty, musclebound homoerotic fantasies, Roger Estep is the ultimate male (and I’m betting most chicks wouldn’t kick him out of bed for leaving crumbs).
Hilariously, this sort of behavior extended even to the legendary George Frenn, who took Estep under his wing after seeing one of Estep’s first meets.
“‘What is it?’ …. ‘What do you do?’ The questions must have seemed most strange to young Roger Estep, who was simply wandering around, having just bombed out of the 1974 National Collegiate Powerlifting Championships in Long Beach, California. His effort to drop to a lower weight class had been a disaster and he was seriously occupied in considering just what kind of all-around fool he was… but the stranger, and fate, persisted. ‘What do you do for your legs?… How did you get them that big?… With legs like that you ought to be abusing those weights!’ The man with the questions was George Frenn, one of the greatest powerlifters of all time… an Olympic hammer thrower, Pan American champion, and much more” (Lambert Training).
As I’ve done an entire AMA on my various sexual escapades involving both genders, I feel comfortable making the statement that this is a level of panting, sweaty-palmed, drooling man love that even makes me uncomfortable… and I’m rarely creeped out by anything short of Bronies. That said, it doesn’t really matter what your motivation is in seeking out information on the smoldering volcano of man-essence is, because Roger Estep stands as a testament to anyone who wants to make massive improvements in strength sports over a short period of time that it is not only possible to do so, but it’s possible to do so while looking so goddamned good you generally just masturbate to a fantasy of you banging your clone.
Roger Estep in a Bloody Great Big Nutshell
No one exists in a vacuum… not even mustachioed gods-among-mere-mortals like Roger Estep. Though you might not consider it to be pertinent to the subject of how he came to be the dominant 198 lber of the late 1970’s, background is always important. Estep was born in Kentucky, the son of a coal miner, and moved with his family to Michigan to follow his grizzled badass of a dad in search of work and the black lung. Presumable having single-handedly battled an avalanche or some other preposterously testosterone laden misadventure, Estep’s dad broke his back, and the family then settled in small town Ohio for Roger’s formative years. It was there that Estep blossomed as a burgeoning badass, going all state in both football and baseball as a 150lb running back and outfielder, respectively. It was then that Estep was recruited hard as hell by the infamous Woody Hayes, one of the top ten winning-est coaches in NCAA football, but with the Vietnam War going Estep passed on a full ride and became an Army Ranger instead.
AWESOME SIDEBAR! Not only is Woody Hayes in the College Football Hall of Fame as a coach, but this bad mofo is also known for:
- his staggering NCAA Division I football record of 238 wins, 72 losses, and 10 ties.
- coining the phrase “pay it forward” in a bizarrely uncharacteristic (for him) statement: “You can never pay back, so you should always try to pay forward.”
- his comments about the infamous My Lai Massacre, in which he said that the Vietnamese men in My Lai deserved to die, “and I wouldn’t be so sure those women were innocent. The children are obviously innocent – if they are less than five.”
- uppercutting a hapless cameraman on the sidelines of the OSU-Michigan game in 1977
- telling one of his own players to remove his helmet during practice, then cold cocking him
- and blasting a linebacker twice his size with a haymaker in the throat for taunting his team on their own sideline, which triggered a bench clearing brawl. After getting physically removed from the scrum by his own team, Hayes verbally attacked on of the refs, was pulled away by one of his players, and then tried to fight his own player. If Jesus and the Dalai Lama had walked onto that field they’d have left on stretchers, and afterwards Hayes would likely have lamented he didn’t get to arrange a massacre in revenge for that player’s effrontery.
“Nobody despises to lose more than I do. That’s got me into trouble over the years, but it also made a man of mediocre ability into a pretty good coach.”
– poignant stuff from philosophizing fugalist Woody Hayes. Go hard or just end it already.
Having a man of that caliber attempt to recruit a wildly undersized white kid (the starter on the team at that time was future NFL player Jim Otis, who dwarfed Estep at 6′ 223lbs) to play running back in a run-first offense like the late 1960’s National Champions Ohio State would be like having Leatherface recruit you to join a team of cannibalistic lumberjack hitmen, or Snoop Dogg go to great pains to bring you aboard an all-star team of pimpin’ chefs. It’d be like Quentin Tarentino choosing you to star in his next massive blockbuster after having you ring his groceries in a supermarket, yet Roger Estep said, “nah, nigga- I’ma go peel some Vietnamese caps back.” Thus, big E peeled off to join the US Army Rangers, picked up a couple of medals, lifted at every base at which he was stationed, and brought powerlifting to small town Ohio when he returned.
Estep first competed in the 1973 Junior Ohio State meet at the ripe old age of 24, going 1520 at a bodyweight of 193lbs, then finished second at the Senior meet later that year. The following year he bombed out of the same meet on a 500lb squat attempt, having cut to 181 and then been a pile of soggy dogshit thereafter. 1975 saw him improve to second in the nation in the Collegiate Nationals, and in 1976 he took the crown. He then proceeded to be three time YMCA national champ, snagged two golds in the Pan Am Games in 1977, was the West Virginia athlete of the year in 1977, and then grabbed the top spot in the world in 1978 by beating bench press god Larry Pacifico with a world record squat (769.5), second place all time bench (490) and total (1944).
The question, then, is how in the hell did a guy manage to put 424lbs onto his total in a matter of five years? Having set a world record myself after putting 120lbs onto my total in three years, that type of progress seems fantastical to the point of being bullshit- we’re not talking noob gains, after all, but 85lbs a year consistently for five straight years by an advanced lifter. For those of you who are going to just scream “steroids” and “meathead” through this article, let me fill you in on a secret- Roger Estep was no dummy. He graduated from OSU with a pre-physical therapy degree, working with a physiologist who coached the US Olympic rowing team and did work with NASA. This in turn led led to Estep and his mentor, the aforementioned professor who was also an avid marathon runner, being used as a muscle biopsy donor for the initial scientific examinations of the difference between fast and slow twitch muscles. After using a pencil size plunger to extract muscle from his quad, it turned out that Estep’s fibers were four times the size of the control group’s and marathon runners’, which seemed to be a direct result of his steadfast devotion to training with heavy singles. And if that’s not enough evidence of his intellectual credibility, Estep went on to become a millionaire as a nuclear medicine technician and owner of California Medical Imaging Registry of Orange County, and when he died it was of brain cancer, not complications from steroids.
The answer to the question of how in the hell he did it is easy- it was a combination of psychotic devotion to lifting and the OG Westside Crew’s help. After seeing the raw potential Estep possessed, George Frenn talked the kid’s ear off until they formed a friendship, then sent him a program so he could train the Westside way. Estep used the program for a year but was nursing a couple of injuries, so he took 2nd at nationals and decided to call Frenn to find out what he was doing wrong. After a lengthy conversation, Estep asked if he could spend the summer in LA, training with the Westside guys and learning their methods. Since Bill West was fanatical about keeping their training methods a secret, but Frenn was insistant that he wanted the methods shared so that he could beat all comers even if they had his methods to use against him, it took a bit of convincing to bring West on board. West finally acceded, however, and Frenn called back Estep with the message, “Sure, Rog, come out for the summer. We’ll train HARD!” (Fernando).
When Estep flew out to Cali, he was hitting 600 for two on the squat. After five weeks of sweating his ass off in the LA heat and Bill West’s un-air conditioned garage gym, however, Roger was squatting 680, and all of his other lifts went up accordingly. As was his habit, Estep basically entered every goddamned competition he could, but the first one he entered put everyone on notice, because he squatted 630, 660, and 690, following himself after every attempt, in his first meet after training with the Westside guys. As the record was 710 at the time, no one knew what to do about Estep or his ridiculous leaps in his total. The dude was already a legend even if no one had heard of him two years prior.
From there, Estep absolutely killed himself in an effort to break 2000 at 198. And I mean that very literally. Estep completely ignored the light days in the program and started training to max with singles at every single session. If something started hurting he’d just pop a shitload of painkillers and train through it, “even if it meant screaming out in pain before, during, and after a set. If he was supposed to handle a certain weight on a certain day, he did it, no matter what” (Fernando). He was going through a divorce? Eff it- train harder. Got laid off? Eff it- train harder. His solution to every single issue in his life was more goddamned weight on the bar, no matter what he felt like, what his injuries were, or anything else- if he was breathing, he should be moving sick weights.
Though that method yielded massive results in the form of a world record and some seriously impressive and consistent numbers in 1978, he was spending half the competitive year injured because he refused to listen to his goddamned body. Though he eventually learned to tone it down when he was in agonizing pain and knew training would just exacerbate the problem, he was never able to beat his top marks from 1978. Nevertheless, the man’s strategy going into 1978 was sound as hell (he just happened to get carried away thereafter in an effort to crush his already outlandish numbers, so those methods definitely bear a bit of investigation.
Training, Roger Estep Style
Since I first saw Estep’s pics online I was curious about his diet, because he looked practically stage ready in every pic of him anyone’s ever seen. Tragically, there’s nothing exciting to learn in that regard- “His diet is mainly meat, vegetables, milk, and a shitload of pepsi. Ate three to four meals a day, nothing dogmatic or rigid, and wasn’t big on supplements” (Lambert Built). Thus, Estep’s training seems to have been the key to his physique, though his mentality seems to have played a huge role in his physique as well, because it enabled him to handle the massive training weights he used on a regular basis.
“You have to MAKE YOURSELF BELIEVE IN YOURSELF. You’ve got to set a goal and think to yourself, “If so-and-so can do it, then I can do it.” When Roger first went to West Virginia, Luke Iams was handling around 700 in the squat. Later, when he started believing that he could do 800, his squat shot to that mark and beyond. You can not let the weight intimidate you. This is even more important in powerlifting than it is in Olympic lifting, but the perception of David Rigert on the state of American lifting tells a tale: ‘You have many strong lifters, but few brave ones'” (Fernando).
To that end, Estep threw everything he could at himself to condition the fear out of himself regarding big weights, acting like he was a shaky-cam horror film director trying to cure viewers’ chronic anxiety with more jump scares than Paranormal Activity. First and foremost, meant tons of rocking box squats, which he learned from George Frenn, done with 50-75lbs more than his max. His thinking was that if you were used to doing ten reps with 820 on the high box squat, 780 for a full single would feel like nothing. It also meant forced reps like you’re trying to be the second coming of Jimmy Pellechia– the negative is “all you, bro!” and you get some help on the press itself. Again, it conditions the fear out of you, and science has finally caught up to the lifters of the world to prove that eccentric overloads confer some serious size and strength gains to those brojobs in the gym everyone’s been told don’t know their ass from their elbow when it comes to training do (Friedmann-Bette, Norrbrand). The final part of Estep’s mental side to training is believing you are the unmitigated shit:
“Another part of mental attitude is what might be described as “inward conceit.” You don’t have to go around talking about what you’re going to lift to everyone you meet, but deep inside, you have to feel that you are the best . . . and if you should be defeated, you have to feel that it’s simply a matter of time before you emerge victorious, because the other guy is simply not as good as you are” (Lambert Training).
Estep’s Basic Routine
True to what he learned training with Frenn and OG Westside crew, Estep and the lifters with whom he trained in West Virginia (who called themselves the “Wild Bunch”) had a basic program they followed, but unlike the modern obsession with bare-bones bullshit, they went ham sandwich after getting their mainstays in because they loved to train. I also have the sense that like myself, these guys weren’t busy recording every goddamned thing they did, so what follows is a general guideline rather than a set in stone program- Estep apparently did 12 sets of singles on major lifts on a regular basis, though here you’ll see far fewer sets listed.
High Box Squat– Light warmup, followed by 90lb jumps to a work weight that is 50-75lbs over his best max squat. He’ll use that weight for a single set of 10 on a high box, though if his knees were giving him shit, he’d cut that to 7. After a light warmup set he takes 90-lb. jumps to a poundage 50-75 lbs. over his best max squat single and goes for 10 reps.
Low Box Squat– Using a box height that put him 2-3 inches below parallel he’d take 100lbs off his 1RM and rep out.
Bench Press– 4 singles followed by an AMRAP pump set
Good Mornings-3 x 10
Leg Curl– 3 x 10
Random Bodybuilding Shit
Squat– Work up to a max set for ten reps. Later on in his career he’d just work up to a single rep about a hundred pounds off his max, to grease the groove, as Pavel put it.
Deadlift– Work up to a max set for ten reps, without straps.
Leg Curl– 3 x 10
Random Bodybuilding Shit
Snatches and Cleans (On occasion)
Squat– Four singles, competition style, treating each attempt like it was a meet.
Bench– Four singles, competition style, treating each attempt like it was a meet.
Deadlift– Four singles, competition style, treating each attempt like it was a meet.
Leg Curl– 3 x 10
Random Bodybuilding Shit
On selecting poundages for meets and training:
“Selecting your poundages for a meet is based on a percentage concept Your opener should also be a lift that you have 100% confidence in making . . . after that you go to something that you might have 80% confidence in. Say if you had handled 800 or more 4 out of 5 times in workouts, then that would be an 80% lift, and, depending on the competition, that might be what you would want to take” (Lambert Training).
“During a maximum attempt almost all of the muscles and nerve endings are ‘firing’ simultaneously in order to achieve the lift. If there is a psychological barrier due to a prior injury or because the weight is now in a ‘magical’ area (usually the even numbers such as 300, 400, 500 etc. are responsible for this), signals from the stress receptors will be allowed to overload the ‘system’, like a common circuit breaker, and shut it down; and the lift will be missed” (Fernando).
This method will beat the ever-loving shit out of you, and can’t be used year round. Estep, Frenn, and friends all cycled this method throughout the year to bust plateaus and beat staleness, but even as crazy as Estep was, he didn’t try to use it nonstop. As Ron Fernando hilariously put it, “one can not, in my estimation, use the Hands On method for 365 days of the year and certainly not for 465 days a year, except in rare cases involving mirrors, reality cracks and/or long, late-night mental battles with tortured terrorists posing as people made of provolone” (Fernando).
Using the Hands On Method
Light Squat– 135 x 10; 225 x 8; 315 x 5 x 5
Bench (assuming 300 max) -135 x 10 x 2 sets; 225 x 5; 250 x 3; 270 x 1; 285 x 1; 295 x 1; 305, 315, 330 x 1 (Hands On); 290 x 1 (paused); 240 x 10 (touch and go)
Notes: The 270 x 1 should easier than a crack whore on payday, and basically be an opening attempt under any condition. The 285 and 295 are heavy core sets, which should be tough but workable. The hands on sets are over your max, and the spotter should keep the first two fingers of each hand on the bar throughout the duration of the lift.
“This is important because a lot of people literally ‘dump’ the weight on a lifter and then come to their rescue with the forced reps. From my experience training with Roger, it is very important for the lifter to feel that he or she is in CONTROL throughout the whole lift. The eccentric or negative phase of the lift is, therefore, important. Another method we can use can be called the ‘fist’ method where the spotter lifts the weight off with the fists close together so that when the lifter comes down the spotter’s fists actually make contact with the lifters chest. I like this method because it imparts an even greater sense of psychological confidence in the area of ‘uncharted waters’. As Roger is fond of saying, ‘Don’t let the weight control you . . . be aggressive at the bottom‘” (Fernando).
Deadlift (assuming 520 max)- 135 x 10; 245 x 8; 335 x 5; 415 x 1; 465 x 1; 495 x 1; then 525, 545, 560 x 1 (Hands On)
“In the deadlift, I feel that this method has the most applicability. Spotting for the big pull is a bit trickier, so careful attention to detail is important. Regardless of which style (sumo or regular) the athlete assumes, the spotter should stand behind, literally crowding the lifter. By placing the hands – one at the base of the sternum and the other at the tailbone – an extreme feeling of tightness is imparted. However, the lifter will be doing the pulling. Additionally, this will keep the lifter in the groove and prevent any old injury from cropping up if the body gets out of place. If one feels really brave, don a pair of straps and try the Hands On with the deadlift. I guarantee that you will pull weights beyond your wildest expectations” (Fernando).
Squat (assuming 500 max)- 135 x 10; 225 x 8; 315 x 5; 375 x 3; 405 x 1; 445 x 1; 475 x 1; then 505, 525, 540 x 1 (Hands On)
Light Bench– 135 x 10; 225 x 5 x 5 or 250 x 5 x 3
And with that, you have all there is to know about Roger Estep without digging up the man’s corpse and attempting some serious necromancy. Frankly, a hyper-jacked zombie with a penchant for maniacal training and one hell of a 40 time sounds like what would be the worst possible case scenario involving sprinter zombies, so I’ll leave that to a far more accomplished occultist than myself. It sucks that Estep isn’t around to tell us himself, but according to his obituaries he fought brain cancer to the bitter goddamned end, going under the knife ten times before dying of complications of the last surgery. What everyone should gather from his story, however, is that the man was far more than the brawny, glistening physique everyone’s been slobbering over for 40 years- he was an innovator who experimented like a mad scientist and trained like an utter psychopath until he stood atop his weight class like a god among mere mortals.
Fernando, Ron. Forced reps (1984). Tight Tan Slacks of Dezso Ban. 29 Jun 2014. Web. 17 Mar 2019. http://ditillo2.blogspot.com/2014/06/forced-reps-ron-fernando-1984.html
Friedmann-Bette B, Bauer T, Kinscherf R, Vorwald S, Klute K, Bischoff D, Müller H, Weber MA, Metz J, Kauczor HU, Bärtsch P, Billeter R. Effects of strength training with eccentric overload on muscle adaptation in male athletes. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2010 Mar;108(4):821-36.
Jacobs, Robert. Legends of the iron game: Roger Estep. 23 May 2018. Web. 17 Mar 2019. https://www.therackapc.com/single-post/2018/05/23/Legends-of-The-Iron-Game-Roger-Estep
Lambert, Mike. Roger Estep: is he the best built man in powerlifting? Powerlifting USA, Jun 1980, pp. 4-5.
Lambert, Mike. Roger Estep training routine. Powerlifting USA, Jul 1980, pp. 11-14.
Norrbrand L, Fluckey JD, Pozzo M, Tesch PA. Resistance training using eccentric overload induces early adaptations in skeletal muscle size. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2008 Feb;102(3):271-81.
Roger Estep. The Orange County Register. 9 Jul 2005. Web. 17 Mar 2019. https://obits.ocregister.com/obituaries/orangecounty/obituary.aspx?n=roger-estep&pid=14476920
Sutphin, Paul. Powerlifting: The Total Package. Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2014.