Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Interview with Weightlifting Coach and First Pull Author Jean-Patrick Millette

Weightlifting coach and author of First Pull: Jean-Patrick Millette

About three years ago, I noticed articles being shared across my Facebook feed from one particular website. That website was none other than First Pull. For those unfamiliar with it, First Pull is run by Jean-Patrick Millette. He's a weightlifting coach at Les Géants de Montréal based out of Montreal, Canada, who writes about the sport. He’s written weightlifting articles on numerous topics, including technical details and programming, and has published interviews he has done with international athletes. The site delivers excellent content without any ads and gimmicks. I instantly began to follow it.

Fast forward to the spring of 2015 - my friends and I took a trip to Montreal. As I sought to learn more about coaching, I reached out to Jean-Patrick, hoping to use my visit as an opportunity to meet with him. I thought it would be perfect to interview the man who's interviewed other weightlifters. Jean-Patrick was more than happy to meet and talk. We agreed to rendezvous at a local Starbucks.

It's amazing how quickly an hour can pass during good conversation. Enjoy.


When did you know you wanted to start coaching and how did you get involved?

I always wanted to teach. I remember wanting to teach psychology at the university level when I was a teen. Then, I wanted to teach sport. As my love for weightlifting kept growing as a teen, I found myself wanting to teach it. I did not know I would end up teaching it full time or as a career.

I got involved more and more in weightlifting and the wheels started spinning. Through my bachelor, I got proposed a job coaching - just a few hours a week, maybe six hours a week, through a Crossfit gym. It was great at first, but if you do it part time, you can’t coach full time serious athletes. Although people might want to train full time with you, you cannot offer it.

It was great to coach part time in Crossfit gyms. I met a lot of people and coached a lot of different people. Le Club d’haltérophilie les Géants de Montréal is the reason I am now coaching full time. My boss, Pierre Charbonneau, is an ex-elite weightlifter that dreamed about having his own club and hopefully live off his passion. 30 years later, I am the head coach of the club and him and the club are responsible for me living off my dream job. I am eternally thankful for this opportunity.

You said growing up, your father was naturally strong. How does your family view your career as a weightlifting coach and your work on First Pull?

They liked the idea of me developing First Pull. For them, it's just a way for me to be out there and to share my passion. As far as being a weightlifting coach, I think it was unexpected for them because I was working in a lab as I was doing a masters in neuroscience (after my kinesiology bachelor). I stepped out of that to become a full time weightlifting coach as soon as I got the opportunity. Yes, I did end up turning down a grant. You can’t escape your passion, though.

As for my father, he is one of the strongest individuals I have seen in my life and I have witnessed a 200+kg CJ. He is about 5'6 and 100kg. He’s extremely muscular and strong. I’m tall and on the skinny side. He used to do strength tricks to impress me as a kid. I have seen him lift a car and move a car by himself and he used to bicep curl me when I was 10 years old. He apparently had weightlifting friends and used to talk to me about how they lifted many plates above their head.

That's pretty good. Hopefully it runs in the family.

All my sisters are pretty strong, I didn't get as lucky. Fun fact: The first time my sister tried the deadlift, she did 305 lbs. That was her first deadlift ever. She stopped because it was her first time and she did not want to push it. The first time she squatted, she did 135 for 20 reps.

Some guys can't even do that their first time.

Did you think First Pull would become so popular in such a short period of time?

I always do things because I feel like doing them rather than for the reaction they might cause. So, I thought nobody would read it. Even at first, I didn't even buy the .net, I would just use the firstpull.wordpress.com and I would have ads on the page. The main reason I think it got popular quick is that Gregor from All Things Gym noticed me after one or two posts. He asked me to write a guest post and I got a lot of followers quicker because of that. I thank him for that.

With the development of First Pull, what opportunities has it given you?

It helped with me finding a full time weightlifting coach job. It's a good resume of how I work and how I think. It got me a few seminars in school, too. My goal with First Pull was to make the sport grow, and as an indirect consequence, I ended up coaching full time.

Young athletes training together and hard at work

Snatch, Clean, Pulls

When the snatch is taught, it's explained in more detail compared to the clean. Is there anything you have observed in the clean that tends to be overlooked by athletes and coaches when they teach it?

I think with the clean, people tend to not finish their pull or finish it incorrectly. They'll bring the bar above their kneecaps and bang it on their thighs to try and bring it to their shoulders.

I like to teach my athletes to bring the bar at least to mid thighs - or slightly lower depending on their arms’ length. By doing so, it is easier to keep the shoulders directly over the bar, while still being bent at the knees. The resulting action of the leg, back, and shoulder vertical drive makes it a more power movement. A good clean is usually when the bar is met at around parallel and ridden down in the hole for a bounce. Most elite lifters will do that because it’s quite hard to stand up with a huge bar when it crashes on you.

I know the snatch is more technical and the clean is more about strength, but they lose sight of the fact the clean is still technical to an extent. It's not pure strength.

You cannot bring a bar to mid thighs and bang it forward and expect to lift 200 kilos. It still has to be close, it's just that the movement is shorter and it’s easier to maintain balance in the receiving position compared to the snatch. With the snatch, the bar is going above head so it's a little bit trickier whereas in the clean the bar is going to your shoulders. A lot of emphasis should be put on meeting the bar. Sometimes you see a lot of people have the bar bang on them because they don’t finish their pull correctly, leading to the bar going forward and incorrect arm action.

Yes, a very abrupt catch. It looks like it crashes into their deltoids.

You can get away with that if you are very strong. You can do big numbers like that, but you're upping your risk for injuries, especially the knees and back. The goal is not to get away with it, but to do it better and better so that you can lift more and hopefully for a longer time period.


In the Weightlifting Scoop episode featuring you, the discussion at the end of the episode debates how many steps are necessary to teach the lifts.

You've discussed action occurs faster than a lifter can consciously process it and said if a lifter is thinking too much, thinking will disrupt actual execution. How should a coach avoid that issue - should they teach the lifts in minimal steps or describe each step? What is best for the athlete?

When starting someone, I believe that you should use as little information as possible. You don't coach somebody that is starting baseball the same way you coach somebody that throws for a professional team. The movement is not the same, although it might look the same. Training is the difference between the two. One has an idea of what he is doing and can feel what he is doing, whereas the other one is learning to feel what is a good throw and what is a bad throw. The better or the more experienced you get, the more precise the coaching has to be.

However you decide to go about it, you need to start with a simple task and complexify it as you go. As far as position, in my experience, I just do whatever clicks for that athlete. My default is to teach the pull and the squat first. From there, I move to powers and complexes.

I love that people write me emails to know what progressions I use for the kids because I post a lot of videos from the kids I coach. The truth is, my system is highly flexible. I will do whatever works for you in terms of learning progression. I just adapt to that person. Whatever works for you, I use it toward building sound technique (in the way of complexes for instance).

Whatever suits the athlete.

Yeah. And start simple, complexify it. What I do put a lot of emphasis on is what you look like in the starting position and what you look like at the power position. In between tends to vary between athletes because of their morphology. There are concepts that you want to have, like you need to be over the bar, you need to have your shoulders higher than your hip, weight should be distributed toward the back of the foot, and more, but that's going to be shown in a different way in everybody. Whereas in the power position, everybody looks the same: you're a little bit more vertical, your shoulders are over the bar not in front.

Left to right: Min-Jae Kim, Vladimir Sedov, and Saeid Mohammadpourkarkaragh

Core concepts remain the same, but you'll see some variations.

Yeah, but I let people find their own way in between those positions and then I'll refine. One analogy I use is if you're going to use a big block of stone to sculpt something like a human statue, you will, at first, remove big chunks of stone with a hammer or something sharp. After a while, it's going to look a little bit more like a human-like form and you're going to use sand paper (or something similar) to make it look pretty and make the details come to life. That's how I see coaching.

That makes sense. A beginner will only be able to handle so much information. Then as they improve and have better motor skills and develop the lifts, they can incorporate the finer subtleties.

Yeah for sure. They'll also be able to relate to those little details.

One thing I've come across frequently is pulls are very important, yet very underrated. They should be emphasized in the program. What pulls have you found particularly helpful for athletes. On the flipside, have you found any movement that has little benefit to incorporate in the program?

The pull is the basis of weightlifting. Pulls develop position strength. Pulls will also make you have a long lasting career, because a strong back is usually a healthy back.

In my system, I tend to favor snatch pulls to clean pulls for one major reason. If you're a serious athlete and you train a lot (very frequently) snatch pulls are easier to recover from because they involve using less weight. Both type of pulls are important, though. In my experience, it also works the upper back differently because of the arm position. I do use clean pulls, but I will say my athletes do twice as many snatch pulls than clean pulls. That would be a rough approximation. When we do clean pulls, we push the weights a bit more.

I like pulls from the hang a lot. You stay under tension for a longer time which is super helpful because you can understand position better, improve specific hypertrophy and you can develop position better and positional strength.

We tend to call pulls from blocks ‘’Lazy pulls.’’ We do them when we are sick and tired. It’s not that they are bad, but the blocks definitely makes it easier to handle the weights and I am not sure if that is the way to go. I think your system should look for ways to make lifts harder, not easier.

Usually it's the other way around. Everyone recommends block work instead of hang work.

I like lifts from the blocks because they are useful for speed strength, but I don't like pulls from the blocks because they are not as useful. They could be potentially useful if you have a back problem but other than that, I feel like you need to really load that exercise to get a benefit and then it becomes a matter of recovering adequately, training priority, and the time of the year (how far you are from competition).

I know other people they like it and have had success with it. Whatever works for you should be kept in your program. Personally, I think there are better variations.

That makes sense - lighter load and better recovery. Why load up the lifts if you can achieve the same thing with a different movement.

I know you work primarily with children, or younger teens and adolescents.

Yes, we have about 15 kids aged 8 to 14 years old (average age being 12) who train with us. Our team won Les Jeux de Montréal (Montreal Games) last year again, meaning our youth team is the best in Montréal as per this competition.

Many juniors and seniors athletes are training in the club as well. I coached George Kobaladze at the 2016 Pan Ams Championships which was an incredible experience (Thanks George). I coach Michele Letendre as well. I just learnt today that my junior athlete Caroline Dupont is now on the national junior team.

I have worked as a consultant with world class rowers and Crossfitters before as well.

A video posted by Jean-Patrick Millette, Bsc (@firstpull) on

What are common issues you find with older lifters that begin with you? And expanding on that, what differences have you noticed between each age group - children, adolescents, and adults who start this sport?

If you're an adult and you're just starting this sport without a background, you need to train using the same system children use in weightlifting. I know that it is a tough pill to swallow, but you need to be building a base before anything else.

I know you are stronger than a kid, and that is exactly why you need to start slow if you don’t want to get injured. In most countries that are dominant in the sport, they ask you to do three years of general technique work and the numbers at that moment are not the priority.

The thing is with adults they come in and they want to push too soon in my opinion. This is a strength sport, but it also involves other athletic abilities - you need to be flexible, you need to be fast or powerful, which is a subset of strength. If you push without having all of the above, you may hurt yourself or get stuck at a plateau that is technical rather than strength based.

Too fast too soon.

Yeah. Another thing is that they are aware of social media so they're aware of people doing whatever it is they do on the internet. Some people max out all the time so they come back to the gym and they want to do that because they have seen it.

As far as mindset, I think children love the sport a bit more than adults. The kids come in the gym and they're just happy to be lifting. They don't care about the numbers and the performance aspect of it. They're just happy to be there and to lift.

Whereas a lot of adults come in the gym with a performance oriented mindset which is what you need. However, you need to be able to celebrate your accomplishments and be able to live through your failures. You need pressure on yourself to be good in this sport but you also need to enjoy it you want to get really good. Here is the truth: You don't get good in two years, you get good in 6, 8, 10 years. So you need that motivation, that enjoyment.

Going into a similar topic, many weightlifters and yourself have said mental strength is crucial. I have seen you referenece Tommy Kono's quote, "Weightlifting is 50% mental, 30% technique and 20% power." How should an athlete go about developing mental strength?

You have written about your gambling system where you encourage lifters to focus on their performance and then you have also changed the training in the middle of a session. What other strategies have you found for developing an athlete's mental strength?

I remove control basically. Here is an example: If an athlete is a program freak (does 100% of what is written, not more, not less - no matter how bad or good they feel) - I will stop handing out a written program and tell it exercise-by-exercise and set-by-set. This way they have to adapt to the unknown of the program, just as sometimes you need to do a kilo less or a kilo more than you planned to win a medal. Plans should be flexible.

Your athletes are lucky to have a coach. For one reason or another, athletes may not have access to one. For instance, Canadian weightlifter Christine Girard and as well as Amna Al Haddad. At one point or another, they did not have a coach. Fortunately, they do now and they have somewhere to train. What advice can you give to someone who has to train alone and does not have a coach?

I'm thinking of two things. The best advice is stay conservative and focus on feeling the movement well. It’s easy to train stupid when nobody is looking at you because you are not accountable. Your mindset should be on quality first, and from there you build a base to grow your numbers.

The second best advice I can give is to film yourself and just send the videos to any coach you might have heard of online. Everybody can be found on Facebook and they will give their opinions of how you are moving. A lot of coaches will do that for free just out of love for the sport. They might even give you one or two tips and that's going to be incredible for you and make a life changing experience in your training.

Weightlifting is a straightforward sport - take the bar from the ground and get it overhead. Do you think we complicate the movements in North America? Such as triple extension vs. catapult, knees in vs. knees out, so on and so forth.

I don't think you can ever complicate the movements. I think it's important to know the movements in all their details. However, a lot of people make the mistake of over complicating the movements when they teach. The coach needs to know everything there is to know about snatch, clean and jerk, and physiological response a person can experience from any type of reps and sets schemes and all that coach stuff.

However, the athlete doesn't need to know all of that. You are there to provide the assistance, and they are there to provide the effort. Together you work toward a common goal by playing your respective role. Good coach-athlete professional relationships usually ends up with high results.

It is good to know a lot of things, but there is a time and order for teaching every little detail and technical point you may know. One step at a time. From the biggest mistake to the less important ones.

Social media has changed weightlifting in a significant way. First Pull is a great example. Are there any issues when someone relies heavily on only videos and articles online?

It's not bad to read too much - I encourage everyone to get as knowledgeable as they can. However, it's bad to try everything at once. There's a time for reading and there's a time for doing and usually you can learn things through reading a lot faster than you can refine your technique and increase your results. You can learn a lot of theory faster than you can learn how to do it. That’s why, when you step in the gym, it's good to lose control just do what you got to do on that day.

I think that's the main difficulty with coaching adults. They come in with a diagnostic of their lifts. They are focused on that, and may forget the whole picture.

Who taught you weightlifting and what did you learn from your coaches? What have you learned from other coaches?

My story is a little bit funny because around 12 years old I saw weightlifting on TV and I thought that was so cool. I couldn't practice it because there were no clubs nearby and my mom wasn't so much into it. Around 16 years old I started buying books, just keeping up to date with the sport and I could only start training around 20 years old or something. I came from a Bulgarian-ish system based on intensity and little physical preparation. I don't believe in this system, especially for developing an athlete from scratch. I don't believe in having young athletes or beginners max out every day. I think they should max out in competition or maybe two weeks before and whenever it goes well. I guess I believe in a Soviet inspired system.

Right. You lean more towards 3-5 reps.

It's very rare that we do singles. We'll do singles when we feel good or when we're doing a test. I learned a lot by exploring the systems of weightlifting, reading books, even more books. When things don't work out, again you ask the question why is it not working out and you start having a hypothesis and you explore these hypotheses.

When the system I trained under did not work to my liking, I asked myself why and then I realized we were lacking a lot of tonnage and exercise variations. Through that, I created more or less my own system that is heavily inspired by Soviet literature and influential people I have met through my time in this sport.

As for your other question, which was what did I learn from other coaches, I will say that I learned the importance of general strength from watching athletes like George Kobaladze. I’m not talking just squats, but also the importance of variation of strength movements.

I learned a lot of non-common exercises from other coaches I have interacted with. Some of those exercises are not popular or known in Canada, but they have helped me fix back problems, transition problems, and speed problems.

You've been a coach for quite some time now. What are some hard lessons you had to learn? What advice do you have for new coaches?

Don't go too fast with your athletes. Take the time to build the base correctly. If you rush, aches and pains will remind you that you are skipping steps.

Don’t specialize too early. Variation is key when developing an athlete because through variation you can develop different type of athletic characteristics. It will also keep your athlete’s interest in the sport higher.

The broad exercise advice makes sense. It might not have direct effect, but it gives you a stronger, more solid base that you mentioned earlier.

Let’s say you train for three years and as you're building the foundation, you're getting strong, and you are learning the lifts through countless reps. Let’s pretend you do a 200kg squat after 3 years and a 140kg clean and jerk. You will be doing 160+ within a year with specialization training. That is because the base is good and your body can withstand the increase of training volume and intensity.

But if you push too soon, you will be skipping on the required tonnage (or have difficulty meeting the recommended number of yearly lifts). In three years, chances are that your numbers will be 10 to 20% less than they should have been. It will be hard to make up for that because your base will be small. You will know the lifts, but the general physical preparedness will be low.

What would you suggest to parents who are recreational lifters and are interested in getting their children involved in weightlifting?

Don't train at the same time, but bring your kid in weightlifting. Depending on the kid's age, a lot of kids will want to be weightlifting but they might be shy because the parents are there. They don't want that parental pressure because they feel like they have to look good in front of their parents. In my experience, that's what I've noticed. If you remove the parents from the room, what you see is the kids start to get more into it and they feel like it's their hour.

But bring them in weightlifting.

Weightlifting the Sport

Now, weightlifting is either there or not there in a country. What do you believe determines the popularity of the sport in a country?

Local heroes that appear in the media. For instance, there's a good story about weightlifting here. In 2000, Maryse Turcotte, amongst other female lifters, who was a great female weightlifter, went to many international competitions (including the Olympic games) and inspired many women to start in this sport. Her competitions were on TV and many people knew about her so a lot of girls started training because they wanted to be like her.

Maryse Turcotte

A great parallel would be to look at the hockey situation in Canada. Everybody trains in hockey because they want to be like their favorite player. More often than not, the first page of our newspaper is hockey news, and the second page is usually a politic scandal haha.

You need media exposure and that media exposure needs to showcase heroes or people that people wish to be like. If you take Crossfit, for the longest time Camille Leblanc-Bazinet and Rich Froning where at the forefront of this battle. You couldn’t type Crossfit without seeing a picture of either of them.

A larger number of athletes attracted through the right media marketing will attract even more investors and the wheel will keep spinning while getting bigger and bigger.

Incentivize the program or system.

But you need people that are willing to do that, that are willing to be media representative and have a long term plan laid down.

We talked a little about Crossfit in the US. Crossfit has given a lot more popularity to weightlifting. How have you seen Crossfit affect Canadian weightlifting?

Slowly getting there. I think the situation is 5 years behind the US situation on that aspect.

What needs to start happening to improve Canadian weightlifting? That's a very short question with a broad answer. What are some key points?

Long story short, a leading voice. We need someone to rally all of the provincial federations and lay down a plan for the future that deals with all aspects. Three important aspects to talk about would be funding, development, and performance (in that order). We need somebody that is leading weightlifting in Canada to look for opportunities to expand the sport, so funding - especially funding - but also media exposure should be explored more.

We are at a stage where we need to lay down the equivalent of a business model. Like any business, we should be looking to expand and gather more support. If nobody is eating at your restaurant, it might be a good idea to change some of your recipes in order to attract more clients.

That's a very good short answer.

Short Questions

Which do you personally like more - the snatch or clean & jerk?


If you were not involved in weightlifting as a coach, where do you think you would be now?

Probably finishing my masters and doing a PhD in neuroscience.

What is your favorite thing about coaching?

Progress. Seeing 30kg become 150kg. Going through that process during which you see the evolution. And I like that persistence, that character and that devotion that it takes.

What is your least favorite thing about coaching?

Frustration of the athlete. If you're not making lifts and you're frustrated. Lack of seriousness.

What are your favorite books to read or websites to visit?

I read pretty much everything weightlifting. So now I'm looking for new books, maybe you have some that you would like to suggest? I have been re-reading the Medvedev books lately. I sometimes read about how other coaches from other sports get results and how they create their system (mostly interviews).

I actually like doing that too. Even watching training videos of shot putters and throwers - a lot of the field and track athletes. You definitely learn something new or something you wouldn't see in weightlifting.

For sure and the goal is still the same, it's to get better. How to assist your athlete in getting better is always based on technical learning, but also on motivating your athlete and keeping them interested and keeping the intensity going. So you can learn that from any sport.

You've conducted many interviews - of coaches and athletes - who is someone you would like to interview that's alive?

Akkaev because he's my favorite lifter. I would just love to be able to speak with the man who seems to have very hard opinions. He's a little bit in your face kind of guy. I like that.

Khadzhimurat Akkaev

Who is someone not alive that you would like to interview?

In weightlifting, most likely Alexeyev because he was influential. He helped put weightlifting on the map. Not him alone, but he was part of that movement of that era where the Soviet Union was winning everything. I think he would be interesting as he seemed to be quite mysterious.


Wrapping things up, do you have any plans on visiting the US or giving any seminars?

If I am invited to do so, I will do it!

Do you have any specific plans for the future that we can expect from you?

I'm thinking about writing a book for youth training in weightlifting. Not really a system book, but just my idea of how to start a child in weightlifting. It would include drills, games, tips, and how to communicate clearly the details of weightlifting to a kid.

A lot of kids are getting involved in weightlifting in North America which is new for us. I think this book could help assist many Crossfit kids’ programs. Back in the days, people would start weightlifting at 16 or 17 years old. But now we're getting a lot of 8, 9, 10 years old involved in weightlifting and there's not a lot of literature on it. So I think it's lacking, maybe I can help. I think it could be a fun project.

It would be your contribution to the sport. It would be a good contribution. There is literature on youth, but not specific to weightlifting.


Is there anything you would like to say to all your First Pull readers out there?

I'm super grateful people are following me and reading what I'm writing. It's wonderful to know that you are supporting my endeavors. I have enjoyed interacting with everyone that has reached out to me and we can keep growing this sport together.

I think that wraps it up. Jean-Patrick, thank you very much. It's been great.

Thank you, a pleasure.

Post Interview

Although the interview was done, we still sat and continued to talk about the sport and coaching. Getting the opportunity to meet Jean-Patrick was a highlight of my time in Montreal. He is passionate about his weightlifters and the sport.

I believe in this day and age, weightlifting is undergoing a transition. Experienced coaches are witnessing a new group of young and brilliant coaches come up. Jean-Patrick is one of them.
The future giants of weightlifting

If you are in the Montreal area, I highly recommend contacting Jean-Patrick. Below you can find his website and social media pages, as well as the site for his weightlifting club.

First Pull Sites
Les Géants de Montréal Sites

More First Pull Interviews

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