Travis Cooper is a well known name in the Weightlifting community. As a member of the World Team, Travis took fourth place (77kg) at the Pan Am Games in 2015, earned Bronze medals for his totals in both the 2014 and 2013 Pan Am Championships as well as a silver medal for best clean and jerk in the 77kg class in 2014, and competed in the Olympic Trials earlier this year. His performance as a part of the men’s Pan Am Team helped to secure Kendrick Farris’ spot in the 2016 Olympics at Rio and Travis has his eyes set on Tokyo in 2020. We spoke earlier this month about his background, his aspirations, and the impact he and his lifters have made on the world. He also shared his advice for up and coming lifters as well as his thoughts on the U.S.’s chance to medal at the Olympic games.
Me- How did you get into weightlifting?
Travis- I wrestled in high school, but I played a lot of different sports like football and baseball when I was younger. When I stopped playing football, I found a place called Velocity Sports Performance. It was a facility where college athletes and professional athletes would get ready for combines. They also had some other general classes for high school kids. I just went in there because I was bored after school once I stopped playing football since I’d always played sports.
At Velocity, I ended up meeting my first weightlifting coach, CJ Stockel. At that point in time, it was kind of rare to find a weightlifting coach. It was almost like an underground sport. So I just basically got lucky in finding weightlifting. I was a sophomore in high school so many going into 11th grade and though I continued wrestling through out high school, that’s the only other sport I continued to play in addition to weightlifting.
When did you actually start competing with weightlifting?
Late, 2004 I had my first competition. I qualified for the Jr. Nationals and School-aged Nationals at that first local meet. From that point, I went into wrestling season. I didn’t compete in weightlifting during wrestling season, but I continued to train for Junior National and School-Aged Nationals.
I wanted to ask you what your first weightlifting meet was like because it’s cool to see how far athletes have come, but it sounds like you were pretty good from the start…
I went to high school with a lot of people who ended up being professional athletes. I went to high school with Calvin Johnson who ended up playing for the Detroit Lions and being one of the most known wide receivers in the nation. There were others from my high school who became NFL linemen.
We had a crazy, intense weightlifting program. We didn’t snatch or clean and jerk, but we got really strong. There were several kids in my high school squatting over 500 pounds. So I squatted almost 500 pounds before I started weightlifting and I was already strong. I just didn’t know how to perform the snatch and clean and jerk yet. But, our weight training program at high school gave me a good strength base and once I found CJ, he taught me how to “do” weightlifting.
I was 15 and in 10th grade at the time of my first competition, I was very strong, but I didn’t really know how to snatch yet. My clean and jerk was pretty good for a first competition. I opened up on the snatch at 80 kilos in the 77kg category- I’m in the same category today- and I made 80, made 85, and missed 90. On the clean and jerk, I went 115, 120, 125. So I went 5/6 at my first meet. A lot of people nowadays try to open really heavy at meets, but making lifts is really important.
The 120kg clean was my second attempt and when I made it, I qualified for Jr. Nationals. I’d already qualified for Youth Nationals when I made my opener. The goal of that meet was to qualify.
And then I hit a PR of 125, at the time, so you can see I was a must better clean and jerker from the start than snatcher. I was strong but didn’t really know how to “do weightlifting” yet.
I’m 28 now. My best lifts in the 77kg category are 146 for snatch and 184 for the clean and jerk, and in the 85kg class,150 for snatch and 191 for clean and jerk.
Why did you decide to cut down from an 85 kg lifter to compete as a 77?
Basically, the simple answer is, to increase my ranking. I was already the National Champion that year (2013). I was the best 85kg weightlifter and it is hard to make the decision to cut down at that point. But, in order to ensure that I would make world teams, to ensure that my ranking would be top three overall regardless of weight class, I went ahead and made the cut to 77.
And honestly, I just wanted to see how my body would react to losing weight. Initially when I started working with Renaissance Periodization, it was not my goal to cut a whole weight class. The goal was just learn more about nutrition and counting macros. I wanted to increase the muscle mass that I was carrying at that particular body weight.
As I started doing the cut, I felt like I was maintaining most of my strength and therefore, I believed that it would give me at a much better shot at the Olympics which was two years away at the time. That’s why I went ahead and cut a weight class. As a result, I was able to make the Pan Am Games and I don’t think that I would have made the Pan Am Games if I hadn’t cut down to a 77 this quad.
Do you want to explain the process of making the Pan Am Games?
There are different qualifiers for international events. So there will be a qualifier period and it might be six months long or a year long depending on the meet. There’s usually about three qualifiers, give or take, in a qualifying period. For instance, for the Pan Am Games, the American Open, the Arnold, and the Regionals were all qualifiers. Basically, I made the Pan Am Games team at Regionals. I was able to post a 327 total which ranked me number 1 on The Pan Am team ranking.
What is your proudest moment in Weightlifting?
I would say the best thing I’ve done is medaling twice at Pan Am Championships. That’s the whole western hemisphere, so its a solid thing to do. I medalled two years in a row so I’m definitely proud of that. I’d like to medal at Pan Ams again and hopefully some other competitions.
What kind of places have you gotten to travel to because of being an elite lifter? Aside from the lifting, that’s one of the cool aspects of being on a World Team…
One of the things that we do when we talk to younger kids and parents is talk about this: What opportunities has Weightlifting given me? I’ve been able to travel the world. I’ve been on World University teams as well. For international meets, I’ve been to Canada, Colombia, Greece, Taiwan, which was my favorite competition, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Colombia again. For Worlds, I went to Kazakstan, which I’d probably never get to do other wise, and Poland, which was very cool. This year it was in the U.S.
Obviously, when you go abroad for Worlds, it’s business first. You are there to compete. You put so much time into weightlifting that you don’t want to sacrifice your performance by going out and site seeing before you lift, but definitely after everyone’s lifted, you do. These are once in a lifetime opportunities for people. I’ve been lucky to be on a lot of these trips. I’ll never go back to a lot of these places in my lifetime so, for that reason, it’s definitely good to unwind after you compete, have a couple beers, hang out with people, talk and make memories because this doesn’t last forever.
I read about you coaching for Pakistan at the 2011 World Championships. How did that happen?
When I lived in Atlanta, I coached a female lifter named Kusloom Abdullah who is Muslim. Back then, we weren’t strict about singlets at local meets. She would wear a Hijab to cover her head and she always wore a long sleeved shirt underneath a t-shirt and pants at local competitors. We never thought anything of it until she qualified for the American Open.
Everyone wears a singlet at National meets and she wasn’t going to be able to do that for religious reasons. I asked around about what we could do and ended up requesting that she be able to lift as an extra lifter and not have her score count towards medals so that she would not have to wear a singlet. She was doing it more for fun and wasn’t at a point where she was ready to medal anyway, but still, they said no. We felt like there should be some type of clothing compromise that would allow them to judge her properly so she could compete in weightlifting like everyone else. But USA Weightlifting has to go by the rules of the International Weightlifting Federation which didn’t allow for this.
Shad to appeal the IWF directly. She built a presentation showing what she could wear. In weightlifting the judges need to see your elbows and knees so that they can determine if you’ve locked out, and she requested that she be able to wear a unitard which would be tight fitting around the legs and arms to allow for that. She also asked to wear her headdress. They approved it.
As a result, she was the first Muslim woman to be able to wear modest attire when she competed at the 2011 Nationals. It made International News and that’s how the Pakistan Weightlifting Federation found her. Her parents are from Pakistan and she has a Pakistani passport so they ended up contacting her and asking if she wanted to compete for them. They’d never had a female compete before.
Of course, she said yes to the honor and competed at the 2011 Worlds in Paris and the 2011 Asian Games in Korea. Since she was a beginner and a 48kg lifter, she lifted early in the competition which made her the first woman to wear this modest attire at a World competition. I was the head Woman’s coach for them since she was the only woman competing for the Pakistani team.
Later, she created a website called Lifting Covered for women Muslim women who want to lift in modest attire. And she inspired about 50 women to compete at Pakistan’s Nationals the year after she competed at Worlds. Before her, no women had ever competed for Pakistan so the next year, the banners at their Nationals had her picture. It was really cool a great honor for her. She just stumbled upon this and it became this thing that was bigger than her. She realized she could make a difference and she felt a pull to pursue appealing the IWF and competing just to raise awareness.
Why did you start The Weightlifting Scoop podcast?
A lot of different reasons. I definitely feel like as athletes, when we were at Muscle Driver and now, we have some information that not everyone has because we are able to compete at this level. A lot of people do podcasts that can be entertaining and that explain things, but they don’t have the same insider knowledge. They were entertaining people, but they weren’t necessarily weightlifters. So we wanted to be weightlifters giving our side. And honestly, it’s just fun for us. We enjoy it and we have a different perspective on the sport that can be more accurate.
You mentioned Muscle Driver USA. Do you still train with Glenn Pendlay since they shut down last year?
Yeah. When I moved here four years ago in 2012, Glen also moved a lot of Cal Strength lifters here and recruited a few more. We came down to train here in Fort Mill, South Carolina at the Muscle Driver Facility. He was a part owner of the company and the other owner wanted to start a weightlifting team.
It was a great experience being on the team. We had a good time, but at some point, the company went out of business and Glenn had to move back to Kansas. I worked with Glenn up until the end of this quad and through Pan Ams. I continue to talk to him, but unfortunately, everyone’s financial situations put them in different locations through out the country. I still talk to him and he’s still my coach, but going into the next quad, I might have to work with another coach because of geography.
So you are obviously going into the next quad looking at Tokyo in 2020…
Yeah that’s the ultimate goal- to hopefully make the olympics next time. But there’s so much more. I’d like to continue going to Nationals. Basically, I just love weightlifting.
It’s possible to make a living in this sport. It’s not a glorious living, but so long as my body is healthy, I see no reason to quit now after having invested so much into it. When you’ve invested 12 years into something and get so close to fulfilling your potential, there’s no reason to stop until you fulfill that potential or until your body just can’t do anymore.
Speaking of bodies giving out, you had an SI joint injury during this quad. How were you able to modify your training while still competing at a top level?
As I was getting ready for the 2014 Pan Ams, I was training really hard. It was also the first meet where I was going to be a 77 so I was on a calorie deficit. I trained too hard while on a calorie deficit. When you are on a calorie deficit, you shouldn’t train as hard as when you are on a calorie surplus. It’s basic common sense but when you are in a situation where you want to do your best, you’re really going to give it your all. I tweaked my back- I think it was SI joint, but I’ve never gotten a 100% clear diagnosis. It bothered me for about two years.
It was like, “Okay just make the Pan Am team” and I did well at the Pan Am Championships. I ended up getting third that year despite it. But the lift that earned me the bronze medal caused everything to lock up again. Then Nationals were four weeks later. I went there and competed and Worlds were right after that. So I was stuck in this period of time where I was still performing fairly well at competition so competition took precedence over rehabbing my injury.
You don’t turn down Worlds unless you’re not going to be able to perform. I knew I was going to be able to perform so I kept going to competition. I just never had a period of time where I could do off season training and heal my body. So it just continually bothered me as I did competitions back to back. But now, I’m 100% healthy. My body feels great because I finally was able to give it a rest after Worlds in Houston. Since then, it’s been healthy.
The tough part about it was that in training, I couldn’t be aggressive enough to improve much. My training wasn’t leading me to big PRs because I wasn’t able to do enough, but I kept performing so I kept going. I didn’t have a choice because the Olympics were coming up and I had to get my International meets in and score points. It was stressful, but you have to do what you have to do.
Regarding the Olympics, do you have any thoughts on how the U.S. might fare?
I think all of the girls have a good opportunity to get top six. There’s an outside shot, a small chance, that one of the girls could scoop up a medal. Most likely that would be Morgan or Sara. That’d be very difficult, but of course, I’d love to see them do that. The 94kg weightless as far as Kendrick goes is just more competitive. There’s just more depth on the men’s side. So, I don’t think it’s possible for him to get a medal, but I think his best performance at the Olympics is 8th place and I think he can beat that.
So aside from elite athletes, what advice would you give a lifter whose goal is to make the American Open or to make Nationals?
I see a lot of beginners getting injured now. You can’t train like an advanced lifter when you’re a beginner. When I started weightlifting, there was no YouTube. There weren’t any websites about Weightlifting, really. There wasn’t much information available, so naturally, when you met a weightlifting coach, you had an extreme amount of trust in them. Today, that’s not the case. There’s so much contradicting information online. People are not trusting their coaches. They are doing CrossFit 5x a week and on top of it, they are doing Weightlifting 5x per week and it’s just too much. They are getting hurt. Beginners are tearing the hip labrum, their meniscus, they have ligament issues. I’ve never seen so many injuries in beginners. Of course in advanced athletes you are going to have acute injuries, but it’s just crazy to see so many beginners getting hurt. So just train properly for your level. Train three days a week for a while, then train four days a week, then train five days a week. Don’t just jump into it and expect to not get hurt if you’re training like an advanced lifter who took eight years to get to that point.
Yes. A lot of athletes train too hard too soon, and many don’t make enough time for recovery either…
As far as recovery goes, there are two categories. The 95% category and the 5% category. The 95% category is proven things we have control of. Sleep is the most important. You can not make up the deficit of sleep with any other recovery method. All of the weightlifters who are good literally sleep between 9 and 11 hours a day- no joke. So if you want to be good at weightlifting, or you want to recover at any sport, you’ve got to sleep 8+ hours a night. You can’t make up that deficit.
Nutrition is, of course, important. You have to eat enough calories first and foremost. Once you are eating enough calories, you want make sure you are eating those calories with quality foods. But it’s most important to eat enough calories to recover first. A lot of people are like, “Oh I eat so clean” and they think of good nutrition as eating few calories and eating clean foods. Obviously, clean foods are good, but you have to eat enough calories.
And then from there, the most important thing is living a stress free life. It’s impossible to live a 100% stress free life, but if you are arguing with your spouse on a daily basis, if you are fighting with your kids, if you are a high strung person, you are not going to recover. You are always going to be in pain. You are always going to wonder why other people can recover faster than you. So you have to learn to let things go. You have to learn to be a relaxed person and enjoy your life. That is the 95% group.
Once you’ve fixed those things, then you can focus on the 5% like supplements, massage, chiropractors, ice baths, heat/contrast, stim- whatever they’ve come out with. I believe that some of those things work for sure but they are very expensive. Definitely fix the things you can control that are free first. You’ve got to eat, so you might as well make sure you are eating well first. You’ve got to sleep, so you better make sure you are sleeping enough. And living a stress-free life, to a certain extent, you are in control of. You are in control of how you react to situations. So as far as recovery goes, that’s my advice. Fix the things that are free and that you are in control of first, and then look to a couple of supplements that can help you get that extra 5%.
If you are interested in bettering your nutrition, use coupon code “Cooper10” for the $10 off Renaissance Periodization Diet Templates or of 10% off Grind Sports Nutrition. To sign up for coaching with Travis Cooper, visit Brute Strength and check out the Elite Weightlifting Program.
Finally, if you live close to Charlotte, NC, check out the Barbells and Brews Weightlifting Competition run by Cooper on Sept 10th at Sugar Creek Brewery. Barbells and Brews is potentially looking to expand into other cities and host Barbells and Brews. If someone is reading and knows of a good brewery with warehouse space, contact him at @traviscooper77kg or @theweightliftingscoop or @barbells.and.brews