Interview with Strongman, Speaker, Author, Coach, and Animal Lover, Dave “Iron Tamer” Whitley. Dave shares with us his thoughts on pushing limits, mindset, how YOU can change your self-image, and the benefits of being cold…
Thanks for doing this Dave! First things first, how did you get the name “Iron Tamer”?
I read a quote that refers to training as “A jolly game of taming iron.” I believe it comes from Yuri Vlasov, a Soviet weightlifter. From that, the idea of the name Iron Tamer came to me. I liked it so here we are.
Can you tell me a little about your career?
This could take a while!
My mission statement is to use strength to help other people live happier, fuller lives. I do that through different avenues: strongman, speaker, author, and coach. I don’t really think of it as a career, but that is definitely my purpose.
As, a kid I was overweight, had a bad stutter and was fascinated with the idea of superhuman strength. Inspired by Lou Ferrigno, I got a set of weights for Christmas and at about age 9 or 10, I started lifting.
In my late teens I was interested in martial arts and in 1995 began studying southern praying mantis kung fu and chi kung. I also practiced JKD for a while. Eventually, my path crossed with a my current Chi Kung and martial art teacher, James Alexander. He teaches Hoshin Budo (martial art) and Hoshin Tao Chi Kung (energy and meditation). I have teaching credentials in Hoshin Chi Kung.
I will give an overview of a few areas that happened sort of concurrently:
In 2003 I attended an RKC certification was a part of RKC, eventually becoming a Master instructor, until 2012. I was with StrongFirst from its inception in 2012 until very recently. I parted ways with SF when I fully realized that my values and theirs no longer lined up.
In about 2008, Bud Jeffries introduced me to Dennis Rogers and the art of the Old time strongman. I became a student of Dennis’ and he introduced me to his mentor Slim the Hammer Man (who was a student of the Mighty Atom, Joe Greenstein).
This is where my focus lies now, professionally; as a strongman and speaker. I realized that the message from the old-time strongmen and the message from mind masters like Napoleon Hill, Joe Vitale, and others was the same:
We become what we think about.
This actually led me to write my latest book, Superhuman YOU. When I perform and speak, I am using feats of strength to illustrate the mindset needed to achieve the seemingly impossible.
I met my friend Adam Glass online a long time ago and he, along with a guy named Frankie Faires, turned me on to their school of thought, called simply the Movement. The Movement utilizes a biofeedback-based approach. It’s an over-simplified explanation, but biofeedback involves understanding how to test your own body to determine what the best activity for it is, at any given time. The approach is radically different than anything else out there and in my experience, works incredibly well. I have been practicing it since 2013.
I was in the first group of coaches to certify with Paul McIlroy and his Amazing 12-week physique transformation system. I have a huge amount of respect for Paul and am happy to be helping him spread the A12 around the world. A12 is the primary focus of my gym in Nashville.
Finally, there is the Ice Man, Wim Hof. I had been playing around with cold exposure for a while and saw Wim on TV in late 2013. There I was pouring a 5-gallon bucket of water over my head in freezing temperatures, thinking I had a good grasp on it, then I find out that Wim was swimming under ice and climbing Kilimanjaro in his shorts.
I signed up for his online course immediately, and In November of 2016 I will spend a week with him to complete my training to become an instructor in his method. I will be part of the first group to become certified in America. I did a weekend with him in May of this year and it was fantastic! It was all the wonderful emotional stuff that I had at my first RKC, but without all the quasi-military, tough guy bullying, and punishment that went along with it.
Currently, I do very little martial art, but a lot of chi kung/breathing exercises. The Wim Hof method’s breathing exercises fit perfectly into my Hoshin Tao Chi Kung training, which complements my training for feats of strength.
Hearing your story, you are very accomplished and have been in the iron game a long time. What has been one thing that has become so clear to you, or so simple, that you wish you realized it sooner?
Humans are the only animal on Earth that will deliberately make things harder than they have to be. We take great pride in the amount of suffering we can endure as if it is some sort of key to being successful.
That the best way to get better is to keep things as easy as possible in training. #beastmode is a prevalent idea in the fitness culture, but let’s look at it from a different perspective. A quick image search and you can find dozens of clever memes regarding beast mode for lifting, running, etc…
The lion is generally regarded as the “King of Beasts” and is a guest star on a lot of those memes, but if we look at what the lion actually does, they sleep 19 hours a day. When they wake up and decide to go hunting, do they go after the biggest, nastiest wildebeest in the herd? No. They find the weak, the very young, the injured, the very old and target that.
Lion doesn’t have an ounce of self-worth tied up in whether or not he gets a PR in wildebeest. He just wants to eat so he can get back to his nap.
One overarching theme I see in your career is that if you find something or someone you believe in, you are not afraid to share it with the world. I find many personal trainers/coaches tend to be afraid to share what they are doing. How has sharing had an impact on your career, life?
Life is circulation. If something isn’t shared, it isn’t circulated and it does not do as much good as it could be doing. I love it when someone is kind enough to tell me that something I did or said made their life better in some way, whether it is momentary or long lasting.
What excites you right now?
I have more possibilities and options to do things that I love now than any other time in my life.
Why more possibilities and options now? What’s different than say, a few years ago?
A few years ago I was concerned with spreading someone else’s message, even if there were parts of it that were counter productive. Now I am committed to fully expressing my own self and helping anyone who finds what I do and say valuable.
I no longer have to censor my own experience to match someone else’s curriculum or research.
What was an obstacle that you faced and how did you overcome it?
The only obstacle that any of us face is a lack of understanding of our potential. The way to overcome any obstacle is through awareness. Awareness of ourselves allows us to dissolve any obstacle.
I frequently see coaches and athletes talking about “pushing past” their physical limits. If you truly push past a limit physically, you will break. If you didn’t break, then you didn’t push past a limit. Rather, you didn’t really know where the limit was and you went past where you thought it was. That is an exercise in awareness.
I frequently see coaches and athletes talking about 'pushing past' their physical limits. If you truly push past a limit physically, you will break. If you didn't break, then you didn't push past a limit. Rather, you didn't really know where the limit was and you went past where you thought it was. That is an exercise in awareness.
That limit answer you gave is very profound to me. When someone pushes past their ‘perceived’ limit, what do you think they should do next since they are in new territory?
1. Celebrate the fact that they are stronger than they thought they were.
2. Look at other areas of their life to see where they might be selling themselves short.
What something in the fitness industry that you wish everyone knew?
I would like to see more people spending time understanding how their mind actually works. Our self-image controls our behavior. The fitness business as a whole tends to focus on changing the behavior without addressing the self-image.
Unless mental conditioning and programming changes, physical results are temporary at best. For example, if a person has the self-image of themselves as fat, then that is their default, their set point. It works like a thermostat. If we deviate too far from our set point, our subconscious mind will cause us to act in ways that move us back to that set point.
In the case of our person who sees themselves as fat, they wind up eating things that they know move them in the opposite direction of their goal, feeling guilty about it and not really understanding why. We can never outperform our self-image.
The bad news is that our self-image was originally programmed into us by someone else before we had a say in it. The good news is that anyone can change their self-image if they are unhappy with their results. So it’s not your fault that you’re messed up, but it IS your fault if you stay messed up.
On changing one’s self-image before behavior, that’s brilliant, is there an exercise you start your clients with? Or is it something that strictly comes from within? How do you help people with their self-image?
One very powerful exercise that I use is in the Superhuman YOU book and I got it from Bob Proctor.
It’s a common societal norm to talk about things in terms of what we don’t want. I don’t want to be fat, weak, broke, stressed, unhappy, etc. We become what we think about. If we are always thinking of what we don’t want, we become that.
Take 2 sheets of paper. On one write out all the negative things that you don’t like or want, in great detail. For example “I am fat and weak and hate the way I look”. On the other sheet, write the exact opposite statement. “I am lean, strong and healthy and I Love that about myself”. Write it in the present tense.
Burn the first sheet. Keep the second and read it several times per day, get very emotionally involved in the feeling of being the person you described. Even better, rewrite it several times per day. Doing this reprograms the subconscious mind to believe the positive statement. Once it is impressed on the subconscious, behavior changes easily if not automatically.
What was one gratifying moment that resulted from writing and publishing your
books and one frustrating moment?
For Taming the Bent Press, it was gratifying when Paul McIlroy congratulated me and said that in his opinion I am the leading authority on the bent press alive today. I am very grateful for him saying that. It’s gotten to the point now that I am able to see on social media who is and isn’t practicing the stuff from my book.
For Superhuman YOU, I get messages from people who have made changes in their professions and relationships based on the idea that all the fears they have are the fears that they created themselves.
Frustrations?… The only real frustrations have to do with learning how to do layout and self-publishing.
Do you have any advice for someone looking to write and publish their first book?
When you have that idea, get started now, today.
If you have an idea, stop reading this and start writing the book, right now. This is already written and you can come back to it. Earl Nightingale said that “Ideas are like slippery fish. If you don’t spear them with a pencil they get away.”
I have had conversations with many people who are “working on it” but haven’t done anything because they are actively procrastinating. Set a target date and give your word to someone that you will deliver a draft of the book to them on that date.
What’s one book that changed your practice and or mindset?
What’s the one thing you took away from these books?
The body is the instrument of the mind, we become what we think about.
Understanding that our results are determined by how and what we think is the most important thing ever because it lets each of us know that we are in control of our results.
What has been your biggest breakthrough with a client, and what lead up to it?
When a client realizes that they are in charge of their own thoughts and puts that into practice, they make quantum leaps toward their goals.
Tell me about a moment in your life that you were really proud of.
That is a tough one……
As a strongman: I did a show a couple of years ago at a comic/video game convention. When the show was over, there were a few folks who stuck around after to talk to me. There was one girl, probably in her early 20s that was patiently waiting and when all the other people left, she came up to me, looking at the ground. She was very soft spoken and it was obvious that she was painfully shy and that it took a lot for her to initiate the conversation.
She told me that this was the first time she had ever gone to a con, even though she had wanted to do it for a very long time. She almost didn’t come to this one either, because she was so shy. She told me that the message really resonated with her and then she finally looked up at me and her whole energy shifted dramatically from withdrawn to determined.
While looking at me through welled-up tears, she said very emphatically “I REALLY needed to hear what you said today, more than you know. Thank you.”
Well, then I started welling up with tears and as the first one started running down my cheek, I thanked her for telling me and asked her if it was OK to hug her. She agreed and smiled an awkward but strong smile. I did my best to keep my nose from running all over her. I thanked her again and she went on about her day.
Now, I don’t know what her story was, but that moment let me know that I can help people who may not be involved in fitness at all.
It was pivotal for me in deciding to do what I am doing now. It also let me know that as professionals, we have a responsibility to bring our best every time we are in front of a client, customer or talking to anyone in public.
You never know when something you say will be the EXACT thing that someone needs to hear at that moment.
That’s powerful, thanks for sharing that story. What’s something that you wish people knew about you but probably don’t?
I love animals. Most people who follow me on social media already know from social media that my wife and I have 3 dogs and 2 cats, plus we have fostered dozens of animals over the years. We are especially good at socializing kittens, which some folks find surprising since I bend metal and break chains.
We live in the country and I stop 2-3 times per month in the summer to help a well-meaning but misguided turtle get out of the middle of the road. I once rescued a tiny baby deer who got caught in a fence near our house. This past weekend I caught a little green snake that was on our porch and took him into the wild. This is typical stuff for me.
Iron AND Kitten Tamer? I could talk about cats all day, but for the sake of the readers, I’ll move on… How has your programming or exercise prescription changed since last year?
It hasn’t changed much. Lots of bending steel, grip work, breathing and cold training.
How has your programming for your clients or the way you coach people changed in the last year?
Over the past few years I have been practicing the biofeedback approach that I learned from Adam Glass and Frankie Faires. The key elements are that your body knows best what it needs, use the minimal effective dose of a stimulus to achieve the desired outcome and stay within your limits in order to increase them.
I rarely ever teach “maximal tension” techniques anymore.
The mantra “Tension = Strength” has created a world full of so-called strength instructors who are like the little boy with the hammer that sees the whole world as a nail. The phrase is a slice of fact, but not the total truth. It is incomplete. It’s like saying “Engine = Car”. It’s a part of the equation, but not the entire equation.
Tension is tension. Strength is strength.
Maximal tension is only necessary when dealing with maximal load. Any other time it is swatting flies with a shotgun.
Is there any recent continuing education or workshops that you really enjoyed?
Training with Wim Hof. The combination of breathing, mindset, and cold training is a very powerful thing.
What do you experience with your cold exposure training, how does it benefit you?
It is a meditative practice with physical benefits. It improves immune functions and cardiovascular health. I recover better from my training.
Any parting advice for either someone who is new to the fitness industry or someone who has been doing it for a while?
Seek out and prove everything for yourself. Even what I tell you. Your experience is yours, not mine.
Every day make a written list of at least 5 or more things that you are grateful for. Look for the good in everything and you will attract more good into your life.
Thanks, Dave! This has been a learning experience. How do we get in contact with you?
Anyone who is interested about a performance/keynote can get in contact with me on my website:
Be sure to follow me on my various social media: