Shoulders the Keith Williams Way

March 7, 2012

By Lara McGlashan-Volz Two-time all-American high school football player. Check. Three-time California State hurdles champion. Check. Finished second in the 1996 60m Olympic trials and qualified as an alternate for the silver medalist 4x100 American relay team. Check. Defensive back and kickoff/punt returner drafted by the NFL’s Broncos and Packers. Check. Professional bodybuilder. Er ... not yet. Keith Williams is a man of, shall we say, many talents, but for all of his accomplishments in all sorts of athletic endeavors he can’t seem to catch a break as a bodybuilder. With four runners-up awards since 2010 including last September at the IFBB North Americans, Keith is stymied with the sport. When you consider his background it’s easy to understand the confusion: In football, the team with the most points wins; in track and field, whoever crosses the finish line first wins; but in bodybuilding, opinions and bias meld together to determine the fate of the athletes, and the winning choice is more often than not, debatable. “The two hardest things I’ve done in my life have been making it through the Olympic trials and bodybuilding,” says the 5´10˝ Keith, laughing. “At the trials you have to be in peak condition for four days straight, which is just so physically grueling it’s impossible to describe. And in bodybuilding, judging opinions come into the game, and the judges aren’t consistent. I worked my tail off this year and was the favorite to win the USAs, but the judges looked at me for like 30 seconds in the callouts and gave the card to someone who, in my mind, they wanted to win. [Keith placed third in that event.] I can’t cry about it and I can’t control what the judges do. I can only control what I do and move ahead to the next contest.” Though opinionated, Keith is far from bitter and definitely admits his own failings with his recent contest prep. “I peaked too early and had trouble filling back out when it came down to the wire,” he says. “But even before I got off the stage my coach, Oscar Ardon, already had a plan for the North Americans, which we’ve been following. We’ll hopefully come to the next contest lean and shredded between 255¬–260.” [In that contest, Keith placed a close second to Juan Morel.] Keith paired up with Ardon less than a year ago and although they’re both still learning the ins and outs of Keith’s body, they seem to be gelling well. It’s typical of Keith to put his faith in coaches and comrades, as he’s been doing for most of his 38 years. “I surround myself with people who tell me what I need to know, not who stroke me and say I look good when I don’t,” he says. “This is why I like working with Oscar — he’s nuts and bolts and action. I also train every day with four guys who love and support me like family. They motivate me and push me. They feel my pain when I lose, and my joy when I win.” These four men — Ben, Kurt, Ross and JV — make up what Keith affectionately calls his “Pit Crew.” They work out together seven days a week, and have effectively made bodybuilding a team sport — at least at LA Fitness in Hopkins, MN.


Today the Pit Crew is training shoulders; a part Keith admits isn’t his favorite. “I have really had to focus on shoulders, and I get jealous of guys who have beautiful caps!” he laughs, finishing off a shake made of Optimum Nutrition protein powder and 12 ounces of egg whites. “But they’ve come a long way, thanks to some dedicated training — and lots of drop sets. Those have been really key for me, putting the muscle under lots of stress so that they’ll respond and grow.” Keith makes his way to the Smith machine where the guys have been setting up shop, positioning two benches with short backs underneath the machines, which are side by side for Smith-machine overhead presses. They shake hands, and after a few jokes, they pair off, with Keith and Kurt on one machine, Ross and JV on the other, and Ben orchestrating. “Jay Cutler once told me that I’m not getting any younger, so don’t take chances doing a lot of free-weight presses and hurting my shoulders or rotator cuffs,” says Keith as he loads 135 onto the machine. “The Smith machine has a predictable range of motion so that I can protect myself a little and isolate my shoulders at the same time.” Keith settles into the bench with his feet spread and his chest lifted. He takes a wider-than-shoulder-width overhand grip on the bar and unlocks it from the stops. Kurt and Ben stand by on either side, ready to assist if needed, but they’re just ornaments on this round; 135 is a walk in the park for Keith, who bends his elbows and lowers the bar to chin level, then forcefully presses it back to the start with a whoosh of air. Mechanically, he presses and lowers the bar 20 times, then racks it and steps away for Kurt to do his thing, followed by Ben. When Keith’s turn arrives again, he adds more plates for a total of 225, then powers through 20 more reps. “Feelin’ strong,” he says, and watches as the Crew rounds out their second set as well. Set three moves up to 275 for 15 reps, and set four is 315 for 10. JV and Ross bow out at this point, but Kurt is still matching Keith set for set. With a look of determination, Keith adds more weight for a total of 365, and then sits on his bench. Ross and Kurt stand on either side of the apparatus with Ben behind, ready to spot. Keith does a set of eight, and then racks the weight momentarily while Kurt and Ross each strip a plate. And so it goes, Keith does as many reps as he can with each drop in weight until there’s only one plate on each side. Here he reps it out and once he begins to fail, enlists some assistance from Ben to push through three more forced reps. He stands, shakes out his arms, and watches as the guys reload the weight and Kurt takes his turn, making it through the grueling drop set with courage and grit, albeit with fewer reps than Keith.

Pressing Issues

Dragging their benches, the group moves en masse to the free-weight area, where the Saturday afternoon crowd parts like the Red Sea to let them through. They set up shop at the heavy end of the dumbbell rack and situate their benches side by side. This way, they can encourage one another, and more importantly, give each other shit. Keith grabs a set of 80-pound dumbbells, sits on the bench and kicks the weights up to his shoulders as he starts a set of overhead dumbbell presses. Ross mirrors him on the other bench, albeit with a lighter weight. They both turn their palms inward so that their hands are neutral, and then press the weights straight up overhead, exhaling forcefully as their arms come to a full extension. Slowly they lower the dumbbells back to the start and repeat the process, completing 12 reps fairly easily. Ben and JV go next, followed by Kurt. And so it goes for four sets of 12, each time increasing the weight by 10 pounds and maxing out at the 110-pounders for Keith and Kurt.

Lateral Thinking

The guys grab a drink of water and move laterally to commandeer the central area of the dumbbell rack. Keith snaps his fingers. “Let’s do triple-triples today,” he says. “My middle delts need a good thrashing.” This suggestion is met with groans and moans, but Ben takes charge and sets up the floor with multiple sets of weights, preparing for a brutal triple drop set of lateral raises. Keith palms a set of 40s, stands with his feet hip-width apart and holds the weights in front of his thighs with his palms facing inward. He lifts the weights upward and outward, moving in a smooth arc, tipping his thumbs down as his arms come to shoulder height. A momentary pause, then he lowers the weights slowly back to the start. He completes 10 reps, and then drops the 40s to the ground; immediately Ben hands him a set of 30s and he continues for another eight reps. Another hand-off for the 25s and Keith does six more. “Sometimes we do a seated lateral raise on the machine or a standing one-arm cable lateral for variety,” says Keith, who pauses and tosses some color commentary at Kurt, by now struggling with his third drop. As he finishes, Kurt responds with an appropriately colorful reply and they all laugh. “Anyhow,” continues Keith, “we try to change it all the time, give the body a regular shocking.” His turn is up once more and this time he uses the 50s for 10, the 40s for eight, and the 30s for six. A final set using 60, 50 and 40 pounds for 10, eight and six reps with Ben stepping in to spot on the final drop, and his middle delts are toast.

Front and Center

The guys replace their crazy collection of weights, keeping a select few for the next move: dumbbell front raises. “Front raise with an EZ bar, front raise with dumbbells, heck, I even do front raises with a rope and cable,” says Keith. “Anything and everything to keep my body guessing.” Today is dumbbell day according to Ben, who’s best at keeping track of their workouts, and Keith starts his set with the 30s. For this move, he stands with his feet hip-width apart, holding the weights in front of his thighs with his palms facing down. Keith alternately raises and lowers the weights with a straight arm, up to eye level and back using smooth, controlled and balanced movements. He gets through 15 reps with no trouble. “The one thing I can say about my training is that I’m a technician,” says Keith, sipping water and watching JV go through his set. “I never cheat a rep or throw my body around to move a weight. Everything is by-the-book strict.” He demonstrates his textbook form again when it’s his turn, completing 15 reps with the 40s, never swinging or flailing or seesawing. His next set is 10 with the 50s, and then a final set of nine with the 60s.

Rear Admiral

The group now moves to the cables, which turn out to be occupied. No worries: The Crew is nothing if not patient, and they’re never pushy or mean. They respect the space of their fellow trainees and instead enjoy teasing JV for a while, giving him grief about being a chauffeur. Keith comes to his rescue and the guys back down — it’s his son Kody who’s gaining the benefit of JV’s time. “JV is a real life saver for me,” explains Keith. “He’s like a big brother to Kody. He helps me out a lot taking him to baseball practice and helping with his homework, giving him snacks.” He laughs, and then adds, “Sometimes he even takes care of me, like driving me to and from the gym when I’m in contest mode and need to take a nap after training!” Finally, cable coast clear, they get to work. They attach D-rings to the upper pulleys and set the stacks to 60 pounds for standing reverse cable flyes. Keith stands in the center of the apparatus and holds the handles in his opposite hands in front of his face and lifts, extending his arms, elbows locked in a slightly bent position. He draws his arms open, squeezing his shoulder blades together as he reaches the peak contraction, then returns slowly to the start and immediately goes into another rep. He completes 20 perfect reps, and then steps out as Kurt begins his set. “We also do reverse pec-deck flyes and bent-over laterals for rear delts,” says Keith. “We just wait for Ben’s instruction, and then we do it!” Keith does two more sets using 70 and 80 pounds for another 20 reps apiece, then decides his last set will be a drop set. He starts with 80 pounds, getting in 18 solid reps, then the guys move the stack pins to 70 and he does 15 more. Another drop to 60 for 10 reps and a final push for 10 at 50 and he drops the handles. The plates slap together with a musical crash. Each guy goes through a similar drop set, and once recovered, Keith is the pin-dropper for Ross’s set, encouraging him when the going gets tough and giving him a high five when it’s all done.

I Don’t Know?

They round back to the Smith machines and set up for Smith-machine shrugs. “I just started shrugging again this year,” says Keith. “My traps had been taking over my physique but now that my shoulders have caught up I can go back to shrugs.” He takes an overhand, hip-width grip on the bar and unhooks it from the stops. “Ronnie Coleman taught me that the best way to do shrugs is to look straight forward and lift your shoulders as if you’re saying ‘I don’t know.’” He recounts. “That protects your spine, putting it in a neutral position so that you can focus on squeezing.” He then commences the “I don’t know” 20 times, bringing his shoulders straight up to his ears — making sure not to roll his delts. With each rep he gets a good stretch at the bottom, allowing the bar to pull his limbs downward. After the guys cycle through, he does one more set of 20 facing the mirror, then for his final two sets he flips it around, turning his back to the mirror and taking an underhand grip on the bar behind him on either side of his hips. Looking away now, Keith works his way through 20 reps in this position. “I like to work the traps from all angles, front and back, each time I train them,” he says when asked the reason for the flip-flop. “Ben suggests this is a way to more fully develop the upper traps.” He laughs and Ben shakes his head, not willing to take credit for that workout anomaly. Keith does one more set of 20 reverse shrugs and they call it a day.

That’s a Wrap

The workout has taken an hour and a half, and the guys spend another half hour bullshitting. Finally they disperse, leaving Keith and JV behind. Keith mixes another protein shake and ponders his ambitions. “I want to make the sport better,” he says simply when asked about his plans when he turns pro. “I want to be a good ambassador for the sport and put it back on the map because I think it’s dying a little bit.” He gulps his shake, then adds, “You know, God blessed me with everything I have on earth and I give all glory to Him when I step onstage. I play to an audience of one that has nothing to do with the judges. When He wants me to turn pro it’ll happen. He knows when I’m ready to take the next step so I’ll be patient until that day comes.” He bends over as if to grab his things, then groans and stands back up. “JV! I can’t lift my arms,” he calls to the kid, who is busy schmoozing a few girls nearby. “You gotta pick up my stuff and then drive us home.” JV takes leave of the girls and gripes that his arms feel the same way, if not worse, but Keith isn’t having any of it. “You’re young. Just get in that car and drive me home, window washer!” orders Keith, laughing. Reluctantly, JV picks up his bag, then Keith claps a hand on the kid’s shoulder, and they both smile as they take leave from the gym. For more on Keith Williams, check out

Meet the Pit Crew

Ben, “Crew Chief”: “Ben is our babysitter. He controls the workouts and the atmosphere. He also helps me train my clients and takes over my schedule when I’m getting ready for my contests. He competes in bodybuilding as a light-heavy.” Kurt, “Mini-Me”: “Kurt is 26 and started training with us last year. He’s the second biggest guy in the group so he challenges me and pushes me. He competes as either a heavyweight or a light-heavy and is going to be unbelievable as he continues to grow.” Ross, “Mr. Motivation”: “Ross is my business partner and we’re opening a gym together called Team Definition Fitness Center. He’s not a bodybuilder but rather a regular business guy who wants to get in shape and change his life. He’s also one of the best youth hockey coaches in the state.” JV, “The Window Washer”: “JV is my nephew, and we make fun of him because he’s only 21 so he’s our grunt. His dad was recently having some problems, so JV came to live with me. He’s a great kid, he’s super smart and though he’s not a bodybuilder, some day you’ll see him in the NFL — I promise you that.”

Keith’s Weekly Training Split

Day/Bodypart Monday - Chest (heavy) Tuesday - Back Wednesday - Biceps. triceps Thursday - Legs (light) Friday - Chest (light) Saturday - Shoulders Sunday - Legs (heavy) Precontest time, Keith does 30 minutes of cardio six days a week, followed by inner and outer thighs, walking lunges and abs. As for days off, “I’ll rest when I’m dead.”

Keith’s Shoulder Routine

Smith-Machine Seated Overhead Press:  4-5 Sets x 20, 20, 18, 15, 10 Reps (135, 225, 275, 315, 365 lbs.) Seated Overhead Dumbbell Press: 4 Sets x 12, 12, 12, 12 Reps (80, 90, 100, 110 lbs.) Standing Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 3‡ Sets x 10, 8, 6 Reps (40, 30, 25, 50, 40, 30, 60, 50, 40 lbs.) Alternating Dumbbell Front Raise: 4 Sets x 15 Reps (30, 40, 50, 60 lbs.) Standing Reverse Cable Flye: 4 Sets x 20 Reps (60, 70, 80, 90 lbs.) Smith-Machine Shrug: 4 Sets x 20 Reps (225, 315, 405, 495 lbs.) ‡Each of these is a triple drop set.

9 Things You Didn’t Know About Keith Williams

1) Keith has lived on his own since he was 12; his mother, struggling with drugs, left him and his brother on Christmas Day. Today, however, she’s clean and sober and they have a great relationship. 2) When Keith graduated high school he weighed 155 pounds. Today he weighs 255 when he steps onstage (285 offseason). 3) Though he was born in California, Keith settled in Minnesota. His reasons: better schools for his kids, great people and nice neighborhoods. But definitely not better weather! 4) He has an older “brother” Stan who was actually his apartment complex manager in college. Stan showed Keith the ropes of lifting and nutrition and got him interested in bodybuilding. 5) When he first signed with the NFL’s Denver Broncos, Keith ran 40 meters in 4.16 seconds, which at the time was second only in the NFL to Deion Sanders. 6) Keith is actually a die-hard Patriots fan and loves Tom Brady’s story. 7) He has two kids, an adopted daughter Kaesha (19) and a son Kody (8) with his ex-wife. 8) In 2010 Keith wore a girdle and a sweat belt up to 10 hours a day to help reduce his waistline! Crazy? Perhaps not: His waist went from 37˝ to 31.5˝. 9) Keith holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from St. Cloud State University in Minnesota and a master’s in exercise physiology from the University of Minnesota.

Power Pointers

Smith machine overhead press: When going heavy, pressing in front of the neck is preferred because the behind-the-neck version puts the rotator cuffs in a more vulnerable position. Seated overhead dumbbell press: With dumbbells, you can change your hand position from workout to workout to hit your delts from all angles for maximal growth potential. Lateral raise: Keep the bend in your elbows locked at the same angle throughout the rep to keep tension on the middle delts. Front raise: If you go too heavy on this anterior delt move, you might be inclined to bend your elbows, which makes the move easier. Standing reverse cable flye: Elbow position is critical. Maintain the slight bend in your elbows throughout or you’ll bring the triceps into the movement. Smith-machine shrug: Losing your grip is common when going heavy, so strap yourself in so your upper traps fail before your grip does.