Sep 8, 2013

USA World Bench Press Team


My name is Jonathan “Jona” Leo, and I currently live in Sioux Falls, S.D. I am the current International Powerlifting Federation World Bench Press Champion and hold a world record of 794.5 pounds in the +120 kg class. I have been married for 12 years and have three children, ages 5, 2, and 3 months. Powerlifting has been in my life for 15 years, but I have competed in the bench press only on the national stage for three full years now. Like many people, I first picked up the barbell to improve my performance in sports and found powerlifting to be a good fit. My oldest brother, Jeff, powerlifted his senior year but won state and the ADFPA Nationals his only year of competing. It was only natural that I followed in his footsteps. During my high school years in Nebraska, I became a four-time state champion, with the final three of those years being “Lifter of the Meet.” I figured my competitive years were over when I left for college to earn a degree in kinesiology and play football for Northwestern College in Iowa. However, after college, I was searching for that competitive element and found it again within U.S.A. Powerlifting. I have a competitive spirit, and while spotting and loading at the South Dakota State Meet, it became evident how much I wanted to compete. U.S.A Powerlifting was exactly what I was looking for: drug tested, strict but fair judging, minimal gear and the most credible organization in the United States that is affiliated with the only true international federation, IPF. I was hooked.


The path to where I now stand has not been easy or straight. From 2002 to 2010, I competed at three lift meets exclusively before I decided to focus on my best lift, the bench press. During that timeframe, I suffered two separate shoulder injuries with just enough spacing to ruin training for a while. I suffered the first setback in April 2007 when I partially tore the supraspinatus muscle in my left shoulder. After a lot of rehabilitation, the weights were starting to come back when I partially tore the right supraspinatus in August 2008. This one took almost nine months before I could bench without pain. Then, following two rotator cuff injuries within 18 months and another nine months of pain, I was finally ready to compete again. Rehabilitation during this time included daily rotator cuff strengthening, ice and muscle stem. I knew internally that I was not done lifting, but I felt like my hourglass was emptying, which created a sense of urgency. Until 2010, the largest meet I had ever competed in was the South Dakota State Meet.  My brother-in-law made a statement that I’d never do nationals and would probably only continue to do local meets. The sense of urgency, coupled with statements made by a family member, was all I needed to step up to the next level. During my first national meet, I was blessed to have a two-person cheering section (Diann Nelson and her daughter) and to have Dave Doan ask me after my second attempt, “Do you have any idea what you’re doing?” Soon after that comment, he became an instrumental part in helping me attain a national championship — I had never dealt with lot numbers and third-attempt changes until that day. That meet was a pivotal point in my career. Since the 2010 USAPL Bench Nationals, I have become a national champion two more times (2012 and 2013) and am now representing the United States on the Open World Bench Team this coming May for the fourth time.


Probably the biggest question I get is, “How did you do it?” I never really sat back and thought about it until Brady Stewart asked, “How did you go from eighth place at Bench Worlds in 2012 to becoming world champion and world record holder in 12 months?” Brady referenced my improvement from 2012 to 2013, but I like to believe it all started with the 2010 Bench Nationals. No matter when the progression started, Brady’s question made me step back and look closer at what made it happen. With physical and mental preparation being equally critical, here are the factors that I believe allowed me to progress:

  • Seek competition at a higher level. Is there really much to explain here? Competition brings out the best in everyone.  After winning the 2010 Bench Nationals my commitment to training has been unwavering, competing against the best in the nation and world gets me motivated like never before.
  • Have some balance between raw and equipped training. Early in my career, I needed to sacrifice raw bench numbers to pursue a larger equipped bench. Spending a lot of time in the bench shirt will result in a lower raw bench. However, once I learned the shirt, focus was placed on getting my raw bench higher. Training and competing in a bench shirt is a whole different beast, however I feel knowing how to use the shirt correctly will allow a better carryover from raw benching.
  • This goes without saying: stay healthy. Health goes hand in hand with how well you recover. Do everything in your power to eat proper food, get plenty of rest, use different recovery modalities and work on your flexibility. Remove or limit anything that is an obstacle in your recovery. Finally, make sure programming is dialed in.
  • Have a road map of where you’re going and where you’ve been. I have become known for my detail and a-bit-overly-structured training programs and logs. Before my training cycle even begins, it is all mapped out (exact days, lifts, sets/reps, percents, rate of perceived exertion prescriptions, volume) and printed. I keep all numbers, such as personal records, accessible during every workout and, of course, workouts are altered a bit as deemed necessary. Having the program designed and ready keeps me accountable, because I only have a training partner (thanks Phil Brinks) one workout per week.
  • Surround yourself with the right people. This includes your entire social life, from work to church and to the gym. Last, but not least, learn from other lifters. Since making the World Team in 2011, many guys have stepped up with great advice. When it comes to lifting, don’t seek compliments; rather, look for guys who are willing to say “no lift” for the smallest infraction. The guys along the way that have helped me are Phil Brinks, Dave Doan, Tim Anderson, Donovan Thompson, Bill Gillespie, Adam Mamola, Jeff Snyder, and Brady Stewart.   One of the biggest factors for me lifting in the USAPL/IPF is that I never want a false pat on the back. All lifts should be true and genuine with no gifts.
  • I know this is cliché, but believe in yourself. The moment you doubt, you’re done. Every time your crawl under a weight you must feel in the depths of your soul that you will be successful and every time you go into competition you must also believe you can win.

At the end of the day, I’m in a sport where I love using the gifts God has given me; I am blessed. I believe in leaving the gym at the gym, because my wife and children deserve undivided attention while I’m home. I also pray that someday I will have handed down lessons to my children about discipline, sportsmanship and effort — not only on the platform but in the preparation for it. I truly cherish every day that I can train and compete at the level I do. Next on the meet calendar will be the 2014 Arnold Sport Festival and then the 2014 World Bench Championships in Denmark.  Until then I’d like to thank my sponsors, Titan Support Systems (the best powerlifting equipment, hands down),

Iron Authority (great guys dedicated to a great cause: drug-free strength sports),

Orthopedic Institute (two partially-torn rotator cuffs and no pain; thank you again) and

Science Nutrition in Sioux Falls (an honest approach to supplements).



Jona Leo

2013 IPF World Bench Champion (+120)




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  1. Damian Fronzaglia /

    I had the pleasure of being paired with Jona at the 2011 World Championships in Austria. You won’t meet a more humble and sincere team mate. When we had no sauna to drop weight, Jona cranked up the heat in his rental car and sat with me while I dropped weight. I’m very happy for your success and I wish you much more in the future. Good luck buddy!

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