Interview: Caine Wilkes
Matt Foreman

400 kilos is a lot of weight. It’s 881 pounds. Totaling 400 kilos in an Olympic weightlifting competition is extremely hard to do. How close are you to this number, personally? You’re probably a long ways away. Don’t feel bad about it. Only seven American weightlifters in the history of the sport have achieved this result.
Caine Wilkes is very close to becoming the next one. For those of you who haven’t been following American Olympic lifting results for the past few years, you’ve missed some exciting action from this young man. Caine is the current US National Champion in the +105 kilo (superheavyweight) category. When he won this title in 2013, he totaled 392 kilos. This is a phenomenal amount of weight that most weightlifters obviously can’t even touch. Caine’s progress has been consistent and impressive throughout his career, but his sights are set on that goliath 4-0-0 number (and more).
The numbers Caine has been producing are clearly outstanding, but that’s not the only interesting aspect of his story. Caine comes from a weightlifting family with a proud tradition, and we were excited when he agreed to share his story with Performance Menu. Here is a look into the life of one our strongest young American talents.
Tell us about your background. Where are you from, where do you currently live, what’s your occupation (if you work in addition to training), family life, what kind of sports background do you have outside of lifting, etc.
I'm from Chesapeake, VA, and have lived in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia my whole life. I have three brothers who have all been competitive weightlifters at one point or another – Kyle, Cody, and Coard. Although Kyle and Cody have moved to the Carolinas, I still keep in touch with them and stay close with all my brothers and their families. We’ve been a very close-knit family throughout my life, and it followed through in weightlifting, all of us competing together, and my dad being our coach.
Currently, I am one of the co-owners at CrossFit Chesapeake, along with my dad and brother Coard. We also have our weightlifting team train from the gym. I train classes there and help with design aspect in some cases, like designing t-shirts and flyers. With training, I typically coach the evening classes and get my training done earlier in the day. It's an opportunity to be consistent with my training pretty easily, and I really enjoy helping our clients and athletes achieve their goals, whether it be to lose weight or to improve in a sport.
I started to focus solely on weightlifting in high school, but I did play some sports beforehand. I played a lot of rec league football and school up through ninth grade, mostly playing offensive line, guard or center. Being a center was the most contact I could have with the football; catching a football was and still is quite a challenge for me. Also, for a couple years in middle school I wrestled as well, although I don't like to admit it much. I was horrible at wrestling! I went to five tournaments over the two years I wrestled and never won a single match. However, I did get three medals out of those tournaments since I always ended up in the odd weight classes with only a couple of competitors. I do take a little bit of pride in that, since my brothers were much better wrestlers and never got any medals. And since we are brothers that often pick on each other, I like to remind them of those medals every now and then. Outside of those sports, I did play soccer when I was five or so, but I’m not a huge soccer fan; there was too much running for me. I definitely found my strong suit in weightlifting.
Outside of sports, I’ve always been apt to draw and write, so much so that it is what I chose to study in college. I’m currently in my last semester at Old Dominion University, majoring in both studio art and English. I’ve been a doodler and favor drawing, although I do paint as well. As far as writing, I like to write fiction, short stories, and have even dabbled in poetry. It is quite a contrast with my weightlifting, but I like to think all three disciplines – art, writing, and lifting – have a certain technical aspect needing fine-tuning, which I gravitate towards.
Describe your weightlifting history. When/how did you start? Who have your coaches been? What championships and international teams do you have on your record? What are your best lifts?
My dad, who was at the time my middle school’s line coach for the football team, got my brothers and I into lifting, looking for a way to improve the football team’s strength and conditioning in the off-season. He had done some Olympic-style lifting when he was younger (just for fun, never competing), so we went to Bob Crist to learn some from him. Within a few months we had made my first team, the Great Bridge Ironcats, and went to a local meet. I was 12.
Since then, our team’s name has changed a lot. After school, we became Team Chesapeake; for a few years, our team combined with Gene Flynn’s Team OBX; and now I am part of Wilkes Weightlifting. But the one thing that has remained the same has been my coach: my dad, Chris Wilkes. He was the man that got me involved in the sport, got me to fall in love with the sport, and he has guided me to where I am now. He has taught us a lot about technique, and I trust his coaching methods. We also have a good dynamic in competition; I think we help each other stay calm. A couple of times, the opportunity has arisen to go elsewhere, but I’ve always been of the opinion that if it isn’t broken, there’s no need to fix it. And besides, I love my dad! (I wrote that just for him… I hope he reads it!)
Since starting at an early age, I have often made the medal stand in school age, junior, and senior level competitions. However, the gold had eluded me for a long time until the 2013 National Championships, where I had a very good performance and won the gold with a personal best total. It qualified me for my first senior level international team, the 2013 World Weightlifting Championships. I had made a couple of smaller international teams as a school-age and junior lifter, my last one being the 2007 Sicily Trophy, but it was a completely different experience on the world stage, and an honor to represent the US.
My best lifts are from the nationals, a 176kg snatch, and a 216kg clean & jerk, combining for a 392 total.
Please give a basic description of your training. Just tell us as much as you can about your program, weekly/yearly planning, etc.
As far as strength training, my dad believes in what he calls a system of chaos. Basically, we are trying to approach the muscles in different ways to make it adapt quickly. In this way, it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly our program is like, but here is a general idea of what we do:
I generally work out five or six days a week. I set aside two days a week solely for squats and presses, one day being low reps and heavy weight, the other high reps and lighter weight. The other days are predominantly focused on the lifts and their accessories (pulls, hangs, etc.). We don’t do power movements, and prefer the hang movements more so. Again, the reps and percentages will vary on these days, but I would guess the range to be anywhere between 70% and 90%, and higher some days. I would guess I go for a heavy snatch and clean & jerk at least once a week.
The emphasis is always technique. As my dad says, once the technique is down, then all one has to do is get strong and powerful. Whether or not that statement is true, I like it, just to keep things simple. I feel like in this sport with a lot of technique and time spent to master just two lifts, I should embrace the simplicities when I find them.
Also, to keep things simple, I often train the clean and the jerk together. I know quite a few coaches separate the two, but I rarely separate the two movements. It’s simply because I want to feel comfortable to do a jerk after a heavy clean in competition. The clean has been a movement that I’ve struggled with before, and being comfortable with a jerk after a clean has helped me make some solid lifts after letting a heavy clean crash on me.
I also do core work about three to four days a week. We’ve also incorporated some bodybuilding exercises to end our workouts, focusing on getting stronger.
As far as a yearly goal and plan, we again keep it simple: get better and stronger. As weightlifting meets come, we tend to go heavier in the lifts, back off the squats a little bit, and then rest up in the week before with light lifts. I usually don’t lift two days out from the day I lift. I like to be well-rested for a meet, as seen by my post weigh-in ritual: finding a corner and taking a nap.
Describe some of the obstacles you face, or maybe some things that frustrate you in your weightlifting life. What kinds of changes would you like to see, either personally or with the sport in general?
The biggest obstacle I’ve faced myself happened nearly five years ago. I suffered a back injury which ultimately was ruled as a herniated disc. I decided to have surgery on it. Afterwards, I slowly made a recovery back to working out, and spent about nine months doing CrossFit. I found it helped let my back recover, as the weights used were often light for me, and with proper form and technique, the movements focused on core stability, helping strengthen my core muscles. I then made the decision to get back into weightlifting in 2011, being a lot smarter with my training. Basically, I incorporated a lot of core work into my lifting schedule, and any time I felt off with my back, I would stop and focus again on core work. In time, the days I would have to stop became fewer and fewer; eventually, I was able to get back to my old lifting numbers and then beyond. It was quite a hurdle to come back from, as for about a year or so I was convinced I wouldn’t ever lift again. It was a very humbling experience, and I’m very blessed to still be able to do what I love and enjoy. In the long run, it has been a good thing, helping me and my mental game on the platform, as well as helping me realize how much this sport means to me.
I do have the bad lifting days, just like everyone else, although I try my best to keep them to a minimum. I often joke with the athletes at my gym that I allow myself one bad lifting day a year; so when a bad day comes, I immediately tell them that this is the one day I’ve allowed! (I’m pretty sure it’s actually more than one day a year, but I don’t keep count.) I do my best to not get frustrated on those days by looking at a missed lift objectively. Instead of talking about how bad it was, I simply want to look at what can be improved. When I take more of a proactive approach to a bad lift rather than just reacting to it, I find it helps. Even then, when a bad day persists, it comforts me to realize that every day – good, bad, or even a rest day – is just a step towards the goal of becoming a better lifter. So then, even bad days are a step in the right direction.
I don’t have much to complain about with the sport of weightlifting itself, probably because I try not to get involved beyond the actual lifting of the weights. As I have said before, I try to keep it simple.
What are your plans and goals for your weightlifting career? How do you see your future in the sport? Do you plan to stay involved in weightlifting after your top competitive years are over?
My immediate goal is to improve on my 392 total. With that said, there are a few milestones within reach that I would like to achieve. I want to achieve a 400+ kg total soon, as well as a 182kg/400lb snatch. In the clean & jerk, I would like to do 220kg, and eventually go for a 500lb clean & jerk.
Long-term goals are very similar to my immediate goal: I want to improve and lift as much as I can. It would be nice to eventually go for Shane Hamman’s national records, but I know that first I need to worry about those short-term and immediate goals. Another goal is to go for the 2016 Olympics. However, I feel it’s best to worry about where I am at now.
I’m pretty sure once I am done competing in weightlifting, I will still want to stay active as a coach. I don’t know if I will want to or need to, or even be able to, coach anyone to the national level. But as I said earlier, I enjoy helping people achieve their goals, so I definitely see coaching and being active in that way in the long run.
Who are some of your major influences, people you look up to, etc.? Who are the people you want to thank for your success?
Some of my favorite lifters are the greats from our past. Norbert Schemansky is one of the greats in my opinion, and I relate with his coming back from injury during his long lifting career. I also enjoy hearing about Bob Bednarski, who at one point was a “small” superheavy competing against some giants, which is something I had to early in my time lifting as a 105+kg lifter. I also recall reading an article in USAW magazine by Artie Dreschler about Joe Dube’s lifting career. Dube had such confidence heading into the 1969 World Championship, which I feel a lot of American lifters still struggle with, at least on the international stage, myself included.
Of course, I always will look up to a lot of the lifters that were throwing up big weights when I was beginning my lifting career: people like Shane Hamman, Pete Kelley, and Casey Burgener. I remember watching the 2004 American Open and Shane Hamman happened to be a loader for the superheavy session. I’m pretty sure the bar was loaded to 175kg, and needed to be shifted to the right. Shane bent down to the bar and with just his arms picked it up and set it down to the right as if he was just moving the bar. I remember thinking after seeing that, “I want to be that strong.” I tried it recently; I’m not quite there yet, but it is always something I strive for – to be as strong as Shane.
There is one person I always think of to thank for where I’m at, and although I said it before, I’ll say it again. My dad has helped me along every step of the way in my lifting career, and has helped me excel in more ways than just weightlifting. A thank you won’t do. Instead, I’ll go give him a big hug.
I do thank God often for allowing me to stay healthy, safe, and smart. And for learning from the mistakes I have made. Without His help and guidance, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. And for that, I am thankful.
Thank you for your time!
No Caine, thank YOU. Catalyst Athletics and the weightlifting community of this country are proud to have you representing us, and we wish you all the best in these exciting years of your career.

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Gary Echternacht
October 28 2015
Weightlifting needs more people like Caine Wilks--intelligent, grounded, mature, and professional. I wish him the best in his quest for 400.