One of the best things about being a part of CrossFit 405 is that we don’t just do all CrossFit classes, all the time. We have Happy Hour Thursdays, yoga on Saturdays, and as of late, we even hosted a few self-defense classes.
Whether or not you’re someone who has taken advantage of these “405 Perks,” you’ve you’ve probably heard the name Steve Miller in reference to an Olympic Weightlifting class.
But who is Steve Miller? He’s not a coach at CrossFit 405, nor is he a member. The short answer is that he’s the guy who teaches the weightlifting classes we host every so often.
But if you’re like me, and you don’t closely follow Olympic weightlifting or local sports superstars, you might not know anything else about this man. Like, where did he come from? Where did he get his weightlifting knowledge? Is he a CrossFit coach? What other cool insight does he have when it comes to weightlifting and CrossFit?
We’ll answer these questions in Part I and II of “Who is Steve Miller,” my interview with this really incredible coach.
Miller, Part I: From Martial Arts to Glassman’s Journal
Miller’s first interest in weightlifting began in high school. At 5’5″ and almost 130 pounds, he was a “little dude,” which can be somewhat torturous for a teenage boy.
“That kind of influenced me to be in body building,” he said. “You have to be a genetic elite to be a bodybuilder—already look like you’re on steroids to look great, then take the steroids and look like a freak.”
Which, fortunately, Miller decided wasn’t for him. His initial interest in bodybuilding did help him discover a love for weightlifting while he served in the military.
In 1969, he joined the Marine Corps, where he served for four years as a radio operator, calling in air strikes when his platoon was in dire need of backup. Later, he received orders from Vietnam, where someone told him (only somewhat jokingly) that his life expectancy would be about six seconds while on patrol.
Miller’s orders from Vietnam were transferred to Okinawa, where he served 18 months. From Okinawa, he traveled to Kyoto, Japan, where he met a German Zen monk and a Buddhist priest. They took Miller on a tour of the city of over 10,000 temples, creating in Miller a desire to learn about Zen. He kept asking them what “Zen” was, but they wouldn’t answer. The deafening silence only made Miller more curious.
After his discharge from the Marine Corps, Miller traveled to Hawaii for a letter of recommendation to enter a Zen Monastery in Japan. While in Hawaii, he met Stanley Tanouye and Omori Sogen. Tanouye sensei was an incredible martial artist in Judo, Kendo, and Karate. After meeting with Omori, Tanouye became his student. Omori Sogen and his family were practitioners of the Jikishinkage-ryu style of sword fighting. He trained monks and layman in Zen, Kendo (the Way of the sword) and Shodo (the way of the brush) at his temple in Japan for over 50 years.
Miller also trained in Wing Chun Kung Fu under James DeMile while in Hawaii. (Before Miller met DeMile, Demile met Bruce Lee in Seattle, where he watched Lee perform a Kung Fu form, and said he wasn’t impressed. But when Lee asked DeMile to hit him, DeMile was humiliated after not being able to even touch Bruce. After that, DeMile became Lee’s student.)
But even with the best martial arts teachers, Miller wanted something more.
“I had to lift,” he said. “I couldn’t just do the Zen and Wing Chun.” That’s not to say the martial arts weren’t challenging enough—if anything, Miller knew the martial arts required a very specific dedication he wanted to use in other areas. “These guys were all martial artists,” he said. “Judo, Aikido, etc. It was very intense training.”
Soon Miller met Tommy Kono at the Nuannu YMCA in Honolulu. Kono was voted the greatest weightlifter of all time by the International Weightlifting Federation, winning two Olympic gold medals and one Olympic silver, as well as the World Championships eight times. And so, in Miller fashion, he began official weightlifting training and competition under Kono’s instruction.
Miller found a connection between the martial arts and his favorite sport, weightlifting. To him, the best athletes in both sports share a common set of traits.
“When I see the top athletes,” he said, “they’re the same. They’re explosive, powerful. When I see top judo athletes, I see top Olympic weightlifters. They have speed, strength, power, endurance, flexibility, mobility. Good judo players are very balanced. If you were to approach one and try to push or pull them over, it’s like they’re a tree. Rooted into the ground.”
Which, as Miller points out, is essential for any efficient weightlifter.
“People don’t realize how rooted weightlifting is,” he said. “And how fast they move. From the top of the pull, to dropping under the bar, they go faster than the eye can follow.”
But as much as he was learning in Hawaii, Miller couldn’t stay. After two years of training seven days a week in Wen Chung, Zen, and weightlifting, his Zen teacher, Tanouye sensei, kicked him out.
“Tanouye said, ‘If you stay here, you’re gonna be uneducated,’” Miller recalled. “He said ‘There’s no future here for you.’” His Zen master told him to head back to Oklahoma (where Miller was born), go to OU, and get his degree. “And so I did.”
At 23 years old, Miller started his career at OU, pursuing a degree in physical education.
“I was so excited to come back to OU to start weightlifting,” he said, recalling the first moment he walked into the field house. “It was a small room, there was an old gym mat from the 1940s—everything was run down, not much equipment.” All in all, a less-than-perfect training ground. “But there was a club,” he said. “And I started teaching—I didn’t want to, but there was no one else to do it.”
And whether he intended it or not, at that moment, a coach was born. Miller trained with the OU karate club, and he also took up kickboxing alongside his weightlifting (a choice he said set him back a few years in training after he threw a punch that knocked his rotator cuff out of place). He competed in weightlifting for fourteen years and won the U.S. Open Colligate Championship. But at six feet tall, he knew weightlifting competitions weren’t his end goal.
“I just didn’t have the genetics to compete in it,” he said. “I was too tall. My joints got beat up from the lifting and kickboxing.”
After he graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1980, he went to the Olympic training center for six weeks to train. The experience of watching weightlifters train at the national level made him see his training from a fresh—and more intense—perspective.
“That opened my eyes to what they were doing,” he said. “I was training four days a week, and they were training thirteen sessions a week.”
Miller didn’t let the tough reality discourage him. Instead, he fed off their intensity and let it fuel him.
“Just being around that environment and watching those guys lift those heavy weights—I jumped right in. I put 55 pounds on my total in six weeks. It was like I was in a corner and I had no way out, and I had to perform—and so I did.”
Entering Our World
Afterward, Miller started his own weightlifting team in Norman. First at Sooner Fitness, and then moving into the OU field house, where he said he was able to build his experience in coaching, learning the best “dos and don’ts” practices. He coached athletes in several Olympic Sports Festivals throughout the country, and was the Oklahoma State Chairman for Weightlifting in 1989 US Olympic Sports Festival when it was held in Oklahoma. There, he met a man named Pat Burris, an Olympian in Judo in 1972 and 1976.
Burris opened USA All-Stars in 1992, a gym devoted to mixed martial arts, MMA, boxing, wrestling, Olympic weightlifting, and strength training. Miller and Burris became friends, and Miller joined USA All-stars as a coach in 1994.
In 2000, Miller created two videos detailing the mechanics of the Snatch and the Clean. He dubbed the videos “The World’s Fastest Lift,” and “The World’s Most Powerful Lift,” and released them to the public.Shortly after the videos were released, someone called Miller (he doesn’t know who) and asked to use his videos in CrossFit coaching, to which Miller agreed.
“This was back when CrossFit was used mostly with military and police,” Miller said, “Back when it first started.” Though he’d been doing “CrossFit-style workouts” for some time.
Soon enough, Greg Glassman himself, founder and CEO of CrossFit, wrote an article highly recommending the videos for anyone and everyone striving to improve their lifting ability.
“I kind of have a feeling my videos helped get weightlifting into CrossFit,” Miller said.
At the very least, Miller’s videos certainly provided CrossFit lifters a new perspective on the Olympic lifts. As Danny John, writer for the CrossFit Journal, noted in this article, “The visual and mental cues throughout this video are far too numerous to mention,” stating that Miller’s coaching was extremely valuable and “refreshing.”
Which is pretty rad, if you ask me.
Steve Miller started as a little kid in high school wanting to bulk up, and grew into a coach who created a lifting video that caught the interest of CrossFit’s founder. Not to mention his experience as an Olympic coach.
“My dream was always to make an Olympic team,” he said, “But I didn’t have the genetics for that.”
So he dreamed of coaching an Olympian instead—a dream that came true in 2010, when his student Jessica Bead made it to the Junior World Championships in Chiang-Mau, Thailand, where she qualified for the only Weightlifting slot to move on to the first ever Youth Olympic Games in Singapore. Miller said their time in Singapore was challenging, and he ended up coaching boxing there as well, mostly to avoid mingling with the competition.
“Singapore, it was tough,” Miller said. “They put us in these dorm rooms in the University—they took out all the TVs, electronics. They wanted us to mingle. I was so bored, I went and volunteered my time to the boxing coach. So, I got to coach boxing, too—at the Olympic Games, which was cool.”
Last-minute boxing coaching at the Olympic Games is just one of the many “cool” stories I heard from Steve Miller. Honestly, there are too many to portray in a blog post—and I still haven’t told you how he got involved with CrossFit 405.
My advice is to get to know him yourself—sign up for his next Oly Lifting class at 405, and if we don’t have a class soon, you can always contact him for a session at USA All-stars—or simply start petitioning for another class in the 405 Facebook group (no guarantee this will be effective). Either way, as summer rolls on and we have more daylight for accessory work, you should definitely consider getting to know Olympic Lifting coach Steve Miller. Not only is he an extremely knowledgeable and helpful coach; he’s a very interesting and genuinely kind dude.
Stay tuned for Part II, where we’ll talk about his tips for CrossFit lifters and how he got involved with CrossFit 405! 🙂