For our latest installment of “5 Questions with…” I had the opportunity to interview Chase Karnes. Not only is Chase a dude that knows his stuff, he SERIOUSLY walks the walk. Over the past few months I’ve got to know Chase and I have learned a ton from him, so I wanted to give you the same opportunity! Oh, and did I mentioned that he put 100 pounds on his deadlift in the past year? That shit is for reals!
Check this out ’cause he is a BAD DUDE!
Todd: Chase, thanks for taking time out of your schedule for this interview. I know your training schedule is nuts, so I really appreciate it. Let’s jump in by just letting everyone get to know you. Tell us a little about your background, where you’re located and any other badd-assery that you can come up with!
Chase: For those people that don’t know me I’m a strength coach/personal trainer located in Paducah, KY. I’ve been working “in the trenches” training clients for over 7 years out of Argonauts Fitness. I graduated from Murray State University with a Bachelors degree in Exercise Science and I hold the CSCS and NSCA-CPT credentials from the NSCA. I’ve worked with a wide variety of clientele from professional athletes to business professionals, youth, high school and collegiate athletes and general population.
I also “practice what I preach” so to say. My passion for the weight room was discovered around the summer of 8th grade. I’ve been training consistently for around 13 years now. I began training for football following a modified “Bigger, Faster, Stronger” program. Through my 4 years in high school I went from a weak 135 pound kid to a decently strong 185 pounds by the end of my senior year. After high school I still wanted to compete somehow. My interest in bodybuildling was then formed. I began competing in NPC bodybuilding for a few years, qualifying for nationals a handful of times. After some success in bodybuilding I decided to get into powerlifting. Even when training for bodybuilding I had always trained more like an athlete than bodybuilder. I had always done Olympic lift variations, benched, squatted and deadlifted so the transition into powerlifting wasn’t hard at all. While competing in powerlifting I set a junior men national record and a couple of state records. It wasn’t long after that I discovered the great sport of strongman in which I currently compete in. I’m a national level competitior competing in the lightweight amateur 200 class through North American Strongman. I’m currently training for 2011 NAS Strongman Nationals.
Todd: You’ve had success at every athletic endeavor you’ve tried and that speaks volumes about you. Let’s talk about your current sport, strongman. What are some of the key points that someone would need to follow to be a successful strongman competitor?
Chase: Well first and foremost, if you want to compete in strongman you’ve got to be STRONG. I can’t stress this enough. Everybody wants to be a strongman these days, but nobody wants to get strong first. A good base of strength must be built before attempting the sport of strongman or you’re just asking for an injury. Below are some numbers that I personally think most people should be hitting before attempting the events. Keep in mind these aren’t written in stone so to speak, they are just my opinion. Deadlift 405Back Squat 315Military Press 135Bench Press 225. If someone is capable of hitting these numbers in the gym, then I think they’d be fine to go ahead and start training some of the events. There is still obviously and inherent risk of injury, it’s just the nature of the sport. But by having a good base of strength the risk is reduced greatly. And these numbers are pretty realistic for most adult men to hit in a pretty short amount of time of training in the grand scheme of things. A good friend of mine and pro strongman, Clint Darden and I were talking one day and he said something to the extent of, “Just get as strong as possible on as many compound movements in the gym as possible and you’ll be good to go” (in regards to being successful in strongman). That really stuck with me. Sure, strongman requires technique, practicing of events, etc., but if you just get strong as hell on everything in the gym you’ll be on your way to being pretty damn successful in the sport.
Besides getting as strong as humanly possibly physically, strongman also requires a ton of mental strength, pain tolerance, competitiveness and testicular fortitude. There are times when if you think you don’t have another rep left and quit trying you could drop 4 or 5 positions (or even more in a large competition). So you decided not to try for that 8th rep on the car deadlift – well congrats your lack of mental toughness just dropped you from 2nd place to 6th place on that event. So having that mental toughness to not quit is huge. Nobody likes pain (well except for some of you S&M people, just not my thing). But there are some events that you’ve got to block out the pain and continue on.
Just find that “happy place” in your brain and go there. Block out the pain and continue on. Competitiveness is huge. I’ve saw some strongman competitors who kick ass in training, but once it’s competition time they crack under pressure. They still do alright, but not as good as they are capable of. If you lack that competitive drive it’s going to be hard to be successful in the sport. That competitive drive is what keeps raising the bar for all sports. In Supertraining Mel Siff talks about “competition max” and “training max”. Jim Wendler based his 5/3/1 method off of using your training max instead of competition max. This is because athletes do things in competition they didn’t know was possible in training. That competitive drive combined with an optimal level of arousal and an event that they need to finish in X number of seconds to win really makes or breaks some competitors. So to sum it up in one sentence: To be successful at strongman you’ve got to be STRONG, mentally tough, have a high tolerance for pain, competitive and a little bit crazy.
Todd: There is no doubt that being strong is the foundation of being successful in any sport. But, of course, that is especially true for strongman. Let’s talk about someone that is jumping into strongman training that doesn’t have access to all of the strongman specialty equipment. What tips, suggestions or exercises would you offer up for them?
Chase: First and foremost I’d recommend finding a strongman group in the area with at least the most basic equipment (log, farmers, yoke, stones) to train with. And by “in the area” I mean general area. There may be someone in your city or you may have to travel a few hours to train with a group. If you want to do it bad enough you’ll make the time to travel and train on the equipment. You can find out the closest group to you by posting on the NAS message boards (NAStrongman.com) or contacting your NAS state chair and asking them to direct you towards a group.
Another option would be to purchase or make your own equipment to get started. There are a few companies out there that sell strongman equipment (Bigg Dogg Strongg, Williams Strength, EliteFTS) and you can purchase atlas stone molds from Slater’s Hardware to make your own stones. I’d definitely recommend training with an experienced group before purchasing your own equipment, though. There is a lot of technique to the events and having someone coach you will experience is invaluable.
As for your training through the week, or your “gym lifts” as I call it, the following list covers most lifts that I feel have the most carryover for strongman – Power clean, deadlift, back/front squat, good mornings, RDLs, GHRs, military press, push press/jerk and incline bench press. You’d obviously want to round this out with accessory/supplemental movements to balance out the body and also to work on your own weak points. If you get strong on these lifts while training strongman events once a week or even once every other week you’ll be on your way.
Todd: You’re definitely right on about finding a training group. Getting better at something definitely requires reaching out to guys and gals that have been there before. I know that you have set up some great programming that blends traditional strength training with strongman training. Hit us with some of your knowledge on balancing traditional weight-room work with strongman training.
Chase: Over the past couple of years I’ve experimented with strongman programming quite a bit. In the past year I’ve seem to find a systems that works really well. There is definitely a fine balance between programming one’s gym lifts and strongman events. While explaining in great detail how I write programs for strongman are outside the scope of this interview, I can give a cliff notes version. As I mentioned earlier you’ve got to get as strong as possible on as many of the big multi joint gym lifts as possible. I was having a hard time figuring out how to do this in a typical 7-day training week. I then expanded it to a 10-day training split. It looked good on paper, but looking good on paper doesn’t mean shit when it doesn’t work in the “real world.” The rotation was causing my training days to vary from week to week and with my work schedule as busy as it is, this didn’t work out to well. I eventually started a 14 day training split and it worked great. By using a 14 day rotating split you are able to hit more gym lifts more frequently than following a 7 day split. Strongman is a full body sport. You don’t have “upper body events” and “lower body events.” Events work your whole body. With this in mind I kept every gym workout a full body training day. By training the full body each session you are able to recover faster between sessions due to less volume on each area of the body.
For the “gym lifts” I like to use a 6 week training progression with the 7th week as a deload (or occasional off week for pre-competition, vacation, feeling beat up, etc.). Since it’s a 14-day training split you are alternating workouts for the entire 6 weeks. Weeks 1,3,5 are the same and weeks 2,4,6 are the same. Intensity varies depending on current goals, but normally I use low, low, medium, medium, high, high and deload or medium, medium, low, low, high, high and deload. Since you are varying lifts I’ve found the two high weeks in a row aren’t as taxing on the CNS as one may think – and this is similar to how Westside can max out on lifts weekly by rotating through their max effort lifts. Even the lower intensity weeks are challenging, so don’t get the wrong idea here. Weeks 5 and 6 are also used as PR weeks when things seem to be progressing nicely and you’re feeling good. If you’re not feeling it these weeks though, you can hold back on the reigns a little bit. They still should be your heaviest weeks, but you don’t have to go all out. Some people call it autoregulation, I call it knowing your body.
Reps and set schemes vary, but I’ve found a bastardized version of Wendler’s 5/3/1 to work quite well. Although I don’t know if you could even call it bastardized 5/3/1, as Jim says if it’s not done the way it’s written in the 5/3/1 book, then it’s not 5/3/1. It is however heavily influenced by Jims’ 5/3/1 method. Another rep/set scheme I like to use is working up to a 5RM, 4RM, 3RM, etc. for a given day. If someone is in need of some more hypertrophy work this can also be followed with a back off set from 75-90% depending on the lift and their strength levels. Week 1 may be a 5RM, week 3 a 3RM and week 5 a 1RM. This isn’t necessarily always a true 1RM however; it’s a 1RM for that particular day. So it could be a heavy single or you could be going for a PR. Again, it’s about knowing your body. Another thing I think is very important is not missing lifts. I believe you should almost always leave 1-2 reps “in the tank”. I’ve found this to work really well. Not only do you stay fresher physically, but mentally as well.
When you start missing weights you can develop a mental block with that weight, and missing a weight is very taxing on the body. When you are consistently hitting weights you feel a lot more confident when approaching the heaviest weights. I even think you should leave a little “in the tank” if you hit a PR in training, unless it’s a day you have specifically planned to “test” certain lifts. Strongman event days are either “specific” or “general”. If there is an upcoming contest then you’re training specifically for this contest. This block normally last 12 weeks or so, as that’s about how long before a competition you know the exact events. Most competitions have 5 events. I’ll normally train 4 events on a “specific” event training day. Every competition has a deadlift event of some kind (car deadlift, 18 inch deadlift, deadlift for reps, max deadlift, axle deadlift, etc.). I’ll train this event during the week and I normally just train conventional deadlifts for these events. So with the deadlift done during the week, it leaves 4 events for “event day”. When not training for a specific contest I keep things a bit more “general”. I’ll pick 3 of the most common strongman events and train them. This will typically consist of an overhead press of some kind, a moving event and atlas stones.
So although I didn’t go into great detail, I think that’s a good summary of how I program strongman events with traditional gym lifts.
Todd: That was an awesome programming description, Chase. Definitely practical and applicable. Just from your description of your programming it is obvious that there is a tremendous amount of work put in to prepare for a strongman competition. Each event is a battle in and of itself. This takes a certain amount of mental preparation and a distinct mindset. What are some of the things you focus on to “get your mind right” before you train or compete?
Chase: The mental aspect of strongman, or any sport for that matter, is huge. I’ve got quite a few different things I do to prepare mentally for training and competition.
· On Sunday I’ll look ahead to each training session and what I’ve got programmed to do. For my “big lifts” I’ll set goals on what I’d like to hit – whether it be for weight or reps. I’ll make small notations next to that lift in the left margin of my training journal with either a weight or number of reps I want to hit.
· I’ll look ahead to my work schedule (since my schedule looks a little different each and every week) and see what times look optimal for training. I’ll then block them off so I don’t schedule anything in that time.
· The night before a workout I’ll take a quick look at my training journal and see what I’ve got programmed for the next day and what goals I set for myself on Sunday.
· I’ll mentally rehearse the big lifts schedule for the next day sometime the evening before after looking at my journal. Remember, the body follows the mind.
· Pre workout I find using caffeine helps me get in the mindset needed to move big weights. It gets me amped up a bit and also helps me focus.
· Before big lifts I’ll mentally rehearse the lift in my head again – focusing on perfect technique and hitting the goal weight or reps.
· If it’s something like a max effort deadlift I’ll get a little bit “out of my mind.” I don’t try to get pissed off necessarily; I just mentally get myself to an optimal state of arousal. It’s definitely an amped up state though. I know when I’ve reached it as I get what I’d almost call a chill and calm over my body. All the sounds around me seem to be muffled and colors seem very vivid and blurred. This may sound like someone’s experience on drugs, but this is what I experience before I hit big PRs.
· However, if it’s something like a log clean and press for reps I won’t get as amped up. I learned that there are different levels needed for different lifts through trial and error. I’ll definitely be amped up more than I would if I was doing some glute ham raises, but not “out of my mind” so to speak.
· As a competition approaches I’ll mentally start rehearsing the events in my mind in the order they will be performed. I picture every rep/lift successful, excellent technique and everything going the way I want it to. Once competition day arrives it’s almost a déjà-vu type effect. It’s as I’ve been there before and already done it.
· I’ll have goals set for the competition events. For example, if my best log clean and press for reps with 250 is 6 reps in training, my goal may be 8 reps in competition. Once I start the event I’ll literally start counting at 8 and count them down to 1. If I hit my goal, I’ll then just try to get as many more reps as possible.
· I’ll keep up with what my competitors are doing at the competition. One way to do this is to get my entry form sent in early. The first entry gets to go last usually and if it’s not a National competition then you get to go last on every event usually. (At Nationals they start by order of entry going last, but after each event the guy who finished 1st goes last and the guy who finished last goes 1st on the next event). I learned this the hard way once. It was an incline log press for reps. I had to go first because I was the last person to enter. I killed the event and hit 27 reps or so. After everyone else had gone second place only hit 12 or 13 reps. I had expended a ton of energy and accumulated a lot more fatigue than needed. All I needed was 14 reps to win it. If I had sent my entry in first I would’ve gone last I would’ve known I could stop at 14 with the win. And I would’ve had a lot less fatigue and wasted a lot less energy.
· And just like with training, I’ll get amped up for some events a ton and others just enough. Some events require more technical skill and thinking, others require just getting “out of your mind” and absolutely killing it.
That really covers most of the mental preparation I use for competing. I’m sure I’m leaving a few things out, but I can’t give away all of my secrets can I? Seriously though, the mental aspect of training and competing is huge. Some people break down and perform worse under pressure. Some people excel when the pressure is on. I think those who tend to natural break down under pressure can train that to be the other way around. Luckily I’ve always been someone who excels under pressure in every sport I’ve ever competed in.
Todd: Those are definitely some great techniques for setting the mental stage to perform. Thanks for sharing, Chase. Well, that about wraps the interview up. I want to say thanks again for taking time out of your busy schedule to share a little bit of what you do with me.
I’m sure this interview is going to generate some questions, so is there a website or way to contact you that you would like to direct people toward?
Chase: Thanks for asking me to do this interview, Todd. I really enjoyed it, and hopefully everyone who reads it can pick up a thing or two to apply to their own training. My website is www.ChaseKarnes.com – this is where I keep a blog, some training videos and links to articles I’ve authored, etc. I also have a contact tab on my website that people can find out how to reach me if they have any specific questions, etc. People can also feel free to add me on Facebook. I primarily use it for networking/training related stuff anyway – so I won’t think you’re some weirdo if you send a friend request my way.