Karwoski Trains Legs – Part I

by Marty Gallagher

In 1995 Captain Kirk Karwoski shattered his own world squat record
With a 1,003 pound effort – fifteen years later that record STILL stands!


Kirk Karwoski set national and world records in the squat in a three different weight classes. He has been called the greatest squatter in the history of powerlifting. His strength training approach was so deceptively simple that its validity and applicability for modern strength trainees has been widely dismissed by contemporary strength experts. Yet variations of this minimalistic training template was used by all the power greats of the 60s, 70s, 80s and 1990s: men like Kaz, Lamar Gant, Ed Coan, Doug Furnas, Larry Pacifico, Walter Thomas, Dan Wohleber, John Gamble and Jim Cash – all these hall-of-fame power greats used remarkably similar strength training templates. These ancient immortals set records that stand unsurpassed, yet for a variety of reasons the methods used by these record-setting champions is no longer practiced.  Here are the benchmarks for this primitive approach…

  • work up to a single, all out set in three or four key lifts
  • only train that lift one time a week
  • use primal periodization (preplanning)
  • train in short, infrequent, manic training sessions

This record-smashing minimalistic training methodology was deemed passé.  A new wave of powerlifters began setting astronomic records: 1200 pound squats, 1100 pound bench presses; tellingly, deadlift performances actually decreased within the same time frame.  Relaxed judging standards, the use of the “mono-lift” and supportive gear breakthroughs were mistaken for strength breakthroughs.

The lost power program

For a long period of time all the top powerlifters trained virtually the same…

  • low rep sets predominated
  • very few exercises
  • most performed a single, all out top set
  • some lifters might perform multiple top sets using a static poundage
  • others might perform “static weight back-off sets” after the top set
  • most performed some assistance exercises
  • others avoided assistance work altogether
  • perform each of the four core lifts once a week

It sounds too simple to work but work it did.

What was this power protocol, this Iron Consensus, what were its guidelines, benchmarks and common characteristics? What were its traits and identifying procedures? Generally speaking the lifter worked up to a single all out set, performing the exact poundage and number of top set reps the lifter’s personalized periodization schedule called for. Powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters used written periodization schedules and each week the lifter worked up to the scheduled poundage for the predetermined number of reps.  The “cycle” went on for twelve straight weeks and each week the poundage would be boosted upward.

Workout Intensity triggers the “adaptive response”

Insane physical effort is what makes this simple approach work: squat like your life depended on those that final reps of that single top set – this is where the true gains lie. Sub-maximal effort delivers sub-maximal results. A man like Karwoski, through sheer power of will, could routinely turn a limit set of three reps into a five rep set. He could turn a limit five rep set into a set of eight reps; he could will his body to do more than it was capable of – and he did so without incurring a single career-threatening injury during his entire twenty year power career. There is a long line of Iron Icons that used this same strategy and ended up setting world powerlifting records that stood for decades.

The King in his Kingdom

Imagine its 1996 and you’re striding into Maryland Athletic Club at 4 pm on a Monday. You are there to watch the five time world powerlifting champion, Kirk Karwoski, train the squat five weeks before the national championships.

You walk into the main weight room of MAC and see a cluster of giants gathered around the squat rack. The boys are ready to roll. Karwoski sticks out: his comic book physique is dense as a block of Fort Knox gold bullion. He stands 5’8” and weighs 280 pounds. His muscles are gargantuan and appear ready to explode through his skin. No fat boy, Karwoski has veins running up and down his 21-inch arms; his six pack is visible and when a Mr. Olympia competitor saw Karwoski in this condition he said, “Unbelievable muscle size and density with a surprisingly low body fat percentile for a 280 pound man with a 5-8 frame: he’s at 11% body fat percentile, tops.”

Kirk in 2004 the morning before Squatting 826 wearing only a belt.

Kirk begins his squats with a set of eight reps with 135 pounds. He is a firm believer in compensatory acceleration and rockets each rep upward as fast as humanly possible. “My goal is bar speed: why shouldn’t I be able to move 135 pounds twice as fast as 270 pounds and seven times as fast as my bar speed with 945 pounds?” Kirk said by way of rhetorical explanation.

Kirk’s key training partners are his coach and mentor Marty Gallagher, and Big Bobby Myers (Bob placed second as a super heavyweight in the USPF nationals.) Bill Bullet, from parts unknown, is a 6’7” 350 pound former pro football player and a key back spotter. There is also a shifting cast of auxiliary squat training partners. Today there is the usual cluster of onlookers. Kirk’s squat sessions are legendary; a genuine underground cult phenomenon has sprung up around his exploits and people that don’t even belong to the gym pay a $5 guest fee and show up and watch the squat show.

There is a festive atmosphere and Karwoski was (and is) a natural showmen. He dispatched 255 pounds for 5 reps and 455 for 3. In between sets he would sit on an exercise bench listening to his tape player. Kirk was a big believer in psyche and focus and he didn’t engage in idle banter between sets: this was dead serious business. He’d listen to his music and when he was ready he would signal for the spotters to load the next poundage. He dispatched 655 for a single rep that appeared as fast as his lightening-fast 135 pound reps. No Monolift at MAC. Kirk wore a relatively loose Titan squat suit and a pair of standard length knee wraps. His 32 inch thighs and 21 inch calves rippled with every step.

745 was up next up: another effortless single rep. 745 was the first time Kirk went to the trouble to wrap his knees. Big Bobby would start cinching Kirk’s lifting belt extra tight from this point forward. 745 pounds was easy and controlled and for his final warm-up, Kirk selected 835 pounds.  Bob wrapped Kirk’s knees using his tremendous grip – Bob could walk across the gym carrying a 100 pound plate in each hand. Kirk had Bob pull up the straps on his lifting squat suit while Gallagher’s job was to “judge” depth. Kirk ripped 835 out of the rack and repped it for a rocket-ride single rep; it was as if the barbell plates were made of paper Mache.

The level of excitement amongst the crowd, the other lifters and the assorted onlookers built as the poundage got heavier: for today’s top set Karwoski called for 900 pounds. In an amazing display of pure power, Karwoski repped 900 pounds for five reps, each rep taken below parallel. The crowd could not have been more stunned if Karwoski had morphed into Jesus. Best of all, this session was captured on tape and can be seen of Karwoski’s DVD, From Cadet to Captain.

After the set Kirk packed his gear and left the gym inside fifteen minutes to head to Burger King with Big Bob to see who could eat the most whoppers. Kirk’s record stood at six. He needed to nutritionally super-compensate post-workout. After his one top set with 900, he had nothing left – so no leg extensions, no leg curls, no hack squats, no leg presses, no calf raises, no back-off sets of squats, no multiple top sets of squats with static poundage, no nothing – he was done.

Elvis has left the building. Next week he was scheduled to tackle 920 for 3 and in his final squat session in four weeks he was scheduled to hit 1,000 for two. It made him hungry just thinking about it.

Coming Soon, Part II: How to set up a periodized, Karwoski-inspired, minimalistic squat program

Three-time World Master Powerlifting Champion, Teenage National Olympic Lift Champion, Marty Gallagher coached Black’s Gym to four National team titles and in 1991 coached the United States squad to victory at the World Powerlifting Championships.

Marty’s highly-acclaimed 230+ weekly Live Online columns for Washington Post.com created a legion of followers for his Purposefully Primitive Fitness philosophy. Over the last thirty years he has had over 1,000 articles appear in two dozen fitness publications.

We are ecstatic to have Marty contributing to StrengthVillain.com

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10 Responses

  1. sapper09

    Fucking awesome. Man i wish i was able to go to that April seminar with the Captain – it sounds like a once in a lifetime kind of gig.

    KK is just a monster, 5’8″, 280lbs and about 11% bf is insane. Reminds me of what JP was saying in podcast 1 about humanising things. When you see someone hitting 1000 for 2, a 300/400 (or whatever) squat doesn’t seem like such a big deal.

    That was a great article, too – can’t wait to read part 2!

    February 11, 2011 at 8:00 am

  2. Awesome.

    February 11, 2011 at 8:46 am

  3. Justin

    Unreal!

    That first rep was so fast.

    It’s great to see Marty will be writing here. That article gave me goosebumps. I can’t wait to hit the gym tonight.

    February 11, 2011 at 9:58 am

  4. Jim Steel

    Great stuff. Kirk is all about intensity and focus. Badass.

    February 11, 2011 at 10:23 am

  5. I love that 1000 pound double video, never gets old.

    February 11, 2011 at 11:37 am

  6. Cat

    ” I wanna hold it, I wanna hold it” (earmuffs). Great video

    February 11, 2011 at 11:40 am

  7. Vamshi

    “After the set Kirk packed his gear and left the gym inside fifteen minutes to head to Burger King with Big Bob to see who could eat the most whoppers”

    Great stuff.

    February 13, 2011 at 3:50 pm

  8. john

    I loved Purposeful Primitive, and will be enjoying whatever marty does

    February 23, 2011 at 5:55 pm

  9. J.

    Where is part 2?! You have got to please post how to set up the program!

    March 1, 2011 at 11:28 am

  10. Doug

    Well written. Articles like this and the efforts they portray make us all work harder.

    March 1, 2011 at 5:03 pm

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