Before we get into this post, I want to let you know about our giant How to Squat guide. It covers everything you need to know about every aspect of the squat – from biomechanics to correcting weaknesses to technique. Click here to open it in a new tab so you can check it out after you’ve finished reading this article.
There are three types of strong people.
1. Lucky ones
2. Injured ones
3. Smart ones
Unless you’re simply a freak, getting stronger requires a mind that can keep up with your body. If you’re not constantly growing in your mental pursuits, you’ll run into some serious problems in your training. You’ll stop getting stronger, start getting hurt, or both.
You would be hard pressed to find an 800 pound raw squatter or deadlifter who get that strong by accident. Knowledge precedes strength. When you apply all the knowledge you have and finally hit a wall, it takes more knowledge to know HOW to get around/over/under/through that wall before you can direct your efforts towards doing so. You may clear a few barriers by accident and luck, but that’s not the best strategy to stake your long-term results on.
With that in mind, I’m going to be writing an ongoing series about the main things I learned to reach particular milestones in lifting. I’ll start with my first 500 pound squat, then work in 100 pounds increments. I’ll do the same with my bench, starting at 350 and working in 50 pound increments. Deadlift will also start at 500 and go 100 pounds at a time. My PRs are currently 650/445/655, so hopefully I’ll have three installments per lift (up to 700/450/700) fairly soon. So, without further ado, here’s how I squatted 500 pounds:
Lesson 1: Work hard.
This is the most important thing I’ve learned about attaining anything in life. In some sports, talent often trumps hard work (i.e. you can’t play center in the NBA at 5’7″ by sheer force of will). However, I don’t think this is true for powerlifting, except in extreme cases. I’ll illustrate with something that SHOULD be a death sentence for a power/strength athlete: not having true fast twitch muscle fibers. About 18% of the population has two nonsense copies of the ACTN3 gene which codes for a binding protein necessary for fast twitch muscles to “twitch fast.” Basically, with two copies of the nonsense allele, none of your muscle fibers truly function as fast twitch fibers.
Two different studies have linked having two working copies of the allele to elite anaerobic performance. One showed that elite sprinters and power athletes are much less likely to have the nonsense allele, and another showed that elite bodybuilders and strength athletes are much less likely to have the nonsense allele. None of this should be surprising as fast twitch fibers are the ones with the most growth potential and are primarily responsible for very high levels for force production. However, don’t let another pair of statistics slip by you: about 7% of ELITE bodybuilders/strength athletes, and about 6% of ELITE sprinters have two copies of the nonsense gene. Approximately 1 out of every 15 elite athletes lacks true fast twitch muscle fibers in sports where force output and/or hypertrophy are ESSENTIAL. Let that sink in for a moment.
I’d almost guarantee you, though: that 1 in 15 had to work twice as hard to reach the same level of achievement. But if you’re willing to put in the work, you can get there.
While I was working towards a 500 squat, I learned to work hard. i.e. puked-the-first-4-workouts-straight hard. I’ve since learned to pick my battles (somewhat) and give my body a rest when it needs it, but strength is only earned through hard work, pure and simple.
Lesson 2: Form is king
You can lift light weights with bad form. If you lift heavy weights with bad form, you will break yourself eventually. Killer tendonitis in both knees and constant erector spinae strains taught me that lesson the hard way. It wasn’t until I made serious strides in technique that I reached 500. Tip of the day: fail to stand up with a lift and let the bar roll off your back rather than losing it forward. Never lose it forward.
Lesson 3: Nutrition basics
At the point of squatting 500, I didn’t know a ton about nutrition. However, here’s what I did know, which worked just fine at the time:
a) Have some meat in front of you every time you sit down at the table
b) Never be hungry (I went from 170 to 213 in about 4.5 months without much fat gain, and took my squat from 405 to 523 in the same time span. Additionally, I stood up with 551 but got redlighted for depth. It was deeper than my previous 405, but a smidge higher than 523). Food is the best anabolic on the planet. Insulin spikes + increasing mTOR1 expression + amino acids = hugeness.
c) Supplements are to supplement. I’m pretty sure the only things I took when I first squatted 500 were a protein supplement (20g post-workout. Tasted like death) and a multivitamin. Early on I noticed a strong correlation between the number of supplements someone obsessed about taking and how weak they were.
Lesson 4: Atmosphere
This is a lesson that I didn’t realize I was learning at the time, but it became painfully obvious soon after my first 500. The gym I trained at when I first started lifting was the home of Travis Mash. He was at his peak at the time, and I saw him deadlift and back squat in the 700s and front squat in the 600s fairly often. Additionally, Lavan, the guy I trained with most of the time, was (and still is) slightly wider than most doorways with a 500 pound bench and a pretty decent squat. Also, Joey Smith and a lot of geared benchers would come on Friday nights and all handle 700-800 on a pretty regular basis. Throw all this together, and I’m the weakest person in the picture BY FAR. Oh, except for Seth who was only about 150 pounds at the time and constantly just 10-20 pounds behind me in every lift (plus he could do a 64 inch box jump, and a 48 inch body jump off one leg. He’s a freak). I think I got stronger just because I saw so much room for improvement in myself. They were my “normal,” so there was no good reason to not get a lot stronger in short order.
Lesson 5: You’re only as strong as your stomach
I’ll be honest, this is one I’ve gotten away from (to my own detriment). No matter what, I always ended training sessions in my early days with absurd amounts of abdominal work. First I worked up to situps (on a hyperextension machine) with a 165 pound dumbbell on my chest for sets of 10. Then it was with a heavy band around my neck for 10s. Then it was with 90 pounds behind my head for 10s. Never will you regret getting brutally strong abs.
How I trained: Westside, mostly. Except it was Travis’s form of westside. The main modification: DE days start as DE days (8 sets of 2 fast with band tension for squats, 8×3 for bench), but after you’ve hit your speed sets you just max with the band tension. Everything else was pretty kosher. Lots of hamstring work, upper back work, and triceps work.
So there you have it: the most important things I learned in route to a 500 pound squat. If you have any further questions, feel free to ask!