by Marty Gallagher
John Kuc was an important figure in powerlifting. In the early 1970s Kuc trail-blazed all-time best poundages as a superheavyweight lifter: he was the first man to squat 900, the first man to total 2300, the first man to deadlift 850. Health issues related to his high bodyweight forced his retirement in 1973. Kuc reemerged a year later and shocked the strength world. He reduced his bodyweight by 100 pounds and began setting IPF world records. His 2,204 world record three-lift total, set in 1980 at the IPF World Championships at Arlington, Texas in front of the toughest judging in the world, withstood assault from the cream of 242 pound, hall-of-fame lifters: men like Dave Jacoby, Willie Bell, Thor Kritsky, Joe Ladiner, Doug Furnas, Dan Wolheber, Mark Chaillet and Kirk Karwoski – all took aim, some came close, yet all failed to break Kuc’s historic total record.
The Great Kuc deadlifts 854: he stood 6’1” and weighed 239 in 1978. Built all wrong for moving big weights, Kuc was too tall and too skinny and compounded his obstacles by using terrible technique – note the wide stance, his grip is so wide his hands almost touch the 32 inch rings on the bar, dramatically lengthening the pull. In the above photo Kuc has, per his usual habit, prematurely straightened his legs. He will now utilize 100% spinal erector power to lockout this 854 pound barbell. A tremendous example of a great lifter using bad technique to set world records; many take away the wrong message, “Kuc used bad technique – so why can’t I?” Kuc set world records “in spite of,” not “because of,” his technique. We strive to emulate the technical archetype, not the technical anomaly.
Ditto the deadlift: Kuc’s 871 world record, set that same epochal day in 1980, is a mark that stood untouched for 15 years. It took Ed Coan to finally best Kuc’s total and deadlift records. Like John, Ed did it in one fell swoop. Kuc was a man built all wrong for powerlifting. At 235-240 pounds, Kuc looked more like an outside linebacker than a world record holding lifter. Kuc was Clark Kent who never turned into Superman; Kuc looked like Clark, lifted like Superman; a crazed Superman. In competition Kuc was scary. He was able to work himself into a voodoo trance state before a world record deadlift that was incredible to see. As he was waiting to attempt a world record deadlift, his face would contort into that of a psycho-killer about to strike.
Kuc would begin to pace backstage, zombie-like, his eyes unfocused yet wide and wild and crazy-looking; his body would start to tremble ever so slightly as his name was called and he walked towards the barbell, oblivious to the crowd, the judges and his surroundings. He fixated on the barbell with crazy-eyed X-Ray vision. He set his feet wide as he prepared to grip and pull. Only Karwoski could come close to Kuc for dramatic, effective, pre-lift psych. But while Kirk’s psych was external and demonstrative, Kuc’s psych was internal and smoldering.
John Kuc’s feat – massive bodyweight reduction while maintaining world level strength – was unprecedented. Before Kuc pulled off his physiological miracle, it had been deemed impossible to lose massive amounts of bodyweight, yet still retain world record level strength. While there are many accounts of superheavyweight lifters (sensibly) losing massive amounts of bodyweight after their competitive careers were over (my mentor Huge Cassidy dropped from 300 to a muscular 195 in a year), none came close to maintaining the strength levels they exhibited in their prime. Kuc actually increased his all-time best deadlift. He lost 100 pounds off his squat, his bench dropped from 600 to 500, but his pull went up a bit.
Young Kuc weighing 340, a big, athletic boy; had he been able to push his bodyweight up to 370 or 380 he likely would have squatted 1000,benched 650 and deadlifted 950 RAW!
Kuc was built all wrong for lifting as a
242-pound lifter. He was way too tall, downright
skinny. Most world-level 242-pound lifters are
5-5 to 5-9 in height. Muscle in relation to height
in inches is a critical benchmark for powerlifting
success. Top powerlifters are thick and squat.
Kuc was 73 inches in height and at 238 pounds
bodyweight generated a puny 3.26 pounds of
muscle per inch of height. Kirk Karwoski is
67 inches in height and generated a far more
impressive 3.7 pounds of muscle per inch of height.
Even at the end of his spectacular career, Kuc was
able to deadlift 850, drug-free, as a 275-pound
lifter. That was a dramatic exclamation point on
the end of one hell of a powerlifting career.
Kuc’s approach to lifting was the very
personification of unvarnished ultra-Old School, barebones strength training. His approach was as
stark and hard and harsh as the environment that spawned this strength stalwart, the desolate Scranton/
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