Damn Strong

by Jim Steel | August 14, 2019

competition squat jim steel

I was thinking the other day about what it felt like to be big as hell and pretty damn strong. I may be a used up fifty-something has-been now, but in the old days I did okay for myself in powerlifting.

I remember like it was yesterday. I was coaching high school football in Florida at the time. The year was 1996, and I was sitting in my living room watching Powerlifting Video Magazine. My ex-wife sat on the couch next to me, asleep. Whenever she wanted to take a nap, she would sit on the couch while I watched training DVDs. The Bulgarian Training Hall tapes put her to sleep the fastest, but this powerlifting video was doing the trick also.

I had purchased the copy of Powerlifter Video Magazine on a whim and when I turned it on, a behemoth named Kirk Karwoski was pacing a gym floor in Maryland with a Walkman on. He then proceeded to take off the Walkman, throw it against the wall, strutted over to the bar that was loaded with plates while people gathered around, watching.

Then he put his hands on the bar, let out a guttural scream that would shatter glass, got under the bar, gingerly stepped back with the prodigious poundage, and with only a belt on, squatted that son of a bitch five times. The weight was 800 pounds. I was enthralled with the amazing show of strength. Later, I became friends with Kirk and was able to pick his brain about training. But at the time I was like, Who is this guy? I had never even squatted 600 pounds. I didn’t really know anything about this powerlifting stuff. Where would I see it? Once in a while, Muscle & Fitness or Iron Man Magazine would have a feature article on someone in powerlifting.

And then there was Powerlifting USA Magazine, which was good when you could find it, but where I grew up in Maryland, it was tough to find stores that sold it. Back then, I only knew what some of the strongest football players lifted. I had read where Randy White of the Cowboys had squatted 600 pounds, so that was my goal. Once I squatted 600, I thought I was strong until I saw that video of Karwoski. So now I needed to dive deeply into this powerlifting stuff. I set a goal. Funny, the goal had nothing to do with the bench and deadlift at the time. I just wanted to squat heavy. I knew that 700 pounds would be my next goal.

I had always been able to gain and lose weight when I set my mind to it. One time in high school, I decided to train for a bodybuilding show and went from 218 pounds to 169 pounds in three months. And I’ve lost thirty to fifty pounds on numerous occasions to compete in bodybuilding. But this time, I needed to do the opposite. I needed to gain a bunch of weight. I needed the mass, because I knew that one of the fastest ways to get stronger was to gain weight. So I started eating. Eight tuna fish and mayo sandwiches a day, packed in a huge cooler with milk. After work, I ate a bunch of chicken and rice and pasta. In three months, I went from 240 pounds to 280 pounds and six months after that, I topped out at 312 pounds standing five feet and nine inches tall. I was heavy as hell, my blood pressure was up and I was up to a size 46 waist. But I got strong quickly. Eventually, I squatted 755 pounds at the heavier bodyweight and missed an 800 squat. My training was great at the time. It seemed that anytime I put on a few pounds I got stronger and the weights felt lighter.

The most fun days were Saturdays when I squatted. I was doing a version of the “Russian Squat Program” that called for a light day at 80% of your one rep max for 2 sets of 5, and on the heavier day you started at 85% of your one rep max for 3 sets of 5 and added a rep, and also added 5-10% onto the bar each Saturday. The most memorable squat workout was when the template called for 610 pounds for 6 sets of 5. I believe that I threw up for the first time after the second set, then I threw up after the third set and dry heaved my way through the rest. Because of the amount of sweat pouring out of me, the crotch in my squat suit ripped out before my final set. I have always sweated a lot, but at that heavy bodyweight I sweated a downpour. I dry heaved during the last set and the bar had slipped halfway down my back, but I still finished. I was sore for a solid five days after that training session, but the next time I squatted, the weight called for was 650 for 3x3 and it was easy.

One day I was on my eighth tuna fish sandwich, and I decided that there had to be a better way to do this whole thing. First off, I was miserable. I don’t know if I could see my feet over my pendulous belly. I had achieved what I set out to achieve but I knew that I couldn’t keep that bodyweight up for very much longer and stay alive.

I cleaned up my diet and started to drop weight. All of this coincided with getting a job as an assistant strength coach at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. I was lucky because my boss was Rob Wagner, he of the 799lb ADFPA World Record squat. He really helped me technique-wise, and this time I decided to set some three-lift goals. I wanted to squat 800, bench 500 and deadlift 700. I always felt like when you could lift those numbers or more, you were damn strong. I reduced my bodyweight to under 220 in a year and everything felt heavier in the weight room. So I crept my bodyweight back up to 268 pounds but I did it by eating better. Lots of beef, rice and chicken. And Wagner changed some things: he widened my squat stand some, changed my form in the bench emphasizing the elbows tucked in and placing the bar at the highest point of my chest. As far as the deadlift went, I did it once a week but as a contest approached, I would keep the squat volume high like before but I would just pull a heavy single once a week. My deadlift, along with everything else, improved.

After a year or so at Penn, I was now ready to hit my goals. I signed up for a powerlifting meet in Roanoke, VA. And guess who was there coaching? Freaking Kirk Karwoski. When I saw him, I had a feeling that this was one of those days where things go right. And they did: I ended up squatting 820 pounds, benching 505 pounds and deadlifting 740 pounds. It was a day to remember for me. It was one of those days were the stars aligned and all was right with the world.


I learned a lot during my time when training for powerlifting. I learned that folks who say they can’t gain weight are full of crap, I learned that you can be strong at a lighter body weight if you train and diet correctly. And with Wagner’s tutelage, I learned that I could make improvements even as an advanced lifter.

After I reached my strength goals, I had no desire to compete again in powerlifting. I wanted to try my hand at some boxing and Muay Thai and I also did some more bodybuilding. But I will always remember and look fondly upon the days when I could walk under a squat bar and everyone in the room stopped to watch. I miss those days when 405 pounds was 50% of my one rep max. I miss those days when every weight felt light, and I miss the simplicity of the workout; 3 big exercises, very little assistance work (some incline bench, bent rows and hammer curls). Absolutely enjoyable workouts.

Now, for me, it’s all about squeezing and contracting and all of that hypertrophy stuff, which is great and all, but it isn’t the same as having to put 100 pound plates on the bar because the 45s won’t fit. And when you are that strong, you feel like you can lift anything in the world, and the confidence that type of strength brings is just different – like you reached down and grabbed onto something, some potential inside of you that was just waiting to be realized.

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