Chase Karnes is a guy that I’ve worked with and followed for years. Not only is he one of the strongest mofos I know, but just a genuinely good guy to boot.
Let’s get into it!
Chase, thanks a ton for coming on here today. Could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?
CK: First off, thanks for asking me to do this interview, Mike. I’m really honored!
For those who don’t know me, I’m a strength coach/personal trainer and national-level strongman competitor located in Paducah, KY. At Argonauts Fitness. I’ve been working “in the trenches,” training clients from all walks of life, for over 8 years out.
I’m a graduate of Murray State University with a Bachelor’s 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 speak. I discovered my passion for strength and training during the summer of 8th grade. I’ve been training consistently for over 14 years now. I began training for football following a modified “Bigger, Faster, Stronger” program.
Through my 4 years of high school I went from a weak 135-lb. kid to a decently strong 185 pounds by the end of my senior year.
After high school football ended, I still wanted to have a competitive outlet, but wasn’t sure with what. My interest in bodybuilding began during this time, and I trained for and competed in my first bodybuilding show in Terre Haute, Indiana, placing 1st in the teen class. Over the next few years I did quite a few NPC bodybuilding shows, qualifying for Nationals a handful of times.
After some success in bodybuilding, I kind of got tired of the whole “extreme dieting” process and wanted a new challenge. That’s when I decided to give powerlifting a try.
Even when training for bodybuilding, my training resembled that more of an athlete than bodybuilder. I had always done the Olympic lifts and variations, bench press, squat and deadlift, so the transition into powerlifting wasn’t hard at all.
While competing in powerlifting I set a few records in the junior men’s division. It wasn’t long after getting into powerlifting that I discovered the great sport of strongman in which I currently compete.
What originally got you into the fitness industry?
CK: The first time I remember really being interested in working in the fitness industry I was 16. At the time my grandma had cancer, and I was driving her to and from cancer treatments during my summer break from school.
I had been lifting for a few years at that point. I remember reading through the Men’s Fitness magazines they had lying in the lobby while I waited for my grandma to go through her treatments. I noticed the training programs in the back were written by personal trainers and at the time I thought I could write a better training program (I’m sure I was wrong, but we know everything when we are 16).
One day I was driving my grandma home, and mentioned to her that I wanted to be a personal trainer and eventually get published in mainstream magazines. I honestly thought she would be against the idea, but surprisingly, she said I should pursue it and that she knew I’d be great at it.
I eventually told my parents and others about what I wanted to do, but most didn’t think it was a good idea. They all thought you had to live in a big city and train celebrities to make a good living training people.
I still had the idea of being a trainer in the back of my mind, but the summer after high school I had decided I wanted to go to school to be a pharmacist. I got a full time job working at a pharmacy and realized quickly that I didn’t want to do that.
Around this time, I met Shawn Nevels, who owns Argonauts Fitness, and after talking about training and nutrition for a while, he offered me a job doing personal training as long as I got my NSCA-CPT certification. I took him up on the offer and started training clients.
I loved training clients from the very first day, and it didn’t take long to realize I could make a good living doing what I love.
At this point, though, I was at a crossroads. I was waking up at 4:30am, and then driving almost an hour to the gym to train clients from 6-8am. I would then drive an hour back to my other job at the pharmacy and work 9-5. Then I would drive another hour back to the gym and train clients from 6-9pm. I would make that almost hour drive one more time back home. Then I would wake up and do it all over again.
This lasted for about 3 months until I had more clients than I had time for (since my time was limited due to 2 jobs) and because I was physically and mentally wearing myself out.
I then took a huge risk – I quit my job at the pharmacy, moved out of my parent’s house to an apartment in the city where the gym was located. My parents weren’t in a position to support me financially if I moved out, so it was all up to me once I made the move. Sink or swim, so to speak.
I had no money saved up and was relying on what I was making from training clients to pay for an apartment, car payment, food, gas, bills and what was going to be college tuition in about another 2 weeks. Luckily my clientele continued to grow, and within my first 6 months I was working a pretty full schedule to be going to school full-time.
A lot has happened in the last 8 years since I began my journey into the fitness industry, but I’m still doing what I’m passionate about – and that’s training people and changing lives.
Very cool man. Where are you currently located, and what’s your work situation like?
CK: I am located in Paducah, KY. We are a small city in the far western part of the state located about 3 hours from Louisville, KY. I’m an independent contractor working out of Argonauts Fitness training clients in a private setting through one-on-one and small group training.
I train a wide variety of clientele, from high-level athletes to soccer moms to doctors to youth. I own and operate Chase Karnes Training (ChaseKarnes.com), where I offer online personal training, phone consultations and speaking engagements.
I’ve slacked off in the blogging/writing area a bit due to my load of in-person clients and because I’m working on a book on strongman training, and more specifically programming for strongman. This is definitely not a small project, as everything in it has been used by me and other strongman competitors I’ve trained.
I’m testing out everything that goes into the book because as we all know just because it looks good on paper doesn’t mean it will work. And while theory is great, application is what gets results. And this definitely takes time.
Chase, let’s talk strongman training. Why did you choose strongman over other strength/power sports like powerlifting, Olympic lifting, etc.?
CK: To me, strongman is the ultimate strength sport. It requires you to be strong, explosive, conditioned, mentally tough, and to display these qualities in static and dynamic events.
I think Olympic lifting is great and would loved to have had a chance to start training it at an early age, but that didn’t happen. And honestly, I’m not the most flexible or mobile guy around, so me and Olympic lifting would probably never have gotten along anyways. I do train the Olympic lifts and variations in training, but I’m nowhere near an Olympic lifter.
My goal at the moment is to win the National Championship in the Lightweight 200 class. Once I do that I’ll see what I want to do next.
You obviously have a big strength background, though. How do you feel like the power lifts impact or “carry over” to your strongman events?
CK: Of the three power lifts, the deadlift has the biggest impact and carryover to strongman in my opinion. As my deadlift has gone up, almost every single one of my strongman events have improved in one way or another. I don’t think the bench press or squat have near as much carryover.
For the first 2 years or longer of my strongman career, I didn’t back squat one time because it always aggravated my back (but I do back squat now because you fixed my hips and the pain went away!).
I did squats, but only front squats and Anderson front squats. I feel that the front squat has more of a benefit to a strongman competitor than a back squat for a few reasons.
It has a lot of carry over to atlas stone loading. The upper-back strength you get from maintaining thoracic extension during a set of front squats carries over to all moving events (yoke walk, farmers walk, Conan’s wheel, keg carry, Husafell stone carry) and even helps for the overhead press (rack position of the log or axle).
It’s also less stressful on the CNS, which is a good thing since strongman events are very taxing on the CNS. I also notice myself and clients recover a lot faster from front squats than back squats.
I think the bench press is a great lift for increasing overall pressing strength, but if we look at risk versus reward, the incline bench press is a superior choice for the strongman competitor (obviously 2nd behind overhead press for strict presses).
As most people know, bench pressing can be rough on the shoulders, and I feel the incline bench press is a lot less stressful. I also like that the angle of the incline is closer to that of pressing overhead – so in theory you’ll get more carryover to the overhead press events while still training the pectorals (as strong pecs are needed on atlas stones).
So to sum up, the power lifts themselves may not be the optimal choice for strongman, but there is no doubt you need to be strong on the deadlift, a barbell squat pattern and a barbell horizontal press. Any successful strongman competitor should base their training off of these movements (with the overhead press (strict) being the 4th main gym lift to round it out).
Let’s say someone you know wants to get into strongman training, and I’ll give you two different scenarios.
1 – Someone who has a big strength background wants to make the switch. How do you get them started? Or how do you tweak their training?
This would definitely be the smoothest and easiest transition. Chances are he’d be pretty good from the start on static strength events. He’d be lacking in moving events though, and possibly weak overhead (assuming he has the thoracic mobility to press overhead).
I’d set him up on a 3-day training program with 2 gym days (an upper-body and a lower-body day), and 1 strongman event day.
Since he has a pretty good strength background, our main goals on our gym lifts would be maintaining that strength (while increasing overhead pressing strength) and really working on the actual strongman events (technical and strength).
Most guys kill themselves on the gym lifts during the week and on events on the weekend. In my opinion, they can only do this for so long before it catches up with them in the form of an injury or overtraining and lack of progress.
Don’t get me wrong, I still recommend training hard during the week, but when first getting into strongman the events should be the main focus. A lot of times the athlete will continually get stronger on gym lifts from the strength they are gaining from the actual events without focusing on pushing their gym lifts. And by not beating themselves up during the week they still have the energy, mental focus and less accumulated fatigue when it’s time to hit the actual strongman events.
It’s less stressful on the CNS and looks at the long-term picture – which is very important for strongman or any strength sport.
We would definitely push their overhead press hard in the gym. Other than that our main goal is improving events. Once they are getting pretty good at events it’s time to focus on your weakest events.
Most of the times a guy will be naturally good at an event or two, decent at a few and they just suck at a couple. The goal is to take the “suck” events and make them decent. I recommend picking 1 or 2 of these and making that the goal of the next training block.
This is when you increase the focus of the gym lifts with the most carryover to your “suck” event. You also train that event hard, as I firmly believe that if you want to get good at something, you’ve got to do it!
So for example let’s say in this situation the person has gotten good and decent at most events except atlas stones. I’d have this person hit power cleans, Anderson front squats and glute-ham raises hard during the week and train stones consistently on the event day. I’ve found that those three lifts have a huge carryover to getting better at atlas stones.
Obviously this is just one example and every event is different, but hopefully you get the picture.
2 – Someone has minimal strength background – where do you even start with them?
CK: This scenario really depends and is very tricky. First, if you want to compete in strongman you’ve got to be STRONG. Everybody wants to be a strongman competitor 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 men should be hitting before attempting the events. Keep in mind these aren’t written in stone so to speak – this is just my opinion.
- Deadlift 405
- Back Squat 315
- Bench Press 225
- Military Press 135
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 an 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 training time in the grand scheme of things.
The overall training approach would be quite a bit different than the person with a big strength background though. Our main focus is going to be getting stronger in the gym and learning and progressing on the events. Since this person obviously isn’t as strong, they can push the gym lifts hard and the actual events pretty hard simultaneously – especially when they first start training for strongman.
I’ve been following your deadlift progress closely over the past year or two. Could you tell us a little bit about your journey?
CK: Man, it has been a journey. A couple of years back I thought my deadlift was pretty strong, as I was pulling 500 pounds at a bodyweight of 200 pounds.
Then came the 2010 strongman nationals where I got destroyed on the deadlift event, which was a car deadlift for reps. I got 0 reps and 0 points. This killed me in the overall score, and also my placing.
Then and there, I realized my deadlift needed some major work. The first thing I did was change my mindset for the better.
I realized that a 500-lb. pull at 200 wasn’t bad for most people, but my goal isn’t to be average. My goal is to be the best 200-lb. strongman competitor in the nation and to prove that by winning nationals. A 500 pound pull wasn’t going to cut it.
I reached out to guys like you, Clint Darden and Jim Wendler for some advice on my pull. I sent everyone a video and took everyone’s feedback and started programming specifically for the deadlift.
In 10 months I took my deadlift from 500 to 600 pounds. I wrote up an article on how I did this for EliteFTS. While a 600-pound pull is a lot closer to what I need to be the best, I still know guys who weigh 200 pounds that can pull much, much more. So I wasn’t satisfied with it.
I kept focusing on it and 8 months after pulling 600 I had added another 50 pounds to my pull with a huge PR of 650. I think I’m good for 675 in the next 5 or 6 months. Looks like I may have a future article to write on this process!
That is a legit improvement in a very short amount of time! If someone is struggling with their deadlift, what are some key pieces of advice you would give them?
CK: 1. Film yourself pulling. Watch the video and see where your weakness is and watch your technique.
Send the video to people stronger and/or smarter than you and get their opinions on it also.
Utilize the awesome resource of the EliteFTS Q&A staff. Send the link to some guys on there and get their feedback. Then actually APPLY what you learn you need to work on.
2. When you’re pulling in the >90% range, notice what part of the pull “feels” the most difficult and what area “feels” the most fatigued. This may take some time to do, but I feel it helped me tremendously.
During my journey to 600, I recall one day pulling a heavy dead and it felt as if I almost stalled right before lockout. My hamstrings where screaming at that same point.
While the video didn’t really show me slowing down or stalling, I knew from what I felt that I had to strengthen my lockout and more specifically my hamstrings from the hip extension standpoint.
I added in good mornings as an accessory lift, and at the end of that training block when I was pulling weights in the 90%+ range again it felt completely different. My hamstrings felt strong and snappy at lockout.
So while watching video of your pulls and analyzing your weaknesses is important, it’s just as important to listen to your body and “feel” your weaknesses as well.
3. “Pull with authority.” A good friend of mine and strength coach, Sam Luker, told me this one day when we were pulling together, and it’s stuck with me ever since. The biggest thing that helped me do this was adding in speed deadlifts.
4. Hit the glute-ham raises hard. The first time I ever attempted a GHR was actually when I was visiting IFAST a few years back. I couldn’t even do one correct rep. The second time I attempted them was at EliteFTS a few years later. Again, I couldn’t do one correct rep.
I knew this was a problem and I had to fix it. As soon as I got home, I ordered one from EliteFTS. I can now bust out sets of 20+ with just bodyweight.
I have no doubt that the glute ham raise has had a huge impact on my deadlift (especially my strength off the floor). And no, there is no substitute for them and manual glute ham raises just aren’t the same.
Chase, could you finish off by telling us one big mistake you’ve made along the way, as well as how you’ve learned or grown from it?
CK: This is definitely a tough one, but I’d have to say one of my biggest mistakes I’ve made along the way was pushing clients (and myself) too hard. You don’t have to kill people to get them results. Anyone can make you tired and exhausted, but not anyone can make you better.
Luckily. I realized this a while back and the result has been amazing. I’m able to change even more lives, get better results and people enjoy training much more. And personally I’ve continued to get bigger and stronger than I ever thought possible.
It’s about training optimally and for a specific goal. We don’t “work out,” we train.
And on the same note, this isn’t an excuse to not train hard! There is a time to kill it and go hard. And that’s where proper programming comes into play.
Chase, thanks a ton for coming on here. Where can my readers find out more about you?
Thanks again, Chase!