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Interview with Squat Monster Joe Norman

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Please check out these great books by Joe Norman:

  • 1,003 lb. World Record Squat
  • 2008 Master Nationals – 220 lb weight class – 40-44 year old division

Best Competition Lifts

  • Squat: 1105 lbs.
  • Bench: 675 lbs.
  • Deadlift: 738 lbs.
  • Total: 2,360 lbs.

Joe thanks for taking the time to be interviewed. When did you start lifting weights, and was your goal at that time to get stronger?

I actually started lifting weights my sophomore year in college, twenty-five years ago. My main goal was to lose weight. I had put on a good 30 to 40 lbs. since graduation high school and was feeling pretty bad about myself. One of my dorm mates got me started lifting in a small free weight gym set up in the basement of the dorm. Knowing absolutely nothing about weight training we were just lifting to get in shape but we were actually using one of the most basic strength training workouts, the 5 x 5’s.

I lifted weights for almost three years in college and then stopped for almost six years before getting back into it again. Most of my workouts were bodybuilder type workouts during those years, still with the main goal to get cut and bigger. It wasn’t until 1998 when I realized I wanted more out of lifting and got into the sport of powerlifting.

Here’s my lifting timeline:

  • 1987 – 1989 – Main goal to lose weight and get in shape
  • 1990 – 1995 – No lifting of any kind
  • 1996 – 1998 – Get back in shape, get bigger and cut
  • 1998 – Present – Competitive powerlifting

What happened in 1998 that took you from “Average Joe” into “I want to try and compete in powerlifting?”

Girls! No it’s not what you think. Let me explain.

Back in 1997 I was lifting at Gold’s Gym, mostly bodybuilder style lifting. However, I did like to do heavy deadlift and heavy squats every week.

One day I was pulling 550 lbs. and one of the guys in the gym saw. He asked me what my body weight was so I told him. I weight around196 lbs. He told me that my deadlift was great for my body weight and that I should try competing in powerlifting. I didn’t think anything more about what he had said until later that year.

Half way through the year I started training with a friend of mine which seemed good but it was a mistake. He was one of those guys that went to the gym for more social reasons ten training. Now don’t get me wrong, he trained hard, but there were a lot of time spend chatting up the ladies and being macho with all the guys.

I was o.k. with it for a while but when it got to a point when we couldn’t get through a workout without a girl interrupting us, I started getting annoyed.

It was when I was training by myself one day and I was still being interrupted that I decided to get out of the gym and make lifting more than just a hangout.

I asked a lady I worked with about powerlifting, she pointed my to a different gym, they gave me the phone number of one of the founding members of Team Jax and on the first week of January 1998 I started training as a powerlifter.

You mentioned to me that at first you thought the deadlift might be your signature lift. At what point during your journey did you come to the conclusion that squats might be your best lift?

When I first started out competing, back in my single-ply 198er days, my deadlift and squat were the same. I believe I squatted 573 lbs. and pulled 573 lbs. in my first meet. As I progressed in the sport, my deadlift came up faster than my squat. I pulled over 600 lbs. well before I ever squatted it. In fact the first record I ever broke was in 2003, the AAPF Submaster Deadlift record with a 639 lbs. pull after only squatting 611 lbs. at the same meet.
For the next two years later, both my deadlift and squat started to climbed stay pretty much even with the gains. When, in 2006 I finally decided to move up to the 220 lbs. weight class it seemed that my squat took off and my dead leveled out.

Like most powerlifters when one lift starts to take off, I got caught up in it and focused most of my concentrating on the squat. In May 2006 I came up with 900 lbs., at the APF Master Nationals, but was called on depth. It came up easy so I set myself the goal to hit 1,000 lbs. by the end of the year. In December, at the APF Southern States, it wasn’t pretty but I was able to hit 1,000 lbs. at 220 lbs. body weight, the 4th man to ever do it. That’s when I knew I was made to squat.

Any specific accomplishments or records you are chasing right now?

Getting ready for the upcoming 2012 WPF Worlds, I had every intention to try and total a 2,400 – 2,500 lbs. total. I wanted to squat close to, if not, 1,100 lbs., bench 700 lbs.+ and pull 700 lbs.+, but that goal went out the window a few weeks ago when I sprained something in my knee.

The first week after the injury I was able to squat the bar, the second week I was able to go up to 260 lbs. for reps. I have a rehab/training plan I put together for the remainder of the weeks before the meet, but as far as the meet is concerned I am looking at trying to hit a weight somewhere in the range of 800 – 900 lbs.  If the heals like it has been, I don’t think that it will be a problem.

With all the knee injury, the deadlift are going to have to fall where they may.  I don’t want to pull and have the bar smash against the knee, so deadlifts are out until meet day.

As far as the bench, I think I am still going to be on target for a 700 pounder. I have been hitting some good numbers off boards and by meet time I think it will be there.

A funny thing about the whole situation is that I only planned on hitting 705 lbs., tying to be the first on my team to do so, but I checked the records and I will only have to go to 710 lbs. to break the Master 40-44, 275 class WPF World Bench record.

Even though I am a squat man, I have to switch my concentration over to the bench for this meet.

Joe tell me about programming. What does your current training split look like and what are some of your staple assistance lifts?

My current training program is as follows:

  • Monday – Max Bench & Triceps or Max Bench & Deadlift
  • Tuesday – Light Legs & Light Back
  • Thursday – Light Bench & Shoulder & Arms
  • Friday – Max Squat

I pretty much lift raw all the time unless I’m getting ready for a meet. I like to set raw goals for myself with the different exercises that I rotate through. Also, by lifting raw all my support muscles get the work they need. I rotate through the following exercises for the max effort days:

Squats

  • Band Squats
  • Cambered Bar Squats
  • Chains Squats
  • Safety Bar Squat
  • Band Assisted Squats
  • Heavy Traditional Squats

Bench

  • Traditional Bench Press
  • Three Board Press
  • Chain Bench Press
  • Band Bench Press
  • Floor Press
  • Titan Ram Bench Press

Deadlift

  • Rack Pulls
  • Band Pulls
  • Deficit Pulls
  • Block Pulls
  • Traditional Pulls


How I feel on the max effort days determines the working sets and rep range. I try to keep the working sets at 5 sets x 5 reps, or 6 to 8 sets x 3 reps, or 6 to 8 sets x 2 reps down to 1 max rep.

As for the weights used, those are based on what I think I am capable for that particular day.  The key is to find a weight that is almost too hard to do for the chosen set and rep range. If on the first few working sets, the weight feels light I will go up. I will continue to go up in weight until the last working set is hard to get for the chosen reps.

Every 4 to 5 weeks I will throw in a light day into the mix to give myself a break. I will take a weight about 50-60% of my max and stick to 3 sets x 5 reps.

As for the assistance days, I normally stick to the same workouts each week. Here are my typical assistance days.

Choose one from each exercise list:

Bench Day Exercise 1

  • Bench Press  – 8 sets x 3 reps

Bench Day Exercise 2

  • Floor Dumbbell Press – 4 sets x 12 reps
  • Decline Bench – 4 sets x 12 reps
  • Flat Bench Dumbbell  – 4 sets x 12 reps

Bench Day Exercise 3

  • Triceps Throws on bench – 5 sets x 10 reps
  • Floor Triceps Throws – 5 sets x 10 reps

Bench Day Exercise 4

  • Triceps Pushdowns – 4 sets x 10 reps

Bench Day Exercise 5

  • One Are Triceps (Cable or Band) Extension – 3 sets x 20 reps

Bench Day Exercise 6

  • Cable Side Lateral – 4 sets x 10 reps
  • Plate Raises – 4 sets x 10 reps

Bench Day Exercise 7 

Hammer Curls – 4 sets 10 reps

Squat Day Exercise 1

  • Squat – 8 sets x 2 reps
  • Deadlifts – 8 sets x 2 reps

Squat Day Exercise 2 

  • Walking Lunges – 90 lbs. x 15 x 4 sets (each exercise)
  • Leg Extensions & Leg Curls – 4 sets x 10 reps

Squat Day Exercise 3

  • Calf Machine – 4 sets x 10 reps

Squat Day Exercise 4

  • Lat Pull-down – 4 sets x 10 reps

Squat Day Exercise 5

  • Seated Rows – 4 sets x 10 reps
  • Bent Over Dumbbell Rows – 4 sets x 10 reps

It may seem like a lot, but remember, everything is light. It normally takes me a little over an hour to get through either day’s workout. I don’t change it up too much except for switching exercises every now and then between the ones I listed in the “choose one” column. When the workout is done, I am tired, pumped but never sore. I also concentrate on form as much as possible on the main exercises, bench, squat and deadlift.

How do you change your lifting as you approach a meet?

When getting ready for a meet, I like to change the exercise rotation to a few exercises and get in my equipment more often.

For the squat I usually start 12 weeks out from the meet and rotate Band-Assisted, Chain, Box and Traditional Squats. Here is my typical pre-meet squat program.

Week 1

  • Band-Assisted Squats
  • Heavy 90-95% Squat Max 1 Rep PR

Week 2

  • Chain Squats
  • Heavy/Overload Last attempt should be slightly above Squat Max 1

Week 3

  • Squats
  • Medium-Heavy 90-95% Squat Max 1 Rep PR

Week 4

  • Box Squats
  • Light-Medium Keep the sets at 3 reps, this is a down week to get some volume work done

Week 5

  • Band-Assisted
  • Squat Heavy/Overload Last attempt should be well above Squat Max 1 Rep PR, getting close to goal weight

Week 6

  • Chain Squat
  • Heavy/Overload Last attempt should be at or above goal weight

Week 7

  • Squats Heavy
  • By this time you should be able to squat above your PR getting close to your goal weight

Week 8

  • Squats Light
  • Triples with less than 50% of your Squat Max 1 Rep PR

Week 9

  • Squats
  • Heavy Last Attempt should be close to or at your goal weight

Week 10

  • Box Squats
  • Light-Medium Keep the sets at 3 reps, this is a down week to get some volume work done

Week 11

  • Squats
  • Super Light 3 sets of 5 with a warm-up weight

Week 12

  • Meet Day

I like to do Band-Assisted and Chain squats because I am a firm believer in working my Central Nervous System (CNS). By the time this program starts, I know I’m not going to get any stronger in those twelve weeks. Instead, this program is designed to get my body and CNS accustomed to the heavier weights by overloading the top-end weight on these two exercises. This way I can a make the big attempts at the meet and not be shocked by the weight.

As for the bench, I normally do a similar program but currently my partner Yury Chakur has me trying something a little different. The basic principle of holding and getting used to the heavier weights is the same but instead of overloading with chains or bands; we are doing more reps to boards.

Here are the basics of the program. For each week is raw warm-up to a 1 rep heavy (65-70%) three-board press, then shirt up. All percentages are based on your shirted max. Every other week are bench for reps with any bench exercise you want, Titan Ram, bands, normal…throw in a real light week once in a while. We are in the middle of this program but here are the heavy week’s routines thus far.

  • Week 1 – Triples to a three-board up to around 82-85%.
  • Week 3 – Triples to a three-board up to around 87-90%. 3 sets with the heaviest weight. 1 Drop set of 82-85% to a two-board.
  • Week 5 – Doubles to a three-board up to around 90-95%. 1 Drop set of 88-92% to a two-board. 1 Drop set of 85-88% to a one and half-board.

As for weeks 7, 9 and 11, the plan is to go up in weight and down in boards until the last week is an opener to our chests. It’s the first time doing this but I can already notice a difference. By the third heavy week, the weights didn’t feel so heavy and the reps are coming easier. I am actually amazed at the weights I am able to rep.

As for the deadlift, these are done on the bench days, rotating between block, deficits, rack and traditional deadlifts. Yet again, another one of Yury’s programs. These are done for either 5 sets by 5 reps or 3 sets by 8 reps with a heavy working weight, roughly 70-80% of your max. If you aren’t feeling it after the heavy bench sets, take it light on the deads.

I have to say one more thing about my meet-prep program. This is probably the biggest change in my training. I like to back off on the light days so I can go hard and heavy on the heavy days. I am at a point in my lifting that I don’t need to work so hard on the light days for form, etc… so I use them more to just keep the blood flowing and stretching.

Joe Norman Takes on the Muscle and Brawn Forum

What do you think about raw squatters and the use of briefs, and how do they know when they are ready to use them?

Everybody in the sport of powerlifting should start out as a raw squatter.

Raw squats are where you get your core strong and build up your strength while giving all the muscles involved in supporting the lift much needed work. If you get into gear too soon, the gear takes over some or most of the support from the following muscles: gluteus medius & minimus, core abdominal muscles and the erector muscles in your back. These are the muscles that stabilize the larger harder working muscles during the lift.

As far as “how do you know when you are ready to use gear”. Get a good solid base before starting to experiment with the gear. Lifting in gear adds a whole new dynamic to the squat. If you are still in the phase where you are learning and perfecting your form, adding gear will make it difficult to do so.

Once you have a good base and are ready for gear here are a few tips:

  • Take two or three warm-up sets and then get the briefs on. You will want to be in the briefs with a weight that is relatively easy for you to handle. This way, if something doesn’t feel right, you will be able to make adjustments to handle the weight without a problem.
  • Do not compromise your form to accommodate the breifs.The gear is there to help, not to inhibit. Stay in form at all times throughout the lift. If you don’t break parallel, don’t worry. Add more weight and keep going.
  • Take it slow. The briefs will pull at your body as you descend, going slow will give you time to get adjusted to it.
  • Experiment with your foot position. Some briefs are made for wider stances and some for narrow. Make sure you get a pair that will best accommodate your raw stance, but be prepared to play with foot position anyways.

How often do you lift in gear vs raw? Best squat assistance for geared lifting?

Currently, I pretty much lift raw all the time. I like to set raw goals for myself with the different squat exercises that I rotate through. I rotate through the following exercises:

  • Band Squats
  • Cambered Bar Squats
  • Chains Squats
  • Safety Bar Squat
  • Band Assisted Squats
  • Heavy Traditional Squats
  • Light Traditional Squats

This is a normal 7 week squatting schedule, changing the exercise every week. 7th week light.

In the past, I will have done the rotation with briefs two different ways. The first is to change the exercise every week and lift raw up to just under my max for that exercise, then get in briefs and continue up until a single brief max. The other way is to do the same exercise two weeks in a row, the first week raw and the second with briefs. I rarely train fully geared, briefs and suit. I’m a big fan of brief only lifting, this gets my back stronger and ready for the weights I handle once in the suit.

When I’m getting ready for a competition, I like to do more of the heavy top end overloading exercises and all in briefs. Twelve weeks out from the meet

  • Week 1 Band-Assisted Squats Heavy 90-95% Squat Max 1 Rep PR
  • Week 2 Chain Squats Heavy/Overload Last attempt should be slightly above Squat Max 1
  • Week 3 Squats Medium-Heavy 90-95% Squat Max 1 Rep PR
  • Week 4 Box Squats Light-Medium Keep the sets at 3 reps, this is a down week to get some volume work done
  • Week 5 Band-Assisted Squat Heavy/Overload Last attempt should be well above Squat Max 1 Rep PR, getting close to goal weight
  • Week 6 Chain Squat Heavy/Overload Last attempt should be at or above goal weight
  • Week 7 Squats Heavy By this time you should be able to squat above your PR getting close to your goal weight
  • Week 8 Squats Light Triples with less than 50% of your Squat Max 1 Rep PR
  • Week 9 Squats Heavy Last Attempt should be close to or at your goal weight
  • Week 10 Box Squats Light-Medium Keep the sets at 3 reps, this is a down week to get some volume work done
  • Week 11 Squats Super Light 3 sets of 5 with a warm-up weight
  • Week 12 Meet Day

As for the best squat assistance for geared lifting.

I would have to say, anything that works you core and lower back. Gear takes over a lot of the work from your support muscles so working your core will make your squat go up.

  • Good Mornings
  • Pull Throughs
  • Reverse Hyper
  • Abs

How does a lifter avoid the tendency to lean forward when trying to hit depth?

More weight! LOL!

You can try a few of the following:

  • Pick a spot on the ceiling and stare at it throughout the lift, even in the whole; this will keep your head from dropping and making you lean over.
  • Leaning forward in the whole is usually a flexibility issue. Stretch, stretch a lot, even on non-squat days. Get more flexibility in your hips.
  • Move your stance around. Experiment with lighter weights, moving your feet closer, wider, pointing your toes forward and out. Find the foot and leg position the lets you get down without leaning.
  • As I said first, more weight! If you find yourself leaning but you are able to handle the weight easily, don’t worry about hitting depth. Go up in weight slowly until you can hit depth without compromising your form.

Many powerlifters use Chucks. Would you ever recommend against Olympic lifting shoes which are worn by some and why?

No I wouldn’t recommend against it. Two of my training partners wear them and have great success. I did try a pair of Olympic shoes once but they throw me off-balance too much.

I personally do not like Chucks. After a few uses they wear down too much and the canvas lacks the needed support. I use Van skateboard shoes, leather high-tops. The soles are made to grip a skateboard and grip the floor great when squatting. Also, it takes a long time to wear out the thick leather.

If you are used to lifting with them and they work for you, stay with them.

Do you prefer canvas or poly suits? Why?

Both. I compete in single-ply and multi-ply competitions so I have to use both. Can’t use canvas in the single-ply meets.

What I look for in any suit is the stopping power and compression. I squat down slow and blast out of the whole, so I need a suit that stops me and compresses my body. This way I can get a blast out of the whole using that compression. Now, the compression can make it hard to hold your breath but who cares, blast the weight up fast and you will have time to blow out air on the way up.

For single-ply: Titan Super Centurion with Titan Centurion briefs. It has very little give in the material which helps with the compression I’m looking for.

For multi-ply: Ginny Phillips Double Thick Canvas with Metal Ace Pro briefs. That combination is like doing a standing leg press. If I wasn’t able to use the canvas, I prefer the Titan Boss suit. It’s the closest to canvas that a poly suit comes.

What do you love best about the sport of powerlifting?

The truth? Being a BADASS!

I like pushing my body to its limits and doing things that very few people in the world can do. It gives me the greatest feeling of accomplishment. That’s why I set some outrageous goals for myself, just to test and push those limits. The best thing about this sport is when I reach a goal; there is always more weight to add!

How often do you work in reverse band work into your program?

When not getting ready for a meet, once every eight to nine weeks, raw. Triples, down to a max double whatever the weight.

When getting ready for a meet, I like to do a twelve week cycle leading into the meet. I will do them on the first or second week in the cycle and again on the fifth or sixth week. The first time I do them is raw with a top-end (bar) weight 90 – 95% of my suited max. We use enough bands to get 235 lbs. of help in the whole. The second time in the meet cycle is done fully suited to a single 105 – 120% of my suited max. This is for CNS overloading to get my body used to handle the heavy, heavy weights again.

How to you approach nutrition? Do you eat a certain way or not worry about it too much?

Truthfully, I don’t worry too much about it. I do make sure I eat enough protein but pretty much I eat what I want.

The only time I watch my diet is when I have to cut weight for a meet. I then just eat grilled chicken salads for a week and I’m good.

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