Record-Breaking Powerlifter John Haack Shares His Keys to Besting Your PRs

Photo credit: ShutterSport Productions
Photo credit: ShutterSport Productions

John Haack doesn’t turn 30 for another year, but he’s already the top pound-for-pound powerlifter in the world—and perhaps the greatest of all time, at least since the similarly-indomitable Ed Coan plied his trade on the deadlift platforms and squat racks decades earlier. Haack’s raw numbers defy comprehension, his form is flawless, and his transition from the 181-pound weight class to the 198-pound class has gone smoothly.

The Madison, Wisconsin native posted a staggering 2000.7-pound raw powerlifting total—squat, bench, and deadlift—at a 181-pound bodyweight in August 2019, breaking the existing world record in that class, then proceeded to set another record by totaling 2216.7 pounds at 198 pounds last September. This past December, he bench-pressed 600 pounds in training and then deadlifted 903.9 pounds for a Twitch live stream that came on the heels of a 12-hour flight.

From the outset, Haack has been a powerlifting prodigy. Throughout his early twenties, he posted elite totals at drug-tested meets, achieving totals that elude even mature athletes much later in their careers.

The big question for Haack, who makes everything look easy, is how much more he believes he has left to accomplish. He's currently working with Brawn, a community app for strength athletes, as he pursues ever-greater record weight totals. But there are other questions we wanted to ask him, including what aspects of his training and mental preparation could benefit the rest of us.

What did you know about powerlifting when you started competing at age 20? How did you make such rapid progress?

Even before that, I always had a focus on strength. I always watched those reruns of “World’s Strongest Man” when they were on TV. And I lifted for football in high school, but at 5’6” and 150 pounds, football wasn’t where I saw my future. I didn’t want to give myself CTE playing Division III college football, so I went to the University of Wisconsin instead.

When I first started preparing for competitive powerlifting, I was in high school. One of my friend’s brothers stopped by from college and he told me I should try powerlifting. I was super nervous, because I didn’t think my numbers would compare to theirs. But I was always training for strength, and then once I got to college, my training partner there had already competed in high school. He found a meet and convinced me to compete with him, and I wound up winning first overall at that meet. I compared my numbers then to the nationals meet that took place a week later, and I would’ve taken second or third… so I was like yeah, I can do this. I already had a pretty good base level. I don’t think there’s anything special I did outside of properly preparing for the meet.

Nothing special in terms of your form or flexibility? Nothing you’ve read or studied in advance?

I think the biggest thing for me has always been consistency. Just getting in the gym and doing something is responsible for 80 per cent to 90 per cent of my success. I really haven’t taken more than a week off my training since I was 12.

Your lifts relative to your bodyweights at the time of competition—181 pounds and now 198—are quite literally second to none. What’s been the key there?

I think a lot of people get too wrapped up in the idea of overextending their goals. Let’s say they’re at a 400-pound squat, and they’re way too wrapped up in getting to a 500-pound squat. I’ll just tell you: that’s going to be a long time for most trainees. I think a lot of people don’t enjoy the grind, taking into consideration hitting the 410-pound, 420-pound, and 430-pound squats along the way. When they don’t reach their big goals quickly enough, they lose motivation. I’m always focused on making consistent marginal improvements and celebrating each of them.

Photo credit: ShutterSport Productions
Photo credit: ShutterSport Productions

Let’s say you hit a 750-pound squat, an elite squat, and want to hit a 775-pound squat in competition. Mentally, what does that mean to you? How do you reach that goal?

I look at each contest preparation as the pathway to achieving a 5-kilogram personal record. I’d even be happy with a 2.5-kg PR. If I hit a 5-kg PR in a meet, I will leave feeling very good about the prep. I write out my numbers with that 5-kg PR in mind. I’m not looking to hit a huge personal best in the next meet. If it’s there, and sometimes it is, I’ll take it. But I’m not pushing my body to get to that bigger PR, which I think has helped me stay healthier than a lot of other powerlifters.

In terms of moving up a weight class, from 181 pounds to 198, how much more strength have you gained? Will you move up in weight again?

I’ll definitely move up again to the 220-pound class. I walk around at 215 to 217 pounds right now and I cut down for competition, and that cut is arguably the hardest and worst part of powerlifting. Eventually, I’ll probably get tired of that, and I’ll start walking into meets at 220. But there are still a few things I can do at 198, and I’d like to keep progressing at that weight.

For a novice that would be getting ready to start powerlifting, how should they mentally and physically prepare themselves—especially older trainees or people who haven’t trained for a long time?

Early on, you need to focus on yourself. A lot of beginners start comparing themselves to elite lifters. Well, okay, but first get your own total for the bench, deadlift, and squat and try to do a little better every meet.

Not only that, but enjoy PR as it comes, no matter how small it is. Mindset-wise, make sure you’re enjoying yourself in the gym, because that will keep you consistent. That’s what will make you come back.

What’s your diet like week-to-week when you’re not cutting? What do you recommend that other folks do?

I work with Renaissance Periodisation for my diet, and their plan is macro-based. I focus on the protein and mostly let the carbs and fats take care of themselves. I get about 185 to 200 grams of protein per day, split evenly across four meals. I try to get 40 to 50 grams of protein per meal.

So you’re not eating like a super heavyweight powerlifter like Ray Williams, in other words.

I don’t know what Ray is eating, but I would imagine he’s eating a lot because he is a very large man. As for me, I’m only eating about 3,000 calories a day.

How much more strength would gaining that extra weight and moving to 220 pounds give you?

The jump from 181 to 198 gave me way more strength than I thought it would. I was thinking, I totalled 2000 at 181… and then I totalled 2216 at 198. So I would think there’s a lot more in the tank at 220, but I don’t know exactly how much. Like I said before, I err on the side of not overestimating this stuff.

Photo credit: ShutterSport Productions
Photo credit: ShutterSport Productions

You’re still young, but what have you noticed about how older powerlifters manage their aches and pains?

I can use my training partner Andy Huang as an example. He’s in his late thirties, so he’s not very old in the scheme of things but he’s on the older end of the spectrum as competitive athletes go. His recovery isn’t quite as good as mine, he has more aches and pains than I do, and he has to spread out his heavy lifts more than I do. As you age, it’s about mitigating stress and enabling recovery. You spend more time managing fatigue.

How much sleep are you getting?

Sleep is something I’ve focused on the past year, and it’s been a huge benefit. I get eight hours a night and wake up pretty naturally each morning. I started listening to Dr. Andrew Huberman’s podcast about these topics, which has helped a lot.

In terms of supplements, what do you recommend?

The biggest one would be creatine. A protein supplement would be good if you need it, but I try to get as much as possible from whole foods. I do use a protein supplement before a workout, just to get it into my system. I like pre-workout mixes, but you could use coffee. Caffeine is definitely ergogenic when it comes to lifting, a very good performance enhancer. As for my personal stack, I’m sponsored by Jacked Factory and use all of their supplements. I take collagen powder for joint health and also use beetroot powder, which helps with nitric oxide and blood flow. I’ve seen a few studies showing it can help with reps on the bench press. I feel like I notice it, and even if it’s a placebo, it’s not that expensive, so I’m happy to take it.

At this level of elite performance, how aware are you of slight changes regarding your body?

It’s apparent when you walk into the gym. You’ll know when you’re off and going through the motions. And you’ll know those days when you’re on and it’ll be going well. You can usually pin it down to something, like not sleeping well enough or eating well enough the day before. And my body adjusts to my lifting schedule. For example, I bench three days a week, with my heavy day on Saturday, and my body is usually much more energised prior to that Saturday workout.

How many days out of the week are you training?

I’m training five days a week. I start my week on Saturday, which is my heaviest day and usually the day you compete, so it works out well that way. On Saturday, I do a heavy squat and heavy bench workout. Monday is a heavy deadlift workout. Tuesday is a rep bench day. Wednesday is a rep squat day. Thursday is a lighter bench day.

What benefits do days focused primarily on repetitions provide?

I hit a lot of singles leading into the meet. Repetitions are more for genuine strength, building the muscle. When I’m doing repetitions as part of offseason training, I’m focusing on volume, and I might get up to eight reps per set on bench and squat, six on deadlift because that’s a bit harder on the body. When I’m doing repetitions during competition season, I’m usually working in the three to six repetition range.

Have you dealt with any injuries at all?

I’ve been lucky. I’ve dealt with things like minor pectoral strains, which means I might not bench for a week while I focus on the other lifts. That’s usually how I’ve worked around those issues without missing any time. I did have recurring issues with my quads. Starting around 2018, my quad would pop whenever I would go above 600 pounds on the squat. I’d take two weeks off, come back, try to get back to 600 pounds in four weeks or so, and the same thing would happen again. After a year of this back and forth, I laid off squatting for a full month and then built back up to 600 pounds much more slowly. I haven’t had that quad issue since then.

What lifts have seen the greatest improvements since you began competing at 198 pounds?

For me, bench and deadlift have gone up significantly. At 181, I was deadlifting 800 pounds, but now, at this next meet, I’m shooting for 900 pounds. I don’t know if going up to 220 would give me those same improvements. As I said, I don’t like to speculate about where my numbers could be at some hypothetical point in the future. I like hitting PRs on a consistent basis.

As a young powerlifter, what was your form like?

I recently posted a video of myself deadlifting 600 pounds compared with the 900 pounds I’m deadlifting today. In the early video, I’m doing a Brian Shaw-style deadlift, where I’m doing a fairly wide, sorta-sumo stance.

I’ve made form improvements across the board. My bench press is the most technically sound of my lifts right now, because I’ve figured out ways to get tighter than I thought possible. I normally set up my traps first on the bench, but now I walk back my feet a little bit more and twist them to get them tighter, after which I realised, ‘ah, this is what real tightness feels like.’

Any tips for the squat or the deadlift?

The key for the squat was moving my hands a little closer together on each side of the barbell, though I wouldn’t recommend this to everyday lifters because that gave me a bad case of tennis elbow even though it did help me get a lot tighter under the bar for competition purposes. For the deadlift, I studied Russell Orhii’s form. When I saw how his hips snap forward after the barbell passes his knees, it looked so aesthetically pleasing that I had to try it. It looks like humping the bar, and it made a big difference for me. When I’m deadlifting, what I’m thinking about at that point in the lift is bringing my hips forward.

Going forward, what are your next objectives?

Hitting that 1,000kg total at a bodyweight of 90kg was my big goal, and now that I’ve hit that, I’m not sure what my next long-term objective is. I think I’d like to hit an 800-pound squat, 600-pound bench press, and 900-pound deadlift at 198 pounds, then consider moving up in weight.

How much has COVID impacted your training during the past two years?

The pandemic started when I was living in Wisconsin. At the time, I had my own personal gym, so I didn’t miss any training. Also, I was traveling for work at the time, but that travel stopped, so my sleep and diet got even better. Even after I moved out to California, I still had access to a good garage gym, as well as my small powerlifting gym that lets me and my training partners come in and keep training.

Photo credit: ShutterSport Productions
Photo credit: ShutterSport Productions

What about the powerlifting meets themselves?

The only meet I missed out on last year was an event called Pro Raw in Australia. I was supposed to fly there in March 2020. I’m glad I canceled the trip, because at the time I would have left, there were no restrictions in place, but by the time I would have arrived, a fourteen-day quarantine was in place and I would have missed the meet completely. Otherwise, meets have happened as scheduled in a lot of the midwestern and southern states that aren’t nearly as locked down. A meet that was planned for Buffalo, New York but encountered issues related to quarantines and lockdowns was moved to Missouri.

Will you ever get bored with powerlifting?

I like hitting even those minor PRs, making that daily progression, so I really enjoy that aspect. If the PRs stop coming, I’ll reassess, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

Any parting advice for readers?

Have fun in the gym. I go to the gym for enjoyment and to continuously improve at what I love doing. If powerlifting isn’t fun for you, find another physical activity you enjoy. The enjoyment will keep you doing it. I’m not one of those powerlifters who hates CrossFit, so if you like CrossFit, do it. And in my case, the desire to be first is important, too… I do have that competitive instinct, and perhaps you do, too. If so, maybe you don’t need to be the best in the world at an activity to stay motivated, but being the best among your friends might bring you more enjoyment.

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