Kirk Karwoski cover of Powerlifting USA magazine

Reactive Force: Coil & Explode

The perfect negative enables the perfect explosive concentric

The Man that never grinds: Kirk Karwoski (above) weighing 275. Claudia Wagner (above) had a 300-pound raw bench press

This past weekend Jim Steel and I stayed with, ate, drank, talked with, and socialized with a gaggle of active-duty Tier 1 soldiers on short R&R between a series of major training drills in a nearby city. We stayed for a long weekend and by the end of day three, I was burnt out from too much fun in too short a timeframe.

I was suffering from collective burnout: this was my second weekend in a row of extensive human contact. The previous weekend I had been conducting a seminar for forty folks right off Park Avenue in Manhattan. I go for months without any contact with anyone other than my wife and a half dozen lifter friends I see on Sunday.

I have been in self-imposed artistic quarantine for the last 30-years. As one of the Commando leaders noted, “Gallagher has a limited capacity for human contact.” My central nervous system was fried from two successive weekends of over-stimulation. It was time for me to head back to the artistic woodshed, regain my equilibrium and let these real-life Jack Bauer combat assaulters get on with their clandestine secret doings. 

On the ride home, I had a spontaneous thought bubble and began to quiz Jim about the implications of the “reactive” findings our friend Dr. Phil Wagner unearthed in his research with his revolutionary Sparta device. Jim told me that after tons of testing Phil and the Sparta team had concluded that the deadlift – done with a controlled negative – was the finest single exercise for improving “reactive force.”

As it happens, the “controlled negative” deadlift is what I was taught by my world champion mentors and is the style I taught to my world champion students. In the old days, no one dropped deadlifts. If you purposefully dropped deadlifts at lockout, you were a.) instantly expelled from wherever you were training b.) got your ass beat within an inch of your life. (which I have seen)

Back to the slowed deadlift negative: reactivity is the ability to switch direction instantaneously and is an athletic attribute difficult to improve. Reactivity, as it turns out, is best improved – not by power cleans, snatches, jumping squats, or plyometrics – reactivity is most dramatically improved by lowering a barbell during deadlifts with precision and control. The elite deadlifter coils, generating muscle tension, like a spring being depressed. The rapidity with which the athlete turns descent into ascent is called reactivity.

The braking action associated with the slowed negative is done in anticipation of the “turnaround.” The turnaround is that micro-instant when eccentric becomes concentric or concentric becomes eccentric. The braking action associated with the deadlift negative is what creates maximum muscle tension that converts into power, strength and, as it tuns out, improves reactivity like no other.

The elite will control the negative and use that coiled power to explode the concentric. Unleashing the explosive concentric after the coiled concentric is the equivalent of atomic fission: an instantaneous and explosive release of coiled muscle tension resulting in a (doable) payload being rocketed to lockout.

The perfectly positioned and controlled lowering makes the concentric “leap” off the floor seem magically easy. Jim cited multi-time world champion Dan Austin’s deadlift style (used in training) as the technical ideal for building reactivity. Dan Austin has taught himself how to lower the deadlift bar with such consistency that he “senses” when it comes to within 1-2 inches of the floor before reversing directions.

Like a deadlift Ninja, Dan’s deadlifts never touch the floor and always come within 2-inches of the platform. From the start of the first rep until the final rep is finished, his deadlift set is a continuous tension exercise. Austin never loses muscular tension for an instant. Austin’s technique teaches how to “coil,” increase muscle tension, during the descent. The perfect eccentric negative is the perfect precursor to the perfect concentric.

The resisted deadlift negative is the anthesis of the dropped deadlift negative. The popular modern version has the trainee pull the deadlift to lockout, then drop the bar, purposefully throwing away all the strength, power and muscle-building benefits associated with the controlled eccentric – and the deadlift droppers also throw away improvements in reactive force generation.    

Jim indicted the Phil Wagner’s Sparta gear confirmed that deadlifting – a highly specific type of deadlift – trumps every other lift for delivering the reactive turnaround all great athletes have and all good athletes need. Precision deadlifting consists of a highly controlled lowering followed by an explosive concentric. The slowed negative builds back muscle, hip and hamstring muscle, usable athletic power, and improves reactivity. Why would you throw these benefits away?

The perfect eccentric is the precursor for the perfect concentric. The perfect concentric is performed using “compensatory acceleration,” defined as pushing or pulling a poundage as fast as humanly possible through every inch of the concentric rep stroke. The best example of the controlled, coiled eccentric followed by an explosive concentric, the embodiment of compensatory acceleration, is 6-time IPF world champion, 7-time national champion, world record holder, Squat God, Kirk Karwoski.

I mentioned to Steel that in the three years (2016 to 2019) that Kirk trained with us at Don Berry’s country gym, Kirk never once had to “grind” a rep, grind defined as slowing and struggling to complete a repetition. Kirk always exploded the concentric. He never once, ever, resorted to anything approaching grind to compete any rep of any set.

I noted that every other lifter in the gym routinely resorted to grinding. Some of our guys did nothing but grind. We call one excellent lifter “slow-twitch” – which is self-explanatory: he had an inability to perform any lift at any speed other than low gear or first gear. Grinding reps, slow reps, are powered by slow-twitch torque. Kirk has an awesome accumulation of slow-twitch muscle fiber, but he also has a vast armada of fast-twitch fibers. As soon as any hint of grind or rep slowing appears, he curtails a set. He has done this for his entire life. After forty-five years of progressive resistance training, a controlled negative followed by a compensatory-accelerated concentric is built into his DNA. He is incapable of doing a sloppy negative or a slow concentric.

Kirk’s final rep of any exercise will be performed with the exact same explosiveness he displayed on the first set and first rep with 135. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew routinely grind the last two reps of every set, regardless the lift. Don Berry can make three explosive reps then proceeds to grind out seven more reps, every rep a slow-motion horror show. He verges on total physical collapse, but he keeps on going. Don has guts, and a high pain tolerance from decades of Wing Chung. Ergo, he can stride deep into the pain zone. Interestingly, Don’s monster 5, 8 and 10 rep grind sets do not convert into the big competition single reps that his high rep training numbers would indicate. He is a gutsy repper that digs deep.

Kirk never has to dig deep. Kirk never has to be gutsy. Kirk doesn’t have time to dig deep or be gutsy. His sets are over too fast – BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! Done before he has a chance to dig deep or get gutsy. All the getting gutsy and digging deep are done in his mind before his rapid-fire set commences.

The coiled eccentric is best followed by the compensatory-accelerated concentric on the squat, deadlift, bench press and overhead press. Resist the negative, create tension, coil, build muscle, infuse the body with power while establishing the perfect precursor for the explosive concentric. So simple, so effective, so neglected. Cutting-edge science is validating the Old School ways. 



About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of multiple books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.