Q&A with 1100lb+ Squatter Blaine Sumner AKA Vanilla Gorilla (2016)
On the Fitworldexposed website we talk a lot about how to gain size and strength. More specifically, we talk a lot about the importance of having big and strong glutes for an impressive lower body and Powerlifters are hands-down the athletes out there with the biggest and strongest glutes as far as I’m concerned because their sport revolves around Squats and Deadlifts.
Today I had the special opportunity of working with Blaine Sumner who is a powerlifter who totals over 2800lb which is one of the best of all time and close to guys like Donnie Thompson. He squats over 1100lb+, Benches 885lb and Deadlifts 816lb.
This is why if you want to get good at anything then you have to learn from the best because they didn’t make it to the top by accident.
Powerlifters have dedicated their lives to getting stronger totals and the wisdom/knowledge that they have is worth its weight in gold.
Lets get into it.
What made you take on Powerlifting as opposed to something like Olympic lifting or Bodybuilding?
I played college football so I was used to heavy squats, bench presses, and power cleans. I like the intensity and aggression you can use to do the powerlifts, much less technical than the Olympic lifts. I didn’t want to think too much, just aggressively lift weights. And I like eating way too much to do bodybuilding.
What is the worst injury that you ever had to experience and how did you get over it?
I’ve had two that are pretty bad and still affect me. In 2008 I ruptured my L5/S1 disc and I will re-aggravate it every few months and it sidelines me for awhile. I’ve had to learn to do certain exercises and change the way I use my low back in daily life to keep it strong and protected. The other bad injury was tearing my left hip labrum at the World Championships in 2012. It still hurts pretty bad when I try to squat raw so spending time in the squat suit is what has given me relief.
How many times were you squatting per week when you were squatting over 1000lb?
I was squatting 4 times per week, and I still do. One of those days is always handling over 1,000 lbs on a weekly basis.
Do you find that high pin squat lockouts are good for building your lockout strength and do you use these in your training? Also what do you do for helping your bottom end strength besides pause squats?
I don’t think that high pin squat lockouts have much of a place in powerlifting. The body position that you will be in is not similar to where you would be if you were doing a free squat. And the weight you would end up loading on your back for a high pin squat carries a high risk of injury with that kind of overload for a negligible return.
The Sumo deadlift is one of the best exercises out there for building big and strong glutes, but most people just pull it off the floor as if they were doing a conventional deadlift with a wide stance. What are some other common mistakes that you see along with some important technique cues/tips that you could give people who are trying to get really good at pulling sumo?
The two most important things are trying to keep your hips close to the bar and keep your back completely erect. Literally trying to put your crotch on top of the bar is how close you need to think about having your hips. And you can start with a forward leaning torso (even though the closer to vertical, the better) but you must not sacrifice this angle at all. The torso angle you start with is the steepest it should get. Back needs to be locked and rigid and driving the weights off the floor comes from the legs.
What does your typical warm-up look like before deadlifts and squats? For example, what do you do before your first warm-up set? Do you do any glute activation drills, dynamic work, foam rolling…etc? If so then what would you typically do in order for your body to be ready to pull massive amounts of weight off the floor?
I used to spend a lot of time doing things before I got under a bar. Now all I do is tie my shoes and I’m ready. Considering my working weights on these exercises are all above 700-800 pounds, that gives me plenty of warm up sets. I will use the empty bar, then a pair of 25 kg plates and so on and will stay at a light weight and repeat as needed to feel warmed up before adding more weight. On my first few sets of deadlifts I will exaggerate my lockout and really focus on squeezing my glutes to finish.
What are some of your tips on how to maximally engage your quads at the beginning of the conventional deadlift?
It is difficult to think of any cues to engage the quads, it needs to be a learned and trained movement pattern. Snatch grip deadlifts starting from an A2G squat position and proper deficit deadlifts train you how to initiate with the quads and you need to carry that movement pattern over to the conventional deadlift.
After pulling the slack out of the bar on conventional deadlifts, whats the second cue that you like to think about?
Pulling explosively. The sumo deadlift is 90% technique and 10% strength. The conventional deadlift is 90% strength and 10% technique. So once you have committed to the pull, you need to pull as aggressively and explosively as you can.
What is a breathing technique and cue that you would use for bracing your core in order to save your spine and lifting maximum amounts of weight? What are you imagining when you are breathing in this fashion and where do most people go wrong with this technique?
The easy answer is to get your belt tight (I don’t believe in belt less training) and push out against it, 360 degrees. There are a lot of breathing and bracing drills and if you really want to learn how to do it properly, check out Dr. Quinn Henoch.
What is the most weight that you have ever rack pulled from knee level and do you find rack pulls helpful for improving your deadlift off the floor?
I don’t do rack pulls but on the rare occasion I do deadlifts from blocks. The bar has a completely different and unnatural feel pulling from a rack. I have pulled 854 from a 4” block before. But recently I have been doing some counter-intuitive training on deadlifts where I do what I call ‘Halted Deadlifts’ where I pull the bar to the top of my knees and stop. I recently worked up to 904 on these.
What are your top 3 favorite assistance exercises for bringing up your bench press and why? Also how much vertical pressing work do you incorporate in your programs on average?
I love pin presses as my number one assistance. They are so versatile and can be used at any height to target any range of motion. My second assistance would be some kind of overload like a Slingshot bench press. And last would be a Spot pause bench where you use your lats to halt the bar about 1” off your chest and hover there before pressing out. But I only use this for people who are weak off their chest. I do very little vertical pressing work – the closes I get are some close grip incline benches.
What are some conventional deadlift lockout cues that you are constantly thinking about once the barbell passes your knees that a lot of people don’t consider?
I try to think about engaging my glutes as soon as possible. When the bar is getting ready to pass the knees, it’s time to start thinking about squeezing the glutes to finish the deadlift.
When in your opinion do you think a lifter should start using bands for stuff like rack pulls, deadlifts, presses…etc? When do you think it is appropriate for a lifter to be using them (ex: S405, B315, D495)? At what point would it be productive and at what point would it just be counterproductive?
I think bands and chains always have a place regardless of strength level. The weaker a lifter is, the less the band tension needs to be obviously. I also always like the bands to be set up in a way so that there is always tension in them at both ends of the movement. I don’t think they should be used every week for the main movement, but 3-4 week phases on the main movement, or weekly on assistance movements is appropriate.
When in your opinion do you think that a lifter should start using a belt for his/her training? (ex: after 500lb Deadlift)
I am not a believer in belt less training. But it is only needed after a certain point. I work up to 50% on most of my lifts before I put a belt on. So between 225-315 for a 500 lb deadlifter would be an appropriate time to put the belt on.
I find that my core tends to break down when I pull heavy, what direct core work do you do in your training and do you happen to do any direct oblique work? Also tell us what rep ranges you like to work with when doing core work and how many times per week would you typically do direct ab work?
A lot of times a weak core is falsely accused as being the weak point in a lift where it is just the prime movers not being strong enough. With that being said, I am a big big believer in direct core work. But sets of 100 crunches are not the ticket here. Finding exercises you can do where you can add weight and make it challenging are huge. Sets of 5 with 8-12 reps. By bread and butter are weighted decline sit ups, band crunches, ab wheel, and suitcase abs.
For you to get over 275lb what were some foods that you would SWEAR by and still swear by even until this day for packing on size. Give me one food and one drink (ex: steak and milk).
My go to for years – it is both a food and a drink – is the chicken shake! In my blender goes 3 cups of egg whites, 630 gm of chicken breast, 24 oz of water, and a handful of spinach. I blend this up and it makes 3 shakes that are 90 gm of protein each. I do this 3 times a day, every day.