Kabuki Strength co-founder and chief engineer Chris Duffin has condensed several lifetimes into his four decades on this planet. Born dirt poor in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, he traipsed across that verdant region with his chronically unemployed mother and her alcoholic partner, sometimes homeless, sometimes housed in buildings without running water or electricity. Despite those hardships, he became an Oregon state finalist in wrestling and the recipient of an academic scholarship to the Oregon Institute of Technology. These experiences made for a profound autobiography, which Duffin already published as The Eagle and the Dragon and recently re-released in a revised and expanded edition.
After college, Duffin began a career that led him through the engineering world, assuming management and executive-level roles for several companies while simultaneously cultivating a powerlifting career in which he spent eight years occupying the worldwide number one ranking in the “multi-ply” category before setting world records by squatting and sumo deadlifting 1,000 pounds for reps.
Now, Duffin is the subject of the documentary Grand Goals, which details his pursuit of that 1,000-pound squatting-for-reps goal, and working with Brawn, a community app for strength athletes. Still, he took some time away from dealing with unprecedented demand for his company’s fitness equipment amidst equally unprecedented supply-chain shortages to discuss how he engineered his life to accomplish all these feats.
Let’s start by talking about your mindset. How have you remained so dedicated to strength training while pursuing so many other goals?
For me, it comes down to really understanding who you are and what your priorities are, and that’s a big miss for most people. Something catches their eye, a brief glimmer of interest… they want to get in shape, they want to get big, whatever. But these things are fleeting if you don’t try to understand the long-term impact of what you’re trying to do fits into your life. Think about those core things that will allow you to express the values that you want to have in your life. For me, seeking resilience and continuous improvement have been core components of my life. When you go into the gym, you often don’t see many people between the ages of 28 and 45. A lot of folks during this period say, “I don’t want to sacrifice my family time,” and I get that. But what other things are in your life can you sacrifice to ensure training becomes a key component of your life? How can you physically push yourself and explore your limits as a person? Because if you find a way to do that, you’re going to make yourself a better father, a better businessman, and so on.
So short-term bursts of New Year’s resolution-derived motivation isn’t the answer?
That rah-rah stuff, looking at fitness pictures or videos and getting pumped up, can motivate you for a brief period of time, but it’s not lasting. I always trained for strength, albeit intermittently through college. When I was 23, I competed in my first powerlifting event. I was in the gym running rings around bodybuilders who were getting ready for their own shows, and I realized I wanted to get really serious about this. I was in school at the time, working on my MBA, and also working full time, but I found time for my training. Every day, I had to get up and go to work, and I always worked my training into that schedule.
When did you realize you wanted to become a world-class powerlifter?
In my late twenties, I got serious about chasing world rankings and world records. I started by putting my name on every state record, but I wanted to go beyond that. At the time, I was buying a house, getting married, and so on. My wife was saying, “things will change when we get married,” which she would reiterate when we started having kids. So I asked her what sort of output she wanted from me in terms of family life, because I’m going to make time for the gym as well. Understanding how to make that happen, especially in my thirties when I was ranked number one in the world, was essential. I had to be in the gym, exploring my limits and the competitive aspects of my life, but it didn’t mean I had to be in there six or seven days a week, three hours a day.
How did you maximize your time in the gym?
I decided that I’d go to the gym on Monday and Wednesday and be home by 7 p.m., then go again on Saturday morning and get back before my kids wake up. Was I able to push my absolute best at that point? No, but I managed to reach world-class levels by training this way.
When I took a new job—I was serving in executive roles at this point—I made a point of telling my employers in advance that I planned to leave at 4 p.m. on Monday and Wednesday and wouldn’t work weekends. You have to be confident, knowing exactly what you will be able to deliver at home, work, and in the gym. Will your life be different from the way most people live? Sure, most of my friends in their thirties weren’t living or training this way.
Did this push you to improve your form and training efficiency?
Yeah, I had to be super efficient. At the gym where I trained in my early thirties, I put a Tabata timer on the TV and used it to move myself and my training partners through our workouts. Every five minutes, when the timer goes off, you’re squatting. You have to do it, because otherwise you’ll drag out these sessions. I put strict rules in place for my training partners, like ensuring that you’re warmed up by 5 p.m. because we’re not waiting for you to warm up. If you show up late, you’re going to start with whatever is on the bar. And I’d set this example when I came in late from work, because even if there was 500 pounds already loaded, I’d run underneath it in my dress shoes and slacks and squat it because I didn’t want to miss the next progression. That’s efficiency of scheduling.
And what about efficiency of results?
Absolutely, I wanted to maximize my results. Consider “scope creep.” It means one thing in the work environment, where additional tasks can end up complicating core objectives. But in the training environment, “scope creep” means reading articles and thinking I need to add this mobility exercise, this assistance exercise, and so on. Suddenly you’ve got a program that has you doing 12 to 20 things every single day. Even if you’re getting through all of that, you’re probably not putting maximum effort into what you’re doing. You’re lagging on one exercise and telling yourself you’ll catch it up on the next exercise. It made me refine what I was doing. I limited myself to one core movement and three accessories, so I had to make them count.
For example, 650 pounds might be coming up on the deadlift, and I’ve got to head home in ten minutes. I’ve got to do this. This really makes people cut the fluff out. To tie it back to engineering, putting constraints around things forces you to make decisions, be thoughtful, understand your priorities, and apply effort in the right areas. At Kabuki Strength, we have a saying: “There’s always more.” This means we can always be better in some way, whether with lifting form or product design or whatever you may be dealing with. There’s always more you can add. People will say, “Oh, your squat form is great, you must have breathing and bracing nailed,” and I reply that it can always be better. It’s not just adding more weight to the bar, it’s about being better in all these regards.
What about when you started performing those astronomical feats of strength, like the 1,000-pound squat sequence chronicled in Grand Goals?
At that point, I decided I wanted to build my life around this. I wanted to do things no one has ever done. But I still wanted to have as much time with my family as possible. This meant cutting even more fluff from my life. I had to invent training equipment, build a company, and build a team to help me pull this off because it was well beyond the scope of me just walking into a gym and training hard.
You don’t get to the point of deadlifting 1,000 pounds for reps unless you’re totally focused on that goal. To pull that off, I had to recreate every aspect of my life, putting myself in a position to maximize this while still drawing on what I’d learned from my previous training regimen.
Your deadlift looks like it barely moves at all, like there’s almost no range of motion whatsoever.
People look at my deadlift form and say, “Wow, the bar doesn’t move.” But if you did a before-and-after comparison, you would see it follows the same path as any other sumo deadlift. I’m 5’11” and perfectly average in terms of my proportions. I don’t have any advantages or disadvantages in that respect. In my seminars, using both sumo and conventional stances, I show trainees how I can begin and end in the same place but make the bar path look much longer by using inferior technique. And the same goes for my squat—it doesn’t look like it’s moving much, so people assume I’m very short and benefiting from a limited range of motion. No, it’s simply that the movement is so clean, it gives that impression.
How has the specialized equipment you’ve designed—such as the Duffalo Bar, the Trap Bar HD, the Transformer Bar—altered your training? What advantages have you gained from using it?
This equipment has allowed me to train more frequently and accumulate more volume, which has resulted in improved strength. For example, if you’re sitting there all the time with sore shoulders from squatting—which happens to lots of serious trainees who are using the low-bar position on the barbell—you’re going to be benching less, and you’ll make less progress on the bench as a result. The Duffalo Bar and the Transformer Bar relieve that pressure on the shoulders but retain the same movement pattern as the standard barbell squat. Everything is so tied together when you’re training at this level. Yes, I’ve got some genetic gifts, including above-average strength and an ability to recover faster than many people, but I’ve gone far beyond what those gifts should have allowed me to do. I created the tools, the culture, and the environment around me to push my limits. The genesis of Kabuki Strength was my quest to minimize unneeded injury while training harder than I previously thought possible.
Have strength coaches adopted these products? How widespread is their usage?
Every large college you can think of, nearly every gym where Hollywood’s top action stars train, 99 percent of MLB, 90 percent-plus of the NFL and the NBA. These products caught on there, where performers and athletes worth millions of dollars are building their bodies, and it’s because there was such a gap in terms of equipment innovation. Nobody thought about how to make a dumbbell better, like Kabuki has done with the Kyūbell. Nobody thought about how to modify the traditional barbell to improve its efficiency and reduce its capacity to cause serious injury.
That makes sense. Nobody wants to damage the shoulder of a professional pitcher or quarterback, but you do want them getting the benefits of the core barbell movements. These aren’t assistance bars: they let you do the deadlift, the squat, the bench press.
Yes, they’re for core exercises. They were the foundation of my training when I was trying to set world records because these bars let you train longer and harder, with a reduced risk of injury. Take my 1,000-pound squat for reps, for example. I trained for five full years to accomplish that, but my last year was extremely intentional. During the first three months, I was doing Duffalo Bar front squats. I was looking at what my needs were, my development patterns, and then I moved to the Transformer Bar with really aggressive squat settings on one day of the week and less aggressive settings on another day. Slowly, over the next six months, I brought those settings closer together. And for the last three months, I trained using the Duffalo Bar. I never touched a standard straight bar.
What about during your time as a competitive powerlifter?
During my competitive days, when I’d step on the platform, my tool was the straight bar. But before that, I trained with a curved bar and a safety squat bar I had modified – prototypes of the Duffalo Bar and Transformer Bar I’ve had for a long time – right up to four weeks out. Donnie Thompson, who was the first person to total 3,000 pounds at a fully equipped meet, trained using a similar curved bar and safety squat bar and also switched to a straight bar four weeks before the meet.
Are more powerlifters following this approach to training?
I see some generational differences, with younger athletes more open to different approaches, but I still see a lot of powerlifters who believe they have to train with the straight barbell. The greatest adoption has come from well-paid professional athletes in other sports who understand movement patterns and are more worried about injuring themselves during training than boosting their powerlifting meet totals. Meanwhile, some 23-year-old who has three powerlifting meets and two years of serious training under his belt is training with the straight barbell and kilo plates, believing it’s the only way. It isn’t.
How have COVID-19 and the resulting supply chain challenges impacted sales and distribution?
When the pandemic began, we got bombarded with sales and had to limit our marketing while we fulfilled all those orders. If you look at my Instagram posts in 2020, I’m rarely saying anything about Kabuki Strength products. Now, we’re dealing with supply chain issues that are affecting us as a business, because some consumers can’t or won’t wait several weeks for fulfillment. We manufacture everything in-house, but steel lead times have gone from three months to four months to nine months. Steel prices have increased 600 percent. Some of the components we use, such as our coatings, come from local vendors who have had problems getting the chemicals they need.
You might think, oh, this must be great, everybody wants a home gym now, but it’s really challenged our business. In spite of that, sales have improved and more people are building home gyms or small gyms, and training studios than ever before—which I’d much rather see than people paying membership fees to big globo-gyms. If you’ve made this investment in a home gym, you’re that much closer to what I was talking about earlier. You can get to the gym without unnecessary commute time you can now devote to friends or family. Owning your equipment compels you to honor the commitment you’ve made to your health and resilience.
When you started doing all this, modifying barbells on your own, did you have this grand plan in mind? Or did you just want to have your own equipment?
For me to be the best I could be, I created a gym, methodology, and tools. This was all a side project back when I was running an aerospace engineering company. But I eventually decided to move forward with Kabuki Strength on a full-time basis because I realized my job was the only thing left that I could afford to cut. I didn’t want to give up my training, my hobbies, or my family. Initially, Kabuki released versions of what I had already developed and used. Along the way, I realized that I was creating a scalable version of everything I had utilized in pursuit of my goals, from the equipment to the clinical training.
So how has your grand plan changed over time? How do the rest of us fit into it?
To get everyone else to where I was, I have to completely reinvent the gym, integrating the clinical knowledge, the technology, and the coaching. There aren’t many places in the US even capable of doing this at a single site—Champions Physical Therapy and Performance in Boston comes to mind as one place, but unless a center like that has bought Kabuki, they won’t have the equipment. In short, I want to take my approach to the gym and find a way to put it in as many hands as possible. And if my efforts motivate other people to take my ideas and introduce their own new innovations to the market or merely personal use, more power to them. If you build strength and fitness into your life, making a space for it on a permanent basis and working continuously to improve… well, there’s always more, and it’s worth chasing it.