In some ways, KC Mitchell looks like the prototypical powerlifter — a mountain of dense muscle adorned with tattoos and topped with a ZZ Top beard and a mohawk. And his personal best lifts in the squat (555 pounds), bench press (478 pounds) and deadlift (635 pounds) are certainly elite numbers for a 242-pound strength athlete. Yet, Mitchell differs in one critical respect from all of his fellow competitors: his left leg had to be amputated after he was injured by a pressure-plate IED while serving in Afghanistan in 2010.
Following the injury, Mitchell floundered in a depressive haze for three years, his left leg fitted with a prosthetic and his right leg also badly atrophied from the injury. During those first three years of his recovery, Mitchell also became addicted to the medications used to treat his chronic pain. But after quitting all of those drugs cold turkey in 2013, he began hitting the gym. Within a few years, he was receiving coaching from world-class powerlifters like Ed Coan and excelling not in some disabled or adaptive sports division, but right alongside able-bodied athletes.
As a decent powerlifter myself, a man whose best lifts are all near, or in the case of the bench, well below Mitchell’s, I can’t wrap my brain around his feats. How does he accomplish any of this — biomechanically or mentally? “He’s superhuman,” filmmaker Chris Bell kept telling me when he introduced me to Mitchell. “There’s no one like him in the world.”
To better understand those superheroics — and the secrets to his seemingly impossible strength — I recently spoke to Mitchell about the excruciating pain his gains cause him, why he decides to push himself beyond it anyway and the example he hopes to set for others like him.
First of all, how did you get back in the gym after such a devastating injury?
I went through 50 surgeries, and I deal with chronic, intense pain, every single day of my life. That was the case when I took the pills, and that was still the case after I stopped cold turkey in 2013. When I stopped using painkillers, I began going to the gym because there was a purpose to it, a focus, something to do. Before my injury, I was an average gym-goer and an MMA athlete, and of course, I did military training. I didn’t even consider powerlifting. When I started going to the gym again, I did the basic, easy stuff, usually working on the Smith machine. I got myself in better condition, but I wasn’t a powerlifter yet.
So how did you get from recovery to the powerlifting platform?
After I watched some friends at a powerlifting event, I felt this tremendous pull toward the sport. This would be a challenging sport for an amputee, for sure. There are adaptive sports and the Paralympics and so on, but at the time I began contemplating powerlifting, there were no amputees lifting weights and competing against able-bodied athletes. I wanted to figure out if I could do this. I wanted to be the first. And I started going to more meets, eating and training properly and studying the sport. Eventually I began getting coaching from elite lifters like Ed Coan who saw not only how motivated I was but how I was progressing in the sport.”
Okay, but what about the leg? Is it specially designed for powerlifting, like Oscar Pistorius’ running blades were for sprinting?
Not really. Half of my knee is in a socket, with no range of motion. I have no left ankle. Early on, I experimented with different shoes, platforms inside my shoe, different shoes on my feet… but I didn’t like that. Who wears two different pairs of shoes on the daily? That’s nonsense. I’ve gone through different ankles on my prosthetic, because initially I kept blocking out the shock on that leg while performing heavy squats and deadlifts. After a while, I was contacted by a prosthetics company that produced a glass composite ankle called the RUSH87. I’ve used that since then with no issues. But the prosthetic I walk around in throughout the day is the same prosthetic I use when performing these lifts. I’ve forced my body to adapt to powerlifting with it.
Walk me through how you perform the squat. In particular, how do you break parallel?
I can’t break parallel with 135 pounds on my back. It won’t happen. Not with 225 pounds, either. But my core has become so strong as an adaptation to my injury that I can support a ton of weight on my back, and those 500-plus pounds will force me to break the plane. In other words, the weight forces me below parallel, even when it seems like I shouldn’t be able to do this, and I’m supporting so much of that weight through pure core strength alone.
That doesn’t mean the prosthetic is perfectly adapted to the squat, because it isn’t. This is willpower. I’ve posted on Instagram about how the amount of pressure on my knee has split my skin right in half. I have a custom cushion at the bottom of the leg, a little air socket at the bottom, that gives me a little pressure relief, but this will keep happening as long as I powerlift. And I don’t intend to stop powerlifting.
What about the deadlift? That’s an exercise that’s initiated by driving your feet into the ground. How do you plant yourself for this lift?
With the deadlift, I focus on pushing down from my hip. That drives me down into the ground and helps me pull up the bar. But my form doesn’t look all that pretty. When people watch me doing the deadlift, it’s almost like a stiff-legged deadlift because of my severely limited range of motion. And because I can’t get down on the weight as far as others can when I’m initiating the lift, I’m not lifting as much as I could in terms of how strong I actually am. But obviously I’ve done okay, because I’m deadlifting in the mid-600s without my back rounding because my lats are so strong. My form is great, given my limitations.
The bench press is another lift that relies on leg drive. How do you accomplish that drive into the ground with your feet when you can’t feel your left foot?
I’m a naturally great presser, so I don’t have to train my bench press as much as my squat or deadlift. But yes, I get what you’re saying. If I did what you were talking about, one of my legs would fly off the ground while I was pressing, and I’d be off balance. That actually happened at a few early meets. My left foot would slip, and I’d get red-lighted. Now I bear down on my hips and drive through there. That’s fixed the problem, and after that initial drive, my lats, shoulders and triceps take over. I will bench press 500 pounds, I’m sure of it.
You’ve got these three lifts down. Are there other lifts you struggle with? And lifts people might be surprised that you perform so easily?
I struggle with lunges. Without any weight on my back, my lunges are terrible. I’ve posted videos demonstrating this. Obviously you can imagine why. With weight, I can sink down a bit more, but the result still isn’t great. And while you might think I’m not a good standing overhead presser, that’s not the case. I can walk 300 pounds out of the power rack and press it with strict form. My core stays incredibly tight — I’m tightening my posterior so much — and as a result, I’m completely stable. I excel at all pressing motions.
What about diet and recovery? Are you able to get lots of sleep?
I sleep five hours a night. Pain wakes me up. I’m in constant pain. You adjust to so little sleep, but obviously, experts like Stan Efferding tell you that you need tons of rest to grow. He’s right, but I can’t do it. I take a few 30-minute naps instead, which keeps me going. I do follow Stan’s “vertical diet” and eat his “monster mash” [boiled ground meat mixed with water and white rice] throughout the day, including right now while we’re talking.
I train every day at 4:30 p.m. I know some people prefer to train early in the day, but I can’t. I run my supplement company during the day, then train at the end of the workday. Partly it’s a pain thing. After I’m done with my session, I’m exhausted. I wrap icing sleeves around my knee. I rub my legs down with CBD cream, which can help with inflammation. I don’t take ibuprofen, because I don’t take painkillers of any kind, but anti-inflammation after exercise remains critical. So that’s where the icing and cream come in.
How about your motivation? Particularly, what motivates you to keep pushing yourself despite all the pain?
Listen, I’d be in pain whether I trained or didn’t train. But the pain I experience when training is excruciating. I mean, I can’t put it into words. Do you want to know how I mentally prepare for a lift, though? I channel my rage. And this rage isn’t about the injury I suffered in Afghanistan. I have no rage or anger related to that. The rage I channel arises from the pain I know I’ll experience when I attempt the lift.
The pain isn’t just in my left leg, but all over. My right leg is limb salvage. I’ve got five screws in that knee, and the joint is bone on bone. I had second- and third-degree burns all over my body. So when I prepare to perform the lift, I become furious by thinking how much this will hurt. And the adrenalin that produces motivates me to do incredible things. I experience this rage over and over, with each repetition, and it fuels me to finish.
One rep hurts, so think how much a set of three or five does. But if I have to lead a life of pure pain, I want that pain to be directed toward something positive. What you can do in powerlifting can be tracked and measured. I want to accomplish something, and here I can — over and over again.
I’ve talked to many other people who have served as strength sport role models, such as trans powerlifter Janae Kroc and openly gay World’s Strongest Man contender Rob Kearney. They’ve all mentioned how their examples have helped get more people into the gym, expanding the population of folks doing strength training. Have you noticed something similar?
I was the first amputee to ever do this — the very first. And when people who are in a similar situation observe that kind of role modeling, they get the idea in their heads that they can do this. So I’m always getting DMs from amputees and others who tell me that I’ve motivated them to powerlift, that they’re coming for my numbers. I tell them, “Great, absolutely, please do!” I want someone like me to blow past what I’m doing. I would love to see that. Because, as much as role models matter in general, do you know how impressive it would be if another amputee surpassed or got close to what I’m doing? It would be extraordinary, because heavy weight and the pain it causes is a reality check. Most people will feel the pain and quit, because the pain is out of this world.
Powerlifting is a tough thing to do for anyone, but if you combine it with the kind of pain I’m enduring, it becomes almost impossible. So if someone like me motivates other people to surpass me that would be incredible. I’d be blown away. I mean, training with no goals is pointless. It’s why many people don’t progress — you must have something you’re motivated to accomplish. So yes, I know I’ll never be the world’s greatest powerlifter. I understand my limitations. But I do this for everyone else. I do this to show them it can be done without any excuses. I do this to motivate them to achieve their own goals.