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Weight of the World

For every guy who wanted to be bigger and stronger, why not aspire to take the place of Atlas, the titan who holds the sky on his shoulders to keep it from crushing the Earth? And let’s be fair, for every woman who feels just as strongly that she should be as physically tough and powerful as she has the right to, why not have similar aspirations? Well so begins my pet project to include blog posts that pertain to working out. I already chronicle my saltwater aquarium trials and errors, why not a topic I actually know quite well?

So then a bit about what I want to write. I may segue into different areas from time to time, but primarily I hope to stick with powerlifting. That is my bread and butter, and I’m working myself very hard to try and get back into competitive powerlifting. In fact I’m planning on attending bench only non-sanctioned meet in October up in Ashtabula, Ohio. Hope to have a new bench shirt by then as well.

So what is powerlifting? It’s an unusual sport that usually draws confused stairs from people. The polite ones, that is. Most people ask in borderline unkind terms, “Why the #@!% would you want to do that?” It involves maximal training and any athlete who competes quickly comes to understand injuries are common. It’s just not possible to walk on the edge of a cliff for very long without stepping off.

A full powerlifting meet, for example, involves people being split up by their weight classes. These range from light weight lifters barely over 100 pounds to the superheavyweight class, which is anybody over 308 pounds. The class I have lifted in is the 242lb class, though my heaviest competition weight was 229.

Powerlifting is broken up further by divisions, and those are generally identified by age. At 34 I was in the open division. My next meet I’ll be 36, which may still be open or it might be sub-masters – each federation is different. Federation? What’s that? Yes, just like there is an NHL, IHL, UHL, and other hockey leagues (and the same with football and baseball), there are different leagues for powerlifting. Previously I lifted in the Son-Light Power federation. This next one I’m going to is a local thing, but I’m hoping it can be a stepping stone for me. Full blown federations include the USAPL, WABDL, and half a dozen others including some that are considered unlimited leagues. The unlimited ones allow pretty much any gear and are often untested for drugs.

Gear is equipment, and because powerlifting is such a dangerous sport, there is a lot of it. Every tried squatting with 500 pounds on your back? How about 800 (or more)? You can do a lot of damage to yourself if you rely on nothing but mind and meat to hold it together. Things happen, from being a fraction of an inch off balance to dipping to low at the bottom of a movement. They make things like squat suits to protect people. They are ridiculously uncomfortable, but wearing one can make the difference between being paralyzed or walking away safely from a personal best. Knee wraps, wrist wraps, benching shirts and even lifting briefs are all examples of protective gear that lifters use.

I can speak from personal experience on the benching shirt. I was training for an upcoming meet and was not wearing mine. Without the shirt I pushed myself too hard and could not do what needed to be done. The end result was a jarring slap in my arm and shoulder that turned out to be my left pectoral separating completely from my arm. Had I worn my shirt there is a 99% chance that would not have happened. Hell, if I’d have worn my shirt I would have been able to bench the weight!

Yes, the gear helps you lift more. Some people swear it adds a lot to their lifts. My shirt only added about 20 pounds to my bench. Ultimately though at some point in a lift it is 100% human effort. Locking out a bench press, squat, or deadlift are all about raw human power. A lot of people swear that raw (no gear) is the only way to lift. I swear that safe is the only way to lift. Even with all safety measures in place bad things can and do still happen, so why tempt fate?

I mentioned benching, squatting, and deadlifting. Bench press is done simply enough, ass and shoulders on a bench press, feet on the ground. Lower the bar to the chest and hold it there until the judge says press, then push it up to a locked out position. There should be three judges watching the lift and at least two of them have to give a thumbs up for the lift to be successful.

Moving to the squat, it’s a simple enough movement on paper. Bar on the shoulders / upper back, then step out of the rack and sit down until your ass is parallel to your knees. Now straighten back up until the legs are locked and rack the weight. Judging in the squat involves making sure it’s a controlled movement, the butt depth is sufficient, and the weight is locked out at the top.

The final lift in a traditional three lift meet is the deadlift. This is the easiest one way to by way of form and function. Reality, however, is an entirely different beast. Step up to the bar, feet placement may be shoulder width (conventional stance), outside of shoulder width (semi-sumo stance), or trying to do the splits (sumo stance). Grab the bar and lift it up until the legs are locked, shoulders are back, and the body is straight. When the all clear is announced set the bar back down – do not drop it, set it down.

So there it is, an introduction to powerlifting. But why compete? Is it really that important who can lift 500 versus 550 pounds? No, not really. It’s the same as golf, the difference between shooting a 70 and a 71 on 18 holes only matters for friendly rivalry or, in the case of the elite athletes, who can pull in higher dollars for advertising purposes. But to each individual athlete the difference is profound. Not amongst one another so much but between ourselves.

Like everything in life, we’ve only got so much time and we want to make the most of it. I have read and heard that powerlifters peak in their mid forties. That may be true but most burnt out way before then. It’s a hard sport. Louie Simmons, of Westside Barbell fame had undergone multiple back surgeries and recoveries to push on and still total 2100 pounds with a squat of 920lbs. He is the only man over 50 to do so, more proof to the dangerous nature of the sport. Regardless of the legends, the clock is ticking we want every lift we do to be better than our last one. What else are we going to do at the nursing home when our dentures fall out and we’ve got to relive something to make it worth enduring the next game of bingo.

As for me I grew up idolizing fantasy novels and Conan, both in print and on the big screen. I was a fairly active kid but given to a lot of time spent reading or playing computer games in spite of living in the country. I played tennis, not football or wrestling. I wanted to be big and strong. I wanted to be unstoppable and admired by others for what I could do physically – yet at the same time I was afraid of failure and of embarrassing myself. So I stayed a weak skinny-fat kid.

I dabbled in weight lifting on and off over the years, but never really knew what I was doing so it didn’t last. My equipment selection was limited too and I didn’t join a gym because of that fear of not knowing what I was doing thing. Stupid, I know, but that’s hindsight. It wasn’t until I was engaged and about 9 months away from getting married before I realized I had gone from skinny-fat or being marginally in shape to just outright fat. Damn that mirror in front of the shower!

What followed was me digging in and flipping the switch in my head. Into the trash went the deep fryer. Gone was the fast food trips. Meat and low carb for me, along with time honored pushups and sit ups every day. Mix in some jogging (I hate cardio to this day), and by the time I got married gone was the fat. Still skinny, but now I had something to build on. Now I had a reason to go to the gym and to try and stop accepting the excuse of not knowing what to do.

And now, many years later, the fire still burns in me to lift heavier and to get in better shape. I know the shame of being ignorant and the shame of letting myself go. I try to help others get past that, but it’s amazing how few people there are out willing to flip that switch in themselves. Complacency and deniability is so much easier for them, rather than an hour of hard work done a few times a week.

My wife made that transition herself and seldom does a day go by when I’m not reminded and amazed of the transformation she made. Not only is it apparent during those wonderful moments when I get to see the physical proof of it (don’t worry, she’ll smack me in the back of the head for admitting that), but also just to hear her talk and be concerned over her own nutrition and physical fitness. We’re not nuts about it – or at least she’s not – but we are keenly aware and interested in our health and in making sure we’re able to enjoy as much time as we can while we’re here.

And as any parent knows, after the abuse our kids put us through in the early years, the thought of being able to torture them into old age is a wonderful idea to cling to!

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Categories: Weight Lifting
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