When I first started strength training, I never expected to be here. I didn’t think I’d ever be interested in any of this. I’m now in my last week of training for my first real powerlifting meet coming up in a few days, and I’m still in shock that I’m doing it.
I started lifting weights last August more out of necessity than to fulfill some deep desire to be stronger and more agile. My knee was hurting a lot, and after the orthopedic surgeon I was referred to by my primary care doctor diagnosed me with osteoarthritis, he suggested that I find some sort of recreational movement routine that I would like to stick to. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do. Both my job and the community organization work I did outside of work took up a lot of my time and energy, and I didn’t want to have one more thing on my schedule that would prevent me from having time to do other things that I really worry (like reading or hanging out with my partner or talking crap with my friends in a group chat). But after a while, I gave in and asked my good friend Brendan about strength training.
Before last August, Brendan and I rarely ever talked about the fact that he had been strength training for about 20 years and had been competing in strength training for over 10. It just wasn’t part of our relationship. What brought us together initially was teaching, but what really brought us together was a general disdain for most old-school pedagogical priorities, a few bad breakups and our later stages of dating after that, left-wing political beliefs, and our shared understanding that most modern life is completely absurd. Love and respect for strength sports were never part of the equation. He would compete and, sometimes, win, and I would be happy for him because I am every friend who does something that makes them happy. I’ll be honest and say I don’t care about it other than that. In fact, I’ll be completely honest when I say that I don’t understand why he liked it so damn much.
I didn’t grow up in a sports-dominated household. My parents loved sports, my dad was involved in international sports when I was a kid and my mom went to the gym and did a lot of walking and running on the treadmill, but they weren’t fanatics or anything. When my brother and I were involved in sports, no one forced us to cultivate a good attitude towards the very act of athleticism. To be honest, I think it had more to do with the limited time my parents had due to work and raising kids, but still, teaching us how to develop healthy relationships with sports and exercise just wasn’t imperative. And as a result, even when I played, I never considered myself an athlete. I’m not saying that gives me an excuse to write off sports wholesale as a possible interest, but I think that along with the trauma of being treated like a fat kid, this lack of connection is what kept me away from sports for a long time. I can’t remember the last time I took part in an athletics competition before this meet, but I couldn’t have been more than 15 or 16 years old.
While I know I could and should have asked Brendan what drew him to strength sports at any point before last year, I think a lot of that background prevented me from doing so. In its most basic form, strength training is simply the act of picking something up and putting it back down. Of course, there are about a million ways to get the thing up and another million ways to get the thing back. But if we’re being realistic about the sport itself, it’s just up, down, up, down, up, down. I can’t say that the thought of doing it necessarily bores me, although that description makes it sound very boring. It was more my lack of understanding of the culture and the sport itself that made me think that it was all somehow pointless except for the exercise of ego and vanity. I could see it being a lot more than that for Brendan, but with all the sports emotions (or lack of emotions) involved, I never felt the need to think about strength sports other than the limited conversations we had about his participation in them. .
After my diagnosis, I sat quietly on this new discovery until Brendan mentioned that he was working with his strength coach, Vinny, to help ease the pain he was also experiencing in his knees. The two of us had been complaining and joking about our physical condition for months, and hearing that he was trying to do something about it made me feel like I could do the same through strength training. A week passed before I asked him for Vinnies contact information and then I jumped into my new life.
Everyone around me keeps saying that they just can’t believe how quickly I picked up on all of this, and I can’t either. Although I rarely talk about it with anyone but my partner, I cried almost every day I went to the gym for the first month of leaving. Not because of the pain, or even the fact that I’m really, really not used to putting my body through that kind of work. It was more due to the fact that I thought I was wasting so much time doing something I really didn’t want to do. It used to be hard to pinpoint exactly how that started to change and when I started actively wanting to go to the gym, but when it did, I was suddenly all in. And by all-in, I mean accepting Vinnie’s gentle nudges that pushed me toward powerlifting, buying the right equipment I needed for strength training, taking creatine, and researching everything I could about the history of strength sports and how the hell up, down, up, down, up, down got so interesting. I never thought about competing though.
Compared to other competitive sports, powerlifting is a fairly recent phenomenon. Unlike Olympic weightlifting, which has been around since 1896, powerlifting hasn’t gained as much traction as sports until the late 1950s. While weightlifting in general has a much longer history dating back to ancient Greece (and probably earlier than that), weightlifting was used to some extent as part of athletic training and was a means to an end: to build muscle and endurance in those muscles so athletes can use them for other things like running long distances, wrestling with other athletes, jumping over hurdles, swimming as fast as possible, etc. A combination of factors over many years has led to the emergence of powerlifting as a more serious competitive sport. In the 19th century, circuses and freak shows that demonstrated feats of strength to live audiences helped to increase interest in body sculpting and physical education. Many of the early physical culturists and men and Women! insisted on the importance of some type of weight-bearing movement in order to build muscle and build strength. Championship weightlifting and bodybuilding evolved from an emphasis on weight training by popular physical education practitioners, then Olympic weightlifting developed in response, and interest in powerlifting grew in response.
Where Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting differ is in their movements. Olympic weightlifting originally consisted of three lifts: Clean and Change, Jerk and Jerk. Aside from Olympic weightlifting, people have been doing a lot of other weird lifts (like one of my personal favorites, the Zercher squat). Most famously, they did what would become known as the strength set: the squat, bench press, and deadlift. As more and more interest turned from Olympic weightlifting to weightlifting to weightlifting, national (and later international) powerlifting was born when the first meet was held in 1964 under the auspices of the York Barbell Company. In a powerlifting meet, the only lifts performed are the strength set, and the score is based on a variety of factors. As for the lifts themselves, you are given three attempts at each one, ideally with each attempt increasing in difficulty as you go. For each one, you are awarded points based on your ability to perform the lift from good to perfect form and your ability to listen to the commands for each lift.
In this meet, I’ll only be doing the bench press and deadlift because I’m not really sure about my squat (but I promised the boys I’ll squat next time). In addition, all competitors are divided into body weights and ages. For example, I will compete in the super heavyweight (over 230 pounds) sub-masters (ages 33 to 39). This means that when it comes to awarding the best lifts, my direct competitors will share the same categories with me. Although this is beginning to change with the inclusion of more trans people in powerlifting, the competition is similar to competition in any other sport in that it is segregated by gender. I don’t identify as a woman, but I will also be in that division because I don’t have the ability to compete as non-binary.
When Brendan suggested we get together in August and record parts of our trip as Patreon-only episodes for our podcast, Fat guy, poor guy, I was hesitant for several reasons, not least the fact that I had to compete in the women’s division. While I understand the special reasons and tensions that make it difficult to separate strength sports, I don’t know that I will be able to fully analyze the feelings associated with competing in the women’s division until the meet is over and I can begin to process it. Other than that, my hesitancy mostly stemmed from the fact that, again, I really didn’t expect to be here and, also, I couldn’t help but feel like I shouldn’t be here in the first place. A year and some change in powerlifting was nothing compared to the people I know who have spent years and years working on this, improving their strength and lifting, and just putting the time and dedication into it all in the way that I felt like I am alone. I don’t completely agree with the idea of impostor syndrome, but it feels so weird that something like this has come up about something I never thought I’d think about in my entire life. I told Brendan I’d talk to Vinny about it, but mostly I was trying to buy time until a few days later when I reluctantly agreed to do the meeting.
We started training for it almost immediately, and even though I had already agreed (and paid) to do it, I still felt very uneasy about having to compete for a while. Then something Vinny said to me kind of shook me out of how self-conscious I felt about it: A year is a long time. You come here every week, four days a week, and nothing gets in the way of that for over a year. If you break it down, that’s a lot. And that’s what commitment is. You are now a part of this community like everyone else.
That’s when it finally clicked: It was easy for me to go all-in on this because, of course, I liked to work, but also because of the culture, the skill, and especially the community of our small strength gym that made me do the hard work of strengthening some of the most fun I’ve ever had in sports. And really, powerlifting hasn’t changed much since its early roots in circuses and freak shows: powerlifters exist and compete on the fringes of the sports themselves, and the people who are drawn to the fringes tend to have some freakish qualities as well. That’s another aspect of this that I think makes it easier to be in the gym. You’re just hanging out with other misfits like you who participate in this sport that’s specifically designed for misfits anyway. Unlike most sports and, indeed, most places we have to be in our lives, many of us have the opportunity to show up in our weight gyms as our full selves, whether we’re beginners or pros, super educated or just learning, unsure of what to do or fully organized with a plan and quickly integrate into those communities because of the shared desire to get stronger and because so many people are just like us or have been like us at some point. The joy this new reality has given me is one I could never have prepared for. How could I possibly feel like I didn’t belong? People have been showing me for more than a year that everyone, including me, has space here.
Tomorrow I actually take the platform, the same platform as my brother Brendan, with our brother Vinny, who trains us and many other unfit people from our little strength gym competing with us to see what age and some changes my body has brought, my drive and my spirit. I’m so excited for what’s to come.
#journey #powerlifting #competition
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