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Powerlifting is the New Rowing

Deborah and I began training together outdoors because of Covid in 2021. Deborah was adamant that we begin lifting heavy with barbells when the opportunity arose. She frequently mentioned wanting to compete in a powerlifting meet. At the time Deborah was 68 years old. I have to admit that I was half expecting this to be a fleeting goal. Clearly I underestimated Deborah’s drive because at the end of April she competed in her first meet.


I still can't believe how much she enjoyed herself.


Many of my clients are endurance athletes, Deborah included. They compete by running long distances, racing rowing shells across flat water, and climbing mountains. A powerlifting meet is the anthesis of an endurance event. This meet was held inside a Cross-Fit “box.” The air was stuffy and smelled of rubber flooring. The walls dark and lighting dim. They blasted metal the whole time and the audience was just feet from the contestants. It was exhilarating.


About to crush her deadlift


On its surface powerlifting seems simple. The three barbell events are squat, bench press, and deadlift. Go as heavy as possible.


The complexities lie in executing the lifts within the rules of the competition. The judges pick your lift apart. Were your knees totally locked out? Did you rack the bar before the referee commanded you to? Were you totally motionless at the bottom of your bench press? Miss too many of the details and your attempt is rendered invalid. Can you maintain your focus and composure under the pressure?


The mandatory pause at your body in the bench press - a particularly tricky requirement


The meet is a logistical feat. The team of platform attendants (undoubtedly hopped up on Red Bull) rapidly change the plates and reset the rack for each contestant. The woman has one minute to complete her lift. Once her attempt is completed she goes to the bottom of the order and eventually gets three total tries for each event.


We strategized on how to select the starting weight for each event. Be conservative. Go with something you know you can hit. Then slowly push heavier from there. Deborah hit her first deadlift. We had discussed changing our plan to go heavier than we originally thought on the second attempt. I met Deborah at the judges table after her first lift. A competitor has one minute to decide at the judges table what their next weight selection will be. Deborah mentioned that the first lift made her dizzy. She stood there for a second thinking and then said “Let’s go for it,” That was the determination I had seen in her training. She hit the second attempt with a warning from the judge about locking out her knees. Then went for a PR weight on the third attempt and nailed it with the crowd cheering her on.


Demonstrating the full lockout at the top of the deadlift


The highlight is that third and most exciting event: deadlift. At this point the nerves of anticipation are gone. Everyone is warmed up and the neuromuscular system is primed. The women face the crowd on the lifting platform and step up to the barbell. In an attempt to hype themselves and the audience up some have a theatrical presence. They throw their arms in the air and fling their hair behind their heads. They set up on the bar, give a couple of tugs with their arms, drop their hips down, and pull with all their might. The more they struggle to get the bar past the sticking point mid-leg the more the audience screams at them to pull. They look as if they’re about to blow a gasket. Faces bright red, veins in their necks bulging, and bodies bending under the stress. Then as they pull themselves erect, elation. Not all lifts are legal. The crowd occasionally groans in disappointment as the judges rule a lift invalid but everyone seems to be satisfied knowing they pushed themselves to their limits.


Mid-meet strategy session


As a coach it’s always gratifying to see your athletes compete. I’m supremely proud of Deborah for dedicating herself to her training. She researched the event, strategies, and communicated with the event directors. She showed up to our training sessions prepared to work hard. I’m reminded that principles of training, regardless of the sport, are often strikingly similar. There are weeks where training volume is high. There are de-load weeks to encourage recovery. There is the taper which requires faith in your training and self-control. Deborah executed on these training principles and went into her meet ready to perform. She nailed it.




Photos taken by her daughter Kat Shultis


1 Comment


Deborah is my new favorite athlete!

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