With my third powerlifting competition coming up, I’ve been mulling a question that seems to recur before each competition: Why do I powerlift? I mean, it’s not like I don’t have enough to do, so why do I devote so much of my spare time and energy to getting stronger at the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Here’s what I’ve come up with.
What is Powerlifting? First, for those of you who don’t know, powerlifting consists of three lifts: the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift. Powerlifting is distinct from Olympic-style weightlifting, which consists of two lifts: the snatch and the clean and jerk. Although you can find competitions that are “bench-only” or “push-pull” (i.e., bench and deadlift only), full powerlifting meets include all three lifts. In competition, a lifter gets three attempts at each lift and must make one successful attempt in order to avoid being disqualified – i.e., “bombing out.” The lifter’s best (heaviest) successful attempt at each lift is summed to calculate a “total.” Rules vary depending on which organization is sponsoring the competition (and there are too many organizations to name), but basically lifters are categorized by gender, weight, age, and whether they are using “gear” or lifting “raw.” If you want to learn more, I’d recommend www.usapowerlifting.com (USA Powerlifting is the association in which I compete – again, there are countless others). Also, there’s a good documentary called “Power Unlimited” that provides a pretty thorough introduction to competitive powerlifting. You can watch portions of it on youtube www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUt3bM19RWs (the trailer is also pretty cool www.youtube.com/watch?v=yX1gtLeAQYo).
(1) The Importance of Physical Strength: OK, so before getting into some of the more philosophical stuff, I figured I’d start with the most obvious (and probably most important) reason that I’m a powerlifter. Physical strength is important to me. If being physically strong isn’t important to you at some basic, primal level, then you probably won’t get much out of powerlifting. It’s no secret, there’s a certain amount of physical discomfort involved with building strength. It involves performing extremely taxing, multi-joint movements (squatting, deadlifting, bench pressing, overhead pressing, etc.) at intensities that are typically at least 80% of your maximum (i.e., that sh*t hurts). It’s physically and mentally draining and requires a ton of discipline and willpower. Plus, the longer you do it and the stronger you become, the harder it becomes to make progress. So, if increasing your physical strength isn’t that important to you, then you’ll likely never start a serious resistance training program, let alone stick with one. I’m not sure there’s much more explaining to do on this one – it’s one of those things you either value, or you don’t.
“Strong people are harder to kill than weak people, and more useful in general.” – Mark Rippetoe
(2) Authenticity: (noun) the quality of being authentic; genuineness. Authentic: (adjective) entitled to acceptance or belief because of agreement with known facts or experience; reliable; trustworthy. Authenticity, as a personal attribute, is in short supply today. So often, all that seems to matter is results, with little regard for how they are achieved. The short cut is sought out and glorified; aggression is now passive and hidden, instead of direct and forthright; people have no idea who they are, what they’re made of, what they’re all about, what’s important to them, or what they want out of life. They live lives that are expected of them by others, rather than the lives that they desire. Before you kick the soapbox out from underneath me – I level these accusations at myself first. I’ve been guilty of most (if not all) of them. But I’m honest with myself and committed to continuous improvement.
Powerlifting is one of those rare activities with a very high degree of objectivity. In the end, it’s about how much you can squat, bench press, and deadlift – period. It doesn’t matter how you look, how expensive your gear is, how educated you are, what your zip code is, or what kind of car you showed up in, or what someone else on your team did or didn’t do. Admittedly, there are judges. There are different federations with different rules. And there are differing methods of supplementation (i.e., chemical engineering). But one thing’s for certain: you will end up on the platform alone with the weight. You’ll either handle the weight or it will handle you. The weight is honest and direct; it is incapable of lies, nuance, and subtlety. It is a brutal and beautiful constant. You absolutely, positively won’t get strong at these lifts without busting your ass in the gym, pushing through a ton of pain, and exercising incredible devotion and willpower. You’ll grind for months (maybe longer) to add the next five pounds to one of your lifts. If you compete, you’ll almost certainly pour everything you’ve got into a lift, in front of a lot of people, and come up short. Along the way you’ll earn another quality that all honorable people possess – humility.
“I prefer to work out alone. It enables me to concentrate on the lessons that the Iron has for me. Learning about what you’re made of is always time well spent, and I have found no better teacher. The Iron had taught me how to live. Life is capable of driving you out of your mind. The way it all comes down these days, it’s some kind of miracle if you’re not insane. People have become separated from their bodies. They are no longer whole.
I see them move from their offices to their cars and on to their suburban homes. They stress out constantly, they lose sleep, they eat badly. And they behave badly. Their egos run wild; they become motivated by that which will eventually give them a massive stroke. They need the Iron Mind.
. . . . .
The Iron never lies to you. You can walk outside and listen to all kinds of talk, get told that you’re a god or a total bastard. The Iron will always kick you the real deal. The Iron is the great reference point, the all-knowing perspective giver. Always there like a beacon in the pitch black. I have found the Iron to be my greatest friend. It never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go. But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.” -- From Iron and the Soul, by Henry Rollins (originally published in Details magazine 1994).
(3) Hope: Last, but not least, for me powerlifting serves as a reminder of how to handle life’s trials. If you lift long enough you’ll hit a wall that will seem insurmountable, you may get injured, you’ll have trouble dragging yourself into the gym after a day when nothing goes right, you’ll be sleep deprived and worn out, your diet will go way south, etc. And, like most trials in life, the obstacles preventing you from getting stronger are usually overcome by sheer force of will (which, for me, is inspired by faith) – you figure out how to get out of the hole you’re in, point yourself in the right direction, drop your head and start driving forward. Powerlifting reminds me how to persevere. Perseverance builds character. Character, in turn, results in Hope that we can get through life’s trials and come out better on the other end.
“And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” Romans 5 (NIV)
In the end, if none of that resonates with you, just go pick up something heavy! It’s awesome.
This guest blog was written by: The Legal Meathead
‘The Legal Meathead’ is a husband, father, son, brother, uncle, and “competitive” powerlifter (although, so far, he mostly competes with himself). He works as an attorney in a big swamp otherwise known as Washington D.C. and loves to read, write, lift heavy things (and drop them), and spend time with his family. He posts anonymously to protect the guilty, the innocent, and his ability to be frank.