the joy of strength training


January 25th, 2010 at 2:41 pm

Scenes from a powerlifting year

“It took me years to fully appreciate the value of the lessons I have learned from the Iron. I used to think that it was my adversary, that I was trying to lift that which does not want to be lifted. I was wrong. When the Iron doesn’t want to come off the mat, it’s the kindest thing it can do for you. If it flew up and went through the ceiling, it wouldn’t teach you anything.”

– Henry Rollins, The Iron

The last year has been a new chapter in my strength training journey as I made the move into competitive powerlifting in December 2008. It happened smoothly, naturally, but it has significantly changed the way I train.

Instead of exploring how strong I can get from week to week or from month to month, I now think long range. I think about what is important to me over the coming year, what competitions I want to do and how I am going to manage the training volume. In fact this is a good way (though not the only way) to plan your training whether you compete or not, but it has taken the move into competitive lifting to teach me the value of this process.

My friend Tommy Meredith prepares to squat

I have now completed one year’s ‘cycle’ in the sport. I started in the BDFPA (British Drug Free Powerlifting Association) with a regional competition, qualified for the nationals and then got an invitation to the Worlds – which conveniently were held this year in the UK. Most recently I’ve done my regional qualifier for this year’s nationals, so starting a new annual cycle.

Over the past year I’ve done five meets, won two silvers at national or international level, set four regional records and managed six competition Personal Bests (not including my first competition).

This is an opportunity to look back at what I’ve learned, tell a few stories and pass on advice to anyone who is interested in getting started in this sport of powerlifting.

Being a novice

Some people say that the best way to improve is to get involved in competitions as early as possible. It took me several years before I started competing but you don’t have to follow my example.

I have seen some novice lifters lift fairly small weights; they are clearly capable of lifting much more. It’s up to you where and how you choose to start. Novices get just as much respect and support as everyone else. We all like to see new lifters coming into the sport and there’s no minimum weight at the local or regional level.

After my first meet I wrote:

“The fact that you turn up and lift is enough for people to get behind you. It really doesn’t matter how much is on the bar; if you are out there making an effort everyone supports you.”

This experience has given me the confidence to enter an olympic weightlifting meet next year. All I need is the ability to execute the snatch and the clean and jerk with some kind of form and I’m there!

Read more about my first meet


I was struck by the friendliness and fellow feeling at my first meet and this experience has continued.

“It’s a nice sport…Although you are competing against other lifters, you’re also competing against that numb lump of iron that’s on the floor, so everybody shouts for everybody else.”

–    Eddie Bennett, Bradford University Powerlifting Club

The way everyone shouts and cheers for you is quite addictive. It is a privilege to feel a crowd of complete strangers willing you to make your lift. I’ve heard elite athletes say this in post-event interviews but never imagined I would get to have that experience too.

Psyching up

“There seems to be a trend in some strength sports, especially powerlifting (not so much in weightlifting), that the violence against the bar needs to be demonstrated in personality and action before the lift and by everyone involved. Shouts, screams, huffs and the loudest music available seem to be common staples, dare I say trends, amongst powerlifting gyms. Why? Because it works. It really does.

But not for everyone.”

–    Chip Conrad, Bodytribe, Effort over outcome

This is probably most people’s idea of a powerlifting meet, especially if you’ve been watching videos on youtube. The reality, at least in my experience, is quite varied.

Everyone has a different way of psyching up. Some people get very quiet. Some people are plugged into their ipod. Some people need a shout and a slap, others prefer a quiet but intense few words in their ear.


Personally I like a quiet lead up but when I’m actually going out on the platform to lift, I like a lot of loud encouragement. To outsiders it might seem a bit silly, but it truly makes a difference to have someone yell the word ‘Strong!’ in your ear as you go to lift. For those of us who train for strength, it’s a powerful, emotive word.

Hearing your preferred cues is also very helpful. When I walk out onto the platform sometimes my mind goes blank. You might think there’s nothing simpler than a deadlift but sometimes I find it hard to remember what I’ve got to do. This is when a coach or friend shouting “chest up!” or “knees out” can really help.

The influence of a good spotter can’t be underestimated either. To have a strong, trusted person behind you who knows what to say and when to say it, is often the difference between making a lift and not making it. My friend Andy used to say “breathe, take your time” when spotting me for the squat. It sounds simple but one of the easiest things to do in powerlifting is to rush your lift and not breathe properly.

It might look lonely out there on the platform but there are times when I feel not alone at all. With a friend spotting you behind and a great crowd yelling at you in front, you can feel wonderfully supported.

I think it’s a beautiful thing, the strength and belief you can instill in someone with the right word at the right time.

Dave Beattie of Genesis Gym psyches Andy Bolton up to break the world record in the deadlift. Whatever he said, it worked!

Being present

When you lift a very heavy weight, as heavy as you can, you have to be in the moment, you have to be right there, otherwise you won’t make it. This is for me one of the compelling aspects of lifting weights – and one of the most difficult.

Sometimes it’s hard to finish a lift. Doubt creeps in, something goes a bit awry and your will to finish can disappear. This can even happen in an Olympic lift; it’s fast, but it’s not faster than the speed of thought!

However, if you can summon every ounce of concentration and really put yourself in the moment, you can banish these thoughts.

“All you have control of is now, make the most of now…when you think ahead in the future it prevents you from being in the moment now, and when you are in the moment is when you are able to do things that other people can’t understand”

– Daniel Ilabaca, Traceur

During the Worlds, the atmosphere backstage was more intense than I had experienced before. Between attempts, especially failed attempts, lifters tended to sit quietly, concentrating on what they needed to do next.

I missed a couple of my second lifts. I found that missing a lift focuses the mind much more than if you make your lift. I knew why I had missed and I knew what I had to do to fix it. So I just concentrated on that, repeating what I had to do over and over again in my head.


“The term ‘gym lifters’ has been applied for many years to lifters who can lift much more in training than on the platform. In this case it is apparent that emotional stress during competition exerts a negative effect, not on the obviously adequate levels of strength or power, but on the technical skills required.”

– Mel Siff, Supertraining

When you miss a lift in competition, at least at my inexperienced level, it’s not always to do with lack of strength. Often it is a technique issue or a mental psyche-out that can be fixed in time for the next attempt or the next meet. I missed my opportunity to attempt PBs at the Worlds because I missed some of my second lifts, but I made them a few weeks later at the regionals, not because I suddenly got stronger in those weeks but because I sorted out the technique and mental issues that were bugging me.

The one cue that seems to work for every lift, especially squat and bench, is ‘down slow, up fast’. It should perhaps be a powerlifting motto, although it’s not as cool as ‘dip, grip and rip’ (which refers to the deadlift, if you didn’t get it).

For a small number of people, dropping fast into the squat or bench kinda works, but for most people it seems to cause mistakes – usually going too deep or low and not being able to come back up. So, slow it down.

But ‘up fast’ is important too. This doesn’t mean that you actually move very fast; the weight is too heavy for that. But the intention is to move fast, the intention is to lift the bar explosively.


Peaking for your event is hard. That’s one of the reasons top athletes have coaches. Dan John conveniently doesn’t believe in peaking:

“It’s true there are people who’ve peaked. I’d argue, however, that there are far more people who’ve trained to peak and failed.”

Verkhoshansky is also not a fan of periodisation and peaking, particularly for elite athletes (of which I am definitely not one!), since the competitive calendar has become so full.

I have learned a lot about expectations this year. I have had PBs in most competitions and yet there have been many times I have come off the platform feeling a dissatisfied. Why? Because I didn’t set the world of powerlifting alight? Well…..duh! (eloquence fails me at this point).

After the nationals back in April 2009 for which I trained hard and tried to ‘peak’ for the competition, I simply felt knackered and jaded. I took a long time off lifting – two and a half months. I came back into the gym at the end of summer somewhat detrained, but I did feel better and enthusiastic for the task in hand.

I’m not drawing too many conclusions about peaking from this one experience, but I feel that I perhaps invested too much emotional energy in this one event, which ended up disrupting the rest of the year.

At 34, I’m not trying to qualify for the Olympics. Next year I plan to adopt a more relaxed attitude to the competitive calendar. I will still structure my training to some extent around key dates but I plan to maintain a state of strength ‘readiness’ for a longer period of time. More frequent de-load weeks may help, rather than a training binge followed by collapse.

You have to experiment of course, but as you get older it seems to become more important to ‘nudge up’ the increases gradually rather than go all-out for significant improvement.


Powerlifting, being a multi-event competition, is a bit like a triathlon. You can win a meet on the deadlift, just like you can win a triathlon on the run. You can also win a meet by having a good squat and bench, just like you can win a tri by being a good swim-biker. But it is more difficult and you have to be decent in all three events.

You also need to be having a good day right from the start; big deadlifters can fall back on their deadlift at the end of the day. Not literally, though. That would be a ‘no lift’ and possibly a bit painful…

At the Worlds, going out for my first deadlift, I stood in front of the bar and suddenly had a complete blank on the rules. If you don’t follow the rules you get a ‘no lift’ regardless of whether you lifted the weight or not. But I simply looked at the judge in front of me and said, “Can you just go over the rules for the deadlift please?”. There’s nothing wrong with asking and it is always better to know. I have seen many people fail a lift because they weren’t sure of the rules and got them wrong. Heartbreaking when you’ve just put your soul into the effort and it hasn’t counted.


There haven’t been many ‘amusing’ anecdotes from this year. It doesn’t seem to be that kind of sport. We turn up, we lift, we cheer, we go home. A lot of the drama happens on the inside.

Many people think that watching powerlifting or weightlifting is boring. I have a lot of sympathy with this. If you are not involved on some kind of emotional level, it probably is a bit boring. But once you are in it, that’s a different story. So don’t go to a meet as a spectator, go and enter it! You’ll have a much better time.

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