I Never Thought I’d Love Powerlifting; Now I’m Training for My First Competition

When I first started strength training, I didn’t expect to be here. I didn’t think I’d ever care about any of this. Now, I’m in the last week of training for my first actual powerlifting meet coming up in a few days, and I’m still shocked I’m doing it in the first place.

I started lifting weights last August as more of a necessity than the fulfillment of some deep desire to be stronger and more agile. My knee was in a lot of pain, and after the orthopedic surgeon I was referred to by my primary care doctor diagnosed me with osteoarthritis, he suggested I find some kind of recreational movement routine that I’d want to stick with. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do. Both my job and the community organizing work I did outside of work took a lot of my time and energy, and I didn’t want to have another thing in my schedule that would prevent me from having time to do other things I really cared about (like reading or hanging out with my partner or talking shit with my friends in the group chat). But after a little while, I caved and asked my good friend, Brendan, about strength training.

Before last August, Brendan and I rarely ever spoke about the fact that he’s been strength training for about 20 years and competing in strength training events for over 10. It just wasn’t part of our bond. What brought us together was teaching, initially, but what really brought us together was a general disdain for most old school pedagogical priorities, a couple of bad break ups and our subsequent “dating” phases afterwards, leftist political beliefs, and our shared understanding that most of modern life is completely absurd. A love and respect for strength sports was never part of the equation. He would compete and, sometimes, he’d win, and I’d be happy for him as I am any friend who is doing something that makes them happy. I’ll be honest in saying I really didn’t care about it beyond that. Actually, I’ll come entirely clean here in saying I didn’t understand why he liked it so damn much.

I didn’t grow up in what you’d call a sports-dominant household. My parents liked sports, my dad played intramural sports when I was a kid, and my mom went to the gym and walked and ran on the treadmill a lot, but they weren’t fanatics or anything. When they got my brother and me involved in sports, no one was forcing us to foster a good relationship to the act of athleticism itself. To be fair, I think this had more to do with the limited time my parents had because of work and raising kids, but still, teaching us how to develop healthy relationships with sports and exercise was just not an imperative. And as a result, even when I was playing, I never considered myself much of an athlete. I’m not saying that gives me an excuse to wholesale write sports off as a possible interest, but I do think — coupled with the trauma of how I was treated as 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 participated in an athletic competition prior to this meet, but I couldn’t have been over 15 or 16 years old.

Even though I know I could’ve and should’ve asked Brendan what drew him to strength sports at any time before last year, I think a lot of that background kept me from doing so. At its most basic, strength training is simply the act of picking something up and putting it back down. Sure, there are about a million ways to pick the thing up and another million ways to put the thing back down. But if we’re being real about the sport itself, it is just up, down, up, down, up, down. I can’t say the thought of doing it necessarily bored me, though that description does make it sound very boring. It was more the misunderstanding of the culture and the sport itself that made me think it was all…kind of pointless beyond an exercise in ego and vanity. I could see it was much more than that for Brendan, but with all of the sports-related emotions (or lack of emotions) compounded, I never felt the urge to think about strength sports beyond the limited conversations we had about his involvement in them.

After my diagnosis, I was quietly sitting on that new revelation until Brendan mentioned he was working with his strength coach, Vinny, to help alleviate some pain he was also experiencing in his knees. The two of us had been complaining to each other and making jokes about our physical states for months, and hearing about him trying to do something about it made me feel like I could do the same through strength training. A week or so went by before I asked him for Vinny’s contact information, and then I jumped into my new life.

Everyone around me keeps saying they just can’t believe how quickly I latched on to all of this, and I can’t either. Although I rarely talk about it with anyone besides my partner, I cried almost every day I went to the gym for the first month of going. Not because of the pain and not even because of the fact that I was truly, truly not used to pushing my body to do that kind of work. It was more because of the fact that I thought I was losing so much time doing something I really didn’t want to do. It used to be difficult to pinpoint exactly how that started to change and when I started to actively desire going to the gym, but once it happened, I was suddenly all-in. And by all-in, I mean, embracing Vinny’s gentle nudges pushing me toward training in powerlifting, buying actual gear 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 became so interesting. I was never thinking about competing though.

Compared to other competitive sports, powerlifting is a fairly recent phenomenon. Unlike Olympic weightlifting which has been around since 1896, powerlifting didn’t gain much traction as a sport until the late 1950s. While general weightlifting has a much longer history that dates back to Ancient Greece (and probably earlier than that), weightlifting was used, to some degree, as a part of sports training and it was kind of a means to an end: to build muscle and endurance in those muscles so athletes could use them to do other things like run long distances, wrestle other athletes, jump over obstacles, swim as fast as possible, etc. A combination of factors over many years led to the emergence of powerlifting as a more serious competitive sport. In the 19th century, the circus and “freak show” acts of demonstrating feats of strength to a live audience helped precipitate an interest in body sculpting and physical culture. Many of the early physical culturists — both men and women! —  insisted on the importance of some kind of weighted movement in order to build a muscular-looking physique and to build strength. Championship weightlifting and bodybuilding evolved from the emphasis that was placed on weight training by popular practitioners of physical culture, then Olympic weightlifting was developed in response, and interest in powerlifting grew in response to that.

Where Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting differ is in their movements. Olympic weightlifting originally consisted of three lifts: the Clean and Press, the Snatch, and the Clean and Jerk. Outside of Olympic weightlifting, people were doing a lot of other strange lifts (like one of my personal favorites, the Zercher squat). Most famously, they were doing what would become known as the “Strength Set”: the Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift. As more and more interest turned away from Olympic weightlifting toward powerlifting, national (and a little later, international) competitive 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 you’re scored based on a variety of factors. In regards to the lifts themselves, you’re given three attempts at each of them, ideally with each attempt increasing in weight as you go. For each one, you’re scored on your ability to both perform the lift with good-to-perfect form and your ability to listen to the commands for each lift.

In this meet, I will only be participating in the Bench Press and the Deadlift because I’m not very confident in my Squat (but I’ve promised the boys I’ll squat next time). In addition to that, all competitors are split into body weight and age divisions. For instance, I’ll be competing in the super heavyweight (above 230 pounds) sub-masters (ages 33 to 39) divisions. That means when it comes to handing out prizes for best lifts, my direct competitors will share these same divisions with me. Although this is starting to change with the inclusion of more and more trans people in powerlifting, competing is similar to competing in any other sport in that it’s separated by sex. I don’t identify as a woman, but I will also be in that division since I don’t have the option of competing as non-binary.

When Brendan suggested we do this meet together back in August and record parts of our journey as Patreon-only episodes for our podcast, Fat Guy, Jacked Guy, I was hesitant for a few reasons, not least of all of the fact that I’d have to compete in the women’s division. While I understand the particular reasons and tensions that make it so difficult to desegregate strength sports, I don’t know if I’ll be able to fully parse through the feelings involved with competing in the women’s category until the meet ends and I can begin processing it. Aside from that, my hesitancy mostly came from the fact that, once again, I truly did not expect to be here and, also, I couldn’t help but feel like I shouldn’t be here at first. A year and some change of powerlifting felt like nothing compared to the people I know who have spent years and years working at this, improving their strength and their lifts, and just putting the time and dedication into it all in a way I felt like I wasn’t. I don’t wholly subscribe to the idea of imposter syndrome, but it does feel so odd that something similar to it was popping up in regards to something I never thought I’d be thinking about in my whole entire life. I told Brendan I’d talk to Vinny about it, but mostly, I was trying to buy time…until a couple days later when I hesitantly agreed to do the meet.

We started training for it almost immediately, and even though I had already agreed (and paid) to do it, I was still feeling very unsure about having to compete for a while. Then, something Vinny said to me kind of shook me out of how self-conscious I was feeling about it: “A year is a long time. You’ve been coming here every week, four days a week without letting anything get in the way of that for over a year. If you break it down, that’s a lot. And that’s what dedication is. You’re a part of this community now like everyone else.”

That’s when it finally clicked: It was easy for me to go all-in on this because I liked doing it, sure, but also because of the culture, the skill, and especially, the community of our little strength gym who made doing the hard work of getting stronger some of the most fun I’ve ever had in sports. And really, powerlifting hasn’t changed much from its very early circus and “freak show” roots: The people involved in powerlifting exist and compete on the margins of sports themselves, and the people drawn to the margins usually have some “freak”-like qualities also. That’s another aspect of this that I think makes it easy to be in the gym. You’re just hanging out with other misfits like you who are participating in this sport that was specifically designed for misfits anyways. Unlike most sports and, really, most of the places we have to be in our lives, so many of us get to show up to our barbell gyms as our full selves — whether our full selves are novices or professionals, super knowledgeable or just learning, unsure of what to do or fully organized with a plan — and become quickly integrated into those communities because of a shared desire to get stronger and because so many people are just like us or were just like us at some point. The joy this new reality has given me is one I could’ve never prepared for. How could I possibly feel like I don’t belong? People have been showing me for over a year that everyone, including me, has a space here.

Tomorrow, I take the platform — actually, the same exact platform as my brother, Brendan, with our brother, Vinny, coaching us and many of the other misfits from our little strength gym competing alongside us — to see what year and some change has done to my body, my drive, and my spirit. I’m so excited for what’s to come.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 89 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. I have loved reading your powerlifting pieces, as a runner who once a week struggles through mandatory strength training with 15 pound dumbells power lifters are so awe inspiring. Finding a sport later in life has been such a common experience for people in my life recently, usually through the same pattern of necessity bringing them to something they end up loving. It’s been so cool to follow your journey and I’m excited for future installments. Good luck at the competition!

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