Approaching retirement from full-time work, the last thing I would have foreseen doing was to take up powerlifting and get involved in competitions. I had plans to spend more time walking and climbing in the Alps, but increasing knee problems (osteoarthritis) around 2014-2015 put that on hold. I stopped doing Crossfit classes in 2015 and instead started to focus on weight training apart from squats.
I had also been reading various books and research relating to exercise and ageing, and became convinced that to maximise my health and functioning into older age I needed to maintain and improve my strength, and that this was probably more important than the endurance cardiovascular training that I had been doing for many years.
I found that I really enjoyed training with heavy weights and low repetitions (usually in range 3-6) and that my knees felt a lot better after a workout. With some coaching on good technique, I was able to substantially increase the weight and volume I was working with and would often leave the gym with an endorphin high and pain-free knees. Occasional lower back pain (related to an old injury during jujutsu training) also became rarer.
So in 2016 and in my sixties, I got into strength training more seriously and also went to the weekly Strongman training at my gym, where I not only learnt a whole range of fun strength training techniques involving kettlebells, axles, logs, yokes, sleds and other strongman equipment, but I also got excellent coaching on training for the three main powerlifting techniques (squat, bench press, deadlift) from a coach who was a very experienced powerlifter as well as a strongman.
There are three strength athletics sports with a primary focus on strength: Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting and Strongman competition. Olympic weightlifting has two competition lifts: the snatch and the clean and jerk, both of which involve getting the loaded bar completely overhead. Powerlifting has three competition lifts: the squat below parallel, the benchpress (with a pause of the bar on the chest), and the deadlift. The objective in competition is to maximise the sum of the weight lifted in each of the three lifts, with three attempts allowed for each lift.
Strongman involves a wide range of strength challenges with events such as the log lift, atlas stones, vehicle pull, deadlift, farmer’s walk, and weight throw. Whereas Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting competitions have age and weight classes and athletes choose the weights they will attempt to lift, Strongman events use fixed weights or equipment for all competitors, and aim to achieve maximum distance, time or repetitions as appropriate.
None of the strength sports should be confused with bodybuilding where the focus of training is on muscle hypertrophy and the aesthetics of appearance. While bodybuilders are generally strong, they are not training to maximise strength. Some powerlifters and strongmen may look like bodybuilders, many do not. And in fact some of the strongest lifters in powerlifting competitions do not look particularly muscular, at least in the weight categories below the top open-ended category.
When I started doing strongman class, I added the squat to my training, initially quite lightly loaded (around 50 kg) and worked very hard on achieving good technique. To my surprise, I found that when the squat was done with good technique to below parallel (hips lower than the position where the top of the thigh is parallel to the floor) I had no knee pain, even on days when my knees were playing up walking around. My current personal best squat in competition is 107.5 kg (237 lb) which is relatively low compared to my bench press and deadlift, but I am very happy to be able to squat again. I hope to work on lower body mobility and continue to improve my squat.
In 2017, I decided to enter the SDFPF Single Lift competition in the bench press and deadlift events, for the fun of it, and to see what was involved in competition. I also thought it might potentially add to my motivation to train regularly. I was competing in the Masters 5 age category (60-64 years) and the under 100 kg weight class. In the deadlift, my opening lift was a relatively safe 130 kg (in the sense that I was sure that was within my capacity) When I went out for my second attempt at 140 kg, the official told the crowd that this would be a new Swiss record for my age-weight class. I achieved that and went on to successfully lift 150 kg. That gave me quite a thrill with the crowd cheering me on, and I was hooked on competing again.
Powerlifting competition is very different to most other physical activities in that the goal is to achieve 100% effort in a single lift that typically takes around 5 seconds or less. To achieve that requires the ability to recruit every muscle in your body and maintain maximum tension by “getting tight” through your entire body. This requires training your central nervous system to send signals to your muscles to contract at the limit of their capacities. But beyond this, it requires extreme mental focus and intention. Distraction during the lift, for example starting to think about whether you went low enough in the squat, can result in loss of tension and the failure of the lift, or forgetting to wait for a command to rack the bar (which will disqualify you).
A major appeal of powerlifting training for me is this integration of mind-body training and the intellectual challenge of learning and maximising skill and technique. Somewhat similar to the appeal that the martial arts and alpine climbing have had for me. I have always sought out activities that challenge me mentally and get me to “lean beyond my edge” on a regular basis. Through powerlifting, I am still doing that.
At the 2019 Swiss Drug Free Powerlifting Federation (SDFPF) Championships in Zuchwil, I set records for my age-weight category (Masters 6, u100 kg, unequipped) for all three lifts and for the total of 390 kg. I was particularly pleased with a personal best of 175 kg for the deadlift, and 100 kg for the bench press, though my squat was a less satisfying 85 as I failed to achieve acceptable depth in the following two attempts. A month later, at the SDFPF Single Lift Championships (Unequipped) I set two more Swiss records for the squat (100 kg) and the deadlift (180 kg).
More recently in December 2019, I set a new personal best for the deadlift at 190 kg, at a Geneva powerlifting competition, the “Coupe de l’Escalade”. There were no age-weight categories in this competition, with the powerlifting total being adjusted for body weight and age using Wilk/McCulloch coefficients. The McCulloch age coefficient was 1.51 for my age, which was more than 25 years older than the next oldest competitor. Based on these weighted scores, I came 2nd overall in the men’s competition. The following video shows my 190 kg deadlift, equivalent to a lift of 287 kg ( 633 lbs) by a man aged less than 40.