Discovering the Power of Powerlifting
“I’m always up for breaking records; it just depends on what kind of mood the weights are in!” – Connor Dantzler, teen World and Pan-American powerlifting champion.
I discovered powerlifting completely by accident. My dad and I were sitting in front of the computer one evening, doing a web search for the next judo nationals. I was ten at the time, and already a competitive junior in the martial arts. Somehow, a web page with information about powerlifting events popped onto the screen. We casually studied it for a moment, and learned that the sport included meets for kids as well as adults. I was familiar with lifting, because I had used light free weights as a part of my strength training for judo. My dad and I traded grins, as if to say, “Wouldn’t it be fun to try that?”
About a month later, on a whim, I entered my first powerlifting meet. It was the Maryland State Championships. I’ve said before that life isn’t just about watching others; it’s about trying new things for yourself. When I arrived at the event I felt excited, anxious, and a bit intimidated. It took a while to get used to warming up with so many monstrous-looking guys in the gym! But there were also average looking men and women competing. Lots of kids were lifting, too. It was a day unlike any other sports event. My lifting form wasn’t great, but I did well enough to win my age group. I was hooked on powerlifting from that point on. Besides, the trophies looked awesome!
A full powerlifting meet consists of three events: the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift. An ironman competition combines the total weight lifted from just the bench press and deadlift. Some meets also add an optional strict curl event. Powerlifters don’t actually snatch and press the bar over their heads. That’s a related sport called weightlifting.
There are three judges positioned around the lifter on the platform. They are there to insure that each athlete uses proper form. They want us to succeed, but with safety and control. If a lifter fails to follow the head judge’s commands to “lift” or “rack” the bar, or if he breaks form during the attempt, then the judges will give the lifter three red lights. As a powerlifter, you want to see three white lights pop on behind you after a lift. That means you can successfully move on to the next round. Each lifter gets three attempts at each event. If a contestant fails to advance from the bench press, for example, then he won’t have a combined total for a full meet, and is automatically disqualified from the remaining events. Lifters call this bombing out!
Powerlifting is an encouraging, confidence-building sport. The meets are family-friendly, and supporters cheer loudly for each athlete. Folks offer me a “high five” or a handshake when I come down from the lifting platform, whether I win that round or not. I get such positive energy from the crowd. Everyone watching wants me to be successful. Nobody cheers for the weight to just sit there! When I first started competing, some of the adult lifters would shout, “Go, little man!” For me, the competition is really with myself (and the weight). I try to better my performance with each attempt.
I don’t worry about how much others around me can lift. I’ve seen a few lifters try to push themselves beyond safe limits, and drop the weights. The people who risk injury are those who become too concerned with impressing other athletes in the gym. Big guys with big egos who attempt too much weight on their opening lift can disqualify themselves from the tournament. It’s rare for someone at a meet to get hurt, though. Most powerlifters are disciplined athletes, and really understand their bodies.
Once, I was the very first lifter called to the platform at a big international meet. When the judges asked me how much weight I wanted to open with, it didn’t occur to me that this tournament might be using the metric system. The officials loaded the bar with kilograms, rather than pounds! So the weight was really 2.2 times the amount that I was expecting to lift. Oops! I had been so preoccupied with staying loose that I didn’t even check the weight before stepping onto the platform. I was actually half-way through attempting the squat before I figured out that something was really wrong. Fortunately, the spotters caught my bar, and helped me get it back into the rack. So much for round one.
Now that I’ve scared the parents who are reading this, know that mishaps are rare, and that there are many potential benefits from this sport. Powerlifting can help school kids and teens safely develop strength in basic muscle groups, like legs, back, the arms and chest. This can improve posture, confidence, and their performance in other physical activities. Weight training is also an effective way to burn fat. Moms, relax, your girls won’t grow freakish muscles from lifting, but they will get stronger. I’ve seen tiny cheerleaders win big at national powerlifting meets!
To prepare for a meet, I like to use a variety of workouts, including aerobics. My local health club is very supportive, and encourages families to train together. I focus on the importance of good form and breathing while training with weights. Good technique and control are the keys. Jerking or dropping the weights can lead to sore muscles and injuries. It’s important to have a good training partner who can spot as well as encourage you to do your best. For kids, this means adult supervision. Most fitness clubs have qualified trainers to help you, as well. We’ve all seen the guy in the gym who bangs two dumbbells loudly together, then throws them onto the floor when his set is done. Clanging the weights just says, “Look at me, I have no control!” Leaving them laying around for someone else to clean up reveals an insecurity and shows a lack of respect for the gym.
When I was eleven, a producer from the Tony Danza Show invited me to New York to be on television with Tony. My family was very excited about the trip. I was then asked if I wouldn’t mind trying to break my world deadlift record for the audience while I was there. Sure, fine. At least there wasn’t going to be any pressure or anything!
The morning of the show, we arrived at the studio and checked the barbell and weights on the set. Once the show started, my dad and I waited backstage, while the rest of my family found their seats with the studio audience. My dad quietly asked the director when the show would be aired, so that we could tape it at home. He smiled at me and whispered, “This show is live!”
After recovering from that bit of news, I realized that something else had been overlooked: there was nothing for me to warm up with. At most powerlifting meets the competitors have a separate gym full of weights for prepping. I quickly grabbed a couple of heavy sand bags resting behind the curtains. A moment later, I was ushered onto the stage in front of millions of viewers. My heart was pounding! The studio audience was great, though, and I broke my world deadlift record for them. It turned out to be another great family adventure, and I have the sport of powerlifting to thank for it.
About the Author: Connor Dantzler is a high school student who lives with his family in Maryland. He owns over fifty US national titles in five individual sports. Connor has trained in six countries, and is a current World and Pan-American powerlifting champion. He has published numerous articles on the benefits of sports and fitness.