Powerlifting Articles

Is Powerlifting Physically Debilitating?

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This article is by Fred Ashford, aka Sandbox from the Muscle and Brawn forum.

Trending opinions come and go in our society – powerlifting included. This summer I read several columns, blogs and articles feeding a current powerlifting opinion: that powerlifting is physically debilitating and left unchecked creates havoc in one’s personal life. I’m taking exception to this line of thinking. And, I believe I have a solid point of reference. I’ve competed for 30 years in the sport and last year my raw bench and deadlift ranked #1 in the SHWs M2s (over 50).

America is the land of the free. My grandfather, father, uncles, son and nephew – along with yours – have fought to ensure this. As free Americans we love to recreate. It is in a sense ‘what we do’. We can’t wait for the weekends. We fill our free time with fishing, sailing, surfing, volleyball (can you tell I live in Southern California), bike riding, running, softball, basketball, mixed martial arts, racquetball, flag football….phew… I can literally go on and on. We thoroughly enjoy doing ‘stuff’. And some of us take our recreating very seriously.

There are several organizations in any U.S. city supporting competitive leagues centered around recreation activities. On any given weekend you can find adult (and aging adult) men and women competing – seriously – in softball, football, basketball, triathlons, mini-triathlons, 5ks, CrossFit, bodybuilding, MMA, swimming – and I just named those that come to the top of my head.

Now a few of you may already be discounting these as simply ‘activities’ and not genuine competitive sports. I would challenge you to have a conversation with a middle-aged man who happens to be a member of a tournament softball team. If you are not familiar with the concept, these are traveling teams comprised of members of different teams in their city leagues, but they come together on the weekends, rent a van or caravan themselves….as a team…to large tournaments in other cities. These guys spend their money to travel, stay in hotels, tournament entry fees, food, and the obligatory beers that come with that oh so special sub-culture. When it comes time to take the field, they play their asses off to win. And what do they win after all that practice, travel, money spent – a trophy and bragging rights. Hmmm- sound familiar?

I can apply this same attitude – the ‘to be the best you have to beat the best’ – to adult league basketball, flag football, MMA, triathlons, 5ks, tennis, well, just about everything we love to do. And the age usually ranges from mid-twenties to early sixties. Americans love to test themselves against others at any age. And it’s during these competitions that these competitive athletes find themselves at the wrong end of a sports injury.

I have a very eclectic set of friends. I have befriended competitors in tennis, basketball, triathlons, and MMA. My basketball friend, Mike, is a 48-year-old forward. He played college ball at Mesa College in Grand Junction, CO. Now he competes in a city league and a church league. He plays 8 months out of any given year. Mike has been under the knife more than a few times: torn Achilles, meniscus and ACL. He has broken his wrist. He totally blew every tendon and ligament in his ankles…yes ankles…and he still plays. Janis is my triathlon friend. She’s 42. She has dislocated her shoulder – four times. She has broken her heel (didn’t know that was possible), torn her meniscus, broke her nose, and was hospitalized for three days after extreme dehydration. Bill, at 41, is my MMA acquaintance. He has experienced the following injuries while competing: broken nose, fractured eye socket, broken clavicle, dislocated shoulder and elbows, another torn meniscus, broken jaw and two cauliflower ears.

In my thirty years of powerlifting I have experienced two significant injuries requiring surgery. I ruptured my left quadriceps tendon at the bottom of a 525 lb squat while training for a meet, and, I have detached my right distal biceps tendon while attempting a 700 lb pull on my last attempt of my last meet. I don’t want to discount those injuries. They were serious and significant. The quad tendon was one of the darkest moments of my life. I was ‘down’ for three months and I had to learn how to walk again. But three years later I could attempt a 700 lb deadlift. I’m training for my next meet the middle of November. All is well. If I stopped lifting seriously for two to three weeks – which I do annually – I literally feel no pain – anywhere. The only signs that I’m a powerlifter is the 300 lbs I carry around on my frame. I’m a healthy, agile fat man.

Remember my basketball friend – Mike? He has a discernible limp because he cannot support all his weight on one leg. Janis’ gait is so messed up she walks slightly bowlegged like a lady in her seventies. And Bill, my MMA buddy, sure does look the part. He cannot straighten his right arm. His nose points permanently toward the east, and his ears give him away at any social function.

Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve been in this sport for 30 years. I know a lot of lifters and a lot of retired lifters. Guys who still train but don’t compete. They’ve curbed their diet, lost weight, gained definition, and enjoy being fit and helping younger lifters. They are far from middle-aged, single, nearly destitute men dependent on pain killers to get through the day as some of the opinionated gurus would have you believe.

As Jim Morrison so eloquently put it “none of us get out alive”. But when I compare the toll other sports put on your body – us powerlifters are looking pretty good as we rage against that good night.

Steve Shaw

Steve Shaw is the founder of Muscle and Brawn, and a powerlifter with 30+ years of experience. Steve's recorded a 600lb squat, 672lb deadlift and a 382lb bench press.
Steve Shaw

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  • Daniel Apr 26,2015 at 11:43 pm

    Thanks for the article. I agree with you on all points. I have been powerlifting for 3-4 years now. Before that, I was a typical amateur weight lifter, just goofing around in the gym for years. I KNOW powerlifting builds muscle and is a valid exercise etc. So my next statement isn’t some kind of doubting of PL. I love the lifts, learned a lot from Rippetoe etc. My concern is this right now;
    I live in Asia with no car so I walk 3-4 miles a day. I don’t even consider that exercise at this point. I hike all day on Sunday. I do compound lifts 3-4 times a week. I squat 2-3 times a week, DL every six days, mil. press a few times a week, bench once. I’m 5’8.5″ 185. I have high body fat, about 16% I do sets of five DL at 345. My squat is abysmal 3 sets of 5 at about 235-240 and stuck there for years. Mil. press, bench, both mediocre. Nothing special at all. I have been 182-185 for this whole stretch of committing to the big four lifts. I really haven’t gained a pound and don’t care to. I don’t want to creep up towards 50 years old while being 5’8″ 195 or something. The bottom line is that I’m not committed to the diet at all. Obviously that has slowed my progress. Now, realize that I know that. I don’t need anyone to tell me I need to eat more. I already know that. I know what it takes to be a successful powerlifter; lift, eat a lot and rest. But I don’t want to eat a lot and gain weight. Like I said, I’m active, walk a lot. I’m a teacher, moving around the class. I hike and lift. I simply eat a normal, human diet. Who knows? 2000-2500 cals a day. I am not an eater. I don’t take protein shakes, nothing like that. Do you think that a ‘non-eater’ like me should simply admit that powerlifting without eating/gaining muscle is simply misguided? I have begun to wonder if I’m always in a state of minor caloric deprivation, meaning that I’m tearing up large flanks of muscle through powerlifting, while also walking a lot and my body simply isn’t getting the calories it needs for this situation. It doesn’t feel bad at all, but I wonder if my body has somewhat dialed down on the testosterone more than it should to conserve energy where it can, while in a constant state of trying to repair on minimal calories. If I want to shed some weight, stay at 2000k a day, do you think that I should just go into being a bodyweight exercise guy who runs sprints? I’ve thought of that lately. It seems that if you squat/deadlift, you are tearing up muscle, that should properly rebuild therefore you should gain 7-8 pounds a year minimum or something else is not right. Do you have any thoughts? Once again, I know I don’t eat enough.

  • Vince Oct 20,2014 at 9:05 am

    Vwey interesting article.. It makes you think about getting older and lifting.

  • Sandbox Sep 30,2014 at 2:05 pm

    Timmy…. man, sorry for the accident. So glad you avoided serious injury.


  • Tannhauser Sep 30,2014 at 1:26 pm

    Great article.

    Somewhere in the house, I have an ancient Sports Science textbook that compares injury rates for different sporting activities. The comparison is given in terms of injuries per hour of participation. I don’t recall the precise figures, but I’m pretty sure heavy weight-training (not powerlifting, I know, but same ball park) was one of the lowest injury figures.

    Compared to other athletic activities, the body doesn’t really have to move very far or very fast in powerlifting :). From an injury perspective, I’m guessing that’s a good thing. The forces on bodily structures during ballistic movements like throwing, jumping, running, hitting etc. must be very significant.

  • timothy taylor Sep 30,2014 at 9:51 am

    i am 55 yrs i powerlift to stay fit . on sept 15 a car hit me and my motorcycle, i hit the hood of the car and bounced off onto the payvement on to my head. later the doctor told me that if i had not had a good thick muscular build, i could of broken a lot of bones including my neck. i thank my powerlifting training, for not having more serious injuries other than stitches to my head and a bruised body.

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