Increase Strength, Increase Lifespan – Powerlifting Could Change Your Life
Katie Rose Hejtmanek, PhD, Anthropologist
Increase Strength, Increase Lifespan
Part 2 – Powerlifting as Life Changing Sport
In my previous article, I showed that some research investigates the relationship between muscle mass, power, strength, and the health of older adults. This research suggests that increasing muscle mass, power, and strength will improve the health of older adults.
In other words, muscles are fundamental for overall health as we age, not only for increased strength but also for disease prevention and health promotion. But what are some individual experiences of strength training for older adults?
I’m a cultural anthropologist studying strength sports: weightlifting, powerlifting, strongman, and CrossFit. I’m interested in the meaning that people place on their strength training and sport, why do they commit to it, why does it mean to them? Anthropology provides ethnographic or “real world” data to support the biological research provided in Part 1.
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In Part 2, I want to focus on the experience of one woman I call Lisa, who decided to enhance her overall health and muscle mass through the sport of powerlifting. In my long-term research, I collected data from a number of older athletes participating in various strength sports. Here, I want to highlight Lisa, a 48 year old woman, and her journey to powerlifting and what meaning it has brought to her life. Her story could inspire others to seek out powerlifting groups near them!
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Powerlifting And Lisa’s Story
“At a CrossFit gym I took a powerlifting class and became obsessed with lifting. I saw such tangible progress and loved getting stronger and doing something that I didn’t think I could do. My husband tried to get me to try powerlifting for months before I did it. I was intimidated and thought I wasn’t strong enough to do it.”
Powerlifting is the sport that requires the execution of three lifts:
- Bench press
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In the squat, an athlete puts weight on a barbell, holds that weight on her shoulders, squats to where her hips are below her knees, and then stands back up.
In the bench press, the athlete grips a barbell, lowers that barbell to his chest, and then presses the barbell up again.
In the deadlift, the athlete hinges at the hip and bends the knees slightly, gripping a barbell. She then stands up while holding the bar.
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Fundamental To Overall Health
All of these lifts are impressive. But they are also part of our daily activity, for example you squat to sit and stand and you “deadlift” to pick something off of the floor. Both of these lifts require strength and power in the lower extremities, something Reid and Fielding (2012) argue is fundamental to overall health. However, use the term powerlifting and it suddenly becomes intimidating, as Lisa states.
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Many women and men in my research state that lifting weights in a gym can be intimidating. The standard gym is set up for “Cardio” with machines and “weights” with dumbbells and squat racks. Rarely are women seen in the weights area. However, there has been a cultural shift and more women and more older women are seeking out resistance training. They want to be stronger.
Lisa continues, “I had a reputation for being clumsy as a kid. I was teased about that and I think it really affected how I saw myself. I remember once wanting to go skiing with some friends – I had never tried it before and was excited. My stepmother discouraged me from going – she said that I would probably get hurt because my legs weren’t strong enough to ski. I went on the trip, but just hung out in the lodge and didn’t ski. It makes me sad to think about that now – how much I limited myself because of what other people said. I think that’s part of why I love being a badass, strong woman now. There’s definitely an element of “I’ll show you!” to it that feels really good.”
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Strong Is The New Strong
That strong woman in the gym is also a strong woman in the world. Lisa tells me, “The discipline of training has translated to other areas of my life. I’m a writer and have always wanted to write a novel and I’m finally doing it. I really believe that training gave me the discipline to get to the point where I am now (three-fourths of the way through my first draft). I’ve also gained a lot of confidence that has impacted other areas of my life. I started my own business, something that was scary and took guts. I often find myself [thinking], when facing fears or difficult situations, that if I can deadlift 230#, I can deal with whatever comes my way.”
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She continues, “Powerlifting has transformed the way I see myself. It has enabled me to rid myself of limitations and change old beliefs about my abilities. I have learned that I am stronger than I thought, that I can do more than I thought, that I have the power to show up in my life and work towards what is important to me. And it just makes me feel like a badass.
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“Another thing that has been wonderful is making a whole group of female friends through CrossFit. A small group of us who were in the powerlifting class together got very close and then started having dinners together. Then we started an email group that turned into a Facebook group. We post things there about lifting and working out but also about life. We support each other through training and injuries, but also life’s challenges.
“My lifting has shaped my son’s perception of women. When I tell him about women not being allowed to participate in sports decades ago, he is shocked. It is a given to him that some women are stronger than men and that women can do whatever they put their mind to.”
Sport as Metaphor for Life
Powerlifting is one way to increase muscle mass and power, to ward off chronic disease, and to improve overall health and longevity. However, powerlifting, as a form of resistance training, isn’t just improving her physical health and longevity but it provides meaning to Lisa’s life. When I asked her about why she powerlifts, she stated, “Because of the way it makes me feel – strong, confident, beautiful, healthy physically and emotionally. Because I love the people I train with. Because I want to set a good example for my son.” It is because of these reasons that she continues to do it. Lisa has had a life changing experience through the sport of powerlifting.
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Lisa found powerlifting through her local CrossFit affiliate. If you are moved by her story, look into classes, training sessions, and experienced coaches at your local box! If you’re in the New York City area, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Next Time: Part 3
What about other forms of resistance training that aren’t sports? What about barbell training more generally? What about other forms of strength training, using dumbbells and machines? I answer these questions in Part 3 of Increase Strength, Increase Lifespan.
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You Might Like:
Kim, Hyun-Sub, and Dae-Geun Kim. 2013. Effect of long-term resistance exercise on body
composition, blood lipid factors, and vascular compliance in the hypertensive elderly men. Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation 9(2):271-277.
Metter EJ, Talbot LA, Schrager M, Conwit R. 2002. Skeletal muscle strength as a predictor of all-cause mortality in healthy men. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 57:B359-B365.
Newman AB, Kupelian V, Visser M, et al. 2006. Strength, but not muscle mass, is associated with mortality in the health, aging and body composition study cohort. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 61: 72-77.
Reid, Kieran F. and Roger A. Fielding. 2012. Skeletal Muscle Power: A Critical Determinant of Physical Functioning In Older Adults. Exerc Sport Sci Rev 40(1): 4–12.
Srikanthan, Preethi and Arun S. Karlamangla. 2014. Muscle Mass Index As a Predictor of Longevity in Older Adults. The American Journal of Medicine,127 (6):547-553.
Sundell, Jan. 2011. Resistance Training Is an Effective Tool againstMetabolic and Frailty Syndromes. Advances in Preventive Medicine Volume 2011: 1-8.
Wolfe, Robert R. 2006. The underappreciated role of muscle in health and disease. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 84:475–82.