When you hear the word “weightlifting”, what’s the first image that comes to mind? For most, the word conjures up pictures of grunting, gurning bodybuilders with bodies like brown balloons stuffed with golf balls. The reality is a lot less cartoonish.
To give an example, here’s my story: I started lifting at age 18, after doing long-distance running for a couple of years. I was an emaciated (6’2” and 70kg) guy with very little talent for athletics, so I didn’t have high hopes for getting big. At first, I did lots of “aesthetics” work and spun my wheels trying to get big arms and sick abs. Then one of my mates lent me his copy of Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe, a guide to heavy lifting for beginners. Most strength trainees begin by drinking the Starting Strength Kool-Aid, and I was no exception.
A mixture of no-nonsense training advice, incredibly technical descriptions of lifts and bizarre macho wisdom (“Strong people are harder to kill than weak people, and more useful in general.”) really took me in, and I started drinking a gallon of milk a day (!) and doing my squats and bench and deadlift 3 days a week. My plan to gain weight was very successful: I put on 40kg in eight months. But when faced with the prospect of buying a whole new wardrobe because my shoulders, neck and “posterior chain” were too big for my old clothes, it was time to cut down. I am now a fairly lean 95kg, and intermittently training for powerlifting meets. Here are a couple of changes lifting made to my life (aside from getting bigger)
First things first, people treat you very differently when you’re bigger than them. Aside from the constant jokes about “gains” and how you live in the gym, you’re a lot more noticeable and tend to be treated with a mix of respect and subtle envy by lads (because muscles are worthy of respect, apparently?). It doesn’t actually have much of an effect on women or anyone who isn’t a competitive teen/twentysomething guy. Nobody really cares how much you can bench – unless they have some sort of investment in out-benching you.
Outlook on life
Another thing that changed a lot was my behaviour an outlook on life. I was immediately more self-confident, stress and anger were far less of a problem for me, and I had a greater sense of perspective on life. The confidence was largely due to the fact that being big and muscular is seemingly a requirement to be a “real man”, so you’re dealing with one less silly source of insecurity as you go through life. The relaxation and reduction in anger was completely unexpected, because the stereotype of lifters is one of shouty, grunty anger. But one of the most incredible things about lifting is that it acts as a counterweight to the stuff life throws at you. No matter how frustrating or upsetting your life is, you can get out of your head for a few hours every week without needing to get drunk or high. When you’re psyching up for a big lift (and you’ll see this among the greats of powerlifting and weightlifting like Dan Green or Ilya Ilyin), there is an intense concentration and singular purpose you don’t get out of most other activities. This can be quiet and meditative, almost being “at one” with the bar. It can also be a raging externalisation of negative emotions, using fury to explode the weight up off the floor and damning the consequences. Both of these experiences are powerfully cathartic, and the colossal endorphin rush that follows a personal record needs to be experienced to be believed.
But it’s not just some weird form of meditation or therapy, like yoga with more testosterone and beards. Lifting also teaches seriously important habits and lessons, like the value of self-control, the use of visualisation to motivate and plan, and the ability to knuckle down and push yourself past your limits. If you read a list of “things that will make you awesome at lifting”, it’s a laundry list of things that would probably make you awesome at life if you applied the same principles: be consistent, set achievable goals and constantly work towards them, get outside your comfort zone, believe in your ability, learn to plan and how to improvise when plans fail, know when to stop, and remember that one failed attempt doesn’t matter as long as you try again. Sound like decent life advice? It sure does to me.
In short, weightlifting actually means a whole lot more than it initially seems. Big muscles and heavy weights are the tip of an iceberg of dedication, self-belief and a constant desire for improvement. So while it doesn’t matter how much you bench, try it out sometime! The results come pretty quickly if you eat enough and follow a sensible programme, and the gains in confidence and general emotional wellbeing are almost as satisfying as the regular kind of gains. You also make incredible friends in the process. Both powerlifting and weightlifting are niche sports in Ireland, so the community is incredibly tight-knit and non-judgemental. We’re just happy to see people involving themselves in a sport that can give so much back to you.
I was recently appointed captain of DU Weightlifting, and while we’ve had some administrative issues as a nascent society, the level of support and engagement from our members has been incredible and I’m so happy to be involved in a club that’s genuinely invested in being great at a great sport. We’re sending a contingent to the Irish Drug-Free Powerlifting Association’s National Single Lifts competition on the 21st and 22nd of Feburary in Cork IT, so let us know if you’ve got some previous experience and you want to compete! If you’re completely new to the sport, we’ve put up some great online resources on our page (DU Weightlifting and Powerlifting) that should help you no matter what your fitness goals are. We accept everyone from brown-balloon-bodybuilders to people who just want to look good in their skinny jeans/yoga pants/obscure-hipster-clothes-I-haven’t-heard-of. And you don’t have to worry about getting too big. See you at the squat rack.