By Manon Bradley (World Champion Powerlifter)
I only have myself to blame for this article. The Mutton Club tweeted a list of things to do in midlife to enhance and improve life. I retweeted saying that they’d missed powerlifting off the list.
“So tell us why it should be there” they said! So here is why I recommend powerlifting to all of my female friends (regardless of age) but especially those approaching that certain time of life, midlife.
First of all some basics
Powerlifting is made up of three different lifts – squat, bench-press and deadlift. Between them all they exercise pretty much every muscle in your body. They are such big compound moves which enable you to lift up large weights such that you use lots of muscles.
And it’s good to use lots of muscles because day in, day out we need all of those muscles to move around, hug our loved ones, walk to work, pick up children and grandchildren, flip the mattress on the bed, DIY, dig the garden and so on. And if you don’t use them you will lose them and as we get older we typically get weaker.
I recall my grandmother at a point in her life where she was a prisoner in the bottom floor of her house because she could no longer get up the stairs. So if you are going to do only one exercise make sure its one that enables you to get to your own bathroom when you’re in your 80s and 90s!
And if you don’t believe me – here’s a bit of science
Training with heavy weights puts pressure (“load”) on your bones which means that it helps you to create new bone tissue. And as we get older this becomes more and more important to prevent weakness and postural problems that are typical in old age.
There is evidence that weight-bearing exercise like powerlifting will help you to stay active and healthy longer than typical cardio-vascular exercise.
The low impactful nature of powerlifting and its increasing intensity are key factors in building strong muscles, bones and healthy heart and lungs. Researchers believe it may be the best exercise for lifelong physical function and fitness. You can read more here.
Lifting heavy weights is also a surprising remedy for type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure as well as an antidote to inflammation – a major risk factor for heart disease and arthritis. Overall – maintaining strength later in life is one of the best predictors of survival and comfort as we get older.
And it’s not just good for your body – it’s great for your mind too
Exercise in general helps to improve memory and hold off dementia. And weight training, even just once a week, leads to significant improvements in executive function – reasoning, multi-tasking and problem solving.
Older people are often advised to walk as a good way to exercise but researchers now advise “walking only is not enough. They need to do some strength training.” Different Types Of Exercise Affect Different Parts Of Your Brain
But there are many, many other reasons to take up powerlifting above and beyond the physical and the mental. It teaches important lessons, gives us space to breathe, challenges our view of ourselves and the world. I truly believe that powerlifting can change your life. Especially at the point in life where other aspects are changing radically.
Powerlifting changes your relationship with your body
As women we receive a barrage of messages about our bodies – how they are supposed to look, what we are supposed to do with them or to them. We are told that unless our bodies are young and slim that we have failed. As we get older it becomes impossible to achieve this – we may still be thin but we cannot turn back the clock.
We are taught from an early age that our looks count. If we are attractive we are more likely to have more friends, get a better job and earn more. But it won’t win you any prizes on a powerlifting platform. Pretty girls don’t lift more. In a powerlifting competition all that matters is the weight on the bar. It’s an important lesson because it changes the relationship we have with our bodies.
When we only value them for how they look, those of us who don’t look like a movie star will start to find fault. When we value our bodies for what they do, for how much they lift or how fast they run, then we start to have a different, deeper relationship with ourselves. We begin to learn that our bodies are for doing, not for being.
And even if you choose not to compete you will begin to understand the importance of eating to train – that what you eat impacts upon what you lift. A lunch of a stick of celery will seriously limit your ability to train hard.
You will also learn that it takes a really long time to change your body. In the 13 years that I’ve been powerlifting competitively, I have improved my bench press from 62.5kg to 83kg.
It takes time to build strength and muscle, for your tiny supporting muscles to get used to the same pressures as the big muscles. And it’s important to learn this because we are told time and time again in magazines that it is possible to change ourselves in a week, with quick fix diets and exercise regimes.
But it is not really possible to make any real, lasting change in a short period of time. Powerlifting teaches us this.
You can start at any age and keep going well into your 80s.
The basics of powerlifting can be taught to anyone. I’ve seen powerlifters with no legs, powerlifters with only one arm, powerlifters with learning difficulties. It is a sport which welcomes and embraces people of all types and all abilities and ages. And because there are layers and layers of ‘masters’ levels it is possible to remain competitive well into your 80s.
I bet that no one reading this article would know what makes a good deadlift for their age and weight category (unless they are already a competitive powerlifter). And that’s a good thing. Because it means that when you start you have no pre-conceived idea of what is good. You don’t beat yourself up for not matching some notion of what you should look like, how fast you should be moving etc.
I know friends who won’t go into a gym because they are not yet fit enough to perform in a way that they think is necessary to avoid judgement by others! Other friends who won’t go out running until they are fast enough so they’re not embarrassed. They literally won’t take up a sport as a beginner because they are embarrassed to be a beginner.
But they will have a go at squatting and will squat 40kg and it will be a huge achievement because no one has told them that actually for their bodyweight they “should” be lifting 100kg! Most women I know are very happy to have a go at powerlifting. There is no embarrassment in being a novice. We are all beginners at the start.
All the worries of the world disappear
Believe me, you can’t think about your troubles at work when you’re trying hard not to drop a heavy weight on your head! It’s called ‘being in a state of flow’, when you are concentrating so hard on the thing you’re doing that everything else falls away.
So many female lifters that I know relish this space in their lives. It is a place where they aren’t a mum, a wife, a worker – they are a powerlifter, lifting weights and at that moment in time that is all that matters. It is incredibly liberating.
You get out what you put in
When you do an aerobics class how do you really know if you’re better than you were a week ago? When you play tennis is your win due to better technique or a lousy opponent? Weight lifting is repetitive which means that you can track your performance week after week, month after month and there is something wonderful about seeing your weights slowly increase as you put in the effort.
And the harder you try, the better you will become. Powerlifting is a completely objective sport – you win if you lift more than the other person. There are no points for style. What you get out of it is completely linked to how much you put in.
In a world where women are held to different standards to men – where however hard we work we don’t get the biggest pay rises or the top jobs – this is a refreshing change.
It’s important that we know we are strong
The best book that I have read recently is “The Power” by Naomi Alderman. I won’t spoil the plot as I recommend that you all read it. But in it she describes women suddenly experiencing a physical strength they had never felt before. In every case this revelation is a fabulous, empowering experience. This is how it feels when you start lifting heavy weights.
Women have been told time and time again that we are the weaker sex. Science is challenging that assumption. Angela Saini in her book “Inferior: How science got women wrong” tells us that science has constantly undervalued women and that it has been historically sexist towards women. “Women are”, she says, “biologically better survivors from the moment they’re born.” We forget this until we start picking up heavy weights. We are not delicate little flowers. We are tough and strong in every way.
For more evidence of our robustness read this:
Eddie Hall recently had a TV show dedicated to his 500kg deadlift. An amazing achievement of course. How his ligaments and tendons were able to take that much weight is amazing.
But at the time his own body weight was around 180kg which meant that his lift was 2.7 times his bodyweight. I know several little old ladies who can deadlift three times their bodyweight. How is theirs any less of an achievement – where is their TV show, sponsorship and book deal?
You learn how to compete with other women.
I think that women aren’t very good at competing with other women. We’re discouraged from being competitive when we are young so that by the time we become adults we find it very upsetting when another women competes with us.
Powerlifting is competitive but it is also hugely supportive. It provides a warm and safe place to compete with people who become your friends. Last year, I watched another woman as she broke my world record and as soon as she got up off the bench the first person she came to for a celebratory hug was me. Because I was the only person in the room who truly understood what she had just achieved. It was a lesson in how to compete.
We are all powerful creatures
There is definitely a myth that being a woman and being strong are mutually exclusive. This is nonsense. But it is something that we are told as well as men. And sometimes it’s easy to believe it. When a man offers to carry the heavy boxes it’s only normal for us to acquiesce. But why do we do that? Many women carry their children, their children’s bikes; or we have elderly parents who need help getting up or turning in bed.
This is all hard, heavy work. Why do we believe the nonsense that we are the weaker sex? The moment that you start lifting heavy weights you will suddenly understand how strong and powerful you are – not only in the gym but in every aspect of your life. And as our lives change so radically in mid- life, knowing this is a revelation.
Here’s a link to the video.
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Manon Bradley is a competitive drug-free power-lifter. In the 14 years that she has been competing she has won 11 World Championships, 9 European Championships and held 6 World Records and a host of British titles and records. Manon is the Development Director of the Major Projects Association and also the Co Branch leader of the Women’s Equality Party in Oxford. She’s is a keen writer and has written on topics close to her heart in a number of online publications including “Infrastructure Intelligence”, “The Guardian” and in online publications as well as via her own blog “Passionate about Powerlifting”. Follow her on @ManonBradley