Meet Mary Hodge, USA Para Powerlifting’s Strength Mastermind

USA Para Powerlifting's High-Performance Manager works to expand the sport both on and off the competitive stage.

Mary Hodge is the U.S. Paralympics Powerlifting Head Coach and the High-Performance Manager of Paralympic Operations of USA Para Powerlifting (USAPP). Her roster includes several elite Para powerlifters — including two-time Paralympian Shafik Ahmed, two-time Paralympic gold-medalist Kim Brownfield, four-time Paralympian Mary Stack, and the 2019 World Para Powerlifting (WPPO) World Cup champion Jacob Schrom.

As the High-Performance Manager of USAPP at Logan University, Hodge recruits athletes, coaches, and trainers from across the United States and secures regional hubs — various gyms and spaces that can function as gyms — to be sanctioned by USAPP. Those spaces are equipped with Para powerlifting benches and a support staff of coaches and trainers capable of working with Para powerlifters. Additionally, Hodge is the Team Leader of USAPP and manages many of the National Team’s aspects, such as their coaching, training, and support staff, which includes nutrition, medical, and mental performance.

BarBend interviewed Hodge about her journey into the Para Powerlifting training space, how she trains the athletes for elite-level competition, and her future goals.


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Journey Into Para Powerlifting Training

In 1995, Hodge was working full time at United Cerebral Palsy of Nassau County in Long Island, NY, shortly after acquiring a personal trainer‘s certification. While there, “a gentleman with Cerebral Palsy asked me to train him to bench press.” The thought of someone who required the use of a wheelchair bench pressing was new for Hodge.

I had no idea a person in a wheelchair could bench press.

The prospective trainee brought Hodge a videotape of an amputee who used a wheelchair while bench-pressing.

“This opened my eyes to a new world,” Hodge says. “I became intrigued, and the rest is history.”

She would go on to be a member of the coaching staff for the first international event that allowed women to compete in Para Powerlifting 1998 in Dubai, UAE.

Her decades-long career has since seen her earn the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) 2018 Volunteer Coach of the Year and coach Team USA for four consecutive Paralympic Games (2000 Sydney, 2004 Athens, 2008 Beijing, and 2012 London). Her coaching resume includes eight world championships and five Para Pan American Games.

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High-Performance Manager of USAPP

The USAPP moved to Logan University in Chesterfield, MO, in 2017, which Hodge believes was a significant improvement for training staff and athletes alike.

“The support that Logan University and its community give the sport…is incredible.,” Hodge says. “Our Executive Director, Dr. Kelley Humphries,…understands the needs of the sport. This is tremendously helpful when growing, expanding, and working towards getting to the podium.”

Hodge was one of the select few participants to complete the Long-Term Development in Sport and Physical Activity course from the Pan American Organization. The eight-week extensive course is run by Pan Am Sports of Canada and focuses “on developing athletes and a sports culture from the young ages — not just about sport for competition but sport for life.” Hodge’s successful completion of the course helped her learn ways to keep young people in Para powerlifting even if they are not competitive. “It…has already been useful to me as we grow our American Development Model (ADM) in Para Powerlifting.”

Although she no longer programs the athletes’ training — that is now the responsibility of the head trainer and head coach — Hodge plays a major role in “reviewing the technical and tactical part of the sport for each athlete.” That means that she checks in with each athlete monthly to assess and adjust their technique per the WPPO competition rules. When asked specifically about her training methods, Hodge kept her championship-winning training methods close to the vest saying, “I can’t give away those secrets…everyone reading this would love to know what each other’s countries are doing. Suffice it to say, we adjust a lot to Westside Barbell training.”

Westside Barbell Training

Westside Barbell training usually consists of four workouts per week that will rotate between upper body and lower body training days, if able. The unique design of this particular kind of training is due to the three different methods incorporated: maximum effort, dynamic effort, and repetition.

Editor’s note: this is a general breakdown of Westside Barbell training and not specific to any particular athlete or Para powerlifting program. It was not provided to BarBend by Hodge.

  • Maximum Effort — focuses on the main lift of the day for a high volume of sets (usually in the eight to 12 range), but low reps (usually just one to three at most). Each set will get progressively heavier until the athlete performs 90 to 100 percent of their one-rep maximum (1RM) for the last three to five sets.
  • Dynamic Effort — focuses on the main lift of the day for a high volume of sets and low reps similar to maximum effort. However, each set will only use 40 to 60 percent of the 1RM and supplement it with upwards of 30 percent of the 1RM in additional resistance in the form of chains or bands. The goal is to increase the resistance as the movement progresses.
  • Repetition — This training day will focus more on accessory exercises for a more standard number of sets and reps — think upwards of four sets with upwards of 12 reps.

Maximum effort and dynamic effort days are usually done within three days of each other, with the repetition day afterward.


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Greatest Accomplishments and Future Goals

Despite having a lot of experience training athletes that have had medals placed around their necks, helping the athletes achieve their aspirations is what stands out to Hodge

When I close my eyes at night, if I have assisted one athlete start or continue their path to their goals it’s been a good day.

Hodge is also proud of her longevity in the sport “as a woman in a higher position.” When she first entered the world of Para powerlifting training, it was a male-dominated sport. “It is great to see women [continue to] get involved at every level.” Hodge aims to continue sharing her passion for the sport across the US and see the sport grow — in athletes competing, coaches and trainers working with those athletes, and referees for more competitive events.

[Related: 10 Adaptive Strength Sports Athletes You Should Know in 2021]

Editor’s Note: This article was published in collaboration with World Para Powerlifting. BarBend is an official media provider for World Para Powerlifting

Featured image: @usa_para_powerlifting on Instagram