Last month, we saw the last lifts of an historic weekend in the history of American weightlifting. The Weightlifting World Championships in Anaheim were marked by incredible performances by Team USA – but none more noticeable than that of Sarah Robles, who became the first American world champion since 1994.
I’m a powerlifter, not an Olympic weightlifter. I tried it, once, and kept at it for a good two months before I resigned myself to the facts that (A) my shoulders don’t seem to want anything to do with an overhead squat and (B) even if they did, I have about as much patience as your average two-year-old and am terribly unfit for attempting anything more complicated than a muscle snatch. That said, I’m also a sport historian, and so I have a pretty unique appreciation for the Olympic lifts and for the significance of the events that transpired over the past month.
As it turns out, American powerlifting and weightlifting have more in common than you might think. They both, arguably, share the same birthplace: Bob Hoffman’s York Barbell club in York, Pennsylvania. (The origins of the sports are actually much more complicated than that, of course; if you’re interested in the details, I highly recommend David Webster’s book, The Iron Game, and this article.) And, recently, several very accomplished athletes have proven that you can, with enough passion and persistence, succeed at both sports. I had the chance to talk with a few elite powerlifters who did exactly that, and I came away with some surprising insights.
The (Very, Very Brief) History of Weightlifting
Historians often think of the 1920s as the “golden age” of American sports, but that’s not really true with regard to weightlifting. Back in the ‘20s, no organization like USAW existed, and so, instead of competing, lifters often made exaggerated claims about themselves to build their reputations and sell training courses. (If you’re a heavy user of social media, you’ve probably seen some people doing the same thing today!) The golden age of weightlifting in this country didn’t really arrive until after World War II, but between 1945 and 1960, America produced 28 international champions.
Powerlifting on the other hand, didn’t even exist until the mid-1960s, and by then, American domination of weightlifting had ended. It’s hard to say exactly why American weightlifting began to wane – in truth, there’s probably a lot of reasons. But without a doubt, powerlifting’s popularity hurt weightlifting. According to Jan Todd, one of the world’s first successful female powerlifters, the new sport caught on because it was a lot simpler: you didn’t have to be especially flexible or coordinated to squat, bench, and deadlift; and you didn’t need a Eleiko bar or bumper plates. On top of all that, bodybuilding was become more popular around this time, too (thanks to Muscle Beach), and it became pretty clear that powerlifters tended to develop more thickly-muscled physiques than did Olympic lifters.
That’s exactly why this past World Championships are so important. American weightlifting is making a resurgence, and lifters like Sarah Robles, Mattie Rogers, and Harrison Maurus are literally making history.
Can A Powerlifter Become an Olympic Weightlifter?
Like I said, I lasted about two months before I threw in my weightlifting towel, so rather than share my perspectives as an outsider, I reached out to some people who have first-hand experience in both sports.
Preston Turner is a four-time IPF world champion. He began powerlifting as a freshman in high school, and quickly rose to the highest echelons of the sport, setting records and leading the University of Texas team to multiple national championships. He had been competing for over 10 years when he was approached by USAW about a new talent development program run together with USAPL. Turner then connected with legendary coach Tim Swords – who also coaches Sarah Robles – and dove in.
This image comes from our friends at 9for9 Media, the premiere powerlifting photography company
It wasn’t an easy transition. “As a powerlifter I would do overhead presses from time to time, but very little was done overhead for the most part. Overhead stability is a totally different animal than pressing strength,” he explained. “Throw in deep squatting, change of direction, and barbell movement and stabilizing overhead can be a challenge!” His impressive musculature proved to be a challenge, too, Turner said. “I’ve had to intentionally lose a bit of size through my chest, shoulders, and biceps. It is a hindrance to getting in proper front rack and jerk positions, with obvious impacts on overhead mobility as well.”
But Preston’s background in powerlifting proved to be an asset, too. “Powerlifting has obviously provided a huge strength foundation, a lot of time becoming comfortable with a barbell, and a good competitor’s mindset,” he said. “Because powerlifting has provided me with more strength than I may need at this point for weightlifting, more training time and recovery can be dedicated to developing speed, posture, and learning technique in the snatch and clean and jerk. Not having to juggle resources between speed and technique with strength work has provided a huge head start, and no doubt [has been] a big factor in my rapid progress.”
After just two months of training, Preston entered his first weightlifting meet, where he totaled 263 kilograms (580 pounds) and missed only one lift. He’s already fully committed to his new sport, and has no plans to return to powerlifting. “’I’m ‘burning all the ships’ and pursuing this with everything,” he says.
Of course, Turner is not the first powerlifter to try his hand at Olympic weightlifting. USAW’s new talent development program is quickly attracting new lifters to the sport, many with seemingly unlimited potential. Charles Okpoko, another highly decorated powerlifter, joined the program because he, like Preston, considers the Olympic stage the pinnacle of athletic achievement. Also, like Preston, Okpoko found the transition away from powerlifting to be pretty challenging. “Powerlifting gave me a great strength foundation,” he said, but “there is a huge difference in the technical demands that no amount of powerlifting could prepare you for.” For that reason, Okpoko says he still prefers powerlifting to weightlifting.
Even over a decade ago, some athletes proved that it was possible to possess the strength and athleticism necessary to succeed in both sports. In 2000 and 2004, Shane Hamman competed at the Summer Olympics, after nearly a decade of elite-level powerlifting. WWE wrestler Mark Henry competed at the highest levels of both sports and strongman as a competitor in the 1990s and early 2000s, too.
Henry avoids making comparisons between sports. When asked whether he thought Olympic weightlifting or professional wrestling was more difficult, he replied, “They’re equally difficult. Not everybody gets to make an Olympic team. Not everybody can hold world titles in pro wrestling. So I’ve really, really been blessed.”
Powerlifting Versus Weightlifting
I’ll admit it: I love powerlifting. The sport has played a very meaningful role in my life, and I can’t imagine anything to rival the adrenaline rush of a heavy, grinding lift. But I can’t deny the excitement of Olympic lifting, either. Its simplicity, its history, and the stark contrast between the requisite grace and power, in my opinion, make high-level weightlifting a truly awesome athletic endeavor. And while you still need a lot of flexibility and patience to master the Olympic lifts, weightlifting is becoming more accessible than ever before. In part because of the efforts of CrossFit boxes and companies like Rogue Fitness – a large equipment company, and the official equipment manufacturer of USA Weightlifting – it’s no longer rare to stumble across a decent bar and set of bumpers, even in a commercial gym.
More importantly, weightlifting, under USAW, has enjoyed a cohesion that powerlifting lacks. There’s no world championship of powerlifting that can rival the world championship of weightlifting – the former sport is too fragmented, by federations, equipment, and ego, for that to ever be a possibility. And there’s certainly no Olympics of powerlifting. That fact was a critical deciding factor in Turner’s conversion: “the Olympics has always been a dream of mine,” he said. “I had just happened to get good at the wrong sport (powerlifting), so I had always had interest in weightlifting.” Whether the increase in accessibility and hope of Olympic glory will continue to push more and more newcomers to fitness towards Olympic lifting remains to be seen, but certainly, the aforementioned halo effect of CrossFit and similar programs is significant.
If you’re looking for me to judge one sport better than the other, I’m sorry to disappoint you. As impressive as the growth of weightlifting is, powerlifting is growing quickly, too. And as it does, we’re seeing more and more emphasis on mobility and technique as prerequisites to high-level performance. The fragmentation of powerlifting federations is regrettable, but for the vast majority of competitors, it’s a minor issue. I think that ultimately, it doesn’t really matter which sport attracts more people – it’s just fantastic that the tide is rising for all strength sports, because they all can offer better health, an increased sense of self-confidence, and happier lives to their participants.
I also believe that going forward, the athletes need to take more responsibility for the representation and growth of their sport. I’m not talking about hosting meets or promoting events – I mean helping others, maybe people who are just starting out in powerlifting or weightlifting and are struggling to find their place. I know I’ve gotten an incredible amount of personal satisfaction from powerlifting, and I try really hard to share that with others, and I know a lot of other competitors who do the same. As long as that continues, the future of strength sports is very bright indeed.
Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Feature image from @USA_Weightlifting Instagram page.