- By Dominic Cadden
It seemed like the weight of the world.
In my twenties, I’d watch the pro rugby league players in my gym punching out a few squats with 150 kilograms and think, “Man, I’ll never be able to do that!” It seemed too far away, too scary to even contemplate.
These days, I crank out 150kg squats just for my warm-ups. At 41, I now hold Australian titles in powerlifting and bench press in the 66kg weight category. But my transformation didn’t take 15 years. I was a relative stranger to heavy weights until just three years ago.
So what happened? Something that offers hope to anyone who wants to get strong, lift big and knock off their soft edges. Something that could happen for you.
Back in late 2008, I felt skinny and directionless after a stint of ultra-marathon trail-running that culminated in a 100-kilometre race. Having reached my goal, I went into the sort of aimless drift to which guys like me – men prone to depression – often succumb.
After moving house, I finally roused myself enough to walk into the cheapest gym I could find – a rundown PCYC in North Sydney. Inside there was an unremarkable room with all the standard dumbbell racks and cardio equipment. But on the other side of the corridor, there was a room with startling noises echoing out of it. There were loud bellows of encouragement, epic grunts and the crash of heavy weights. This was the domain of the powerlifters.
Eventually, I mustered up enough courage to sneak in and use the bench press. The room was spartan in the extreme; almost bare apart from the mass of Olympic barbells, weight plates and racks. Yet it was welcoming, too. David “Chief” Cheung, who ran the room, instantly claimed to see potential in my puny 75kg bench presses and 90kg squats. “You should try powerlifting,” he insisted. At the time I felt flattered, not knowing that this was Chief’s standard answer to everything. Bad knees? Do powerlifting. You’re a boxer? Do powerlifting. Terrible tinea? Messy divorce? Same again.
Sure, Chief’s legs looked like thick mangrove trees, but for him powerlifting wasn’t just a physical act, it was an emotional and mental anchor. “It doesn’t matter what’s going on in my life, I can always lift,” he told me. “Your work changes, relationships fluctuate, finances go up and down. But 180kg is always 180kg. It’s a constant in your life.”
Before long I’d been roped in to help out at a powerlifting comp, then at the national titles. Watching Brisbane lifter Theo Lagis deadlift 240kg – a load four times his own body weight – I quickly realised the sport didn’t revolve around huge dudes. In fact, the lower- to middle-weight classes were populated with guys who could never get big enough to make an impact in rugby union or league, or grow tall enough for basketball. This was a sport where your power/strength-to-weight ratio was valued, no matter what your size.
The variety of physiques was matched by the range of characters. There was the grey-bearded Max Bristow, who at 65 looks and talks like a Greek philosopher – except Plato probably couldn’t squat over 170kg at 67.5kg bodyweight. Then there was heavyweight lifter Damien Giles, with his fuzzy red hair and ever-present giggle. He approached the bar with the fixed concentration of a zombie heading to an all-you-can-eat brain buffet. The meet’s not over until the bar hits the floor – or you hit the floor, was his catchphrase. He strained at a barbell of nearly 300kg with every fibre of his body, until he crashed to the floor. The determination was beautiful, the landing not so much . . .
I was hooked. Partly, I wanted to experience that glorious moment when you lift to your absolute maximum. Partly, I was fascinated by the tunnel-vision focus that turned these quiet individuals into pumped-up beasts. But there was also the fear of my genes. I was approaching the age of my father’s first spine operation, which had signalled the start of an unhappy slide into pain and restricted mobility. I didn’t want to repeat that. I needed to stay healthy and strong. An extra inch on my biceps was no longer my priority for weight training.
This change of mindset offered deeper motivation than the basic allure of getting ripped. As lifting guru Mark Rippetoe, the US National Sports and Conditioning Association coach, argues, training for visual results is a one-dimensional approach. “That type of thinking completely ignores the performance aspects of training – and performance is much more easily and rapidly influenced,” he says. “Rapid, quantifiable progress keeps motivation high – much higher than waiting for a six-pack that may or may not show up.”
I took this message to heart and vowed never to be that guy in every gym who looks like Tarzan but lifts like Jane. My training was no longer about “hitting” body parts to improve the look of individual muscles. Now it was about examining my body as a machine that had to be souped-up. While the bodybuilding approach to lifting is deliberately slow and inefficient to achieve muscle growth, powerlifting is about manageable speed to make every component work as a functional unit.
I said goodbye to primarily aesthetic exercises like calf-raises and curls. Instead, I focused on addressing my weaknesses in the three powerlifting disciplines: bench press, deadlift and squat. Here was a lesson that has since filtered through to the rest of my life: whether it’s at work, in the gym or in your role as a partner, husband or father, most of us have a tendency to show off our strengths while ignoring or hiding our weaknesses. For most guys in the gym, the tacit objective seems to be to get away with as much cheating as possible. But when your squat weight goes up because your squat depth also goes up, who are you really cheating?
Powerlifting forces you to tackle your weaknesses head-on, because there’s nowhere to hide. It sets an objective standard, since competitions have three judges who check that each lift adheres to a stringent set of rules as long as the Constitution. It all comes down to three exercises, nine lifts, zero excuses.
After six months of dedicated training four days a week, I entered my first full competition in the 67.5kg division and achieved a 185kg squat, 140kg bench press and 200kg deadlift. All this took a lot of planning and preparation. And as my competitions got bigger, I noticed that other aspects of my life also suddenly had detailed timelines, priority lists and structured plans. It was no coincidence that many of the powerlifters I met revealed analytical skills in other areas. They turned out to be professors, doctors, physiotherapists, high school chaplains and educators. They were thinkers – not muscle-bound goons.
As lifting became more than a discipline, I understood what the Chief meant when he described it as an emotional anchor. Throughout my life I’ve had pretty good physical strength, but I’ve always felt mentally weak. The biggest obstacles with depression are the sense of stifled progress, a lack of focus, low self-worth and an inability to deal with stress. Powerlifting helped because the path to every goal had almost nothing to do with luck, other people or random circumstances.
Instead, it was all about my own self-management and grinding progression, kilogram by kilogram. When things stop moving forward on the bar or in any other part of my life, I’m now better equipped to step back, analyse and focus on the weakness. Above all, I never thought I could handle a sport where I would stand alone in front of a crowd with everything hinging on a few seconds with a weight that had, until recently, seemed utterly impossible. Other stresses and anxieties in life soon began to fade by comparison.
Stephen Pritchard, Australia’s premier 120kg-plus lifter, confirms that when lifting heavy, mental preparation is as important as the physical. “Taking yourself to that point where failure is a real possibility is more than many can take,” he says. “I honestly believe most people have no idea what they are capable of because they lack the belief and self-confidence to push themselves. I am continually amazed at how my own perception of what I am capable of keeps changing. The one thing I still do not know is what I can do.”
Pritchard is right – the goalposts did keep changing. After just over a year, in my first open national championship, I unexpectedly won gold in the bench-press-only comp. Then, in just under two years, I achieved that rare moment, that one day when everything goes right, and won the Raw National Powerlifting title. But the real highlight was standing on stage this year at the World Masters in St Catharines, Canada, just a short trip down the road from Niagara Falls.
This was the first time I had been to a Masters competition, where competitors must be over 40. Just walking around the venue was awe-inspiring. Competitors from all over the world showed that physical decline was hardly inevitable but a matter of lifestyle choice. Here were men and women in their forties, fifties, sixties and seventies, standing tall with upright postures and solid, athletic frames that would put most 20-year-olds to shame.
After two days of watching others compete, my day in the 66kg class finally came. I was clobbered in the squat – Ruso Karel, a Czech competitor with a crazed leer on his face, managed to hit a massive 260kg. Fortunately, I rallied in the next exercise, hitting consecutive PBs of 160 and 162.5kg on my way to the gold medal in the bench press. Ultimately, however, it’s your total – the combined kilogram tally of your bench press, squat and deadlift – that really matters. This is what powerlifting is all about.
After a successful second deadlift of 230kg, I was assured silver in that discipline. But, adding my totals, I was still only fourth, with the top four competitors separated by just 7.5kg. My team plunged into a debate around me. Should I opt for a safe 232.5kg lift for bronze? Or should I go for gold and attempt 5kg more than I’d ever touched before?
Blinking back the adrenaline, I reminded myself why I lifted. The truth was, I didn’t do it to stick medals on the wall.
I did it for the challenge, the opportunity to push the limits of body and mind. I was going to take on 237.5kg. As I walked up to the bar, I didn’t think of the intimidating weight before me. I focused instead on the hours of training I’d done over all those months. I thought of my torn palms, the weeks I spent more time hugging ice packs than I did my wife, the hours spent awake in bed trying to mentally refine and improve my technique. Positioning myself over the bar, I could no longer hear the coaches behind me, or the cheering Australians in the crowd. The entire world reduced until it was just me and the barbell.
Gritting my teeth, I pulled at the bar. And I pulled. The bar jerked up from the ground, slowly inching higher, until, as I edged it past my knees, something seemed to lock and pop in my right leg and I was thrown to the floor, landing on my knees – the powerlifter’s equivalent of the rodeo fail. Was I disappointed? Of course. Even so, I couldn’t feel bitter. That failure just keeps me hungrier to learn and improve. Gravity is a cruel mistress, but it teaches you humility and discipline.
And you know what? The body came while I wasn’t looking: a harder, more vascular, leaner and more balanced musculature than I’d even had in my twenties. It’s strong, efficient, fast and functional – but the real development happened in my head.
- Dominic recently benched 165kg to set an Australian record for the 65.3kg weight class