Raising the Bar

Para-powerlifting can seem like a daunting task at first glance, but you don’t have to be an elite athlete to get started

By Dave Royse

If you’ve ever thought about trying Paralympic powerlifting, the first thing to probably do is NOT watch the gold-medal lifts in the heaviest weight classes at the Rio Paralympics. That’s a bit intimidating.

You may think you’re strong, but you’re likely not Siamand Rahman strong. The Iranian won the gold in the heaviest weight category at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympic Games in September. Then, after he’d already secured the win, went ahead and lifted more. He earned the title of “strongest Paralympian” with an incredible world-record bench press of 310 kilograms (683.4 pounds).

Like all Paralympic powerlifters, Rahman lifts that without any use of his legs, which in International Paralympic Committee (IPC) powerlifting competitions are strapped to the bench.

That’s definitely not where you start out. Nor is it, necessarily, where you have to end up.

Hold Steady

There are weight classes, with the smallest lifters bench-pressing much less intimidating-sounding, though still amazing, weights considering the ratio to their own body weight.

The sport is also divided by gender with women competing separately from men — though the women’s world record of 352 pounds set in Rio by Nigeria’s Josephine Orji is no less intimidating than Rahman’s lift.

But, of course, few people start out ready to compete with the best in the world.

“In my first competition, I bombed,” says American Chelsi Figley, one of the top American women lifters in IPC powerlifting over the last decade. “I didn’t have any idea what I was doing.”

That’s likely true for most people trying Paralympic-style powerlifting for the first time.

The sport’s only discipline is the bench press. Lifters have their legs strapped to a modified bench, so none of the competitors can use leg power, no matter their disability class. The lifter’s arms are fully extended, and the bar is lifted off the rack by officials. Then, the competitor has control of the bar without any help and lowers the bar to his or her chest.

“Then, the para rules say it has to be held motionless on your chest,” says Figley, noting that’s tougher than it sounds and that it’s one of the requirements that disqualifies sometimes even the best lifters. There’s no set time the bar must be held there — only to the point that judges are satisfied the lifter stopped the bar’s motion.

Then the lifter presses the bar up to the point where his or her arms are straight with their elbows locked. Athletes get three attempts to get the heaviest weight. 

Moving Forward

So how would someone get started?

First, get in touch with U.S. Paralympic Powerlifting, which governs the sport in the United States. From the group, one can find out if he or she is eligible to compete and could also attend a clinic or camp run by the organization. U.S. Paralympic Powerlifting holds about four clinics or camps a year, which give athletes a chance to learn about the sport’s rules and some training techniques.

In IPC powerlifting, athletes with different impairments compete together. Athletes with various physical impairments, including cerebral palsy, spinal-cord injuries, amputations and spina bifida, among others, can compete in the sport. Para-powerlifters must have use of their hands, so arm amputees don’t compete in the sport, says Mary C. Hodge, U.S. Paralympic Powerlifting’s high performance manager.

“You must be able to wrap your thumb around the bar. That’s a safety issue,” Hodge says.

While a person theoretically could go out and find a trainer and simply start lifting, if he or she wants to compete that may not be the best course. Trainers who are unfamiliar with Paralympic powerlifting may not know the sport’s rules.

Michael McDevitt, a former Paralympian who now coaches lifters with U.S. Paralympic Powerlifting, says athletes need to train with their legs up. That’s the rule for how the press is done in competition, so it doesn’t make any sense to train with their legs on the ground, he says.

Athletes also have to find a trainer to work with them, which isn’t always easy, particularly in smaller cities. 

Figley says coaches can learn to work with disabled athletes, and good ones can come to understand any unique training needs or safety considerations. That’s what her coach, Brian Raneri in Columbiana, Ohio, does. Figley says Raneri is willing to see past her disability, knows her limits and lets her push them but doesn’t treat her as fragile.

“Depending on your disability, there may be vulnerable positions, things the trainer has to pay more attention to, so you need someone that is willing to learn,” Figley says.

And listen.

“The athlete also really has to communicate with the trainer as to what they can and can’t do, especially if the trainer has never worked with a disabled athlete,” Hodge says.

Keep Your Eyes Open

One of the biggest issues for new para-lifters is finding a gym where a trainer and athlete can modify a bench, which is wider at the end away from the head than traditional ones.

“The most challenging is having the equipment to train on,” Hodge says. “If the gym doesn’t allow you to have the bench, how do you train?”

Some athletes use homemade layovers built out of plywood to put on top of the bench to make it the right size for para-powerlifting. The national organization can help trainers, too.

McDevitt says he can work with lifters and their trainers remotely. They can upload video of their training, which he can then evaluate and critique.

Expenses and travel are major factors, too. Buying an actual para-powerlifting bench can cost a few thousand dollars. Because of the small number of competitors, many para-powerlifters have to travel a lot to compete.

But there are more opportunities across the country for competition than there were a few years ago, Hodge says.

“It would help if we had the opportunity for more smaller meets throughout the year,” Figley says. “But it is growing. Women are still pretty scarce in the sport, though.”

Lifting Builds Confidence

McDevitt, who has cerebral palsy, still trains in powerlifting at age 60, though his competition days are over. He says anyone interested in training in the sport should try it. 

“Being able to lift a lot of weight is a huge confidence-booster for life in general. It’s a real powerful feeling,” McDevitt says. “When I was just starting out in lifting and bodybuilding, I was timid and shy. I don’t think anybody would say I’m timid and shy now.”

McDevitt especially encourages young, ambitious athletes. The top athletes who started when the sport was just taking off in the 2000s are now in their 40s and have been retiring.

“So we’re kind of in a rebuilding process,” McDevitt says. “We could use more athletes. We could use a bigger team, definitely.”

So get in touch with U.S. Paralympic Powerlifting. And go ahead, get on YouTube and type in Siamand Rahman and Josephine Orji. Just know you don’t have to start there. You can work your way up to that.

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