By James Mellor.
“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we are curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” – Walt Disney
It is important to be grateful for what you have in life. I am thankful to have a beautiful family, a roof over my head, a steady office job. But there is something inside that always insists that I break away from normality and commit to do something out of the ordinary. Not to brag, or prove something to others, but to test my limits as an individual and to give me a personal outlet.
Over the last few years, my passion has been long distance running and I spent most of my spare time training for and competing in marathons and ultra-marathons. This was amazing for my physical and mental health and it allowed me to feel like me. I still have a huge passion for running, but in April 2021, I decided to put it on the back burner and enter the world of Powerlifting. I am not sure what first inspired me to try it, but at 6ft5in weighing 80kg, it was an obvious choice, right? Maybe not, but I decided to go all in and signed up to a novice competition in August 2021 to provide me with some accountability and an end goal for my upcoming training.
I was used to getting up at 5am and training before the family woke for breakfast, so time was not an issue. Coming at this new found hobby with no experience, I obviously hit the internet for my new training plan. For the first 3 months I did the Stronglift 5x5 programme on their free app. You start lifting with an empty bar and add weight every session until failure. It served me well and allowed me to practice proper technique in the main Powerlifting disciplines before starting to lift heavy weights. Also, with it being so simple, it removed any thought process; just go to the gym and lift. When I reached the point where I was constantly failing reps, I changed things up slightly and started to play around with the weight and reducing the number of reps in an attempt to ‘peak’. I was content with my ongoing progress and took advantage of the famous newbie gains through consistent training and eating. Truth be told, I was making it up as I went along and I have no doubt that with the input of an experienced trainer, I could have made more solid progress and this will likely become more beneficial in the future if I start to plateau in my training.
The principals of training for ultra-marathons and powerlifting are not too dissimilar in that you need to build a solid base and good form before slowly increasing the training load, whether that be speed and distance or reps and weight. Rest and recovery is of equal importance in that you need to allow full days of rest or active recovery and also add an occasional week where you lighten the load to prevent burnout. With this in mind, I did not find the training too much of a shock to the system (other than the dreaded leg day DOMS).
With a background in long distance running, I have a history of eating massive amounts of food to keep me going, but I never focused too much on what I was eating as long as I had enough carbohydrates to fuel my long efforts. I quickly learnt that to get through the taxing process of lifting weights 3 – 4 days a week and constantly increasing the load, I would need to focus more on what I was eating. My aim was 4,000 calories a day (20% Protein, 45% Carbohydrates, 35% Fat). You will notice a theme here, in that there was not much science in these numbers other than a few internet searches and a rough idea of what my body normally needs for fuel. This allowed me to continuously add weight to the bar and put on some muscle mass, but also resulted in a lot of fat gain too. Being a tall, lanky runner, I have never had to worry much about gaining weight, so I found it quite challenging to tread the line between eating enough food to put on mass and fuel workouts but not eating too much of the wrong stuff. For anyone interested, a typical day of eating consisted of the following:
Pre Workout: Banana, Peanut Butter and Nutella Sandwich – 400 calories
Breakfast: Mass Gainer Shake (50g Protein Powder, 150g oats, 1 banana, 300ml Full Fat Milk)
Snack: Roasted Salted Peanuts
Lunch: 3 Flatbreads with Chicken (250g), Halloumi, Hummus and Spinach
Snack: Can of Tuna
Dinner: 4 Chicken, Vegetable and Cheese Fajitas
Bedtime: Glass of Full Fat Milk
Total: 4,015 calories consisting of 440g Carbs, 142g Fat, 242g Protein
Firstly, I have a huge amount of respect for Powerlifters and Powerlifting. These people put their bodies through huge amounts of stress over years and sometimes decades, overcoming injuries and setbacks to get to where they want to be, mostly for little financial gain. Do not think for a second that I am saying that you can go from beginner to competitive Powerlifter in 4 months. That being said, I do like to compete and in running, there is a very inclusive atmosphere in that anyone can give it a go; we have all seen people completing the London Marathon in 7 hours whilst the front runners finish in 2 hours.
My preconceptions of Powerlifting made me think that I would be ridiculed by big scary blokes for showing up to a competition and finishing dead last. Once again, I consulted the internet and got a range of answers to my question; “How Strong Do I Need To Be To Compete In Powerlifting?”
Answer 1: You should be able to Squat 2x your body weight, Bench 1.5x your body weight and Deadlift 2x your body weight.
Answer 2: If you can lift the empty bar with correct form, you can compete!
Confused? Me too. But the main take away for me was that other than a few message board ‘coaches’, no one really cares what you can lift, people are more focused on their own results and are generally quite supportive when it comes to other competitors. So with that I signed up to the Raw Strength Powerlifting Competition on the 8th of August 2021. The competition was advertised as suitable for novices, which suited me, but was subject to IPF Rules so I still felt like it was the real deal.
Competition day was soon upon me and I headed to the Raw Strength Gym and found it to be a friendly, inclusive and an energetic environment. No meat heads who wanted to eat me for their pre competition snack, just nice normal but passionate individuals.
When I started training I was 80kg and on the day I weighed in at around 95kg. For a little while, I was focused on staying below 93kg so that I fit into that weight class, but soon realised that this was pretty irrelevant in my stage of training. Plus I was going to get beat by lifters with more experience, regardless of my weight class.
On the day, I was happy with my lifts. I will give you the numbers, but more importantly my thought process behind picking my weights and how it went on the day:
Squat: 130kg, 135kg and 140kg
I went with a comfortable opening lift at 130kg. The advice I followed was to open with something you can do for a treble in the gym. From there I took it conservatively and went up in 5kg increments and managed to get three good lifts.
Bench: 80kg, X and X
Bench has always been my weakness. Training alone, it is the one lift that I feel I could not push through fear of failing and crushing myself. I went for an 80kg opening lift for the same reason as above; I had done this for a treble in training. It felt good on the day so I went for 87.5kg on the next lift and failed to lock out. On the third lift I went for the same again but I got in my own head a little and bounced the bar off my chest. Two bad lifts, which was disappointing. If I had of stuck to my original game plan and gone up to 85kg, I might have fared better.
Deadlift: 160kg, 170kg and 185kg
The first two attempts went up quite easy so I jumped to 185kg for my final lift and managed to get it up, which I was super happy about. The most I had done in training was 160kg for a single. If the lesson learned during my Bench was to be conservative, the lesson here was to overreach and go for it. In terms of advice, I guess that is unhelpful, but your first meet should be your own learning experience.
Overall I placed 8th out of 10 competitors with a 405kg total and a 52.46 dots score. My plan for the day was to show up, have fun and get some experience, so overall it was a success. The parallels between competing in running and Powerlifting remain here in that they are both solo endeavours rather than a team effort and the only competitor you are really going up against is yourself.
Since the event, I have continued lifting, I am still enjoying the process and I am sure I will compete again. I have also been on a couple of short runs recently and unsurprisingly, I nearly died. Obviously I have lost a lot of cardiovascular fitness over the last few months and I am much heavier, but I am sure I will get back into running one day, when I am ready to shift the incoming power belly.
The key thing I have learnt over the last few months is that being a runner, or being a powerlifter, or whatever your thing is, bares little importance. It is important that we remove these labels that we think define us and just see these things as what they are; an outlet. Running makes me feel free, Powerlifting makes me feel strong, but the critical thing is to just do something that pushes your limits, forces you to learn about yourself and makes you feel alive.
This is James's first guest post on my blog and you can find his instagram @jamessmellor.