Inner and Outer Strength - As Powerlifting Teams Bulk Up, Students Make Gains as Well
High school students of all sizes are working on their bench presses, dead lifts and squats, and are competing in local, national and international competitions. This isn't just grunt work for the teens. They say they have fun, enjoy the camaraderie, get in better shape and gain confidence.
"When I get a chance to lift bigger weights, it's fun for me . . . and it also keeps me in shape," said 97-pound Sommer Binash, a junior at South Milwaukee High School. The 17-year-old, who is 5 feet 2 inches tall, started lifting when she was in eighth grade and now bench presses 100 pounds, dead lifts 265 pounds and recently set a state record for her 265-pound squat.
She trains six days a week for one to two hours, and eats a healthy diet with plenty of protein. She competes locally and on a national level, and her performance at a recent national meet in Michigan made her eligible to be selected to compete in South Africa on the U.S. team this August. In addition to powerlifting, she is also involved in track, cheerleading and is in the National Honor Society.
Her stepfather and trainer, Chris Richter, said he got her to try weight lifting when she complained she was bored one day.
"We went to the gym and after two or three workouts, she loved it. After that she kept saying, 'When are we going to the gym? When are we going to the gym?'"
Helped for weight loss
Rob Leon, a 17-year-old senior at Whitnall High School, said he was overweight when he started training a year ago. He had just finished football season and was looking for another sport to fill his time.
His strength and conditioning coach, R.G. Luckow, suggested powerlifting because it would help him gain strength to make him a better football player, get him in better shape and give him more confidence.
Leon now competes locally and nationally. He recently took 13th in his weight class at the national competition. He benches 331 pounds, dead lifts 475 and squats 450. "I weighed 253 pounds before. I had been trying to lose weight, but I wasn't getting anywhere myself," Leon said.
He dropped to 212 pounds and gained muscle mass.
"Now I weigh 220 and look more muscular and thinner. There is a dramatic difference in my physique," he said.
He said the training also increased his confidence - including talking to girls - improved his football game and made him a better athlete overall.
"I can do a lot of different sports now that I couldn't do before. I got winded fast before," he said.
Fifty boys and 40 girls at South Milwaukee High School compete on the school's powerlifting team, according to head powerlifting coach, Andy Chromy. When he started the program about six years ago, he had seven to 10 boys. Out of the 90 current students, 57 competed in regional meets during the season, which usually runs from November to March.
Chromy said the girls team was slower to grow than the boys and that he had to regularly explain to students and parents that the girls would not end up with big muscles.
"Less than 3 percent of women have the genetic makeup needed to produce that stereotypical look of very large muscles," he said.
Binash, who is toned but by no means bulky, is a good example, he said. "For her, some of it is genetic disposition, plus she works her rear end off. She is in the smallest weight class, but she is obviously the strongest girl on the team."
Kids also benefit because they have to work together, said Luckow, who has health- and fitness-related bachelor's and master's degrees. He also was an assistant strength and conditioning coach for the Washington Redskins. "Other than wrestling, I can't think of too many sports where seniors are as involved with freshmen. In powerlifting, they all spot each other and laugh together," and they begin to understand that what they put into their sport is what they get out of it, he said.
Luckow, who has only boys on his team at Whitnall, said that powerlifting requires hard work but that he only lets his athletes lift weights he believes are appropriate for them. He teaches them to increase their poundage gradually.
"With younger kids you wouldn't want to have them lift heavy, but for these kids I have them do sets of eight for the major lifts and sets of 10 and 12 for the secondary exercises. We work on building a base."
Powerlifting for teens is a "great form of training when you're trying to maximize explosive power and development" and helps develop fast-twitch muscle fibers. But it can be dangerous if they're not supervised properly, said Todd Durkin, who does presentations for the IDEA Health and Fitness Association. Durkin also was named 2004 IDEA Health and Fitness personal trainer of the year.
"They can do this once they pass through puberty. As they develop an adequate base and get physically stronger, they can start to do these types of movements." However, he said he would not recommend the workout for younger boys and girls.
During the season, Luckow said, team members exercise chest, shoulder and triceps muscles on Mondays and Thursdays; leg, back and biceps muscles on Tuesdays and Fridays; and abdominal exercises that focus on the core at each workout.
When the season is over, they switch to a strength-and-conditioning phase and do more repetitions with lighter weights. They do cardio workouts three days a week. He said that in some cases he works with team members on nutrition but discourages them from dieting to make a lower weight class. Instead, he tells them to eat healthy foods and let nature take its course.
"I tell them to read labels, cut out McDonald's and eat chicken, fish and more protein," Luckow said.