Ever wake up wondering how you’ll find the strength to live the rest of your life? Have you ever discovered a passion that gave you that strength and made you feel new again? That’s what powerlifting was to me. It gave me motivation, it taught me how to get back up when things pushed me down. It healed me, even after the doctor said I would live with excruciating back pain for the rest of my days. Today I want to share my personal story of how powerlifting – and exercise in general – helped me get my life back on track.
Whether you’re up against similar obstacles, or just aiming to get in shape, lifting weights comes with a number of benefits. I know there are also a lot of negative impressions about it, which is why I want to address some of the most common concerns people have, such as:
Hopefully I’ll give you a better picture of this sport and you’ll see that the gym isn’t just for meatheads (even though I kinda look like one :D).
Let me take you back to 2010. This was probably the worst year of my life, period. I was working in a warehouse, loading trucks and preparing orders. This required a lot of improper lifting, as large boxes were sometimes heavy and hard to reach. The hours were abysmal – I worked 10- hour night shifts (sometimes longer) 6 times a week. The pay was even worse – around $180 per month. But hey, times were tough and I had to make a living.
After working in the warehouse for a year, I injured my back – badly. Repetitive improper lifting led to a disc protrusion in my lumbar spine, causing sharp and unrelenting pain. The sensation felt like someone was running knives up and down my leg as well as my lower back. Any kind of movement, even bending forward or backward, caused the pain to reach peak levels.
I was never really diagnosed because I couldn’t afford an MRI. I had to rely on my state healthcare, which gave me access to mediocre doctors who were uninterested in the problems I was having. I used my sick leave to visit the hospital, which is when the doctor told me that I’d have this pain for the rest of my life!
What I learned afterwards is that it was a severe case of sciatica. My disc was protruding and putting pressure on a nerve. The result was agonizing pain 24/7. On a scale of 1–10, my pain level was constantly around 8. I couldn’t find a position where I’d be pain free. My right leg was numb from the knee down, my toes were tingling, and it felt like someone was stabbing me with knives all the way up and down my lower back and my thigh.
At the time I was only 19 years old and hearing that this would be “normal” for the rest of my life didn’t make things bright for me. After more than 2 months on sick leave, I had to stand before a “commision” of doctors and tell them why I had been out of work for so long. They decided that one more batch of injections (I received over 30) was in order, and then I would go back to work. Of course, none of the injections actually helped me.
At this point I had to quit my job, and the pain lasted around 2 years after that. Pretty much all I could do was stay inside and play video games. I rarely went on walks, I stopped playing basketball, and had to avoid pretty much all other activities.
This led to depression, combined with never-ending pain and weight gain – a recipe for disaster!
Then came a turning point: It was one of those days where it felt like the pain was only getting worse and worse; I remember posting a status on social media about it and one of my friends reached out. Turns out he had a similar issue and he sent me a video with exercises that he was doing to relieve the pain and fix his back, which was a mix of corrective stretching and isometric holds.
Since I had the time, I started doing that drill 3 times a day. After a month, my pain subsided by about 90% – it felt like being born again!
I did some more research about back health and that’s when I heard about powerlifting for the first time. Many people on the internet agreed with one another that heavy deadlifts improved their backs.
Keep in mind that there weren’t as many online resources about powerlifting back then – only a few YouTubers were touching on the subject, along with people posting in random online forums. These days, you can find extensive information from guys like Athlean-x.
At first I was skeptical. At my worst, I couldn’t even bend over the sink to brush my teeth, how could lifting over 200 lb fix my back?!
These were my first thoughts, but since I was feeling better and my pain was almost gone, I was willing to try it.
The learning curve was steep, but now I can say that it was definitely worth it. I’ve read countless articles on powerlifting, watched countless videos, and they all helped in one way or another. In my case, doing deadlifts corrected my back and helped me keep it that way. But there are also other accessory movements that helped along the way such as hyperextensions, romanian deadlifts, and hip thrusts. I should explain here that training in powerlifting doesn’t mean you only do Squats, Bench, and Deadlifts. For each of these movements, you incorporate accessory movements to help you progress in the main lifts. All of this contributed to my healing process.
There were times when I definitely felt like I was going backwards, but each time I came back stronger and better for it. All in all, it’s been a great ride so far. I’ve even gone on to compete in Serbian powerlifting competitions and won a couple medals!
Ever since fixing my back, I’ve been very passionate about helping people with similar problems and spreading the word about powerlifting. I hope that you yourself have not had to endure extreme pain like I experienced before; but if you have,
I recommend doing your own research and looking for ways to heal yourself through physical activity.
Let’s move on to some common questions about powerlifting so you can decide if this approach is right for you:
This question can be answered with both yes and no. Put simply, it depends.
If you have a ruptured disc, blown out knee, and/or a faulty elbow and you try to “ego-lift,” then it will definitely be bad for you.
However, if you stick to the proper form and exercise caution, it’s good for you. Powerlifting, and weight lifting in general, comes with many benefits: You’ll improve bone density, gain more muscle mass and strength, and retain the use of muscles which you don’t use in day-to-day activities. All of these are good things.
There’s a reason why scientists incorporated some of powerlifting movements up in the ISS (International Space Station)! In my case, I used powerlifting as a way to heal my back injuries.
Based on my experience, you’d probably expect me to tell you no, however that’s not really the case for everyone. While powerlifting has great benefits for your back, in some cases it’s best to avoid it and just stick with the movements that feel good to you.
For example, If you notice that squats are really leaving your back feeling broken, or you slipped a disc doing it (even with proper form), perhaps it’s best to avoid that lift and just stick with something else that won't aggravate the issues you’re having. There are plenty of alternatives out there!
Man, it’s hard to answer any of these questions with just yes or no! I’ll use my personal experience to explain this one:
I did gain fat while using powerlifting as a foundation for my training. Heavy lifting will put on muscle; if you’re not strict about your diet, however, it will definitely put on some fat, too!
Back when I was competing and healing my back, I was mostly focused on improving my strength, not my body composition. This resulted in me having more fat than I liked.
However, I also used powerlifting to shed that same fat down when I was dieting. So there’s more than one way of using it.
Doing powerlifting will not magically make you fat, but it won’t slim you down magically either. You have to pay attention to what you’re eating and how much you're eating in order to achieve the desired results when it comes to body composition.
In my experience, it really depends on what your desired goal is.
If you’re just looking to build muscle, choosing only to do cardio will probably not give you the desired results, so in that case weights are “better.” On the flip side, if you’re looking to improve your cardiovascular health, then cardio would be a better way to go about it.
Regardless of what your goals are, you shouldn’t really compare these two and pick just one or the other. Find a balance where you’re happy to do both. Each of them has great benefits, but in my opinion they work best if you incorporate both into your training routine.
I must emphasize the fact that powerlifting didn’t just change my physical well being, it also improved my mental health. It taught me some lessons that I wouldn’t have a chance to learn anywhere else. I became stronger both physically and mentally.
See, when you’re building your lifts you go through many phases. You have to make peace with the fact that there will be ups and downs. You can’t make progress each training and expect to just go uphill. This lesson transfers very well to our career paths: no matter what you’re doing, you’ll come to a point where you feel like you’re not making progress, you’ll hit plateaus, and you’ll be frustrated. Breaking out of that pattern requires the right mindset, and that’s exactly what I learned to build in the gym.
Learning how to break plateaus also requires you to develop your senses and grow as a person. I remember when I was training 6 times a week, just adding more weight every time no matter what. I was consumed by my desire to progress, but after just a couple of months I hit a plateau so hard that it made all that progress fade away within a week. Little did I know at the time, I was overtraining and burned out completely. It took me 6 months to get back to where I was and recover properly.
The lesson here is that you can’t rush success. As much as I wanted to bull-rush my deadlift to over 500 lb, life had other plans! Things like these teach us the most. You have to exercise patience, humility, and respect the weight!
But perhaps the best thing I learned from powerlifting is that you have to learn how to listen to your body. Our bodies tell us many things, and most of the time we ignore the signs. These signs can be anything from feeling tired after sleeping 8+ hours, to different pains and discomforts.
This is particularly important if your goal is to train for a long time, well into your 60s and 70s (which is what I hope for). For instance, if you’ve been having elbow pain for a couple of weeks due to your bench press training, perhaps it’s best to listen to what your body is telling you and leave that one-rep-max for another time. Not only will you come out of it uninjured, but you’ll get a chance to come back even better and stronger later on.
All of this combined definitely had a big influence over the way I think and feel. I’m still enjoying the journey, currently taking it slow and steady, and working on winning gold in a state competition!
Has your experience in the gym helped you turn your life around? Thinking of trying powerlifting for the first time? Post your questions below, or feel free to share your experience with us :)