Robert Walker is in pain. After warming-up in the frenetic pre-lift area at the Vodafone Events Centre in South Auckland, New Zealand. A light deadlift at 140kg has triggered spasms in his lower back, leaving him in horrible levels of hurt. This pain is threatening to end all his hard work in his favourite lift, crippling him mentally. Walker has already done his bench press and squat, but the international powerlifting competition is running four hours late due to the number of competitors.
In a desperate attempt to recover, the 18-year-old gingerly goes through his stretching ritual with extra clothing layers to help improve circulation to his back. His mind is in tatters. He’s a sub junior in his category and he’s representing South Africa. He lowers his opening attempt from 240kg down to 200kg, not sure if he can lift at all. All the time and effort in his training seem to slip away as the countdown clock chips away at his future. His name is called. He walks onto the platform. The pain is temporarily struck from his mind, and Walker lifts the 200kg barbell like it’s a broomstick. Despite the spasms, he walks away from the first lift and decides that it’s all or nothing. He has one lift in him, and it’s either going to end in a world record or a damaged back.
He stands facing the wall, wearing four extra layers and his weight belt to keep his back from going into spasms again. Fittingly, he’s plugged into heavy metal, consuming caffeine through coffee and tablets. One of the coaches approaches him, and pats him on the shoulder. Walker removes the extra layers while still listening to his hard soundtrack, chalks up his large, calloused hands, and inhales a mixture of ammonia and eucalyptus, a lifter’s snuff which clears and focuses the mind. It makes Walker furious. He walks onto the stage to a fairly empty crowd (it’s now 4am), but the rest of the South African lifters make up the numbers by screaming their support. Filled with doubt before stepping onto the platform, Walker now feels only anger. He shouts, grasps the bar, and takes the weight of 280kg.
The bar travels upwards, bending in the middle. Walker reaches the crucial part of the lift, and mentally spots himself, providing a final injection of confidence. He stands straight, locking out the deadlift, and waits for the command from the judges to put it down. The wait feels like hours, but he gets the order, and carefully lowers the barbell. If he drops it now, it’s a failed lift. He turns to the judges and waits for their decisions. He gets the prized three white lights on the screen, marking a good lift. Walker collapses. He’s just broken a world record.
The Raw Truth
Walker is part of the new wave of young athletes who are choosing powerlifting as their sport of choice. Powerlifting focuses on the three classic weightlifting moves: the squat, the bench press and the deadlift. Powerlifting can be broken into two categories: Raw (lifting without any aids besides a weight belt) and Equipped (which allows the use of tools like a squat and deadlift suit and a bench shirt). These heavily-woven, compression-type tools can provide up to 80kg difference. Walker falls into the Raw camp, but the South African powerlifting team has both.
“The Raw side seems to be growing faster,” says Walker. “It’s incredibly popular in the US now. I think it’s easier for people to relate to and that’s why I think it’s the future. The Raw World Champs were held in Muldersdrift in June, and our participation numbers increased drastically. Think of how many South African men go to gym and care about what they can bench, squat and deadlift – as soon as squat suits and extra equipment is brought in to lift incredible numbers, it becomes less relatable.”
It’s easier, and less expensive, to train without the extra gear. Raw lifting opens the field up to almost any kind of athlete, as you don’t need any equipment or special training – just throw on a belt and a pair of shoes and start lifting. It can also complement the activity you’re doing. “It’s a very good base for strength and conditioning for most sport,” says Andrew Anthony, Walker’s lifting coach. Anthony has competed and coached in Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting for the past 30 years, and has his own CrossFit box. He coached his son in Olympic weightlifting who represented South Africa at the 2008 Olympics. “People find strength addictive. Once the strength bug bites, people want to do it competitively.”
In powerlifting, the dominant forces are still Eastern European countries and the US, but like Walker, there’ll be records broken by local lifters in the next year. Walker has now moved into a new age group – junior (under 23) – so he’ll be working on improving his totals. “He’s still young and just having moved up to juniors he’s now competing against guys a lot older than him, but as he matures as a junior I’m definitely expecting more world records from him,” says Anthony. “He’s got a very strong will and drive to succeed and even in training this comes across – he’s always asking for more. He also has a very good understanding of training, technique and how the body works, which is a great plus in coaching him.”
The Starting Point
Walker spends his days working as a personal trainer at the Wellness and Motion gym in Parkmore. He’s completed a Diploma in Exercise Science at the HFPA (Health and Fitness Professionals Association) and has certificates in nutrition, sports conditioning and training in different environments. Although he’s already broken a world record, he’s only been powerlifting seriously for just over a year. Walker was a good sportsman at school, and not just in physical terms: he had great hand-eye coordination and athletic ability. In primary school he played provincial cricket and early high school, provincial squash. “In grade 10 puberty hit,” he says. “I put on 30kg and started hitting the gym. Then I gave everything up and played rugby.” Injuries hamstrung his rugby career, but he never stopped lifting weights.
When he left high school, a fellow gym goer inspired Walker to start powerlifting. “[Isidingo actor] Jack Devnarain told me I should start doing it,” says Walker. “Jack used to compete while he was still a police officer in KwaZulu-Natal.” Walker did his first competition in February last year and did well, so he was invited to compete in Russia in June, and in New Zealand in December. “I like it because the improvements you make are so measurable,” he explains. “You can play a rugby game and still be uncertain of just how well you played, but with powerlifting, if you add five kilograms to the bar on a specific lift, you know that you’ve improved and the hard work has paid off.”
His coach agrees: “I enjoy getting individuals to higher and higher levels of what their bodies can accomplish,” says Anthony. “It’s an art as much as it is a science.”
Battle Of The Barbells
There are similarities between powerlifting and the two other popular barbell-focused fitness movements: Olympic Weightlifting and CrossFit. All three are very measurable in terms of results, but each provide slightly different benefits. “CrossFit has been very good for powerlifting and Olympic Weightlifting, as it has introduced more people to the sports and the basic movements,” explains Walker. “A lot of them come to powerlifters to learn how to squat, deadlift and bench better.” He’s also quick to stress the one big benefit he sees in powerlifting: he sees at it being more relatable for the average guy. “For the 80% of gym goers who just want to get bigger, and who have been inspired by old school athletes like Arnie and Reg Park, powerlifting is the answer.” This may ignite a battle with bodybuilders, but Walker is quick to point out why he prefers powerlifting. “Bodybuilding is great, but a lot of people get stuck on doing extreme isolation techniques which don’t have the same benefits as the old school classic compound lifts.”
There are a number of similarities between powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting, but the main difference is that powerlifting is nowhere near as technical. “If you want do Olympic weightlifting properly, you’re looking at six months with a PVC pipe or broomstick practising technique before you even go near weights,” says Walker. “You need high levels of flexibility, proprioception and you need a very good coach. I taught myself powerlifting in the beginning – now I have a great coach in Andrew – but you can’t do the same thing in Olympic weightlifting.”
For the average gym goer who wants to build muscle, Walker believes powerlifting is the right choice. “I’m not saying that Olympic weightlifters don’t experience hypertrophy on a large scale too, but powerlifters tend to get bigger quicker due to the increased time under tension compared to the Olympic weightlifters. You can fight a deadlift for 10 seconds, but time spent under tension is much longer. You’re going through concentric and eccentric phases much more slowly than in weightlifting.” It doesn’t require as much time learning technique, and it’s more accessible for the average guy.
The Iron Doesn’t Lie
Raw powerlifting has a kind of honesty that appeals to Walker. It’s just you and the iron, there are no excuses to hide behind – you either lift it, or you don’t. It’s also a fast-track when is comes to building muscle and losing flab. “The big three moves will burn more kilojoules than a bicep curl or similar exercise will ever do, so I use them with all my clients, including women who are intimidated by barbells and weights. I would rather put a healthy female client though a good deadlift than through a bicep curl for overall fitness benefits,” explains Walker. It can also fix imbalances in your body, and it forces you to fix your form. Muscle imbalances don’t fare well in powerlifting, as they show up when you’re under heavy loads. “If you have a weakness the weight will find it,” explains Walker. “It puts a huge emphasis on form and not just with the three exercises – but with all moves.” The iron doesn’t judge: it teaches you to lift properly, builds self-respect, helps you to blow off steam. You may not be aiming for a world record like Walker, but almost all men are looking for some more self-respect, a more capable body and a stronger mind. The answer? A power prescription of three lifts. Time to stand before the iron and test yourself.
Check out Raising the Bar to upgrade your three power lifts with the expert advice and assistance of Robert Walker.