Powerlifting through the pain

Halifax powerlifters discuss the health behind their beloved hobby

Aaron McDonald does a 585-pound lift. Photo: Facebook

Imagine deadlifting a cow or squatting with a pony over your shoulders. This is the weight equivalent of what one Haligonian lifts in his spare time.

Aaron McDonald, a 22-year-old personal trainer from Antigonish, began his powerlifting competition career in October 2012. Since then, he has competed at the Atlantic and national levels and is 10 weeks out from his next lift in Amherst.

Powerlifting is a sport in which competitors are judged by their strength. Competitions consist of three lifts: squat, bench press and deadlift. McDonald’s best competition lifts are a 500-pound squat, 330-pound bench press and 611-pound deadlift, marks he hopes to break in April.

But working with such heavy weight can be a physical strain.

“It’s not the healthiest thing for your body,” McDonald says. “I usually have some sort of injury or I am in pain, but that’s part of the sport.”

Frank White, a 27-year-old Halifax powerlifter, says the hobby has been hard on his body since he started two years ago. He sees a registered massage therapist regularly, sleeps well and trains smart to manage injuries.

“You will get injured in powerlifting,” he says. “Expect it, work past it, adjust and continue.” He attributes the injuries of some lifters to poor form when lifting.

Some may wonder why McDonald or White would put their bodies through this kind of training.

“They call it the ‘iron bug,’” McDonald says jokingly. “Once you get hooked you’re hooked for life.”

“I always played sports growing up and I was a skinny, scrawny kid in high school. So I started lifting weights to get better, bigger and stronger. Then it just took over my life.”

White says “the only person you can blame for not getting stronger is yourself, and that is very refreshing and simplistic to me. That is what I love about this sport.”

McDonald and White say the sport is growing among young people. “There are tons of young lifters who I train alongside who are all doing powerlifting,” White says.

Frank White says the new breed of powerlifters is lean and muscular. Photo: Facebook

McDonald says the only time a powerlifter needs to adhere to a strict diet is when he is trying to compete in a lower weight class than one of the 11 he is weighed into before competition.

White says he has a good diet, but doesn’t worry too much about a few treats.

“If I want a cookie, I eat a couple. If I want ice cream, I just eat it,” he says. “I just fit it into my daily calorie and macronutrient goals.”

Kelly Whalen, a registered dietitian in Halifax, says that a powerlifter’s diet doesn’t have to be as restricted as that of a fitness competitor, because “there is less of a focus on the aesthetic appeal of muscle mass by cutting down to a certain body fat percentage.”

But they do have to be mindful of what they put into their bodies.

“A powerlifter is just like an athlete,” says Whalen. “Powerlifters should be careful what kind of diet they are following and what supplements they use to achieve their goals.”

She says supplements like creatine, used for short bouts of explosive energy, are popular among powerlifters.

Powerlifters have a different body composition than an average active adult, Whalen says. Because of this, “extra mass equals extra weight, which will increase the overall energy needed to maintain this body type.”

McDonald says that he has a flexible diet and maintains that “we eat lots and lots of food.”

Whalen says most powerlifters have a body mass index (BMI) that places them at overweight or obese. However, BMI is a measurement of weight to height ratio, so this is not a good measurement of health for those with an increased muscle mass like powerlifters.

White agrees that you don’t have to be in the best shape to powerlift, but it definitely helps to keep in shape.

From a nutritional perspective, Whalen says, powerlifting can be a healthy lifestyle “if one is consuming a healthful diet that includes all the four food groups with adequate energy.”

McDonald says he hopes to make a career out of his love for powerlifting and wants to become a professional strength and conditioning coach.

“I’ll be competing until the day I die.”