Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Nerd Walks into a Powerlifting Meet

This is me deadlifting 400 lbs.

Here's something that won't surprise you:

Growing up I was incredibly bad at sports.

I played baseball for 6 years or so. I never caught a ball once in a game, though I did injure my wrist, hands, and face trying to do so. I was really small so the one thing I was really good at was drawing walks. I mean, that's good for my OBP, right? I was like a tiny Kevin Youkilis.

I played hockey for probably close to a decade. I was a little better at that but mostly because I was really good at throwing myself at people. I was less good at scoring goals and passing the puck. So I played defense. At 5'7" weighing in at a whopping 125 lbs, I was probably the smallest defenseman in the state of New Hampshire in 1998.

And let's not talk about the two years I made a go at playing soccer.

I was the slowest kid in my class. I was scrawny and weak. I was incredibly uncoordinated. I'm still uncoordinated. Don't ask me to dance. It's a terrifying sight to behold.

I mean, that's fine. I'm smart. I'm funny. I'm a good writer. I'm a good cook. Like, sports aren't the be all end all of everything. I'd rather be smart and funny than really good at throwing a ball into a basket or net. I realized that a long time ago.

But as an adult I have realized that I like lifting weights.

I tried lifting weights when I was in high school.  My dad got me this weight set from Sears, and I bought this Gold's Gym strength training book with pictures of exercises in it and I would try to do the exercises. I had no clue what I was doing. I was theoretically trying to get stronger for hockey but I also thought if I had biceps that girls might be more attracted to me. This didn't work. Regardless, I was not a very good teenage weightlifter.

When I was... 24?... I signed up for a gym membership and started lifting weights again. I was still bad at it, but now the internet was a thing and I was able to watch videos of workouts and that was helpful. I actually got some results.

After we got married, Chelsea and I decided to sign up for Crossfit. It seemed challenging and scary and I like things that are challenging and scary. We loved it. We love our box, Crossfit Defined. We love our coaches. We love the community at the gym. Both of us took to lifting weights, a major part of Crossfit, like fish to water.

I mean, we're nerds. Both of us. We had a Steampunk themed wedding. We named one of our cats after a character from an obscure fantasy novel. I do a Star Trek podcast.

We are both unlikely athletes. We're very unlikely weightlifters.

So here we are, 2.5 years into the Crossfit experience and it seemed like it was time for a new challenge. A few of the coaches at the box had been regularly doing a powerlifting program and organizing groups of athletes to participate in local powerlifting meets. I asked the coaches, Dave and Kevin, if I could do the training. I signed up for the meet. I bought a singlet.

Sunday morning, I did my first ever powerlifting meet.

For the unfamiliar, powerlifting consists of three movements- the squat, the deadlift, and the benchpress. Athletes are divided up by weight (at 167 lbs, I was the smallest guy in the 165-181 lb weight class). You get three attempts at each lift. If you are successful in an attempt, you try to lift more weight on the next attempt.

What was it like?

Well, so first and foremost, I'm an anxious person. Like, sometimes I freak out because I have to make a phone call to a person I've never called before. I toss and turn at night thinking about small projects that I didn't complete at work the day prior. I am terrified of failure. It's very important to me to try new things, but it's always nerve-wracking for me. For a nerdy guy, stepping into a room full of meatheads who've dedicated their lives to weightlifting was terrifying. Why was it terrifying? I don't know. I had some vague sense that if I screwed up the world would implode in on itself and it would be my fault and everyone would blame me. I had trouble sleeping most of the week leading up to the meet.

Also... I'm me. Like, I'm very much me. I'm unapologetically me. I wanted to do well at the meet but I also wanted to do well on my own terms. I wore a Green Lantern Underarmour shirt because it was important to me that people knew I was a nerd. I was trying to channel Kilowog.

We showed up, rolling nearly 30 people deep with coaches and friends from the gym. Our coaches were so supportive. Like, Kevin and Dave were great. I need to tell you how good of a job these two guys have done building a team that is supportive, accepting, and welcoming to everyone. Powerlifting is dominated by old school, 40-50 something year old dudes who are built like small mesas. Crossfit Defined Powerlifting is majority female. CFD's girls are badasses. Most of the people on the team are in their twenties. We come from all kinds of backgrounds. We looked very different than the other teams participating at the event. I was unbelievably proud of that. Like, this team is different. This team thinks everybody can be strong. That's cheesy, but it's how I feel. Feelings are frequently cheesy, I think.

Onto the event.

Remember that thing I said about fear of failure? Okay, so the very first lift was the squat and I failed on my first squat. I can squat 330 lbs. I squatted that much weight just a week ago. On Sunday morning, I freaked out, my form sucked, and I failed on my first rep. And you know what? The world didn't implode. I didn't die of embarrassment. It was fine. Failing like that was and can be great. Like, once it's happened you know things can't get worse than that and hell, that wasn't bad at all. At all.

I nailed my next two attempts at the squat, and hit nearly all of my other attempts on the day.

I say "nearly" because I did screw up one other rep- on my final bench, I tried to lift 236 lbs- 5 more lbs than I've ever lifted. I really didn't think I would get the rep. But I did, and I was so happy that I joy-panicked. I racked the bar before the judge said I could and the rep was disqualified. It didn't matter. I still got that rep in my mind. That felt amazing.

And guess what? I got a trophy. I took fourth in my age and weight class. This is going on my bookshelf with my Nature Trivia Trophy, and the Del Award for Best New Team that the Washington Generals won in 2006. Most of our team won trophies. Everybody did great.

I mean, it was a challenging day. The very first thing I did was fail. But it was worth it. I know more about myself now, and what I'm capable of.

This has been long, and ramble-y, but I'll say one more thing:

If you're a nerd, I encourage you to try weightlifting. And like, I don't just mean get some dumbbells and do some curls. I mean, take some of that obsessive, passionate energy that defines you and channel it into getting really good at weights. Get really strong. Eat a ton of food. Make vast, endless spreadsheets tracking your progress. Read scientific studies about optimum macronutrient intake for muscle gain. You like superheroes? Go be one.

You'll be better for it, and honestly, weightlifting will be better for having you.


  1. This is incredibly well written, inspiring, honest, funny, and quirky. Thank you for sharing, because we all have moments and challenges where we feel the same!

  2. Nerds becoming jocks.. Jocks becoming nerds.. you sure that is wise??! Awesome post.

  3. I can really relate to this being a nerdy kid growing up, who discovered weight-training when I was a teenager but had no idea what I was doing. Now I'm training to do a powerlifting meet and I'm getting my Ph.D. Being a nerd and a joke are not mutually-exclusive!

  4. PLing nerd checking in, I lead a team of competition powerlifting DnD nerds in SE michigan. Email me sometime I would love to talk about nerds in lifting with you!