Since I began training as a powerlifter, only one thing has really stood out to me: wanting to set a world record. I’ve got a printout of the list of world record raw lifts from powerliftingwatch that I have taped to my wall above my computer desk. Those numbers, always far off, have been a number to shoot for, an end goal, something to beat. That’s what draws me about powerlifting: while the sport of bodybuilding is subjective, powerlifting is about nothing but cold hard numbers. Could you lift this weight, or couldn’t you? That’s all there is to it, no fluff, no drama (though now that I’ve been following powerlifters for a while, I’ll tell you there’s plenty of drama that goes on behind the scenes.)
That’s every lifter’s dream. You want to be the best of the best, you want to be better than all the rest. If you’re not gonna be the strongest, why are you even lifting? I put myself through a lot of punishing workouts back in the day, trying to increase my strength so that I could lift more and more. For a while, that worked out. I kept getting stronger and stronger.
The problem is, sooner or later everyone starts to hit limits. The fact of the matter is that there are people who could train their entire lives just as hard as a world record setter and they might not come anywhere close. The fact that people very rarely do put in that sort of effort (because they get discouraged when they don’t see the results they want) means that for the most part, almost no one is ever actually pushed to their true potential.
What does this mean? Well first of all, while we know that everyone has limits, that doesn’t mean that this should be discouraging. For most people, those limits are waaaay beyond whatever you’re at. Genetics may be a limiting factor, but they should never be an excuse: no matter how poorly disposed towards exercise you are, that doesn’t mean you can’t probably be better than you are at any given moment. Very few people, including even the most gifted in the genetic realm, really reach their limits. For this reason, you shouldn’t use genetics as an excuse, because chances are they really aren’t the limiting factor for you. Hard work and effort are more important, and you can get further with those than genetics alone.
Here’s another thing: I’m probably never going to set a record. I’ve got scoliosis of the upper back, which makes it very hard to maintain spinal stability during squats and overhead presses. I can bench press okay (since my back is pinned to the bench) and I can deadlift okay (since the loading doesn’t rely on upper back stability as much) but when it comes to other strength motions I have extreme difficulty. Further, the truth is that my genetics simply aren’t that great: to hear stories of how freakishly strong Greg Nuckols’ family members are, for example, puts my family to shame. I’m good at building muscle, somewhat good at building strength, and average at building endurance. Not truly excellent at anything.
With three years of solid work, I’ve come close to my genetic limits in many ways. My squat has only barely improved over the past year and a half, despite lots of effort to improve it. My bench press has remained essentially the same for almost two years. My deadlift continued going up for a while, but stalled out a year ago when I went to Westside for my internship. Since then it’s gone up and back down, despite attacking it as intelligently as possible.
I’m nearing the end of my genetic potential. Certainly, I could keep going. I could take a crap ton of steroids and I’d get a lot better, but then I’d probably hit some limit there too. Either I’d run out of money, or I’d get old enough that I would start to go downhill permanently, and no amount of steroids will keep me going. The point here is: we’d like to imagine we can all keep improving forever, but real life stuff will get in the way, sooner or later.
That shouldn’t discourage us from training like we’re going to set world records. I’m still lifting just as intensely and as frequently as I was a year ago, and I’m not going to stop anytime soon. We only get better than we were the day before by continuing to train. Chances are, I haven’t hit my peak yet. There’s still plenty of time left in my lifting career, and I can still get better. But it’s also reasonable to admit, after a certain point, that the easy stuff is over. We’ve got a little bit of the hard stuff left, and that’s it. The law of diminishing returns means that lifters have to work harder and harder for smaller and smaller gains.
Ultimately, it takes shooting for the stars to land in the mountains. For me, those stars are the raw powerlifting records, pinned up on the wall above my computer and referenced daily.