Like many young boys, I dreamed of athletic glory when I was little. Hell, I still dream of it today. I recently, and very unexpectedly, had the opportunity to experience athletic glory by setting a national record in the squat for my age group and weight class in the 100% RAW Powerlifting Federation.
I say “unexpectedly” because I have never been particularly renowned for my athletic prowess. I had good hand-eye coordination (from all those childhood years of playing Nintendo?), but I am very thin and generally lack the speed, power, and endurance to be competitive in most sports. I was a solid middle of the packer in high school cross country and generally finished DFL (dead fucking last) on my high school swim team.
Also “unexpectedly” because I didn’t know that my planned lift weight would be a national record until I arrived at the meet.
So if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to hear “national record attempt” announced as you step up to the bar, this my story of how I did it and what was going on in my mind as it actually happened.
Training and Preparation
I had first experimented with “bare basics” weight lifting 10 years earlier when I was still in high school and discovered Stuart McRobert’s weight lifting programs for Hardgainers. As a 5’10” 125 lb 18 year old, I considered myself the prototypical hard gainer.
I didn’t stick with it long enough to make any real progress, but the strength improvements I saw during the 6 months I lifted regularly convinced me that doing just a few low rep sets of the basic free weight exercises was much more effective and sustainable than the conventional burn-out inducing 20 sets of 20 different exercises most magazine articles encouraged you to do.
I largely forgot about lifting for the next 10 years with a sporadic month or two here and there of gym time until I discovered an article on 80/20 Powerlifting by Pavel Tsatsouline. The idea of competing in a powerlifting meet burned inside me.
In September 2010 I finally decided to start lifting again in earnest. I started off just doing 2 sets of 5 reps on squats and bench presses. Each week I added 10 lbs to the bar in the squat and 5 lbs to the bar in the bench press. By December I had worked up to 185 lbs for reps in the squat and 110 lbs for reps in the bench press.
In January 2011 I actually pulled the trigger and decided to register for the NY State Championships meet hosted by the 100% RAW Powerlifting Federation. I also switched my training plan over to Pavel’s 5×5 routine with a few modifications. I skipped light days and only did 3×3 for heavy squats.
The meet was three months away in March. I had started a new cycle with light weights in January and increased the dead lift and squat by 10 lbs each week and the bench press 5 lbs each week. Two weeks before the meet I was using 185 lbs for reps in the squat and dead lift and 115 lbs in the bench.
My progress over the three months wasn’t strictly linear as I had a hip injury that prevented me from doing squats and dead lifts for the last two weeks in February. I also decreased reps in the bench press as I stopped being able to hit 5×5 after 100 lbs.
The week before the meet I did a full dress rehearsal for each of the lifts to see what my max was. I squatted 205 lbs, benched 120 lbs, and dead lifted 225 lbs at 128 lbs body weight.
The Perfect Storm for a National Record
Powerlifting, like boxing, has different federations. Each federation maintains its own record books.
USAPL is the largest federation in the US and the most competitive. However, most of their meets allow for the use of bench press shirts, knee wraps, and other supportive gear that can add 40-60% to a lifter’s max. I didn’t want to use any of this equipment as it felt like cheating. I wanted to know that I and I alone was able to lift the weights that I put up.
USAPL also hosts raw meets (no gear except weight belt or wrist wraps), but there weren’t any near me so I entered a meet hosted by the 100% RAW Powerlifting Federation.
Powerlifting is a weight class sport so the slimness that put me at a disadvantage in other sports put me at an advantage in powerlifting because there isn’t much competition in the 132 lb weight class and I’m reasonably strong for my weight. Also, most of the 132 lb lifters are younger lifters who are still growing, which means that the 25-29 year old age group (I was 28 at the time) is virtually uncontested in most meets.
The combination of relatively uncompetitive federation and relatively uncontested weight class and age group combination created the perfect storm for a low national record that was just within reach–a 203.8 lb squat.
In fact, I didn’t even realize that my planned 205 lb squat would break the existing record until the meet organizer told me at the weigh-in the day before the meet. I was both surprised and excited. National weight lifting record holder and my name were two things I’d never dreamed would be in the same sentence.
I’ll be clear that I don’t even pretend this lift is on the level of other national records. You can see from the national records chart alone that even in the 100% RAW federation there are substantially higher squat records in other age groups of the 132 lb weight class. Nonetheless, a national record it is in the record book.
Before lifting started, I warmed up very lightly just using a few sets of the bar alone and a few reps at 115 lbs.
I opened in the squat with a very light 135 lb first attempt. I had never lifted in front of judges before, so I wanted to lift a weight that I knew I could easily put up even if I got a little stage fright. White lights! (the three judges, front, left, and right, each give you a red or white light depending on whether you achieved correct technical standards for the lift).
After completing my first attempt, I walked over to the meet organizer’s desk to give the weight for my second attempt. This would be it. I informed her that I would attempt to break the previous 203.8 lb record with 205 lbs (important because the weights were metric and you could only use the .5kg weight for record attempts).
I had squatted 205 lbs in practice so I knew that I was capable and wanted to hit it on my 2nd lift in case I missed a technical call or something so I’d still have another chance in my 3rd attempt.
When my turn came up, the organizer announced “Load 93 kg [205 lbs] for Brian Brookshire, this is a national record attempt.”
I had envisioned myself walking up to the bar swelling with pride and an audience on the edge of their seats for a rare vision of a national record attempt. However, I felt like the audience was actually looking on in disbelief. I imagined them thinking, “What? That’s it? I don’t get it, how is the weight this skinny man lifting a national record.”
Distracted, I put the audience out of my mind and just focused on the bar and tried to psych myself up as I wedged myself into place under it.
Down, so far so good. Up… oh my god this is painful. I got stuck about half way through the lift. I had to grunt and groan taking what was in my mind nearly 30 seconds to get the bar from half way up to the locked out position.
Two white lights and one red light. The lift was good!
I lifted my hands in victory and let out a “yes” scream. The audience clapped. In the back of my mind a part of me couldn’t help but think they were just being polite.
The 205 lb lift was so agonizing that day, that I decided to pass on my 3rd attempt and save strength for the bench and dead lift. After notifying the organizer of my intent to pass, I walked back over to the lifters’ area. Two of the men offered handshakes and one said, “That national record was some good shit, man. Good shit.”
I’m not sure what I expected, but somehow I thought more might happen. Perhaps a powertlifting team full of big guys needed a 132 pounder to round out their weight classes and would be impressed by my national record enough to invite me to join. Perhaps a small local publication (in the very small town the meet was held) might be covering the event and ask for a sound bite.
That was it though. Two handshakes and a congratulatory message later it was all over. I had faded to anonymity before all the lifters had even finished squatting.
I was by no means alone that day. Many other national record attempts were made and completed. In retrospect, this is unsurprising since the combination of weight class and age group creates dozens of different divisions and sets of records.
After the awards ceremony someone said to me, “Good job today.” I thought for a second they had remembered me from the national record lift, until I realized that everyone was doing this. This was just a formality like baseball teams shaking hands at the end of a game congratulating each other on a good game. I also offered my congratulations on a good job today.
In retrospect, what surprised me most was my own insecurity about the event. Every time I thought about the audience I immediately projected negative thought patterns onto them.
When you get on stage you either feel like all eyes are on you or that all eyes should be on you depending on your frame of mind. In reality, that’s not the case. At any given time half the crowd is disinterested, talking to their neighbor, or checking their text messages. At this particular meet, most of the audience was just there to cheer on friends or family they had competing.
Granted this was just a smallish meet with 40 lifters held in a small-town YMCA and not the Olympics, what struck me overall was how unremarkable the experience was. There wasn’t a big “wow, I’m a national record holder” moment. Life didn’t change. Hell, I was so tired all I wanted to do was plow down a steak at the restaurant and go back to my hotel for a nap.
Lessons for Life
No one cares about your achievements as much as you do. In fact most other people are downright uninterested or ambivalent unless it provides some kind of visual entertainment. This doesn’t mean that you are somehow uninteresting or unloved, but it does mean that you should pursue goals that are meaningful to you and not because of the recognition that you think you will get.
No matter the size of the success, the moment is fleeting. My moment of powerlifting glory only lasted about 30s from the end of my lift to the handshakes and congratulations from fellow lifters. Do something because you love it. The moment of achievement is utterly brief and does not create a permanent life change. I will probably compete in powerlifting again because I love lifting really heavy things. It sure won’t be because I’m getting accolades as a national record holder.
One area of personal development I’d like to explore more is the idea of “being on stage.” Public speaking is supposedly one of the greatest fears of man, but being on stage provides one of the best opportunities to learn about yourself and others. If you want to be a leader, I think you first have to learn how to confidently be on stage.