Q&A: Training and Making Money in Powerlifting

Thanks to everybody who commented or emailed with questions.  I really am trying to make this coaching log useful for you, so if there's anything I can do to improve, please let me know!

There's only two questions for this first column, but they're big ones.  The first, about how my training has changed over time, is a great one because it's important to recognize that as you gain experience, you need to change the ways you challenge yourself, and my answer goes into a bit more detail about how you can do that.  The second question is about everyone's dream: how to get paid to be a powerlifter.  (Answer: you don't, but that's okay!)

Enough rambling.  Question one:

How has your training evolved over time?

I began training with weights in my freshman year of high school, way back in 2001.  I had read a bunch of muscle magazines and wanted to get stronger for wrestling, so I filled my workouts with drop sets, forced reps, isolation exercises, and all the other bells and whistles. There were two big problems. First, for me, pushing myself hard had become an end in itself, and I couldn’t realize why that didn’t produce results. Second, my technique was terrible.

In college, I fell in with a powerlifting crowd and finally started making progress lifting heavy weights for low reps. From 2005 to 2009, I took my bench press from 115 pounds to 315, my squat from 200 to 500, and my deadlift from 275 to 600. I was still muddling around, with no idea about technique or programming, but clearly I was on to something.

It wasn’t until three years later, in 2012, that I finally entered my first real powerlifting meet.  Once I started competing, my training took a huge leap forward, because finally I had a reason to get my act together.  Instead of “training by feel,” I began working with a coach, following a sensible program, and paying attention to my technique.  Even then, it took three more years before I was able to put all the pieces of my training together on the platform and walk away with an elite total.

Looking back over the past decade and a half, there are some standout “turning points” in my training career:

  • Building a support system. Whether it was with my college powerlifting team at the University of Virginia, the strongman crew at The Edge 2.0, or the incredible family at Big Tex Gym, having knowledgeable and supportive people around you makes an unparalleled difference in your motivation, productivity, and enjoyment of training.
  • Competing. Competing brings lots of benefits, especially when it comes to maximizing your performance.  One of the best parts about powerlifting is the camaraderie, and by putting yourself out there on the platform, you realize that the “team” culture of the sport is one giant support system.  And while setting PRs in the gym is fun, setting PRs on the platform is straight up addictive: there’s no equal to the rush of adrenaline you get after nailing a heavy lift and seeing white lights.  All of that adds up to more drive, more focus, more PRs, and more fun.
  • Learning about my body. There’s a big problem with cookie-cutter programs and textbook form: there are no one-size-fits-all solutions in powerlifting.  You have to learn how your body responds to volume, intensity, and frequency of training; and what squat, bench press, and deadlift form maximizes your leverages.  That process involves a lot of trial and error, but finding a good coach can speed things up a lot.

There’s a common theme here: getting strong(er) takes time and consistency. As cliche as it sounds, there are no shortcuts, and it really is about the journey and not the destination.  If you don’t enjoy the process, you won’t stick with it, and you won’t end up where you want to be.  On the flip side, if you’re having fun and progressing, you’ve already made it as a powerlifter. Keep doing those things year in and year old, and you’ll go a very long way.

How do you make a living in powerlifting?

I don't make my living from powerlifting -- at least, not directly!  I'm a graduate student at the University of Texas on a doctoral fellowship.  After I graduate I plan to teach at a college or university.  That said, I am studying the history of physical culture, and so in some sense, I do work in the fitness industry.  But I'm paid to teach and do research, not lift weights.

if your really want to make a living in the sport, your choices are basically:

  • Coach/trainer (online or in person)
  • Contest promoter
  • Product sales

That's it -- and those aren’t easy jobs to land or perform.  I have several sponsorships, and I'm very grateful for all of them, but they just help defray the expenses of competing (so equipment, gym access, meet fees, etc.).  I don't know of anyone who makes a living just by powerlifting.  If that's your goal, you could look at strongman or bodybuilding instead, since those sports offer much higher prize money -- but even then, you have to be at the very highest level to make it without some other type of job.

Don't think of that as a bad thing, though.  My best training usually comes when I'm very busy outside of the gym; it's not a sport where you need to dedicate overwhelming amounts of time to be successful, as long as you've got a good support system around you.

Don’t let it put you off of the sport, either.  If you’re committed to the idea of making a living in powerlifting, but don’t feel that any of the options above are right for you, I’d encourage you to think outside the box.  Here’s the million-dollar question: how can you combine your passion for powerlifting with your strongest talents in a way that creates success? Obviously, “success” means different things for different people.  You might want money, fame, the satisfaction of helping people, or some combination of things.  It doesn’t matter what you’re after, as long as you have a plan to get there that allows you to stay true to yourself.

Personally, I chose to pursue a career in teaching about physical culture because I consider my training a core part of my identity, I’m good at academics, and I enjoy helping people.  I probably could have made a lot more money if I had stuck it out in my former job at Google instead, but I’m so much happier doing what I am now that I’ve never once doubted my decision to leave.  Remember: Passion Trumps Everything.  And if you ever doubt that, go reread Under the Bar!

Loading Comments... Loading Comments...