Powerlifting vs Practical Strength: Powerlifting is Not About Who the Strongest Is

Written by: Kevin Cann

At 32 years old I got into the sport of powerlifting.  I had played soccer through college and trained in mixed martial arts for another 10 years after college.  That was a total of 26 years of athletic experience before I started lifting.  Starting this late makes it more difficult to gain strength when compared with a late teenager or if I was in my early twenties.  This does need to be taken into account.

I never liked the weight room, and I spent very little time inside of it.  I always felt I performed better if I just focused on my recovery and didn’t give myself that extra stressor to recover from.  If I had a decrease in games between my school and/or my club teams, I felt I got more out of doing some conditioning with the ball and skill practice on my own.

I never got knocked off the ball.  My birthday is in late July, so I was always a year younger than everyone else I played against.  Playing against stronger and faster opponents makes you stronger and faster.  I had just turned 18 years old my freshman year in college and playing against seniors that were 4+ years older than me.  Even under these conditions more than held my own from a physical standpoint.

When I started lifting, I could barely squat 250lbs.  At my first meet I squatted 315lbs, benched 275lbs, and pulled 470lbs.  Playing soccer, I weighed roughly 165-170lbs and this was my weight when I first started lifting.  I weighed in at 190lbs fully dressed and well fed at my first meet.  I stand 5’11” tall.

I had expectations that I would be elite in powerlifting like I was in every other sport that I played.  However, that never happened.  I had a pretty decent deadlift my first time around, and I have pulled over 600lbs which isn’t a world record, but it also is not too shabby either.  I think I developed this strength from all of the wrestling during the mma days.

However, there are plenty of girls that outlift me, when grown men couldn’t knock me off the ball or outwrestle me.  This has always made me look at strength and conditioning in a completely different way.  How much does the gym stuff actually matter for athletic performance?

In 2022 researchers published a study in the journal Biology of Sport, tiled “Effects of a resistance training intervention on the strength-deficit of elite young soccer players.”  The participants were 35, under 20 year old professional soccer players.  One group performed a resistance exercise program of half squats and squat jumps at 30-80% maximum while the other group just played soccer.

Maximum strength and jump performance were improved in the resistance trained group like expected, but paradoxically their strength deficit increased.  We would expect to see a decrease in this strength deficit which is an athlete’s ability to generate peak forces under minimal loads.  In other words, these soccer players could squat more, but their ability to generate force within the context of the game was soccer was negatively impaired.  It was not like they abandoned playing soccer, they played 1-2 times per week still throughout this intervention.

Athletes for generations have been saying that lifting weights made them slower, so they did not do it.  This was very common in the soccer world; I was one of them.  However, this is also true in the mma world.  Strength coaches have been disregarding this commentary forever and typically the assessments done show an increase in measurable pieces like strength and an improvement in vertical jumping.  

Frans Bosch discusses the idea of muscle slack and how countermovements and external loads hinder the body from learning how to produce co-contractions efficiently.  The countermovement and the external load remove the slack in the muscle system.  The best athletes can remove this slack without either and that is how they exploit quickness.  Think of a rope being pulled that is attached to an object.  The object will not move until all of the slack is pulled out.  The same is true for the body producing force.

In the study on the soccer players the exercises used countermovements and external loads.  This had an impact on relative peak forces.  What Frans Bosch says about muscle slack seems to make sense here.  Elite athletes know how to efficiently use the strength that they possess.  This is why we can see Kevin Durant not be able to bench press 185lbs, but be an all-time great in the NBA.

Powerlifting is not about comparing strength of its participants.  Like any sport it attracts those that are built for it.  Those that are in better positions to lift within the rules.  For example, locking out a deadlift by the knees versus by the hips is significant.  The same is true for squat and bench press range of motion.

Maximal strength is still a skill, and adequate technique is required in the lifts to display that strength.  This is true of each individual.  Soccer requires so much more like endurance, agility, and reactive coordination.  There will always be a strength deficit in field sports because of how fast the movements are.  The key to displaying that force on the field relies upon the efficiency of the athlete in using what they got.  Adding more strength doesn’t necessarily increase this efficiency.

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