Maximum Strength

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Standing at the entrance of Payne Whitney’s sprawling fourth-floor fitness center feels something like floating inside an enormous, whirring human brain. It’s 7 p.m. on a Thursday, and I’m wading past three soaring rows of treadmills and ellipticals, every last one of which is packed with sweating figures whose vaguely desperate gazes aim toward nowhere. The distant clangs and clatters — contained by a towering ceiling and factory-high white walls — sound mindless, like wandering thoughts. Amid the treadmills the frantic and somehow hopeful chaos of thudding feet forms a rhythm for a moment, almost a coherent chain of ideas — and then its patterns split apart and scatter once I think I could have cracked the code.

I’m here to find Yale’s club powerlifting team, whose members push and pull on heavy barbells to gain as much strength as possible — no matter what happens to their waistlines. Strength is a means to an end in so many other sports, but in powerlifting, it’s the only end in sight.

Jon Richardson ’11, the captain of the Yale Club Powerlifting Team — a demure and modestly stocky Physics and Astronomy major with a soft Virginian accent — arrives alone in dark blue warm ups and black Chuck Taylor high-tops. (Experienced lifters wear shoes with flat soles because the soles of running shoes will wobble under heavy loads — as if you were squatting on a creaky mattress.) Jon trots down to the farthest bench press station in the corner and lies back against it, his bare hands caked in white chalk for better grip strength. His breath held and face flushed red, he lowers and then vaults a bar bearing the weight of two small people through the air. He holds his breath through three rounds, his eyes focused on the expansive ceiling.

Jon is the last of the original four members of the four-year-old team, which he discovered as a freshman at the activities bazaar. Jon came across a 275 pound man with enormous crossed arms, who was staring down at passing freshmen from behind a pair of cheap sunglasses. On the table in front of him was a standard sheet of printer paper, folded upright, that, in tiny black capital letters, read: POWERLIFTING TEAM. Jon had lifted weights for high school sports, but now he was looking only to stay in shape, and he liked something about this man’s ominous approach. He asked the beefy figure, “So this is powerlifting?” The man, Craig Kafura ’09, who would later go on to an MA at Columbia and a think tank in Chicago, nodded curtly: “Yeah.” He uncrossed his arms and handed Jon a flyer. Jon later explains, “I guess he deemed me worthy.”

The powerlifting practices, and the growth stimulus resulting from them, were so intense that Jon began to eat as the team’s two leaders, Craig and Dave Damminga ’08, told him to: at least a gram of protein for each pound of his bodyweight. (Measured out in beef, that would equal 9-10 burger patties for a 200 pound man, not including carbohydrates.) During a practice in October that first year, the team’s only sophomore, the nearly-300-pound Josh Colon ’10, arrived 20 minutes late without his lifting belt. Dave, who was himself a 340 pound, 6’10” behemoth, heaved Josh six inches off the ground with his bare hands, and shook him in the air while screaming: “Josh what the fuck is wrong with you?? How can you lift without your fucking belt??” Josh went back, got his belt, and was never late again.

The team’s membership expanded slowly by word of mouth. Lifters approached Jon and others in the gym to tell them they looked smart about their training. This year the membership has settled at 12, with about half that number showing up at least once each week.

But powerlifting’s focus is not what most gym-goers are after, that is looking more attractive and strong. Powerlifters want to actually be strong, no matter how that makes them look. Elias Quijano ’12, a Biomedical Engineering major and the team’s president, knows all about the difference. He began his lifting career as a 14-year-old 140-pound bodybuilder in Miami, a city home to a vibrant gym culture. Elias made time for two hours of cardio per day in addition to his two-hour weightlifting workouts. His bodybuilder’s diet was rich in lean protein; he’d sit with his friends while they were out for pizza and open up a can of tuna. He chewed gum while lifting as Arnold Schwarzenegger used to and emulated Schwarzenegger’s mental strategy for lifting weights: imagine you are carrying the universe, and that if you don’t push the weight the universe will fall, and everyone will die.

Elias came to Yale and stuck with his training in the spare time he had. He met the powerlifting team in the gym during his sophomore spring and tried to compromise his bodybuilding methods with theirs. But then, he noticed they were getting stronger faster than he was. Elias said that eventually, he thought: Why am I going to care about looking strong, if I’m not going to be strong? Elias committed to the powerlifting team and with it, to the pursuit of maximum strength. Over the next school year his bodyweight climbed from 200 to 235, his belt size from 29 to 38, and his bench press weight climbed from just over 200 to 315.

It’s 1 p.m. on a Saturday, and Elias is getting ready to squat three times with 315 pounds across an unpadded bar on his back. He’s already panting from his heavy warm-up rounds, and now he paces the floor in plain black socks with no shoes and an adjustable lifting belt that was a birthday present from his girlfriend. He force-inhales and exhales until he’s nearly hissing, and then throws himself under the bar and growls while he lifts it off the safety catches. Jon and another teammate are crouched on either side, in case anything goes wrong.

Elias sets his feet inside the metal cage, gulps a huge gust of air, throws his head back to the ceiling, whose rows of fluorescent lamps reveal beads of sweat rolling down his cheeks and forehead, and then lowers everything toward the floor. This simple, brutal motion seems to deserve its own satisfying sound, like the resounding clang of a sword being forged. Elias lunges the bar back up through the air and emits a strained curt yell, and then he stands upright, the 45-pound plates on either side of the bar ringing against each other. He breathes out and gulps in again, looks to the ceiling, and for the second time, lowers himself down.

Why do this? What benefit lies in the sacrifice of time, body image and possibly even health, to eventually lift huge plates of metal through the air? The victory lies in knowing that you can. And that victory is deeply physical and personal, because it’s with you all the time, trotting around with you in your muscles, buffered by your connective tissues. “In bodybuilding you stand up on a stage,” Elias says, “and somebody compares the group. But powerlifting is really about constantly improving upon yourself. Why do I care how you look or anyone else looks? Doesn’t change who I am, doesn’t change me essentially.”

Once you claim that inner victory, it stays with you for a while — as long as you keep pounding down the protein, heaving up the iron, and dreaming of a little more victory, day after day. All of this is driven by a focus that resides at the back of the mind, a quiet, unceasing thirst.

On that same Saturday afternoon, Elias paces back and forth before his second set of squats. He still chews gum like Schwarzenegger, but has long since left behind his old hero’s advice on lifting up the universe.

“When I’m lifting that bar,” Elias says, “I’m not thinking about anything. I don’t even think about moving the bar — my mind is completely blank. It’s really peaceful, actually.”

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