Lessons from para powerlifters

The world’s strongest person might not be who you think according to an ACU researcher who has challenged society to reimagine how strength is perceived.

Accredited exercise physiologist Dan van den Hoek said there were life lessons to be learned from Paralympic powerlifters who have outperformed many of their able-bodied counterparts in one of the sport’s disciplines.

Dr van den Hoek and recent Master of Clinical Exercise Physiology (MCEP) graduate Rob Howells led a study, published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, that showed the maximum bench press for male and female Paralympic powerlifters could be up to three per cent heavier than those in International Powerlifting Federation competition.

Female Paralympic powerlifters’ maximum bench ranges from 109kg to 160kg while for the men the range is 183-310kg, or “about the equivalent of lifting a fully grown American black bear”, Dr van den Hoek told listeners to the ABC’s Ockham’s Razor podcast.

“You think you’re doing well until a new frame of reference appears.

“It’s clear from this that Paralympic powerlifters are stronger, both absolutely and relatively, than their able-bodied counterparts

“And if they were to compete in able-bodied competition, they’d hold six of the eight world records for men and five of eight for women.”

Dr van den Hoek has a strong personal connection with para sport. He spent months in rehabilitation after a serious car crash in 2005 while his sister competes in wheelchair football after injuring her back in a work-related accident in 2009.

He said Paralympic world record holders Lingling Guo from China and Egypt’s Sherif Osman, while not household names, should be regarded as the world’s strongest athletes.

The research also showed Paralympians have a different tactical approach.

Able-bodied lifters typically start their bench press competitions more conservatively, only reaching 100 per cent of their maximum on the third attempt.

“Para powerlifters do things just that little bit differently,” he said. “They start at 97 per cent, near enough to as much as they could possibly lift on the day.

“Their second attempt is 100 per cent, which means their third attempt is always reaching for more. At 103 per cent on average.”

“They’re stronger, they lift more absolutely, they lift more relatively, and they go harder.”

Dr van den Hoek attributed the difference to the fact able-bodied lifters have two other disciplines – squat and deadlift – in which to accumulate the highest aggregate weight. Para powerlifters must apply all their energy to the bench press.

The MCEP course coordinator said there was a lesson to learn from athletes with a disability.

“They go harder, they try for more, they pull up their socks and have a crack,” he said.

“Maybe they’re big Star Trek fans. Maybe they listen to Captain James Kirk. Boldly go where no able-bodied athlete goes before you.”


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