The strength of Paralympic powerlifters
Take a moment to close your eyes and picture the strongest person in the world. What do they look like? You’re probably imagining a muscle-bound actor like Lou Ferrigno, who once played The Incredible Hulk. Or maybe one of those thick-set blokes who pulls planes across airport runways.
It’s a fair bet that you are not picturing an athlete with a disability. Sure, the feats we see at the Paralympic Games are impressive, but even the strongest Paralympians have impairments that would make it impossible for their strength to rival that of their able-bodied counterparts.
Or at least that’s what most people think.
To test out the theory, a group of researchers led by Dr Dan van den Hoek explored the absolute and relative strength of the best-performing athletes in the lift that’s widely seen as the ultimate strength test: the bench press.
In their landmark study, titled ‘Paralympians Are Stronger Than You Know’, the exercise physiologist and his colleagues Dr Joel Garrett, Robert Howells and Dr Christopher Latella compared the world records of Paralympic lifters with those who compete in the able-bodied International Powerlifting Federation.
Contrary to expectations, the Paralympic powerlifters (aka ‘para-powerlifters’) won hands down.
The researchers found that some six out of eight male world records and five out of eight female world records would be held by Paralympians if pitted directly against athletes without disabilities.
“According to our analysis, it is clear that para-powerlifters are often both absolutely and relatively stronger than their able-bodied counterparts,” says Dr van den Hoek, Lecturer in Clinical Exercise Physiology at ACU’s Faculty of Health Sciences.
Dr Dan van den Hoek
The results were surprising, he adds, because able-bodied athletes would seem to have some clear advantages.
“I think it’s really surprising because we would imagine that athletes without disabilities have full neural control and greater ability for muscle development, whereas athletes competing in para-powerlifting may have neurological disorders that reduce muscle control and affect their ability to develop muscle mass.”
This makes the strength of para-powerlifters even more impressive.
Take China’s Lingling Guo, who in Tokyo lifted 109kg in the female 41kg weight class – more than 2.6 times her bodyweight. Or Egypt’s Sherif Ozman, who in Rio de Janeiro lifted a whopping 211kg in the male 59kg weight class – almost 3.6 times his bodyweight.
By comparison, world record holders in the International Powerlifting Federation lift no more than 3.3 times their bodyweight in the bench press. Dr van den Hoek, who is himself no slouch with a barbell, can lift around 100 kilograms – a one-to-one weight to bodyweight ratio.
He says that lessons can be learned from these incredible para-sportspeople.
“Some of these athletes are lifting the weight of a giant panda off their chest on those barbells, a seemingly impossible task, and it shows that nothing is impossible,” he says.
“If we take that into our day-to-day psyche, it’s a useful thing to remember. Whenever there is an everyday worry or stress that seems like it’s crushing down on you, and you feel it’s too heavy to handle, just remember there are people out there who can literally lift the weight of a panda off their chests.”
Pull up your socks
Two major life events drew Dan van den Hoek to studying Paralympians.
In his late teens, he was involved in a horrific car accident, colliding head-on with a truck at 100 kilometres an hour.
“It sheared off the side of my car and basically destroyed the right-hand side of my body,” he recalls, adding that the accident left him wheelchair-bound for months and derailed his plans to play professional sport.
“I had these dreams to go to the United States and play college basketball, or to pull on the jumper for the Hawthorn Hawks, but I was lucky to get out of the accident alive.”
Para-powerlifter Suzanne Twelftree at the Sydney Olympics.
The second event was witnessing his older sister go through her own life-changing injury through a work-related accident.
Before the incident, she was “quite the sportsperson”, swimming at a national level and playing basketball and softball.
“Those things all dropped off with her injury, but she soon got into wheelchair sports as her outlet and was eventually named the captain of the Hawthorn Hawks wheelchair football side.”
Seeing the way his sister adapted her sporting goals, embraced her life with a disability, and “pulled up her socks” has been a major motivating factor for Dr van den Hoek.
He sees similar mental fortitude in the para-powerlifters that he has studied so closely.
Why so strong?
So, how do Paralympic powerlifters shift such incredible weights?
Dr Dan van den Hoek cites three main reasons.
Firstly, many powerlifters with a disability are short in stature. This could be of benefit when competing in the bench press because they don’t have to move the weight very far from their chest to complete a lift.
“There’s potentially a torque advantage from that,” he says. “However, not all para-powerlifters are short, so more research in this area is needed.”
Secondly, while the rules are very similar for bench pressing in both able-bodied and parasport competitions, there is one important difference: para-powerlifters must have their legs either placed or strapped onto the bench, while able-bodied powerlifters can have their legs on the ground.
There is evidence to suggest that being strapped is an advantage, but there is also contradictory research showing that the arch technique used by able-bodied lifters, which allows them to engage their legs and hips when bench pressing, may be of benefit.
Again, says Dr van den Hoek, more research is needed.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, para-powerlifters only compete in one event: the mighty bench press.
Meanwhile, their able-bodied counterparts also compete in two other demanding lifts: the deadlift and the squat.
Focusing on the one event likely gives Paralympic powerlifters a distinct physical and mental edge.
Regardless of this potential advantage, Dr van den Hoek’s illuminating research shows that, contrary to common perceptions, Paralympic powerlifters “might be some of the strongest athletes in the world”.
In the study, he and his colleagues acknowledge that disability sport is sometimes viewed as inferior to nondisabled sport.
“Often,” the researchers say, “Paralympians’ achievements are lost in the reasons for an athlete’s eligibility to compete, rather than their success within their chosen discipline.”
They believe the focus should be on the achievements of these world-class athletes, rather than the condition or accident that led to them being involved.
“If you look at someone like Lingling Guo, why she’s eligible to lift in parasport is irrelevant,” he says. “What really matters is that she’s incredibly good at it, and she’s at the pinnacle of her chosen sport, and she should be treated the same as an Olympian at that level.”
The feats of Paralympic powerlifters teach us that our limits are not defined by the perceptions of others.
“It shows us that with the right effort and the right input and strategy, we can all achieve great things,” Dr van den Hoek says.
“Whatever we’re striving for, whether it’s sport or academia or other areas of life, these athletes teach us to push the envelope, to pull up our socks whenever we need to, and to put in that little bit extra, using that same motivation and effort that we see in the para-powerlifters.”
Dr Dan van den Hoek is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist with expertise in health behaviour change, weight loss and psycho-social health interventions. As a researcher, his recent work has focused on sports performance analysis and powerlifting. He is co-chair of The Strength Initiative, which aims to inspire lifelong participation in strength-based activities through practical interpretation and application of innovative research.
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