Weight Class Obsession: Just Say No

Wandering around naked in the University of Iowa’s women’s locker room at its Campus Recreation and Wellness Center is taboo. I’ve written about this before, and thankfully, I no longer have pit my need to know with extreme accuracy how much I weigh against how much I don’t want people thinking I’m neurotic as I weigh myself on the CRWC’s $1000 scale without a shred of clothing on my body. The need to know always won out against the cringing self-awareness that accompanied my furtive dashes to that scale, and this speaks to how seriously I took what weight class I competed in at the very beginning of my powerlifting career.

You know you have a weight class obsession problem when you own two scales. We're down to one now. In our defense, both of these were extremely unreliable so we just used them as faulty controls against one another.
You know you have a weight class obsession problem when you own two scales. We’re down to one now. In our defense, both of these were extremely unreliable so we just used them as faulty controls against one another.

A few things I want to make clear here: powerlifting is a weight-class-based sport. We’re pretty obsessed with how much we weigh not because of how we look (well, supposedly, anyway) but because it’s how we stack up against one another and how our strength is judged—powerlifting is about relative strength, after all. National rankings are arranged by sex and weight class. There is no option to “opt out” of weight class even for beginners who really don’t care or expect to do well in their first competitions. If you compete in powerlifting, you are going to step on the scale.

Over and over again, if you listen to some of the best voices in the sport, the idea of focusing on weight class is de-emphasized. Concentrate on building a solid hypertrophy and strength base, whatever you need to do to accomplish that, however much you ultimately end up weighing, they’ll say. I remember attending a seminar in which Brandon Lily sat on a panel of lifters who included, among many others, Caitlin Trout and Ed Coan. Lily strongly advocated not limiting your weight by weight class unless you were literally capable of breaking a world record in a given weight class. At the time I attended that seminar, I thought his ideas were somewhat extreme. I still do, a bit, and I also don’t presume to know what is best/would make the entire lifting population happy, as that is a very individualized question. But I do know that it’s interesting that while many seasoned, successful competitors in the sport advocate giving yourself literal room to grow, it is often the mediocre or downright unsuccessful lifters who spend inordinate amounts of time preoccupied with weight class.

I get to wear one of THESE again.
Believe it or not, I don’t even think this is from my 105 meet. I think it’s from when I competed at 114 the first time. Yes, this is scrawny at its finest.

I am guilty of this preoccupation myself, and I don’t claim to be as enlightened, or, well, good, as the sport’s veterans can claim. Very early in my career, I first competed at 114. I remember being so terrified of coming in over the 114 pound weight class even when each morning I was waking up pounds below that weight that the day I was to weigh in for my second meet I ended up weighing in at 109 pounds—down three pounds from the then-normal  112 pounds or so. Terrified, I had barely eaten or had anything to drink that entire day. The way I treated that weigh-in was grossly overreactive and spoke to how much I felt like weight class was crucial to what I did at the meet.

I don’t even remember the total I did that day. I do know, having done this a little longer now, and having put on a lot of weight and competed several more times in a variety of weight classes, that the anxiety and pressure I felt that early to make sure I was at a certain weight class was completely ludicrous. The amount of people in this sport who concern themselves with weight class is stunning—it’s almost as if a constant discussion of/focus on weight will relieve everyone from having to take the more complicated, harder look at their powerlifting career as a whole. Ed Coan competed in weight class after weight class, unfettered by a singular obsession with his weight as he grew into his talent and progressed upward over time from class to class. I have deep respect for people who are willing to do this. Because it’s hard, and it’s humbling (okay, yeah, unless you’re Coan, because whatever he did at any of his weight classes was fantastic), and you have to pay your dues and respect the fact there are people competing at whatever weight class you’re competing in who have been doing this sport longer and have very likely gone about it “the hard way” by progressively moving up weight classes.

This is something I’m dealing with now. Early on in my career, I thought I might just keep my weight way down for the 105 class and just slowly grind away at being one of the best in that class. I say slowly because for someone who’s a little over 5’2”, staying in range of 105 means that the muscle mass I can carry is fairly low. In other words, if I wanted to do 105, I’d pretty much have to look like I don’t even lift. Ultimately, I would be a more fragile lifter, with a very tiny margin for error and a maximal strength cap that would be far lower than if I allowed myself to gain more lean mass. I chose to move up weight classes. My allegiance to one class dissolved rather quickly. To date, I have competed at 105, 114, 132, and 148. Yes, I skipped 123. No, I don’t plan on going back for it. I also have a very fluid picture of what weight class I will choose over the coming years. I am entirely open to the idea of competing as a light 148 and growing into that class. I will probably spend some time competing at 132 if my weight is very reasonably in range of it—no more than 4 pounds above it for an easy water cut. But I am not going to get married to a weight class, and I’m not going to flip out/obsess over it when I’m a beginning-intermediate level powerlifter.

If you’re a beginning powerlifter—under a year and a half of training for the sport, just dabbling, barely having competed or not having competed at all—and you find yourself agonizing over what weight you’re going for your first or second meet, you’ve got to get away from whatever group of people you’re surrounding yourself with that talk about weight class like it’s the point of the sport or like it’s what defines you as a lifter. Because it doesn’t. If you can comfortably make a weight class and compete successfully at it, ok. If you are jeopardizing how you feel on meet day by making a massive cut to a weight class when your numbers are terrible in relation to the top lifters at that weight class, something’s wrong there. I watch people do this on a regular basis and for a while fell into the fear-mongering trap that is Weight Class Obsession. This trap became more apparent when I contemplated doing a meet at—gasp—whatever I happened to weigh that day. Wouldn’t this mean I was somehow failing at the sport? Wouldn’t it mean I was lazy? Didn’t care? Wasn’t as competitive? Wasn’t a “real” powerlifter? Wasn’t as seasoned a competitor? Newsflash—you can’t force a status of “seasoned competitor” by making weight. You’re a seasoned competitor when you have lifted in a lot of meets. You’re a stupid competitor when you think obsessing over weight class will do anything but distract you from having to face how much this sport is a long-term investment. If you’re in powerlifting, if you’re not thinking in terms of decades, you’re foolish. The majority of the top lifters in this sport have been doing it for a decade or more, and that’s no accident.

Let's do this.
More of this, less obsessing over which weight class you’re going to pull off a mediocre performance in on meet day.

To mix metaphors, I’m going to jump on the broken record bandwagon here: there are no shortcuts. Even the shortcuts don’t shortcut as much as you’d like them to. The more your pride talks instead of your logic, the longer you’re going to spend preoccupied with things that will ultimately only hinder your progress as a lifter. So to all the beginning lifters out there, here’s my plea: get off the damned university gym scale. Rise above the obsession, and allow yourself time to be better than that. I am amazed I even have to say this, but here it is in caps: THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH WEIGHING WHATEVER YOU WEIGH WHEN YOU COMPETE IN A MEET. Get. Off. The. Scale. Unless you just like being naked in front of people you have class with in a few hours, of course.