The rise of British powerlifting (2010-present)
A guest post from Danny Lee (@danny_lee_fitness)
When Rocky Balboa was released back in 2006 British supermarkets recorded a massive surge in the sales of boxing equipment - signifying the cultural response to a popular event. Now, this post isn’t about boxing, nor is it about Rocky. It certainly isn’t about boxing equipment sales and their trends.
What I do want to go through is the explosion of powerlifting in the early to mid 2010s and it’s something I spent a good chunk of the initial lockdown (ie, the one from March-July of 2020) looking into. You might be thinking that there wasn’t a Rocky-esque movie out about powerlifting in the early 2010s, and you would be right, but there were various social phenomena, events and spectacles around that time that contributed.
But more on what they are, exactly, later.
Powerlifting today is far more popular today than it was a decade ago. The bigger federations in Britain will have around one competition per month, per region (pre and post Covid-19, that is).
At these competitions it would not be unheard of to have 50-150 lifters for a regional competition and 150-200+ for a national competition. As an example - British Powerlifting hosted 81 lifters at the Male British Championship in 2019, and 128 at the Women’s British Championship. While the A/BPU hosted a whopping 421 lifters across their competition. The numbers only get more impressive in America, as the USAPL hosted 1199 lifters in 2019 (I’ve triple checked this).
The number of powerlifting clubs in each city is now at roughly 2 or 3 relatively big ones with a lot of lifters training in commercial gyms or from home without affiliating to a club or team.
Now, if you’re not into powerlifting then all I’m doing here is throwing arbitrary numbers at you. So, allow me to give you some context.
Powerlifting 10 Years Ago
Using the same examples as the last section, the British Powerlifting Federation, or the Great British Powerlifting Federation as it was back in 2010, hosted 38 lifters for the British Classic that year, with 25 males and 13 females. Massively different to the roughly 50% more women than men in 2019.
The A/BPU didn’t exist in 2010 so there are no numbers for this one - which also shows that the demand for another whole federation had increased between 2010 and 2015, when the A/BPU had its first national competition. Over in the States, the USAPL hosted 131 lifters, a mere 10% (ish) of the goliath of a competition seen in 2019.
Now that you have the context of where we are now and where we once were, let us take a look at just how we made that journey. Some of you might have been there all along, some of you might have only just joined, or joined somewhere along the way but it’s good to understand the sport and its growth, especially if you’re planning to stay around to witness its future.
I wrote above about various events and occurrences on a cultural level that contributed to the rise of powerlifting. These are things that aren’t necessarily powerlifting related but seem to have led to a substantial increase in popularity for powerlifting, so much so that federations began to be maxed out - leading to an increase/improvement in organisation for many federations on multiple levels - as well as other federations being created to offer a supply to the new and increased demand.
Over the last decade or so a number of major sporting events occurred. These include the London Olympics of 2012 and the increase in popularity of Crossfit, and the Crossfit games.
The London Olympics
Now, I know what you’re thinking - powerlifting isn’t an Olympic sport, and you’re right. However, Weightlifting is an Olympic sport and the training and competition aspects of it were on show massively in 2012.
The cultural impact of the London Olympics on budding athletes in the UK was monumental. The number of people returning to, or taking up a new sport in this time was the highest it has been in years - particularly due to how well Britain did in the rankings. The advertising, and national pride around the Olympic Games that year led to more and more people watching sports and events that they wouldn’t have necessarily been exposed to in their everyday lives.
Many people would watch events and sports and then try to find local coaches or clubs where they could partake in what they’ve witnessed. Sports like boxing or swimming have specialised coaches and clubs, at the time Olympic Weightlifting did, but not many of them.
Olympic Weightlifting is made up of the snatch and the clean and jerk movements. These exercises don’t really cross over to powerlifting but the assistance exercises you will use to get better at Olympic Weightlifting will consist of squats, pulls from the floor and some pressing - which all will help you get stronger for powerlifting.
If you were to look for an Olympic lifting coach now you might find a handful in your city, maybe a slightly higher number in some of the bigger cities of the UK, but that niche of the market isn’t yet saturated - and that’s talking about 2021. Back in 2010-2015 the chances of finding a qualified Olympic Weightlifting coach in a private or commercial gym, or even finding a gym with the adequate equipment was far, far lower.
Olympic Weightlifting is an incredibly technical sport, it takes time, effort, the right equipment, and most of all, knowledge to become proficient in it. To do it without a coach would be highly inadvisable. To do without a coach or proper equipment would also likely lead to damaging the equipment and gym around you, and probably yourself.
When I was looking into why people got into powerlifting around this time, a lot of the answers were similar to “well, I couldn’t find an Olympic lifting coach.” Powerlifting, while still technical and difficult to master, has a much lower barrier of entry. The kit needed doesn’t need to bounce or spin in a certain way. As well as this the actual movements are less technical to teach, and easier to master. (I really don’t want to undermine my own job here).
At the time of writing, the Crossfit 2021 Games are just wrapping up and it’s had a huge draw on social media. Bringing in Olympic Weightlifting legends like Dmitry Klokov, as well as the regular Crossfit legends such as Tia Toomey, Sara Sigmundsdottir and Anna Thorisdottir.
The days of insulting Crossfit on social media should be well behind us - like any discipline, when coached well it is an excellent form of physical fitness and athleticism, and like any discipline, when coached badly it can be awful for the athlete and spectator alike.
Initially I was unsure about including Crossfit in this article but when I did some anecdotal research, i.e I put up a story on Instagram asking people what got them into powerlifting/why they thought powerlifting exploded in the early 2010s, I found that a lot of people pointed to the popularity of Crossfit.
So, what is Crossfit?
Crossfit aims to combine HIIT with barbell training and it takes a cross sectional view of fitness, hence ‘Cross’fit. The fitness factors it looks to improve are -
Cardiovascular fitness and endurance.
Created by Greg Glassman (who I won’t give too much credit here due to his actions in 2020, google it if you’re unaware) in 2010 who was a gymnast in his teenage years who enjoyed cardio but also wanted to get stronger, Crossfit includes movements like the power lifts (i.e the squat, bench and deadlift) as well as the Olympic Lifts (the snatch and the clean and jerk) and their derivatives.
The competitions and workouts in Crossfit vary from session to session. It wouldn’t be strange to see a mix of heavy deadlifts combined with sprints, or squats followed by some work on a rowing machine.
How does this link to Powerlifting?
Valid question - Crossfit has become massively popular with the 2020 Games having a viewership of 11,543,983 people over the whole weekend. The 2012 Games had 69,000 competitors, nevermind spectators.
According to my anecdotal research (Instagram again) many people wanted to give Crossfit a go after watching the games, or seeing the athletes train on YouTube, but trying to do the WODs before Crossfit Boxes (their version of gyms) became popular was pretty awkward in most commercial gyms. It would be difficult to book out a deadlift platform and a rowing machine to do circuits on in most gyms (and that’s if those gyms even had both).
This became a barrier to the training so people began to look for a sport or discipline that was easier to train in a regular gym setting. As stated earlier there was a lack of Olympic Lifting coaches and gyms until relatively recently, but powerlifting took far less equipment and space so a lot of people turned to this.
As well as this - Crossfit is very good at representing the female side of the sport. Names like Tia Toomey and Anna Thorisdottir are at least as recognisable as Rich Froning or Mat Fraser. My instagram stories led me to believe that a lot of women were inspired by the exploits of people like Tia Toomey (her name came up a lot in this research) and wanted to emulate that.
This point is reflected when you look a little deeper in the split of participants in powerlifting competitions too - in British Powerlifting’s (formerly Great British Powerlifting or GBPF) National competitions there have been more women than men competing every year since 2015.
Powerlifting has gotten more and more popular in the last decade or so, and it deserves to in it’s own right. Training is incredibly satisfying and lifting more one month to the next is always an amazing feeling. Competitions are also fun, they’re quite often full of wholesome support and an excellent atmosphere to let yourself go and break some personal bests.
However, it also owes a lot to the circumstances of the sports in the same family or ballpark as them. The barrier for entry to powerlifting was initially easier to overcome in the early 2010s than it would have been in other sports.