It’s been a long time since I last fought. I miss the challenge, the adrenaline rush, the fear and the sense of pride that always came with it. A powerlifting competition gave me the chance to feel all of these things again, but this time through a different sport.
My coach, Patient Cena, told me to sign up shortly after I took up powerlifting classes with him a few months ago. I added strength and conditioning into my training program to make me a better fighter and to help me get my weight down, but I’d never considered taking it on seriously as a sport, let alone competing. I struggled with even the basics of it, so never would have thought I’d be capable of getting on a stage and going up against other people. Then again, I once thought the same about fighting.
Muay Thai and Powerlifting: Same Same, But Different
Here are some of the ways I’ve found that Muay Thai and Powerlifting complement and contradict each other.
Of course, there is a strategy to how I approach Muay Thai training and fighting, but it doesn’t compare to the approach that my coach took to this competition. A systematic plan was set out for every move I would make that day, from my warm up to my lifts on the platform. All I had to do was follow it. In a fight, a single strike can force you to change your entire game plan in an instant. Here, I knew what I had to do from the start.
Rest and Recovery
This part was a challenge for me. Training Muay Thai seriously means being in the gym twice a day, six days a week. You train right up until the day before a fight, and avoid skipping sessions for fear of appearing lazy. In powerlifting, you have to take a very different approach.
For a whole week before the competition, my coach ordered me to stay out of my Muay Thai gym. He told me that if I was to hear that I’d been training during that time, he’d be really disappointed in me. I had to stay away from cardio and take time to let my muscles repair themselves in time for the competition, and Muay Thai training would have held me back. Instead of my usual routine, I was to follow a very specific active recovery program, which included some light lifting and a lot of stretching.
Even during training, I had to rest differently. Between sets, I would walk around and swig from a water bottle. My coach had to tell me to sit down and make me stay there for a couple of minutes at a time. For him, it’s all about conserving your energy. In Muay Thai, I wouldn’t even dream of sitting down between rounds. Showing fatigue is a mistake that could cost you a fight, so you’re constantly trying to hide it. The most I’ll do is put my hands above my head and take a few deep breaths.
Pain is another thing that fighters have to learn how to hide, and my tendency to do that got me in trouble with my powerlifting coach. Just a few days before the competition, I mentioned in passing that I often felt pain in my left shoulder during bench press. When he asked me how long I’d had it for, I shrugged and said “I dunno, maybe a couple of months”. That really annoyed him, and he made sure I knew it, with questions like “what’s wrong with you?!” and “why am I only finding out about this now?” “If I’d known, I could have changed your training!”, he said. The thing is, I was used to keeping my mouth shut about any aches and pains I had. When you’re a fighter, you have to constantly push through injuries. This is especially the case in Thai gyms. There, no one wants to hear you whine about your injuries. Everybody has them. There’s always something bothering you, so you just get on with things. When you’re lifting heavy weights, that’s not always a smart thing to do.
Fighting was always associated with dropping weight for me. Even if I didn’t have to weigh in, my weight always dropped as a result of my ramped-up training routine. In powerlifting, I had the opposite experience.
Powerlifting, like fighting, has weight classes. The difference is that athletes aren’t always striving to be in the lowest possible one to gain an advantage. I often fought at 52 kg, so I aimed for the same weight class this time, too. Since starting my strength training, I’d dropped a lot of body weight and landed at 55 kg. I assumed I could keep going and get to 52 easily, but that wasn’t the case. While my body was getting smaller, my weight was staying the same, and after it sat in the same place for over a month, I decided it would be best to jump up to the next weight class, which was 57 kg. Building strength and losing weight at the same time was becoming difficult to do, and I didn’t want to jeopardize my performance. Besides, since it wasn’t a fight, there wasn’t so much at stake.
This meant that I could be a lot more relaxed with my eating habits, increasing my portion sizes and eating more often. My coach repeatedly reminded me to keep eating a lot, and I happily obliged. This made a nice change!
I was very nervous about competing, since I’d never even attended a powerlifting meet, let alone taken part in one. I had no idea what to expect, and the uncertainty made me anxious.
My experience as a fighter gave me an advantage here. As I waited in the wings, I reminded myself that here, no one was trying to hurt me here. I wasn’t going to get punched in the face or dumped on the canvas. There would be no blood. That put things into perspective. The fight or flight response that came with fighting had become like a familiar friend, and it had become second nature to overcome those nerves and just get into the ring. When I walked up to the platform, everything clicked into place. As my hands wrapped around the bar, the nerves disappeared.
When you’re fighting in Thailand, nothing is for certain. A lot of the time, you have no idea who your opponent is, and even if you do, they could be switched out at any moment. The fight card gives you an idea of how much time you have, but last-minute changes and knockouts mean you could be up at any moment. Anything could happen. Besides, when you’ve been in Thailand for long enough, you get used to things not going according to plan.
This competition was a completely different experience. Everything ran like clockwork, from the weigh-ins to the closing ceremony, and there was never any doubt about where I needed to be and where. My experience in fighting meant that I was ready for anything, but I didn’t have to be.
In both sports, it took a great trainer to make me realise my potential and make the jump to competing. I never really believed I could be a fighter until Master Toddy told me I could, and I never would have even considered signing up for a powerlifting competition if Patient hadn’t suggested it. In both cases, their confidence in me made up for my lack of belief in myself. Even when I didn’t think I was capable, I trusted that they were right when they said that I was. That was enough for me.
I’ve found that kind of trust to be really important in both sports. When my corner tells me to throw a right hand, it automatically comes out. When my coach tells me to squat deeper, I get my ass down there. I trust that they knew better than I do, and that they’re there to look out for me, push me, and help me progress. Listen, execute, and represent. That’s my job. The rest is down to them, and each one of us trusts that the other will uphold their end of the deal.
An Awesome Female Community
My favorite thing about Muay Thai is the incredible female friends it’s given me, and even after a very short time in powerlifting, I’m already having that same experience. One example of that is Ammy. We met at a powerlifting workshop a few months ago, when we were both brand new to the sport. When she found out I was competing, she decided to do the same, and we gave each other a great deal of support during the build-up to the competition and on the day itself. We shared energy-boosting snacks, reminded each other of the steps we had to follow, and gave each other pep talks. We both ended up taking home medals at the end of it all, and it was really nice to share that experience together.
I also met Australian strongwoman Scout Symons. She put on an impressive performance in the competition, squatting 135 kg! Despite the fact that I was lifting tiny weights in comparison to her, she cheered me on, congratulated me after every lift, and repeatedly told me I was doing really well. It was wonderful to have that kind of support, and it reassured me that I belonged there. See Scout in action in the video below.
How the Competition Went
Powerlifting has a ton of rules, and that was the scariest part for me. No matter how strong you are, even the slightest wrong move can turn a lift into a ‘no rep’. For example, if you perform a lift or rack the weight before a referee tells you to, it’s a no rep. If you don’t lock your knees before you squat, it’s also a no rep. Then, there are lots of regulations about the equipment and apparel you can use. They even check what kind of underwear you’re wearing (briefs only, no compression shorts allowed). I made some officials a little uncomfortable by holding mine up for all to see during the equipment check to make sure they were fine. Better to be safe than sorry!
There are three lifts to perform. First is the squat, then bench press, followed by deadlift to finish. In each one, every lifter gets three one-minute attempts. I was the very first one to kick the competition off with squats, which meant that I couldn’t watch what anyone else was doing to get some tips. Women went before men, and the lowest weight started first. The same principle often applies in fights, so I was often the first one up then, too. Like before, I just had to get in there and get on with it.
My first attempt was successful, but the second one was a no rep because I didn’t squat quite low enough. I had two choices for my third attempt: to keep the same weight and try it again, or to go heavier and try to get a PR. I went for the second one. As I was waiting for my turn, my coach told me that he would rather I went all the way down and failed to get back up than repeated the same mistake again, and I nodded. It worked, and I got that PR. Squats are my least favourite lift, so once those were out of the way, some tension was released.
Bench went well, with three successful attempts ending in another new PR. This is the lift I’m most confident in. Deadlifts, I have a love-hate relationship with. My mobility in my lower body is rather poor, so I struggle to get the form right, and that makes it much harder to shift the bar once it gets heavy. I hit the first two lifts with confidence, but on the third attempt, I struggled to get the weight more than a few inches off the floor. I dropped it down, and since that was the last lift of the day, it was all over. Still, I was happy with my performance. I’d managed to get two new PRs, and as Meat Loaf famously sang, two out of three ain’t bad.
I went into this competition with the intention of having fun, trying my hand at something new, and putting all my hard work into practice. Some new PRs would be a bonus, and winning wasn’t even on my radar. So, when a gold medal was placed around my neck, the whole day was topped off nicely. Now, training begins for another competition in February. Before then, I’d like to get back into fighting. I love powerlifting, but I’m still a fighter at heart.
More photos from the competition (click to enlarge)