Strong Men on Campus: The testosterone-fuelled life of the student powerlifter

Do you even lift?


They walk among us – beasts in student clothing. And though you might not know it, underneath that varsity hoodie are muscles that could shift a car.

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Though powerlifting may conjure up images of hairy middle-aged men in spandex, it’s a very real sport – and it’s booming at universities across the country.

Not only is Matthew Noble a postgraduate Material Science student at Oxford, he’s also the captain and treasurer of the University’s Power Lifting Club.

This means that while he’s doing research for Rolls Royce on nuclear reactors in the day, by night he’s breaking much more than a mental sweat.

“Whilst other guys might be down the pub in the evening having a few pints, we’ll be training down the gym. It’s a social thing in that way,” he says.

It’s not all blood, sweat and sawdust though – the bane of the powerlifter is overtraining.

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“The biggest misconception that people have is that you have to train all the time. It’s not about spending hours in the gym – a newbie only really needs two hours every other day. It all boils down to how strong you are.”

Noble, like many student powerlifters, started out playing rugby – but fell into powerlifting due to his injury-prone nature.

He said: “Rugby was just a hobby, and it was one that was slowly crippling me. I’d dislocated my shoulder, shattered my ribs, hyperextended my ankle. It just wasn’t worth it after a while.

“I carried on going to the gym and one day a guy came up to me and asked if I’d fancy doing powerlifting as a sport.

“I replied like most people would – I said I had no bloody clue what it was.”

In powerlifting, discipline is key: on the football pitch or the hockey field you might have an entire season to prove your worth, but this is a sport where you only get one lift to prove your mettle.

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“The first few competitions can be pretty daunting,” says Wil Solano, president of the Cambridge University Power Lifting Club.

“Competitions are tough because unlike rugby or football you only have three attempts per lift, and only the highest weight is taken into account for a total.”

The focus is on muscling up the heaviest weight you can in three core moves, performed one after the other: the back squat, the bench press and the deadlift.

“It’s enjoyable though; training becomes a time to relax from work and hang out in the gym with your friends. You enjoy every session in the gym because of the camaraderie.”

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So what’s the reaction from the puny student population when they hear that you’re a powerlifter?

“A lot of people don’t understand what it is. Some people think it’s pretty badass,” Solano says.

“But most people will just take a step back to check me out and see how big I am!”

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Powerlifting, Solano explains, is not about building size – but this doesn’t mean that there’s any love lost for preening bodybuilders.

“We’ve become a very sedentary population as a whole,” Noble says. “We get out of bed to drive to work to sit behind a desk, then we come home to sit on the sofa and then go back to bed.”

“Then you get the people who count one hour’s gardening on a weekend as their exercise, and then say that anyone who criticises this is ‘fat shaming’.”

“Getting out of that mentality is great for anyone. I have no problem with bodybuilding, Crossfit, or whatever – I’m just glad that people are doing something.”

In a sport so classically male-dominated, it’s not hard to imagine that it isn’t exactly the first choice for female students looking to be active at uni.

“We do have some female members, but not as many as I’d like.”

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“The problem is that there’s so many associations with girls and lifting weights that are completely wrong – they think they’re going to start doing it and immediately look like Mr. Olympia.

“It’s the opposite – girls don’t have enough testosterone to get that big anyway, at least not without putting in a lot of hours. And, of course, steroids.

“It’s the same with some guys though – there’s just a lot of stigma around powerlifting. Get past that and it’s just a sport.

“And trust me: once you start, you’ll realise you’re a hell of a lot stronger than you thought you were.”