Barbell club makes gains in the weight room

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The newly-formed Occidental Barbell Club is off to a strong start. On March 20, a group of students congregated outside Alumni Gymnasium—the facility in which non-varsity athletes are usually confined—in anticipation of their first lifting session in the varsity weight room. Nine members of the club descended to the basement floor of Athletics and dispersed in the spacious room filled with equipment made for heavy lifting.

Barbell Club, which meets Friday 3-5pm and Sunday 2-4pm, is the product of a semester-long effort by club co-presidents Sarah-Anne Nelson (senior) and Evan Chan (first-year), and Ben Warner (’14).

In late August, the three founders—each training alone in Alumni Gym—longed for a community and an adequate environment in which to lift. According to Warner, Alumni Gym is neither equipped for nor inviting of intense lifting, such as powerlifting and Olympic lifting. A major setback is the rule against dropping weights in the gym. Since Olympic and powerlifting focus on lifting maximum weight, it is important in terms of safety and technique that lifters are free to drop the weights after each rep.

Warner thought about starting a lifting club for a while, but it was not until he met Chan in the gym that he got the ball rolling.

“He was pulling some serious weight and I thought, ‘this guy looks like he knows what he’s doing,’” Warner said.

Warner struck up conversation and mentioned starting a club, and Chan eagerly offered to help. Warner then reached out to Nelson, who was also interested in a lifting club. After months of paperwork and administrative hurdles, they managed to snag a time slot in the varsity weight room for their club. Ricky Lang, assistant coach for both track and field and football, serves as supervisor for Barbell Club.

The club has no training schedule or coaching because its founders want its members to have freedom in their training. The point of the club is to offer a space for lifters to share their passion for an individual sport with others. Members socialize and lift side-by-side following their own routines.

“Training with others allows for a more raw and vulnerable connection to be established,” Chan said. “I am able to further my relationships with training partners and other individuals on a more emotionally-driven level.”

According to Nelson, their goal is to create a community for students that want to lift in any capacity—whether it be recreational, to improve fitness, body building or to train in Olympic or powerlifting.

“Whatever your goal is, we’re here to support you,” Nelson said.

Because Warner, Nelson and Chan each come from very different lifting experiences, they encourage students of all backgrounds—athletic or nonathletic—to join.

Nelson was not a high school athlete and had not so much as picked up a barbell until senior year of high school. Her friend introduced her to CrossFit the summer before going to Occidental. After three and a half years of competitively training at CrossFit Eagle Rock, Nelson received a level one coaching certification. This year, Nelson switched to another gym to pursue powerlifting—the sport of maxing out on squat, bench press and deadlift.

“It’s really empowering,” Nelson said.

Chan came to Occidental with experience in a wide range of sports, including soccer, baseball and basketball. He enjoyed strength training in high school and did not like the prospect of ending his athletic career once he finished high school.

“I found myself constantly going back to the weight room,” Chan said.

Chan did not have much direction in his weight training until his older sister introduced him to powerlifting last fall. He quickly committed to the sport and now competes competitively in U.S. Power Lifting Association competitions.

He said that lifting is therapeutic for him, helping him grow as a person and even providing an avenue to overcome anxiety he had as a child.

“The world fluctuates around us, and we are never given full control of any situation,” Chan said. “This is why I love powerlifting and barbell sports so much—on any given day, 500 pounds of iron will always be 500 pounds of iron. It might crush me, but at least I’m sure it’ll do that every single time.”

Chan hopes that Barbell Club can open up opportunities for mental and physical growth for others as well.

Nelson acknowledged that lifting can be intimidating for students who have never lifted or participated in collegiate sports. She hopes that Barbell Club is inviting to not only intense heavy lifters but also beginners, so that they can create an atmosphere that is simultaneously constructive and fun.

“It’s not as fun to go into the gym and put your headphones in and lift alone,” Nelson said. “Lifting with a big group of people supporting each other, that’s what is fun, and that’s what has made me continue to lift for so long.”

Elliot Smith (first-year), who has been lifting for almost a year, also joined the club for the social aspect of training with a group of friends.

According to Chan, friendly competition comes along with the camaraderie of group lifting. He said that the sport focuses more on personal improvement than out-lifting competitors.

“It’s a sport where all of us are competing against numbers,” Chan said. “It’s a more objective sport.”

Warner said that can be very competitive at times, but that it is a productive competition.

“The competition makes you both better,” Warner said. “You want to outperform them and you want to shine, but at the same time everyone wants each other to improve.”

Warner’s goal is that Barbell Club will lead both rookie and experienced lifters to the next level, “and to have a more beautiful, strong, fit campus.”