Richard Hawthorne chalks up and steps under the bar, pressing his shoulders into the textured steel.
There’s no forceful breathing. No grunting. No tough-guy histrionics. Hell, there’s barely a sound as he readies himself for his heaviest lift of the day.
“Let’s go,” murmurs Winston Ceasear, a Mack truck of a man who’s swapping sets with Hawthorne. “Easy weight.”
The load on the bar is 165 kilograms – an impressive but not unattainable weight for a seasoned lifter.
But when you consider that Hawthorne, at just 73 kilograms, intends to squat the equivalent of nearly three times his body weight, the picture shifts a little.
Then you learn that the mass of iron is warm-up weight for Hawthorne: he lifted a combined 667 kilograms (11 times his body weight) in the squat, bench press and deadlift at the 2013 CAPO Nationals in Tasmania.
Now the picture shifts entirely: this diminutive strongman becomes a giant. In powerlifting circles, they call him the Ant.
Relative strength – how strong you are for your height and weight – is a valued commodity among athletes. Ballers use it to fly over the rim; sprinters use it to blast off the blocks. The rest of us need it to run fast, jump high and crank out push-ups. Here’s how to build yours.
Focus on Core Values
For Hawthorne, this is rule number one. To make his point, he nods to a nearby lifter setting up for a squat with his back arched and chest up.
“That’s how most guys do it,” he says. “See how his abdomen stretches out? Your core is weak in that position.”
The immediate result is reduced power and performance, says Hawthorne, because your core is responsible for transferring force throughout your body and stabilising all movement.
But repeated over months or years, the cumulative stress can land you in an orthopedist’s office.
The solution: “Before every lift, brace your abs as if you’re about to be gut-punched. That’ll help you keep your ribs down,” Hawthorne says. It will also lock down your core and flatten your back, enhancing total-body power and stability and maximising support for your spine.
To learn proper positioning, he recommends the hollow hold.
Lie on your back with your knees pulled to your chest and arms by your sides. Press your lower back into the floor and lift your head and shoulders. Extend your arms over your head and straighten your legs, keeping your limbs off the ground. Hold as long as you can. Do this a couple of times a week, working your way up to a minute.
“It’s harder than it sounds,” says Hawthorne. Master it and you’ll build some serious core strength.
You’ll also increase the activation of your biggest muscles – your quads, hamstrings and glutes – by pushing them to work at their full capacity.
Pay Attention to Pain
For a guy who regularly hoists loads that could crush other men, Hawthorne is surprisingly averse to risk. He gave up on hoops (too jarring). He doesn’t run (same reason). He passes on arm-wrestling challenges (not worth the trouble).
“The last thing I want is to pull a muscle doing something stupid,” he says. He’s equally careful in the gym. “Each rep, I pay attention to what I feel and make adjustments.”
Tempo, smoothness and discomfort factor into his evaluation. If something feels off, the set is over. “You may think you’re tough by ignoring pain, but you’re making things worse,” Hawthorne says.
A better approach?
“Do moves that work the same muscles without the hurt,” says elite powerlifter Greg Nuckols. If deadlifting makes you wince, do 2-4 sets of high-rep (lightweight) leg curls instead. Lower back hurting you? Trade squats for step-ups with a pair of light dumbbells.
“Doing light work on the injured area can maintain muscle mass for months,” says Nuckols.
Conventional gym wisdom holds that if you specialise too narrowly in one activity (eg weightlifting), your abilities in others (cycling, running, soccer, basketball) wane – hence the lifter who gets winded running a kilometre and the marathoner who can’t squat more than a bare barbell.
But Hawthorne, who can dunk a basketball and move with the grace of a boxer, is living proof that exceptional strength and explosive athleticism can co-exist. The secret, he says, is to always maintain perfect lifting mechanics.
Hawthorne believes that powerlifting’s Big 3 – squat, deadlift and bench press – can teach your body skills that translate far beyond the gym: pushing explosively through your feet, protecting your spine by keeping your back straight and core stiff, and recruiting the powerful muscles in your hips and thighs more effectively.
And science backs him up: In a 2009 Canadian study, heavy squatting helped soccer players jump higher and run faster.
“But that only works when your form is spot-on,” Hawthorne says. When you lift weights, he explains, you’re doing more than just building muscle; you’re teaching your body to move more effectively.
“Smooth, efficient lifting leads to smooth, efficient moves on the court or field, and crappy lifting leads to crappy movement.”
Hawthorne contends that he is able to jump high not because he practices jumping but rather because his years of immaculate squatting and deadlifting have taught him how to put more than a quarter ton of force into the ground.
“Some guys say, ‘If the weight goes up, it’s a good lift,’ “ says Hawthorne. “I don’t believe in that. You should practice perfect technique with every repetition, whether you’re lifting 20 kilograms or more than 200.”
One key to executing every lift with flawless form: Do one or two warmup sets (using half the weight you’d normally use) before you begin your regular sets of the squat, deadlift and bench press.