At Columbia City Fitness Center, the reigning Amateur Athletic Union world powerlifting champion team trains in an atmosphere of trust and camaraderie.
I BACKSQUAT ENOUGH to know when I am watching something impressive. And watching 17-year-old Sachie DuBose backsquat 280 pounds five times (mind you: only 70 percent of the full weight she is working toward), I sighed, wishing I had lifted so young.
DuBose is one of 25 members of the Bull Stewart Powerlifting team, many of whom lift weights incomprehensible to most of us. Gene Alexander, for example, owns the world dead-lift record for ages 65-69, at 468 pounds. Winifred Pristell, 79, has won multiple world titles. The youngest team member is 9. The team itself is the reigning Amateur Athletic Union world powerlifting champion, with additional women’s and youth titles.
Andrew “Bull” Stewart is the dynamic coach. A powerlifting world champion several times over, he owns Columbia City Fitness, the base for his team.
Columbia City Fitness
His athletes are hyper-focused, lifting three times a week to work on the three powerlifts — backsquats (squatting with weight), dead lifts (lifting weight from the ground) and bench presses (pressing weight from your chest). The team also trains in Olympic lifting events (the snatch, and the clean and jerk) but has made its name in powerlifting.
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I visited the Columbia City Fitness location on South Jackson Street on a squat day. Several lifters were there to watch and support the people working out, with one lifter helping Stewart swap out the weights for each set. He tracks each lifter’s goals and progress; most lifters don’t know exactly what they’re lifting, says Asuba Alley-Barnes, a lifter and team captain. Alley-Barnes is training for the 2020 Olympic Trials in the snatch and the clean and jerk.
I watched as the lifters warmed up, their squat forms beautiful and strong. Stewart reminded them, “Chest up, good form.” The lifters were all in the early portion of an eight-week lifting cycle, gearing up and getting stronger for the state championships.
“People ask, ‘How do people get so strong in such a short time?’ ” Stewart says. “Dedication.”
When DuBose moved to her max set for the day, everyone started cheering. Bull shouted, “Give me two!” as he spotted the lifters. Others called out, “Easy weight!” DuBose looked as if she could do more.
The team’s closeness is palpable. They chatted between sets, or wandered into the office. They all have nicknames stitched on their Bull Stewart’s Powerlifters shirts, like Gladiator, Smiley, Warrior, Ghost.
Every team member is voted on, and any one person has veto power; people have been voted off the team. Stewart says they lift drug-free. The team’s reputation draws lifters, though Stewart has been known to watch people in the gym and convince them to join.
“We trust him,” Alley-Barnes says. “He’s such a great coach and works with each of us individually. … It’s not easy.”
Stewart told me about one lifter who said she couldn’t afford to join. He met her for coffee and struck a deal — buy him a cup of coffee for every training session, and call it good. The exchange has been going for more than a decade.
“Do you know how many people would be successful if there wasn’t a price tag attached to it?” Stewart asks.
After talking to Stewart, and experiencing the team and community, I practically wanted to join — and I don’t dead lift or bench press. Stewart looked at me and noted I have long arms. (I do?) “You’d be a good deadlifter,” he said, nodding.
Powerlifting has grown in popularity with the rise of CrossFit. It’s cool now to be a powerlifter. But it’s not about getting big, Stewart says.
“We train to be strong.”