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Collegiate Powerlifting Gets a Big Lift with HSE - by Danny Burke

       Relaxing is the new strengthening. At least that's what the elite athletes, the Iron Dawgs, at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, Louisiana are learning. After a brief introduction to Hanna Somatic Education (HSE) last season, they surprised everyone with a big win at the 2017 National Collegiate Championship Meet in San Antonio, Texas just a short distance from the Alamo. Unfortunately, one of the team's athletes was disqualified, and the Bulldogs were subsequently relegated to third place, leaving them hungry and motivated for redemption during the current school year.

       Generally, powerlifting hasn't been such a popular sport in the United States. It is more popular in the South and in the Upper Midwest. That said, powerlifting is clearly on the rise as the numbers of athletes competing is increasing rapidly each year. On the collegiate and high school level, schools in Texas, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Ohio boast the most successful programs.

       Hanna Somatic Education, like powerlifting, has not yet become part of the mainstream either. But HSE too is growing and gaining worldwide acceptance because of how quickly, easily, and predictably Somatics improves performance. Somatics seemingly defies categories normally used by athletes and lay people alike when attempting self-care and self-improvement. Someone unfamiliar with HSE might ask: What is Somatics for?

       Is it a form of stretching? Is it cross training? Is it pain relief? Is it injury repair? Is it for relaxation or for stress relief? Is it for improved posture? Is it for unwanted tensions? Is it for increased mobility?

       The truth is, Somatics isn't FOR anything? Somatics is a skill that teaches one to target and eliminate Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA), the unconscious signal from the lower brain that keeps a body stuck in tension. SMA usually presents as a gradual loss of feeling and control of musles and muscle groups, resulting from the ways a person unconsciouly reacts to life situations, as can occur with injury, stress, lack of, or too much movement, and just routine daily habits. By consciously experiencing the slow, controlled movement used in HSE, one can effect a lasting change in the body because the change was made within the conscious brain. By not being FOR anything, but rather focusing on the brain and updating the mind's control over movement, Somatics can help in all the categories posited above. For powerlifters, it's like the brain telling them how much they CAN lift, instead of their muscles telling them what they CAN'T lift.

     Powerlifting for high school and college lifters is sanctioned by USA Powerlifting (USAPL). During each of three different types of lifts: squat, bench press, and deadlift, competitors are allowed three attempts at maximal weight. The heaviest valid attempt on each lift counts toward their competition total. The lifters are divided into eight weight classifications for women and nine for men. For each weight class, the lifter with the highest total score wins. If two or more lifters achieve the same total, the lighter lifter ranks above the heavier lifter

       Powerlifting is not an NCAA sport, but operates as a club sport throughout the country. This means that universities offer no financial support to the teams. The athletes have no opportunity to receive scholarship funding. Team funding comes from fundraisers held throughout the year, as well as from sponsorships by local businesses and supporters. The athletes also bear some of the expense for uniforms and equipment, as well as working the fundraisers and finding businesses to sponsor them. Even the coaches volunteer their time and expertise. Powerlifting is, thus, a truly “pure sport” uncorrupted by money, with athletes and coaches participating for the love of the sport, and for the joy of the competition.


       Coach A.J. McFarland is the leader of the team at Louisiana Tech University. After coming so close to winning it all last year, Coach McFarland has relentlessly recruited many talented athletes to join the team this year. Not only are the men expected to be top contenders again, but the women are also expected to make a solid comeback after a few unsuccessful years of competition. Louisiana Tech has had a proud history with thirty-three National Collegiate Titles already notched squarely on their belt. But their glory days have become a distant memory, with no national title to claim in eight years. Parity has become the new norm, with the title changing hands frequently, and no single school dominating like the Iron Dawgs of decades ago.

       I made the four and a half hour drive to Ruston a year ago to support my step-son, Connor Grunz, who is a member of the Louisiana Tech team, at the team's qualifying meet. I began by carefully watching the posture and the movements of these athletes. I became convinced Somatics could help them improve their performance without requiring the teammates to work harder or longer.

       It was Coach McFarland who made the decision to allow me to offer Somatics to his lifters at last year's collegiate championships. I arrived in San Antonio the day before the competition, just about the time the team van arrived. The team hardly knew who I was, and they certainly didn't know what Somatics was. Over the first two days, I worked with seven athletes, offering Somatics sessions on a table. Whenever I had breaks, I would watch the lifters from the stands. I studied their movements during each of the three lifts and I noticed that the lifts involved mostly pushing and pulling movements, with very little lateral or rotational movement. My instincts told me I needed to stay in the background, working with the athletes before, during and after their lifts whenever they were available.


       However, my step-son Connor sustained a slight injury and I found myself rushing over to help him. Once I was there, I stayed and began to learn more about the sport and to strategize how to best help the lifters. The first thing I learned was to stay out the way. This back area is filled with athletes, coaches, and other support personnel from all the schools. There is loud noise, shouting, music, and lots of commotion as athletes warm up and compete in a limited amount of space. I discovered that there were windows of time when I could work with an athlete for one, five or perhaps even ten minutes of Somatic movement on the floor. I saw that there were emergency moments I could use to work with an athlete who is experiencing pain after a particular lift. I could help them sort through their emotions, and to discover that a simple movement like arch and flatten becomes the "universal reset button". Many times they would succeed at their next attempted lift, when just a few minutes earlier, they hadn’t been sure whether they were injured or not. I found I could also be that soothing voice that comforts them and lets them know, "You are ready for this."


       So now it's another opportunity, another year of competition, and I've been working with the team from the beginning. Once a month, I make the long drive to Ruston and spend the weekend teaching the team that Somatics is not magic, but is instead a predictable and efficient modality. They are learning that this will help them harness the power of their hard work and training, by adding coordination, control and synergy with more muscle groups working together by reprogramming their brain. We do a group class, and I am training a team member to lead the team in the Cat Stretch movements when I'm not there. I do private sessions with as many of the athletes as I can during the two days I’m there. Thus far my record is thirteen sessions! The powerlifting team has completely embraced Somatics.


       At this year's qualifying meet, twenty-two athletes from Louisiana Tech qualified to represent the team in April at the collegiate championships. Expectations are high, and the hard work continues, with less than a  month of training to go. Competition is always fierce, with several schools sharing the same conviction that they should win. Powerlifting is a unique sport and does not have regularly scheduled meets with other schools. Instead, teams train on their own, essentially in secret all year long, looking to peak in April and win it all. Somatics is a now big part of the Louisiana Tech Powerlifting team’s plan to do just that.