Powerlifting Competition: A Retired Nurse Becomes a Champ at 76
When Pauline Horn’s trainer suggested she look up records for a powerlifting competition, she had only been weightlifting a year. She eventually found the stats online and thought “I could do that,” so she entered the USA Powerlifters competition happening three months later in all three powerlifting categories: dead lift, squat, and bench press. “I had never done a bench press before, but I said to my trainer, ‘Well it’s just an upside down push up!’ and I was very good at push ups.” So she started working on her bench press, learned the proper technique, pressed 77.2 pounds and won her category. She competed in the USA Powerlifters National Bench Press Championship the following September, winning her category again. Of course, she was the only 76-year old woman in her category, but still, she completed the moves to win. Now you can see her own record page along with the other competitors’ records online.
Pauline, a retired nurse living in Baltimore, MD, feels young for her age. “I don’t feel 76 mentally or physically. Obviously I’m more active than most 76 year-olds. But I can’t believe it, 76 sounds like such an old woman and I don’t feel like an old woman,” she recently told StrongPath.
Women and Muscles
Her strength training routine is a reflection of that sentiment, and also a cause. She said this feeling-younger-than-your-age trend is happening because of the way we‘ve changed not just our physicality, but our mindsets too. Society’s acceptance of women’s strength has evolved. “My grandmother was old at 50. She was a little bit overweight and she walked stiffly. There were very proper attitudes about how women were supposed to act then, women were not supposed to be strong, not supposed to have muscles, and certainly they were not supposed to be independent,” said Pauline. But the attitude toward women has changed a lot. “Society’s attitude affects what we are willing to do and push ourselves to do. That affects our longevity.” She went on to say that her grandmother always wore a dress, stockings and shoes that were not made for walking. “They were chunky heels, maybe an inch and a half high. You can’t get much exercise walking in those things.” Her generation was restrained in a lot of ways, not only in what women wore, but also in acceptable activities, Pauline said. “RBG talks a lot about this. And she strength trains!”
A Youthful Mindset
Her youthful mindset allowed her to learn how to strength train and ultimately change her life. “It’s funny, I go to the gym and I am the oldest person there, I’m aware of that but I see other people doing things and I want to do those things even though they’re not appropriate for people my age,” she explained. So she does. And then she doesn’t gauge herself against others, she approximates what they do, adding you have to “mostly compete with yourself.”
She has come a long way. Four years ago, she began exercising when she witnessed her neighbor get a FitBit and begin to lose weight. She started walking and soon she too was shedding pounds (she also stopped eating the omnipresent office donuts after she retired). “Seeing my belly get smaller was a very nice thing. It took me about a year to become addicted to it,” she said. But when she had some minor injuries like bursitis and tendonitis, Pauline went to a physical therapist who happened to be a StrongMan competitor. Suddenly, the opportunity hit her. “I realized this was my last chance to get fit” she said. “It doesn’t get easier as you get older.”
Working out at Home
Pauline began doing some dumbbell work at home. When she tore her meniscus in her knee, she learned she had significant arthritis in both knees. So, she joined the gym where her physical therapist trained, the Baltimore Kettlebell Club (whose website reads “Progress here is measured by performance”), and started doing exercises like squats to strengthen the muscles around her knees “and I felt much, much better,” she said. She began by squatting without weights and not going very far down. “You have to start gradually,” she said. And then she started adding more and more weight.
Working out in a Gym
When Pauline talks about her weight lifting, she sounds like a pro. “It’s one thing I like about the big lifts, the bar bell lifts, they usually involve more than one joint and a lot of different muscle groups.” She works out with her trainer, Dan Cenidoza. “He is certified by a national organization, which I like. Seldom he asks me to do something I can’t do, he always seems to be right.”
For people starting out, she thinks hiring a trainer is a great idea. “The trainer is inspiration, the trainer keeps you from hurting yourself, can pretty much figure out how much you can lift safely,” Pauline said.
Strength Training as we Age
In fact, she wishes more people her age would get involved in strength training. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal has helped draw attention to Pauline’s success as a weightlifter and she hopes the attention will inspire others to do the same. “I would like to see more people do it, I really want to inspire people, my friends, and inspire anybody who is my age.” She cites the many medical reasons for strength training as we age. “You decrease your chance of falling, and because your bones are denser, they are less likely to fracture. Plus the increased muscle mass stabilizes blood sugar and weight.” Pauline recently got the results back from a DXA or bone density scan. In three years she went from osteopenia to “normal bone density”, a major accomplishment for someone her age.
She also likes the aesthetics of weight training. Though she has lost 30 pounds in the past four years (she doesn’t feel like eating fattening foods anymore, hence the donut abstention), she said most people are not doing this to lose weight. “You get smaller but can weigh the same because muscle weighs more than fat,” she added. “And beyond the physical, any exercise really improves your mood.”
She added that the community feeling spurs her on, “it’s fun being part of a supportive community of like-minded people, whether that’s weight lifting, or knitting, it’s fun.” Pauline said to compete in the USA Powerlifters competition was “exhilarating” and “there were a lot of positive vibes. The weight lifting community is very supportive, and they’re very supportive of old people who are still lifting.”
Motivation and Age
As for her advice to others her age, “I want people to know that they will be healthier, feel better but I also want them to be aware you don’t have to be strong to start this, just start wherever you are,” like she did. “Now that I’m retired I have the time to do it, it’s more critical at my age. I’ve got that motivation. The big issue to me is not to live a long time but to feel good for as long as possible and to be fit as long as possible.”