By Pat Ryan
Powerlifting in Montana has come a long way, and so has Butte powerlifter River Newman.
The 28-year-old Butte elementary art teacher will compete in Saturday’s Big Sky Open in Missoula. The meet is sanctioned by the World Association of Bench and Dead Lifters, and like the group’s name implies, the competition will feature both the bench press and the dead lift.
The two lifts are simple enough. In the bench press, athletes lie on their back on a bench, lower a weighted bar to their chest, then raise it. In the dead lift, competitors bend over to raise the barbell to a standing position.
While the basic idea is simple, the sport itself is much more complex. Athletes compete in different age and weight divisions, using standardized equipment with weights that are measured to within a tenth of a gram of accuracy.
Following rigorous but exacting workout regimens, powerlifters share many traits with wrestlers, who are also focused on a weight-to-strength ratio. Different strategies are employed, including choosing an opening weight.
While Newman trains much of the time in Butte, trips to the Smelter City have made a difference.
“I attribute most of my success to being able to go to Goosetown in Anaconda and train with the legendary Charlie Farmer,” Newman said of his mentor, who has more than 200 powerlifting meets under his weight belt. “Charlie’s probably forgotten more about strength training and conditioning than most people will ever know. He has kind of a ‘Mr. Miyagi sense’ in the gym, and because of what I’ve learned from him, everything has gone up and gotten better .”
Newman, who entered his first meet when he was 14, was encouraged by Deer Lodge football coaches Al Cutler and Mike Grey.
“My first meet was at the YMCA that’s now the Fitness Courts,” Newman recalled. “It was the Montana Bench Press Championships; I weighed 165 pounds and I think I bench pressed 150 pounds.”
Fourteen years and a lot of work later, Newman has come a long way, but is still pushing himself to higher goals. Newman currently holds the Single ply 275-pound USPA state record at 419 pounds, and depending on his performance at the meet in Missoula, he could earn a trip to the World Championships November in Las Vegas.
“I feel more prepared for this meet than I have for a lot of others,” Newman said. “I did 11 straight meets in a row, a meet a month and one month where I did three, but this time I haven’t competed since November. So from then until Saturday I will have had that time to heal, recover, train and be prepared for it. Hopefully this will be a stepping stone into the World Championships. That’s something I wanted to spend time focusing on.”
Though his strength lies in the bench, Newman has made big strides in the dead lift as well.
“I started with a 400-pound deadlift, which is really sad, but when I started learning the technique and form my numbers went up,” Newman said, adding that increased strength helped as well.
Newman is looking forward to Saturday’s meet, partly for the joy of competition, but also for the camaraderie he shares with the other lifters.
“Powerlifters are the most positive people in the world,” Newman said, adding that anyone who steps onto the platform to compete has already earned the respect of his or her peers. “If they make the lift or not, everybody watching claps them off. There’s no sense of negativity, and we’re not so much competing against each other as we are against gravity.”
“They’re expecting around 90 competitors,” Newman said. “There are men’s and women’s divisions with people ranging from 12 years old up to the Super Masters division, which is for 60 and up. I’ve seen 80-year-old guys still out competing.”
With painful workouts, restrictive diets and long hours spent in the gym, Newman says a common question asked is “why?”
“I don’t know that there really is a reason, other than it’s what I want to do,” he said. “I like pushing myself to the next level, and it’s something where you’re willing to sacrifice hours of sleep, relationships, social time, just so you can put three or four more pounds on your total. If you can do that, it feels like anything you sacrificed was worth it.”