I was a 12-year-old powerlifter!

Coincidentally, as I was revising this piece in December 2008, I stumbled across an episode of the reality TV show Wife Swap, which featured the powerlifting McCaslin family: mom, dad, and two daughters, one of whom is 12-year-old “Little Evil” Kerri, who has a 100-lb bench press. Rock on!

Saskatoon Free Press, Sunday October 11, 1998. Theresa Kirkpatrick, Free Press Sports Editor

Hobman has strong feelings about lifting

When Meghan Hobman wants something, she can be pretty persuasive. So, when she told her parents she wanted to be a powerlifter, her dad knew he was in trouble. “She’s very stubborn and things have to be her idea so when she came up with this she really pushed to get it done, ” recalled Keith Hobman.

Meghan just smiles when she hears that. “All I knew was that I wanted to do it. I really had to coax to get them to agree,” said the 12-year-old, who will be entering her first powerlifting competition for Western Canadians in Moose Jaw on Nov. 21, 1998.

A powerlifter himself, Hobman initially tried to discourage Meghan from the sport, thinking that it would damage the growing young girl’s spine and skeletal system. But after researching the sport and talking to a number of doctors and YWCA fitness director Roger Stalwick, Hobman and his wife Caroline decided to let Meghan give the sport a try.

“The studies that have been done have shown there is no danger to children doing strength training as long as it’s supervised,” says Stalwick. “And if you think about it logically, if kids can handle soccer, gymnastics, and figure skating where their bodies take a lot of pounding, strength training is a way to prevent injuries.” Stalwick admits powerlifting is at the extreme end of the scale but says from what he’s seen, the Hobmans are approaching the sport in a very responsible manner.

Hobman is a longtime coach and has direct supervision over his daughter’s workouts. In addition, Meghan says she did not lift a weight for the first six months but rather worked to develop a base and the overall strength and fitness necessary to try powerlifting. Once that was developed, Keith and Meghan spent the last six months working on technique–once again adapting the training to suit Meghan.

“We take exercises that would put unnecessary stress on her skeletal system and include exercises that help the supporting muscles around the skeletal system,” explains Hobman. For example, while Hobman would include an arch-back good morning lift (where you load a heavy weight on your shoulders and bend over as though bowing), he would never have Meghan even try such a move. Instead, he says, she does hyperextensions to strengthen the lower back and lumbar muscles. “It’s actually quite interesting working with Meghan because it forces you to re-evaluate all the exercises and how they work,” says Hobman.

That much was obvious during one of their training sessions as the father and daughter discussed each exercises and technique in detail before executing it. It’s a strategy that appears to be working, too, as Meghan has more than doubled the amount of weight she’s lifting in the past six months. For Westerns, for which the 12-year-old has to get special permission from the Canadian Powerlifting Union to allow her to compete in the 23-and-under junior division, Meghan has some specific goals. She wants to top 100 lbs in the bench press, 150 in the squat, and 200 in the deadlift. “I’m almost there,” she says proudly. “Actually I did 105 in the bench press on Monday in training.”

In other ways, Meghan is a typical 12-year-old. She’s in an accelerated learning program at Greystone Heights school. She likes to play ringette, basketball, and softball. She even tried ballet for a while. But nothing has been as interesting to her as powerlifting. “The lifts are fun and it’s kind of nice impressing people,” Meghan says with a smile, noting that there is a boy at school who won’t pick on her because she’s “too strong”. “But most people here (at the YWCA) know me. There’s not much reaction from people. Sometimes I get a few shocked stares but pretty much I’m just another person in the gym,” she said.

An added bonus for Keith Hobman is that he and his daughter have become closer because of the sport. “We’re both compelled to pick up heavy things, I guess, and it’s been great for us. We talk a lot and our relationship has really kind of taken off because we have this in common,” he said.

Still, Hobman admits that there are times when the roles of Dad and coach conflict. “As a parent, when you see your daughter under 150 pounds, especially in a squat, I’m thinking oh, no. As a coach I want her to lift it but as a dad, I just want her to get that weight off her back,” he says.

Meghan thinks he worries too much. “Dad’s a really good coach,” she says simply. “And I don’t think it matters how young you are, as long as you’re committed and take precautions so you don’t get hurt.”

meghan’s training

Meghan’s dad, powerlifter Keith Hobman, writes:

Meghan started lifting about one year before her first competition. Meghan didn’t do the powerlifts for the first six months and wasn’t allowed to test maximal strength. My concern was to build up a physical base with her so she could stand the stress of doing maximal weights with a minimal chance of injury. During this period she lifted three times per week and did very little exercises which placed loads on her skeletal system. We emphasized training the shoulders, glutes, quads and hamstrings. A typical routine during this period would be:

starter workout

  • Reverse hyperextension (3×10)
  • Hyper-extension (3×10)
  • Leg press (3×10)
  • DB front raise (3×10)
  • DB lateral raise (3×10)
  • DB bench press (3×8)
  • Triceps pushdown (3×10)
  • Pulldown (3×10)
  • Crunches (3×25)

This routine changed weekly to keep her interested, but as can be seen the emphasis is on building supporting muscle and minimizing skeletal system load. Exercise performance on both of the exercise which do load the skeletal system (Leg Press and DB Bench Press) is light, but explosive. Acceleration is a critical concern.

After six months we switched to what I call a “powerlifting routine”. Meghan followed the exact same program that my brother and I use, but she used different assistance exercises. Once again emphasis is on avoiding as much as possible skeletal and joint loads. We use a Louie Simmons designed program. Meghan worked out four times per week, each workout taking under an hour, including 10 minutes of warm-up. Here is how it went in the last 8 weeks leading to the competition.

day 1 (wednesday)

squat dynamic day

Low box squat (chains) 14×2 @ 65% – 45 seconds between sets

Assistance – hyper-extension / manual hamstring curl / reverse hyper-extension / hanging leg raise / wrist curl

Notes: Meghan uses 65% of her one rep maximum for 14 sets of 2 reps. Meghan can squat 95 lbs. plus about 45 lbs. of chain in this exercise, so she uses 65 lbs. plus the chains for her working sets. What we do is hang the chains on the bar so that when Meghan is standing up almost all the chain is off the floor. As she squats the bar gets lighter and lighter as the chain links go to the floor. Once on the box 80% of the chain is on the floor. Our low box is about 12″ high. Meghan takes a stance slightly wider than her normal squat with her toes pointing more forward than she would in a squat. She unracks the bar and then sits back on the bench. We emphasize that she pushes her knees outward, pushes her stomach against her belt and pushes her rear end backwards to ‘sit’ into the squat. A key concern is that her knees stay vertical and do not move forward during the squat. After sitting on the bench she ‘explodes’ upwards as forcefully as she can – literally trying to throw the bar through the ceiling. She repeats this for another rep, rests briefly (45 seconds or under) and then repeats.Hyper-extensions are done with either elastic bands or me pushing against her back for resistance. Manual hamstring curls are done facing outwards on a pulldown machines with the ankles locked under the seat. The bar is held behind the neck and the person lies face down on a bench and then ‘curls’ their own bodyweight upwards, keeping the hips locked and moving only the knee joint. Since very few people can do their own bodyweight the bar and cable of the pulldown machine is used to reduce resistance. Reverse hyper-extensions are done by facing in on the hyperextension and pulling and elastic upwards until the body is straight. Hanging leg raises are done on the chin bar – the legs are lifted slowly and held for a two count once up. Meghan bends her knees on these. Wrist curls are done standing in the squat rack with the bar held behind the back and the hands facing out. The bar is lowered onto the tips of the fingers and then curled by moving only the hands as high as possible. All assistance work is done for 3 to 4 sets of 8-15 reps.

day 2 (thursday)

bench dynamic day

Multi-grip bench press (chains) 10×3 @ 60% – 30 seconds between sets

Assistance – DB Paul Dyck press (7 sets of 8 reps with 15 seconds rest between sets) / DB cleans on a bench / lateral raise / stomach curl on a balance ball

Notes: On the bench press Meghan uses 60% of her best bench in competition style plus the weight of the chains. In this exercise about 1/2 the links are always on the floor so the chains don’t provide as much resistance. Meghan starts with a grip that is 8 inches narrower with each hand than her regular grip. Every second set she moves the grip out two inches until the last two sets are done with a normal grip. As with the box squat this is done very explosively – literally trying to throw the bar through the ceiling.Paul Dyck presses are done with dumbbells either on a bench or on the floor. Meghan uses a weight she knows she can get 7 sets of 8 out of and works out with a very fast cadence. Basically the dbs are lowered like a press and then near the bottom the weights are brought onto the shoulders by bringing the elbows up in an arch. The weights are then pressed straight up leading with the fists.

DB cleans are done sitting on a bench with a light weight. The clean starts with the arms hanging and the shoulders rotated back. The dbs are then cleaned so the upper arms are parallel to the floor and the elbows are bent at 90 degrees. Lateral raises are done strict with the arms going straight out. For stomach curls we use an elastic band for resistance and then curl on a ball with the feet on the floor. We sometimes use a weight stack for resistance on this exercise as well.

day 3 (saturday)

squat / deadlift conjugate day

Zercher squats (to a max single)

Assistance – Weighted reverse hyper-extensions

Multi hip machine

Chest-supported rows

Hyper stomach

Notes: Zercher squats are done by holding the bar in the crook of the arms in front of you and then squatting. We go so low the bar hits the thighs and lift as much as we can in this exercise for two weeks straight. Meghan is convinced that ‘Zercher” must have been a torture specialist in some concentration camp or something, because she know anything with Zercher in front of it means pain – as in forearm pain from holding the bar there. We wrap a towel around the bar, but that is all. Ouch! I use up to 405 lbs. for this and it does hurt, believe me.We use the universal multi hip machine for Meghan, but the adults do a very heavy kneeling squat on this day. Our rule of thumb is Meghan only does one exercise that loads the skeletal system.

Reverse hypers you already know, but today we hang a weight from our heels while doing 4 sets of 8 or 10. The adults do Coan rows – very heavy – but Meghan does a chest supported seated row. Hypers stomachs are done by sitting facing upward on the hyper machine and sitting up with an elastic band for resistance. There is resistance throughout the entire movement with this exercise, but it switches from the upper to lower abdominals. Our theory is that anything that hurts this bad must be good for you!

day 4 (monday)

bench press conjugate day

Floor press to a max for one rep

Assistance – triceps extension / front plate raise / leg raise / hammer curl

Notes: Floor presses are done in the squat rack. The bar is lowered until the upper arms touch the floor and then pressed. The back is flat on the floor and no weight is carried on the feet. It is a very strict partial press which eliminates unnecessary stress on the shoulder joint. All the other exercises are standard. The adults do a 1/4 dip instead of triceps extension, but once again the rule with Meghan is that only one exercise stresses the joints or skeletal system. And normally that exercise is chosen so as to minimize stress on joints or the spine and maximize stress on supporting muscles. Injury prevention and protecting Meghan’s developing skeletal system are primary concerns of mine.The basis of a Simmons routine is now in place. Two days a week are done with light weights very explosively. These days allow us to focus on contest technique and safe technique while using compensatory acceleration for muscle development. The exercises don’t change much, although we switch box heights for the squats regularly. The other two days we lift very heavy in exercises which work the same muscle groups as the powerlifts. These exercise are constantly rotated and changed to avoid staleness. As well assistant exercise are constantly changed depending on what we see as weak links in our contest technique.

During weeks 2 and 3 the low box squat with chains stays the same, only we increase weight and reduce sets. We go to 10 sets of 2 reps @ 76% and then 6 sets of 2 reps @ 82%. On the last day we test our one rep max in the box squat after doing the six sets to provide a basis for the next cycle. We then go onto a high box (about 15″ high) and repeat the three week cycle, except we can do much more weight with this box. We keep alternating back and forth between the two box, taking a max single every three weeks after the six sets of two reps.

The multi-grip bench doesn’t change. Once a month on our conjugate day we test our bench press in order to determine our 1 rep max for this exercise. Lifters that use bench shirts do 55% of their 1RM. Meghan doesn’t use a bench shirt so she does 60% of her 1RM. Chains are added to the weight determined above, not factored into the weight. This core exercise never changes throughout the year. However, our assistance exercises are constantly changing. Emphasis is placed on triceps, followed by front deltoid and chest exercises.

The main exercise on the conjugate day changes every 2-3 weeks and we are constantly trying to get new maxes on this day. The only exception is when we do deadlift singles where we base our attempts on between 65% and 80% of our contest deadlift and do singles at a very quick pace. This is our technique work on the deadlift. On average we do this about three weeks out of 12. The other nine weeks we switch between Zercher squats, arched back good mornings, arched back good morning squats, extra wide stance sumo squats on blocks and hi-bar balance ball squats. We use a wide range of assistance exercise including: cable pull through, pulldowns, shrugs, Zercher bench lifts, round back good morning, Zercher hyper- extensions, wide stance safety squats, hi rep deadlifts and numerous other exercises. Our conjugate day always has an exercise we test maximal strength in, reverse hyper-extensions and one other assistance exercise, stomach exercise and lat exercise. The bench conjugate day is similar. We test strength in floor presses, rack presses (doing three lifts lowering the rack from 3 inches to 6 inches to 9 inches every week for 3 weeks and doing as much weight as we can), board presses (lowering the bar to a board on our chest – either 2 2×6’s or 3 2×6’s screwed together) and a Miller floor press (lowering the bar until your elbows are on the floor then moving the bar a few inches towards your throat before pressing back up). Once again a wide variety of assistance exercise are done, normally one each for the triceps and front deltoid. Twice as many reps are done for the triceps as we do for the front deltoid.

As you can see there is nothing normal about Meghan’s program. I like this routine for her because it minimizes skeletal and joint stress, emphasizes acceleration which carries over into her other sports and allows us to focus on technique and first reps. Meghan has doubled her strength in all the power lifts in six months following this routine and is showing no signs of slowing down yet.

Meghan and dad Keith

Another unique feature of this routine is the extremely fast cadence, especially on the dynamic or speed day. This really has benefited Meghan, not only has she got much stronger but her fitness and shape have also improved. Roughly every second month we have meet simulation day where we go for maxes in the powerlifts. This is an important part of our training as it allows us to focus on technique doing the actual lifts. Surprisingly though, as Meghan has worked on the box squat and learnt to do it properly I see a carry -over in improved contest technique. This is also true of the bench press. We don’t do much deadlift training so this week does allow us to focus on technique here. In addition the 3 weeks of singles in the deadlift give us some technique work.