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My Powerlifting Background
Part One

By Gary F. Zeolla

This two-part article will give an overview of my powerlifting/ weightlifting background. It is rather lengthy as I’ve been through a lot. But I hope my story is interesting enough for people to take the time to read and that my experiences will be a help to others with problems similar to ones I have experienced.

All of the links scattered throughout this two-part article are listed at the end of this article. So if you find a link that looks interesting to follow, you can wait until you're finished reading this article and still have quick access to it.

Early Years and Collegiate Lifting

I was born in 1961 in western Pennsylvania, where I still reside. I began lifting weights at home in junior high school and immediately loved it. The idea of getting stronger was very appealing. And the challenge of lifting more and more really hooked me.

I lifted in my basement until high school. In 11th grade I entered a bench press meet---and promptly bombed out. I missed two attempts completely and was red lighted on the other attempt. It was very distressing at the time, but in retrospect it was probably the best thing that happened to me. The reason I bombed out was because my form was horrible. My obsession with wanting to lift more weight had caused me to use improper form when I was working out, and this carried over to the meet.

So after that disaster, I dropped my weights down and began learning to use proper form. I also joined a gym, which furnished help and support from other lifters and the owners in proper lifting techniques. I then entered the same bench press meet in my senior year and won a 4th place trophy. The organizer of the meet said that if they had a “most-improved lifter" trophy I would have own it.

Me at National Colligiate's in 1981. Click for a larger image.After this I began competing in full, three lift powerlifting meets. In college I joined the Penn State Powerlifting Team. After winning several local meets, in my sophomore year (1981) I entered and won the Pennsylvania Collegiate Champions and was outstanding lifting at the meet. I then won National Collegiate Championships, both in the 114 pound weight class (I’m 5’1”).

My best lifts at 114’s were (all weights in pounds):
Squat: 352
Bench: 205
Deadlift: 385
Total: 953

In 1982, increased musculature forced me to move up to 123s. I again won State Collegiate’s and the outstanding lifter award. However, I was only runner-up at Nationals.

My best lifts at 123’s were:
Squat: 425
Bench: 240
Deadlift: 435
Total: 1095

The 1095 total was from State’s. I had a bad day at Nationals, completing only four of my nine attempts and totaling only 1055. The winning total was 1075. How frustrating!

Also, all of the above lifts in both weight classes were state collegiate records (except for the bench at 114’s) and the 413 pounds I squatted at Nationals was a new National Collegiate record (there were no national judges at States when I squatted the 425).

Back Pain and Other Problems

In November of 1982 I began to experience low back pain. It started when I was warming up for a squat workout and then worsened when I was in a minor car accident a week later.

After that, every time I tried to squat or deadlift anything of significance I would get jabbing pains in my back. However, I was able to continue to do benches. And in the summer of 1985 I entered and won a couple of bench press meets. But shortly after the second contest I was in a minor bicycle accident. 

A car made a rolling stop through a stop sign. The bumper hit my right knee, which required surgery. After that, I gave up lifting altogether. Over time, I lost much of the musculature I had gained from lifting. My bodyweight dropped from my training weight in college of about 128 to as low as 112.

Over the next few years I injured myself in various other minor accidents. I also developed various health problems. None were too serious, but together these problems caused me stop doing much of anything to try to stay in shape. All I did for several years was causal walking.

During these years the back pain worsened to the point where I couldn’t lift more than about 20 pounds without being in pain. Then in June of 1994, the back pain worsened to the point where I couldn’t lift more than two pounds without being in pain. Yes, you read that correctly, two pounds!

I also would end up in great pain if I tried to be “up” (sit, stand, walk) for more than 30-60 minutes. So I spent the bulk of my day lying down. I lived this horrid existence for six years. During that time, I tried just about everything that traditional and alternative medicine had to offer for low back pain. All of the treatments I tried were either completely worthless or only provided minor relief.

But it was during this time that I actually started strength training again. When I went to physical therapy for my back pain they had me working out on Nautilus type of machines. And it seemed to help the back pain some. Then later I joined a Nautilus center and began working out there. As a result my bodyweight eventually increased to 117.

And thinking that getting in the best shape possible might help further with the back pain, I also began first walking more seriously and then later riding my bicycle for the first time since my bicycle accident.

I addition, I really started to watch my diet. My college degree was in nutrition, so you would think I would have been watching my diet all along. But that was not the case. With all that was going on, diet simply didn't seem that important. But as I began to get stronger and in better shape from the Nautilus and aerobics workouts, watching my diet once again became important to me. I wanted to be able to do as well as possible in my workouts.

Between the exercise and watching my diet, the back pain did improve some, but then I had a major setback.

A Setback, then Recovery

On July 28, 1999, three weeks after I started riding my bike again, I was in a second bicycle accident, but this time it was much more serious than the first. A car cut me off. I slammed into it, flipped over the top, and landed on my back on the other side. I collapsed my right lung, fractured my right clavicle and scapula and cracked the shoulder socket, fractured my left elbow, and sustained a concussion. But thank God I was wearing a helmet or the head injury could have been much worse. For further details on this accident, see Bicycle Accident Story.

Needless to say, this accident was a major setback. I was in the hospital for about a week, and it took several weeks for the broken bones to heal. But determined not to loose the progress I had made and to not get out of shape again, as soon as I was out of the hospital I began walking and using an exercise bicycle. Then once the bones had healed, I started with physical therapy. And due to me being in rather good shape by this time, I was able to recover much quicker than my physical therapist thought I would.

After I was done with therapy, I immediately starting working out at Nautilus again. By about four months after my accident, I had almost fully recovered from my injuries, and I began to feel like I was in the best shape I had been in since college.

I managed to work out despite the back pain, but the exercise was not significantly improving the pain. But then I came across something completely different: Dr. John Sarno’s book Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection. This book explains Sarno’s theory on the role of the emotions in back pain. Basically, Sarno believes that strong suppressed emotions like anger are the root cause of most cases of back pain.

The way to deal with the pain is to recognize and address these negative emotions and the effect they are having on the body. And Sarno gives many suggestions in his book on how to do so. I won’t go into details here as I do so in my eBook Overcoming Back Pain. But suffice it to say, following the mind-body techniques Sarno outlines I was able to fully recover from my back pain in matter of a few weeks in the spring of 2000. And to this day the back pain has not returned in any significant degree.

Once I got over my back pain, I continued to work out at the Nautilus center for several months. But by the spring of 2001 I began getting the urge to do the powerlifts again. So I left the Nautilus center and began working out at a regular gym. It had been 16 years since I had used free weights. And let me tell you, it felt so good to once again do squats, bench presses, and deadlifts after all of those years.


Backing up some, during the summer of 2000 when I first overcame my back pain, along with working out at Nautilus, I began riding my bicycle for the first time since my second accident. But not wanting to ride on roads anymore, I rode on a bicycle trail that basically went through the woods. But doing so caused my allergies to really flare-up.

I had hay fever ever since high school. But during the years I was crippled with the back pain I became perpetually congested. So it was obvious that I was becoming allergic to more things than just pollen and the like. But it was more a nuisance than anything else. But now, the congestion became so bad that I couldn’t sleep at night.

So I gave up trying to ride my bike on the bike trail figuring that was the source of the problem. But the congestion and sleeping problems continued. This led to a particularly bad bout with the flu in January 2001, after which I never felt quite right again. From then on I struggled with increasing severe fatigue.

So I was already struggling with some new problems at the time I started using free weights again, but things would get much worse.


About a month after I started working out at the gym I felt like I pulled a muscle in the middle of my upper back while working out. It didn’t seem too serious, so I just took a couple of days off and then avoided exercises that seemed to aggravate it.

It seemed to be getting better, but then about a month later it worsened again. And then the pain mysteriously wrapped around my left side to my lowest front rib. It then gradually progressed to encompass my entire torso. I also felt like I pulled multiple muscles in both of my legs and both of my arms. In addition, the fatigue continued to worsen.

So on August 27, 2001 I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. For those who don’t know, fibromyalgia is basically chronic pain plus chronic fatigue. With the pain and fatigue, I stopped lifting weights. During this time, I just did what is generally recommended for fibromyalgia: walking and stretching.

However, I began applying the same mind-body techniques that I had used to overcome my back pain to the fibro-pain. I even found a book that applied Sarno’s theories to fibromyalgia, Freedom from Fibromyalgia by Nancy Selfridge. Using the suggestions from this book, with time I was able to get the generalized torso pain mostly under control. At this point I was getting rather bored with just walking and stretching, so I decided to try lifting again.

This article is continued at My Powerlifting Background: Part Two.

The above article was posted on this site in October 2001.
It was updated and last updated May 14, 2003.

Powerlifting and Strength Training
Powerlifting and Strength Training: My Powerlifting Background

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