A Powerlifter’s Mind in a Type 1 Body

I’ve lived with type 1 diabetes for 12 years and when I first began powerlifting two and a half years ago, I learned a new reason why taking care of my diabetes is so important.  Because balanced blood sugars and a true understanding of the physiology of diabetes are crucial for making advances in powerlifting, if I wanted to be a successful powerlifter, I had to be in charge of my diabetes.  There was no way around it, and powerlifting gave me a kind of motivation to manage my diabetes that I’d never had before.

To clarify, powerlifting is a sport focused on three specific events: the bench press, the squat, and the deadlift. A powerlifter’s goal is to press, squat or lift as much weight as possible for one single rep. The training for this sport is obviously intense and very specific. It is much different than “bodybuilding” or just lifting weights on a regular basis. Usually a powerlifter follows a clear program based on the percentages and loading parameters from her “1 rep max.” A “1 rep max” is the highest amount you know you can press, squat and lift for each exercise.

My favorite parts of powerlifting, in addition to the pure adrenaline rush (and ego-boost) of moving several hundred pounds of weight, are the fine-details and technique involved with each lift. For example, the average lifter thinks a bench press is all about chest muscles, but a true bench press in good form involves the entire body. With good form, you know how to engage your feet, butt, quads, lats and triceps with every press. The same fine-details and technique apply to the squat and deadlift, too.

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Balancing my diabetes during all of this is crucial because:

1. I need to be able to get through every workout without being interrupted by a low blood sugar.

2. High blood sugars severely interfere with the muscles ability to perform well.

3. My muscles and my body need to recover after each workout, and out-of-whack blood sugars will significantly interfere with that process.

Focusing on my blood sugar, insulin sensitivity, nutritional needs and exercise programs for powerlifting helps me become a stronger, healthier diabetic. It doesn’t make diabetes harder.  In the end, it makes it easier, because I’ve had to learn and understand so much more about the physiology of how my body works.

If I were to categorize myself into a major group, I’d have a hard time choosing between whether I belong to “powerlifting” or “diabetes,” because I’m actively engaged in both worlds. I visit and read just as many powerlifting websites as diabetes websites. I could chat about diabetes for just as long as I could about powerlifting.

While you might think the lifestyle of the two are tremendously different, I’ve been noticing some funny similarities as I watch the “newsfeed” on my Facebook profile being filled from the powerlifters and the people with diabetes.  Both worlds revolve around discussions on food, carbohydrates, exercise and even insulin sensitivity. (That’s right, to my diabetic readers: powerlifters really appreciate a thing or two about insulin!) Both worlds and the people in them lie awake at night thinking about their goals and the challenges before them.

Powerlifters are concerned about insulin sensitivity, getting the right amount of carbohydrates at the right time of day, preventing fat gain, building muscle, maintaining energy and stamina, and of course, always making time for their training.

Diabetics are concerned about insulin sensitivity, getting the right amount of carbohydrates, preventing fat gain, maintaining energy and stamina, and of course, trying to make exercise a priority in their lives.

But the difference between the two is that the powerlifters view these things as a very serious hobby, while diabetics sometimes view these things as a tedious and never-ending list of chores.

Most things are never quite as fun when they’re being demanded of you. While powerlifters find nutrition and exercise fascinating, a diabetic has been told they must focus on these things. A powerlifter chooses- and that’s the real difference.

As a person who sits in both worlds, I confess that the powerlifting mentality has taken over 98 percent of my brain. Powerlifting gives me a reason to focus on all of those things because I want to, and I seem to forget that I also have to.

I no longer view counting carbohydrates as merely a diabetic obligation, but instead a responsibility I take on every day to ensure that I’m fueled well for my powerlifting training, so I can compete again and win again.

I no longer view insulin with frustration, as something that my body doesn’t make anymore. Instead, I see it as the tool my body uses to either store carbohydrates as fat or store carbohydrates as glycogen in my muscles so I can train harder, build more strength and win competitions.

And I no longer see exercise as something “my doctor wants me to do” because “it’s good for my diabetes”– but instead, I see it as an incredible thing I get to do every day. I make time for it without question because I love it. Because it feels great. Because I want to be strong. Because dedicating myself to it has changed my health in a way that no doctor’s to-do list ever could have.

Powerlifting gives me a completely unique reason to manage my diabetes. Yes, I manage my diabetes because I want to be a healthy diabetic. But that’s not really inspiring… that’s just about being responsible and fulfilling an obligation.

Instead, I am inspired to manage my diabetes as well as I can because I want to be many other things in life. And one of those things is that I want to be a powerlifter, a powerlifter who wins, who sets new records, and who reaches new personal points of progress.

I am not a diabetic powerlifter. I am a powerlifter who also happens to be diabetic.

Ginger Vieira has lived with Type 1 diabetes and Celiac disease since 1999. At 25-years-old, she has set 15 records in drug-free powerlifting with record lifts of 190 lb bench press, 265 lb squat and 308 lb deadlift. Today, Ginger is also a cognitive-based health and chronic illness coach at www.Living-in-Progress.com. You can find her YouTube Channel at www.YouTube.com/user/GingerVieira

For more on balancing your blood sugar during exercise (and life), Ginger is publishing a book this January titled “Your Diabetes Science Experiment.” Stay up-to-date by following her at www.Twitter.com/GingerVieira or follow her on Facebook under the name: Ginger Vieira.

Comments (2)

  1. GeorgeB at

    Physical activity like this is important to maintain a healthy living from people who are suffering diabetes.

  2. Todd@PhitZone at

    Ginger, you bring such a fresh perspective on both powerlifting AND diabetes. Powerlifting gives a good reason to exercise, aside from the orders of the “motivators of last resort”, i.e. the doctor. I’ve watched my wife’s health improve so much when she made the choice to make exercise and sports nutrition something that she wanted to do, and not something that she had to do.

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