With both hands grasping onto the handrail of a treadmill, Randy Ellis carefully goes about swinging both of his legs in a pendulum-like motion.
Before long, Ellis’s head is covered in beads of sweat. The exercise, meant as a warmup, is a workout all on its own.
“As you get older, it becomes more of a necessity,” Ellis explains. “I didn’t stretch as much as when I was younger. I can’t just hop under the bar anymore. I was more resilient than.”
It’s 10 p.m. on a Thursday night at the gym, and Ellis, a 58-year-old powerlifter, is training for an upcoming meet.
On this day, Ellis is working on squats, with an emphasis on performing more reps than weight. His plan is to gradually work his way up each set until it culminates with his maximum weight.
“Then again, you never know,” Ellis says. “It just depends on how I feel.”
With just the bar, which weighs 45 pounds on its own, Ellis powers through two warm-up sets in quick succession.
He then applies some liquid chalk to his hands, something that didn’t exist during his prime years as a competitive powerlifter. “It doesn’t make the gym owners as mad,” Ellis laughs, when asked why he wasn’t using real chalk.
Ellis loads a 45-pound weight on each side of the bar, and carefully sizes it up. He has to ensure his feet are set just right so the bar will stay in place during the squat — too loose, and the bar will be unstable during his reps.
After a moment of deliberation, Ellis comes up under the bar and grips it with both hands, making sure to place each middle finger on two marked rings in the handgrip, and plows through two more sets.
Realistically, Ellis could get away with squatting 135 pounds simply by brute force, but technique is just as important as strength in competitions. One wrong move, and the judges won’t hesitate to disqualify a contestant. Besides, there’s no point in taking any chances. The last thing Ellis wants to do at the gym is be caught out in a bad position by himself.
As Ellis sets about increasing the load by another 90 pounds, he casually flips a 45-pound weight in his hands so that it is facing outward. It’s an impressive feat, one that belies the fact that he takes turmeric supplements three times a day for tendonitis.
“It depends on my arms, and how I’m feeling,” Ellis says, before fluidly executing another two sets.
An iron calling
Ellis started lifting weights after high school in 1979. For Ellis, who wasn’t the most athletically-inclined in high school, weightlifting provided a sense of accomplishment.
In 1982, by chance, Ellis struck up a conversation with a powerlifter one day after removing weights off a bar he was planning to use. The powerlifter mentioned that there was an upcoming novice meet, and offered to train Ellis. Up to that point, Ellis had only heard of powerlifting, but had no idea what it was.
“I started lifting with these guys and training with him,” Ellis said. “Within two months I knew, and I hadn’t even done my first meet yet, I knew it was something that I wanted to do.”
In powerlifting, competitors have three attempts at lifting a maximum weight on three lifts: squat, bench press and deadlift, with the winner being determined by who lifts the most.
Ellis went on to place dead last at his first meet, but that didn’t matter.
“I had more fun than I had had in a long time,” Ellis said. “I didn’t care how I placed, I had a lot of fun: I was hooked on powerlifting.”
A year after taking up powerlifting, Ellis started taking anabolic steroids, but quit after three years and began lifting naturally under the American Drug-Free Powerlifting Association, where he went on to take first place in the 1993 and 1995 California state deadlift championships.
However, Ellis’s interest in the sport began wavering, and in 1996 he decided to quit altogether.
“I got bombed out, disqualified from a meet because there was too many lifters,” Ellis said. “Back in those days they didn’t cap meets like they do now. Nowadays, if you go to a meet in Oregon for instance, it’s capped at 60 lifters a day. In those days, 200 lifters (would) show up for these meets and (we’d be) lifting until 2 a.m. in the morning.”
“Anyway, the referees bombed me out and a bunch of other people too, disqualified our lifts and there was nothing wrong with them. So it kind of slept bad with me, and I went on a couple of years and I finally just lost interest in the sport.”
A rude awakening
In the 20 years since quitting, Ellis and his wife gradually made their way up north, moving first from Santa Barbara to Eureka before settling into Brookings, where he now operates a mobile auto repair service.
In that same period, Ellis severely fell out of shape. Along with ballooning up to 300 pounds, he contracted diabetes and fatty liver disease. At a regular diabetes check up in 2015, his doctor gave him an ultimatum: Lose weight or die.
Prompted by his doctor’s warning, Ellis returned to his powerlifting diet, where he ate six healthy meals a day and went on to lose 63 pounds in seven months. As the excess pounds came off, Ellis soon gained a newfound urge to start working out again.
“I joined Fitness at the Club and started lifting weights just to stay in shape,” Ellis said. “But I’m a powerlifter and it’s in your blood. It’s in your blood.”
Ellis was only furthered motivated to take up powerlifting again when he attended the 2016 State Championships in Newport, where he confesses to “getting the bug all over again.”
“I was feeling good,” Ellis said. “I wasn’t as sick anymore, so I decided I was going to do a meet.”
For his final set of the night, Ellis adds 100 pounds to the bar, bringing his total up to 335 pounds. As with anytime he goes above 315 pounds, Ellis wraps both of his knees in protective tape as a safety precaution. His knees are one part of his aging body that have never given him any problems, and he plans on keeping it that way.
“I’m going for eight reps,” Ellis declares.
He positions himself under the bar, grimaces and takes off. Up down, up down, up down. Even at his max weight, Ellis maintains a steadfast speed without any pauses in between. Other than an ever reddening face, Ellis shows no visible signs of strain, and completes each rep in a clean, fluid motion.
Before long, Ellis hits his goal, and adds an extra rep for good measure. As he sits down to collect himself, Ellis notes he probably could’ve gone for 10. When asked why he didn’t, Ellis cracks another smile.
“I’ve learned something in my old age: If you can do 10, do 9. Do not push it.”
A newfound perspective
Since returning to powerlifting, Ellis has competed in four meets in the past year, and even set the state deadlift record at 507 pounds, a record he hopes to break at his next meet.
“I’m loving it, I’m having more fun now than I did when I was young,” Ellis said. “For my age I’m doing really well. It’s nice, it makes it fun being able to meet my goals that I set, (but) the biggest thing is the people. It’s so much fun lifting with the people I lift in meets with. We (see) each other a lot, we’re like family.”
Ellis’s attitude is a marked turn from his view towards the sport his first time around, where he was mostly concerned with the competition aspect of powerlifting. The shift, Ellis explains, is thanks to a newfound perspective on life he gained after the wake up call from his doctor.
“I (have) a second chance,” Ellis said. “I dodged a bullet.”
Unlike before, it’s not the end of the world if he gets disqualified during a lift. There’s always the next meet to look forward to. The way Ellis sees it, life is more fun that way.
“(Before) it was so stressful, I was worried about weight and who I was lifting against in general. Now my competition’s right there,” Ellis said, gesturing towards the rack. “And that’s where it stops.”