Powerlifting and Autism: Connections


Powerlifting focuses on three  lifts; Squat, Deadlift, and Bench press.  The highly-specified programming in powerlifting requires a lot of time and focus on those three movements to ensure a high level of mastery.  Each lift is practiced many, many times to develop proper mechanics, feel for the movement, and even neurological optimization (yes, the overused and oft-misunderstood mind-body connection that somehow, according to common lore, only yoga can provide).  Suffice that powerlifters become very proficient in these three lifts because they practice very often.  There is a conceptual carryover to building movement skills with the autism population.

In my experience, individuals with autism, who often have strength and motor deficits even if they have one or two “splinter” skills (preternatural balance, for example) require a lot of repetition prior to mastering a movement pattern.  There are typically several items of consideration here:

1)      The physical deficit requires regular practice to develop the strength, stability, and coordination to master the activity

2)      Cognitively, there may exist some challenges with regard to working memory, establishing contingencies/associations between the name of the exercise and the exercise itself, and motor planning (auditory and/or representational processing)

3)      Becoming comfortable enough with the activity to perform it independently (without prompting)

I won’t use numbers, I don’t have any and have not seen any studies yet that demonstrate the distinction, but it is not outlandish to suggest that individuals with autism, on average, need a lot more practice with specific movement activities than their neurotypical peers.  If we accept this as true, it follows that the difference between a fitness/active play/PE session for individuals with ASD versus neurotypical individuals will require more repetition, or more exposure and practice to the same activities.

There has to be a balance between structure and novelty, and the answer lies in skill development. I may want to teach ten new activities at once to provide variety, however an individual who has little practice moving on a regular basis will likely not receive enough practice with each activity to become proficient.  Developing a “needs hierarchy” is helpful to decide what to teach and when.

This morning my 11-year-old athlete was working on squats to a Dynamax ball and Sandbell overhead presses, two compound movements with which he needs some improvement.  During his breaks, he decided to start playing with the big resistance band that happened to be lying on the floor. He really enjoys putting it around his waist while I hold the other end and walking backwards (a great lower body activity that can be used with just about any level of athlete). So we do this. It is not an activity on which I am focused, but provides a nifty extra movement between what I consider the main priorities.

These play-seeking movements are perfect buffers when we are performing a lot of repetition with two or three exercises. There is little instruction, because the activity is participant-guided, it provides a novel physical stimulus, and serves as an active rest between sets.  These types of activities also incorporate creative thinking, play, and autonomy, three concepts often difficult for the ASD population.

Balancing repetition with boredom is an un-ignorable issue. Of course, I’ve found that on occasion it is my potential boredom that is the issue. There’s a reason that successful children’s TV shows (Blue’s Clues, That Dora One) have long pauses. While faux-agonizing for most adults, the lag time allows for the intended viewer to process all the information. The best coaching/teaching is derived from a state of empathy; “What is it like for YOU to do this (squat, throw, crawl, jump).”

Focusing on developing foundational movement patterns also allows for scaffolding, building new skills on top of existing ones. We’re not performing calculus unless we have the rudimentary abilities to add, subtract, multiply, divide, and stay put for longer than 30 seconds. For the record, I do not perform calculus. A proper hierarchy of movement programming depends on figuring out what skills are most important, how they need to be taught, and what steps need to be taken to ensure enough practice is available.

Individual-centered programming, and this includes groups as well, means assessing what is needed and providing a strategy that actually achieves the goal, most often independent mastery of a skill that is then generalized to new environments and situations. Your basics are the center hub upon which spokes (new skills) can be added, but not before satisfying the need for basic motor development.  A bunch of P-things to finish this off; Patience, Persistence, Practice, Persevering, and  Practicality. They all have their…proper place.

Live Inspired,


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