For Chuck Mulligan, one activity is always sure to raise his spirits: powerlifting.
The Annapolis resident and member of the Y in Arnold competed in the United States Powerlifting Association nationals in Las Vegas during July. Mulligan said an estimated 900 powerlifters competed in the four-day event although he was unopposed in his weight class.
At 80 years old, Mulligan bench-pressed 286 pounds.
That weight is more than a giant panda, more than a dirt bike.
Even more impressive, Mulligan has overcome leg sarcoma and prostate cancer in the last few years to reach those heights.
“I said to the doctor, ‘Please don’t tell me you have to use chemotherapy,’” Mulligan recalled. “I weakened some with the radiation, but I was able to keep lifting.”
Powerlifting athletes compete in squat, bench press or deadlift events, with three attempts to reach their maximum weight in one rep. A former sheriff from Newton County, Indiana, Mulligan competes only in bench press events. Although he had no direct competition in Las Vegas for his 100-kilogram class — a range from 198 to 220 pounds — he wanted to set a world record for his age group. He weighed in at 207 pounds.
That success resulted from a strict routine.
About four days a week, he lifts as much as possible, often to failure. He follows a pyramid method, increasing the weight to a nearly unbearable amount and then decreasing weight.
“A lot of people do the same sets, same reps,” he said. “You reach a point where you don’t get stronger. I try to tear down as much muscle as I can and rebuild with protein and rest.”
Mulligan tries to consume a recommended 200 grams of protein per day, mostly from chicken.
All that effort means nothing if his technique is off the mark.
“You’ve got to practice technique — feet flat and you can’t lift your butt off the bench,” he said. “There’s a lot of things.”
Mulligan has refined that technique over several years since discovering his joy for powerlifting at age 13.
“High school guys would come to our house to watch sports,” he said. “[At the time], I’m in eighth grade and these guys bring weight to my house. It was my forte.”
Now, he enjoys the comradery of about 10 to 15 guys of all ages at the Y in Arnold.
As far as Mulligan knows, no powerlifter has been able to bench press more than 300 pounds at age 80 during a sanctioned event for competitors nationwide.
Phil Poppino benched 320 pounds at 80 years old in 2016. That feat came during a NASA Powerlifting competition in Iowa.
At age 81, Virginia resident John Moore bench-pressed 281 pounds at the 2019 NAPF North American regional bench press championships in Panama. That accomplishment was in a different event, with equipment. Mulligan eclipsed that mark by five pounds and in the raw event, without using added equipment.
Neither Moore nor Poppino could be reached for this story.
Now that he has reached his goal of bench-pressing 286 pounds, Mulligan is at a crossroads. The United States Powerlifting Association is one of a handful of such federations. Another one, the International Powerlifting Federation, is hosting a worlds competition in England this October.
Mulligan can compete in England, or he can savor his accomplishments while spending more time with his wife, four daughters and 10 grandchildren.
As he also noted, he is one shoulder injury away from ending his powerlifting career.
“This is my identity,” Mulligan said. “Family first, but if I’m not with family, I’m at the gym.”