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Training a Special Olympian

July 9, 2009 07:50 AM

Down's syndrome is a genetic abnormality caused by a defect of chromosome 21. People with Down's syndrome have varying degrees of cognitive and developmental disabilities and suffer from a wide array of other symptoms, such as premature aging with development of Alzheimer's disease before the age of 40, short stature and flaccid musculature, frequent infections, autoimmune disease, hypothyroidism, leukemia, heart defect, and adults with Down's syndrome are more likely to be obese.

People with Down's syndrome were found to have lower muscle strength and lower bone mineral density than both healthy individuals and people with mental retardation but without Down's syndrome.

Shane Rocha is a 22 year old Special Olympian with Down's syndrome who I train for powerlifting. We first met in October of 2006 when I volunteered myself along with my personal training gym, Bam Fitness Reno, to train Special Olympians for power lifting. I got certified to be a Special Olympics Coach by Special Olympics of Nevada and started training Shane for a Special Olympics Powerlifting competition scheduled for December of 2006.

When we first started training he had limited exposure to weightlifting and it was in the form of bodybuilding type exercises like working with nautilus machines. I had limited experience working with people with special needs besides stroke and Parkinson's patients; it was a trial and error relationship. As we all know and as time would tell, the principles of training the body stay the same no matter who you train so training Shane was easier in a lot of ways than training most of my teen age clients.

I immediately got him deadlifting and benching [note: squatting with the bar was not allowed at the Special Olympics and is very dangerous for people with Down Syndrome to do. Setting a bar across the back of the neck puts undue pressure on a very sensitive part of their neck. This made the working with the kettlebells ideal. He took to deadlifting very quickly. He has an unbelievably strong back! Shane trained with me once a week for eight weeks and took first place in both events at the Special Olympics Powerlifting Competition. At a body weight of 96#s he bench pressed 75#s and deadlift of 120#s.

Shane's parents, Pam and Mike Black, loved the way Shane took to powerlifting and how he excelled in the sport in such a short amount of time and asked me if I would train Shane year round. [note: Special Olympics cycles events throughout the year and only allows coaches to focus on the up coming sports for practice.] I agreed and decided to enter Shane into more powerlifting competitions throughout the year through WABDL.

Once this was decided I started training Shane with a little more focus on his deadlift and bench press and limited his exposure to exercises that were not contributing to his deadlift numbers. He started training with me twice a week were we did kettlebells swings, kettlebell clean and presses, kettlebell snatches, kettlebell front squats, deadlifting with 25# plates (Shane is only 5' tall), 150lb tire flips and pull-ups. Shane is a natural at pull-ups and has perfect form at stiff legged leg raise. I am positive this is the reason he is so good at doing deadlifts. While doing pull-ups he packs his shoulders but lifts his knees almost like doing an L-sit pull-up. This is quite a feat for anyone! He does this naturally while a lot of people with Down's syndrome have low muscle tone and are unable to pack their shoulders correctly or at all. He naturally knows how to crease and load his hips correctly which helps him with the swing, snatch, tire flips and has a direct carryover to the deadlift. He is still learning to brace better and keep his back "longer". He lifts as some of the Eastern European lifters do with a rounded back before the initial pull. An example would be Latvian powerlifter Konstantins Konstantinovs. I figure if it is good for Kostantins it is good for Shane.

Shane's first WABLD meet was in Rancho Cordova, Ca. in July of 2007. Shane weighed in at an astounding 96#s! His body fat is always 6%.

Shane won his weight class, posted a Nevada State record along with qualifying for the WABLD World Championships with a deadlift of 135#s and bench press of 85#s.

The Championships were in November with barely three months to prepare so we went back to Reno and went to work. I focused his training a little more and cut his pull up volume down a little and upped his deadlift and double swings volume since he was more comfortable with a sumo style deadlift. The double ketttlebell swings got him a lot stronger in the sumo deadlift position because of the wide stance he has to take to clear the double bells between his legs. I cut back his snatching to two or three sets twice a week and had him press heavier weight at both sessions. His snatching form is good enough to be safe and effective but I thought that heavy pressing would help him more than the snatches. The heavy presses taught him how to brace with a weight over head and how to continually increase his full body tension as he grinds the weight to a lock out. Slowly lowering the weight engaged his lat which taught him how to use his lat to brace before pulling a heavy deadlift from the floor. What the snatches twice a week accomplished was to develop his explosive hip snap, add to the conditioning he needed and shoulder stability since he was still doing bench press in competition. I cut the bench press practice down to only a "practice" before the next competition. He only practiced this event two weeks before the competition.

At the WABDL World Championships in November of 2007 Shane weighed in at 95#s and lifted 85#s bench press and 155#s for the deadlift. Again Shane won his class and posted a Nevada State Record.

I continued to train Shane for the next meet in Rancho Cordova, Ca scheduled for August of 2008. His numbers were going up steadily so I didn't change his training much. I stopped having him do front squats because it seemed like it was teaching him to squat down before he pulled his deadlift instead of loading up his hamstrings as the kettlebell swing will do. His cue before he pulled the weight was "pull the bar into your legs like a swing."

In May of 2008 I moved to San Diego and Dustin Silveri took over Shane's training and really minimized it to the essentials that in my opinion, was the best thing for Shane, since his numbers are climbing at an amazing rate!

Shane's new and improved program for the approaching meet was as follows:

Week #1
Bar bell deadlift: 135x5, 155x3, 165x1
Deadlift: 135x5, 155x3, 165x1, 170x1
Week #3
Dead lift: 135x5, 155x3, 170X1, 175x1
Deadlift: 135x5, 155x3, 175x1, 180x1
Deadlift: 135x5, 155x3, 175x1, 185x1 (missed the lock out)

He did snatches with the 12kg: 20right and 18left with no rest in between. They ditched the tire flipping all together as the meet got closer and focused on deadlifting. We all decided that the deadlift was the lift he enjoyed the most and decided not to do bench pressing any longer. Since my leaving Reno, Dustin didn't have access to a pull-up bar so his training was real focused and to the point and in Shane's garage and driveway.

In August of 2008 at the WABDL Powerlifting Championships in Rancho Cordova, Ca, Shane weighed in at 96#s and deadlifted 176#s!!!

Shane won't be doing the WABDL Worlds this year but will be ready to go again next year.

Shane has been a dream to work with and an inspiration to me in my life. I often worked out with him and was always the one breathing hard and sweating profusely. He always looked at me with a ready look on his face as I was ready to quit. He has been an important part of my life as I hope I have been in his. I worked my hardest to make him a better athlete which isn't a tough job since he is in amazing shape and truly capable to do anything that is thrown at him. This being all done without a word spoken from him as Shane would go mute when around anyone but his immediate family. Get him on the phone and it is a total different story! This story of Shane and I is just begining so expect more of his great feats of strength to come!!

Robert Budd is a personal trainer in Reno, NV. He is an RKC Level II and holds the ISSA: CPT, SPN. Robert participates as a Special Olympics Powerlifting Coach for Northern Nevada. A competitive deadlifter, Robert holds the Nevada State record for Class 1 Men Single Lift Deadlift (WABDL). He is a personal trainer in Encinitas, CA. Contact him at