A weight off his mind;Interview;Bob Szpalek

27th March 1998 at 00:00
Man of muscle Bob Szpalek can 'dead lift' (that's official parlance) the equivalent of three grown men. He's also a headteacher who says pumping iron gives him an inner strength that helps him cope with the stresses and strains of school life. Gerald Haigh joins the champion powerlifter for a heavy session down at the gym

To say that Bob Szpalek, headteacher of Darlaston Community School in Walsall, is strong is an understatement of Himalayan proportions. This is a man who once represented the Midlands in the "Britain's Strongest Man" competition, battling against giants such as Geoff Capes in a series of events which included turning over a car.

For Bob Szpalek, though, Strong Man competitions are a sideshow from his chosen serious international sport of powerlifting, at which he is British Masters over-40s champion in the 100-kilo bodyweight class. He claims to be Britain's only powerlifting headteacher, and even from under a smart suit his body asserts its presence, for at 5ft 10in he weighs 1712 stone, most of it muscle.

The unthinking phrase often used of big people is that they "do not know their own strength". Bob Szpalek knows his strength well, and will recite for you his current performance on the three standard powerlifts.

He can dead lift (from the ground to upright, with the bar hanging from the arms) 290 kilos; squat (from standing to full squat and up again with the bar on the shoulders) the same weight, and bench press (lying on a bench, press the bar up to arms length) some 180 kilos.

Or, to put it another way, although I am over 6ft tall, and weigh nearly 100 kilos, Bob could descend to a full squat and return to the upright position with three of me on his shoulders. When you consider that many adults can barely manage to squat and rise again carrying only a dishcloth, you realise he is not a man to trifle with.

He is, though - as are many other proven strong men - the stereotypical gentle giant. Darlaston pupils plainly love him, and he returns the compliment. ("You train with my dad, Sir!" says one young admirer. "I do," Mr Szpalek affably replies, in the same Black Country accent, less pronounced but still identifiable, "And I'm stronger than him, so you watch it!") Only once in his whole career has he had to bring his strength into play in his work. "We had a violent intruder in school, threatening a his girlfriend who was a pupil. I carried him upstairs to my room, sat him in that chair and got him a cup of tea."

His programme of training and competition was sparked into life in 1962 when he was a pupil at Joseph Leckie school, also in Walsall. "A teacher called Clive Simmons gave a weightlifting demonstration and I decided that night that I would do it."

Working out in a gym - now quite a commonplace thing to do - was then seen as something a bit strange. "I was this half-Polish kid who was a fitness fanatic. A bit weird really." The interest was all-consuming. As well as lifting weights, he did 500 sit-ups and 1,000 press-ups every day. "I would break into the gym to train on bank holidays. I went over the top - no modern coach would stand for it."

In 1969 he went to university - "Sheffield, because it had the best gym" - and became British Universities Champion at power-lifting. After that, as a science teacher, his competitive career continued to develop. "I started to win area competitions and in 1980 I was British champion. The following year I lifted for Britain against Holland."

At that point, though, other lifters started to overtake him. The reason was sad and simple. "The drugs scene kicked in. I wasn't interested in all that and I fell behind."

Maturity and the demands of a career brought the trainingobsession under control, though he tells of taking weights away on the family holiday. ("Three hundred and fifty pounds in the boot of our Triumph. I could hardly see over the bonnet.") Then he reached the over-40s Masters age group, at which point his interest in high-level competition was rekindled. He has won the 40-age group UK championship twice and is the current holder. Two years ago he came seventh in the European championships in Budapest. Now he trains on weights two to four times a week, for an hour or so each time, for this is a sport that depends on brief, heavy sessions.

Diet is clearly important to him, and he starts the day with three or four pieces of fruit, has a school lunch, with meat, and a rice or pasta meal (for carbo-hydrates) in the early evening. After training he has a protein meal with fish or meat. His intake adds up to the 4,500 calories necessary to maintain his muscle mass.

he trains at Bodymasters gym in Darlaston with training companions Clive, Alan, Dave and Ranjeet, who is one of his GCSE students. Mutual support is clearly vital to training success, and as each one groans and staggers under the iron, the others egg him on with close quarter oaths. "Come ON! Get it UP!" It is, explains Clive Shepherd, a complete contrast with the pressures of working life. The physical effort, and the fierce mental focus on the iron bar drive everything else into the background. "I've built a big legal practice from nothing, and the stress has been enormous. If I hadn't had this, I couldn't have made it," he says.

Alan Higginson agrees. "It helped me get through cancer," he says - he had a serious operation a year ago and with the encouragement of his consultant, his return to powerlifting, albeit at a lower level than before, has aided his recovery.

It is also a place where any degree of self-importance and pomposity cannot survive. The sight of Bob Szpalek posing at the end of the gym for photographs brought out enough Black Country humour to fill a joke book. "Look at it this way," says Dave Jones, "We've got enough material tonight for three months of piss-taking."

Although as a head, he has less time to train, lifting weights, clearly, remains a huge part of Bob Szpalek's life - an alternative arena in which he experiences success and great respect. "It's not just a game of squash and a pint afterwards - it's much more than that."

He thinks often of the training partner who said to him: "Bob, if you have a bad day at school you can say 'I may be a poor teacher but I'm a good lifter' and if you've had a bad training session you can say, 'I'm not really a lifter, I'm a headteacher'."

It is an attitude that has brought him a remarkable degree of emotional stability. "If my career were to fall apart tomorrow," he says, "I wouldn't have a problem. I can work physically hard, and I'm pretty good with a shovel."

One serious powerlifting ambition remains. "When I turn 50 I want to be World Masters' Champion." At this point he recalled his father's long-ago advice, and putting on the older man's Polish accent he says: "Robert, you aim for the stars; OK, you hit the moon."

We would like to hear from other teachers who have physically (or mentally) demanding out-of-school pastimes or hobbies. Please contact Janette Wolf, M amp; B Editor, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY


For every competitive lifter, there are thousands of people who train with weights or resistance machines, to gain strength for other sports, or simply to keep fit or improve the look of their bodies.

* Everyone can become stronger by training muscles against resistance. However, not everyone is genetically programmed to build spectacular musculature. Nobody could make a Steve Ovett into an Arnold Schwarzenegger.

* Muscles are trained by making them work repetitively against resistance - lifting weights, or working on resistance machines. There are risks, however, unless weight training is carefully planned, preferably with expert help.

* Muscle, bone density and flexibility are progressively lost with advancing age. Careful, supervised weight training can help older people to offset these losses * Aerobic training - running, cycling, aerobic classes - is excellent for cardiovascular fitness and health, but will not noticeably increase muscle mass. Good practice for general fitness, therefore, is to include strength training as well as aerobics.

* Powerlifting evolved as a competitive sport from the various lifts used in weight training. It is a younger sport than classical Olympic weightlifting in which weights are raised from ground level to arms'length overhead. It is very accessible, divided into a large number of age group and body weight classes for both men and women. There are many disabled lifters, sometimes performing to appropriately modified rules.

The governing body for all weight lifting in Britain - powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting and weight training - is the British Amateur Weight Lifting Association, 1 Hurst Street, Oxford 0X4 1HE Tel: 01865 200339

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