Like many people, when Samuel Belling started college at UW-Platteville, the mathematics and engineering physics double major didn’t have time for sports and found little time to exercise.
That all changed in 2018—though in an unexpected way. Before he began as a PhD student in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he spent part of 2018 as an intern at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
“I had access to a gym, and I decided that I should start doing some physical activity to help with stress management and help me get in better shape,” he says. “I don’t like cardio and I don’t really enjoy bodybuilding. But I was really drawn to pushing myself and seeing how much weight I could lift.”
A friend noticed Belling’s fondness for the big lifts and asked him if he’d ever heard of powerlifting. He hadn’t. “I looked it up and was like, wow, people do this as a competitive hobby?” he says.
Now, almost five years later, Belling is not just a hobbyist; he’s one of the best powerlifters in the state of Wisconsin and has ambitions to become one of the best in the country.
Many people are familiar with Olympic-style weightlifting in which competitors get several attempts to lift a weight bar off the floor and hoist it over their head in two disciplines called the snatch and the clean and jerk. Powerlifting, which is not yet in the Olympics, involves three different disciplines–the squat, the benchpress and the deadlift. Whoever lifts the heaviest loads over the course of three tries in each event wins.
When he came to UW-Madison in 2018, Belling joined a powerlifting club that used to meet in the Natatorium. Over time, he became more serious about the sport, and now trains five days a week for meets that take place across the Midwest. COVID reduced the number of recent powerlifting events, but in his last competition in August 2021 at the Tournament of Power in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, Belling squatted 584 pounds, dead-lifted 610 pounds and benched 458 pounds, setting a new bench press record for Wisconsin. Currently, he is ranked fourth overall in his weight class in the state.
“I think I’m in the top-10% of powerlifters,” he says. “But my longer-term goal is to be in the top-10 lifters overall nationally, which I think is doable. It will take some time and serious training, though.”
That training is an addition to Belling’s PhD research. With his advisor, Irena Knezevic, the Patricia and Michael Splinter Professor in electrical and computer engineering, he studies quantum transport theory and simulation. In particular, he is researching the transport of excitons in carbon nanotubes and is developing new computational electromagnetics tools that are useful in transport simulations.
Belling says there aren’t many lessons from quantum transport that translate to powerlifting, and vice versa. “But it’s still immensely beneficial for me. I get to shut my brain off while I’m training, for the most part, and I don’t need to think about my research for a while,” he says. “I get to disconnect from academics and reset, which is super helpful in dealing with stress.”
In fact, Belling says he almost feels like a different person in the gym. “My demeanor and everything is definitely different in the gym than when I’m doing research or teaching. But it seems more surprising for people in the gym when they hear I’m a PhD student because I’m lifting these heavy weights,” he says. “I think it’s less surprising for people in my academic life. But when they hear specific numbers, like I bench 450 pounds, there’s usually a reaction. It’s kind of funny to burst those expectations.”
Author: Jason Daley