Powerlifting, story

Highs, Lows and Overcoming MG! – Matthew Coppenhall

Sitting on the cold bathroom floor, head hanging, arms around my legs in a seated foetal position, tears streaming down my face, snot running from my nose, drooling and crying as I felt all my hopes and dreams being taken from me, contemplating my life and whether it was worth continuing or if I should just end it all. With Scout (my special ridgeless Rhodesian Ridgeback) by my side, he probably had no idea what was going on, but he was there with me none the less, keeping me from going over the edge.

Let’s Rewind about three weeks, I was the strongest I had ever been, making massive strides with my lifts and all the training blocks coming together nicely in preparation for my Peaking phase for the 1st ever Arnold Classic Africa powerlifting championships.

I woke up on Saturday morning feeling a little bit strange, not entirely sure how to explain it, a mixture of light headed and dizzy, but not really dizzy, low blood pressure, but, without actually having low blood pressure.  I just didn’t feel normal.  I went about my day as usual, not really affected by the way I felt.  I even got Karin’s mother to check my blood pressure that evening and nothing was out of the ordinary. I went to bed that night still feeling a bit strange.

Flash forward a few hours to sometime in the middle of the night.  I got woken up by an annoying mosquito from hell, so I switch on the light, you know because I’m gonna show that mosquito who’s boss.

The light comes on, and BAM!  Everything I see, everywhere I look, I see double, very quickly the panic sets in, I wake Karin up and tell her we are going to the hospital.  She is still half asleep telling me to come back to bed.  By this point, I’ve gone full panic mode, as I start to imagine all the things that could be wrong with me, and start wondering if this is it, the end, the final chapter?!?!

Fast forward another few hours, after a multitude of tests, scans and observations, the doctors drew a blank, and tell me that I probably bumped my head and damaged a nerve to my eyes.  I should go home and it should be better in 6-8 weeks. 6-8 weeks!!! Fuck me Charlie, you would think if I bumped my head hard enough to damage a nerve behind my eyes that I would know about it.

So off we went…

Almost two weeks passed, I was back at work, wearing an eye patch to see properly.  It’s Friday afternoon and I am supposed to go Benchpress.  By this point, my eyelids were starting to droop and were difficult to keep open, but to my gym, I went.  After warming up I start to Benchpress, I work up to 120kg which a few weeks prior I was managing sets of 10 repetitions with, but now I am barely able to get 2 reps!  It was at this point that I realised that something way more serious was going on with my body.  Back to the ER, I went.

After a host of other tests, and the entire weekend spent in the hospital, I am finally given the diagnosis… “Myathenia Gravis” An autoimmune disorder in which the immune system produces antibodies which in turn attack the neuromuscular junction and prevent nerve signals from getting through to the muscles.

After a week at home doing absolutely nothing, I decided it was time to try and train again.  The doctors said I should probably stop lifting altogether, but what do they know anyway?

I found myself on the benchpress unable to lockout 60kg’s for a single repetition.  It was somewhere around this point that I found myself on the bathroom floor.

A few more weeks of sitting at home, training under supervision only, squats and deadlifts were shakey at best, all the small stabilizing muscles had been affected, bench press still in the gutter, but as the immune-suppressing medication started to kick in, slowly my strength started to return.  So I used extremely low volume training, while linearly increasing the weight 2,5kg or 5kg every session when I could.

After a few months, I was back to about 85% of where I was before and had decided to enter the WP Raw championships taking place in December 2016.  After peaking for this event, I managed to total 620kg (225, 155, 240) at 82.6kg body weight.  I placed first in my division and 2nd overall, and the drive to succeed had returned.

The 2nd annual Arnold Classic Africa championships were 4 months away.  I had a few setbacks, at the end of December and the first few weeks of January I had double vision again due to my medication dosage dropping too low, unfortunately, once it goes bad, it takes a few weeks to improve, so my balance was slightly affected for a while. But I still pushed on with my training!  Anyone that knows anything about medications and corticosteroids, “Prednisone”, is the immune suppressant medication I am using, will know that it basically acts as a reverse steroid, basically you get NONE of the benefits, coupled with all of the NEGATIVES, mainly my recovery is impaired, and muscle repair between training session takes a lot longer than before, so I have to be clever and careful of the amount of volume I use in training.  Unfortunately, these are things you can only learn as you deal with this problem, and as luck would have it, at 6 weeks out from the competition, while squatting, I heard a small popping and tearing sound from my upper quad, and found myself on my back with the barbell on the floor!  I did a lot of quick research and applied as much recovery methods to the problem over the next few weeks as I possibly could, alternating Ice and Heat, massage, foam rolling, loaded stretching and EMS.  In the end, it all came together.  At the Arnold Classic 2017, I managed to total 635kg (227.5kg, 155kg, 252.5kg) at a leaner 80.7kg Body weight.  And with that, I managed to secure my spot on the team for the 2017 Commonwealth Powerlifting championships.

Training was planned out, and diet plan was improved upon, recovery methods were also stepped up.  And I had to steer clear of anyone that was sick, as catching any kind of flu or cold/bug would cause a spike in my immune system causing my symptoms to flare up.

Training went well, not perfect, and adjustments were made as needed, but I managed to make decent progress.  I made sure that my recovery and diet were on point, and also tried to get extra sleep whenever I could.

Competition day arrived, Friday 15th September 2017.  I made weight relatively easily, weighing in at 81.8kg.  My openers were set comfortably at 210, 150, 240.


I absolutely crushed my opener of 210kg, which was also the heaviest squat I had done throughout the entire training cycle since the Arnold.

2nd attempt: 220kg, smoked it, nice and smooth.

3rd attempt: 230kg, 2.5kg PR, GOODLIFT, with a little room to spare!


Benchpress training went well, but it was also touching and go, some days it was there, others not so much.  On this day…It was!

Opener: 150kg, easy, good lift.

2nd attempt:  157.5kg, 2.5kg PR, Good lift!

3rd attempt: 160kg, Good lift! It was a grinder, but I locked it out for a 5kg Comp PR!


This is what it came down to, it was a tight battle between myself and a fellow South African to claim a spot on the podium.

Opener: 245kg, good lift. Not as smooth as I would like, but it seems that my deadlift opener always feels heavy.

2nd attempt:  252.5kg, NO LIFT.  I managed to complete the lift fairly easily but failed due to a technicality, about halfway up my knees locked out and then unlocked again, causing what looked like a downward movement in the bar.

3rd attempt:  I decided to leave my attempt at 252.5kg until I could see what I needed in order to get on the podium in the total. At this point, I was sitting in fourth place.  All the 3rd attempt were in, unfortunately, I needed to increase my 3rd by 10kg to 262.5kg in order to have a chance at placing.  I looked at Karin, and told her to do it, after asking me if I was sure, twice, she put in the attempt change.  I went through the attempt in my head, mentally preparing myself, got psyched up, with Karin, my amazing girlfriend and coach on the day (coach of the year)  keeping everyone away from me and keeping me focused on what I had to do.  My name was called and the bar was loaded, I chalked my hands, walked up the ramp to the platform to a lot of cheering and support from the crowd, I knew I could do it, and I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity.  I took my grip, got tight, took my breath, dropped my hips and pulled with everything I had. It was a slow but relatively smooth grinder, a true max attempt. But once it got past my knees I knew I had it.  262.5kg….GOODLIFT!

I managed Gold in the Benchpress, Bronze in the Deadlift, and Bronze medal in the Total! 652.5kg Total, a 17.5kg total PR!

I walked off the platform, and straight into a big watery eyed hug from Karin.  She never stopped believing in me and pushing me to improve, and also did almost everything around the house for my last few weeks of prep, and I think, scratch that, I know, she stresses more about my lifting than I do!

I know a 652.5kg total at 83kg bodyweight isn’t anything amazing, and it would get crushed at a bigger competition, but I put everything I had into it, and no one can take that feeling away.

From being told I should stop lifting, and barely being able to lift, to placing at the Commonwealth powerlifting championships.  That is my story, and I am going to keep pushing to make it better.  Whatever your story is, and whatever life throws your way, through the highs and the lows, never stop believing in yourself and never give up on your dreams.  I hope my story can inspire some of you to not give up, and keep your hopes alive, to keep chasing your dreams and achieve your goals, whatever they may be.

Matthew Coppenhall

Matthew has competed in powerlifting for the past 10 years, prior to which he was a nationally ranked motocross rider.  He currently holds multiple South African national powerlifting records across 3 weight divisions.  Last year he was diagnosed with Myasthenia Gravis and has fought to regain the majority of his strength and return to competitive lifting.  Matthew is the owner of The Block Barbell, a  private strength training facility, as well as running his online coaching service, Legend Athletic Strength Development (www.legendathletic.co.za), through which he plans the training of athletes from a variety of sports, specialising in powerlifting coaching.

You can contact Matthew through his website: www.legendathletic.co.za or email: matthew@legendathletic.co.za


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