Originally from Hawai‘i, Alma Kimura is a 4’10” Seattle attorney and powerlifting World Champion. She first began powerlifting in 2013, through the encouragement of a few friends and colleagues, including Washington State Supreme Court Justice Faith Ireland, who helped connect Kimura to her current trainer, Todd Christensen.
At the age of 61, Kimura became a World Champion in powerlifting on September 28, 2015 while competing for Team USA and winning gold at the International Powerlifting Federation Masters World Championships in Colorado. On October 16, 2015 she won another gold medal at the Raw Nationals Powerlifting Championships in Pennsylvania, setting American records in the squat (253 lbs), deadlift (319 lbs), and total (694 lbs) for her age and weight category.
The International Examiner had a chance to catch up with Kimura via email earlier this year about her shining victories and here’s what she had to say.
International Examiner: You first began powerlifting in July 2013 and set your first American record seven months later. How did that feel? What was your training regimen and diet like during those first seven months and how does that compare to now?
Alma Kimura: When I set my first “raw” American record in my age [from ages 55-59] and weight category at the Washington State Powerlifting championships, my first meet. It came as a total surprise to me that the amount of weight I could lift was actually something that was more than women who were my age.
When I started powerlifting, I did not have the flexibility to be able to squat deep enough. In the USAPL (United States of America Powerlifting) federation in which I have set the American records, to have a “legal” squat, your hip has to be lower than your knee at the bottom of the squat (what we call getting “below parallel”). When I first started, I had to start with leaning against one of those big red balls against the wall, with no weight. I then started with two 20 pound dumbbells—one in each hand. Then I graduated to using a broomstick across my shoulders. It took me maybe a month before I could squat with even the 45 lb bar on my shoulders, with no weight. Even now, I still have a hard time squatting low enough. That is something I have to keep working on. My coach, Todd Christensen, has many assistance exercises to help us get below parallel. For example, using 40 lb chains on each side of the barbell, squatting onto a box, or using big rubber bands attached to the rack to take off weight at the bottom of the squat.
In my first few months of training, I went into the gym two-to-three times a week for a couple of hours per session. I started going with my then 19-year-old-son, who was home for the summer from college. In my first year, I took time off from training to go on several trips, and definitely did not make going to the gym a priority in my life. I did not change my diet. Once I realized that maybe I was actually pretty good at this sport, and once I started doing well in competitions and setting more records, I got more serious about training. I now go into the gym three times a week pretty religiously, and I am usually there for 3 hours each time. I try to schedule my vacations at times that will not interfere too much with my training cycles and I more or less plan my time and the activities in my life around times when I will be competing in meets.
As far as diet is concerned, I do eat more protein and I try to cut down on carbs and alcohol. In the weeks before a meet, I try to be careful about not eating too much salt or fatty foods so that I will be able to make weight for the competitions. I have not added to my diet any of the supplements or protein shakes that many other competitors use.
IE: You began powerlifting after a friend told you that you have the perfect body for it. What type of frame is ideal for powerlifting?
Kimura: From what I can tell, the perfect body for powerlifting would be someone who is built like Marshawn Lynch but who is short in stature. Having long arms helps with the deadlift. Having short arms and a big chest helps with the bench press. Being tall and skinny is not advantageous.
IE: In addition to having the right build, what else drew you to powerlifting and competing internationally in the sport?
Kimura: I don’t know that I was drawn to powerlifting because of my build. I was encouraged to do it by my friend who thought I would be good on account my build, but that wasn’t why I started. I have always heard that older people should be encouraged to do weights in order to prevent bone loss and that exercising regularly is advantageous both for mental acuity and physical health as we age. So I had been considering adding weight training to my activities at some point. I started doing Zumba regularly when my son went off to college and I became an empty nester. When I started powerlifting, I wasn’t expecting that I was going to end up competing in the sport, let alone competing at an international level. I have competed in sports all my life, and I guess I am competitive, but I was never a champion. With powerlifting, I am finding that I have the right combination of genetics, being OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), and determination that I am able to compete, and even more surprising, winning, at the international level—something I never would have expected.
I play tennis for fun every Thursday evening with a group of older women, mostly in their 60s and 70s. One of the women I play with is a woman named Bebe Burns, who is now 73 years old. She has been competing in powerlifting for about the last 8 or 9 years, and she is a world champion herself. She is the person who encouraged me to start powerlifting. … She tells me she worked on getting me into the gym for six months before I finally agreed to do so. She asked former Washington State Supreme Court Justice Faith Ireland, also a world champion who trained with Todd Christensen, to contact me to encourage me to start. Justice Ireland knew me from seeing me in court over the years. …
Powerlifting is a sport where you can definitely get better with good training. It helped me that there are not very many people who compete who are over age 60. Whether or not you improve or do well isn’t dependent on whether you can “beat” the other competitor, but whether you can yourself do the best you can do. When you go to a meet, the goal is to lift as much weight as you have worked up to with your training, hopefully to get [personal records] and maybe to set or break new records. In each lift, you focus on putting your training, your energy, and your determination into nine single lifts. Period. It is much harder to get “psyched out” in powerlifting than it is in tennis.
IE: Can you tell me a little bit about your powerlifting technique and how you’ve developed yours since you started?
Kimura: I don’t know that I can tell you anything about technique other than that there is definitely the right training and technique that is required to train without getting injured and to be able to develop strength to one’s maximum potential. I am extremely fortunate to be able to train with Todd Christensen, who is probably the best powerlifting coach in the country, if not the world, who happens to be here in Seattle. Todd has been coaching world champion powerlifters for the last 30 years.
When I competed in the World Masters Championships in April, Todd took six of us to the competition, all from our gym, Seattle Strength and Power. Two of our lifters were over age 70, two of us were in our 60s, and two were in their 40s. Four of us won gold medals and two won bronze medals. Realize that there were a total of about 75 lifters in the entire world meet, men and women, all in the masters divisions. So to have 6 out of 75 competitors all from the same gym, all with one coach, is truly amazing, and speaks to Todd’s expertise as a coach. Todd has developed the talent of knowing just how much weight one should lift in a training “cycle” to maximize one’s potential, as he artfully and tactfully encourages lifters to make subtle changes in technique to get just the right form and to lift increasingly more weight.
In our gym, we work out together, taking turns doing lifts, encouraging each other, spotting one another, helping one another load weights onto the bars, cheering one another when we do good lifts, and offering helpful support when we miss. It is a totally supportive atmosphere. I train with a woman named Lakshmi Meadows, age 40, who recently won the Masters Worlds in her age and weight category and who also competed in the Open Worlds in Luxembourg. With Todd’s coaching, she has been able to squat 530 lbs—more than most men. There are several other men and women who are in the Todd Christensen “pipeline” who are potentially future world champions. There is a kid who just moved here from Spokane who is a Freshman at the UW who is now training with Todd. I watched him deadlift 635 lbs raw in our gym last week.
IE: Will you be competing in any competitions in the future?
Kimura: I will be competing in the Washington State Championships that will be held in Tacoma on February 20, 2016. In May, 2016 (four days after my son’s college graduation in Colorado Springs), I will compete in the U.S. Nationals that will be held this year in Denver/Aurora, Colorado. In June, 2016, I will compete in the Raw Worlds for Team USA to be held in Killeen, Texas, a week after my 40th College Reunion. In October, 2016, I may compete in the Masters Worlds, in Estonia. I will probably also compete in the Raw Nationals in October, 2016, to be held in Atlanta, GA.
IE: In November, Gerontology medical journal published a study that linked strong legs to brain power in old age. Many studies show how physical activity aids memory and weight-bearing exercise can help prevent osteoporosis in men and women. Do you agree with this or do you feel you’ve reaped any of these health benefits throughout your powerlifting career?
Kimura: I don’t know that I have been doing this long enough to call it a career, however, before I began competing, I had health problems with both high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Both have improved significantly in the last couple of years and my doctors are happy with my progress and have encouraged me to continue powerlifting. I am hoping that with continued involvement in powerlifting, I will stave off the mental decline that I am likely to experience as I age. I know that I am much stronger in my day-to-day activities. For example, I can lift up a 40 pound bag of dog food and put it in my shopping cart at Costco and then put it in my car. I can also lift a 10 ream box of photocopy paper and carry it into my office. I used to have to ask others to do that for me. However, I still have to ask other shoppers in the grocery story to get things for me off the top shelf.
IE: How does is it feel training and competing as an Asian American woman in powerlifting? Do you think it is still a male-dominated sport?
Kimura: While there are a number of world champion women powerlifters from Japan that I have met at the world competitions, there are not very many Asian women, let alone Asian men or women who compete in this sport in the USA. There have been several local and national competitions in which I was only one of a couple of Asian women competing. There is a young Japanese American woman from Hawai‘i that I have met at the Nationals who is around 28 years old. There were a handful of other Asian women, all mostly younger than I am, who competed at Raw nationals. I actually do not think this is a male-dominated sport. Yes, men are able to lift more than women, but in most of the competitions in which I have participated, there are as many women competing as there have been men.
IE: I think it’s astonishing the amount of weight you can lift. Your squat (253) and deadlift (319) American records are twice as much as what most men can lift. Has that changed your outlook or confidence inside and/or outside of the gym?
Kimura: Many of my older women friends lament about the fact that as we have gotten older, we have become “invisible” to younger people. The thing that I definitely appreciate about my success in this sport is that I have been able to develop friendships with younger men and women in their 20s and 30s and 40s with whom I have been training in my gym who chat with me and sometimes even ask me for my input and advice. Also, my now 21-year-old son likes that I am doing well at this sport. He posted on his Facebook page the article about my winning the Worlds that appeared recently in the Northwest Asian Weekly and there were many “likes” and comments by many college friends as well as his old friends and even some of his former teachers from Seattle. I have a bunch of family in Hawai‘i that has been bragging about my success.
I had wondered how my powerlifting might affect my professional image as an attorney. So far, my clients seem to be happy and amazed at what I do. We even get phone calls from potential clients who call up asking, “Is this the Alma Kimura who is a weight lifter?” after they have found me on the Internet.