A 76-year-old retired soil scientist should spend his days gardening, right? Not Mack Hodges.
Every weekday morning, Hodges makes the 30-mile trek north to MDE Athletics in Chandler to train for his next powerlifting meet. It’s an eyebrow-raising sight to watch a man older than King Charles III deadlift 140 pounds on a light training day. But Hodges does it while hardly breaking a sweat.
“I love lifting weights,” he said. “It’s fun to me. It’s a release.”
Hodges finds the exercise exhilarating, and he’s exceptionally good at it.
He placed first in a half-dozen recent national powerlifting meets across the country, lifting hundreds of pounds in squats, deadlifts and bench presses. During a meet in Scottsdale last month, he lifted a combined 1,000 pounds — the weight of a concert grand piano.
Hodges began powerlifting in 1971 while in the Army, winning his first meet in El Paso, Texas.
“I didn’t get a trophy or anything like that, but,” Hodges said, “I think I did pretty good.”
From there, Hodges competed in his first official powerlifting contest at a Niles, Ill., YMCA in 1973. He powerlifted until 1987, when he gave it up.
But even with his 70th birthday in the rear-view, in 2019, he could no longer stay away from competition.
“It’s like starting over, so I’ve got room to gain more and to get stronger because of that,” he said. “You have to love the process, you have to love lifting, whether it’s for competition or just going to the gym. If you don’t love the process, you’re going to quit.”
Hodges is headed to the North American Regional Powerlifting Championships in the Cayman Islands this month. He hopes to qualify for the World Classic & Equipped Masters Powerlifting Championships in South Africa next year.
Lifting heavy at 76
At his age, Hodges is the picture of motivation for others in his community.
“He’s an inspiration to us old guys,” said his neighbor, fellow 76-year-old Barry Scott.
Hodges’ friend and former lifting partner, Tim McFarland, agreed.
“It’s so motivational to see someone his age lifting,” he said. “It just changes how you look at stuff.”
McFarland, 58, first met Hodges last year while lifting weights at a Maricopa gym.
“When I met him, he had just completed a heavy lift,” he said. “It’s very inspiring to see anybody lifting with that type of intensity … at any age, and then you exponentially multiply it when someone is 75 or so. It just blows your mind so that you want to do better yourself.”
However, Hodges knows not everyone is supportive of his story.
“Sometimes, when you tell them what you’re doing, they don’t believe you,” Hodges said. “Some of them admire it. Some of them don’t like it.”
Occasionally, people gripe that Hodges is too old to lift or that he should spend his golden years resting. He’s even been accused of using steroids.
“Those accusations are normal, and I live with it,” Hodges said. “The powerlifting community is riddled with drug use.”
Hodges also knows it’s far too normal now for people to paint others with a broad brush. He’s determined to carry on with his passion, undeterred by what others say or think.
“You learn to let (the accusations) go because you can’t do anything, you can’t control that,” he said. “If they don’t believe me, that’s OK.”
Accepting a new challenge
For Hodges, accepting the effects of aging has been a struggle. After all, his body has changed over the decades.
“I think my best year in powerlifting was when I was 39,” Hodges said. “I squatted 633 pounds, deadlifted 650 pounds and bench pressed 429 pounds.”
These days, that weight has decreased considerably. The online database Open Powerlifting shows his personal bests over the last two years as squatting and deadlifting 402 pounds and benching 308 pounds.
Seeing that number decline proved tough to accept.
“I didn’t like it at first because I felt like I was losing something,” Hodges said.
Working with his trainer has allowed Hodges to begin thinking about his routine differently.
“I think I’m training just as hard as I used to but my body’s saying, ‘OK, this is all you got right now,’” Hodges said. “The 402 I deadlifted was a year ago. This year, my best has been like 380. I think and know that I can do better, but I have to figure out: Do I need to eat more, do I need a different routine?”
Hodges’ journey is one of highs and lows. But as he progresses, he learns a little more each step of the way.
“The true challenge of aging is to figure out a way to gradually improve,” Hodges said. “You have to accept the fact that when you get older, things start to decline.”
His parting words are surely applicable beyond the weight room: “I still like what I’m doing, so I’ll keep doing it.”
Bones and muscles deteriorate over time. But stimulating those tissues through exercise can stymie the aging process. Resistance training and other exercises that improve strength and endurance are important, said Dr. Lionel Lee, a physician at Maricopa’s Exceptional Community Hospital.
“As we all get older, our bone density decreases. So, it’s important for us to do some resistance training just to keep our muscles and bones (healthy),” Lee said. “It means you’re less likely to have fractures and breaks as you get older.”
Hip fractures are one of the top concerns for older adults, Lee said, calling them “devastating.”
“We want to prevent that,” he said.
More than 300,000 adults over 65 are hospitalized with hip fractures each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Such injuries result, in part, from decreased hormone levels as the body ages. In men, lower testosterone levels lead to decreased muscle mass and lower levels of energy.
But resistance training can be less extreme than powerlifting, to similar effect. Lee suggested starting with something accessible and low impact like a promenade around the neighborhood or a visit to the local pool.
“Swimming is a big one, especially in Arizona where we have so many pools,” he said. “Swimming is a huge, easy start. I also think that walking is a great way to get exercise.”
Staying active through the years is one of the factors Hodges attributes to his health and ability to continue powerlifting at his age.
“Part of my longevity is staying physically fit,” he said. “I may not be lifting heavy weight or competing all the time, but I’ve been in basketball leagues, volleyball leagues and played a lot of softball through the years.
“For me, the key was to stay active all the time to keep my blood pressure down, to stay healthy so that everything stays good.”
This story was first published in the August edition of InMaricopa Magazine.