Powerlifting changed record breaker's life after abusive relationship (2023)

Record breaking powerlifter Pamela Irving has seen first hand the power of sport – and now she wants to help others reap the same rewards.

The 44-year-old from Inverness broke a handful of Scottish and British medals at a British Drug Free Powerlifting Association competition last month, adding the Scottish bench, squat, and total records to her previously earned dead lift record, as well as the British ones for squat and total score.

Those performances will see Irving compete at British level later this year, with an eye on reaching the world stage if things go well.

Powerlifting changed record breaker's life after abusive relationship (1)

What makes her records all the more impressive, though, is that she only started powerlifting four years ago.

This level of success was never the plan. Weight training was recommended as a way to avoid injury for Irving's ultra-running, and it became her life.

Personally, things were not going well at the time. Feeling trapped in an abusive relationship, powerlifting helped Irving find a way out – and she has literally gone from strength to strength since.

"I think the records come down to me finding a better head space," she reasoned.

"I started training at Gym 300, and my trainer realised that I was actually quite strong for my age and weight. At that point I was only 47kg, because I was running.

"The guys in there were totally supportive and got behind me, telling me I should do a competition, but I was still in quite a bad relationship. That gym was like a family community to me, they had my back basically, and it was a place I could go and escape and train.

"This was all done in secret, because my ex-partner didn't want me going to the gym or going out, he was quite controlling. So I would go and do all of this stuff on my own, and it was my own little thing.

"The people at the gym pushed me and knew I was capable of way more than I was doing. As a coach now, that's what I try to push on to my clients as well – you are capable, way more capable than you think you are.

"There is a way out. I was in that very abusive relationship for 10 years, and I was strategic planning how I was going to escape. For me, there was nowhere to go until I started to get stronger and opened up to people.

"People would then tell me I needed to do something about it, because I am a really strong person. I got to the point where I was strong enough to walk away, and that's pretty much what I did.

"My second competition in 2019 was when things were really bad for me with a court case and all sorts, but I pushed through and I still did the competition and I kept going back, because I knew it was my saviour."

Inspiring others

Among her own personal achievements both in and out of powerlifting, Irving gained her personal training qualification and has opened up her own small gym in the Highland capital.

Having experienced first-hand what sport can do for someone, she is keen to encourage more people to follow in her footsteps – especially girls and women.

"It's getting better, but it's still quite a male-dominated sport," Irving explained.

"There are a lot of very strong girls in the Highlands who just don't have the confidence to get started, so at the end of February I'm going to start running very small taster sessions for free to see what the interest is like to get some girls into the sport.

"When I first started, I used to go in at night time when it was a bit quieter, and then people started to get to know me and I gradually felt more comfortable.

"The independent gyms for me are way better than the commercial gyms because of the family community they bring. They are not judging anybody, and I could be lifting an empty bar and people would still be cheering for me and encouraging me.

"You don't need to look a certain way or fit a certain criteria, it is accepting of everybody, and that's what I love about it.

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"I knew there are quite a lot of girls who are quite intimidated to come in, because when I would take people around for consultations they weren't sure if they could do it. Having my own space means it is me and my client, that is it.

"I think there's this idea that it's big guys who do it, and they feel quite intimidated in certain areas of the gym. As I say, it is getting better, but social media plays a big part in this. They're seeing girls and guys who are really muscular, and not where these people started.

"Everybody starts from the same position, so these guys who are muscular and strong and look like they're lifting heavy weights and making lots of noise in the gym, they are working hard for themselves and they don't care what anybody else is doing.

"If we can set that mentality in people who want to get started, I think more girls would get involved.

"It's not something that's taught in schools, but powerlifting is a sport that costs no money. I lift in bare feet, so you can have a gym, a bar bell, some weights, jogging bottoms and a t-shirt and you're good to go – you don't need anything fancy."

Bringing confidence to those who need it

Irving is not only passionate about getting more women and girls into powerlifting. She also works with those who have additional support needs and addiction issues to build confidence – as well as strength.

In some of those cases Irving sees people stuck in a rut that they are struggling to get out of, which is a feeling she knows all too well.

"Quite a lot of people look at me, because I'm tiny, and think I've always been strong and muscular," she said.

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"I can tell them that I was that person who was scared to go to the gym, I was that person who was being abused. I had my oldest daughter when I was 15, I've been in these places and been in really bad situations.

"The one thing that will just keep pushing you through is if you find something – it doesn't matter if it's weightlifting or running, or any sport – that you are dedicated to.

"I've done quite a lot of work with Apex, who are a drug and alcohol recovery charity, too. I try to show them that there is another side to life, and just because I'm a personal trainer and I'm fit and healthy, I haven't always been like this.

"Everybody has been in different situations, and there is life beyond where they are at the minute.

"When I first started powerlifting I wasn't a very sociable person, I was quite shy and reserved, but it has given me that confidence to push myself forward and do things. There is definitely a power in sport, and if we can get more girls and boys in to some sort of sport then it would be fantastic.

"That's why I do quite a lot of work with Apex and my additional support needs clients, because at the end of the day they are human beings who are capable of doing these things.

"They might not be good at football or your typical sports, but powerlifting is an individual sport and you don't have to compete against anybody else, you are literally just trying to better yourself in every single session.

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"For me that's really important. What I'm trying to teach my clients is that it's not just about looking good or being a certain weight on the scale, it's about the confidence and things you can achieve if you put your mind to something and keep going.

"We all have setbacks every single day in life. If you can find the focus and keep driving, it can bring many opportunities."

A whole new Pamela

It may only have been four years since Irving first competed in powerlifting, but even in that time the effect has been life-changing.

In day-to-day life she has a completely different outlook, to the point the person she was back then feels unrecognisable now.

"The difference is unbelievable – I think if you were to ask people they would say I'm a totally different person," Irving added.

"I was obviously in that really bad relationship and had to go through that court case, and at that point training was the most consistent thing in my life that was getting me through.

"I used to be really shy, even in job interviews, but people who know me now would never recognise that person. I don't even recognise that person, they are long gone to me.

"Before I would be really concerned about what other people thought about me, so I would wear matching outfits to the gym and get my hair done because I thought people were looking at me.

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"I'm nothing like that now, I literally do not care. I think that's why my clients like me, because they can resonate with me. They can come in and feel comfortable – they don't need to wear make-up, they can just be themselves.

"There is no way I would recognise the person I was before, I'm totally different now. My confidence has grown massively, even from my very first competition.

"I remember being in tears because I had a few missed lifts, and I said to my coach that I wasn't deadlifting. He said he would go and tell the judges that I was injured – but I said no, you know what, I'm doing it.

"I was still in tears, but I did it. Before I would have walked out in shame and not left the house for months because I would have been so embarrassed, but again that's the power of sport."

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