Starting back in the gym after some time away is difficult for most people, but for La’Toya Atterberry, it was even more challenging since she wasn’t just lifting weights recreationally.
Atterberry began competing in powerlifting events several years ago under the tutelage of Meridian High School powerlifting coach Demetrius Hill. It’s been a regular routine for her, one that was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Back in March, Atterberry began showing symptoms of the virus — sore throat, body aches, coughing, wheezing and not being able to taste food — and even though she tested negative twice, she was sick for close to a month and couldn’t do much physically.
Once she recovered and had the opportunity to start lifting again, Atterberry began preparing for a competition in Philadelphia over the summer. The bigger competition came Aug. 29, though, when she won the Women’s Master 1 (ages 40-44) full powerlifting division in the American Powerlifting Association’s Mississippi state powerlifting championship, hosted by Family Fitness in Philadelphia. Atterberry lifted 995 total pounds: 385 on the squat, 225 on the bench and 385 on the deadlift.
“It felt pretty good, especially with everything happening with COVID and not getting full training like we would have,” Atterberry said. “I was happy with the results. I was able to push myself farther than I have this whole year and hit some numbers that I had never attempted before, so that was a good thing.”
When she first got sick, Atterberry tested negative for COVID-19 but had another test done when her symptoms didn’t improve at first. That test was also negative, but the illness lasted 28 days and prevented her from doing fitness activities during that timespan.
“I wasn’t able to work out for 35 days, wasn’t able to do anything,” Atterberry recalled. “I knew my strength level was declining, so when I started back I started doing low weights. I had a competition in Philadelphia in July, and even though I got first place, I still played it safe. I was scared about not hitting my numbers or my strength levels since I had been sick.”
Mentally getting back to where she was before she got sick was just as difficult as physically building herself back up.
“It’s tough because I’m used to my strength level being where I can bench over 200 pounds,” Atterberry said. “I could barely get my bench off when I started back up with lifting, but with the help of Coach Hill, we stuck to a plan and made it work. I was in the gym five days a week, and as the weeks went by it got me back up to where I needed to be.”
Hill said when Atterberry began training again that his approach was to get her to believe she had a solid base and just needed to reinsert herself into the sport.
“I wanted to let her know she was going to be fine as far as muscle memory and just wanted to get back to the basics and work on her technique and form,” Hill said. “She’s been lifting well for a while, so I just had to get the confidence back in her head that she can do the weight.”
Now that she’s back in her regular routine, Atterberry is training for the World Natural Powerlifting Federation’s World Competition, set for November in Atlanta. Last year, she placed first at the event by lifting 885 total pounds: 345 on the squat, 210 on the bench and 330 on the deadlift.
“Right now I hold the record, so I’m going in looking to beat my own record and set a new one in a division I don’t hold it in,” Atterberry said. “I’m looking forward to it, but I’m also nervous because it’s in Atlanta with COVID, but the federation has a bunch of guidelines in place like masks and cutting down on the number of people who can come in, so I’m confident about it being safe.”
After the performance in Philadelphia, Hill said he’s expecting even bigger things from Atterberry in Atlanta.
“She broke every record she had,” Hill said. “She peaked out, and I think she has a lot more in her, so the next meet she should go up even higher on all of her maxes.”
When she isn’t being trained herself, Atterberry will look to pass on her knowledge to younger powerlifters. She was recently named assistant powerlifting coach at MHS, something toward which she’s looking forward when the season begins in the spring.
“I graduated from Meridian High in 1995 and was born and raised here,” Atterberry said. “I started working in the school district last year, so it’s going to be great working under my mentor (Hill) and passing along what he’s taught me to both the girls and the boys.”
Said Hill, “It’s different because I’ve never had an assistant, but she’s doing a good job with the kids, so it’s going to be a benefit to the program. She knows a lot about weights. I’ve been training her for a while, so she pretty much knows what I expect, and I think she’ll do a good job.”