The Harbus joins Lauren Cohen, world record powerlifter, HBS professor, and father of four for his morning work out
Lauren Cohen flicks on the downstairs lights of his stately white Belmont home at 4:15am. The sun won’t rise for another two hours but it’s time to lift 500 pounds.
Twenty-four hours ago, Cohen finished a 10-day research trip to Hong Kong and South Korea. He will return to the airport later today en route to a seminar in South Carolina. Right now, he heads to his basement, which could double as a Costco outlet.
Cohen is the L.E. Simmons Professor of Business Administration and a father of four young children. In December he squatted 583 pounds in a powerlifting competition, a world record for his 165-pound, drug-tested division.
He turns left at the bottom of the basement stairs and the décor changes: a squat rack with Swedish-manufactured weights, rubber gym flooring, a custom-made reinforced bench, and a deadlifting area. On the cement wall hangs a banner: “Cohen Barbell Academy, established 2014.” Squat and burly with perennially gelled black hair, Cohen has simple goals for the morning: squat over 500 pounds (more than three times his bodyweight), bench over 300 pounds, and deadlift over 500 pounds. A routine workout. He does not mention jet lag.
In a powerlifting competition, athletes attempt to lift as much weight as possible in three distinct forms: the deadlift, the squat, and the bench press. Success is defined entirely by numbers of pounds. That meritocratic simplicity inspired Cohen to dive into the sport after his football coach pushed him to start lifting in high school (he also played tuba in the marching band). In the meet at which he set his world record, Cohen also bench pressed 360 pounds and deadlifted 610, for a total of 1,553 pounds.
“The most important performance enhancers out there,” Cohen says at around 4:45am, after we have warmed up for the morning’s workout with burpees, stretches, and some light squats, “are sleep and caffeine.” He offers me a choice of Coke Zero, Cherry Coke Zero, or Mountain Dew Zero. “I love food,” he explains. “I’m a 400-pound man trapped in a 165-pound body. I can’t waste any calories on drinks.”
Instead, Cohen practices intermittent fasting, waiting until noon before he eats his first meal of the day. His office, where for the past few years much of his research has revolved around patent trolls, is stocked with tubs of whey protein, high-protein-microwavable meals, and massive powerlifting trophies. The path to a powerlifting world record involves not just barbells, but relentless focus on nutrition.
Regular pre-dawn workouts might seem lonely, but Cohen has turned his lifting into a family affair. His wife Dr. Nicole Cohen, a faculty member in Boston University’s special education department, started lifting after a decade of effort by her husband to convince her to join him. “Now my alarm goes off before Lauren’s,” she says.
The four Cohen children have been easier to persuade. The youngest is a year old and enjoys doing push-ups. A video of Cohen’s three-year-old daughter squatting a five-pound bar went viral when a powerlifting competition posted it online. His older daughter and son entered their first meet in March at the ages of seven and five, respectively. The older generation has caught the fever too; Cohen’s septuagenarian parents compete in powerlifting competitions. A whiteboard leaning against the wall of the Cohen Barbell Academy lists each family member’s personal best.
To Cohen, that age range is part of the magic of powerlifting. He cites as inspiration 90-year-old women in Okinawa, Japan who climb lemon trees every day. How can they climb a tree at 90? They did so at 90 less a day, at 90 less two days, and so on. Cohen plans to keep squatting every day past his parents’ age, and maybe even past Okinawan-lemon-tree age.
“That’s the way I want to go: Work out, then get hit by a bus on my way to work – where I’m working on six papers and a book. Retirement is giving up.”
Lifting and research may be lifelong passions for Cohen, but his true love is his family. He calls his kids’ childhood the best years of his life, but points out that the experience isn’t without a sense of tragedy: Kids grow up. The hardest part about having children, he says, is being an adult when they’re not. Their favourite songs become your favourite songs – then they grow out of Disney and you’re still singing along.
Meanwhile, Cohen contends with a punishing travel schedule related to his academic work. To be a successful academic, he points out, is like being a successful band. Very few have the chance to travel the world so there is pressure to accept invitations as long as they keep coming. He flies from research trip to graduate seminar, then rushes back to see the family.
Balance among family, academia, and powerlifting means letting all three passions intermingle, but with family always at top of mind. Cohen’s pump-up music before competitions is not heavy metal but voicemails of his children sending him love and the Peter Paul & Mary song “Puff the Magic Dragon.”
The latter choice seems strange until Cohen points out the song’s outcome: Young Jackie Paper grows up and loses interest in adventures with Puff because “A dragon lives forever but not so little boys.”
“I’m Puff,” Cohen says. “And when the kids grow up I don’t know what I’ll do. My biggest honour is just being in their orbit. I want to grasp every minute I can, so every minute away from them is costly.”
It’s almost 6:30am when we finish our workout and head upstairs. Nicole and the children are eating breakfast cereal in the kitchen. A balloon floats over the counter; Cohen’s oldest daughter turned eight the day before.
I ask what the highlight of her birthday was.
“Spending time with my family,” she says. “And daddy coming home from Hong Kong!”