LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. — The circumference of his arms test the strength of the fabric of the normally baggy sleeves of his Airman Battle Uniform, which stretches across his chest just far enough to look like a snug fit. It’s easy to see that he’s a large man, and though his uniform may attempt to hide it, it’s easy to see why.
Tech. Sgt. Benjamin O’Brien, 56th Equipment Maintenance Squadron assistant section chief, began lifting weights when he was 16.
“I got involved with weightlifting when I started playing football, track and field, and wrestling in high school,” he said. “A lot of the lifting back then was Olympic-style weightlifting and not powerlifting. We did some bench, but a lot of it was Olympic-style squatting, clean and jerks, overhead snatch and overhead presses.”
This year, O’Brien took second place in the 220-pound open men’s raw division single-lift bench press at the U.S. Powerlifting Association American Cup in Los Angeles with a 473-pound lift, the highest amount ever recorded for a 220-pound Arizonan, breaking the previous state record which was also set by O’Brien. Last year, O’Brien won the complete three-event full-power division.
O’Brien has also placed in the top three for his weight class for the past five consecutive years at the Mr. Olympia Pro Invitational Powerlifting competition, part of the overall Olympia event made famous by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilding victories in previous decades. O’Brien took first place in 2013.
“I’ve been plugging away at this for a little over 20 years,” O’Brien said. “When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a bodybuilder. I wanted to be ripped and shredded, I didn’t even think about being a powerlifter at the time.”
That journey began in 2002, after O’Brien was introduced to the powerlifting sport by his cousin, a 6’2” 310-pound professional who was benching over 700 pounds in his own competitions.
“He won the Arnold Classic back in 2001,” O’Brien said. “He was probably one of the best in the world at the time.”
While that journey was starting, another was ending. O’Brien joined the Army as an infantryman in 1998 at the age of 18.
“I was in a dead-end job after high school, lost interest in college, and I just wanted to do something different,” O’Brien said. “It was tough, mentally and physically. After four years, my body was actually pretty beat up. In 2002 I was in my early twenties and my knees and back were already aching. I didn’t want that lifestyle.”
For O’Brien, the mental aspect of being an infantryman was even tougher.
“I had some really good friends who were killed in action on deployments,” O’Brien said. “That was something that really affected me. I loved what I did, and I still have a lot of great friends in the Army, but it was hard to watch people as young as me not be able to have a life afterward. I didn’t want to deal with that kind of hardship for an entire career.”
O’Brien left the Army after his first enlistment and went home for a while, where he tried college again for a short time.
“I still didn’t like it,” O’Brien said with a laugh. “I went back down to the Military Entrance Processing Station and signed up for the Air Force.”
He was sent to Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, in 2003 for his first duty station. Thereafter, he spent a year at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, before coming to Luke Air Force Base in 2006, where he’s been ever since.
The start of his Air Force career coincides with the beginning of his pursuit of powerlifting excellence.
“I was still lifting when I was in the Army, but before I started powerlifting, I’d always done it as a hobby, just something to do,” O’Brien said. “It was nothing compared to what I do now.”
O’Brien smiles before reiterating this difference.
“Everyone knows some people who go to the gym just to be there and don’t do a whole lot, right? I call them gym rats,” O’Brien said. “I used to be a gym rat.”
Over time his outlook on what it meant to lift weights and striving for a goal in the realm of physical fitness changed.
“I didn’t really have a competitive mindset until I started competing and being around people who had that same drive,” O’Brien said.
He gained this drive after his first powerlifting meet in December 2010 at Camp Pendleton, California, where O’Brien totaled around 1,650 pounds worth of weight lifted in the single-ply division, a competition type where competitors are allowed to wear equipment, like squat suits and bench shirts, which support the body during heavy lifts. After this meet, O’Brien says he was hooked.
“A lot of things changed,” he said. “Diet, nutrition – everything changes. It changes your outlook on why you want to go to the gym. Before my competitive mindset, I would skip a day or two when I didn’t feel like it or when I was tired. The competitive mindset gave me a training schedule, and I kept to it because I knew my competition was doing the same thing. You stop looking for excuses not to train. Everything becomes more critical. You have new peaks and you try to progress as much as you can.”
Today, O’Brien trains at Die Hard Gym in Peoria which has produced a number of elite powerlifters throughout the years. Additionally, he assists powerlifters on base to achieve their own goals through personal mentorship and works as a volunteer judge at the Bryant Fitness Center’s local powerlifting competitions.
“He volunteers whenever we ask him to come out,” said Sherri Biringer, 56th Force Support Squadron Bryant Fitness Center fitness specialist supervisor. “His knowledge in lifting and form makes him a great asset. He’s really good at it, and he’s a great guy.”
O’Brien finds reward in helping others.
“I always find discussing strength training to be really interesting,” he said. “I like to help people. I like having that impact on people. I try to pay it forward when I can because I’ve had so many opportunities to learn from others who have taught me free of charge simply because I wanted to learn. If someone shows genuine interest, I’ll take the time to at least get them started.”
O’Brien’s number one tip for newcomers is given sometimes as a warning: to anticipate a lifetime of perseverance in pursuit of a never-ending goal.
“I think a lot of people give up because they don’t see results as fast as they want to,” O’Brien said. “For those who are really interested or want to get started, it takes years or decades, sometimes even longer, to get really good at something like this. Patience and persistence are key. For bodybuilders, powerlifters, and even marathoners, it’s a long, drawn-out process which takes years.”