TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Five hundred and fifty-one pounds can look like a lot of things. The engine block on a mid-size car, for example, comes in at about 500 pounds. Your average adult male tiger, while a little out there, likewise weighs in at the quarter-ton range. On Sept. 13, to Tech. Sgt. Kenneth Cook, 551 pounds looked like 12 plates of iron on a long bar.
Cook, a 60th Operations Group boom operator evaluator, participated in the annual Olympia Pro Powerlifting Competition in Las Vegas Sept. 13 and 14 with one goal in mind: break the 534-pound world record for a raw, or unassisted, bench press lift in his 198-220 pound weight class.
The morning of the lift, Cook woke up knowing two things.
“Either I was going home with an international record or I was going to the hospital with multiple injuries to my chest muscles,” Cook said. “I envisioned me breaking the record time and time again; during every workout, every set, I saw my goal coming to life. Over and over I practiced my form in my hotel room, in the elevator, in the car on the way to the competition.”
Eric Cranage, Cook’s coach and owner of the gym Cook trains at, Old Skool Iron, was there to cheer on and support the 218-pound powerlifter.
“Our plan going into Olympia was for him to break the world record on his second attempt, and anything after that was an added bonus,” Cranage said.
Cook’s first lift was a modest (for him) 512 pounds.
“Just a warm-up,” Cook said.
Then, sure enough, on Cook’s second attempt, what used to be the world record weight flew up from his chest, guaranteeing him a third attempt to solidify his dominance in his weight class.
“We moved on to 551 pounds after (Cook) put up the 536 so easily with the goal of raising the bar so high that it wouldn't be broken again anytime soon,” Cranage said.
With one final push, Cook lowered the weight down on to his chest, paused, and cranked it back up, letting out a huge roar of triumph to the dozens watching.
Being able to lift over 2.5 times your bodyweight is a feat accomplished only by less than one-tenth of 1% of the population, said Cranage.
But the hard work put forth by Cook, now a world record holder, isn’t reserved only for the gym, it’s shared and elevated by his service as an Airman.
The skills needed to be an effective Airman and leader align naturally with the skills needed to be an effective powerlifter, as are many of the challenges and sacrifices, said Cook.
“Benching heavy weight comes with proper technique, a lot of repetition, putting your body in uncomfortable situations and stressing your muscles until they grow,” Cook said. “Those same attributes are needed to be an effective leader and follower in our Air Force. Proper technique when dealing with peers, the Airmen who work for you, and certain workloads is needed daily.”
As a KC-10 Extender boom operator, Cook is used to putting his body in uncomfortable positions.
During aerial refueling, Cook’s job is to guide the boom, a 28-foot long pipe used to transport fuel, into the fueling port of a receiving aircraft while both aircraft cruise at speeds up to 350 m.p.h. During this, Cook must leverage his hulking frame into the boom operator’s compartment, a small, four-foot by seven-foot room with hardly enough room to stand up.
There’s a lot of pressure, Cook said, but that’s part of the job.
“There will definitely be stressful days,” he said. “You’re going to be uncomfortable with a lot of situations that arise in the work area, but we need that pressure to help us grow. I treat the individuals I encounter on a daily basis the same as I do a heavy set in the gym. Respect them just like you would that heavy weight, use proper form and technique when approaching the situation, take a deep breath when needed, then push as hard as you can to get to where you need to be.”
Sitting on a world record could have anyone feeling like they’re deserving of a break, but just like the Air Force adage, “the mission never stops,” neither will Cook, and as far as he’s concerned, one world record is great, but two would be better.
“Right after I broke the record, I realized I could’ve done way more than I just did,” Cook said. “My new goal is to crack 600 pounds with raw bench. Next year, I will set another international record for sure—I’m just warming up.”