From shifting tin to drafting manuscripts, big Robs journey from Pilbara to scientific discovery

He’s the 125kg, former FIFO worker who is living proof you don’t need to be a bookworm to be a scientist.

Meet Australian Catholic University alumnus Rob Howells, the ex-crane operator who is equally comfortable squatting 300kg as he is collecting and crunching data after a career change aimed at making a positive impact on people’s health.

Earlier this year the Master of Clinical Exercise Physiology graduate saw his research paper published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness.

His breakthrough in the field of health research was barely on his radar just a few years ago when the gentle giant was driving crawler cranes on gas projects in the Pilbara, a scarcely populated region in the dusty, red north of Western Australia.

“I legit never thought about it,” Howells reflected on his transition from working in natural resources to higher education. “It’s kind of surreal now.

“When I was at school I thought I was no chance of doing any good. I had a friend doing a PhD and he encouraged me to give university a crack.”

Howells had for years been dedicated to powerlifting. But a jet skiing accident led to shoulder surgery and a prognosis that would change his life.

“I was in tears because I was told I shouldn’t lift again,” he said. “Then, I stopped and thought, ‘good luck with that’.

“It makes such a big impact on your life what you say in that moment and I wanted to have that impact on others. Two years after that moment I was stronger than I’d ever been.”

Inspired by the example set by the physiotherapist who led his rehabilitation, Howells rebuilt his shoulder and focused on his own study. He can now squat 310kg, deadlift 295kg and bench press 180kg.

More importantly, his research paper was the first to definitively identify an optimal starting attempt weight for the squat in powerlifting competition. Rather than starting conservatively, his research showed opening bigger could be better, with a powerlifting athlete’s odds of winning a competition overall significantly increased by selecting a larger opening squat attempt weight than competitors.

“You’re better off opening as big as possible. It can be quite a tactical sport,” Howells said.

Howells’s research could have broader implications for talent identification by analysing age, sex, body weight and strength data to determine which athletes would be suitable for transition from other sporting disciplines into powerlifting and Olympic lifting.

Howells is considering a career in research but will for now concentrate on his role with ACU’s Student Veteran Exercise Lifestyle Program (SVELP) which supports former defence personnel transition into new careers via university study.  

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