• The strongest physicist of Zernike

    It's all about raw force

    Physicist Andrey Leonov couldn't live without powerlifting. 'How often do you play chess and afterwards have the feeling that you could demolish the entire building?’

    Andrey Leonov (33) is not wearing his physicist’s lab coat today. Instead, he’s dressed in leggings and a tight, black tank top. He stretches his back and legs, lies down on a bench and pushes up a bar weighing 140kg. ‘I planned on doing 160, but I injured my knee at the weekend.’

    Hundreds of kilo’s

    The combination of physics and powerlifting might seem unusual, but for Leonov it’s no big deal. During office hours he works on the theory of condensed matter – something about magnetic particles called skyrmions – while in his spare time he likes to walk the 100 metres from his office in the Zernike Complex to the sports centre to lift hundreds of kilos.

    ‘This is paradise for me’, Leonov says, looking at the weights. The ACLO is well equipped for his passion: powerlifting. A sport that consists of three different disciplines: squatting, bench pressing and deadlifting.

    Raw force

    Yes, of course, he could be the stereotypical scientist and play chess, but he would miss the rush of adrenaline that he gets from powerlifting. ‘Powerlifting is about raw force. How often do you play chess and afterwards have the feeling that you could demolish the entire building?’
    He loves his sport, referring to the sitcom The Big Bang Theory. ‘Do you know Sheldon from that series? He can only sit on a certain spot on the couch, the Sheldon spot. He has to sit there. That’s what powerlifting does for me. It has to be done, no question about it.’

    Respect the bar

    What would happen if he got a job at a university in a quiet mountain village? ‘Are there rocks? If so, I would lift the rocks. Otherwise, I would ask some colleagues to sit on my shoulders and I’d lift them.’

    Although he came second in the last powerlifting competition organized by the ACLO, Leonov does not want to boast about his strength. When he is lifting ‘raw’, that is not using supplementary clothing to make the lifting easier, he lifts 235kg in squats, 175kg in bench press and 260kg in deadlift. That’s pretty poor, according to the postdoc. Otherwise, he does not like to talk about how strong he is. ‘Powerlifting is not a sport for macho men. Bodybuilding is.’

    According to Leonov, powerlifters are not the guys you see parading around a gym. For example, they have enormous respect for the bar they attach the weights to. ‘You have to respect the bar. I sometimes caress it, like a woman. When you hold it, you have to really feel it, the texture, the grip.’

    That’s why Leonov never steps over the bar. That is ‘very disrespectful’. ‘That injury of mine resulted from my being arrogant. I saw the bar and thought, well, that’s easy and then I felt something snap in my right knee.’

    A bit awkward

    Eighteen months ago Leonov left Dresden to work in Groningen. In Dresden powerlifting was much more common among the scientists he worked with. Even professors work out at the USV Tu Dresden Kraftsport, his former powerlifting club, a result of the popularity of the sport in the former Soviet Union. ‘Powerlifters are generally older people.’

    He doesn’t talk too much about his passion to his Dutch colleagues. ‘I sometimes feel a bit awkward. I don’t want them to think of me as a stupid, muscular guy.’ The topic does come up, however, when they talk about their hobbies, like playing squash. ‘Now everybody knows who to ask if they want their desk moved.’


    There might be some differences between lifting weights and researching skyrmions, but Leonov sees one big similarity: discipline. Both powerlifters and physicists are very serious about what they do.

    He lifts four times a week. It’s not possible to exercise more often. His body has to recuperate from the training sessions. He approaches his work and his hobby with the same attitude: ‘When I train, I don’t fool around. I know what I want to do and complete that task. The same goes for my work. You can’t sit at your desk and play around on Facebook all day.’

    He shows two identical looking sheets with complex formulas and tables written on them. ‘One is my training schedule, the other is my notes.’