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As a medical student, Erin Barnes, MD, Assistant Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R), sought out a way to stay fit and give herself a mental break from studies. CrossFit provided the perfect outlet. As an athlete, she liked the cardiovascular conditioning as well as the gymnastic and weightlifting movements that are part of the training. She found herself particularly drawn to lifts like the snatch and clean-and-jerk. Before long, she was competing in local weightlifting competitions.

Functional Gains

In 2016, she was training at a gym when she met Mark Lavallee, MD, medical director for USA Weightlifting. He immediately recruited her to cover weightlifting competitions as a sideline physician—launching her into a new role in the sport she’d come to love.

“Weightlifting is a sport that’s accessible to anyone. When you’re at a competition, you’ll see people of all ages, backgrounds, body types, abilities—including an adaptive category for those with physical or cognitive disabilities,” Dr. Barnes explains. “Being part of this community is inspiring, and really demonstrates the widespread benefits of strength training on health and function for all persons.”

Even more, she says competitors are driven by a greater goal than the appearance of their body.

“In this sport, we’re not driven by an aesthetic goal but by a functional one. It’s amazing to see what our body can do. This shift from being critical of one’s appearance to appreciative of one’s capability leads to a sense of empowerment that is particularly important for our female participants. This sport celebrates women being strong and taking up space in a world where societal messaging is often the opposite.”

Building Muscle, Building Empathy

Dr. Barnes still participates in the weightlifting community today through CrossFit, and she continues to serve as a network physician with USA Weightlifting at various competitions.

“Being an athlete helps me understand the mentality and motivation of my athletic patients. It also gives me a connecting point to patients to help reinforce the benefits of strength training—whether you’re competing in a sport or just trying to live as healthy as possible,” she shares.

Dr. Barnes has served at countless local and regional events. Additionally, she’s served as the medical director for three national events. Most recently, she was the medical director of USA Weightlifting National Championships Week. As such, she oversaw the entire medical team of physicians, trainers, and therapists for the 1,500 athletes in attendance.

This role, in turn, helps her understand how to best care for herself as an athlete and competitor. She says it also helps her with the MetroHealth Sports Medicine patients she sees.

“There’s a lot of action planning and thinking on our feet at these competitions,” Dr. Barnes says. “They are great learning experiences, both from a medical standpoint and a leadership one.”

And all of it, she says, would be impossible without the support of MetroHealth and her PM&R colleagues.