From horseback to heavy lifting

From the time she was a toddler, University of South Carolina junior Madeleine Giess has loved horses. The Columbia native — a Carolina Scholar in the Honors College — first rode as a small child, honing her riding skills in Camden, Blythewood, Aiken and elsewhere. She loves horses so much, in fact, that she once harbored dreams of riding in equestrian events at the Olympics.

“I’ve been riding since I was 1-and-a-half,” Giess says. “I was just always around horses growing up, and I still train them now.”

Her Olympic dream didn’t come true — but it eventually led to another one, weight lifting, and to her current major and academic passion: exercise science.

What’s the connection between horse riding and weight lifting?

“Riding is actually a lot like squatting — people don’t realize that,” Giess says. “You have a lot of stabilization going on. Your abdomen and your lower back are really tight. You’ve got this creature moving under you, and you’ve got to stay on. There’s a lot of awareness about how your body is moving — which is one of the biggest challenges of lifting, that people don’t understand where their muscles are and how to use their muscles.”

Giess didn’t always know the connection between riding and lifting. But about a week before she turned 18 — which was also the week before she had a scholarship interview at Carolina — her horse, Markus, died unexpectedly. It was a devastating loss, and not just because of horseback riding.

“That’s losing your best friend, too,” Giess says.

Ultimately, the loss set Giess on a new path. “I was like, ‘Well, I have all this energy and free time, and I’m depressed: What can I do about it?’” she recalls. “I started training with a personal trainer, and I discovered I can lift heavy things and I’m good at it.”

During the winter break of her freshman year, she was working out at a local gym when a couple of people walked by and noticed how much the 5-foot-2 Giess was lifting — about 285 pounds. They invited her to a weight-lifting clinic, where she ended up meeting her coach, Donnie Thompson, who was the first heavy lifter ever to lift a combined 3,000 pounds. He runs a private local training club called The Compound. Today, Giess holds International Powerlifting Association records for her age and weight in the categories of bench lifting (135 pounds), squat (260 pounds), deadlift (315 pounds) and total weight (710 pounds) — an accomplishment for which she gives much of the credit to Thompson.

“I won the lottery with who my coach is,” Giess says. “People come from all over the world to study with him; he is right at the intersection of strength training and physical therapy.”


“Riding is actually a lot like squatting ... There’s a lot of awareness about how your body is moving — which is one of the biggest challenges of lifting, that people don’t understand where their muscles are and how to use their muscles.” 

Madeleine Giess


As it turns out, Giess’ horseback riding experience was exactly the kind of background a weight lifter should have.

“You can’t do really heavy squats or deadlifts or things like that at a super young age,” Giess says. “Strength protocol is that you start young kids with riding horses or with gymnastics — those are two big things — and that can lead into strength training. So I started out correctly, just not necessarily with that goal in mind.”

Timing-wise, Giess’ interest in powerlifting and exercise science kicked in around the same time. She started her freshman year as a math major, but soon learned that she was better suited to exercise science. It was in EXSC 191, she says, that she discovered that the field was all about everything she already cared about outside of school.

Giess recalls that her EXSC 191 professor, Jaynesh Patel, “was absolutely phenomenal.”

“Put it this way: It was at 8:30 twice a week, and I never missed a day,” she says. “Taking that class kind of solidified it for me: I knew exercise science was the right field for me — that was exactly where I wanted to be.”

She adds: “One of the things that attracted me to it is that exercise science is really a combination of physical sciences — chemistry, physics — with biomechanics. Biomechanics is my favorite class that I’ve ever taken, and I really don’t think that I’m going to be able to find something cooler than that to me — just because it was breaking down the stuff that I already think about on a daily basis.”

What Giess learns in the classroom is directly applicable to her own training as a powerlifter, as well as to her part-time job as a personal trainer and her future career plans. She also applied her classroom knowledge to working on a research project with clinical assistant professor Raymond Thomson and to her own research in innovative rehabilitation techniques.

Her plan is to become a physical therapist with an emphasis in strength conditioning.

“It’s still being a physical therapist, but it’s also transitioning to strength and conditioning, which is the best of both worlds for me,” she says.

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