02 Dec 2022

The Powerlifting Professor


Professor Lauren Cohen after completing a deadlift

What do free weights and academic research about patent trolls have in common? If you’re Lauren Cohen, the L.E. Simmons Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, more than you’d think. Professor Cohen, a competitive powerlifter and strongman, recently won the IPF Powerlifting Masters World Championship as a part of Team USA, which made us curious about how he got into such a demanding sport and how it influences how he thinks about his career. His answers may surprise you.

How did you get into powerlifting? What do you like about it?
I was recruited to play American football in college, but given my “hulking” stature, I realized that I looked more like a hot-dog vendor as opposed to a player in an NFL game. I thought I would probably be better off focusing on my studies. In my freshman year, I became friendly with the head strength coach at the university, and he introduced me to powerlifting.

The three things I like the most about powerlifting are (in order):

  1. It is deeply quantifiable. I’m an empiricist by nature. The ability to measure nearly every aspect of training, recovery, and competition make it a thrilling battleship-like game to solve.
  2. You can measure progress clearly and unambiguously. The gravitational constant is a thing. If you lifted 300 lbs. last month and 350 this month, you’ve gotten stronger. If, in contrast, you lift 250 lbs., you’ve gotten weaker. You can then re-solve accordingly.
  3. You walk both onto—and off of—the platform alone. As nice as it is to have workout partners, coaches, and others in your lifting corner, at the end of the day, the bar and your result rests in your hands. I love that simplicity. That doesn’t make competition easy, but you never have to play the “what if” game post-competition.

How has your powerlifting career affected the way you think about your academic career? Are there any principles that apply to both or lessons learned you can take from each?
I love this question, and get it quite often—the answer is an emphatic “Yes!” The biggest thing I have learned is the profound power of time. It’s often said that people overestimate what they can do in a single year, but vastly underestimate what they can accomplish in 10. Nothing could be truer for both powerlifting and academia. Both are such low-frequency pursuits (i.e., academic papers and projects take years to finish, and muscle and strength takes quite a long time to pack on, especially as you reach the outer boundaries). You could easily get demoralized—or quit—having to slog through the tiny, incremental progress you make day-by-day. But I’ve come to love the idea and life pursuit in each—making one small step up the mountain each day.

Professor Lauren Cohen on the podium after wining a powerlifting medal

Tell us about your research focus. Any parallels with powerlifting?
Absolutely—in fact, my research agenda on patent trolls is far more related than I ever could have anticipated. Patent trolls are firms that amass patents not to produce a product or service, but instead to enforce the intellectual property (IP) rights granted in patents. In other words, patent trolls sue other firms for encroaching upon or violating their patents through these other firms’ products or services. From the large sample evidence that I tabulated on patent troll behavior, I found that one systematic behavior of trolls is that they tend to narrow in specifically on the weakest link in production systems, even timing their suits to that link’s most vulnerable moments. For instance, patent trolls tend to target firms that are already involved with existing lawsuits who also have small legal teams—knowing these firms will find it optimal to settle (pay trolls off quickly), rather than fight the suit in court. Relatedly, trolls tend to target firms just about to receive outside funding (from sources such as venture capitalists), knowing that any open lawsuit could jeopardize the funding deal. Protecting and strengthening the innovation system involves plugging up the abilities of these patent trolls to target particularly susceptible firms—precisely at vulnerable times in the firms’ innovation and broader lifecycles.

Reflecting on this, I realized the exact same thing happens when I run up against a plateau weight on my lifts that I can’t break. It’s not that the whole lift is weak, but instead that a single weak point in the muscular system is being targeted. Moreover, that weak point even has specific times when it is especially vulnerable to being the link that’s breaking the system down (for instance, when other major muscle group force generators have been exhausted). So, if I shore up the right weak point, at its most vulnerable time, then I can make the whole system progress. Definitely an insight that led to a few personal records on the powerlifting platform!

Professor Lauren Cohen squatting weights at a competition

Do you have a favorite memory from your powerlifting career?
I have two. The first is when I set my first World Record in the squat in 2014 (630 lbs. when I weighed 181 lbs.). I had worked for seemingly ages, and had come so close—just barely missing so many times—that I’d started to doubt if it would ever happen. When it finally did, it was such a phenomenal feeling, and yet the funny part is that I can’t remember the lift itself at all. I remember setting up for the squat, and then jumping back out from under the bar after having completed it, but nothing in between.

Secondly, winning the IPF Powerlifting Masters World Championship as a part of Team USA this year (2022). Battling it out on the world stage, having the gold medal come down to the last deadlift which literally sat in my hands, and being able to do it while my entire crew (including my wife and six kids) were watching the live commentated event and cheering me on.

What’s next for you?
I’m not quite sure. But if you need help moving a desk in your office (or defending your next great idea) you know who to call!

Post a Comment

Comments must be on-topic and civil in tone (with no name calling or personal attacks). Any promotional language or urls will be removed immediately. Your comment may be edited for clarity and length.