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Strength and smarts

Harvard professor tackles powerlifting with same vigor as economics

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By Sean Sposito
Globe Correspondent / July 17, 2009
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Lauren Cohen’s hands hint at his double life. Overworked veins bulge beneath the Harvard Business School professor’s skin, calluses mark his fingers, and his shins - covered by the pleated pants he wears for work - are scarred from lifting weights.

Still casual acquaintances don’t know that Cohen, who studies the sociology behind the financial decisions of business managers, was among the nation’s top 20 powerlifters in the under-200-pound weight class in 2006 and 2007. At 5 feet 8 inches tall, he has bench-pressed over 500 pounds and squat-lifted 700 pounds.

Later this month, he will vie for a USA Powerlifting regional championship in Maine, his first powerlifting competition in over a year. Cohen, 30, also takes part in strongman contests - in which competitors pull tractor-trailers and wrestle massive concrete spheres onto pedestals - and he has qualified for the North American Strongman Inc. nationals in October in Louisiana.

While the connection between Total Performance Sports in the working-class neighborhood of Everett, where Cohen trains, and his desk at Harvard’s Baker Library may seem tenuous, he says being physically strong makes him a better professor.

“A lot of the same attributes that help with the success of, say, an attorney help with the success of strongman or powerlifting - self-discipline,’’ he said. “You always know where you stand, and you always know how you can improve.’’

But powerlifting and strongman competitions also come with risks. Injuries can range from strained muscles to torn biceps that take months to heal. So far, Cohen has not been hurt badly, but the thought of it is enough to keep his wife, Nicole Cohen, from watching him compete.

In the academic realm, Cohen is considered a rising economics star. He came to Harvard a year and a half ago, after two years at the Yale School of Management. His work in behavioral finance has been featured in stories in The New York Times and The Economist, and he was the 2007 and 2008 runner-up for the Smith Breeden Prize for the best paper in the Journal of Finance, published by the American Finance Association. This week, he is presenting a paper in Singapore on how private companies have reacted to fiscal stimulus efforts.

“It’s like doing crossword puzzles all day, and I would do that for free,’’ Cohen said of his economics work.

“He is really sort of driven, as opposed to a lot of people who need to take a break,’’ said Karl Diether, a friend of Cohen’s and an associate professor at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business. “Lauren always wants to talk research.’’

Cohen was raised in Waverly, N.Y., a rural town of about 5,000 people where his father is an orthopedic surgeon and his mother is a nurse. He claims that having a feminine first name - courtesy of his great-grandmother - never caused him embarrassment, and not because he threatened to beat up anyone who dared to tease him.

“We just liked the name Lauren,’’ said his father, Robert Cohen.

Early on, Cohen was ambitious. He was cocaptain of the Waverly High School football team, changing uniforms at halftime to play tuba in the band. He was also valedictorian of the Class of 1997. But he seldom touted his accomplishments, according to his mother, Carla Cohen.

“We didn’t know he was captain of the football team until the coach called and asked for the cocaptain,’’ she said.

“He doesn’t talk about his passions,’’ said his sister, Rebecca Cohen, who is pursuing a doctorate in education at the University of Texas at Austin. “We usually find out through Nicole, usually sometime after it happens. We’re the last people to know.’’

Cohen took an interest in bench-pressing competitions in his mid-teens, started powerlifting during his freshman year of college, and formed a weightlifting club at the University of Pennsylvania, where he attended the Wharton School.

Powerlifting is essentially extreme weight training, a concept Cohen finds appealing.

“I like things that are measurable, I’m an empiricist,’’ he said. “In powerlifting and in strongman, things are very measurable. If you came in last week and you could only lift the 300-pound stone and this week you lift the 350-pound stone, then you’re stronger, you’re better at this thing than you were last week.’’

He isn’t the first academic type to enter a powerlifting contest. Despite the stereotypes of self-absorbed muscle men, many powerlifters and strongmen have academic backgrounds, according to Lawrence Maile, president of USA Powerlifting.

For instance, Maile is a forensic psychologist and clinical director of the Alaska Psychiatric Institute in Anchorage. “Our executive committee includes an MD, a PhD, a [lawyer], an MBA, a math teacher, a computer systems engineer, and an individual with an MS in sports science,’’ he said. “I don’t think that is unusual across the organization.’’

These days, Cohen can usually be found at one of three places - Harvard, the gym, or his Cambridge apartment, where he and Nicole live with their infant daughter, Eva.

During a workout on a recent Friday afternoon at Total Performance Sports, his T-shirt and shorts were stained with sweat and the white chalk he uses to help him grip weights. Blood trickled from old leg wounds reopened by deadlifting a heavy bar across the space between his ankles and knees.

“I’ve only got two weeks of training left,’’ he said over the blare of heavy metal music, referring to the upcoming Maine contest.

“We don’t have a lot of Harvard professors here,’’ said C.J. Murphy, co-owner of the Everett gym. Cohen has “an unwavering drive to be the best at what he does professionally and recreationally, and that is something you can’t teach,’’ Murphy said. “You either have the mind-set of a champion or you don’t.’’

While Cohen is “a bit more proper than the majority of the people that come to the gym, he’s a regular guy,’’ he added.

Still, some have taken to calling him “Dr. Chest,’’ a reference to his broad shoulders and large rib cage. He weighs about 200 pounds, but overall his physique is not particularly imposing - especially for someone who can flip an 800-pound truck tire end over end for 100 feet.

In fact, his wife said that when she first met him, she thought he was merely “fat.’’

“He doesn’t exercise his strength at all, unless we go shopping at Ikea or something and I need him to carry a desk,’’ Nicole said. “Lauren isn’t very handy, but if it involves picking up something that is heavy, he’s your guy.’’

Sean Sposito can be reached at ssposito@globe.com.