Disclaimer: Powerlifting is an Extreme Sport. This article is only an introduction to the sport and contains no training information however it is strongly advised that if one is interested in trying this or any other sport they should first seek medical clearance and then the advice of an experienced coach. Safety and spotting technique must be adhered to 100% or serious injury or death could occur.
Squat, Bench, Dead...
That is pretty much all that there is to it. I hope you enjoy this article. All right. I'll tell you a little bit more. Powerlifting is a sport where you get three attempts to hit a personal record (PR) in three different lifts. You always start with the squat. It is taxing and technical but it is a good icebreaker and hitting a great squat sets the tone for a good meet.
If you really wore yourself out on the squat don't worry because you get to lie down for the next lift. The bench press is both a lifter and crowd favorite and is the second element.
Just when you've made 6 maximum effort lifts it is now time to deadlift. What better lift could you ask for when you are completely exhausted? They say that the meet isn't over until the bar hits the floor.
Your last deadlift could make the difference between a bad day and a PR total. There are also bench press only contests and what we call a push-pull, which, of course, is a bench press/deadlift contest. The order still remains.
Lots of people ask about the sport and wonder if their lifts are good enough to enter a meet. The answer, no matter who you are, is most certainly YES.
Anyone can enter a powerlifting meet so long as you have learned the technique of the lifts and can perform them safely at somewhere near or above your 1-rep max. You will often have others in your weight class but ultimately the only number you can hope to beat is your own PR.
If you lift and come in last then you've just gained valuable experience over the person who is sitting on the sideline waiting for their lifts to become big enough to enter. By the time they feel their lifts are ready you'll have your lifts up to that level plus 5 meets under your belt.
You'll be the old hand helping put on bench shirts while they get to be the rookie with bigger and more dangerous weights. Endurance athletes understand this because it would be pretty lonely at your local 10k if the ability to finish in the top three was a prerequisite for competition.
Most endurance athletes are comfortable competing against themselves and are proud just to play. Powerlifting is the same way.
It is not a sport of ego but rather a sport of self. Only you can lose to you and only you can beat you. You either complete a lift according to the rules of the day or you don't. I've never seen a powerlifter come into the gym on Monday with a trophy. I have heard them proclaim, with great excitement, how they just went to a meet and set PR's across the board.
I've always had to ask how they placed and the response is typically something like, "Oh yeah... I took first." If you need further insight into this philosophy please see President Theodore Roosevelt's In the Arena speech.
"It is far better to dare mighty things on the platform than to be in those chairs with those cold timid soles who know neither victory nor defeat..."
(sorry... TR ends up in almost all of my articles)
I can't keep this under 5000 words if I go into detail about federations, politics, equipment and drugs. I don't concern myself with federations or politics and I believe it is up to the individual to find the powerlifting organization that gives them the most enjoyment.
I prefer my federation rules to be free and loose and others like them rigid. I am against drugs in sports, as an ISSA fitness professional, but I do not ever condone whining because someone didn't get a trophy lifting in an untested federation. If you beat your PR's then you have won and it matters not what, or how, anyone else did.
You choose your own rules when you fill out the application. Cheating is cheating and those that do have to live with themselves, but so long as you don't cheat yourself then you are on the right track. I like equipped lifting (squat suits, bench shirts etc) because I think it adds fun to the sport just like getting a $5000 super-duper aero bike would be fun for the triathlete.
If you don't like equipment then find a federation that bans or limits it. We call unequipped lifting "raw" and you usually only lift with a singlet and a belt. I again recommend that people refrain from whining in this department. The Mono-Lift, of which I am a fan, is another controversy.
I let it ride under the "no-whining" policy. Some say it takes the "walk-out" from the squat, which they feel, rightly so, is an important and traditional part of the lift. Some say the Mono-Lift enhances safety and allows bigger lifts. They believe it is worth giving up the "walk-out" for these reasons.
I mostly agree with the latter but one can easily choose to lift in a federation without a Mono-Lift. If you are going to be using one then you should get used to it. Stay within the rules of your choosing and break PR's. It isn't cheating if it is legal. It is that simple.
First things being what they are, we will start with the squat. The judge's commands will be different from organization to organization but for the most part you will un-rack the bar and wait for the "squat" command from the center judge. There will be two more judges on the left and right.
You take the squat into the hole and break parallel. This means that the corner of the hip joint, as it folds, has broken a horizontal plane determined by the apex of your knee in the flexed position. Your handler should let you know when you are there and you should have a good feel yourself.
Depth will vary with federation also. Some will pass close lifts at parallel and some want you well below. Drive it up and wait for the "rack" command and you are home free. Your lift will be validated or denied on a three light system. You have to have 2/3 to get a "good lift."
These lights will be white. Three white lights means that all three judges saw a clean lift that fell within their rules. Red lights are your sworn enemy and two or more will take that lift and throw it in the scrap heap. You get three attempts on each lift. If you get no recorded lift in three tries then the meet is over, so when picking your starting weight... choose wisely.
There is more to that and I will get into it in a bit. With the squat, as with all lifts in this sport, it is very important that you get familiar with the federation rules and abide by them.
This is also a great example of why going to meets and practicing live is worth its weight in gold even if you can't total what the other guy squats. Experience pays off and you can't replicate the feeling of being in front of three judges and an audience while training in the gym.
The Bench Press
The bench is next and this is a tough lift to get right. You have to pay careful attention to federation commands and rules. In a nut shell you:
- Un-rack the weight
- Pause and demonstrate control (self or by judge)
- Control the weight down to touch the chest (it must always touch)
- Pause at the chest (self pause or a judge given "press" command)
- Press it up to an even lock out (both arms have to lock together even if the weight comes up uneven)
You will likely be told when you can rack it. Jump up and check the board and bask in the sunshine like glow of three white lights... hopefully. Bench shirts and bench technique, like all technique, take up several more articles and years of tuning so we'll leave this collection of words in the "primer" phase.
In all federations you are not allowed to bounce the weight and you must keep your glutes on the bench. Some will allow your head to come up and some won't.
Grip it and rip it. The deadlift is the least fussy when it comes to rules. Don't stop, don't hitch (bounce-drag it up the thighs); get the full lockout (ankles, knees and hips locked and aligned) and DO NOT drop it. Chalk is the best and only option for your hands while your legs might enjoy some baby powder to reduce knurl friction.
Do not get any baby powder on your hands though. Babies are allowed to be slippery (although dropping them is frowned upon). Bars are not allowed to be slippery anywhere that your hands might go. You'll most likely get a "down" signal once the lift is deemed complete.
Keep your hands on the bar and let it down under control. The deadlift is also the only lift that allows you to use two completely different styles.
We have the conventional deadlift, which means the feet are closer together (approximately shoulder width or closer) and the hands are outside the knees.
The sumo deadlift uses a wide stance so the hands grip the bar between the knees. You have to find out for yourself which style fits your mechanics but each is a great training supplement to the other. The sumo pull allows for a shorter bar path and a more upright back position and is favored by leaner lifters with a strong posterior chain and adductors.
Heavier lifters (read: those with big bellies) with long legs, short torsos and long arms often favor the conventional deadlift. There are no rules as to which deadlift will work best for certain types of lifters so you just have to experiment. Records have been set using both styles and some people can use either with the same results.
Training for powerlifting requires volumes of writing and I can say, as a powerlifting coach, that there are no guaranteed protocols that work for all of the people all of the time. Smart periodization is important but the absolute most important aspect of powerlifting training is technique.
If you do it wrong, you WILL get hurt. You can add far more poundage with sound technique than with any other method. I'll let you in on a little secret though.
There is one sure fire way to get stronger and continue breaking PR's (so long as you are careful and safe) and that is to train with someone better than you.
If you can find a whole group then that is even better, but you will never make better gains than while training with those who want the same things you do. We joke and poke fun at each other but that is the real reason that bodybuilders and powerlifters don't often train together. They are just not after the same things.
Train with someone who can teach and motivate you but also teach you how to push and challenge yourself. I can't give you a cookie-cutter routine as this would be a serious disservice nor will I pretend to be a guru and make one up for you. I will show you the path...
A Note On Westside
I advocate a certain type of training made popular by Westside Barbell. There are always questions on it so I would like to preempt some of them. I have long studied it and also learned directly from some of their best teachers and practitioners. I like it simply because it is the system of no system. It is simple yet very complex.
The entire premise centers on the capitalization of strengths and elimination of weaknesses. One cannot plug-and-play a workout and hope for the best. The whole idea is to examine yourself, study, evaluate and learn how to make yourself the strongest you can be. It can be very complex or very simple.
I was at a fantastic seminar where someone asked Elite Fitness System's coach Jim Wendler,
It stalls at the bottom. What is my weak point?"
This guy was hoping to hear that his triceps need work or maybe his shoulders but Jim gave it to him as straight and as honest as could be and told him, quite accurately, that his weak point was his entire bench press.
He was not trying to be rude but rather demonstrate how important it is to master technique and build all-around strength before one attacks the finer points important only to the advanced. There is a myth here that I will take a minute to dispel. People often state that they tried Westside and didn't make any gains.
They often blame this on not using equipment and being drug free, which of course is utter nonsense. What really happened is that they plugged themselves into a program TEMPLATE and followed it as if Moses brought it down from the mountain on a tablet, only to find that the volume and intensity was too high or that it was designed for someone else's weaknesses.
They engage in almost zero self-analysis. It isn't the drugs or the double ply bench shirt. It is lack of knowledge and often, though I hate to sound mean, laziness. There are several other systems of training for powerlifting and many are valid and reasonable.
I have just listed the one I use with my own training, athletes and powerlifters. I can answer further questions on training but not here and now as I fear that this article could begin to develop a bookish volume.
Basics On Training For Powerlifting
It is important to note that powerlifters do NOT train body parts. This phraseology came from bodybuilding, where it is relatively valid, but you will never hear a powerlifter talking about training chest, shoulders, and tris. They train the bench. Those muscles get trained well, and probably better than by using isolation movements, but it is the lift itself that is the focus of training.
Squat and deadlift training go pretty much hand-in-hand. The squat is the most technical but the deadlift is the most taxing. One should be careful with volume and intensity. It would be a simple strategy to work technique and speed with one and max weight with the other and then alternate.
There are countless ways to design your training. It is very important to remember that you are not training legs. You are training the squat and the deadlift.
The easiest thing to do here is go get yourself a copy of Powerlifting USA (PL-USA) and look at the list of events in the back. Pick one in your area and sign up. Get whatever federation card you need and then start to write down a plan to get there. Get whatever equipment you'll need.
Everyone will need a singlet (like wrestlers wear) and a belt. Contact me for my favorite sources for such items. I strongly advise you bring friends familiar with your lifting and your equipment. If you have no friends (which could easily happen if you never clean your squat suit) or none that could help you, then other lifters will always lend a hand.
It is also nice to have a friend/coach/handler help you pick attempts and keep you from either shorting yourself or going too crazy. I told you I'd mention your openers and now seems to be the time. There are different philosophies on this and I can only tell you mine.
My advice is to pick an opener you know you can handle with ease. You'll be nervous and tight and possibly unresponsive to commands (which gets you red lights) and it feels incredibly relieving to get one lift on the board. White lights in a 2/3 majority on any lift keep you in the game.
There is no sense going for broke on the first try and doing what we call "bombing out." It is best to get first attempts on the books for all three lifts so that you get to experience them in a real meet situation. The second attempt is the time to go for the PR. If you hit it then you are set but if you miss it you can take it again.
If you get your PR on the second attempt then for the third attempt you can pass, take a tiny bit more or go for broke. This plays into strategy and that really isn't the realm of the beginner. When all is said and done you will have made nine lifts. Your best weight from each of the three lifts will be combined into what is obviously and simply called "your total."
If winning or placing becomes relevant you will be placed according to your total by a predetermined formula, which calculates a ratio between your body weight and your total lifted. There are also age groups including Teen, Juniors, Open, Sub-Master, Master, Grand-Master and so on depending on the meet and the federation.
At the meet you'll network and get to know other lifters. You might even discover there is a club in a garage right up the street. It has been my experiences that you will be accepted so long as you give everything you've got on the platform.
You'll also find that grumpy looking 300lb, bald, tattooed, goateed guys are actually very nice... so long as they've been fed... and you'll get used to that smell. It is just the pleasant and fragrant combination of horse liniment and old bench shirt.
Equipment is very much driven by federation rules. To keep it simple, as I mentioned above, everyone should have a singlet. In order of the lifts you might next want to look into a squat suit. They come in three materials and vary in design depending on lifting style. Single-ply poly is the beginner suit and is like a very tight singlet.
They keep you tight in the hips and have a little bit of spring at the bottom. You can go to a second ply as you advance. Denim is for a more advanced lifter and comes in one or two ply. Denim is very rigid and offers almost no spring.
Canvas has the same layer availability but is for the very advanced and legal in only a select few federations. When a canvas suit hits its limit in the hole of the squat then that is the limit. It will NOT give any more so it is very important to have it tuned to allow you proper depth.
There is an additional hybrid but it is fairly radical and only for the elite. Briefs (no straps over the shoulders) made of single or double poly are often worn under a suit. This depends on the rules. The belt is next and a 4" powerlifting belt is the only way to go.
This belt is 4" all around and 10-13mm thick. Check your rules again. I like the lever for squatting but mostly wear a prong buckle. The double prong gives you no advantage and is actually a pain to set or get undone so the single prong belt gets my vote here.
Knee wraps come next and their length is determined by rules. The best bet is to order different brands and see which ones you like. Write me and I'll point you in the right direction. Some people use wrist wraps on the squat, which is a reasonable option but a personal choice. Shoe selection is important but depends on your style.
Wide squatters often do well in old-fashioned Converse® Chuck Taylor'sTM. Closer stance squatters might want more of a heal lift in a specialized squat shoe. Olympic lifting shoes are likely not the best choice for power squatting.
Equipment for the bench is the belt and a bench shirt. They also come in single and double ply made from poly, denim and canvas though canvas is rare. There are options for closed back and open back but those are more advanced. A beginner will do well to get used to a single ply poly shirt to start.
Wrist wraps are popular in the bench press and you will almost always need a singlet. The judge needs to be able to see your glutes touching the bench and baggy shorts would obscure this.
You gain little or nothing in the deadlift but most wear a squat suit or a suit designed for deadlifting because of the tightness. Few wear knee wraps as they might just get in the way and some wraps their wrists. Some people pull in their Chucks but some wear wrestling shoes and some others go in sox or slipper.
Minimizing the sole thickness shortens the distance you have to pull the bar. I'm a broken record but check your federation's rules and get the equipment figured out and practiced well before meet day.
This was a brief overview of the sport. For those readers who are members of the ISSA it was a sport played by your Co-Founders Dr. Hatfield and Dr. Arria and it gave them years of enjoyment. There is much more to it and I will be happy to keep going if people are interested in the sport.
I'm sure my little report left you with a couple of questions. Every person I know who has tried it has found a tremendous rush, enjoyed a boost in self-confidence, felt empowered and became addicted to the idea of shattering PR's. That is amongst those who you would not think would be powerlifters (Mom's, Grand-mothers/fathers, girls who carry $2000 hand bags).
Squat deep, bench big and don't quit until the bar hits the floor.