How to Start Powerlifting: Your First Steps Towards Strength

How to Start Powerlifting: Your First Steps Towards Strength

Today, strength sports are more popular than ever. If you spend any time on social media, you will likely see a clip of an athlete lifting an incredible amount of weight. Whether the specific strength sport is powerlifting, strongman, or Olympic lifting, the general public is undoubtedly interested in strength and strength sports. At Westside Barbell, we have specialized in strength sports for decades, specifically powerlifting.

So, what is powerlifting? Powerlifting is a sport that measures an athlete's absolute strength by testing one rep max capabilities in the squat, bench press, and deadlift. An athlete has three attempts per lift in competition, making nine total lifts throughout a powerlifting meet. Once all attempts have been completed, the three best weights for the squat, bench press, and deadlift are added up, providing the athlete with a total.

In powerlifting, not only does the total weight matter but so does the athlete's body weight. By comparing the total weight lifted with the body weight of the athlete, various scores can be calculated to determine the rank of each athlete. Depending on the federation, this score will most often be calculated using the dots, Wilks, or Glossbrenner scoring system. No matter the scoring system used, the goal is determining which athlete is the strongest, pound for pound.

Powerlifting is broken down into two categories: raw and geared powerlifting. There are also various subcategories, such as raw with wraps, classic raw, single-ply, multi-ply, and most recently, unlimited. Whether an athlete chooses to lift raw or in gear, there are great gyms and communities to become immersed. As Lou has stated, the sport of powerlifting provided him with some of the best days of his life and some of his best friends.

Understanding the Basics

As we mentioned before, the sport of powerlifting is based on the total of an athlete's best squat, bench press, and deadlift. The squat and deadlift test lower body strength, while the bench press tests upper body strength. If an athlete wants to be a successful powerlifter, following a powerlifting training program is essential to ensure all three lifts are appropriately trained.

Not only does an athlete need to follow a worthwhile powerlifting program, but they will also need to purchase some basic powerlifting equipment. For raw powerlifters, this will mean appropriate lifting shoes, knee sleeves or wraps, wrist wraps, and a belt. Geared powerlifters will also need these pieces of equipment, along with single or multi-ply briefs, squat suits, bench shirts, and deadlift suits.

Often, beginners will choose to go the raw powerlifting route, considering the barrier of entry is lowered in both cost and skill. However, just because an athlete is new to the sport does not mean they cannot begin as a geared powerlifter. As long as the athlete has a few years of strength training and has built a base of strength, they can just as quickly begin as a geared powerlifting.

In reality, the most important thing to focus on as a beginner is attaining the ability to perform the powerlifts to competition standards. This means squats are to the proper depth, bench presses have a strict pause, and the deadlift is pulled to complete lockout and properly lowered to the ground. Failure to execute the lifts to competition standard will result in lackluster performance and potential disqualification from a powerlifting competition.

Setting Your Powerlifting Goals

For beginner-level powerlifters, setting initial goals is an important step to having a target to aim for in their training. The first goal all lifters should set is to become disciplined in their powerlifting performance. This not only helps to reduce injury but also ensures an athlete can execute at a powerlifting meet.

Next, athletes can begin focusing on escalating their numbers. This means setting goal weights to hit in the squat, bench press, and deadlift. First and foremost, it is important to keep training goals realistic and attainable. You want to avoid setting the initial bar so high that failure occurs regularly, and motivation diminishes.

While a lifter may set long-term goals, focusing on things from a short-term perspective is most important. Once training begins, athletes will typically establish max lifts within the first few months. When these numbers are established, athletes should focus on attaining 5-10 lb PRs every month or two. While this may seem low to the beginner, the pounds quickly add up, and before you know it, you've added another 50 lbs to a lift.

As experience accrues and beginners reach the intermediate level, long-term goals can begin to be established. However, the most important thing for beginners to focus on is small improvements and looking at training from a week-to-week perspective. As long as an athlete shows up and does the work to a standard, those 5-10 lb PR lifts will happen.

Athletes should also set goals related to technical execution, meaning they should strive to improve their technical execution of each lift every time they train. If you are strict as a beginner, your lifts will improve more efficiently, and your risk of injury will be lowered. Performing the lifts with proper form will become second nature as time passes, and you won't need to think about it.

Creating Your Training Plan

The most important step a beginner will take is establishing their initial training program. A powerlifting training program is a roadmap to increased strength and must be organized and executed correctly for athletes to improve. At Westside, we use the Conjugate Method when designing a powerlifting program.

The Conjugate Method includes the maximal, dynamic, and repeated effort methods. Each intends to improve a specific aspect of an athlete's strength. The maximal effort method focuses on the development of absolute strength. The dynamic effort method improves the rate of force development, making an athlete more explosive. The repeated effort method improves physical composition and work capacity.

By correctly utilizing these proven methods, we can build a complete lifter devoid of glaring weaknesses that impede improvement or limit competitive ability. However, for our methods to be effective, training must be correctly organized. Here is how we ensure training a powerlifting program is correctly organized and executed at Westside Barbell:

Weekly Training Schedule:

Monday - Max Effort Lower (squat, deadlift, or good morning variation)

Wednesday - Max Effort Upper (bench press or overhead press variation)

Friday - Dynamic Effort Lower (squat variation, wave training utilized)

Saturday - Dynamic Effort Upper (bench variation, wave training utilized)

Organization of a Training Day:

Exercise A - Main Exercise (squat, bench press, deadlift, or good morning variation)

Exercise B - Primary Accessory Exercise (multi-joint movement)

Exercise C - Accessory Exercise (multi or single-joint movement)

Exercise D - Accessory Exercise (single-joint movement)

Exercise E (optional) - Accessory Exercise (single-joint movement)

Exercise F (optional) - Accessory Exercise (single-joint movement)

Remember that this is just the basic structure of a training week and day. Each powerlifting workout must be correctly organized and include appropriate powerlifting exercises. To better understand how to design a beginner powerlifting program, check out our Base Building and Starting Conjugate articles.

Joining a Gym or Building a Home Gym Setup

As a beginner, there is more to the equation besides the powerlifting routine you follow. Another critical aspect of training is where the training occurs. Powerlifting is a sport that requires specific bars and gym equipment, so it is vital to have access to a facility that provides the necessary tools to get the job done.

Additionally, some gyms do not tolerate powerlifting-style training. Attempting to powerlift within these facilities will attract unwanted attention and cause issues for a dedicated powerlifter. These are certainly issues that someone new to the sport will want to avoid.

Fortunately, there are many excellent powerlifting training facilities worldwide, and one is likely within driving distance from your home. Whether the drive is 5 minutes or an hour, it is worth having access to a well-equipped gym that allows you to train how you need to. Additionally, these gyms often have already established powerlifting groups, which can be great for a beginner to pick up some free knowledge and have spotters available.

However, not everyone can access or make it to a powerlifting gym. In this case, a home gym will become necessary. One of the best ways to build a home gym is to purchase a quality full-frame squat rack with a removable bench. This will allow you to perform squats, bench presses, overhead presses, deadlifts, and good mornings.

Aside from the rack and removable bench, you will need adequate plate weight, specialty bars, dumbbells, and additional pieces of equipment if the budget allows. We recommend a quality power bar, safety squat bar, and cambered bar to get started. After that, you can purchase other specialty bars, such as a deadlift bar, buffalo bar, or axle bar.

Safety is the biggest thing to focus on when training at home. Hopefully, you will get a small group together to ensure everyone has spots and can lift safely. If this is not possible, spending the extra cash necessary to get a quality squat rack with safety pins or straps is essential. An additional couple hundred dollars spent on a rack can be the difference between an easy dismount from a missed squat or a trip to the hospital.

If you want high-quality training equipment, including squat racks, check out Rogue Fitness.

Safety and Injury Prevention

As mentioned above, one of the primary keys to keeping training safe and preventing injuries is having access to quality spotters and training with quality equipment. However, there are some additional things an athlete can do to keep training productive and injury-free. The main thing athletes can do to avoid injury is to perform all exercises with strict technique.

Whether an athlete is a beginner or a world-class powerlifter, all lifts must be performed with strict form. Additionally, athletes must make wise decisions when selecting training weights. At Westside, we select training weights based on the heaviest weight we can use while performing all prescribed sets and reps with proper form.

We must consider our level of fatigue entering the training day and the amount of fatigue accrued throughout the training session. We never want to place ourselves at risk by making egotistical decisions when selecting training weights. Strive to achieve appropriate stimulation and avoid training to the point where you feel like you're about to break.

Reaching your full potential can take many years of training. Keeping yourself healthy and intact is vital to allow training and progress to continue. Many great prospects have ruined their ability to reach greater heights due to unnecessary training techniques and greedy decisions regarding training intensity.

Be smart, be controlled, and always live to train another day.

Preparing for Your First Competition

Once a beginner powerlifter has trained for six months to one year, it is time to begin competing. Can a beginner choose to compete sooner? Sure. However, six months to a year of training will ensure both strength and execution are on point. Rushing the process makes no sense, as it will only limit success at your first competition and kill your motivation in the future.

For your first meet, we recommend choosing a meet that is relatively close to your home; that way, you don't have to invest much money into the ordeal and can go into the event stress-free. This will also help ensure that your training partners can make it to the meet, providing you with a significant advantage in handling and feedback after each lift.

Finding a meet with other athletes near your level is also best. This will help keep stress levels low without feeling pressured to lift around the best in the world. Additionally, this will allow you to get a feel for real competition, considering you're in a meet with other athletes near your strength.

The first meet is always a learning experience, so keeping the event as low-stress as possible will help you get your feet wet without investing a bunch of cash or running the risk of having a terrible time. You don't want to be the lifter trying to readjust their rack height on the platform while others are waiting in their knee wraps to squat a world record. Keep the pressure low and pick a meet where you can be competitive and have a good time.

Another critical decision to make before competing is choosing a weight class. For beginner-level lifters, we recommend selecting the class closest to your normal walking-around body weight. You do not want to cut weight for your first meet, as this just adds another layer of complexity to the situation. Train to fill out your frame and lift in the weight class closest to your normal weight.

Embracing the Powerlifting Lifestyle

Powerlifting is a sport that requires an athlete to dedicate themselves to the process. No matter how well-written your powerlifting program or how nice the equipment you train with is, failing to dedicate yourself to the powerlifting lifestyle will result in failure on competition day. As with any sport, being the best requires a strict diet, training, and lifestyle adherence.

To be the best powerlifter you can be, you must remain focused on your goals and do what it takes to attain them year-round. This is another reason training with a group is beneficial. When you're around a group of like-minded individuals, steel sharpens steel, and accountability is high.

Whether or not you train with a group, you must build the mental fortitude to remain strict in the gym and at home. You can't expect to be a great athlete if you're partying until 2 a.m. when you're scheduled to train at 10 a.m. For a beginner, a few days of slack can quickly derail the process and take you right back to square one.

Fortunately, the discipline this sport takes is a small price to pay for the rewards it provides when everything clicks, and you have a great meet. Sure, hanging with your friends and having a few beers is a good time. However, do not let the good times get in the way of your athletic goals. The memories you have from achieving your goals will far outweigh the fun you have on a meaningless Friday night at a party.

The sport of powerlifting is tough, and living an unhealthy and undisciplined lifestyle will only make things more difficult. For a beginner, starting undisciplined is a surefire way to kill your motivation and ruin your chances of improvement. Be strict with yourself and do what it takes to become the best athlete you can be. You won't regret it.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How do I set realistic goals as a beginner?
A: Once you have established your beginning max lifts, shoot for 5-10 lb PR lifts every month or two. Enjoy the process; avoid applying unrealistic timelines and expectations to your training.

Q: What are the basic requirements to begin powerlifting?
A: We typically recommend that an athlete have at least a few months of training experience and basic technical knowledge of the lifts.

Q: When am I ready to compete in my first powerlifting meet?
A: We recommend athletes have at least six months of powerlifting training experience before competing.

Q: Can you learn how to powerlift on your own?
A: Yes, many online resources can help a beginner learn how to become a powerlifter. However, the best way to learn is to train with a group of experienced lifters.

Q: Is it necessary to use powerlifting gear?
A: While it is not necessary to use single or multi-ply gear, we recommend that all beginners use basic equipment such as a belt, knee sleeves or wraps, wrist wraps, and proper training shoes.

A Rewarding Endeavor

Choosing to begin powerlifting training provides many benefits for an athlete. Whether it be increased strength, better body composition, increased training knowledge, or making new friends, this sport has a lot to offer an individual. If you're wondering how to get into powerlifting, just find a nearby powerlifting gym and ask a group for help.

More often than not, experienced powerlifters are willing to help beginners learn the sport. Sure, you will run into some folks who are full of themselves. Still, most powerlifters are dedicated athletes willing to help others with similar dedication and interest in the sport. You will meet some great people if you stick around the sport long enough.

Powerlifting is not an easy sport, but it is rewarding. You will significantly improve your strength and body composition, develop a strong work ethic and discipline, and have some of the best times of your life. All it takes is a bit of grit, determination, and strict discipline.

You never know; you could end up being the next powerlifting legend.


Simmons, L. (2007). Westside Barbell Book of Methods. Westside Barbell.

Verkhoshansky, Y., & Siff, M. C. (2009). Supertraining. Verkhoshansky.

Zatsiorsky, V. M., & Kraemer, W. J. (2006). Science and Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics

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