What is Powerlifting? An Introduction to the World of Strength
Powerlifting is a sport that utilizes the squat, bench press, and deadlift to measure an athlete’s absolute strength and technical capabilities regarding each lift. The sport is scored using what is referred to as a “total,” or the sum of the heaviest squats, bench presses, and deadlifts performed by each athlete. In competition, nine lifts will be performed, with three attempts allotted to each lift.
During the competition, each athlete will perform an opening, second, and third attempt for the squat, bench press, and deadlift. For these lifts to count, the athlete must complete the lifts to standard.
For the squat, an athlete must squat to a point where the crease of the hip is lower than the top of the knee. For the bench press, an athlete must pause the weight on the chest, then completely lock the weight out with no up and down motion before placing the bar back in the rack. For the deadlift, the athlete must lift the weight to lockout with no up and down motion, then lower the barbell back to the ground in a controlled manner.
The sport of powerlifting was initially referred to as odd lifts, with the bench press being replaced with the overhead press. Depending on the odd lift competition, other lifts could be included as well. Today, powerlifting has become one of the fastest-growing sports, with individuals worldwide taking up the sport regularly. Much of this growth can be attributed to the popularity of powerlifting on social media.
Below, we will dive into powerlifting basics to help better understand the sport.
The Core Lifts of Powerlifting
As mentioned above, powerlifting is scored by adding up the best squat, bench press, and deadlift performed in competition. For an athlete to become competitive in the sport, it is essential to understand the core lifts and the basic techniques associated with each lift.
The barbell squat is the first lift performed during a powerlifting competition. Depending on the federation, a squat rack or monolift will be used. When using a squat rack, the goal is to take as few steps as necessary during the walkout to retain as much energy as possible for the actual lift. When using a monolift, the focus should be establishing a solid brace and standing up properly with the barbell.
The squat is performed using wide, regular, or close stances. With a wide stance, the focus is mainly on the anterior chain, with lateral force production playing a significant role. When using a normal stance, both the posterior and anterior chains are evenly used to execute the squat. When using a close stance, the focus is placed on the anterior chain.
While there can be some rules applied to decide which stance is best for an athlete, the truth is that it all depends on the individual and what the athlete finds most useful. A wide stance is often better for larger individuals but can also be useful for a smaller athlete. A close stance is often better for individuals in lighter weight classes but can also be useful to large athletes, depending on their biomechanics.
Find what works best for you.
The Bench Press
The bench press is the second lift performed during a powerlifting competition. In competition, a bench press is considered legal when the barbell is lowered, controlled, paused on the chest, and then pressed to lockout with no up and down motion before being placed back into the rack without issue. The bench press is one of the most technically demanding exercises, and many athletes struggle to master the lift.
Athletes typically choose one of three hand positions when setting up their bench press. The grips used are referred to as close, regular, and wide grips. Most often, arm length and upper torso size determine which grip works best for an athlete. The ultimate goal is to reduce the range of motion and remain at a joint angle advantage as much as possible throughout the lift.
Unlike the squat and deadlift, which focus on total body strength with a lower body bias, the bench press concentrates almost exclusively on upper torso strength. For this reason, athletes need to focus on building and strengthening the arms, shoulders, chest, and back.
The deadlift is the third and final lift performed during a powerlifting competition. To perform a successful deadlift, an athlete must lift the barbell to lockout with no up and down motion and then return the barbell to the floor in a controlled manner. The deadlift is a perfect mix of brute strength and technical execution.
In competition, athletes will choose to deadlift using a conventional or sumo stance. The conventional stance features the legs close together, with much of the demand being placed on the back, glutes, and hamstrings. The sumo stance features the legs in a wide stance similar to a squat, with much of the demand being placed on the lower back, hips, glutes, and quads.
Whether an athlete deadlifts using a sumo or conventional stance will depend on biomechanics and range of motion reduction. An athlete must choose the form that feels most comfortable and allows for maximum force production. Additionally, reducing the distance the bar must travel will allow more weight to be lifted, thus improving the deadlift and total of the athlete.
Powerlifting Equipment and Gear
The sport of powerlifting features many different styles of lifting. The two main styles can be categorized as equipped and unequipped. However, this would not be very clear to the layman, considering unequipped powerlifters still use what the average person considers powerlifting equipment.
Equipped lifting is powerlifting that involves using squat suits, bench shirts, and deadlift suits during competition. These suits can be one-ply, which is referred to as single-ply lifting, or multi-ply, which is referred to as multi-ply or unlimited lifting. In addition to these suits and shirts, athletes will also wear a lifting belt, wrist wraps, and knee wraps.
Unequipped lifting is what is commonly referred to as raw powerlifting. Unlike equipped lifting, where specially made suits and shirts are used to enhance strength, unequipped lifting measures the strength of an individual using only a belt, wrist wraps, and knee sleeves or wraps. Similar to equipped lifting, there are different styles of raw powerlifting as well.
Classic raw powerlifting is performed using only a belt, wrist wraps, and knee sleeves. Pro raw powerlifting, or raw with wraps, is performed using a belt, wrist, and knee wraps. Depending on the federation, different rules can apply to the lengths allowed for knee and wrist wraps.
All disciplines of powerlifting are performed wearing a federation-approved singlet. In addition to gear such as singlets, suits, shirts, belts, and wraps, powerlifters also utilize tools such as chalk to enhance grip or smelling salts to enhance awareness and provide a brief energy boost. Baby powder is also commonly used during deadlifts to reduce friction while the barbell drags along the legs.
The Importance of Technique
Achieving technical mastery of each lift should be the goal of all powerlifters. Ultimately, we want to lift the most weight while remaining safe. To stay competitive, athletes must remain focused on optimal form and execution in both training and competition.
For beginners, the focus should be on building a solid foundation of strength and technical execution before considering moving on to competition. Too often, individuals set themselves up for failure by rushing the process and skipping the necessary steps to master the lifts and remain safe while escalating the weights lifted over time. When this happens, it almost always leads to injury or burnout for the athlete.
The goal for any powerlifter should be to become as strong as possible for as long as possible. We do not want to throw caution to the wind and do whatever it takes to hit the biggest total we can in the next three years. This sport is a marathon, and it requires years and years of repetition and practice in order to become truly great.
Do not let greed overtake discipline. There are no shortcuts to success in this sport; it all boils down to hard work and dedication. It may sound like a cliche, but it is the absolute truth. Do the work, develop solid fundamentals, and reap the rewards.
In competition, athletes perform the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Each lift features three attempts, with nine total lifts performed during the competition. The best squat, bench press, and deadlift weights are then added up to find the athlete’s total. While some competitions award wins to the largest totals, most competitions are scored by coefficient.
During competition, athletes will compete within their respective weight classes. Here are the weight classes for both male and female competitors:
52 kg, 56 kg, 60 kg, 67.5 kg, 75 kg, 82.5 kg, 90 kg, 100 kg, 110 kg, 125 kg, 140 kg, 140 kg+
44 kg, 48 kg, 52 kg, 56 kg, 60 kg, 67.5 kg, 75 kg, 82.5 kg, 90 kg, 90 kg+
While this list of weight classes is not the only weight class featured in powerlifting, they are the most common. Some federations feature federation-specific weight classes. However, these weight classes are considered atypical.
When preparing for competition, it is vital to have an optimal plan in place to ensure an athlete shows up to the meet at their strongest. Typically, a competition training cycle will last anywhere from 10-16 weeks, the goal being to be as strong as possible at the end of the training cycle.
The final few weeks of training are what is referred to as “peaking,” where the athlete begins to test strength while adjusting the overall volume to ensure optimal performance on meet day. This training phase is designed to check how much improvement has been made, decide weights for each attempt, and provide optimal recovery so the athlete shows up to the competition as strong and rested as possible.
Community and Culture
One of the driving forces behind the popularity of powerlifting is the community and culture of the sport. The sport of powerlifting features a variety of training methods, mindsets, and personalities. Additionally, many gyms and crews have their own established communities and cultures. This provides many opportunities for individuals to become involved in the sport and make some friends in the process.
At powerlifting meets you can find many groups of people who may not otherwise get along but are brought together by a common interest and dedication to the sport. You may see a police officer helping spot their training partner who just got out of jail last week or a financial professional lift against a coal miner.
The sport of powerlifting creates many interesting crews and training environments, with most of these individuals being interested in helping others and passing their knowledge of the sport on to those new to the sport. If you are an athlete new to the sport, find a local powerlifting crew and see about joining. While powerlifting is an individual sport on the platform, it is a team sport in the gym.
How to Start Powerlifting
Today, it is easier than ever to begin powerlifting. The internet provides many different resources to help individuals learn how to become stronger and ultimately move on to becoming a competitive powerlifter. Using search engines and social media, an individual can find many gyms, coaches, and programs to start their powerlifting journey.
Finding a powerlifting gym is the most crucial part of the process as you start powerlifting. First, you want to find a gym that allows you to train using a powerlifting style in the first place. Some gyms do not like heavy lifting, let alone heavy deadlifts slamming into the ground.
Additionally, these gyms are often unequipped for powerlifting training, leading to bent bars and damaged equipment. If you are a powerlifter, you need to find a suitable gym.
Next, you will have a choice to make. Do you want to follow a program on your own, or do you want to hire a coach? For many beginners, a coach can help to avoid pitfalls and mistakes, leading to more efficient training. However, hiring a powerlifting coach will create a monthly expense, so it may only be for some.
For some, following a program alone can be the best option. While you may struggle at first, these struggles provide learning opportunities that will allow you to remain independent and continue to coach yourself in the future. Not only will this help you save money, but you will also improve your strength training knowledge and potentially develop the skills necessary to make money as a powerlifting coach.
Health and Fitness Benefits
Powerlifting and other forms of strength training provide many benefits to individuals. One of the primary benefits of heavy lifting is increased bone and tissue density. Another advantage is increased absolute strength along with intramuscular and intermuscular coordination. Additionally, powerlifting-style training not only helps to develop absolute strength but other special strengths as well.
With powerlifting training, we can focus on developing explosive power, work capacity, and general physical preparation. A comprehensive training method such as the Conjugate Method allows a powerlifter to become stronger, more athletic, and better conditioned, provided the training is structured correctly.
Even if an individual is uninterested in competing, a powerlifting program combined with a cardiovascular training regimen is one of the best ways to increase physical performance and longevity.
When it comes to strength, if you don’t use it, you lose it. While hypertrophy is important, all individuals must maintain an optimal level of absolute strength to remain physically capable. Heavy lifts, hypertrophy-focused lifts, and basic conditioning work will help to keep an individual in good physical condition.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Is powerlifting safe for beginners?
A: With proper guidance, yes. However, it is often best to build foundational strength and technique before ultimately focusing on competing in powerlifting.
Q: How do I get started?
A: The first step is to find a gym. Next, find a coach or a well-written program. Then, once you are ready, find a competition.
Q: What are the rules for each lift?
A: Squat requires hip crease to be below the top of the knee. The bench press requires a pause on the chest and a complete lockout with no up and down before racking. Deadlift requires a full lockout with no up and down motion before lowering the barbell back to the floor in a controlled manner.
Q: How does powerlifting differ from bodybuilding?
A: Powerlifting is focused on the development of strength, while bodybuilding is focused on the development of muscle mass.
Q: How does powerlifting differ from Olympic weightlifting?
A: Powerlifting focuses mainly on absolute strength, while Olympic weightlifting focuses on a balance of explosive power and absolute strength. Additionally, powerlifting movements are more simplistic, while Olympic weightlifting movements require greater technical execution.
Test Your Strength
Powerlifting is a sport that can provide many benefits to many people. With the growth the sport has experienced over the last decade, there are powerlifting gyms everywhere, providing athletes with the opportunity to train using beneficial and competition-relevant equipment. To be new to the sport in this day and age is a blessing, considering the amount of resources available at an athlete’s fingertips.
The sport of powerlifting strengthens the body and mind. You must be strong in both aspects and expect to have success in this sport. Fortunately, regardless of where you start, a properly designed training program can help solve whatever weakness currently holds you back from making physical or mental improvements.
At Westside, we are dedicated to providing the resources necessary to help individuals improve their physical fitness and training knowledge. If you are interested in powerlifting training, check out our website. Also, we offer sport-specific Conjugate Method training programs through the Conjugate Club app to provide you with optimal training right off the bat.
If you want to test your physical and mental strength, powerlifting is the sport to do so. No matter how strong you get, the weight only gets heavier and the issues more complex. This sport never gets easier. However, the physical and mental benefits gained from displaying perseverance are priceless.
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