The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Powerlifting
If you are thinking about getting into powerlifting, it can feel a little intimidating at first. There is a lot to learn around technique, programming, competitions.
In this guide, I am going to break down everything you need to know to dive straight into the sport.
Who am I?
My name is Nat and I’ve been a competitive coach and powerlifter for the last 5 years.
I’ve taken clients through countless preps and competitions with multiple podium finishes.
One thing I see is untapped potential when people get into the sport with improper guidance. On the other hand, I’ve seen people excel rapidly with proper coaching.
My goal with this guide is to teach you how to get started in the sport, get stronger, and eventually sign up for your first competition!
What is Powerlifting?
Powerlifting, at its core, is to test your max strength for the squat, bench, and deadlift.
Men and women compete in different age and weight categories.
The goal of powerlifting is to lift as much weight as you can for 1 repetition in your given category. At the end of the competition, the heaviest squat, bench press, and deadlift are added up to give you the ‘powerlifting total’. This total is what is used to rank competitors.
However, you don’t have to compete to be a powerlifter.
You can still train like a powerlifter and enjoy the reward of getting stronger without stepping on the platform.
The main difference between powerlifting training and other styles, is that the main competitive movements are the focus of your training sessions. Variations of the squat, bench and deadlift are also prevalent in powerlifting training.
Technique is also an important part of powerlifting training.
Powerlifters perform the squat, bench, and deadlift in a specific way to optimise efficiency. We are not bodybuilders. Our goal is to lift the most weight possible, not just increase muscle size.
We will dive more into technique later.
Why You Should Powerlift
Increase in strength
Since powerlifting focuses on building maximal strength in both your lower and upper body, you will get stronger doing day to day activities.
This means less trips with the grocery bags, tossing your kids in the air, etc.
Prevent muscle loss
As we age, we lose muscle mass. Whether this is due to age alone or people becoming more sedentary as they get older, powerlifting will help slow muscle loss.
Increased bone density
Powerlifting training has been shown to increase bone density. This is important for older individuals, especially women. Increased bone density means reduced risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures.
Age doesn’t matter
Whether you are in your 20s or 50s, you can get started in powerlifting at any age. Powerlifting has different age divisions, allowing you to be competitive no matter how old you are.
The other great thing about powerlifting, it’s a sport you can do for many years. As long as you manage fatigue and lift with good technique, you can powerlift for as long as you are interested in the sport.
Gives purpose to your workouts
With powerlifting, it’s easier to set objective goals. For example, working toward a 200kg deadlift is easy to measure rather than going to the gym to ‘look better.’
Each training session, you go in with the purpose of improving technique or hitting new personal best lifts.
This can help keep you committed in your workouts knowing you are working toward a specific goal.
Powerlifting Technique: Squat, Bench, and Deadlift
There are two big reasons that technique is important in powerlifting.
The first one, and most important, good technique will make you stronger and help you stay injury free.
Second, there are technique rules that need to be followed in order for a lift to be passable in competition.
There is a lot to get into with the standards for squat, bench, and deadlift. This will be covered in a future article.
Some of the main ones are squatting to a specific depth, locking out properly in the deadlift, and correct position for the bench press.
Whether you compete or not, it’s important to practice these standards in your training sessions. The lifts that you perform on the platform are a sum of all the lifts you’ve done in training.
If you break your standards in training, it won’t all magically come together on competition day.
Technique for Strength
We can easily get into a lot of detail for each lift. Here are some tips if you are just getting started.
- Start practicing a low bar squat if you are not already. This will give you more power out of your glutes and hamstrings.
- Start with your stance just outside shoulder width, with toes pointed out slightly.
- Learn how to breathe and brace. This will protect your back in the squat
- Plant your feet flat on the floor.
- Twist your quads away from each other to create tension in your hips.
- Hold everything nice and tight through the whole lift.
- Start by setting your grip on the bar. A good place to start is just outside shoulder width.
- Wedge your traps into the bench, squeezing your shoulder blades together.
- Eye line should be under the bar.
- Feet can be flat on the ground or heels up.
- Drive feet through the floor.
- Bring the bar down and touch lightly on the chest.
- Drive the bar up and back.
- You can choose between sumo or conventional. Both are permissible in comp and one is not inherently better or easier than the other.
- Pin your hands down by your side, this will be where you grip the bar.
- Avoid rounding your back.
- Just like the squat, breath and brace.
- Pull up on the bar to ‘pull the slack’ out on the bar. You should feel more tension through your posterior chain.
- Push through the floor to initiate the movement.
- Drive your hips forward.
When you start powerlifting, you want to make sure you are following a powerlifting specific program. If you aren’t sure where to start, check out our program here.
Powerlifting programs put a lot more emphasis on the main lifts compared to bodybuilding and general fitness programs.
The goal of a powerlifting program is to make you stronger in the squat, bench, and deadlift.
This includes technique work, variations of the main lifts, and practicing the movement to become more proficient.
Powerlifting programs can either be percentage based or RPE (rate of perceived exertion) based.
When getting into powerlifting, there are a few options for programming depending on how ready you are to dive into the sport:
- Self programming
- Free programs (check out our 9 week beginner powerlifting program)
- Paid templates
- Individualised powerlifting program (a coach writes a tailored program to your needs)
Regardless of skill level, the best option is to find a powerlifting coach to write a program for you.
You will make a lot more progress in both strength and technique and at a faster rate. Free programs are often too easy or too difficult for most people.
The other benefit of working with a coach is you will have someone to help problem solve when issues come up, provide you with accountability, and an ongoing resource in case you have any questions.
Check out our coaching services.
If you are local, your coach will also be there to support you on competition day.
Powerlifting Programming Basics
Even though programming is a huge topic, here are some basics to help you get started and also have a better understanding of how it all works.
- Periodization: A long-term plan that takes into account when you are going to ‘peak’ your strength for a 1 rep max test or competition.
- Frequency: The number of times you plan on performing the powerlifting movements throughout the week..
- Specificity: The idea that the training stimulus should be specific to the intended goal. As you get closer to your 1 rep max test or competition (4-6 weeks prior), make sure you’re performing the powerlifting movements in their competition form, not variations of the movement.
- Type of adaptation: The short-term goal of the training cycle. A mix of adaptation types should be implemented depending on the phase of training, from building muscle (higher volumes) to building strength (higher intensity).
- Progressive overload: This means that you’re doing work over time. This could be doing more weight for the same number of reps, doing more reps with the same load, doing more sets with the same or increasing load, or any combination thereof.
- Exercise selection: The types of exercise you implement, which should support the powerlifting movements and your specific areas of need. For example, using pause or tempo work to improve positioning.
- Recovery: Ensuring that you have planned deload periods to manage proper recovery. This means keeping track of any dips in your performance or signs of fatigue.
Competing in Powerlifting: Tips to have a great first experience
Deciding to compete for the first time is exciting for new lifters.
However, a lot of new lifters get caught up in not being strong enough and comparing themselves to other, more experienced lifters.
Because of this, many lifters keep waiting and waiting. Sometimes they push it back so much that they never end up actually competing.
Your first competition isn’t about being the strongest. It’s about seeing what the competition environment is like, getting used to the warm up room, what it’s like lifting in front of lots of people. It’s also seeing if you even like competing!
There are so many more variables in a competition compared to training. Treat your first competition as a learning experience!
Most importantly, your first competition is about having fun and getting the most out of a new experience.
Once you have your first competition under your belt, you will know exactly what to expect so at your next one, you can focus more on your lifting and hitting even bigger goals.
Sign up for your first competition
Not going to lie, going through this process is A LOT easier with a coach. They will be familiar with the different federations, powerlifting gyms, and competition calendars. They will be able to select a competition that is best suited to you.
However, if you are committed to doing it on your own, here are some steps you can take.
Research the federations in your area and where comps are held
Different federations have different rules and gyms are usually associated with a specific federation.
The easiest thing to do is to do a comp that is local to you. It takes one less stress out of the day by not having to travel.
Look at the comp calendars and pick a comp
Gyms will usually post their competition calendars on their website or social media.
Have a look at the competitions and pick one where you have at minimum, 12 weeks to prep.
Register for the competition and make sure to also register as a member with whichever federation you have chosen to compete with.
Tips for having your best first comp
- Practice competition commands. Each lift has specific commands that you must follow. Make sure to practice these before game day.
- Be prepared for weigh-in. It is not recommended to cut weight for your first competition. However, at weigh-in you need to come prepared with your openers. Make sure you also arrive in plenty of time to get your rack heights.
- Be prepared for warm ups. The warm up area can be chaotic. Go in with a plan of the jumps you want to make for your warm ups.
- Plan a light opener. Your opener is something that you should be able to do, even on your worst day of lifting. Keep it light to ensure you get a number on the board.
- If you miss a lift, repeat it. Nerves are wild on comp day. If you miss a lift, simply repeat the same number rather than jumping up.
- Go slow. My biggest advice for comp day is to slow down and take your time. The biggest mistake lifters make is they get nervous, rush their set up, and end up not lifting to the standard they normally do.
Gear can sometimes be dependent on federation but there are some things that you will definitely need.
- Something on your feet. You must have some type of shoe with a sole, you can’t go barefoot on comp day.
- Softsuit. It’s not flattering, but all lifters have to wear this one piece suit.
- T-shirt. You must wear a shirt under your softsuit for squat and bench. A shirt is optional for deadlift for some federations.
- Deadlift socks. Your shins must be covered for deadlifting.
There is a lot of optional gear. This mainly provides more support and stability.
- Knee sleeves. You want a snug fit. These will help provide support for the knees.
- Wrist wraps. These can be worn in both squat and bench and provides support through the wrist.
- Lifting belt. A level belt is preferred as it is easier to get on and off. This gives extra support through the torso.
- Knee wraps. These are very specific to certain federations. They provide assistance in the squat and can actually increase your squat numbers.
The main keys to getting started is finding a good program to follow (finding a coach is highly recommended), improving your technique, and finding a competition to give yourself a goal and something to work toward.
We love this sport and the more people in the sport getting stronger and building the community the better! This is why we want you to have the best first competition experience possible.
Any questions? Send an email to email@example.com