Strength training is a great form of exercise if you’re looking to get stronger (obviously), but it also helps with weight loss, increasing longevity and building lean tissue. If you’re curious to see just how strong you can get — and you crave a little friendly competition — powerlifting may be the sport for you.
Powerlifting is a strength sport in which competitors attempt to lift as much weight as possible for a single repetition for each of the following barbell exercises: back squat, bench press and deadlift. The person with the highest total wins their division.
As these movements are pretty basic, you don’t need much experience to start training for powerlifting — unlike more technical sports like Olympic weightlifting, says Kristen Dunsmore, MS, a powerlifting coach with Juggernaut Training Systems.
HOW TO TRAIN FOR POWERLIFTING
Since powerlifting competitions are centered on three specific exercises — back squat, bench press and deadlift — many training programs dedicate a separate training session to improving each lift. In other words, you can probably expect to have a squat day, a bench press day and a deadlift day, though some programs will have you training four or five days per week. “It depends on your coach and the style of programming,” says C.J. Murphy, owner of Total Performance Sports, creator of TPS Method for Powerlifting, and a former national powerlifting champion.
If you follow the squat/bench press/deadlift training split, each training day will likely start with that main lift, with rep counts that start high (Think: 12–15 reps) at the beginning of the program and eventually work their way down to the lower end (1–3 reps) as you near your competition date. Many powerlifting programs begin roughly three or four months out from your planned meet, but a coach may be able to help you prep within a shorter time period.
In addition to the main lift, each training session will probably include a series of assistance and accessory exercises geared toward building muscles that support the main lift. A bench press session, for example, could include dumbbell chest presses, lat pulldowns and triceps extensions for three sets of 10 reps each.
Be aware that powerlifting workouts can take longer to get through (about 90 minutes), as you’ll need to take longer recovery periods (2–3 minutes) in between sets once you start moving toward the lower rep ranges.
If you want to train for a powerlifting competition (or you just want to try the training style), your best move is to find an in-person or online powerlifting coach. Just do your research: “Find somebody that has a fair amount of experience and has produced successful powerlifters,” Murphy says.
It can also help to research a coach’s network. That is, who are they affiliated with? Who are their colleagues? “They should have a professional network, and if you can’t find out who that network is, you might not have a great coach,” Murphy says.
HOW TO FIND A POWERLIFTING MEET
One of the easiest ways to find a powerlifting meet is to Google some form of the phrase: “powerlifting meet in [city/state].” Or, you can check out various powerlifting federations and find their meet calendar online. You can find a listing of powerlifting federations at PowerliftingWatch.com.
Depending on the organization, you may encounter two categories of powerlifting meets. A “raw” powerlifting competition will only allow you to use a few items of supportive gear, such as a weight belt and knee sleeves. An “equipped” powerlifting meet, on the other hand, allows you to use more supportive gear like squat briefs and bench shirts.
When you register for a powerlifting competition, read the rules and bylaws. Many organizations have strict rules regarding attire. For the most part, expect to compete in a wrestling or weightlifting singlet with a T-shirt underneath.
You can also expect specific rules about executing the lifts themselves. For example, some organizations may require you to pause at the bottom of the bench press or squat for that lift to count. “Learn the rules beforehand so you’re not blindsided on the day of the competition,” Dunsmore says.
At the same time, don’t worry too much about getting everything right at your very first powerlifting meet. Have fun and be prepared to learn from your mistakes.
If you hesitate to sign up for a competition because you’re worried you’re not strong enough to compete or that you’ll look weak compared to the other lifters in your division, put those thoughts out of your mind. “Nobody cares how much you lift, the people there care that you are lifting something,” Murphy says. “People cheer just as hard for someone who’s bench pressing an empty bar as they do for a veteran powerlifter.”