Powerlifting is the simplest sport of strength, being as strong as you possibly can. In powerlifting, lifters get three attempts to lift their heaviest squat, bench, and deadlift, and then the total of these three best lifts is added together to compare you up to other lifters in your division. This makes it a pure test of strength, unlike other strength sports which rely more heavily on other markers of athleticism. It's also a natural counterpart to bodybuilding: bodybuilding is about how you look, but powerlifting is about how you move.
Powerlifting is super popular now, compared to when I got interested. When I got into powerlifting, I had to go on long quests into the deepest caves of the internet to find information about training for strength. There simply wasn’t a lot of information out there, and it was hard to get any solid info on how the sport worked, how to train, what equipment to purchase, and so on. This made me nervous about seriously training or competing.
Since then, the sport has grown massively more popular. It seems like everyone and their granny is powerlifting now. There’s a lot more info, a lot more people training for strength, and a lot more competition. That’s awesome! I'm glad to see the sport branch out.
The popularity of sites like Juggernaut and Stronger by Science, the increasing prevalence of strength articles on bodybuilding sites like bodybuilding.com and T-Nation, and of course the influence of CrossFit (which tends to emphasize function over aesthetics) have all been hugely influential.
Resources like this have made it easier than ever to get into powerlifting. However, I felt the need to compile a lot of good information all into one place, so that beginners can much more easily get started without having to do nearly as much searching. So where do you get started? Well -
Get used to the big 3.
The first thing you have to do is get used to the big three: the squat, bench, and deadlift. These lifts are the tests of strength you’ll be using in powerlifting, and are the primary focus of your training.
It’s also common to significantly train the strict overhead press and some kind of row, even though they’re not tested in competition. These lifts round you out as a lifter, focus on underused muscles, and create a balanced physique so that you’re not at too much of a risk for injury.
It’s pretty common for practiced lifters to have practiced at least some form of the bench press before, but it’s less likely that they’ve squatted, and even less likely that they’ve deadlifted. If you don’t know any of the lifts, I recommend finding videos on youtube and copying them, or meeting with a personal trainer to get hands on feedback. It also helps to take videos of yourself so you can identify what form issues you might have, figure out how you deviate from the “ideal” form you’re seeing on the videos of other lifters, and develop methods to address or correct these issues.
It’s also important to understand the rules of powerlifting as it pertains to each of these lifts. There are minor differences between federations, but for the most part they all stick to roughly the same rules. When in competition, some minor variation of these rules will typically apply:
- Bench Press - You have to bring the bar all the way down to the chest, pause briefly while you wait for a command from the judge, and then press the bar up until your arms are fully locked out. Any downward motion of the bar during the press immediately disqualifies the lift. The butt has to remain in contact with the bench, and the feet have to remain in contact with the floor, for the duration of the lift.
- Squat - After unracking the bar, you set up a stance. Once your stance is set, you aren’t able to move your feet. Then, you must lower the bar until the crease of your hips passes below the knees (“parallel”), and then fully extend the body back to standing. Like with the bench, any downward motion of the bar after the beginning of the extension disqualifies the lift. You must remain standing until the judge calls for a rerack, and spotters will help you do so.
- Deadlift - You must grip the bar in both hands and fully extend to a standing position, holding onto the bar. “Hitching” the bar on the legs, or any downward motion of the bar after the initiation of the lift, immediately disqualifies the lift. Once the lift is completed, you have to hold onto the bar in the standing position until the judge gives a command to lower it. During the lowering phase, you aren’t allowed to completely release the bar from the hands, as this will also disqualify the lift.
Another consideration is your lifting style.
The bench press is pretty simple, and there's only one real way to do it, though you may choose a slightly different grip position than someone else. However, both the squat and the deadlift allow for both close and wide stance versions. The close stance, high bar squat and the wide stance, low bar squat are both allowed in competition. Likewise, the traditional, close stance deadlift and the sumo, wide stance deadlift are both allowed in competition. In general, most people can handle a bit more weight with a low bar, wide stance squat. Sumo versus traditional deadlift is a bit more unclear since some people will do a bit better with one or the other.
Individual lifters will vary widely. It’s best to try out both for a few months each, figure out which feels easier and allows you to move more weight, and then stick with the option that works best for you, long term. Some people may see dramatic differences between different variations, and some may see smaller differences, but usually there’s some difference. Rarely are people equally good at both versions of the same lift.
Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the different lifts involved and figured out which is best for you, it’s time to:
Get a program.
The first thing you have to do to improve is have a good program. Periodization is the term we use to refer to the intelligent structuring of a good program designed to achieve your goals. I’ve written a lot about programming and periodization on this site before, so you can check out those articles for some of the theory behind periodization and why it works.
However, don’t think you have to have a perfect program to see results: interestingly, the benefits of a good program, while tangible, aren’t as big as people expect.
A good program will speed up your results and alleviate a lot of the frustrations experienced with learning this new skill. Programs like 5/3/1, 5x5, and Starting Strength will all work well for beginners. I also have a general program that works well for beginners (though, is a bit general for real strength development) for free as a part of subscribing for my mailing list.
However, these programs won’t serve you well forever. Ultimately, the process of growth is a highly individualized one, and you’ll always get the best results from a more individualized program. Most lifters typically plateau on standard programs after about 6-12 months.
For this, more complex programs (I recommend something like Scientific Principles of Strength Training or reading a lot of Reactive Training Systems’ articles on RPE) are needed. If you’re training geared (we’ll discuss this next section), a program like Westside’s Conjugate Method may be more useful.
The easiest way to handle this is (surprise!) to hire a coach, like yours truly. Coaches will handle your programming for you, provide feedback on your lifts, and provide years of experience that you may not have - ensuring much better results.
Pick a class.
The first thing you have to do before competing is pick a competitive class. Powerlifting is divided into different “classes” which ensure that you’re competing against people of roughly the same level of potential as you. This makes it easy to ensure a fair competition.
Two of the biggest determiners which choose your class are pretty simple: age and gender.
Anyone below 24 is considered a junior. 24-40 puts you in the open class (most competitors). 40+ puts you in the masters class. There are some variations on this depending on different federations (more on federations later) but this is the general setup.
What might be a bit harder is picking a weight class. Weight classes also vary a little bit based on federation, but commonly they take the form of:
|Men's (lbs/kg)||Women's (lbs/kg)|
|275/125||SHW (anything above 198/90)|
|SHW (andything above 308/140)|
Weight classes can be a bit more confusing, because you have no real indicator if your current bodyweight is your ideal bodyweight for competition. Maybe you’d be better off gaining a bit of weight and moving up a weight class, or maybe you’d be better off losing a bit of weight, leaning out, and dropping down a weight class.
Some (elite) lifters tend to sit at a slightly heavier weight than their competition weight - then, they use dehydration to lose water weight, weigh in at the lower weight class, and then drink a lot of gatorade or other fluids to rehydrate quickly so that their performance doesn’t suffer. This is an advanced strategy that carries obvious health risks with it, so I don’t recommend it for beginners.
In terms of finding an ideal weight class, luckily Greg Nuckols has put together a tool that should give you a good idea of where you should be. This tool uses data from existing powerlifters to give you a rough idea of where someone with your measurements would end up. It’s not perfect, but it’ll give you a good ballpark estimate of an ideal competitive weight. From there, you can focus on gaining or losing weight to get into your ideal competitive weight class for your body type. It’s posted in two parts: here and here.
The last thing to do is decide whether you’re going to train for geared or raw lifting.
Geared lifting uses supportive suits and knee wraps to enable you to lift more weight. Geared lifters also have to train differently, because the nature of the supportive suits changes the style of your lifting enough that you can’t train the same as when you train raw. Suits can also be expensive, hard to put on, and serious geared lifters can handle so much weight that if they were to lose control of the bar, the results would be disastrous. As a result, geared lifters tend to train in groups or teams so that they can have a lot of spotters there to back them up in case something goes wrong.
In contrast, raw classes allow minimal supportive equipment (a belt and wrist wraps). This is more naturally the way that most of us train in the gym, so this is easier to get into. It requires less equipment and is easier to train solo. Raw classes are more recent, but they’re also becoming more popular, since raw lifting is considered a more “natural” test of strength.
Which weight class you pick will determine to a certain extent how you have to train - you may need to lose or gain weight to become more competitive within an ideal weight class. Which gear class you pick will determine how you have to train, what equipment you have to get ahold of, and whether or not you need to find a specialized powerlifting team or gym. Next:
Depending on whether you’re lifting geared or raw, you’ll need to buy different kinds of equipment in order to be as competitive as you can. Here’s a full list of everything you might need.
Shoes - Squat and Deadlift - The bench press requires no special shoes, but the squat and deadlift can suffer from the use of inappropriate footwear. Squat shoes are specialized to provide a good base of support while having a slight heel to make it easier to get into deep squats. Most lifters use simple Converse shoes for deadlifting, since mostly what you want is a flat shoe.
Belt - A belt takes a bit of time to get used to, but means you can lift more weight. I recommend a belt with a constant width all the way around, as opposed to one which widens and narrows (reducing its effectiveness).
Singlet - In order to compete, you have to wear a specialized singlet - this ensures that you can't wear specialized clothing that might be supportive, enabling you to lift more weight. I've always used a classic (boring) Titan singlet, but some people like to buy singlets with personalized designs.
Wrist Wraps - Wrist wraps are allowed in competition and in training. These wraps provide support around the wrists, which may help if you have wrist stability issues. Some swear by them, but I've never needed them. But sometimes, if my wrists have been pretty beaten up lately, they can be a huge benefit. I also recommend looking into wrist wraps with a bit of elasticity - this makes them more comfortable and easy to use than ones made with stiff fabric.
Knee Sleeves - Some people swear by knee sleeves, even though they don't add much to your lifts. I've found that they're useful if you have a bit of creakiness in your knees, since they help keep your knees warmed up. But at the same time, they can definitely cause awkward knee sweat at the gym! Some of the more expensive variants (Rehband) supposedly provide a bit more pop to your squats, but I can't really vouch for this. Sleeves are allowed in competition, so they may provide a slight benefit.
Chalk - When deadlifting, a huge issue is grip strength - if you can't hold onto the bar, you can't lift it. Some people will have better grip strength than others, but almost everyone runs into issues at some point. Chalk makes it much easier to hold onto the bar by drying out the hands and providing a "grippier" surface, typically allowing you to move more weight. Chalk is allowed in competition, so there's no reason not to use it in training also, though some gyms may frown on its usage, particularly if you don't clean up properly after yourself. Chalk is also super cheap and sold in practically industrial quantities - I'm still using my first $15 purchase from 5 years ago.
A Local Gym Membership or Home Gym Setup - Pretty self explanatory! You'll need at the minimum access to a squat rack, barbell, and enough plates, plus it doesn't hurt to have dumbbells, kettlebells, and a variety of machines for training assistance lifts.
Geared Lifters (all of the above from raw lifting, plus:)
Squat Suit (or shared) - A squat suit is designed of a stiff fabric that allows you to lift more weight in the squat. Typically, these suits need to be specifically sized, and are quite difficult to get in and out of, requiring the help of a few burly friends.
Bench Shirt (or shared) - Like the squat suit, but designed for use with the bench press. Typically, these are a bit easier to manage, but are still difficult to get into and out of, with arm holes being located on the front, rather than the side, of the suit.
Deadlift Suit (or shared) - A deadlift suit provides a bit less of a benefit than a squat suit or a bench shirt, but will still produce a meaningful effect. A deadlift suit and squat suit aren't the same - there are different demands of the two lifts, so specialized suits are needed.
Knee Wraps - Knee wraps are a bit more hardcore than the standard knee sleeve. Similar to the wrist wraps, these are a length of elastic material, but this time wrapped around the knees rather than the wrists. This makes them a bit harder to properly anchor, and you may lose a bit of sensation/circulation due to the restriction of the wraps. However, if used right, they'll help with your squat. Knee wraps are allowed in geared but not raw competitions.
A bunch of friends, a lifting team, or a powerlifting gym membership - Geared lifting poses additional challenges compared to raw lifting. You can handle so much weight that you can't bail from a bad lift as easily as in raw lifting, so it's more important to have spotters. Squats become so heavy that the initial step out of the rack becomes harder, so many prefer to use a monolift, a specialized kind of rack in which the hooks move after you stand up with the squat so that you don't have to step back. Of course, monolifts are expensive and complicated pieces of equipment with built in pneumatics, so they're not found in most gyms, and require additional people to operate. All of this adds up to requiring specialized training methods that simply aren't feasible on your own - and thus, we tend to have powerlifting teams and gyms.
This part should be self explanatory. Train, train, and train some more. I don’t recommend competing without a solid 3-6 months of dedicated powerlifting training under your belt before attempting to compete. However, this isn’t a rule, and you can honestly compete whenever you feel like you’re ready - there’s no one holding you back.
Pick A Competition and Federation.
Powerlifting is divided up into many federations, all of which are roughly the same. However, they may vary slightly in terms of the rules about what is and isn’t allowed. Different federations will hold different competitions.
The best thing to do is search for powerlifting competitions in your state. Powerlifting Watch has a good database to search, or you can try Google.
Pick a date that’s convenient for you and far enough out that you can prepare for it. There’s no set rule on how often to compete, but most powerlifters only compete 1-2x/year, in my experience - too frequently, and you might not have enough time to seriously train and impove before your next meet.
Make sure that the competition you’ve picked has a division/class you can actually compete in - for example, if they’re holding a bench only meet, you clearly can’t compete in a full three lift meet. Likewise, certain meets are national level or higher, so you have to qualify by having a good enough total in an open meet - obviously, you wouldn’t be able to register if you haven’t! Email the organizers of the event if you have any questions.
Many competitions require some kind of meet fee (usually $50 or so, to cover the cost of setting up/organizing the meet) plus registration in the federation you’re competing in (and another fee). So, be sure you’re covered before you show up!
Since each federation will have slightly different rules, be sure to check the rules book. These are typically found as a download on the federation website. Familiarize yourself with the rules in advance so that you don’t risk breaking any.
Make sure you know when the meet starts so you can show up early. Typically, for local meets you have to weigh in the day of the competition to ensure you’re in the right weight class. A powerlifting meet is an all day event, so don’t hesitate to bring friends/family/a book or something else to spend time on.
You’ll need to pick openers. Typically with each meet, you have three attempts to hit the best weight possible. For this reason, the first attempt is cautious - picking a weight that you know you can hit - usually something like 85-90% of the max you’re hoping to hit. This leaves you safe so that you don’t risk being completely disqualified for failing to put up a single good lift.
Another note is that once you’ve set an opener, you can’t go back. I once made the mistake of setting my bench opener at 325 with a plan to push for 335 and 345 in attempts 2 and 3. I was having a particularly bad day and wasn’t able to complete it with good form, so the lift was disqualified. On my second attempt, I wished I could have gone back to a safe 315, but you’re not allowed to backtrack, so I was forced to attempt 325 again.
The second time I ended up hurting myself, making it impossible for me to make a third attempt - so, I was disqualified from totalling because I had no valid bench attempt. If I had just played it a little bit safer, everything would have been fine. When in doubt, err on the side of caution, because you may end up picking a too-heavy weight like I did.
You’ll have a lot of waiting time in between lifts. Be sure to warm up properly before each lift - usually, they’ll have other squat racks somewhere in the meet specifically for this purpose. The announcers will announce the order of the lifts, so you can prepare to be properly warmed up when it’s your turn to step up on the platform.
When it’s time to lift, be sure to communicate with any spotters as needed, and maintain good form as defined in the federation guidelines. On the completion of a lift, three judges in various positions will give a yes or no depending on whether or not they felt you used good form - and there will be a light board which shows either red or white lights depending. If you get at least two white lights, your lift is good - and obviously, you’ll get reds if you simply fail to complete the lift. Check in with the judges if you’ve been red lighted and aren’t sure why.
Am I Ready Tho?
Yes. You’re ready.
Powerlifting is a competition where you can compete against anyone - but, like running a 5k, you’re ultimately only competing against yourself.
As I’ve mentioned, I recommend a little bit of training time to prepare for your competition and get accustomed to training before attempting a meet, but you don’t have to wait too long. If you're able to handle true single rep max attempts, you're able to compete.
One of the biggest mistakes I ever made was picking a meet that I liked, but going the first year just to hang out and watch before resolving to be “ready” to compete at the same competition next year. I was ready long before the following year, but I still held off!
If you feel nervous about stepping up on the platform, I recommend bringing family, friends, or significant others. My ex girlfriend went with me to my first competition, and her being there to cheer me on and take videos gave me the support I needed to have fun. Plus, it’s an all day event, so it was fun to have someone to hang out with.
You don’t have to be the strongest person in your weight class to show up, have fun, and test your limits. Hell, in most of the meets I’ve gone to, there have been lifters who straight up didn’t know what they were doing and broke all the rules - chances are, you won’t be the worst person in the room, and by a decent margin.
Show up, lift weights, have fun, and come again.
- I Don't Care How Much You Lift - If You Train For Strength, You're Strong
- Progress VS Perfection
- No, You Don't Need To Be A God**** Athlete To Get Out Of Bed
- Understanding Sets, Reps, Intensity
- Your Training Path: From Beginner To Expert
- Periodization For Beginners
- Troubleshooting Your Bench Press
- Troubleshooting Your Squat
- Troubleshooting Your Deadlift
Are you interested in perfecting your deadlift and building legendary strength and muscle? Check out my free ebook, Deadlift Every Day.
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