A Definitive Guide to Powerlifting

Often coined as the “strongest sport in the world”, powerlifting has become increasingly more and more popular over the past couple of decades.

It’s one of the best ways to gain muscle and strength, as well as providing a healthy and safe environment to stay in shape - just as long as the proper technique is used and a well-designed program is followed. 

One of the most common misconceptions of powerlifting is that it’s all about getting as big and strong as possible, irrespective of fat gain.

This however, is far from the truth, and fails to recognize some of the more intricate and nuanced qualities of the sport. To help explain the value of powerlifting, we’ll start by defining the sport.

What Exactly Is Powerlifting?

Powerlifting consists of lifting as much weight as possible in the squat, bench press, and deadlift for a single repetition.

It’s an individual sport, with each athlete having three attempts to work up to the heaviest weight possible and reach their maximum capacity.

The three exercises are all performed at a “meet”, where each of the competing athletes take it in turns to see who can lift the most. They must all abide by the same strict technique rules to ensure everyone is judged fairly.

For example, each athlete must lower the barbell to a certain distance from the body in the bench press or else the lift doesn’t count.

The heaviest successful squat, bench press, and deadlift that are fairly lifted are added together to give athletes a “powerlifting total”. This is the final total which is used to rank the athletes against one another in the competition. 

With this scoring system, it’s worth noting that just because someone may have a particularly strong deadlift, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll be a good all-round powerlifter.

How Is The Sport Governed?

There are a number of different powerlifting federations around the world that serve to govern the sport. Each of these have their own technical rules, weigh-in protocols and drug testing policies.

The largest governing body for powerlifting is the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) which rules over 100 countries.

When it comes to the most competitive drug-tested federation, the IPF is the best in the world, attracting the strongest natural powerlifters from all over the globe.

The IPF affiliate in the United States is USA Powerlifting, with the organization having a presence in all 50 states.

Categorizing Competitors

Powerlifting athletes are divided into different weight classes based on their body weight on either the day before, or the day of the “meet”.

The various cutoffs for the weight classes will depend on the specific rules of the powerlifting federation that’s in charge of the competition.

To provide some kind of idea, the most typical body weight categories are as follows:

  • Men - 59kg/130lbs, 66kg/145lbs, 74kg/163lbs, 83kg/183lbs, 93k/205lbs, 105kg/231lbs, 120kg/264lbs, 120+kg/264lbs+. 
  • Women - 47kg/103lbs, 52kg/114lbs, 57kg/125lbs, 63kg/139lbs, 72kg/158lbs, 84kg/185lbs, 84+kg/185lbs+.

Athletes can always compete in the weight class above their actual weight on the day of, or day before the competition. This does, however, depend on what the competition organizers decide.

For example, a 160-pound man would compete in the 163-pound weight class.

Likewise, a 165-pound male athlete would compete in the 183-pound weight class, because they’d be too heavy to compete fairly in the 163-pound weight class.

It’s also worth noting that if you’re a sub-junior or junior athlete powerlifter, then there’s an extra bodyweight category you can compete in. This is 53kg for men and 43kg for women.

Powerlifting athletes can similarly be categorized into different age classes for a competition. These are as follows:

  • Open - all ages are free to compete (designed for 24-39 year olds) 
  • Sub-Junior - athletes aged 14 to 18
  • Junior - athletes aged 19 to 23
  • Master 1 - athletes aged 40 to 49
  • Master 2 - athletes aged 50 to 59
  • Master 3 - athletes aged 60 to 69
  • Master 4 - athletes aged 70+

Different Levels Of Competition

Depending on a number of factors such as ability, strength and experience, there are five levels of competition that powerlifters can compete at.

As a general rule, athletes need to compete at each level, starting from the bottom, in order to qualify for the next.

1st Stage - Local

Athletes start by competing in local competitions which are usually set up by a gym or powerlifting club.

At this stage, the competition isn’t usually that deep, so the priority isn’t about competing against others, it’s more focused on improving individual ability.

2nd Stage - State Or Provincial

Once you’ve competed in a few local competitions, you’ll likely qualify for the State or Provincial Championships.

This is usually dependent on having competed in a set amount of competitions or reaching a certain qualification standard. At this stage, there will be more people to compete against.

3rd Stage - Regional

Regional events put you up against some of the best powerlifters in a specific region. To reach this stage, there will always be qualifying standards to meet, as the aim is to bring a higher level of competition to these events.

In smaller countries, there may not be enough quality competitors to host Regional Championships.

4th Stage - National

National Championships bring together the best powerlifters from each of the different states, provinces, and regions.

The qualification process to get into these events is rigorous, and will require you to lift a significant, almost-elite powerlifting total for your weight and age category.

The competition at this level is deep and fierce, with athletes all striving to reach the fifth and final stage.

5th Stage - International

Athletes who top their age and weight class at National Championships will advance to representing the National team.

These athletes hold their spot on the team for around a year, which qualifies them for any international powerlifting event, including the top prize - the World Championships.

If you reach this stage, you’re one of the strongest powerlifters in the world and will be competing against the very best the sport has to offer.

The IPF Points System

As previously mentioned, powerlifting athletes compete in a weight and age class and are ranked 1st, 2nd, and 3rd based on their final powerlifting totals.

In addition to this main method of judging competition, there is another award available to athletes, the “Best Overall Lifter”.

This award is determined by the IPF Points System, a mathematical formula which compares athletes across different weight categories. Essentially, it’s an attempt to measure ‘relative strength’.

For example, it’s understood that someone who weighs heavier should be able to lift more weight compared with another athlete who weighs significantly less.

However, the individual who weighs less may actually be stronger based on their relative body weight.

This is where the IPF Points System steps forward. Simply, take your powerlifting total, along with weight, and then multiply it by a coefficient to give you the correct amount of IPF Points.

At the conclusion of the powerlifting event, an award is given to the powerlifter with the highest IPF points, crowning them the “Best Overall Lifter”.

Powerlifting Technique

One of a powerlifter’s key aims when it comes to technique is to manipulate the movement in order to recruit as much musculature as possible.

Unlike many strength-based disciplines, powerlifting isn’t all about isolating individual muscle groups. 

In fact, the main target when performing the squat, bench press, and deadlift is to coordinate your actions and use all contributing muscle groups to produce as much force as possible.

Secondly, powerlifters strive to reduce the range of movement that the barbell travels.

Achieving this reduced range of motion ultimately means that they’re performing less work to successfully accomplish the task. A popular technique that’s used by a number of athletes is the bench press arch. 

This helps to limit the distance the barbell travels to the chest during the bench press exercise.

Another useful technique point for powerlifters is the importance of adopting the safest movement patterns possible in order to avoid the risk of pain and injury.

While this is a pretty universal target all athletes who lift weights will have, it’s particularly pertinent for powerlifters given the sheer amount of weight they’re lifting. Therefore movement deficiencies are quickly highlighted, and then subsequently addressed before injury can occur.

Some of the common techniques used by athletes include maintaining a straight back while deadlifting, rectifying an uneven bench press, and avoiding the dreaded “good morning” squat position.

Finally, powerlifters must use a technique which follows the specific rules and regulations of the competition that they’re competing in, in order to pass a lift.

Unlike the regular gym goer who performs the squat, bench press, and deadlift however they like, powerlifters must implement certain movement standards.

We’ll now take a closer look at some of the rules.

Powerlifting Rules

A number of athletes are forced to re-learn some of the main principles of the squat, bench press, and deadlift when they take up powerlifting - competing in accordance with the standards set out in the rulebook.

There are two main components of the movement that athletes must follow.

Firstly, the referee’s commands. In competition, all powerlifters must start and finish their lift on the command of the referee. This is because referees place a high level of importance on seeing athletes control the barbell on each side of the movement.

Ideally, they want to see you assume a specific start position and then finish the movement at the exact same starting point.

While simply listening to the commands of the officials may seem relatively straightforward, many first-time powerlifters fail to register a successful lift as a result of not listening to the referee’s commands in competition.

Make sure you don’t make the same mistake.

Secondly, the movement standards of the squat, bench press, and deadlift that all powerlifting athletes must follow.

These rules are in place to ensure that all lifters compete in the same conditions and that no individual lifter has an unfair advantage over the others. Some of the main rules for the three exercises include:

  • Squat - An athlete’s hip crease must drop below the plane of their knee. There also needs to be a constant forward motion of the barbell throughout the exercise. Dipping and bouncing should be avoided. 
  • Bench Press - When drawing the barbell to the body, it must pause on the chest until it’s motionless. The athlete must also keep a number of points of contact on the bench and floor, including their head, feet, and buttocks. 
  • Deadlift - The athlete must avoid resting the barbell on their thigh during the lift. It’s also important to keep hips, knees, and shoulders ‘erect’ in the favored lock-out position.

It’s worth noting that even if you successfully manage to lift the weight from start to finish in the aforementioned three exercises, you won’t be granted a fair and valid lift if the technical standards aren’t followed.

Raw Vs. Equipped Powerlifting

There are two main types of powerlifting that can be performed in competition: raw and equipped. The main difference between the two is the kind of equipment that athletes are permitted to wear.

The majority of powerlifters compete in raw powerlifting, with minimalistic equipment used in competition. In this popular discipline of the sport, only wrist wraps, knee sleeves, a belt, and a singlet can be worn.

While these pieces of equipment provide a certain degree of support for the lifter, they don’t add a significant amount of weight to the lifts unlike the equipped category.

Equipped powerlifting is a more advanced style of lifting, with lifters having to wear reinforced lifting suits to support their joints and muscles. This can add as much as 100kg more weight than they would normally be able to lift.

Many people think of these lifting suits as a weightlifting belt for the entire body. 

In addition to the suits, equipped lifters are also expected to wear knee wraps for another layer of support. These can be wrapped much tighter around the knee joints compared to the knee sleeves which raw lifters use.

Best Powerlifting Belt

Who Typically Does Powerlifting?

Whether you want to perform powerlifting in a competitive environment or not, there are several groups of people who reap the rewards of the sport’s training principles. Below, we’ve listed four examples of these groups.

  • Competitive Powerlifters - These are the people that have competed in the sport since a young age. They may have started powerlifting in conjunction with some other sports, but over time, they’ve broadened their attention and specialized in powerlifting. 
  • Athletes For Enhanced Performance - Several sports performance coaches use the principles of powerlifting to help their athletes become stronger and more durable in their respective sports. This is particularly useful for contact sports. It’s also been proven that exercises such as the squat and deadlift can significantly improve jump performance, which is ideal for basketball and american football athletes. 
  • People Who Enjoy Getting Stronger - Many people need a purpose or a clear indication of improvement in order to find the motivation to consistently go to the gym. Powerlifting can provide this, as it offers an objective measure of success. 
  • Older People For Developing Strength And Mobility - More and more older people are increasingly using powerlifting principles to lower the risk of reduced mobility and strength. In fact, strength training using the three powerlifting exercises has been proven to offset age-related muscle loss, increase bone density, and reduce the risk of falling.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Powerlifting Dangerous?

Many people avoid powerlifting because they think it’s a dangerous sport. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

So long as the various movements and exercises in powerlifting are performed correctly with proper technique, it’s one of the safest kinds of exercise you can do to effectively build strength.

Research shows that on average, powerlifters suffer only one injury per 1,000 hours of training.

To put this into perspective, if you spend roughly five hours per week lifting, you’d likely go almost four years without experiencing any kind of niggle or injury.

What Age Can You Start Powerlifting?

If you learn and adopt the proper technique, you can start powerlifting at any age - within reason of course. Most powerlifters start in either their 30s or 40s and continue competing well into their 50s.

As we mentioned earlier, athletes compete in age brackets, so you’re only ranked relative to your given age bracket.

Is There A Specific Warm-Up For Powerlifting?

As is the case with all workouts, a thorough warm-up is needed before powerlifting. For athletes, it helps improve form and “groove in” proper technique before lifting.

The best type of warm-up consists of a couple of light sets of exercise, followed by one or two heavier sets up to 70 percent of the heaviest weight you’ll be aiming to use that particular day in that particular exercise.

Is Powerlifting In The Olympics?

No, powerlifting isn’t in the Olympics as the sport hasn’t yet fulfilled the criteria set by the International Olympic Committee.

To achieve Olympic status, powerlifting needs to have greater international participation and more of the sport’s federations also need to be standardized.

Concluding Thoughts

The strength-based sport of powerlifting is a form of heavy, low-rep weight lifting ideal for building muscle. Despite what many people may think, it’s one of the safest forms of exercise you can do, so long as it’s performed with the proper technique.

Powerlifting competitions are well-regulated and fair, and if you decide against competing, the principles of the movements can still provide you with wide-reaching benefits. In fact, many athletes use these to enhance their gym training sessions. 

Kevin Harris

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