How To Start Powerlifting (A Beginner’s Guide)

Powerlifting is a sport that goes back as far as the ancient Greeks and Romans, with plenty of (primarily) men lining up to lift statues, pillars, weights and even other people.

However, this noble art has developed a lot more than in those early days, and now it is not just a sport about strength.

Having strength is certainly still one of the primary goals for powerlifting, but if you are into competitive powerlifting, then you’ll know that it’s also about symmetry and stamina. This is what marks out the very best powerlifters from the rank amateurs.

However, there are a lot of myths swirling around the world of powerlifting and bodybuilding in general. Beginners to the sport often suffer from serious injury simply because they follow the wrong advice. Poor training techniques can severely set you back at the beginning of your training, so it is important that you get these things right.

To get the best start in powerlifting, realizing your inner potential then growing slowly and exponentially, you’ll want to make sure that you’re adopting the proper positions, distributing the weight equally and priming yourself for a competition-style lift, even if you aren’t competing.

Because whether you are considering competitive weightlifting or not, having the right techniques at the very beginning is the best way to avoid serious injury, which could throw you out of the sport before you’ve even completed your first training session!

So how do you start properly powerlifting? What are the best techniques and positions to get you started on the right path? What are the pros and cons of powerlifting in terms of body strength and endurance? What is the proper equipment that you will need to keep yourself from getting hurt?

Well, powerlifters-in-waiting won’t have to worry, as we’ve got a comprehensive starter’s guide to weightlifting. We’ll be discussing what the sport does for you, how it can improve your physique and where you can find the best weightlifting programmes online. We’ll also provide some of the best routines as recommended by the experts.

So, let’s start at the beginning - what exactly is powerlifting?

Of Gods And Men - What Is Powerlifting?

Powerlifting is exactly like it sounds, pulling up weights to boost your strength and stamina. Powerlifting encompasses a few different styles of weightlifting - squats, bench presses and deadlifts.

In competitive powerlifting, powerlifters are divided into weight and age categories, which are then divided once again into male and female. That’s right, powerlifting might be a sport that is traditionally associated with men, but thankfully all that is changing, with plenty of women engaging in the sport on a competitive level.

It might sound simple, but weightlifting is all about endurance. In a competition, the aim is to lift the heaviest weight for one repetition in whatever age and weight category you happen to be in. The heaviest powerlifting weight is that added up into a powerlifting total, which is the method used to rate competitors.

However, a lot of people are into powerlifting not for the competitive aspect, but purely for the challenge of increasing their physical strength, getting that lean and cut body shape. Getting stronger is very important for a lot of weightlifters, as it gives them more confidence and has even been shown to improve mental health.

However, if you do want to enter powerlifting on a competition level, then you’ll need to practice the industry-regulated positions in order to qualify. There is a lot of focus on the variations of these movements, which will make each one more challenging and give you a higher rank. We’ll discuss these variants a little later in the article.

Powerlifting is very different from bodybuilding, as any powerlifter, squatter or bench press aficionado will want to reduce the range of motion as much as possible in each movement and want to utilize every muscle in their body to execute them.

You won’t want to hone in on a specific muscle and build it up like in bodybuilding. This is all about compound exercises where you’ll want the muscles to work in tandem with each other to get the best possible results.

Co-ordination is incredibly important in powerlifting, it is what makes the difference between low ranking lifters and world-class competitors.

Now that we’ve gone over some of the basics of powerlifting, let’s get stuck into what the benefits of it are and how it can affect your body.

The Pros Of Powerlifting - How It Can Change Your Body

Increased Bodily Strength

One of the more obvious benefits of powerlifting is increasing your physical strength. Powerlifting is all about how much weight you can lift, rather than repetitions.

You should be able to lift a weight in one smooth movement, which will require you to develop the muscles in both your lower and upper body.

This is one of the myths of bodybuilding - that it only requires upper body strength. This is simply not true. With inadequate leg and back muscles, you simply will not be able to reach the upper echelons of powerlifting. These areas are invaluable for support and stability, which will be the areas that the judges focus on in a competition.

Powerlifting will not only support your strength in the gym but also in your everyday life. So if you have a manual job that requires a degree of heavy lifting then you can be sure that powerlifting will make it much, much easier.

Improves Your Performance In Other Sports

As mentioned above, powerlifting will improve your performance in areas other than powerlifting.

So if you are a person who enjoys a multitude of sports such as athletics, basketball, hockey or soccer, then you can expect to see a noticeable improvement once you start powerlifting.

It’s all about the mind/muscle dichotomy, if you practice using your body in a certain way, then you’ll make these connections a lot stronger. Using your body will give you increased stamina, as well as the ability to move your body a lot better.

They say that practice makes perfect and it really does! By moving your body more, you will increase the efficiency and speed of each movement. Also with increased muscle obviously comes more strength, which will also boost your overall performance in other sporting arenas.

Decreases Muscle Loss In Old-Age

As you get older, it has been proven that your muscle decreases by around 8% after each decade at around the age of 40. However, if you are a powerlifter, then you can expect this process to start halting dramatically.

This is because you’re putting your body in a state of not only muscle building but muscle preservation. Your body knows that it should be building muscles, which also goes for the increased protein that you’ll be putting in your body during training.

Once the body gets into this zone, it will retain a lot more muscle as you get older.

Increases Bone Density

The same with muscles, as you get older, your bones can lose their density. However, if you are a powerlifter, then you can expect your bones to maintain their density for much longer. Again, this is all to do with what you are inputting into your body.

If you are placing your bones under the repeated strain of weightlifting, then your body will soon figure out that it needs to make the bones stronger to bear the weight of this excess. Having greater bone density will also decrease your risk of diseases like osteoporosis and general bone splits and fractures.

Also, having increased bone density will obviously be a lot better for contact sports such as soccer or American football. If your bones can take the punishment, then this will lead to a lot fewer injuries on the field.

Powerlifting Is Not Ageist

A lot of sports have a shelf-life for their participants. Gymnastics, for example, can only compete for around 4 years at a high competitive level at a very young age. This is because the flexibility and endurance they need from their bodies start to wane as they approach adulthood.

However, with powerlifting, this is not the case. Many powerlifters are still benching and squatting well into their 40s and 50s. There are even some powerlifters that are older than this. This is all down to getting the technique just right.

If you master the art of lifting your weights correctly, in a way that won’t injure you, then you are free to push weights for as long as possible. As mentioned above, the earlier that you get your training down, then the longer you can expect to last in the powerlifting game. However, you can start weightlifting in your 40s - as long as you get the technique right.

Your age won’t even stop you from competing. With many sports, you have a time limit on when you can compete. Soccer players retire in their 30s, while gymnasts usually finish their competitive careers in their late 20s. But powerlifting has categories for higher ages, with many senior leagues that you can test your strength in.

You Can Test Your Strength Against Your Peers

If you do have a competitive streak, then this certainly is the sport for you. Due to the different age and weight categories, you can evenly pit yourself against the best of your peers.

This will also give you concrete goals to work towards that will almost certainly motivate you into getting stronger with an increased range of motion.

Having this greater sense of purpose is completely bound up in the sport of weightlifting, whether competitive or not. Your goal in powerlifting should always be to get stronger and better, and the sense of accomplishment you’ll get from hitting those goals will boost your mental as well as physical health.

Some Things To Bear In Mind Before You Start Weightlifting

Remember not to put too much pressure on yourself to get good at powerlifting straight away, it’s all a matter of increments. In fact, pushing yourself too hard at the beginning of your training could result in serious injury and will probably mean an improper technique.

Having poor technique will certainly disqualify you from even trying to compete in any tournaments. You shouldn’t be daunted because people are lifting heavier weights than you, remember that they’ve probably been doing it a lot longer.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask more experienced powerlifters if you’re doing it right! Often the experts will be very friendly when correcting your technique and will give you all you need to know about powerlifting at the very beginning.

Also, don’t rush into higher weights. At the start you should be focussing solely on getting your technique right - whether it’s pushing yourself up off the bench from a sitting position, getting a nice round back during a deadlift or cutting depth during a squat. Take the time to make quality progress, then your powerlifting will be par excellence.

Now that we’ve discussed the mindset that you need to have for powerlifting, let’s take a look at some of the important techniques that you’ll be learning during your initial training sessions.

The Best Powerlifting Techniques

There are two different techniques that you need to master: the technique for competing in powerlifting tournaments and the techniques that you’ll need to keep you safe and ensure that you’ll make quality gains in strength and stamina. We’ll have a look at the regulations of powerlifting tournaments first.

Most powerlifting federations will have specific rules that you will have to conform to in order to even enter the match. For a deadlift, there will be a standard rule for a lock-out position and what it should look like.

For benching, there will be a rule about how to position your body correctly on the bench to achieve a proper lift. Then for squatting, there will be a rule as to how deep you need to squat.

Rules For Squatting

Generally, no matter which powerlifting federation you’ll be competing in, there will be rules around the depth of the squat, how controlled you are at the start and end of your squat, how you lock your knees and maintain your balance and whether there will be a constant forward motion of the barbell.

The International Powerlifting Federation outline these 6 rules for squatting:

  1. You’ll need to bend your knees and lower your body until the top of the upper quad is lower than the top of the knee.
  2. The knees need to be locked firmly at the start and the end of the maneuver.
  3. You must not lose your balance - your feet cannot step forwards or backward during the move.
  4. Listen for the signals that the referee gives, do not go sooner or later than the whistle.
  5. Your elbow or arms cannot touch your legs in a way that will support the movement.
  6. There can be no double bouncing at the bottom, nor can you have any downward movement of the bar.

Rules For Bench Press

In bench pressing, the main rules are that you keep your head, shoulders and buttocks in contact with the bench during the entire maneuver.

The barbell must be constantly moved forward and you must pause the weight on your chest before you press it forward.

Here are the IPF rules for competitive benching:

  1. As you approach the bench, you will have around 60 seconds to get the start command from the referee, once he has done this, you can bring the bar to your chest.
  2. The referee will then give you 5 seconds to find the correct position. If your bar is not correct, then the referee will say ‘replace; and inform you of the correct movement. All this must happen within that initial 60 seconds.
  3. The movement will begin when you bring the bar to your chest.
  4. Once the bar is motionless, the referee will command you to press.
  5. You must then press the bar away from your chest without any downward motion. This includes heaving the bar from your chest.
  6. You must then hold the bar with your elbows locked. The referee will then adjudicate that you’ve completed the movement before giving you the commend ‘rack’.
  7. This announces that the lift is over and you can return the weight back onto the rack.

Once the lift is over, the referees will judge whether the lift has been successful with a three-light system. Three red lights indicate the lift was unsuccessful, whereas three white lights indicate that it was successful. You can have a minimum of two white lights for a successful lift.

Rules For Deadlifting

There are many different styles of deadlift, and you will probably see a lot of these at your local gym. However, there are very specific standards when it comes to competitive powerlifting:

  1. The bar must not have any downward motion once the lift has begun.
  2. When you are in your final standing position with the weight in your hands, you must be erect with your shoulders back.
  3. Your knees must be locked firmly in the standing position.
  4. You must not let the bar rest on your thighs during the lift.
  5. You can move the feet laterally during your lift, that is, they must stay in the same position.
  6. Returning the bar to the floor must be controlled, using both hands.

For squatting, deadlift and bench press, you’ll need to perfect all of the above rules if you want to enter a competition. It won’t matter if you’re technically strong, because if you even mess up one of the movements, then you will be disqualified.

You should always assume that your worst rep in training will be your best rep in a tournament. Don’t just assume that you’ll be able to master it on the day, you’ll want to make sure that every single rep conforms to the rules completely.

Here follows are some tips that we have for improving your squatting, deadlift and bench techniques.

Squatting

  • Practice your low bar squat without the weight, this will automatically increase the musculature in your glutes.
  • Find a good stance for you, most likely it will be your hands shoulder-width apart with toes flared.
  • Bracing your core will be very important during lifting, so make sure that you increase the abdominal pressure in your stomach as you lift, as this will help give you support for your spine.
  • When initiating the squat, be sure to bend your knees and hips simultaneously, rather than one before the other.
  • Keep your weight bar over your midfoot, as this will promote your balance.
  • You want to make sure that your knees travel forward but don’t collapse inward.
  • Make sure that your squat is nice and deep and that your hips are going well below the plane of the knee.
  • Make sure that your hips and barbell rise at the same tempo so that you don’t lean forward too excessively.
  • Create squat cues that will help you maintain the proper mechanics - that is, ‘ribs down’, ‘drive the shoulders back’, ‘claw the ground’ and ‘crack at the hips and knees’.

Bench Press

  • Make sure that you arch your mid-back in order to decrease the range of motion and activate your lower pectorals.
  • Find your optimal bench press grip - this will generally be two times the distance between your shoulders.
  • You should bring the bar down in a controlled tempo, ensuring that you don’t expend too much energy when you’re lowering it. Make sure that you pause the movement on your chest, as this is what is practiced in competitions.
  • Make sure that the position of your elbow is just underneath the barbell or just in front of it.
  • You can use your entire body to press the weight up. You can even press your feet into the floor to get more grip and push on the way up.
  • You should make sure that the bench bar goes up and back rather than vertically upward when you lift it.
  • Be forceful in the entire range of your motion, locking your arms aggressively during the end of the move so that you end with the maximum amount of control.
  • As with the squatting position, enforce certain cues that will help you to develop the correct mechanics - ‘get high on the traps’, ‘bend the barbell’, ‘meet the barbell with your chest’ and ‘let the shoulders fall back’. Say these out loud to yourself.

Deadlift

  • There are two different styles of deadlifting techniques - conventional and sumo. Both of these positions are allowed in deadlift tournaments.
  • Find the deadlift grip that suits you - make sure that it isn't too wide otherwise that you’ll lose control. Also get a good grip on it, especially in competitions, as they will fail you on a poor grip.
  • You’ll need to make sure that you have the right deadlift back angle that will suit your height and weight. You might be more hunched over if you are taller.
  • Keep your back completely straight during the deadlift - you don’t want to round any portion of your back, especially in the middle or the lower spine.
  • Breathing properly during the initial weight lift will make sure that you protect your back, as the vertebrae in the spine relax during the out-breath, which you want to avoid at all costs.
  • Make sure that you remove all the slack from your arms and that there is full-body tension before the lift takes place.
  • The initial drive should be considered a ‘push’, as this is where the quads and the knees are activated in a pushing motion. Then once you get the barbell over your knee, think of the lift as a pull that will get the weight over your hips.
  • Make sure that you have plenty of energy in the lift, avoiding casual movements. You must be active right up until the lock-out, finishing with the knees, elbows and hips completely locked in place.
  • Again, implement deadlift cues - ‘flex your armpits’, ‘shoulder blades over the barbell’, ‘shins to the barbell’ and ‘push the floor away’.

Now that we’ve covered movements and how to adopt a proper form, you’ll need to figure out the best training programme that you’ll need to do in order to be able to accomplish these movements with a high degree of accuracy and control.

Online Benching - The Best Powerlifting Programmes

When you start powerlifting regularly, it’s important that you have the right programme that you can use to slowly build up your strength over time, practicing and getting slowly better at coordinating your movements and locking your joints at exactly the right time. If you are switching from a bodybuilding to a powerlifting programme, then it will be markedly different.

The main aim of any powerlifting programme will be to increase the strength in your squat, your bench and your deadlift to the point that you’ll be able to complete one full repetition, lifting as much weight as possible.

Most powerlifting programmes calculate the amount that you can lift using a percentage of your 1 rep maximum. This weight is then gradually increased week by week in order to build up enough strength for you to attempt your target weight.

Your tailored powerlifting programme should afford you plenty of practice not just in squats, deadlifts and benching, but in other exercises that will strengthen the muscles in these key areas. Isolating the muscles in your legs, abs and shoulders shouldn’t be done on their own, but they can be great supplementary exercises.

You’ll want to develop as much strength as you can in these movements only to increase your ability to perform them well. Remember that during a competition, you’ll be under intense scrutiny to perform well.

What Programming Options Are There?

By looking online, you can find plenty of powerlifting programmes that target specific areas. Below are just a few of the programmes that are available for beginner and experienced powerlifters:

  • Self-programming
  • Free templates
  • Paid templates
  • A group powerlifting programme - a single programme that is written for multiple powerlifters
  • Individual powerlifting programme - a tailored programme just for you

Finding a coach that can tailor your programme specifically for you will be massively beneficial, especially if you’re new to the powerlifting game and are struggling to get your form and technique just right. They will take on board what you’d like to achieve, have a discussion before coming up with a decent programme.

Having a tailored programme might not be the cheapest option, as some trainers charge anywhere from $100 to $200 a month. However, if you are serious about your powerlifting, then having someone that can guide you in the right direction will be crucial. Your technique will be yours to keep also, so it should last you for years!

This will be the best way to progress with your powerlifting regimen a lot quicker, rather than taking months to find your feet with a more generalized workout. A generalized workout might hinder you in a lot of ways, as the exercise might be way beyond your current abilities and may even cause you injury.

Working with a powerlifting coach means that you can also ask questions during your training, which will be invaluable for correcting improper form quickly and developing good technique much faster. This will also be extremely useful if you’re thinking about getting into competitive powerlifting, being fully prepared for your first squat, bench or deadlift attempt.

Having the proper support from the beginning will be the best way for you to get better much faster. The professionals will know how to push you in the right direction, making sure that you develop the correct building blocks to be a great powerlifter.

Programming Concepts

Whatever method you choose to adopt for your powerlifting programme, it should contain the same basic concepts:

  1. Periodization - creating a long term goal-orientated plan that factors in the moment that you’re going to hit peak strength, timing it perfectly for when you go in for one rep in a competition.
  2. Frequency - this is how many times you commit to performing your powerlifting moves. You’ll want to perform your squat, your deadlift and your bench press moves a few times in a week.
  3. Specificity - this is when your training will be specified to your powerlifting goal. As the competition gets nearer, you’ll want to make sure that you’re practicing your specific competition movements without variation.
  4. Adaptation - different adaptation types should be implemented depending on whatever the goal of your training is. For example, if you want to build your muscle, then you’ll want to go for a higher volume of reps, whereas if you want to increase strength, then you’ll want to go for a higher intensity.
  5. Progressive overload - This means that you're gradually increasing whatever it is you’re doing over time. This could either be increasing weight with the same number of reps or an increased number of reps with the same weight. This could also include doing more sets with the same weight.
  6. Exercises - these are the specific exercises that you’ll be implementing to increase the efficiency of your powerlifting moves, as well as isolating and developing specific muscle groups. For example, using the bench press to develop your lock-out strength.
  7. Recovery - this means taking the right amount of time out to allow your muscles to regroup and repair. This also means making a note of signs of fatigue on your muscles, as this will mean they need resting.

Competitive Powerlifting

Now, if you’ve read this article and decided that competitive powerlifting is something that you want to get into, then we’ve got some great tips that will help you when you’re in front of those judges.

We also have some tips on how to register for your first performance, as well as how to get yourself in the right mental zone to win.

Competition Mentality

This is one of the main hurdles for a competition. A lot of powerlifters will simply not believe that they are strong enough to embark upon a competition and will wait and wait and wait. Before they know it, the competition deadline has passed and you’ve opted out of competing completely.

The simple and hard truth is that you’ll probably never feel like you’re ready for your first competition. This is the mentality you’ve gotten yourself into. Overcoming this weight in your head will be bigger than any weight that you have to pull or push.

The main reason for pushing yourself into your first competition is not to test your strength at all, but simply to get used to the pressure of the competition itself. Because, as weird as this might sound to say, a competition is like a form of training.

So it doesn’t matter if you flunk out of your first, second, third or even fourth tournament, you’re just getting used to the setting, as well as what the judges are looking for and, hopefully, learning from your mistakes.

If you haven’t entered a powerlifting competition before, then you’ll want to become accustomed to the weigh-in and the warm-up, two things that you just can’t have the experience of during training. Also, lifting weights in front of the judges isn’t going to be the same as doing it by yourself or in front of your trainer. You won’t be subject to the same scrutiny.

There are many different combinations that will only reveal themselves in the competitive scenario. These will affect your performance in ways that you could not have trained for, so you’ll need to enter a competition in order to tease them out. You should see your first competition as an invaluable learning experience.

This drop in performance will guarantee you one thing: that indeed you won’t be as strong as you were anticipating. If you accept this fact, then the first competition should not be too pressurized, simply becoming an opportunity for you to become used to the rules and procedures.

Some coaches will often schedule two meet-day (that is, competition events) within a short space of each other so that the powerlifter can become as accustomed to the environment as possible.

If the primary goal is to become hardened to the competition, then your second goal will still be to set yourself a target in terms of weight. Once this has been done, you’ll have a definite target that you can beat the next time around.

Be The Best - Tips For Competitive Powerlifting

If you’ve got your first competition approaching, here are a few things that you’re going to need to start preparing in order to achieve your movements with as much skill and proficiency as possible:

  • Competition commands - each maneuver will come with a specific command that the referee will instruct you to do before the move. You’ll need to practice these commands so that you’ll know exactly what to do at the beginning and the end of each move.
  • Be punctual and get your rack height right - the rack height is where the barbell sits on the rack. Each lifter can adjust the height of their barbell to suit them. You’ll need to provide your squat and bench heights before you start the competition.
  • The weigh-in - it is important that you be prepared for this, so make sure that you bring your membership card, along with your opening attempt in kilos and your rack heights. You’ll need to make sure you have your weight ahead of time, as the judges will disqualify you if you are not prepared.
  • Competition gear - make sure your competition gear is in a separate bag from all your regular training gear. The referees will thoroughly inspect your gear before a competition and having it in a separate bag before you start will make it much faster to check.
  • Warm-ups - have your warm-ups ready. You should have practiced these during your training, building from smaller to heavier weights.
  • Opening attempts - you should have to plan out these weights carefully, picking a level that you can be sure you can perform 3 repetitions with. Remember: you’ll need to get the right finishing result, so don’t start too intense.
  • The 60-second rule - remember to follow the 60 second setup time that is allotted to you as you step up to the mat. Once you have completed your first attempt, you have 60 seconds to score another.
  • Missing a lift - there is a commonly held misconception that if you miss a lift based on a technical infraction, that you then have to increase the weight by one. But this isn’t the case, you can simply repeat the move with the same weight. Coming back from a technical infraction is much harder than you will have practiced in training.
Kevin Harris
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