A Brief Overview of Powerlifting + My Experience

In this article I am going to briefly go over the sport of powerlifting and describe my experience in it. I got into powerlifting very early in my lifting career. Actually, now that I think about it I went straight from zero lifting to powerlifting training as my intro to weights. The big reason is my older brother was training for a powerlifting event. I went to him to ask how I could get bigger and not be so skinny. From there he showed me some workouts and I was hooked.

This may be an article of little interest to a lot of readers out there. If so definitely skip it over! However, some of you may be interested in what powerlifting actually is and if so this is a nice brief overview.

Powerlifting revolves around 3 main lifts. You have the infamous bench press, the brutal squat and the hardcore deadlift. With these 3 exercises you compete against other people in your age/weight class to see who can lift the most.

Because of this, powerlifters train in a very specific way to primarily increase these main lifts. A lot of guys like to split up the exercises into specific days. A training week might look like;

  1. Squat Day
  2. Off
  3. Bench Day
  4. Deadlift Day
  5. Off
  6. Dynamic Day
  7. Off

As you can imagine on a squat day the main focus exercise is the squat. They will do accessory exercises to help out the squat and fight off muscular imbalances as well. On a dynamic day they may do more speed work and not lift as heavy.

This is another thing to note, powerlifters primarily stay in the 1-6 rep range. There are some who take it up higher but most stay in that range. A lot of them will go higher in assistance exercises but for those big 3, the reps stay low for the most part. These guys are trying to increase their strength as much as possible so they will stay in a rep range that is conducive to strength gains.

This is a very brief overview of how these guys train. Some people might think it’s just a bunch of stupid meatheads slamming weight around. However, most of these guys are extremely technical with form and have their routines planned out perfectly. Everything is meticulously calculated to maximize results. This is especially true once you look at the training of more advanced guys.

What Does a Powerlifting Event Look Like?

I competed in 3 powerlifting events in my teenage years. They were all a blast and I’m glad I got to go. From my memory this is how the events normally went.

You first go to the check in table which is normally manned by a huge guy. The first event I went to it was run by a guy named Gene Rychlak. After signing in I shook his monstrous hand and went to go weigh in. Little did I know I just met the first guy to bench 1,000 pounds!

Once you weigh in you will be placed in a weight class and age group. This keeps it fair and competitive. You don’t want to be lifting against a guy that weighs 100 more pounds than you.

So after weigh ins you are brought to a warm up room where you can pretty much do whatever you want. Some guys have a specific warm up routine, others will pace back and forth throughout the room, and others will blast music getting psyched up. Whatever floats your boat! I personally just threw on some headphones and did a little warm up with my brother. Nothing too crazy.

After a little while they start calling competitors out, they usually go in order by weight class/age.

One thing I forgot to mention was at check-in you have to give them your opening lift. This is a lift that should be somewhat close to your max but a lift that you know for a fact you will not miss. Why do you ask? You are only allowed 3 attempts on each exercise. Let’s say you start with a weight you think you could hit, maybe your max in the gym. You go for it and you miss the lift. Guess what? You cannot go down to a lower weight on your next attempt. You are stuck with that weight for the next 2 attempts.

Meaning if you miss all 3 times you get zero points for that lift, which means you will certainly lose the competition.

To start you want to use a heavy amount that you are positive you can hit. After you complete you first lift, you go over and tell them what you want your next one to be. For this I recommend you make this around your gym max or a little higher. You will always be able to lift more at a competition. The environment is amazing. Music blasting and every screaming at you to complete your lift. You will get so psyched that your gym max will fly up.

After your second lift I recommend you go all out for your third. Make it something that you are really not sure if you can hit but would be an awesome PR. I’m not saying go 100 pounds over your gym PR. But definitely push the boundaries and add some more weight on.

Let’s go over each lift and the basic of them.

Bench Press

Pretty much everyone know what a bench press is, but in powerlifting they do it slightly different. They have some odd rules that if your butt and shoulder blades (I think that’s right) are touching the bench it is legal. So a lot of people use a powerlifting arch, which shortens the distance the bar has to travel. Making it an easier lift. I always cringe when people do this because it looks like their back is going to snap in half.

Besides that, you have to complete a dead stop touching your chest. You cannot bounce the bar off your chest, if you do the lift will be no good. Normally the judge will be nearby and while you are lowing it he will be watching. Once you pause on your chest long enough he will scream PRESS! When you hear that magic word you explode with all your might and push that bar up. At some events the judge won’t say anything and you have to just know what to do. But the 3 I went to they all had a judge who screamed.

Besides all of that you certainly want to ask for a lift off. You can choose to have a friend do it if they happen to be at the event with you. Or you can use one of their spotters. You do not want to lift off yourself.

Squat

Much like the bench press, a squat is a very popular gym exercise. There aren’t much rules on the squat besides breaking parallel. If you don’t go parallel or lower during the squat the lift won’t count. Most events have a cool apparatus where you don’t need to step out. You just lift the bar up and then the hooks are pushed away for you to squat. This way you don’t have to walk backwards with a ton of weight awkwardly.

Much like the bench press there is often a judge sitting in front of you. He will sometimes scream SQUAT once you break parallel. Or will raise his hand in the air.

Deadlift

In my opinion the deadlift is the most fun to watch. It is raw power coming off the floor. I strongly suggest using a mixed grip, it will help you pull more. For this lift the rule is that you have to lock out completely. Legs straight and shoulders back. This was probably my favorite lift to compete in. You didn’t really have to think of any rules. Just lift and stand up. With the bench press you have to think “Did I rest long enough on my chest?” with the squat “Did I break parallel?”

With the deadlift, there is no thinking. Just pure power!

Equipment

There are a couple items that powerlifters regularly use in events.

 

  • Singlet: It is mandatory to wear a powerlifting singlet. This looks like a wrestling singlet. To me they are pretty fun to wear. Now that I think of it I should go look and see if I can find mine!
  • Shoes: You are going to want flat bottom shoes. The shoe of choice for a lot of powerlifters are converse sneakers.
  • Bench Shirt: Some of the more advanced lifters utilize bench shirts. They are pretty much an insanely tight shirt that will allow them to use more weight. It can easily add 50+ pounds to a lift. I do laugh a bit when they put them on though. Reason being is they can’t put their arms down. Picture a guy holding a huge imaginary beach ball.
  • Squat Suit: Similar to a bench shirt, this is a very tight singlet looking contraption. These are also funny to watch, but in this case it’s funny when they get into them. I saw one guy who had the suit strung up on a power rack and he pretty much had to jump in while his friends had to pull him down through it.
  • Belt: From what I remember I think you were allowed to wear a lifting belt. Don’t quote me on that though. I believe that may change from organizations.
  • Chalk: Chalk is provided for free. You 100% want to use chalk when you deadlift.
  • Ammonia: Yes you read correctly. Some of these nutty dudes would sniff ammonia right before doing a lift and go crazy.

Story Time

I have two very brief stories to share that I will always remember.

In the first story, there was 800 pounds on the bar for a squat. This huge guy comes from the back of the room screaming with his buddies slapping him on the back. He gets to the squat rack and had his one friend slap him in the face. Then he snorts ammonia, goes to the bar and bashes his head on it. With blood dripping down his face, screaming he squats down and kills the lift. It was one of the most insane things I’ve ever seen.

Story number two is a nasty one. A guy was squatting maybe around 500 pounds. He unracks the weight and starts his downward descent. While going down his knee buckles and throughout the gymnasium we hear SNAP! The guy immediately slams to the ground. Ambulance had to come and take him to the hospital. After seeing all of that I still had to squat that day! Terrifying.

Final Thoughts

The powerlifting community is a very inviting and welcoming group of people. When I first went I thought I would be made fun of because of how skinny I was. Instead I was cheered on and met some really cool people. These guys and girls love the fact that you are out there and trying the sport. Giving it your all. They don’t care how much you lift or don’t lift.

While it was fun I certainly will not ever train like that again. I believe muscular imbalances start to form when you specialize on improving those lifts solely. The biggest issue is injuries. I don’t think I met a single person that lifted a lot of weight who didn’t have an injury or two. It is bound to happen. Most of you know my opinion on the barbell bench press (not a fan!). That lift was the cause of some shoulder problems for myself, which are now completely gone after no bench pressing.

Every once in awhile it fine to train like this. But I think for the average person just looking to get into shape, you don’t need to go through such extremes. There are better ways to go about it without a high risk of injury.