Powerlifting: The Definitive Guide
My true passion is powerlifting. It's an extraordinary sport in that each competition is a true measure of one's progress. There's no wondering about whether you've improved or not – you either lift the weight or you don't. It's as simple as that.
I believe every powerlifter should have the opportunity to compete, but many are totally clueless in terms of where they should begin.
What federation should I join?
How do I choose my opening attempts?
Why do I have to wear that silly looking one-piece?
These are all valid questions that need to be answered before competing. So to help simplify the process and encourage everyone to enter into a competition, this article will attempt to answer damn near every question a beginner lifter could possibly have.
First and Foremost: What is Powerlifting?
Powerlifting is an individualized sport in which competitors attempt to lift as much weight as possible for one repetition in the squat, bench press, and deadlift.
Each lifter is placed into a specific division and classified by several variables including weight class, age group, and experience level. Further subdivisions are made between what's known as "geared" and "raw" powerlifters, indicating whether the individual is wearing supportive equipment during the competition or not.
Competitions are generally all-day events that begin with the squat, progress to the bench press, and conclude with the deadlift. Every lifter is allowed three attempts at each lift, making for a total of nine competition lifts throughout the day.
Three officials serve as judges and collectively decide whether a lift is considered "good" or "bad." Judges indicate their decisions by a panel of red and white lights (white indicating a "good" lift, red indicating a "bad" lift) displayed after each attempt. Two or three white lights are sufficient for a good lift while one or fewer means a bad lift.
At the end of the day, awards are presented to the lifters with the highest squat, bench press, deadlift, and total within their division. A lifter's "total" is determined by the sum of their best lifts and the individual with the highest total is considered the all-around strongest lifter in their division.
Powerlifting Equipment Essentials
The sheer number of products advertised as "absolutely essential to boosting your total" is mind blowing, with the unfortunate reality being that most are total crap.
To help you sort the good from the bad, the fundamentals from the gimmicks, here are what I consider to be the essentials of powerlifting equipment:
Go to any powerlifting meet and you'll see most lifters squatting and deadlifting in Chuck Taylors (i.e., Converse All-Stars).
Unlike running sneakers or other footwear with a raised heel, flat shoes such as Chucks allow the lifter to distribute weight through the backside of the foot and effectively "spread the floor apart." Furthermore, the bottoms of Chuck Taylors tend to be stickier than most shoes, which help grip the floor and prevent the lifter from slipping.
Concerning the bench press, flat shoes aren't as advantageous and many lifters (especially shorter ones) prefer sneakers with a raised heel to get more leg drive throughout the lift.
As those who regularly deadlift are undoubtedly aware, bloody shins are a common occurrence. Regardless of whether you're a bleeder or not, it would be wise to bring long socks to the competition and wear them during the deadlift.
Not only have numerous federations already made this a requirement but there's always "that guy" who shows up and spurts blood all over the bar. Needless to say, the last thing you want to do while trying to break a deadlift record is worry about smearing someone else's blood into your cut-up shins.
There's always been a great deal of controversy regarding the use of lifting belts.
Are they safe?
Are they effective?
Will they impede progress?
I think that used correctly, lifting belts can drastically improve strength, performance, and decrease the risk of injury. However, when abused, lifters can become dependent on the belt and may inadvertently neglect important components of their training.
That said, most lifters can lift significantly more weight with a belt than without one. As such, if you're going to compete in powerlifting, I strongly encourage you to invest in a quality belt, use it appropriately, and wear it while competing. The Inzer Forever Lever belt is my favorite.
Wrist wraps are most commonly used during the bench press, but many lifters also opt to wear them during the squat. Wrist wraps help stabilize the wrist (a relatively unstable joint), allowing lifters to safely (and somewhat more comfortably) handle heavier weight.
There are a bunch of great wrist wraps, but I'm a fan of the selections from APT training.
The only things singlets do is accentuate the true size of your crotch while providing self-induced atomic wedgies. Regardless, singlets are required in every federation and if you aren't wearing a singlet, then you aren't competing.
Occasionally, singlets will be sold at the competition but don't count on it – you're much better off buying one online. There are hundreds of websites that sell them, but Adidas wrestling singlets are by far the coolest.
Finding a Competition
How do you find a competition?
How do you know which federation to join?
How do you know which weight class to compete in?
PowerliftingWatch.com is a great website that details everything from upcoming meets, to lifter rankings, to general powerlifting information. If you're searching for a competition, PowerliftingWatch.com is going to be your most valuable resource.
Choosing a Federation
So how do you know which federation to compete in? If you peruse the forums you'll inevitably find lengthy arguments over which federations are supposedly the "best" or "worst."
In my opinion, it simply doesn't matter. Find a federation or two that host regular competitions in your area and start competing. As you gain more experience, you'll probably begin to favor some federations over others but at least initially, it's inconsequential.
I should note, throughout my career I've competed in five different federations and, in no particular order, the SPF, IPA, and IPF are my top 3.
Choosing a Weight Class
This should be the least of your worries. Unless you're going to set a new world record, I don't see the point in cutting weight. If you could stand to lose some fat then certainly clean up your diet and drop the extra pounds, but don't cut weight and dehydrate yourself just because you think you'll be more competitive at a lower weight.
The great thing about powerlifting is that each competition is, first and foremost, a competition against yourself. It's an accurate way to gauge how much you've improved since the previous competition and to see if your training routine was actually effective.
Regardless of whether you place first or twelfth, if you don't make progress from your previous competition, then something isn't right.
Choose a weight class in which you feel most comfortable and focus on breaking your own personal records.
Geared or Raw
What's better, geared or raw?
Is geared cheating?
Is raw for pussies?
Is geared lifting the only way to succeed in powerlifting?
Do raw lifters train harder?
Every lifter has an opinion on geared versus raw powerlifting and neither side wants to give the other the time of day.
I say malarkey. As a competitive powerlifter in both raw and geared divisions, each has its pros and cons. Neither option is inherently better than the other and what "works" for one person might not "work" for someone else.
That said, in the early stages of training I think it's important to stick to raw lifting. Spend time developing form/technique, take advantage of the newbie gains, and get used to the competition atmosphere.
Then, after 2-3 years of consistent training, if gear is something you're interested in trying, go for it. Even if you decide not to use it in competition, it can be a great tool to incorporate within your training.
Once you've chosen a federation, competition, and weight class, all you need to do is sign up. Head over to the federation's website and search for their upcoming competitions, find the one you want to compete in, and send in the application form.
Initially, you'll need to pay for the competition as well as a membership fee, but once you're a member you won't have to worry about renewing for a year.
Preparing for Competition
Contrary to popular belief, signing up for a powerlifting competition doesn't require you to make drastic changes in your current training program. In fact, assuming you're making consistent progress while following a well-designed routine, there's no reason to change much, if anything at all.
That said, when you have a deadline on which you need to be at your strongest, there are several components that need to be taken into account.
Establish Your 1 Repetition Maximums (1RMs)
If you've never competed, or haven't recently worked up to a 1RM in the squat, bench press, and/or deadlift, it would be wise to do so as far away (time wise) from the meet as possible.
By establishing a 1RM you'll be able to see exactly how much progress you made throughout the training cycle, as well as determine appropriate opening attempts for each respective lift.
I'd note, do not test your 1RM for all 3 lifts on the same day. Rather, take your time and do it over the course of 1 or 2 weeks.
Establish Your Opening Attempts
Once you know your current 1RM, it's time to establish your opening attempts for the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Despite being a relatively simple process, many lifters have trouble with this and either open way too light or entirely too heavy.
I've outlined the method that I use to establish my opening attempts below, which was taught to me by Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell:
Your first attempt should be easy! Louie says you should be able to wake up at 2 AM and hit your opener. Generally, this attempt should be between 87% - 93% of your 1RM. Stronger individuals should go with the lower end of the percentage range, while less strong lifters should go with the higher end.
Assuming you hit your opener, go for a 5-10 pound personal record (PR) on your second attempt. Don't get overzealous and attempt a 30-pound record. Remember, a 5-pound PR is still a PR.
If you miss your first attempt the choice is yours – you can either take your opener again or move directly to your second attempt. It depends on how you feel.
Assuming you hit your second attempt for a 5-10 pound PR, it's time to go for broke and push the boundaries a bit. Be smart, listen to your body, and gauge how easy (or difficult) your previous attempt felt, but challenge yourself and see what you can do.
Take Your Openers 2-3 Weeks Out from Competition
As the training cycle comes to a close, work up to your opening attempts roughly 2-3 weeks out from competition. Again, don't test all three lifts on the same day – take your time and make it a process over the course of 1-2 weeks.
One Week Out: De-Load
Since powerlifting competitions are usually held on weekends, initiate your de-load on the Saturday or Sunday before the meet. This allows for roughly 6-7 days to relax, recover, and get in the competition mindset.
Keep in mind, a de-load does not involve sitting on your ass the entire week leading up to the meet. Go to the gym, foam roll, hit your mobility drills, and do some light GHR's, chin-ups, push-ups, cable pullthroughs, and other core work. Just keep it light and easy, nothing too intense.
Similar to training, your nutritional habits before competing shouldn't drastically change. Keep them simple, easy-to-follow, and in line with your current goals. Here are my pre-meet nutrition guidelines:
- Eat sufficient calories to lose/maintain/gain weight depending on your individual needs and goals.
- Keep protein at ˜1 gram per pound of bodyweight every single day; unless you're cutting weight, in which case, increase it to 1.3-1.5 grams per pound a day.
- When in doubt, eat lean meats and veggies.
- Eat a variety of colors, flavors, textures, and scents.
- Supplement with creatine, Vitamin D, and calcium (if you don't get enough through your diet).
- After weighing in, stick to a "normal" diet but make it a point to re-hydrate. Also, feel free to eat a little bit more than usual, but stick to foods that you eat regularly to avoid an upset stomach.
What to Bring to the Meet
Meet day is stressful enough as is, and the last thing you need is to be worried about little things that can easily be avoided. Here's a brief list of items that you should consider preparing beforehand and bringing to the meet:
- Light, simple, and easily digestible food. These should be foods that you eat on a regular basis without gastrointestinal problems. This is Finibar™ Competition Bar time to shine.
- Coffee. Sometimes they sell it at the competition and sometimes they don't. If you drink coffee every day, make sure to bring it with you.
- Lean protein such as chicken, turkey, and tuna.
- Whole grain bread, brown rice, quinoa, apples, bananas, pre-cut melon, and other carbohydrate sources that aren't overly filling or difficult to transport.
- All essential powerlifting equipment needed for the meet. This should be packed in a duffle bag the night before.
- Cash. Because you never know.
- Music player, book, and/or friends to keep you company. You'll have a while between attempts so it's good to relax, hang out, and give your mind a rest.
Finally, we've made it to the competition. So now what?
Check Your Rack Height and Pin Position
After you've registered and found a place to keep all of your food and equipment, you need to go to the platform and check your rack height for the squat. Some federations use a "walk-out" rack, in which case you only need to check your height and report it back to the appropriate meet director. However, if your federation uses a monolift, you'll need to check your height as well as pin position.
Get this taken care of immediately so you don't have to worry about it later on.
One of the most common mistakes new competitors make is starting their warm up too late. Remember, there are only going to be a few extra squat racks, bench presses, bars, and plates to warm-up with (not to mention you aren't the only person competing).
I suggest beginning a general warm-up roughly 60 minutes before the start of the competition, and start taking weights for each respective lift around 30-45 minutes before your first attempt. As a rule, your final warm-up should be about 90% of your first attempt.
You'll have anywhere between 10-30 minutes between each attempt. Needless to say, this isn't ideal. Regardless, try to relax and hang out with your friends and family. Keep your mind focused on the task at hand but don't stay riled up for hours on end. It's a long day and mentally tiring yourself early on is going to screw you over as the day progresses.
Between each lift you'll have anywhere between 60 minutes and 2 hours. Take this time to relax, eat, and get your mind away from the competition. While I personally don't suggest napping, I think that it's important to joke around, unwind, and have fun with everyone at the meet.
Keep in mind that you'll want to start your general warm-up roughly 60 minutes before your first attempt, so don't doze off and leave yourself with only 15 minutes to prepare for the next lift.
Have Fun, Meet New People, and Keep Getting Strong!
The powerlifting community as a whole is one of the most generous, kind, and supportive groups of individuals in sport. While it's obviously important to focus on the meet and set new personal records, don't forget to enjoy the moment and laugh with the people around you. Introduce yourself to someone new, cheer for a complete stranger, and have the time of your life.
Once the meet is over, relax, eat, and evaluate your next plan of attack. What did you do well? What needs improvement? What are your new goals and how will you achieve them?
Welcome to the world of powerlifting – we're glad you decided to join the party.