The Education of a Powerlifter - Part 1


Want to know how to become a powerlifter? Believe me, there’s
no "Powerlifting for Dummies" book at your local Wal-mart. Being
a powerlifter is a strange blend of mysticism, drive, strength, and a
little bit of crazy. To be one you’ve got to want it bad; got to
want it so bad that you’re willing to devote years to its pursuit.
Still, as rough as it is, those that are indoctrinated into its strange
world rarely leave.

This is part 1 of a story about one man’s journey
into the cult of powerlifting.

Jonathan Among The Giants

When Jonathan walked into the hotel lobby he found himself among giants.
Huge men milled around the room, all of them looking like they lifted
boulders for a living. What was going on here? Some type of professional
wrestling event? A casting call for a gladiator or barbarian movie? Jonathan
had never seen anything like it.

He'd come to the hotel to meet a friend for lunch, but as they ate all
he could do was stare at these powerful looking leviathans. Finally, he
asked the waiter what was going on.

"Powerlifters," the waiter said. "And we're running out of food."

After lunch, Jonathan walked out of the restaurant and noticed a commotion
coming from the hotel's grand ball room. Peeking through the door he saw
hundreds of people cheering these giants on. He paid the entry fee and
found a place in the back of the room to watch what he thought was called
the "deadlift event."

Lifter after lifter would approach the bar with a crazed look of intensity
and pull with his greatest effort. Each pull would finish with the lifter
either making the weight or missing it, but either way they all had a
look of pride and accomplishment.

Jonathan didn't really know what was going on here. He'd never attended
a powerlifting meet before. He knew only one thing: this was coolest thing
he'd ever seen.

Tom Gets His Total

"For the final deadlift of the day, we have a world record attempt,"
the loud speaker announced. Tom approached the bar. He'd trained his whole
life for this moment. Weighing in at a ripped 275 pounds, Tom was ready
to go.

With a look of controlled rage on his face, he approached the bar and
began to pull with everything he had. The bar slowly left the ground as
the crowd all got to its feet, some standing on chairs, some standing
in the isle, all cheering as loud as they could. To Jonathan, the scene
was unreal.

Tom kept pulling. The tension in his back and hands was insane but he
knew if he just stayed with it the lift would be his. Seconds later he
was standing with the bar locked out and heard the head official say "down."
It wasn't until the bar hit the ground that he noticed the roar of the
crowd. The lift was his; the day was his. This, he thought, is
what it's all about.

When the meet was over, the lifters made their way back into the warm-up
room to exchange stories about the day's battles. Some were excited about
their new records; other were disappointed but were already planning their
next training cycles. They had all put in countless hours in the gym for
this and wanted to extend it as much as they could.

Tom sat in a circle of chairs with friends and training partners. This
was Tom’s day. He'd hit a record squat, bench and deadlift —
the biggest total of his life. All the pain, injuries, sacrifices and
training hours finally seemed worth it.

"What's next?" asked one of Tom's training partners.

Tom didn't have to think about his answer. "It’s back in the gym
Monday. I know I have more left in me." This is what he said after every
meet, what top powerlifters always say. For them, satisfaction
isn’t an option. When you become satisfied, you become obsolete.

The Decision

Jonathon couldn't believe what he was feeling. Halfway through the giant's
lift, he'd found himself up on his chair screaming encouragement to a
man he'd never met.

When the event was over he knew one thing for certain: he had to become
part of this.

Jonathon was never an athlete in high school and hadn't done anything
fitness related since he graduated from college a year ago. He did work
out from time to time in college but nothing with any structure or consistency.
At his best he was about 185 pounds at 5'11" with a personal best bench
press of around 250, but that was years ago. He loved what he'd just witnessed
but had no idea where to begin. It was then he made a decision: he had
to talk to the giant.

Making his way to the back room, he had no idea what he would say. What
would these huge men say to him? Would they laugh and kick him out of
the room? Would they make fun of him? Jonathan didn't know, but he had
to try.

He found Tom packing up his bag. Hesitantly, Jonathan asked, "Excuse
me, but how does one get involved in the sport of powerlifting?"

Tom and the other lifters turned to look at him. Jonathan couldn't help
but feel he was being sized up.

"How serious are you?" Tom asked.

"Pretty serious, I guess," Jonathan said. "That was, well, the greatest
thing I've ever seen." He waited for the giants to laugh at him. They

Tom took out a piece of paper and scribbled some notes on it. Sweat was
still running off his bald head as he handed Jonathan the paper. "Meet
us here Monday at 5:00." he said. "This is my gym."

Shut Up and Spot

Jonathan couldn't sleep at all Sunday night anticipating the Monday training
session. He was now going to be a powerlifter. Time couldn't go fast enough
Monday, but 5:00 did finally roll around. He was fired up to finally be
joining a gym.

As he drove through the commercial developments, he kept looking for
the neon sign for Tom’s gym. The businesses soon turned into residential
neighborhoods and he began to wonder why Tom would ask him to pick him
up at his house. He pulled into Tom’s driveway and honked the horn.
After a few minutes he began to wonder if Tom was home. Then it dawned
on him that maybe he'd been blown off and sent on some kind of wild goose

In a last attempt, Jonathan got out of the car to go ring the doorbell.
As he walked toward the house he heard loud metal music coming from the
garage. Tom must be working on his car or something, Jonathan thought.
When he walked through the door, he couldn't believe what he saw. This
was Tom’s gym. He had no idea what the equipment was but there was
nothing in there like he used in college.

"Hey, we thought you weren't coming!" Tom shouted above the
music. There were about seven guys crowded around a power rack. They were
doing some strange movement in the rack with some type of yolk bar suspended
by chains. "One more rep!" shouted Tom as the lifter's face
turned beet red under the strain.

Jonathan couldn't believe how great this was. The bar was loaded with
more weight than he'd ever seen. These guys were crazy strong and he couldn't
wait to become one of them. He walked over to Tom and asked what he should

"Your job today is to spot and keep your mouth shut," Tom said.

Jonathan spent the rest of the day loading the bar for all the other
lifters. This was still one of the best days of his life. When the session
was over, Jonathan was in awe. This place was hardcore, these guys were
hardcore and the weights were certainly hardcore. When the last lifter
was done Jonathan was ready to learn how to be strong. With little conversation
all the lifters packed up the gear and left. Jonathan was left with Tom
and asked again what he should do.

"Go home," Tom replied. "Come back Wednesday."

Jonathan knew instinctively not to argue. He drove home still psyched
up over the day's events but wondered why he didn't train. Two more weeks
passed and Jonathan still hadn't touched a weight. He'd asked a few times
what he should do and the lifters kept telling him to shut up and spot.
He began to wonder if he was brought in only to load the weights. But
he was still excited to be there and was having a great time. The weights
these guys were moving were unreal! It was a privilege to be there.

The last time he asked Tom when he could lift, Tom told him flat out
that he wasn't ready. Jonathan was a bit set back. He really wanted to
be a powerlifter and all he was doing was spotting. This continued on
for another week. He was now bored out of his skull. As he sat in silence
at the end of one of their bench sessions, Tom walked over and said, "Now
you're ready."

"Why now?" Jonathon asked.

Tom explained that when he came in he was in awe of the lifters in the
group and that you can never become what you're in awe of.

"It's okay to have idols as a kid," Tom said, "but when you grow up you
have to become what you dream about."

Then he said something Jonathan would remember for the rest of his life.
"We know what we can do for you; what we really want to know is,
what can you do for us?"

Jonathan understood. They already had all the spotters they needed. What
they really wanted were lifters. Jonathan was about to become one.

Becoming Bullet Proof

Monday rolled around and from the past weeks' experience Jonathan figured
out this was a lower body, heavy day. As he drove to the gym he wondered
what they would have him do today. He arrived early at 4:30 and found
a few of the guys were already there. Some of them were doing extra abdominal
movements, some were dragging a sled and others were stretching out. The
one thing that stood out is that they were all doing something different.
He would have to ask Tom about this.

Tom finally got there and they all agreed to do some type of good morning
movement. Jonathan had no idea what this was but was game for anything.
A couple of the guys placed the bar on their back and began to bend over
at the waist. He figured this was pretty easy and took his place in the
line up. As he walked up to the bar Tom asked, "What the hell are
you doing?"

"Good mornings," Tom said.

"No," Tom said, "you're not. You aren't ready. Come with me."

They walked out back and Jonathan was given a weight belt attached to
a sled with a couple of plates on it. "Drag this for ten trips down
to the tree and back, then come get me," Tom said.

While he really wanted to train like the other guys, at least he wasn't
spotting and loading the bar. After a few trips he could feel his legs
getting tired and it was getting harder and harder to breathe. He'd do
a set, rest, then do another. He could hear the intensity of the session
going on inside and wished he was part of it. After he finished, he went
back into the gym.

The guys were now into their top sets and he walked over to Tom and asked
what to do next. Tom told him to spot and he'd get with him after they
finished. Jonathan spent the next ten minutes watching the guys just about
blow their heads off under the strain of the good mornings. Jonathon asked
Tom why he was spotting again. "Everyone spots with the big weights,"
Tom replied. "This is part of your job. No one is above spotting and coaching

When the movement was over, the guys split up and began doing different
exercises. Once again he wondered why they all did different things. Jonathan
was told to do five sets of something called reverse hypers. He was positioned
on a bench with a strap attached around his ankles. He began to swing
the weight up and was told to arch as hard as he could at the top. He
couldn't use much weight at all. The other guys were using around 500
pounds but all he could use was 50. When he finished his lower back felt
tied up in knots.

Next he did incline sit-ups and straight leg raises. He did five sets
of each with coaching coming from many different lifters. He was taught
how to flex and tighten his abs. From time to time they would come over
and push their fingers into his abs to make sure they were being held

The last movement he was asked to do was called "band good mornings."
For this he stood on a big rubber band, placed the other end around the
back of his traps, bent over at the waist and then stood up. He was told
to try and feel the movement in his lower back and hamstrings. He could
feel it alright.

"Crap" Work

While he thought he'd be sore, he actually felt pretty good. He couldn't
wait for Wednesday’s heavy bench press session. When he got to the
gym he was told once again to hit the sled for ten trips. When he came
back in the guys were doing a bench press movement where they would lower
the bar down to a couple of boards and press back up. He couldn't wait
to give this a shot as he was sure he could handle some decent weight.

To his surprise he was told to do band good mornings and abs again. When
he was finished with this he was told to do 100 push-ups and to do them
in as many sets as it would take. He had to use good form and with his
hands placed on a pair of hex dumbbells. His grip width had to be in the
same position he'd eventually bench in.

This was followed up with some work for the rotator cuff and rear shoulders.
Jonathan was told that this would be his workout for the next month and
that he was to try and do more weight and/or reps on each training session

Two weeks passed and he was ready to do some of the movements the other
guys were doing. Tom wouldn't budge. The kid had to stick to the plan.
Once again he was getting frustrated with this training plan and began
to wonder if these guys really knew what they were doing. He already knew
that none of them did the same thing. Finally, he asked Tom why he had
to do all the "crap" work and why no one else was doing it.
He wanted to be a powerlifter and all he was doing was "sissy" movements.

"You see Jim over there?" Tom said. "Jim has weak glutes and is
doing extra work for them. This is what he needs to do to get his deadlift
to go up. You see Matt over there? Matt's doing extra lower back work.
He needs to make his back stronger to keep the bar in a better position
when he squats. And Mike over there? Mike's doing extra ab work to help
with his transfer of power out of the hole when he squats. You
need to do conditioning work to be able to handle the work we'll ask you
to do later. You'll never be 100% injury free, but you better be prepared
to handle the strain."

Technique, Technique, Technique

It had been six weeks since Jonathan's first conditioning session and
he was eager to begin "real powerlifting." This was the day
he'd waited for.

As he walked into the gym he saw the guys were setting the rack up to
do high box, Manta Ray squats. Jonathan was ready to walk up to the rack
when he was stopped in his tracks by Mark. Mark was one of the best squatters
in the gym and pulled him aside to let him know he wasn't going to be
doing box squats today. Today he was going to squat and squat correctly.

Mark took Jonathan aside and first explained how to do a squat with perfect
form; next they watched a few Westside videos detailing squat form. Mark
then explained that to fully learn how to squat, Jonathan had to first
understand the squat. This is accomplished by hearing the squat
explained, then seeing it done properly, then doing it so many times it
becomes automatic.

Jonathan was handed a broomstick and given the instructions:

1. Place the bar on
the center of your back.

2. Squeeze your hands
on the bar as hard as you can.

3. Pull your shoulder
blades together and make sure your upper back is tight.

4. Pull your head up
and drive it back into your traps.

5. Stand with your
feet out wide.

6. Push your feet out
to the sides of your shoes.

7. Force your knees
out to the side.

8. Arch your lower
back as hard as you can.

9. Keep your abs tight.

There were a few other steps but all Jonathan could remember is doing
rep after rep while Mark barked at him to squat back and sit on the bench.
"Squat back?" he said, "I'm already tired!"

"Look, man," Mark said, "you'll never squat 100%; none of us do. The
key is to get as close as you can. Right now you're at 0% and are piss
ass weak. Now squat!"

Rep after rep they worked on form. Jonathan must've performed 300 reps
that day and actually made his way up to using a 45-pound bar. The weight
wasn't a problem, but Mark wouldn't let him use more as long as his form
was sub-par. After what seemed to be 45 minutes of squatting he was told
to move onto reverse hypers and ab work, then finish with the sled for
a few trips.

By this time Jonathan was pretty fond of the sled and asked if he should
do more. From the corner of the gym Bob shouted, "Oh no! Not another
Mr. GPP!" Tom then pulled Jonathan aside and explained that GPP,
General Physical Preparedness, is very important but you don't compete
in GPP. What Jonathan really needed was optimal conditioning for powerlifting
and anything too much over that is pointless.

About this time there was a knock on the door. Tom answered it and turned
around with a huge grin on his face. It seemed Tom had ordered a new piece
of equipment and it was here! This was not just any piece of equipment
but a glute ham raise—not only a GHR but the best you can get: a
professional GHR from Elite Fitness Systems. For the rest of the session
they were all doing wide stance GHR’s, close stance GHR’s, ab
work and anything else they could think of.

It was business as usual for Jonathan though. He was to stick with this
plan until he got the nod of approval from the rest of the guys. He watched
videos and worked on his form any time he could find the time. He even
filmed his sessions to compare against the form of the guys on the tapes.

After his form work he was told to train right along with some of the
others guys and get used to the many supplemental and accessory movements
they were using. He was now beginning to feel his body getting stronger
and noticed that he'd already gained 15 pounds. Finally, he was becoming
a powerlifter, but he knew he had a long road ahead of him.

"The Education of a Powerlifter" will continue next

For more info and products from Dave Tate, visit Elite
Fitness Systems at

Dave Tate is the founder and CEO of Elitefts and the author of Under The Bar. Dave has been involved in powerlifting for over three decades as a coach, consultant and business owner. He has logged more than 10,000 hours coaching professional, elite, and novice athletes, as well as professional strength coaches. Follow Dave Tate on Facebook