Maybe you’ve been considering competing. Maybe you’re just interested in training like a competitor. Either way, we are breaking down the basics.
What is powerlifting? What are the requirements? Could I do something like that? How does a meet work? What lifts are involved?
What is Powerlifting?
Powerlifting is a weightlifting sport where the competitors compete to successfully lift the most amount of weight possible for specific lifts. It involves the three main lifts – the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Now, your entire training program should not just be training the big three every training session. For this sport, it is imperative to hone in on your weaknesses for each lift so you can become a stronger lifter. For an easy example, if your bench press is a weak point then you will want to add in a lot of triceps and upper back work so you will be more stable on the bench and more explosive with the bar. For a more complicated example, consider where your bench is lacking. Are you challenged mid range or at the bottom of the lift? Do you need to dial in stability or leg drive? Specific accessories should be programmed and tailored to your weak points in each lift.
There are many powerlifting programs out there that structure volume and intensity based off of experience. Beginner powerlifters generally want to focus on more volume with less intensity to get accustomed to heavier loads and then progress with more intensity and volume as they gain more years of experience. We typically recommend beginner lifters to stick to a basic linear periodization plan for awhile before going into more complicated programming. A new lifter can get a ton of progress from doing a simple 5×5 or 5/3/1 program, but eventually they will progress to a point where more individualized programming will be necessary. For the best results, hiring a coach will answer your questions earlier and help you progress faster.
The Powerlifting Meet
In a full powerlifting meet, you have three attempts at each lift. You will be organized into weight classes and take flights – with the lift order starting with the lightest opener and progressing as the meet goes on. The order of the lifts in a meet is Squat, Bench, Deadlift. You will do all three of your squat attempts before moving on to the bench press. However, you will have some time between each of your three squat attempts. The amount of time you have will depend on how many other people are in your flight. A handler can help you prep for your time on the platform and assist with timing on your warm ups.
There are rules for each lift. These rules depend on the federation. For example, some federations have a monolift which holds the bar and then moves so that you don’t have to walk out for your squats. Other federations will have you walk your squat out. Some federations allow you to be on your toes during the bench press while others will require you to have flat feet on the ground at all times. Become familiar with the rules for whatever federation you are competing in so that you know exactly how you should prepare during your training. All federations post their full rulebook on their websites.
There will always be some sort of command from the judges in the lifts. Some federations will have only one command for the squat. Other federations may have up to three. Pay attention to these commands! They will go over them in the rules meeting before the meet but they will also be in the rulebook for your federation. You will want to practice with commands before your meet. If you miss a command (rack too early, press too early, lower a deadlift too early, etc), that lift will be no good.
Your openers for each lift (first attempt) will be attempts that you KNOW you can hit pretty easily – probably something around a 3 rep max. We recommend this because if you do not hit your first attempt weight after all three attempts, then you will be disqualified from the meet. This is why it is super important for you to pick a number you know you can hit. For your second attempt, it depends on your situation. We typically like to have lifters aim for 100% of their 1RM though this changes depending on the lifter and what their meet goals are. For third attempts, this is usually where you can focus on throwing up some numbers and trying to break a PR (personal record). There are a lot of factors (records, scoring, fatigue, bar speed on last attempt, calls from judges) that can determine attempt selection which is where a solid coach or handler helps.
Equipment for Powerlifting
Decide what type of meet you would like to compete in. There are equipped and raw meets. Raw simply means minimal equipment – typically a singlet, lifting shoes, knee sleeves, deadlift socks, belt, and wrist wraps are allowed. Some federations allow knee wraps in classic raw meets. Equipped meets allow additional equipment such as squat suits, bench shirts, and knee wraps. Single ply and multi ply are two options for equipped lifters. These suits/shirts are made of specific materials that aid in the completion of the lifts, but they take a ton of time and practice to get used to. Equipped used to be THE way to powerlift before raw lifting become popular due to raw lifting being more accessible. Equipped powerlifting usually takes at least a training parter, if not a team, to assist with getting in and out of the equipment.
Both raw and equipped meets are excellent choices with raw having a lower barrier to entry for newer lifters due to the need for less equipment and the ability to (mostly) train alone if needed.
Winning the Meet
Powerlifting is an awesome sport. Just training hard, competing in a meet, and doing your absolute best should give you a sense of accomplishment because most people don’t pursue this kind of challenge.
Your first few meets (and every meet after if you can control your competitive side), think of the competition as a meet against yourself. Be your best version of YOU and hit the numbers you want to hit – don’t pay attention to what everyone else is doing (unless you’re at the top of the rankings or going for something big). Support the other lifters and encourage their successes while never comparing your lifts to anyone else. Your first powerlifting meet is your time to beat yourself and perform your best. And when you get higher in the rankings, you can start to get a bit more competitive with your game. Though focusing on your best performance is what matters the most.
The official way to “win” a powerlifting meet depends on your definition of winning. You can win 1st in your weight class and/or you can win overall (which is typically calculated by a score such as Wilks or other formula that will compare you to all lifters despite size, etc).
If it’s one of your first few meets, here are a few accomplishments that should make you feel successful:
Hitting a PR (Personal Record) on a lift
Grinding through a lift and finishing it successfully
Getting three white lights on all attempts (all three judges say it’s a clean lift)
Going 9 for 9 (Hitting all three attempts on all three lifts successfully – this is NOT easy and takes some strategic planning and knowing your body and your abilities)
Doing something completely outside your comfort zone and working your ass off to complete it
As far as “officially” winning, most meet directors will explain in the entry form what awards will be given before the meet. Occasionally, meets will offer a cash prize along with a medal or trophy.
Who Competes in Powerlifting?
If you are willing to put in a lot of work and push yourself mentally and physically, you can compete. You don’t have to be one of the top lifters on instagram to get on the platform. Especially in the beginning, we encourage lifters to get experience in local or unsanctioned meets as they build their strength and work toward competing on a higher level one day.
The training is the important part of this sport – not just what happens on meet day. You have to be willing to really dig in and commit to the process. You have to be willing to set aside how you “feel” on certain days and commit to your training and growing physically and mentally.
If you’re reading this as someone new to the sport (which can seem overwhelming), don’t worry about your weight class during your first few meets. Just enter, weigh in, make sure you are hydrated and fueled, and perform your best.
If you’re willing to put in the hard work, you deserve a spot on the platform.
Welcome to the team.
Heather & Katie
The Power Couple
If you’re looking for guidance and coaching, we offer remote powerlifitng coaching as well as one on one training AND intro to powerlifting classes in the Denver, CO area. If you’d like to do a free consultation, fill out the interest form and we will get back to you within 24 hours.