So, you want to be a powerlifter?

One of the niches I’ve carved out in my career as a personal trainer and strength and conditioning coach is managing the training of competitive powerlifters.  This started out with beginners, largely personal training clients of mine who were looking for something to provide extra direction and deeper intentionality to their gym efforts.  Then, I began to find a passion for it among my high school kids.  And now, I’ve got a full-fledged club of people whose chief purpose in training is “the big three,” and as a result, when I get asked how they might get started in the sport I am able to piece together a coherent answer. So, here goes.

0) A coach to guide you through this process is extremely helpful

I happen to know a guy, if you follow me.  Actually, several, so I can make quality recommendations. 

1) You need gym access

Now, odds are pretty good that if you’re considering trying powerlifting that you’re already lifting weights and thus, already have a gym membership.  But, if you don’t, uh, get a gym membership.  And know that there are a few things to consider relative to a desire to powerlift.  Namely, can you squat, bench press, and deadlift in your gym? This might be a question of equipment availability or of rules regarding the probable noise of deadlifting. So, when touring a prospective gym, make note of the availability of squat racks/cages, benches, and space for deadlifts – and be extremely meticulous in finding out the rules regarding what you’ll be doing there (i.e. Deadlifts).

Frankly, this can be a bit of a crapshoot with “fitness center” type gyms, so a quick google search of “powerlifting gyms” or even “crossfit gyms” near you is likely to be a worthwhile effort.  Again, be clear on what you intend to be doing and realize that a “fitness center” may not be the place to make it happen, either by rules, atmosphere or equipment availability.

2) You need a federation

There is a plethora of organizations sanctioning Powerlifting competitions throughout the country.  Without any extensive research, I know there are 4 major ones operating in Minnesota currently.  USAPL, USPA, UPA, and APF.  This is only a small spoonful of the alphabet soup that is powerlifting in the U.S., but as it turns out, it represents a significant swath of the participation in the sport.  The USAPL, which is the feeder organization to the IPF (it’s international counterpart), is among the oldest and widely contested in the country, which is part of why I and my athletes have largely done their meets. The USPA seems to be second, if not simply similarly popular, with many extremely successful and notable lifters represented.  

Which federation is for you is likely hinged on three things;

  1. Do they have a presence in your area?  In Minnesota, USAPL is easily the most accessible with as many as 15 meets a year.
  2. Do you like what you see in the rule book?  The number of commands, required technical components and strictness to rules will vary with each federation. 
  3. To which type of powerlifting are you attracted?  Raw, raw with wraps, geared, double or triple ply geared, natural, untested? There are a lot of options and knowin how the federation in which you’re going to be competing matches the way you’d like to lift or have access to is likely an important consideration.  If you’re drawn to geared powerlifting but don’t have access to a traingin group that does it, or a monolift… your best bet may be the raw division or a raw federation, to start.

3) You need to know the rules

This was mentioned in number 2, but it really is key.  Quite regularly, I’ve seen newcomers have a first time powerlifting experience that is not quite what it could be for simply not knowing well enough what was expected of them. As the USAPL is the primary federation in which my lifters compete I will use their rules as an example.

What you need, at the very least, to compete in a USAPL meet:

  1. A USAPL membership
  2. Meet entry
  3. A singlet
  4. Knee high socks

There is other equipment that will be extremely helpful to your powerlifting success, but technically, per the rules this is what you absolutely need to be allowed to lift on the platform.  

The rules you need to know, practically speaking, to successfully compete in a USAPL meet:

When it’s your turn to lift, they will have called your name, and the head judge with shout “bar’s loaded” meaning you can now step on the platform and begin doing the thing, be it squat, bench press, or deadlift. You singlet, wrist wraps, pony tail, and anything else must be in order before you get there. From there, you’re not just lifting weights like you would at your local YWCA.  Each lift has commands that must be followed for it to be considered successful by the judges. 

To simplify these, just remember 2-3-1.  The squat has two commands, the bench press has 3, and the deadlift has 1.  Got that?  So, here they are:

The Squat

  1. “Squat” – after you’ve heard “bar’s loaded,” you’ve put the bar on your back, picked it up and stepped back away from the rack, you’re going to look forward at the judge and when they see that you’re ready, they’ll lower their hand and say “squat!”
  2. “Rack” – then, of course, you’re going to squat down and, hopefully, come back up but you’re not going to immediately start walking toward the rack.  You’re going to stand there, look forward at the judge and when they see that you’ve maintained control they’ll say “rack!”

The Bench Press

  1. “Start” – So, again, they’ve called you up, you’ve picked up the bar.  You’re going to pause at the top till you hear the judge say “Start,” then you’ll lower it down to your chest.
  2. “Press” – You’ll pause at your chest until you hear “press,” then you’ll push really hard.
  3. “Rack” – Once you’ve pressed it all th way to lockout, the judge will say “rack” and you put the bar in the rack.

The Deadlift

  1. “Down” – You go pick it up, they say “down.”  It’s magical in it’s simplicity.

2, 3, and 1… get it?

4) So, how much do I lift?

This seems like a key point, right?  It is.  For each of the three lifts, you are allowed three attempts.  What these are depends enormously on you and your strength and experience levels. But, your first attempt, which you’ll hear called an “opener,” is a weight you will have submitted prior to the meet.  I generally have people pick an opener that is easy, basically your last warm-up, that let’s you get adjusted to the platform.  How this goes dictates what you choose for your second attempt, which you’ll have 60 seconds to figure out. Your second attempt should require effort but nothing maximal, it’s main purpose to help you further adjust to the platform and guide how heavy your final attempt should be.  Your third and final attempt is likely a try at a weight you’ve never done before.  This is what you signed up for. 

So, to roughly recap:

  1. Opener – a weight you could easily do for 5 or more reps
  2. Second – a weight that requires effort but you could do for 3-5 reps
  3. Third – a one repetition maximum (1RM) attempt

So, that’s it?

There’s more to powerlifting than that, but if you’ve got this stuff down, you’ll have a successful first time.  As you get more and more into the sport, or even more competitive, you might start to deal with other variables like weight classes, but for now just show up on time, go where they tell you, lift when they tell you and have fun. 


Man vs. Himself; A trainer training himself, part 2

So, we’re just over three months since part 1 of this series and I find myself in a position in which I have seen many a client and acquaintance.  I stated my intention, grandly, set a plan, got to work… and I “failed.” I find myself at roughly the same bodyweight, the same level of motivation, doing the same things “right,” doing the same things “wrong,” and carrying with me a sense of spinning my wheels.

There are many reasons for this, and I do mean REASONS, not necessarily excuses.  And there are, indeed, many excuses that I’ve made.  I find it extremely important to delineate between those two and to very clearly acknowledge when something is a legitimate reason, rather than simply an excuse.  I’ve had many clients over the years mention that, for example,  they failed to meet the week’s objectives because they were watching their grandkids or lay offs were announced at work or an old friend made a surprise visit from out of town and they finish the story with, “but I’m just making excuses.”

That is where I raise my hand and halt the conversation.

Part of the problem here is the fitness industries lingering ties to a machismo culture that has used shame and guilt for motivation and attached character value to one’s abilities and adherence to norms.  This is bullshit, but it seems too heavily engrained to have been yet discarded.  For most, the idea that one’s efforts to show up to the gym for bench presses or to “hit their macros” might be of superior priority than meaningful family connections is ludacris.  Even more simply, the idea that a new thought or choice might not be cast asunder by old habits and distractions, good or bad, is, again, ludacris.

If you were to try fly fishing for the first time, what would be your expectation?  I think we can all agree that you’re probably expecting to not be very good at it. It’s a new skill that will take practice and you’ll learn much from both your failures and successes.

So, why would deciding to begin tracking your food, going to gym, pre-prepping meals, or otherwise thinking and acting different regarding your lifestyle choices be any different?  You’re trying a new skill, at which you are likely to fail at first, but you will learn much from both your failures and successes.

100% success on the first try (or first few tries) should not be your expectation of your development as a human being.  Just as it wouldn’t be for fishing.

And this is where I stand.  I stand, much like you likely have in your health and fitness journey, facing my failure but willing to learn from it rather than internalize it.

Practically speaking, what do I do?  The plan I laid out failed, so it must be time for something new, right?  This is where I’ve missed the mark many years ago and I suspect a lot of people do.  My goals are the same, as they are reasonable and important to me.  They haven’t caused my failure.  The fundamentals of my approach will be the same, as they are the basic building blocks (tracking food, meal prepping, etc.).  My application of metrics of success will adjust slightly.  Being more diligent with weekly bodyweight averages and more frequently posting about this process (and regularly entering my weight in MyFitnessPal, for example) for accountability, perceived or otherwise, will be huge.

I’m applying a process and adjusting it as needed to suit me.  But, having said all that, there needs to be an element of pressure.  Of just getting after it.  I know this to be true for me, personally, and I’ve found it to be true of many others.  Pressure, with reasonable expectations and intelligently used metrics can be very meaningful.   This is where I find the prying public eye sharpens my focus.  Hence, the public posting of bodyweight.

So, three months later and technically no closer to my goals, but I’m able to understand why and appreciate what I need to make happen and do differently, going forward. I hope these posts, and those to come, resonate in some way.  We’re all largely the same brand of human, experiencing the same things.


Man vs. Himself; A trainer training himself, Part 1

I’m a personal trainer.  And I’m good at it.  I’m good at it, frankly, because I’m a mother blessing mess.  I sit down daily with clients, new and old, perspective and returning, and nod my head with real personal appreciation as they list their perceived and real shortcomings, failures, and reservations about the whole “health and fitness” bit.

I don’t just nod so that they’ll feel like I’m being empathetic or simply because I’m understanding what they’re saying. I also nod because I’m thinking something along the lines of “yep… yep… that sounds familiar.  Doesn’t everybody do that?” And sometimes it’s something more specific like, “you call that self-sabotage?!  I’ll show you self-sabotage!”

I won’t make any unnecessary and very likely inaccurate generalizations, but I feel like coming from a place of conflict, failure and personal history that matches that of those I’m trying to help, is a significant player in the personal trainer I am.  Again, I’d never suggest that having never been overweight or struggled to maintain a healthy relationship with food or activity disqualifies a trainer from helping those with those concerns, but that history (and let’s be real, current state of affairs) most definitely helps me.

Having said that, the realities of having a historically dysfunctional relationship with food and a propensity toward habits that are, to put it mildly, not the most healthful is still a pertinent concern for me.

And so, we find ourselves here.  This will likely the be the first installment of many “journals” where I will discuss, probably in frank detail, what I am doing and pursuing from both the perspective of a client (myself) and their personal trainer (also me).

I’ll give an in-depth account of my history at a later date but to set the stage; I was a fat kid, then I dropped weight, got really fit, then I got strong… and I’ve teetered back and forth between being a strong/competitive (but fat) guy and a poorly conditioned/weaker (but not so fat) guy ever since. And in that span of about 17 years the same root food and behavioral issues of my initial obesity have festered beneath the surface, undoubtedly having an impact.

The current tale goes like this; sort of un-retired from strength sports and interested in competing in powerlifting, once again fatter than I’d like to be (or SHOULD be) and, as of this very moment in time, intending to shelf competitive desires and willing to waylay my focus on building strength to better address what is or should be goal numero uno.

Getting lean(er). Staying lean(ish).

There probably is a part of me that is attracted to the idea of being lean.  You know, visible abs and the vein over the bicep, lean.  But, as I sit here, I couldn’t possibly care less. So, my goal is to get a little leaner and sustain it.  To carry less fat around for the purpose of health, of better pursuing many of the activities I enjoy outside of slinging iron (hiking, kayaking, etc.) and to simply look a little better.  As referenced above, I’ve done it a few times before but the element of permanence as eluded me for one reason or another (most of these options probably being me and my head).

Now, I’ve never been a huge proponent of attaching body weight goals to a timeline, so my metrics of success here likely won’t have a due date, but they will be used to assess change, good or bad.  They are as follows:

Body weight (goal is 264lbs. for powerlifting, but we’ll see)

Body fat %age (I’ll be getting a DEXA scan at some point, here…)

Body circumference measurements (neck, shoulder, chest, upper arm, waist, hip, thigh, calf)

These are all very typical to my personal training process but I have seldom used them to assess and center my own efforts.

Two days ago, on my 32nd birthday, I weighed 295 pounds.  I’ve been circa 300 pounds at three different periods in my life.  As you might be expecting me to say, my intention is for this to be the last. And so begins a comprehensive and, as you’ll see, probably complicated and very human process of making that happen. I hope that as I muse each week about my checkered perspective – knowing what needs to happen and how to get there mixed with being flawed and, well, human – that you can take something from it.


Down 2.8 pounds of bloat from my birthday weekend.

“The People’s Meathead” is a moniker I jokingly adopted several years ago as I found myself, to be sure, a full-blown meathead working in a big box fitness facility. The type of facility where that breed of personal trainer can be a rare sight. So, I stood out. Credentialed and experienced but legitimately meeting the visual stereotype of the exactly who the average gym-goer was worried about; bulky, seemingly intimidating and probably not technically qualified beyond “lifts heavy weights.”

So, I accepted that this would be many people’s first impression, absorbed that reality and made it a part of my pitch for helping them.

And I’m happy to say that I’ve done very well, despite appearances, with having a positive impact on the lives of many people. Helping to shape their knowledge of and sense of self-efficacy with fitness.

In short, I’m a meathead, through and through, but I’m on your side.