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.