Competitive sports often require special spaces or equipment, and that’s true of most strength sports. Weightlifting (the kind they do in the Olympics) requires bouncy bumper plates and a gym that won’t mind if you drop them from overhead. Strongman training uses a variety of unusual equipment you won’t find in your average commercial gym. But if you’d like to train for a strength competition with basic equipment — just barbells — there is a whole sport for you, and it’s called powerlifting.
What’s the difference between powerlifting and just…lifting?
Powerlifting is a competitive sport that involves the barbell squat, bench press, and deadlift. You can do these exercises without considering yourself a powerlifter. They’re popular for building strength and muscle for any purpose. Football players do them. Instagram models do them. So do millions of people who just want to be strong for general health and fitness reasons.
If you’re just getting into strength training, you don’t have to worry about the difference between lifting and powerlifting just yet. Since squats, bench presses, and deadlifts are all excellent strength builders, they’re worth learning.
What if you’ve been lifting, and you’re curious about getting competitive? Well, then it’s time to learn the details of what’s allowed in competition and what isn’t. (For example, your squat has to hit a certain depth or it doesn’t count.) There are also some technique tweaks you may want to learn so that you can improve your competitive total, like getting better at using leg drive in the bench press. You’ll want to do your gym lifts to competition standard, at least some of the time.
Finally, you may eventually want to change your training program to approach the lifts strategically. As a competitor, you’ll shore up your weak points, take advantage of your strengths, and time your hard and easy workouts appropriately so that you reach the competition strong but well-rested.
What are the lifts?
There are three lifts you have to practice if you want to be a powerlifter. Here’s a quick rundown of each, in the order they’re done in competition, and how they might differ from what you already do:
In the squat, there will be a barbell set a little below shoulder height in a rack. You walk up to it, get your shoulders underneath it, then lift it up and (usually) walk backwards a few steps to where you can start your squat.
To squat, you bend your knees and hips at the same time, until your hip crease is below your kneecap (we have a whole post on squat depth if you want to get specific about how low a squat has to be to count). Then you stand back up.
We’ve got a post on all the details about the squat for further reading. If you’ve just been squatting on your own, the things you’ll want to pay attention to are:
- Powerlifters will often squat just to legal depth and no further, even if they are able to go deeper.
- Many (but definitely not all) powerlifters will use a “low bar” positioning, where the barbell is resting on the rear delts. “High bar” would be with the bar a few inches higher, resting on your trapezius muscles at the base of the neck.
- A belt will help you keep your core tight under heavy weights and allow you to lift more weight, so almost all powerlifters will use one.
The bench press
In this lift, you lie on your back on a bench, with the barbell at arm’s length in a rack above your face. You either lift the bar off the rack, or you have somebody help you unrack it, and then the lift begins with the bar in your arms locked out above you.
You bend your elbows and shoulders to bring the bar down to touch your chest, and then you press it back up to the starting point. Here’s our in-depth post about the bench press.
Some things you should know about the powerlifting-style bench press:
- You can’t bounce the bar off your chest. A judge will wait to see the bar become motionless on your chest, and must then yell out “Press!” before you can push the bar up again. When you’re training on your own, you’ll want to pause the bar on your chest for about one second.
- You can, and should, arch your back. This puts your shoulder and chest muscles in a better position to move more weight, and if you are very flexible it can decrease the distance the bar has to move. A bit of an arch is also just a side effect of getting your shoulders tight underneath you, which likewise helps you to stay stable and move more weight.
- You’ll use your legs. When you have a good arched setup, your legs can then transfer power from the floor to your torso. You don’t bend or flex your legs during the lift, but your legs provide an important support role that helps to stabilise the rest of your body, again letting you lift more weight safely.
- There are requirements about your body position. These vary, but generally your butt must be on the bench during the whole lift, and your feet must be on the floor. Some organisations require that your head stay on the bench and your heels, not just your toes, stay on the floor.
The deadlift is the simplest to explain: There is a bar on the floor, and you grab it with your hands, and you stand up. Here’s our guide to deadlifting.
If your legs are positioned to the outside of your arms, that’s called a “sumo” stance deadlift, and if your legs are inside your arms, that’s considered “conventional.” Both are legal in competition.
Some things you might want to know about deadlifts in powerlifting:
- Straps are not allowed in competition. If you can’t hold onto the bar, you won’t get credit for the lift. So use a mixed or hook grip, and start working on your grip strength now.
- Belts are frequently used here too, for the same reasons as in the squat.
What is a competition like?
I wrote about my first (and, to date, only) powerlifting competition here. Before you compete, you’ll want to read up on the rules for your federation. USAPL and USPA are two of the big ones, and their websites include listings of upcoming meets in addition to rulebooks and other useful information.
The basic idea of the competition is that everybody gets three chances to do their best squat, their best bench press, and their best deadlift. Those lifts (your best of each) are added together to get your total. Highest total within a weight class wins that weight class.
Weight class? Yep, lifters are separated by body weight, so that tiny people aren’t competing directly against huge people. There will be a weigh-in either the morning of the competition or the day before.
You’ll head to the meet with some ideas in your mind of what weights you’d like to do for your first, second, and third attempts. Your first attempt should be a safe number, something you 100% know you can make. Your second will usually be at or near the best lift you’ve done in the gym recently, and if you’re having a good day you might set a new personal record with your third lift. If you fail an attempt, you aren’t allowed to go down in weight, but you can choose to do the same weight for your next try. If you succeed, obviously you would ask for more on your next attempt.
In the typical flow, the bar starts with the lightest opening weight that anybody has asked for. That person does their attempt, and then the loaders add weight for the next person. The bar gets heavier as everybody has their turn, and then once everybody in the group has done their first attempt, the loaders take weights off so the process can start over for everybody’s second attempt.
After all the lifts are done, everybody’s totals get added up, and awards are given for each weight class. There are also usually awards for the male and female lifter who had the highest total relative to their body weight.
How do I get started?
The first step is learning how to squat, bench, and deadlift. If you’re currently at a gym that doesn’t have barbells, squat racks, or bench press stations, you won’t be able to practice the lifts. You can still get strong without this equipment, so if you’re stuck at Planet Fitness for now, any muscle you build with dumbbells and machines will still benefit you later.
As a beginner, any training program that has a lot of squat, bench, and deadlift will prepare you for a meet. If you’re more experienced, you would benefit from seeking out powerlifting-specific training programs that focus your efforts on the things that will make you most competitive. For that reason, getting a powerlifting coach is going to be really helpful, as well. You can find one at your local powerlifting gym, or do your research and find a good one online.
It also really helps to make friends with people who are into powerlifting, or at least to hang around powerlifters. (Pro tip: Join a powerlifting gym, not just a commercial gym that happens to have barbells.) By doing so, you’ll get to see how other people train, and you’ll have a group of people who will love chatting about things like what meets are coming up, which singlet you should buy, and how freaking strong you’re all getting.