Written by Meghan Burrows | Photography by Paul Buceta | Athlete Tarun Kaur Dhaliwal
Hair/Makeup Monica Kalra
The phrase “crush a PR” has become commonplace in the lifting world, but when it comes to athletes who powerlift, these A-type personalities mean business. “What makes powerlifting really special is the fact that it’s only about getting strong as heck,” says Hannah Gray, CPT, certified powerlifting coach, and national-level referee and powerlifter. “Generally, the people who are attracted to powerlifting have had enough of trying to get fit to make their bodies look a certain way and just want to build strength and have some fun doing it. For women especially, it’s about throwing the social norms out the window and taking up space.” Getting fired up at just the thought? Chalk those hands and prepare to lift like you’ve never lifted before.
What Is Powerlifting?
Powerlifting consists of three attempts at max weight in three big lifts: Squat, bench press, and deadlift—in that order. But it’s so much more than lifting heavy things and then putting them back down. Powerlifting follows a periodized strength training approach (meaning, deliberately manipulating variables to optimize performance and avoid injury), and values efficiency, safety, and strength. In powerlifting, the body is exposed to different stressors over a period of time, and these periods are organized appropriately to develop a training plan within each workout and strength cycle ranging from 4-6 weeks at a time.
There are entire gyms dedicated to optimizing the perfect lift, from calibrated plates, to specialized competition and training bars, chains, bands, and plywood 2” and 3” boards to help increase your bench press. You don’t need to join a specialized gym to get started, though. You’ll just need the basics of a learning attitude, dedicated time to complete your workout, and a coach or experienced lifter to help you cement correct movement patterns before loading up the bar.
And while powerlifting is seemingly all about physical strength, Gray notes that the mental game is an undeniable factor. “Of course there are health and body composition benefits—you can’t move hundreds of kilos in every workout and not see results,” she begins. “But what makes you physically strong makes you mentally strong, too. Every time you approach the bar and have that moment of fear: “Can I do this?” and then you overcome it, it builds confidence. It’s meditative—you have to check all your baggage at the door because when you’re trying not to die under a heavy barbell, you can’t think about work tomorrow or what to make for dinner when you get home.”
Finding a Coach
If you already have experience in a gym and are comfortable with a barbell and the basic lifts, you can look into online or in-person coaching. If you have never tried these lifts, start by finding an in-person coach or experienced lifter to get you set up with basic movement patterns for squat, bench press, and deadlift.
Coaching for powerlifting is very accessible, so before hiring a coach based on their Instagram bio, do some research around their experience with the sport and send an initial email to ask some questions around their coaching style, such as if they include video reviews (if coaching online) and how they will support you during your programming. If you don’t have the resources to hire a coach, begin filming your lifts with lighter loads (a great app is Coach’s Eye) so you can see if your form is strong enough to begin adding more load and shift into a powerlifting program.
In both cases, experienced or non-experienced lifters benefit from starting their journey in a community. Finding a gym that has the equipment you need, with people who are knowledgeable and supportive, will lead to more motivation and greater self-confidence than most people can achieve by lifting on their own.
Many powerlifting newbies start with the intent to compete, which can be dangerous as the rush to get to the stage can leave you with some gaps in the foundations of lifting and a lack of motivation to stay consistent post-competition. “It’s natural to be excited about learning a new sport and want to jump in with both feet, but remember to start where you are right now, and put in effort that’s sustainable,” advises Gray. “Keep in mind that the athletes you see on competition platforms or social media started by lifting an empty bar at first.”
If you’re ready to compete or even progress your strength in your lifts, it would be beneficial to hire someone to create a program that’s tailored to your specific body (injuries included). If you’re creating your own program, research periodized strength training to create your own progressive overload plan with weights that work for your body.
Switching over to a Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale to determine how much weight you should load on the bar is a great way to progress and understand how much effort each lift should take. The RPE scale goes from 1-10 with one being a super-easy warm-up rep, to a 10, which would be a max effort and you would not be able to do any more reps. For example, if you were to be assigned a squat at an RPE of 8.5, you would choose a weight where after the last rep of the last set you could still do 1.5 more squats with that weight.
Get Into Gear
Powerlifting accessories can include Olympic lifting shoes for squats and bench, flat shoes or deadlifting socks to reduce the distance that the bar travels from the ground, wrist wraps for bench, a belt to help you brace during heavier lifts, bands for warming up, chalk to help with sweaty hands, and of course your water bottle and favorite tunes. While these things are nice to have, they are by no means essential. Start with what you have and build up your kit as you go. Give yourself time to determine how your specific body is built and which tools can help you achieve max efficiency.
Powerlifting tests your limits by hitting a max PR in each of these three lifts, in this order. Here are some insider tips to get you started.
This is short form for a traditional back squat. For powerlifting, a lift must reach depth (when the hip joint is below the knee joint) to be considered a valid attempt. Playing around with your squat stance and positioning of the bar, either high on the back or lower, can help immensely when loading up with heavier weights. The best cue? Tear the floor in half. This means to grip the floor with both feet and pretend you’re trying to rip the floor in two between your hips, resulting in excellent stability and a brace to keep your core supporting the lower back.
This refers to a traditional barbell bench press and is technically the most difficult lift to execute at competition. In a powerlifting bench press, if your feet don’t quite reach the floor as you’re lying on the bench, you can use blocks underfoot in competition. If this is you, it’s recommended that you train with blocks underfoot. Bench press in powerlifting requires control at the chest, and training will include pauses at the chest to help the lifter maintain tension under load.
The most exciting and final lift. This lift can be done in a sumo (wide legged), conventional (feet hip-width apart), or hybrid stance (any stance between those two.) This lift requires a lot of patience and many variations in order to get stronger. The best cue: Keep the bar against your shins. Ideally, your shoulders are in the same position from start to finish, and the bar will travel as close to the body as possible.