How to Start Powerlifting

What is Powerlifting

Other than strongman, powerlifting is the strongest sport in the world. It’s a true test of mettle made up of the 3 big lifts; bench press, deadlift and squat.

The dictionary definition of Powerlifting

Technically there are two different types of powerlifters; raw powerlifters who train with just the bare essentials (usually just a weight belt and wrist straps) and equipped powerlifters who have knee sleeves, elbow sleeves and spring loaded suits that allow lifters to bear usually around 20-25% more weight.

Powerlifter getting his knees wrapped
Equipped Powerlifter getting his knees wrapped

It’s a world made up of periodised training programs, hypertrophy and thick, muscular gains. A lack of calorie counting and diet plans (outside of competitions), hidden abs but a sense of purpose in the gym.

And I absolutely fucking love it.

Let’s be clear, I’m no Larry Wheels (world record powerlifter), but I share his sense of excitement and trepidation when thinking about training sessions or upcoming lifts. Sometimes you think about one lift for weeks on end.

If you’ve just finished a 12 week + training program, testing your strength either makes the whole thing worth it or as Larry says in his ‘day in the (LA) life’ video:

It becomes incredibly draining thinking about one lift week in week out, it can take over your life

What do I need to start Powerlifting?

Powerlifting is a relatively simple sport to start. You need access to a minimum of:

  • A Barbell
  • Weight Plates
  • A Squat Rack
  • A Bench Press
  • A Deadlift Platform

Additional ‘nice-to-haves’ would be:

  • Dumbells
  • Hypertrophy equipment (pull-up bars, kettlebells, machine weights etc)
  • Abdominal training equipment (God knows why, you’ll never get abs)

Take a look at this beautifully setup gym, Performance Ground in Holborn:

Performance Ground gym in Holborn, central London
The exquisite Performance Ground gym in Holborn, central London

Aesthetically perfect isn’t it. Beautiful Eleiko plates, branded rubber flooring, competition level squat racks and bench presses. There’s also a kitchen in the back which is actually another must-have for powerlifter.

But it doesn’t need to be this elite. You just need a gym subscription; any gym worth it’s salt will have squat racks, bench presses and deadlift platforms. If you’re looking for the best London based gyms for weightlifting, this guide should help.

Now Read: The Best Supplements for Powerlifting

Can anyone be a Powerlifter?

Yes. As long as you can perform the squat, bench press and deadlift then you can be a powerlifter. Obviously if you want to compete at an elite level then you need to be lifting some serious weight.

Women in the sub 140lb classes are deadlifting 500+lbs, so there’s no hiding places out there on the platform at the elite level.

A male in the 83kg class (like myself) would be competing against lifters like Russel Orhi (or RusSwole), who have competition totals of near 2,000lbs which is extraordinary.

Now Read: The History of Powerlifting

The elite level requires years of dedication. There’s no hard and fast rule, but if you’re injury free, start at the right age and follow the right programs (or use a coach), then there should be no limit to what you can achieve.

One of my favourite things about the sport is that there’s no excuse. We can all get to a gym, you only need 5-7 hours a week of consistent training.

It doesn’t (and shouldn’t) take over your life. It’s a background hobby that allows you to have a few pints at the weekend, eat some chips on a Wednesday night and makes you feel like you’re flying when things go right.

What are the Benefits of Powerlifting?

  1. Absolute Strength: it’s a true test of 1RM strength in the big 3 lifts
  2. Carryover: all 3 lifts are an essential part of strength training for multiple sports where the requirement is such
  3. Muscular Hypertrophy: if you eat and don’t worry too much about your weight category whilst adding in some hypertrophy work, you’ll develop in size

Limitations of Powerlifting

  1. Injuries: working with heavy weights week in week out can lead to significant injuries; technique is everything
  2. Mental Fatigue: as mentioned above, lifts can cause you to stay up at night with worry or takeover your everyday life.
  3. Overtraining: really tricky to manage for first-timers, but as your fatigue builds and the weight gets heavier, your body and mind need exceptional preparation and management

My Top 8 Tips for Powerlifting

1. Start with GPP: General Physical Preparation is essential for building a strong base. You need to improve your body’s ability to recover from stress and the fitter and stronger you get to begin with, the easier things will be in the long run.

2. Focus on Volume: As a beginner it’s tempting to jump straight in and try to lift your maximum weight. I would never promote sets with less than 5 reps in for true beginner (if that meant pushing you close to your max). You won’t be able to recover properly and you need your muscles to grow in size.

3. Do some Cardio: Look don’t think that you don’t need to be fit or in shape. Everything is more enjoyable if you’re in good condition your mentality will be stronger than ever. Throw in some HIIT one day per week or spend some time cycling or playing sport. Deadlifting and squatting especially have fantastic carryover to other sports when programmed correctly.

4. Higher Rep schemes do carryover: You might get told that anything above 5 reps won’t translate properly to powerlifting when it comes to the squat, deadlift or bench. But as you become more proficient adding in an AMRAP (As Many Reps As Possible) set for the big 3 lifts will improve your MRV (Maximum Recoverable Volume) and help build a phenomenal base.

5. The Little Things DO make a difference: Picking the right assistance exercises is absolutely crucial. You need to improve your antagonistic muscle groups for each lift in order to progress and mitigate injury.

For example, the bench press is a full body movement. You need an equally strong upper back and excellent shoulder mobility to maintain tightness. Pull-ups, shoulder mobility drills and rear deltoid accessory work is essential. You should do the same amount of volume for your upper back as for your chest. Don’t overdevelop your front delts as you’re only as strong as your weakest part.

6. Spice things up a little: Don’t just squat, bench and deadlift as a) that gets boring and b) you wouldn’t train antagonistic muscle groups. You need to have a base understanding of body composition and anatomy, which is why powerbuilding is a great introduction to powerlifting. Add in some hypertrophy work, try close grip bench presses, use dumbbells and definitely train your posterior chain.

7. Get Organised: Like all of us, you just want to show up, hit some heavy deads and then throw some weight around on the bench, but it doesn’t work like that if you want to progress. But if you don’t follow a program you won’t make any progress in the long run. You’ll plateau, get irritated and keep running the same thing until you actually go backwards. You need to follow a periodised program that is specific to you. Work on your weak points until they’re your strong points.

8. Don’t test your 1RM too frequently: As a beginner in all honesty your 1RM isn’t your true 1RM, it’s just that you’ve never tried deadlifting before. Each week you’ll improve, so testing yourself isn’t too much of an issue to begin with.

But when you get more proficient, follow a proper program and don’t test your 1RM more than 4-5 times a year. ‘Grinders’ (not the app, the lift) are so taxing on your body, so avoid them where possible. Save them for competition.

Now Read:

How to Start Powerlifting from Home

Well the bad news is you technically can’t start powerlifting from home. If we consider powerlifting to be the big 3 lifts, you won’t be able to hone technique at home unless you happen to have a barbell, squat rack and bench.

Now Read: The Best Home Gym Equipment for Powerlifters

But you can practice GPP, bodyweight training and conditioning. Press-ups, pull-ups and bodyweight squats are an effective way to build strength as a true novice and can form a core part of a conditioning circuit. Run 5 sets of the below for a beginner bodyweight program:

  • 10 press-ups
  • 5 pull-ups
  • 15 bodyweight squats
  • Plank – 1 minute

Rest 1 minute and repeat for a simple, at home bodyweight circuit. When you feel confident doing it and you’re getting stronger, try to work in some pistol squats and add weight to your press-ups and plank.

Do Powerlifters get Paid?

No. Not really. Let’s be frank, you’re not going to be Larry Wheels and even he doesn’t get paid much from actually powerlifting. I’m not saying I know the ins and outs of Larry’s finances, but I guarantee you almost none of his earnings come from powerlifting.

Sponsorships, YouTube ad revenue and apparel will be where he makes his money. He’s been able to build a personal brand that resonates with tens of thousands based on his success, back story and approach to lifting.

But if you’re looking to take up powerlifting in order to make money I’d really like to stop you there and introduce you to other ways to make money. Powerlifting is a hobby that should enrich your life, make you happy and if you stick at it for long enough, a way to build a platform as a personal brand.

It is not, I repeat not a way to make money.

But how many reps or sets should I do?

Well you need to follow a program…

Some of our favourite Powerlifting Programs

We test, create and personalise all of our own powerlifting programs and weightlifting programs at The Quest for Strength.

We’re hobbyists. We have other 9-5 jobs and we know how much additional stress you can handle. That’s why our programs are the best for the average joe.

But for beginners, the ones below are great!

5|3|1: an intermediate program that’s pretty straightforward. A set of 5, 3 and 1. I’m a huge fan of simplicity and this certainly ticks the boxes. I question whether it has enough volume to allow progression past a certain point.

The Texas Method: I have run this method pretty consistently and found it superior to other intermediate programs. A squat 5-rep PR at the end of each week keeps you mentally ready and there’s significant enough volume for long-term progression whilst managing fatigue.

Westside Barbell by Louie Simmons: AKA the Conjugate Method and the world’s strongest gym, the Conjugate Method is an elite level program that is supposed to have no limitations. All round strength training with no plateaus and every fourth week off, making best use of speed, volume and intensity. I question it’s specificity, but amazing results for geared lifters.

Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell

Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell

So how should I start Powerlifting?

This is the easy part. Start lifting. As a beginner you should be making marginal strength gains week in week out for the first 6-9 months at least.

There’s substantial debate over whether it’s more beneficial to practice more GPP (General Physical Preparation) as a beginner. By this I mean more jumps and additional exercises that are less powerlifting specific and more for building a strong base.

In my opinion, if you come from a solid sporting background that encouraged fitness and sprints, jump straight into a beginner powerlifting program with lots of isolation exercises.

As a rough guide to first stage plateaus:

Bench Press – 100kg

Squat – 140kg

Deadlift – 150kg

These were (I believe) the first strength plateaus I encountered. Obviously as a natural lifter, progress slows and you need to take a periodised approach to training if you’re looking to take it seriously.

You may also be interested in these guides to cutting and bulking

Is it easy to balance work and family commitments with Powerlifting?

As I’m sure you (like me) work full-time and enjoy a few drinks, you’ll need to manage fatigue. Obviously this is a tougher ask than for someone who is a full-time athlete, so don’t compare yourself to them.

I’ve personally found as an intermediate lifter, deadlifting heavy once per week is taxing enough (Especially with work, family and life commitments). I would then add in deadlift variation exercises for additional volume work:

  • Snatch Grip Deadlift
  • RDL
  • Deficit Deadlifts

I have found the above the most effective variations to increase volume whilst managing fatigue.

Bench press is fairly untaxing on your CNS, so I’ve found success pressing 3 times per week, twice competition style flat bench, once for volume, once a heavy paused variation.

The volume variations I prefer are:

  • Incline Bench
  • Close Grip Bench

These allow maximum carryover, whilst working with loads that are c. 20% less.

The squat I’ve found trickier to perfect with fatigue management. When I was concentrating on Olympic weightlifting, the deadlift became much more of a variation movement, so I had more time and energy to spend squatting.

I back squatted twice per week and front squatted once. Once for volume, one for a top set PR and once as a front squat. This saw substantial squat improvements, but almost no deadlift gains.

So I’m almost ready to start, but what else should I know?

The most important takeaway here is the individuality programming requires. Everyone is different, some take longer than others, specific variations will work for some not others whereas certain athletes can handle high frequency, not high volume and vice versa. This is partly based on your genetics and anthropometry.

But you can’t afraid to fail with your approach, be bold, listen to the best and enjoy yourself.

Once you’ve been lifting for a while, put your numbers into this Wilks Calculator and aim for a score of 400 to be ultra-competitive.

Have you tried powerlifting? What did you think? Let me know in the comments

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