If you’re thinking about starting to powerlift then you’ll need to consider everything from how to structure your program to tips for your first competition. It can feel somewhat overwhelming, but in this guide, I’ll share exactly what you need to know to be successful in the sport of powerlifting.
So how do you start powerlifting? Starting powerlifting requires you to know the fundamentals in technique so that you’re optimizing your max strength and reducing the chance of injury. You should also train on a powerlifting-specific workout program that incorporates the squat, bench press, and deadlift multiple times per week.
We’re going to explore these topics and more in this article, but first…
Who Am I? And, What Will You Learn
Before diving into the concepts that will help you start powerlifting, let me briefly tell you who I am:
I’ve been a powerlifting coach for the past 15 years and the Head Coach for Team Canada Powerlifting at 7 World Championships.
I’ve worked with first-time powerlifters to World Champions.
I’ve seen people start powerlifting and fail to reach their potential because they didn’t have proper advice. And, I’ve also seen people, who in a very short time, become incredibly strong in the sport because they had the right start.
My goal with this article, and this site more generally, is to give you the most informative content around how to start powerlifting, grow your strength, and find success in competition.
Here are the topics that we’ll cover:
- What is Powerlifting?
- Why you Should Powerlift?
- Starting To Powerlift: Advice From Elite Powerlifters
- Powerlifting Technique: Top Tips For Squat, Bench Press, & Deadlift
- Powerlifting Programming: Top Tips For Structuring Your Program
- Competing in Powerlifting: Top Tips For Having A Successful First Competition
- Must-Have Powerlifting Gear
- Frequently Asked Questions
Let’s get started!
What Is Powerlifting?
Powerlifting is a sport that tests maximal strength in the squat, bench press, and deadlift.
Athletes compete in bodyweight and age categories, which is further split into male and female classes.
The goal of powerlifting is to lift as much weight as you can for 1 repetition in your given category. At the end of the competition, the heaviest squat, bench press, and deadlift are added up to give you the ‘powerlifting total’. This total is what is used to rank competitors.
We’ll discuss tips on competing later in this article.
However, a large portion of powerlifters actually never end up competing.
Many people choose to powerlift simply because they want to increase physical strength. They simply like the style of training and the reward of getting stronger, which is totally fine. You don’t have to compete to enjoy the sport.
Training for powerlifting involves doing the main competition movements frequently in your workouts. However, there is also a large focus on ‘variations’ of those movements, which we’ll discuss later when talking about programming.
The powerlifting technique is also something very specific to the sport.
How you perform the squat, bench press, and deadlift as a powerlifter will be much different than if you are a bodybuilder. This is because powerlifters want to reduce the range of motion as much as possible for each lift. They also want to use every muscle in the body when executing the movement.
The goal of powerlifting is not isolating the muscle, but coordinating all your muscles toward a single action. We’ll talk more about how to accomplish that later. But first, let’s talk about some of the benefits of powerlifting.
Why Should You Powerlift?
Here is just a brief list of the benefits you’ll get from powerlifting:
Increase maximal strength
Powerlifting is a test of how much weight you can lift. So the training involved requires you to build up strength in both your upper and lower body in various ranges of motion. This will increase physical strength not just in the gym, but in everyday life too.
Improve sport performance
If you’re someone who competes in another sport (football, hockey, lacrosse, baseball), then using powerlifting training and principles can increase your performance in those activities. You will learn how to move your body more efficiently, increase muscle mass, as well as become more durable.
Read my article on Do Squats Make You Jump Higher?
Prevent age-related muscle loss
As we age, we lose muscle mass at a faster rate than earlier in life. Based on aging studies, it’s estimated that we lose 8% of muscle mass every decade after the age of 40. High-intensity strength training, like powerlifting, has been shown to slow down this process.
Fun fact: this was the exact area of study for my Master’s thesis.
Increase bone density
Powerlifting training has been shown to increase bone density mass, which reduces your risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures. This is particularly important for older individuals, as well as athletes involved in contact sports.
A sport you can do for many years
Most sports have a shelf life on how long you can partake in them. For example, gymnastics can take a pretty heavy toll on the body, and most gymnasts don’t compete at a high level for more than 4 years. In powerlifting, as long as you’ve mastered the technique, you can compete for decades.
This is Mark Robb, who just entered into his 40th year of competitive powerlifting:
A sport not restricted by age
The sports you do as a kid are popular because there’s a lot of support for those activities. But when we get older, activities like football or hockey don’t really have a competitive division for people after University.
This is not the case for powerlifting, and you can still remain competitive regardless of the age division you compete.
Test yourself among similar individuals
If you’ve been training for a long time, you might just start to wonder how strong you are.
In other words, how strong are your lifts compared with other similar-sized individuals? Powerlifting is a great environment to put your lifting skills to test.
A context for setting and achieving goals
Some people simply need a context to set and achieve personal goals. They might not have a passion for work or other hobbies, but lifting weights provides a means for self-improvement. It’s especially motivating for people to see their numbers higher than what they previously lifted.
Give your workouts a purpose
Some people find themselves aimlessly going to the gym and not really having any deeper reason ‘why’ they’re lifting weights. Powerlifting can provide a sense of purpose for people, which keeps them more committed to their workouts and overall goals.
Starting To Powerlift: Advice From Elite Powerlifters
Before I start sharing with you some technique, programming, and competition tips, I asked some high-level powerlifters to share their advice on the best ways to start powerlifting. These are people who have years of experience and have competed at the world level.
So don’t just take it from me, take it from them!
Jessica Buettner, World Champion
Jessica Buettner shares with us that you should not be discouraged by how much weight people are lifting if you’re not at their level yet. Rather, just enjoy the process of feeling and getting stronger.
My best piece of advice is don’t put too much pressure on yourself. You don’t need fancy equipment or to lift any certain weight to do a meet, you’re just there to learn the sport and get stronger along the way. If you can, lift with people who have experience and don’t be scared to ask for help with technique. Maybe most importantly – don’t get discouraged and give up because you see people lifting heavier. Big weights come with time, so you gotta make sure you’re enjoying the journey!Jessica Buettner
Ryan Stinn, Canadian National Champion, World Games Athlete
Ryan Stinn shared with us the importance of focusing on quality technique, and not sacrificing your form to try and lift heavier weights. This is a lifter who has competed in 15 National Championships, so he definitely knows how to prioritize longevity in the sport.
Don’t sacrifice technique to make faster progress. Whether that is letting your back roud in deadlift, cutting depth in squat or pushing your butt off the bench. Refining and reinforcing technique early will pay compound interest later. Make quality progress.Ryan Stinn
Ryan mentions certain technical standards that you should follow. So this is a good time to start talking about my top technique tips for getting starting with powerlifting.
Powerlifting Technique: Top Tips For Squat, Bench Press, & Deadlift
Powerlifting technique can be divided into two parts:
- The technique that you must follow if you want to pass a lift in competition
- The technique that will get you the strongest and keep you safe/injury-free
1. The Powerlifting Standards
Any powerlifting federation that you compete in will have certain standards for each of the lifts.
There is going to be some rule around how deep you need to squat, some rule around how you can or cannot position your body on the bench for bench press, and some rule around what a lock-out position looks like in the deadlift.
If you want to learn more about the specific rules around each of the lifts, I encourage you to read my other articles:
I want to be clear:
You must practice these movement standards in training if you want any chance at passing a lift in competition. Just because you’re physically strong, doesn’t matter if you can’t lift to the technical requirements of the sport.
What I like to tell my athletes is: assume that your worst rep in training will be your best rep in competition.
Meaning, if you start breaking the movement standards in training, then don’t expect that it will magically ‘come together’ in a meet environment.
Let’s now talk about the technique that will get you strong and keep you safe.
2. Powerlifting Technique That Gets You Stronger
Here are some of my top tips for powerlifting technique when you’re getting started.
I’ll link some of my other articles in case you want to read about any of these technique concepts in greater detail.
- Start practicing a low bar squat position, which will recruit greater musculature in your glutes.
- Find your optimal squat stance based on your individual leverages. For most people, it’s likely going to be slightly outside shoulder-width, with your toes flared.
- Understand how to brace your core properly while squatting, which will create intra-abdominal pressure and protect your back.
- To initiate the squat, bend both your knees and hips simultaneously, not one before the other.
- Aim to keep the squat bar path in a straight over the mid-foot, which will increase your balance and efficiency.
- Understand the optimal knee position for your squats. It’s okay that your knees travel forward, but you want to prevent them from caving inward.
- Ensure you’re squatting deep where your hips are dropping below the plane of the knee. If you struggle with reaching proper depth, check out 9 Tips For Squatting Deeper.
- As you stand up out of the bottom of the squat, make sure the hips and barbell rise at the same tempo so that you don’t lean forward too much.
- Implement squat cues that reinforce proper mechanics. These are things like “ribs down”, “drive your shoulders back”, “claw the ground”, and “crack at the hips and knees”.
Bench Press Technique
- Learn how to do a proper bench press arch. This is where you purposely try to extend your mid-back in order to reduce the range of motion and activate the muscle fibers of your lower pec.
- Find your optimal bench press grip, which for most people will be about 2X the distance between your shoulders.
- Bring the bar down with a controlled but fast tempo so that you don’t waste energy. Make sure to practice the pause on your chest, which is required in competition.
- Ensure your elbow position is either directly underneath the barbell or slightly in front.
- Use your entire body to press the barbell, including using your legs by forcefully pressing your feet down into the floor.
- The bench press bar path should follow an ‘up and back’ trajectory (not vertical) when driving the weight off your chest.
- Drive through the mid-range so that you have a strong lock-out phase. Don’t casually lock your arms; be aggressive the entire range of motion.
- Implement bench press cues that reinforce proper mechanics. These are things like “get high on the traps”, “bend the barbell”, “meet the barbell with your chest”, and “let the shoulders fall back”.
- You can choose between deadlifting conventional or sumo. Both styles are permissible in competition.
- Find your ideal deadlift grip width. Make sure not to grip the bar too wide because it will create a longer range of motion. Also, make sure to squeeze your hands hard, so that you don’t fail on grip.
- Learn about the best deadlift back angle for your size and build. For some people, they will be slightly more bent over than others, which is totally okay.
- Keep your back straight while deadlifting. Avoid rounding, especially through the low and mid back.
- Just like the squat, you’ll want to learn how to breathe properly in the deadlift, which will protect the spine.
- Before initiating movement off the floor, make sure to “take the slack out of the barbell“, which creates full-body tension.
- Think about the initial drive from the floor as a “push”, which will activate your quads to extend the knee. Then, once you get to the knee, think about the lift as a “pull” to drive your hips toward the barbell.
- Pull aggressively into the lock-out and finish with your hips, shoulders, and knees locked. If you struggle with the lockout, read 10 Tips To Improve Your Deadlift Lockout.
- Implement deadlift cues that reinforce proper mechanics. These are things like “flex your armpits”, “shoulder blades over the barbell”, “shins to the barbell”, and “push the floor away”.
Powerlifting Programming: Top Tips For Structuring Your Program
When you start powerlifting, you’ll want to make sure that you’re on a powerlifting-specific program.
This is going to be a much different style of programming than your general strength program or bodybuilding program.
The main goal of a powerlifting program is to build your strength in the squat, bench press, and deadlift, so that you can lift as much weight as possible for 1 repetition.
Powerlifting programs are usually based on a percentage of your 1 rep max, and these percentages are progressed week-to-week in some form or fashion.
Furthermore, powerlifting programs will give you a high amount of practice with the squat, bench press, and deadlift, including several variations of these exercises. The idea is to develop specific strength in these movements (and only these movements), and also work on weak parts within the range of motion.
There are no shortages of powerlifting programs on the internet.
You have the option to choose from:
- Free templates (Sheiko, Smolov, 5-3-1)
- Paid templates (MyStrengthBook)
- Group powerlifting programming (a coach writes a single program for multiple athletes)
- Individualized powerlifting program (a coach writes a tailored program to your specific needs)
Whether you’re just starting or you have a few years of lifting experiences under your belt, I encourage you to find a powerlifting coach who can design an individualized training program for your specific needs.
While this is the more expensive choice out of the options above (typically ranging from $100-200/month), you will make more significant progress at a faster rate rather than doing something generalized, which may either be too easy or too difficult for your current abilities.
Notwithstanding, working with a powerlifting coach will give you the ability to ask questions related to competing in powerlifting, which is critical if you want to show up to your first competition prepared.
I can’t tell you how many times I see new athletes on game-day without the proper support, and aren’t able to translate their strength effectively on the competitions platform.
Powerlifting Programming Basics
Regardless of the powerlifting program you decide to implement, it should incorporate the following concepts:
- Periodization: Some form of long-term plan that takes into account when you are going to ‘peak’ your strength for a 1 rep max test or competition.
- Frequency: The amount of exposure to the powerlifting movements throughout the week; typically performing the squat, bench press, and deadlift 2-3 times per week.
- Specificity: The idea that the training stimulus should be specific to the intended goal. As you get closer to your 1 rep max test or competition (4-6 weeks prior), make sure you’re performing the powerlifting movements in their competition form, not variations of the movement.
- Type of adaptation: The short-term goal of the training cycle. A mix of adaptation types should be implemented depending on the phase of training, from building muscle (higher volumes) to building strength (higher intensity).
- Progressive overload: This means that you’re doing ‘more’ of ‘something’ over time. This could be: doing more weight for the same number of reps doing more reps with the same load, doing more sets with the same or increasing load, or any combination thereof.
- Exercise selection: The types of exercise you implement, which should support the powerlifting movements and your specific areas of need. For example, using boards for bench press to develop lock-out strength or deficit deadlifts to work on speed and positioning off the floor.
- Recovery: Ensuring that you have planned deload periods to manage proper recovery. This means keeping track of any dips in your performance or signs of fatigue.
Competing In Powerlifting: Top Tips For Having A Successful First Competition
Let’s now talk about competing in the sport of powerlifting – how you should mentally approach it, how to register, and tips for game day.
The Competition Mentality
Competing in powerlifting is an exciting step for lifters.
It will give you an opportunity to realize your hard-earned training efforts.
But many first-time lifters overthink it. They believe they need to be a ‘certain level of strength’ before they start competing.
So they wait.
And wait some more.
And they just keep pushing forward their competition date.
Some might never take the final step and decide to compete because their stuck waiting.
The reality is that you’ll never feel prepared lifting at your first competition. You will always feel like you’re not strong or prepared enough.
What you need to realize is that the first competition isn’t necessarily about ‘testing your strength’, but rather, learning what the competition environment looks and feels like.
If you’ve never done a powerlifting competition, then you won’t know what a weigh-in or warm-up room looks like. You won’t know how it will feel lifting in front of three judges. You won’t know how to optimize your warm-up strategy or attempt select strategy based on meet-day conditions.
There are countless variables that you only get in the competition environment that you don’t get in the training environment. All of which will affect your performance.
This is why you need to treat your first competition as a learning experience more than anything else.
If you’re stuck waiting to get to a point where you ‘feel’ strong enough to compete, you will be inadequately prepared to realize your strength on game day anyways given all of the competition variables you aren’t able to practice in training.
At your first competition, you should…
Expect that you will make mistakes.
Expect that you won’t know all of the rules.
Expect that you won’t feel entirely comfortable.
But know that after the first one is out of the way, you’ll be far more prepared to reach new levels of strength at your second competition.
This is why when I’m coaching an athlete to their first competition, I always structure two meets within relatively short proximity within one another (a couple of months apart).
We use the first competition to learn as much as we can about being in a powerlifting competition, and the second one to shoot for numbers that we haven’t done previously. Notice the first competition doesn’t have any goals around numbers per se.
Let’s now talk about how to sign up for your first competition.
Signing Up For Your First Competition
It’s a fairly simple process to sign up for your first competition. There are a few fees you need to pay, but let’s break it down now.
1. Get connected with your governing powerlifting body
In your local or surrounding area there will likely be a powerlifting presence.
This is the case if you’re living in North America, as every state and province has a governing powerlifting body.
If you live in the US, go to USA Powerlifting and then navigate to your specific state.
If you live in Canada, go to the Canada Powerlifting Union and then navigate to your specific province.
2. Find a calendar of events
You should be able to see a calendar of events for upcoming competitions.
If you’re unsure, you can always email your State or Provincial Registrar and they can provide that information to you.
I encourage you to pick a competition with the least amount of travel as possible. If you can sleep in your own bed prior to the competition, this will reduce the stress of having to figure out all those travel details.
3. Submit the entry form
The entry form can be submitted online along with the costs to enter. The entry form will ask you to select an age and weight class.
You should familiarize yourself with the age classes HERE (scroll to page 3). You can compete as a sub-junior, junior, open, or master lifter.
If you’re competing at a local competition, it doesn’t matter what weight class you pick because if you ‘miss weight’ you simply compete in the higher bodyweight category.
Don’t worry about cutting weight for your first competition anyways. Just compete at whatever bodyweight you walk around normally, even if this is in between two classes. It’s not as big of a deal as you think it is.
4. Sign up to be a member
Each year you will need to register to be part of your local State or Provincial powerlifting association.
When you compete you need to be an active member, so make sure it’s up to date. You can complete this online, and you will be emailed a copy of your ‘membership card’. You need to bring this card with you on game day.
Top Tips For Game Day
Once you’ve signed up to compete, here are some tips and best practices to follow on game day:
- Practice your competition commands: Each lift has a command that the chief referee uses to instruct the athlete when to begin and end the movement. Practice these commands in training before the competition.
- Show up early and get your rack heights: The rack heights are where the barbell sits on the rack. These heights are adjusted for each lifter, and you need to provide both squat and bench press heights in the weigh-in.
- Be prepared for your weigh-in: You need to bring your membership card, opening attempts in kilos, and your rack heights. Make sure you do your lbs to kilo conversions ahead of time. The referees will kick you out of the weigh-in room if you’re not prepared.
- Put all of your competition gear in a separate bag: Referees will want to check the gear and clothing you will wear on your platform. If you have this equipment in a separate bag when you show up, it’s easier to check versus wearing it on your body.
- Be prepared for your warm-ups: Have a plan for how many warm-ups you’re going to take, and practice these in training as you build up to your heavier weights.
- Plan your opening attempt to be light: Your opening attempts should be something you can easily do 3 reps with. It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.
- Follow your 60-second rules: Once the announcer says “bar is loaded”, you have 60-seconds to get the command from the referee to start the lift. After the lift, you have 60-seconds to give the score table your next attempt.
- If you miss a lift, repeat the same number: A lot of lifters think that if they miss a lift based on a technical infraction that they should go up in weight. It’s much harder to correct a technical infraction in the competition setting if you haven’t practiced it in training.
Must-Have Powerlifting Gear
There is no shortage of powerlifting gear that you can get your hands on.
But, you should know the difference between the mandatory powerlifting gear you need to wear in a competition (as required by the rules) and the optional gear that might provide a bit of extra support, but is not required.
Read my full article on powerlifting gear.
Mandatory Powerlifting Gear
Here is what powerlifters must wear in a powerlifting competition.
Something on your feet
There is a rule that says you must always wear a ‘sole’ while competing.
So just make sure you bring the pair of shoes that you normally use in training – you can’t go barefoot.
All lifters will wear a one-piece suit. My favorite singlet is the Titan Triumph (check sizig and today’s price) because it has thicker material, so it never becomes see-through and it provides a secure fit.
Crew Neck T-Shirt
You have to wear a t-shirt under your lifting singlet. It shouldn’t have any large logos or pockets, and must be crew-neck style, not v-neck or otherwise.
Optional Powerlifting Gear
The optional powerlifting gear is equipment that provides extra support so you can lift more weight.
The three pieces I would recommend getting when starting are knee sleeves, lifting belt, and wrist wraps.
There are many to choose from, but my favorite is the Titan Yellow Jacket Knee Sleeves (check sizing and today’s price).
These sleeves are easy to get on but are tight-fitting so you get a ton of support. The newest versions are extremely durable too, so you won’t have a problem with the stitches fraying.
I prefer a lever belt, which is easy to get on and off. My favorite is the Economy Lever Belt from LiftingLarge.com (check sizing and today’s price). Lifting belts must follow certain specs to wear in competition, and this one meets those criteria.
Just follow the sizing chart to determine your fit.
You can wear wrist wraps for heavy squat and bench press. They’re a cheap purchase and will protect your wrists.
I’ve tried dozens of wrist wraps over the years and my favorite is the Titan Signature Series (check sizing and today’s price). They’ll last a long time and give you the support needed. I’d go with the 24-inch size.
Frequently Asked Questions
These are some common questions I get when talking with new powerlifters.
Do You Need a Powerlifting Coach?
There are many powerlifters who ‘self-coach’, which means they write their own programs. However, a powerlifting coach can often construct a much more thorough and comprehensive program structure. In addition, powerlifting coaches can offer mental skills training, technique analysis, and competition day support. I would highly encourage you to hire a powerlifting coach when starting.
Is Powerlifting An Individual or Team Sport?
At most levels, powerlifting is an individual sport where your lifts will determine your own placing. However, at the international level, athletes also compete as part of their nation, where athletes get points for top placings, which can then be added up to rank each country’s results.
Can You Start Powerlifting At Any Age?
Yes, you can start powerlifting at any age. This is because lifters compete as part of age categories. It’s common to see athletes in their 50s and 60s competing in their first competition.
The key to starting to powerlift is to master your technique, stick to a powerlifting program that’s suitable for your current abilities, and sign up for your first competition as soon as possible so you can begin practicing your competition skills.