What Is Powerlifting? (Definitive Guide)

Powerlifting is coined the “strongest sport in the world”.

So what is powerlifting? Athletes in powerlifting compete in the squat, bench press, and deadlift to see who can lift as much weight as possible for 1 rep. Powerlifters have three attempts to reach their maximum weight and are ranked in body-weight and age categories. The winner is determined by who has the highest powerlifting total.

As you will read, powerlifting is a sport that tests maximal strength. We’ll cover the sport rules, how powerlifting technique differs from other activities, differences between raw powerlifting vs equipped, and who does powerlifting.

If you’re interested in learning more about powerlifting, I encourage you to read my beginner’s guide on How To Start Powerlifting.


Table of Contents


The Sport of Powerlifting

what is powerlifting
The sport of powerlifting includes the squat, bench press, and deadlift

The Basics

Powerlifting is an individual sport where the goal is to lift the most amount of weight possible in the squat, bench press, and deadlift in a specific weight and age category.

Athletes have three attempts to reach their maximum capacity and must follow strict technique rules so that everyone is compared equally. For example, everyone must squat to a certain depth or else the lift doesn’t count (we’ll cover the powerlifting rules in more detail later).

The heaviest squat, bench press, and deadlift that are successfully lifted are added up to give athletes a “powerlifting total”. This total is what’s used to rank athletes amongst each other. So just because someone may have a strong bench press, doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be a good powerlifter.

Powerlifting Federations

Worldwide there are several powerlifting federations that govern the sport. Each federation has slightly different technical rules, weigh-in protocols, and policies around drug testing.

With that said, the largest governing body is the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF), with just over 100 countries that are affiliated. The IPF provides the most competitive drug-tested federation in the World, attracting the strongest natural powerlifters.

In the United States, the IPF affiliate is USA Powerlifting, which has a presence in all 50 states.

Bodyweight & Age Categories

powerlifting bodyweight categories
Differences between bodyweight and age categories

In powerlifting competition, athletes compete in a bodyweight and age category.

The bodyweight categories are:

  • For men: 59kg/130lbs, 66kg/145lbs, 74kg/163lbs, 83kg/183lbs, 93k/205lbs, 105kg/231lbs, 120kg/264lbs, 120+kg/264lbs+
  • For women: 47kg/103lbs, 52kg/114lbs, 57kg/125lbs, 63kg/139lbs, 72kg/158lbs, 84kg/185lbs, 84+kg/185lbs+

Note: If you are a sub-junior or junior athlete, then there is an additional bodyweight category you can compete – 53kg for men and 43kg for women.

The age categories are:

  • Sub-Junior: 14-18 years old
  • Junior: 19-23 years old
  • Open: Anyone can compete
  • Master 1: 40-49 years old
  • Master 2: 50-59 years old
  • Master 3: 60-69 years old
  • Master 4: 70+

Levels of Competition

Depending on your strength and desire, you can compete at five levels of competition. Typically, you must compete at each level in the order that’s outlined below in order to qualify for the next.

1. Local

Athletes will start powerlifting by competing in a local competition, which is usually run by a gym or powerlifting club. The competition is not usually that deep, meaning several weight classes might only have a couple of athletes. At this level it’s not about ‘competing against someone else’, but simply doing the best you can for your own individual abilities.

2. State or Provincial

Once you’ve done a couple of local competitions, you may qualify for the State or Provincial Championships. Each jurisdiction will have different requirements to compete at this level, which may include having competed in a number of local competitions or reaching a qualification standard. There may be more people in your age and weight class at this level to compete against.

3. Regional

A regional event is where you compete against some of the best lifters in a specific region.

There are qualifying standards to compete at a Regional Championship, as the goal is to bring a higher level of competition to these events. However, not all countries are big enough to have a Regional Championship.

4. National

The National Championships bring together the best of all the lifters from each state/province and region. These events have a rigorous qualification process, including having to lift a specific powerlifting total for your weight and age category. The competition at this level is very deep with several athletes competing amongst each other.

5. International

Athletes who win their weight and age category will make the National Team. These athletes hold their spot on the team for usually one year, which qualifies them for any international event, including the World Championships. At this stage, you are one of the strongest people in the World.

IPF Points: Determining The Best Overall Lifter

As I mentioned earlier, athletes compete in a weight and age class and ranked 1st, 2nd, and 3rd based on their powerlifting totals.

However, there is also another award that is given out to athletes, which is called the “Best Overall Lifter”. For the “Best Overall Lifter” Award, the IPF Points system is used. The IPF Points system is a mathematical formula that compares athletes across different weight categories.

It’s essentially a way to measure ‘relative strength’. For example, someone who weighs heavier should be able to lift more absolute weight compared with someone who weighs less. But someone who weighs less might be stronger based on their relative body weight.

This is where the IPF Points formula comes into play. You take your powerlifting total along with your weight and multiply it by a coefficient to give you the IPF Points. At the end of the powerlifting event, one award for males and females is given to athletes based on IPF Points to determine the “Best Overall Lifter”.

You can find the IPF Points Calculator HERE.

The Powerlifting Technique: What Makes It Different?

Powerlifting technique is different than other types of lifting

The powerlifting technique is special in four ways:

1. Powerlifters are concerned about how you can manipulate the movement to recruit as much musculature as possible.

In powerlifting, the goal is not necessarily to isolate an individual muscle group while performing the squat, bench press, or deadlift. But rather, the purpose is to coordinate your actions to produce as much force as possible by using all contributing muscle groups.

2. Powerlifters aim to reduce the range of motion that the barbell travels as much as possible.

If powerlifters can accomplish a reduced range of motion, then they are ultimately doing less work to accomplish the task.

As such, you’ll notice powerlifters using techniques such as a bench press arch to limit how far the barbell travels to the chest during the bench press. This is also why you’ll see some lifters using the sumo deadlift versus conventional deadlift because the sumo pull will be less bar travel from floor to lockout.

3. Powerlifters are always thinking about maintaining the safest movement patterns possible in order to avoid pain and injury.

While this is a goal for all people who lift weights, for powerlifters, it’s especially top-of-mind because of the sheer amount of weight they’re lifting.

Powerlifters address movement deficiencies with the highest priority, including keeping their back straight while deadlifting, avoiding a good-morning squat position, and fixing an uneven bench press.

4. Powerlifters must follow certain rules in order to pass a lift in competition.

Unlike just the regular person who performs the squat, bench press, and deadlift, in the gym, powerlifters must implement specific movement standards in order to successfully pass a lift in competition.

Let’s go over those rules now!

You may be interested in learning about 55 Mistakes That First-Time Powerlifters Make.

Powerlifting Rules: Passing a Lift In Competition

Many people start powerlifting and have to re-learn how to do the squat, bench press, and deadlift according to the standards set out in the rulebook.

I wrote full guides on the powerlifting rules, which you can find here:

In short, there are two main facets of the movements that powerlifters must follow.

1. The Referee Commands

what is powerlifting, referees
Powerlifting referees give commands to start and finish the lifts

In competition, the chief referee will tell you when you can start and finish the lift.

This is because the referees want to see you control the barbell on each side of the movement. They want you to assume a specific start position and ensure that when you finish the movement that you return to that exact same starting point.

While it might seem simple, many first-time powerlifters don’t register a successful lift because they fail to listen to the referee commands in competition.

2. The Movement Standards

powerlifting rules and standards
Powerlifters must squat to a certain depth

The squat, bench press, and deadlift each of specific standards that lifters must follow.

These rules are in place so that lifters are all judged to the same standard and that no individual lifter is seen to have an advantage over another.

Some of the main rules include:

  • Squat: the hip crease must drop below the plane of the knee and there needs to be a constant forward motion of the barbell (no dipping or bouncing)
  • Bench: the barbell must pause on the chest until it’s motionless, and the lifter must keep certain points of contact on the bench and floor, including the head, buttocks, and feet.
  • Deadlift: the barbell must not rest on the thigh during the lift, and the hips, knees, and shoulders need to be ‘erect’ in the lock-out position.

Even if you lift the weight from start to finish, if you don’t follow the technical standards then you won’t be granted a successful lift.

What Is Raw Powerlifting VS Equipped Powerlifting?

There are two types of powerlifting that you can do in competition: raw (or classic) and equipped.

The difference between raw and equipped powerlifting are the kinds of equipment that you are allowed to wear.

1. Raw Powerlifting

raw powerlifting
Raw powerlifting only uses knee sleeves, wrist wraps, a belt, and singlet

Raw powerlifting is what most powerlifters do, which is wearing minimalistic equipment in competition.

You are permitted to wear knee sleeves, a belt, wrist wraps, and a singlet. You can check out my full guide on competition gear for raw powerlifting.

While these pieces of equipment do offer some support to the lifter, they don’t add a significant amount of weight to the lifts when compared with the type of equipment you can wear in the equipped category.

2. Equipped Powerlifting

equipped lifting
Equipped powerlifters use reinforced lifting suits and knee wraps

Equipped powerlifting is a more advanced style of lifting where athletes wear reinforced suits that support the joints and muscles more than just lifting in a basic singlet.

Equipped lifters wear squat suits, bench press shirts, and deadlift suits, which can add 20kg-100kg more weight than they would normally be able to lift without them. You can think of these suits like a ‘weightlifting belt for the entire body’.

In addition, rather than wearing knee sleeves, equipped lifters wear knee wraps. This adds another layer of support because of how tight you can wrap the knee joints compared with sleeves alone.

Who Does Powerlifting?

Whether you decide to compete in powerlifting or not, there are several groups who use powerlifting training principles to reap its benefits. In my experience, there are five groups of people who do powerlifting:

1. Competitive Powerlifters

There are people who do powerlifting because they were brought into the sport at a young age and have always competed in the sport. At a young age, they might have done powerlifting in conjunction with other sports, but over time, they specialize in powerlifting.

2. People Who Enjoy Getting Stronger

There are people who need a purpose in their workouts in order to find the motivation to go to the gym. For these individuals, powerlifting is a great pursuit because it offers an objective measure of success.

3. People Who Use Powerlifting For Sport Performance

There a several sport performance coaches who use the principles of powerlifting to get their athletes stronger and more durable (important for contact sports). It’s also been shown that exercises like the squat and deadlift can improve jump performance.

4. People Who Want to Maintain Their Strength After University Sports

For many people who are involved in sports in high school and university who loved to train and compete, there are few opportunities as an adult to continue such activities. These individuals turn to powerlifting as a way to continue getting stronger and fuel their competitive desires.

5. Older People Who Need To Increase Bone Density & Muscle Mass

Powerlifting principles are starting to be used in older populations that are at risk of losing their strength and mobility. For this population, strength training using the powerlifting exercises has been shown to increase bone density, offset age-related muscle loss, and decrease the risk of falling.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some frequently asked questions that I often hear when people ask what is powerlifting.

Is Powerlifting In The Olympics?

At the moment, powerlifting is not an Olympic sport. With that said, powerlifting does have representation in the Para-Olympic Games, where lower-body disabled athletes compete in the bench press. The bench press has been a Para-Olympic sport for men since 1964 and for women since 2000.

What Is The Point of Powerlifting?

The point of powerlifting is to lift as much weight as possible for 1 repetition in the squat, bench press, and deadlift.

What Is a Powerlifting Total?

The powerlifting total is a result of taking the heaviest squat, bench press, and deadlift attempt lifted in competition and adding them together. The number you get will be used to rank you among other lifters in the same body-weight and age category.

What Age Can You Start Powerlifting?

You can start powerlifting at any age if you spend time learning the proper powerlifting technique. Many powerlifters start in their 30s and 40s and compete well into their 50s. Because you compete in an age category, you are only ranked relative to your given age bracket.

Final Thoughts

Powerlifting is a strength-based sport. Powerlifters aim to increase their 1 rep max in the squat, bench press, and deadlift and compete in age and weight categories.

The sport is governed by the International Powerlifting Federation, which lays out the rules and standards for competition. If you decide to compete in powerlifting, you can do so in the raw or equipped division, although I highly recommend starting in the raw division.

If you don’t decide to compete in powerlifting, the principles still have wide-reaching benefits, which many people find guide their gym training sessions.