We’ve all heard about powerlifting athletes who are always lifting heavy weights, pushing their limits, and complaining about injuries or nagging pain way too often. Is this a natural part of the sport? Is powerlifting too hard on the body?
Will Powerlifting Destroy Your Body? Powerlifting will not destroy the body, as long as the lifter possesses proper technique, realistic volume loads, appropriate training frequencies, and injury management skills. Training with these principles in mind will allow lifters to achieve short-term and long-term benefits.
Although there are benefits to be had, if we do not train with these principles in mind, there is a higher chance of injury and reinjury in the sport. In this article, we’ll discuss how to avoid destroying your body, and look at common injuries for each competition lift.
Is Powerlifting Destroying Your Body?
It is unlikely that powerlifting itself is destroying our body, and more likely that our decisions and use of the sport is causing us issues. The powerlifting movements themselves are relatively safe when performed correctly and with longevity in mind, rather than for short-term gain or “ego lifting”.
Although injuries seem to be common in powerlifting, when we successfully apply the scientific principles of strength training (overload, progression, specificity, periodization, and individuality), athletes will develop stronger muscles, bones, and connective tissues over time, that will minimize the risk of injury.
While people often think that maximal loads at powerlifting competitions are responsible for the majority of body pain or injury, competitions are actually less likely to result in injury than day-to-day training sessions. That is to say that, most powerlifting injuries happen while training instead of competing – which is likely from training too heavy, too often, and with inadequate technique.
In addition, although powerlifting has a bad reputation for athletes getting injured, it actually has a lower rate of injury than most other sports – specifically contact sports.
Factors That Can Contribute To Powerlifting Destroying Your Body
The way that we train for powerlifting will determine if powerlifting is more likely to destroy our body, specifically by:
- Training Without Proper Periodization
- Inadequate Technique
- Pushing Through Pain
1. Training Without Proper Periodization
If we are lifting maximally or with near maximum loads too often in the gym, we are not allowing our body to recover enough between sessions to repair the tissue damage caused by exercise. If tissues do not repair, they are more susceptible to failure, which leads to injury.
The mentality of athletes who lift too heavy too often, tends to be to train “harder” despite feeling fatigued or beat up. We’ve all most likely heard the saying “train smarter, not harder”, but I prefer the concept of training smarter, so that we CAN train harder when the time comes to peak for competition or test our maxes.
There is a time to push our performance, and a time to stay patient to recover and build a strong foundation.
Take a read at my other article on How Often Should Powerlifters Deload.
2. Inadequate Technique
Limited Movement Capacities
If we lack mobility or stability in certain joints, it will affect the way we perform the competition lifts. If we do not address these limitations, and instead load the movement heavily or repetitively, we significantly increase the risk of injury.
When one muscle or joint is unable to perform its duties correctly, another muscle or joint must compensate. The compensating structure is most likely not designed to bear the load of the dysfunctional muscle or joint, which can lead to injury by stressing this structure in ways it was not prepared for.
For example: If we are squatting but we have limited ankle mobility, our knees are not able to travel as far forward, which forces us to hit competition depth by compensating at the hip. This leads to a more horizontal torso position and often rounding of the spine, which places unnecessary strain on the hip and spinal structures – especially when done repetitively or under heavy loads.
Fatigue causes a significant amount of injuries because it leads to breakdown in technique.
Initial breakdowns in technique will come from the weakest area, and will affect the rest of the lift by shifting the load to other tissues or by simply failing the lift. Either outcome is not a good one, as stressing tissues beyond their limit can lead to injury, and failing a lift can lead to increasing fatigue and affect recoverability.
Fatigue occurs by pushing past our limits with too much volume – this could be from sets with high repetitions, multiple sets at heavy loads, or training frequencies that do not allow for adequate recovery.
If you’re sick and concerned whether or not it’s safe to train, read my article on Powerlifting With A Cold: Should You Do It?
Oftentimes, lifters have the movement capacities to reach the ideal positions to perform the lift, but have developed “bad habits” over time that affect their ability to lift optimally.
If we do not address these deficiencies, our lifts will most likely reach a point where they stop progressing and/or our bodies will get very cranky and possibly injured.
For example, letting the chest collapse when the barbell reaches its touch point on the chest, rather than keeping tension and allowing the chest to meet the bar. As the weight gets heavier, this collapse will inhibit our ability to press off the chest.
3. Pushing Through Pain
Some powerlifters make the mistake of pushing through pain, when they should be taking a step back to allow the affected area to recover.
This does not mean that an injured lifter cannot train, as there are most likely other areas that are unaffected that can benefit from the extra attention.
The affected area can also likely be trained after the initial inflammation stage has surpassed; however, the injured area should be loaded gradually and strategically.
The issue many lifters have is that when a previously injured area begins to feel better, they are quick to add weight to the bar rather than slowly progressing – resulting in overloading the healing tissue and re-injuring the area.
How You Can Prevent Getting Hurt From Powerlifting
- Follow A Periodized Program
- Correct Your Technique
- Develop An Injury Management Plan
1. Follow A Periodized Program
Following a properly periodized program, will prevent us from getting carried away with the weight on the bar in the short-term, and instead shift the focus to long-term success.
Proper periodization allows us to build movement capacities, strengthen movement patterns, reach peak performance levels, and then recover. These stages are all equally important to become stronger and more resistant to injury over time.
Read my articles on:
2. Correct Your Technique
Improve Movement Capacities
To address limited movement capacities, we must first know where the limitations are.
Some lifters have enough background knowledge to identify a mobility/stability issue; however, if we do not, we should seek out a qualified professional (physiotherapist with strength training experience).
Once the deficiency is identified, we can take the necessary steps to correct the capacity issue, and then work to integrate this new capacity into our competition lift through repetition.
Some of my other articles you can check out are:
- How To Fix Knee Valgus During Squats
- How To Fix Losing Tension At The Bottom Of The Squat
- How To Fix The “Good Morning Squat”
- How To Fix An Uneven Bench Press
- How To Fix Hips Shooting Up In The Deadlift
- How To Keep Your Back Straight Deadlifting
Fix “Bad” Movement Patterns
It’s important to recognize which aspect of the lift is causing issues so we can lower the weight and correct the movement.
Taking videos of our lifts and using it as external feedback is a valuable tool for identifying what our lift looks like, compared to what it should look like to be optimal.
If we are unable to identify these faulty mechanics, we can send our video to an expert for assessment and feedback on what needs improvement.
Once initial steps have been taken to correct our movement, we should build back up slowly ensuring that our new technique stays consistent. If a certain weight on the bar causes us to revert back to our “bad” technique, we should consider spending more time at lighter percentages to encourage proficiency.
Check out my resources on:
3. Develop An Injury Management Plan
When an injury occurs, we should first identify why the injury occured and which structural and/or muscular tissues were affected.
The best way to get these answers is to see a physiotherapist (preferably one who is familiar with lifting techniques). In addition to the what and the why, they should give you a better idea of how you can heal the affected area and build back stronger.
Secondly, when an injury occurs we need to realize that any attempt to push through the pain is most likely going to prolong the recovery.
Instead, we can prioritize exercises for other areas of the body, or exercises for the tissues surrounding the affected area that will work to stabilize the joint depending on the severity of the injury. (ex: strengthening the abductors or adductors for an injured knee to better stabilize the area, without having to bend or extend the knee joint)
Lastly, once the area is recovered to the point that we are able to start performing the competition lifts again, we need to build back to our pre-injury weights gradually.
Although the tissue may not be painful at this time, it is not strong enough to withstand sudden heavy loads. We must build the strength of the tissue over multiple weeks by increasing volume and/or weight, and monitoring symptoms after each increase.
Common Powerlifting Injuries
While we can take precautions, sometimes injuries can occur without warning to even the best athletes, and we must do our best to adapt.
Data collected on powerlifting injuries suggests that 22%–32% of injuries are related to the squat, 18%–46% to the bench press, and 12%–31% to the deadlift. Some injuries were from sudden overloads of the tissue or joint, but most were overuse injuries from repetitive strain.
- SI Joint Dysfunction
- Knee Pain (IT Band Syndrome, Patellar Tendonitis)
- Hip Pain (Hip Flexor Impingement, Hip Flexor Strain, Adductor Strain)
The most common squat injuries are related to overuse, rather than sudden overloading of the tissues.
This means that we may be able to minimize these injuries by improving our technique to avoid compensations of these joints/tissues, and by enhancing our recovery strategies through proper programming.
Learn more about how our joint angles can help maximize different muscle groups in the squat, by checking out our Complete Guide To Muscles Used In The Squat
- Shoulder Pain (Impingement, Rotator Cuff Strain)
- Pectoralis Major Strain or Ruptures
- Tricep Tendonitis
- Wrist Pain
These common injuries are mostly related to overuse (except Pectoralis Major Ruptures) and can most likely be minimized by deloading regularly, and mastering technique.
The technique that lifters adapt will influence which muscles are more likely to become “overused” with inadequate recovery.
For example, lifters who bench with a narrower grip will put more emphasis on their triceps and those with a wider grip will put more emphasis on their chest in the bench press. Those with a wider grip and an aggressive arm adduction, will put more strain on the rotator cuff as they are having to externally rotate the arm in this position in order to touch the barbell to their chest.
To learn more about the variations in positioning for the bench press, check out our Complete Guide To The Muscle Used In The Bench Press
- Herniated Discs
- Bicep Tendon Strain or Ruptures
- Hamstring or Glute Strains
Deadlift injuries are more commonly caused by overloading the tissues by lifting heavy loads with poor technique. Lifters can minimize their risk of these injuries by maintaining a neutral spine throughout the lift, keeping the bar close to the body, avoiding locking out the knees prematurely, and avoiding steroid use (steroids weaken tendons).
To help identify areas of weakness in the deadlift, check out our Ultimate Guide For Muscles Used In The Deadlift
Long Term Effects Of Powerlifting On The Body
The long-term effects of powerlifting will vary based on how we train, and how we manage injuries when they occur. All individuals will benefit from strength training but with insufficient training habits and injury management abilities, the harm could outweigh the benefits.
When training correctly, we maximize our body’s ability to adapt to resistance training by increasing bone density, building more resilient tendons and ligaments, and developing more lean muscle mass.
While these qualities are beneficial for everyone, they are increasingly important as we age. Powerlifting with longevity in mind allows us to build the necessary strength to have a better quality of life as we get older.
Quality of life as we age looks like being more independent, being able to get out of chairs, having more balance and coordination to prevent falls, and to become overall less frail than those who do not strength train.
However, if we powerlift with only short-term goals in mind and give in to “ego lifting” throughout our powerlifting career, we are more likely to destroy our body in the long run due to such as wear and tear of joints and tissues from nagging injuries. These injuries and discomforts will only become more troublesome over time, if left untreated or improperly managed.
Although seemingly hard on the body, powerlifting has less potential of destroying our body than most team sports – which are deemed relatively safe. That being said, in order to maximize longevity in the sport and improve quality of life as we age, we need to train with proper technique, reasonable volume-loads, manage injuries appropriately and take time off to recover.
Now that you know powerlifting won’t destroy your body, check out my article discussing whether powerlifting will make you fat.