Let’s clear the chalk-filled air about something: Many people new to the sport of powerlifting are intimidated by the proposition.
I often address how to overcome that feeling in my Unapologetically Powerful Coaching group. Sometimes the conversation is mindset based, and directly confronts whatever emotional roadblock my client feels is holding them back (whether it be the idea of more weight on the bar or discomfort over wearing a singlet in public).
But sometimes it’s not so much mindset as a simple lack of information. The playing field can look daunting if you don’t know exactly what you’re getting into. So, I spend a good chunk of time answering questions and clarifying what exactly is involved in training for and competing in powerlifting.
The more information you have about a given endeavor in advance, the more informed your decision will be to saying yes to participating, even (especially!) if it’s something you’ve never done before.
And powerlifting, once you dive in, is gripping. It’s more than a workout—it’s training for a specific, and refreshingly simple, purpose: to improve the most you can lift in the squat, bench press, and deadlift. It’s a sport that welcomes lifters of all shapes, ages and levels of experience, and you can spend years growing within the sport if you discover you love it. (But you have to give it a try first!)
If you love to lift weights but aren’t powerlifting yet, I’m inviting you to consider saying yes to starting, once you’ve read the info answering the most common questions I get asked below. Worth noting: The information I cover is based on the USA Powerlifting Rule Book. USA Powerlifting is the most popular powerlifting federation in the United States, but it’s not the only federation out there. There are many powerlifting federations all over the world and every federation—and therefore every meet—may have slight variations from what is listed below. Once you know the federation that is sanctioning your powerlifting meet, read their rulebook and get familiar with your specific playing field.
For now, let’s dive in now and get you rolling!
1. WHO CAN COMPETE IN POWERLIFTING?
Anyone who can perform a squat to just below parallel, a bench press to the chest, and a deadlift can compete in powerlifting! Powerlifting meets are organized by gender, weight class, and age.
Age groups, although dependent on the rules of the individual federations, are usually divided into Open, Teen, Junior, and Masters classes. The following are from the 2015 USAPL Rulebook:
- > Open: 14 years of age and up
- > Teen: 14 to 18 years
- > Junior: 19 to 23 years
- > Masters: 40 years and older
Hot tip: Competing in more than one class, like Masters and Open, can increase your chances of placing in a meet. (It does not, however, mean you will perform more lifts than a person entered in just one class.)
Photo credit: Martin Rittenberry
2. HOW STRONG DO YOU NEED TO BE TO COMPETE?
According to Joe Warpeha, Minnesota state chairman for the USA Powerlifting Federation, the absolute minimum amount of weight a competitor needs to be strong enough to lift in a powerlifting meet is probably less than you think. He said:
“The minimum on any lift is an empty bar plus collars. So, 55 pounds or 25 kilograms is the minimum weight.”
An empty bar with collars is doable, for the squat and bench press, but pulling a bar with no plates on it directly off the floor will make getting into a good deadlift position—with a neutral spine and braced abs—pretty tough. Fifteen-kilogram plates are the lightest plates that bring the bar to a more ideal position — roughly nine inches off the floor — and the weight to a total of 55 kilos, or 121 pounds.
If your eye is on the platform and you’re new to powerlifting, a 121-pound deadlift goal is priority number one.
3. HOW DOES PLACING WORK?
There are different weight classes you compete within, yet even within those, body weight is factored into the formula used for overall scoring, called the Wilks Coefficient. For instance, if a 150-pound woman and a 151-pound women (both competing in the same 158-pound class) both deadlift 225 pounds, the 150-pound will receive a slightly higher score than the 151-pound woman for that lift.
Since it’s every lifter for themselves on competition day, placing depends on one thing: who shows up to compete! At my very first meet I took home third place because I was the third strongest woman to show up that day and I’m not going to lie: winning medals is very fun. (I can’t wait for you to find this out for yourself!)
4. DO YOU HAVE TO JOIN A TEAM OR CAN YOU LIFT ALONE?
You don’t, of course, have to train with anyone else, but having a training buddy or buddies can help keep you accountable to your program and introduce a belly-laughing amount of fun to the experience.
If you want to train with like-minded folk but are unsure of where to begin, here are three tips to get you started:
Do a Google
Finding fellow lifters can be as simple as doing an online search for “powerlifting gyms in [your city].” Many states have established powerlifting communities, and doing a simple search for gyms that cater to the barbell-slinging type can yield a number of results. Another search option: type in www.powerliftingwatch.com, add a “/” after that, and then spell out the name of your state after that. That will take you to your home state’s powerlifting page. There you will find a list of powerlifting gyms in your area.
Reach out to these gyms via email, telephone, or social media. Introduce yourself and let them know your lifting experience (even if it’s none and you are looking to gather some) and ask if you can drop by for a visit for a look- see. When you go, trust your gut to determine if it’s a good fit or not. A welcoming and supportive community is important, and the right place for you will welcome you right under their wing.
Crowd Source on Facebook
“I like lifting. Lifting’s my favorite. Does anyone I know compete in powerlifting or know someone who does?” (Hat tip to those of you who caught the Elf reference.) But seriously, use your social network to reach out. Chances are excellent that Aunt Mary’s old roommate from college’s son’s girlfriend has a friend that lifts at a gym who doesn’t set off a Lunk Alarm when you drop a barbell on the floor. Leverage your existing network (even if they aren’t fellow meatheads) and you may yield surprising answers.
Recruit a Fellow Gym Buddy
Back in 2011 when I was a trainer for the YMCA, I was the only woman I knew who had any desire to train with a barbell. I also knew I didn’t want to do it alone, because there is strength in numbers; I didn’t want to be the only woman deadlifting in the free-weight area. So I straight-up asked three women I barely knew if they wanted to do this thing with me. Cold-asking people to join you can be intimidating, but I’ll bet there’s a good chance that woman you’ve given a “Hey, how are you” smile to in the lobby or the lady you’ve seen working with the dumbbells might be as interested in powerlifting as you are, given the ask.
Photo credit: Martin Rittenberry
5. HOW DO YOU FIND A MEET?
Finding a powerlifting meet can be as easy as googling “Powerlifting meets in [your state].” Sometimes deeper digging is required, so here are a couple of resources to get you on your way:
www.powerliftingwatch.com: Add a “/” after that address, then spell out your state after that. There you will find which federations host meets in your state, when those meets are held, and a list of powerlifting gyms in your area. Each federation also has a local chairperson and if you don’t see an event listed, that doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t on the calendar. Emailing the chairperson and simply asking about upcoming powerlifting meets is an easy way to find meets in your area.
You can also research the federation you will be competing in. This can be done with a Google search or by emailing the federation’s local chairperson. Each federation has its own set of rules for competition, and knowing those rules in advance will allow you to plan your training accordingly and eliminate many competition-day jitters. For instance, some federations don’t require your heels to stay planted to the floor when performing the bench press and some do. Getting to know each federation’s rules of competition will set you up for success come meet day.
6. WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO WEAR?
Powerlifting is divided into two categories: raw and equipped. Raw meets will usually allow for a few items of supportive gear, like knee sleeves, wrist wraps, and a weight belt. Equipped meets will include other wearable equipment that will help the lifter execute the lift, like a bench shirt, squat briefs, and a deadlift suit.
The list below covers what you need to compete in raw powerlifting, but remember to check the rules for the federation you are competing in, because there can be small differences. In general, for raw meets you will need:
- A nonsupportive singlet (i.e., single ply, not a squat suit)
- A t-shirt to wear underneath your singlet
- Tall socks for the deadlift
- Flat-bottomed shoes (no heel rise is good for the deadlift)
Optional equipment allowed in raw powerlifting includes lifting shoes, a weightlifting belt, knee sleeves (different from knee wraps!), and wrist wraps.
Of all the factors involved with powerlifting, the possibility of wearing a singlet is the biggest drawback for almost everyone I speak to. With the exception of some non-sanctioned, beginners meets, you can bet on being required to wear this mildly ridiculous costume. (Interestingly enough, a “lifter’s costume” is exactly what the singlet is referred to in the USA Powerlifting Rulebook. They acknowledge and embrace the silly right from the start.)
You get to fly your freak flag every time you don your singlet and there is solidarity in the fact that everyone else does too. It’s comforting to know you’re all in the same boat.
Photo credit: Martin Rittenberry
THE MORE YOU KNOW, THE MORE YOU CAN DO
Powerlifting is a strength sport that has one goal: to see what you’re capable of when the big day comes. When preceded by a smart training program, testing your strength is an invigorating experience. If this sort of endeavor has snagged your interest, use what you’ve learned above as a jumping off point, and don’t let fear hold you back from getting started!
If you have an interest in embarking on a new adventure and getting stronger in new ways, it makes sense that you would seek support to serve that goal.
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