Estimated reading time: 10mins
What is strength training?
Strength training is a form of exercise that involves resistance and improves your ability to produce force or to move heavy things. In addition to the obvious, improving strength, it will also aid muscle growth, and it provides a solid foundation for other forms of training.
What is powerlifting?
Powerlifting is a sport in which competitors from all backgrounds get up on a platform to show exactly how strong they are. The sport is quite simple in theory, each lifter attempts their biggest squat, bench, and deadlift while the referees look on. The rules and regulations enforced by the referees ensure safe and fair competition. The only other people on the platform are a team of spotters, because going your hardest means that sometimes you miss the mark, and the spotters make sure that lifters are always safe. Majority of lifters are out there competing against their previous numbers, but it is a competition and there will be an audience of enthusiastic people cheering on all the lifters.
Powerlifting is a sport of strength combining the three big lifts: squat, bench press and deadlift.
For the squat, the lifter must have the bar on their back and walk the bar out backwards from the rack. Once the lifter assumes an upright position, they will get the “squat” command. The lifter must squat with the bar to depth and then return to an upright position. Depth means the lifters hip crease is below the top of the knees at the bottom of the lift. Once the lifter stands back up and is locked out, they will get the “rack” command, allowing them to rerack the bar, completing their first lift of the competition.
The Bench Press
The bench press is the middle lift in the competition and is often the most technical of the three lifts. The lifter is required to lay on the bench with contact points at the head, shoulder, and butt. The lifters feet must be flat on the floor. A lot of lifters will arch their back to bench press which, while contentious in some circles, is both legal in powerlifting and safe (but that’s a blog post for another time). Once the lifter has unracked the bar (usually with the help of a spotter) they will assume the starting position, with elbows locked out, and await the “start” call from the referee. The lifter then lowers the bar to their chest where it needs to be motionless for the referee to give the “press” call. Then the lifter presses the bar to a locked out position and awaits the “rack” call.
It has been said that the competition doesn’t start until the bar hits the ground, that’s because the deadlift is the biggest lift for most lifters. For the deadlift, the lifter can approach the bar and commence the lift without a command. When the lifter is standing locked out with the bar, the referee will give the “down” command and the lifter will control the bar to the floor. There are two options for stance in the deadlift: the conventional stance with hands outside legs, and the sumo stance with hands inside legs.
The gear for powerlifting
If you’ve seen a sanctioned powerlifting competition, you’re probably familiar with the suits that the lifters wear. These powerlifting suits are similar to those worn in weightlifting. The form-fitting suits extend from shoulders to thighs to allow free movement and clear views for referees. Lifters are also required to wear a t-shirt for Squat and Bench Press, and knee-high socks for the deadlift, these are for safety, the grippy part of a barbell, called knurling, can be pretty rough on shins and shoulders! Other optional gear includes wrist wraps, knee sleeves, and a lifting belt. All the gear is subject to regulations and checked by the referees before lifting.
Powerlifters are required to wear specific gear in competition including a soft suit and long socks for the deadlift.
How does a powerlifting competition work?
The first part of a powerlifting competition is the weigh-in. Each lifter is weighed by two referees where they will also nominate the weights for their first attempts of the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Lifters are in categories for females and males, with eight weight-classes for each gender. There are also age groups for youth, junior, open, and masters lifters.
About two hours after weigh-in, the lifting commences! The competition is run in groups and sessions. Each lifter in the first group of the first session will take to the platform for their first attempt. The lifters are ordered by ascending barbell weight and will all complete their first attempt before the second attempts start. The competition continues through first, second, and third attempts of the squat, bench press, and deadlift for each lifter.
By the end of the powerlifting comp, the highest weight lifted for each lifter in the squat, bench press, and deadlift is tallied to create their total. There are placings for each weight-class based on who has the biggest total, and then there are overall placings based on a coefficient which compares bodyweight to total.
Training for powerlifting
Powerlifting training is best divided into blocks. Each block of training will focus on building strength in the squat, bench press, and deadlift with a combination of compound and accessory lifts. When it’s time for a competition you’ll peak into it using the method of progressive overload. Building into a powerlifting comp involves increasing volume and intensity progressively (and usually in a linear pattern) and then dropping volume as you get closer to competition. The main goal of powerlifting training is to reach your highest level of strength on the platform on competition day.
Training for powerlifting involves increasing strength and improving form of the big three lifts through a combination of compound and accessory movements.
I love the idea of lifting heavy, but I’m too scared to push myself...
That’s totally fine! Your journey in powerlifting is at your own pace. Your coach will be there to guide you every step of the way and make sure that you’re safe. The early learning stages will involve a lot of small technique changes and building your confidence under the bar.
Who should try powerlifting?
Powerlifting might seem like a strange world of tight suits and heavy lifting, but it is also a sport for everyone! It has an amazing, welcoming community; and it’s so much more than just lifting weights, it’s about continual work and improvement. Powerlifting combines strength, resilience, competition, coach-athlete relationships, teamwork, and an incredible feeling of accomplishment! Have I got your attention yet?
What are the benefits of powerlifting for women?
There are the benefits to be found, through Powerlifting, for men, women, juniors, masters, and everyone in between; but this blog is focusing on the benefits for women.
Improve muscle mass and bone density by powerlifting
Let’s start with the physical benefits of strength training, which forms the basis of powerlifting training. General benefits include improved strength, increased muscle mass, and greater bone density. Most training programs are based on the principle of progressive overload, which involves a methodical increase in volume and intensity over time. This means that you get to build up your strength, and the weight on the bar, safely and sustainably, and with the support of a coach who works with you to reach your goals.
One of the benefits of powerlifting for women is the improvement of muscle mass and bone density, this is an especially important benefit as you age.
Powerlifting can help manage anxiety
After the physical benefits come the mental benefits. A recent review of the mental health benefits of strength training in adults assembled enough information to equate to a 500kg total! The review concluded that strength training was associated with reduced anxiety, reduced pain intensity among those with low back pain, osteoarthritis, and fibromyalgia, improved in sleep quality among depressed older adults, reduced symptoms of depression in those diagnosed with depression, reduced fatigue symptoms, and improvements in self-esteem (O’Conner, Herring & Caravalho, 2010).
What about the masters among us?
There are also some specific benefits for the master’s ladies and powerlifting grandmas! These ladies stand (with their deadlifts) to preserve their muscle mass and bone density, improve their cognition, and stay mobile and independent for longer as they age.
The best part is the community!
These benefits are impressive, but they probably won’t get you hooked on the sport. That’s okay, I’m not done yet! In powerlifting, you become part of a community and the people that you will get to train and compete with are so diverse. There are amazing coaches and clubs who bring expertise and structure to your training, there’s even the opportunity to compete on the national and international stage! What I’m saying is, the benefits of strength training are clear, but the sport of powerlifting offers so much more than that.
There are countless unquantifiable benefits of powerlifting. You’ll never forget the first time you walk onto the platform and get under the bar to show the culmination of months of your hard work. Then comes the pride with every successful lift, and the crowd cheering you on, no matter how much weight is on the bar. These benefits carry over into the gym too. You’ll feel a renewed sense of confidence when you walk onto the gym floor and you’ll be driven to continue to improve your strength. So many more positives will come from pushing yourself, mentally and physically, to see what you can achieve in powerlifting!
Powerlifting has a great community of people who are genuinely excited to see you succeed and improve.
How do I get started with powerlifting?
If you’re interested in starting powerlifting, I’d love to hear from you! Reach out via my social media linked below and I can help to get you started on your journey. If you’re outside of Melbourne and looking for a powerlifting gym, check out the Affiliated Clubs page of the Powerlifting Australia website.
Lastly, if you’re still on the fence about powerlifting, I urge you to go to a comp! A full calendar of competitions can be found on the Powerlifting Australia website. I guarantee you will enjoy spectating, and then you’ll be hooked in no time. Happy lifting!
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About the author
Megan is a qualified Occupational Therapist with a Graduate Certificate in Rehabilitation, an elite powerlifter and accomplished coach. She currently runs her own soft tissue occupational therapy clinic where she specialises in injury prevention and rehabilitation, as well as management of soft tissue dysfunction and systemic imbalances. Megan combines her knowledge of rehabilitation with her extensive training and experience in strength and conditioning coaching to help people of all ages in their sport, work, and leisure goals.