The fundamental goal of powerlifting is to get strong. This is different from bodybuilding, where the goal is to develop large muscles and low bodyfat. Because of this, different training techniques are required. Strong and big are different things.
Strength is embodied by the three basic lifts: squat, bench press and deadlift. These are lifts that the human body can move the most weight in, and have a good chance of not breaking.
A real powerlifter does all three lifts, to develop overall strength. A huge number of so called “powerlifters” only do the bench press, but bench pressing is really just the tip of the power ice burg. The real challenges lie in the other lifts. Not to mention that bench pressers generally have twigs for legs, and a light bulb-like physique. If you are going to powerlift, do all three lifts.
I don’t know of any good books specifically devoted to powerlifting. I’ve seen the books by Hatfield, and was unimpressed. If you go to a major powerlifting meet, you will find a lot of manuals by various top lifters. They vary a lot in quality. The magazine PowerLifting USA has many training and diet articles, but these also vary a lot in quality. It is most useful for finding out contest dates and results and ordering equipment. There are now some good videos on powerlifting available. The series by Ed Coan is probably a worthwhile purchase.
As for scientific references, I again prefer to rely on the book Weight Training, A Scientific Approach by Stone and Obryant. This contains a fair amount of material directly relevant to powerlifting, but at a very scholarly level.
I wont cite any references below. This is just distilled knowledge. What I know comes from 16 years of weightlifting, and 2 years of powerlifting as the training partner of one of the best lifters in the world, and a couple years of training at the Mecca, Golds/Venice, as part of the “in crowd” there. But, I am a scientist, so I try and filter this against some general principles as well.
- to maintain bodyweight, get about 15-20 calories per pound of bodyweight (a rough estimate). If you need to bulk up, this should be closer to 25 calories per pound. If you want to lose fat, keep calories in the 10-15/lb range, and use a cyclical low carb diet (always keep the fat low, about 10-20% of calories, but do 2-3 days in a row of very low carbs (0.0–0.5 gm/ lb) and high protein (2–3 gm/lb) followed by 1 day of high carbs (2–3 grams/lb) and moderate protein (1 gram/lb). The low carb days force your body into a state of fat burning.
- aside from dieting to lose fat, keep the protein/carb/fat percentage of your diet around 30%/50%-60%/10%-20%, and get 1 gram per pound of quality (meat, preferably red or dairy) protein per day.
- consume simple carbs about a 1/2 hour before your workout (either fruit or carbo drink, 200-400 calories), and re-carb with about 100 grams of simple carbs within an hour of training. Get a good dose of protein about an hour after training. Protein can be taken in large amounts, contrary to the 30 gram per meal myth. My partner and I always consumed our protein in 1 lb of beef (or more) increments (120 grams), and that seemed fine. It stays in the intestines for nearly a day, so the body gets plenty of time to process it. Eating 3 meals a day plus a couple snacks is convenient and effective (vs the 6 meals a day bodybuilders recommend).
Get you nutrients from normal food, and a good multi-vitamin. (over the counter, 3 centrum/day is good. The best vitamin I have ever encountered is Broad Spectrum, From Nutriguard Research, in Encinitas, CA, mail order). Use protein powders and weightgainers only if you need the convenience.
There are no legal supplements that are known to “work” at increasing muscle mass. You can increase your strength and muscular endurance by using stimulants, blood buffers and carbo drinks, though. I recommend UltraFuel, before and during workouts, as it provides the carbs, needed co-nutrients, and blood buffers in one. You can drink it after to recarb as well. As for stimulants, caffeine is very effective, ephedrine less so. I usually use vivarin + ephedrin + aspirin as a stimulant stack, (the aspirin is to block pain and enhance blood transport). Take these about an 1/2 hour before doing your powerlifts.
I have tried creatine, and didn’t notice much from it. But other people I have talked to think it makes them a bit stronger. I personally don’t recommend it.
You can get plenty strong without drugs (steroids, clenbuterol, growth hormone are the substances in use these days). And drugs are more effective for bodybuilders than powerlifters, i.e. they seem to work better at increasing mass/reducing fat than at actually increasing the strength of a muscle. In any case, I say stay away from drugs until you can at least squat and deadlift 2.5 x bodyweight and bench 1.75 x. Those are numbers that can certainly be achieved without drugs, so there is no need for them up til that point. If at that stage you want to use them, learn about them and then set some specific goals and timetables for using them. Plan to limit your lifetime exposure to them to at most a year (since, except for rare reactions, most harmful side effects don’t set in til at least one year of “on time”). I would recommend reading this guide on growth hormone supplements.
- You will need a good regulation power belt. Order one out of PowerLifting USA magazine. Get a single prong belt (two prongs are too hard to put on tight). Buy a good belt, it is the most important gear—expect to pay $60 dollars. It should be be very stiff, not soft and comfortable.
- Knee wraps are also a necessity. I like goldline superwrap 10’s from Marathon. About $15.00 a pair. These are worn for squating. not deadlifting.
- a good cross trainer shoe, like nike air, seems to be good for general purpose powerlifting. Once you get strong, you may want to use squat shoes for squating ($100) and a good flat soled shoe (wrestling shoe or tennis shoe) for deadlifting.
- once you can squat and deadlift > 2 x bodyweight, you may want to consider wearing a powersuit. These can be ordered from PowerLifting USA mag. I prefer Marathon supersuits. $40. These are a pain in the ass to put on wear though—they are very tight and leave lots of bruises on your legs. But they do provide added safety when moving heavy weights, as well as adding 20–50 lbs to what you can lift.
- buy lifting chalk out of Powerlifting USA mag, and use it on all powerlifts. Always on your hands, plus chalk knees before wrapping them, and chalk the back for squating and bench pressing. $10 gets you plenty of chalk.
- Baby Powder
- you put this on your thighs for heavy deadlifts, to reduce friction. Its only really needed as part of contest preparation, not day to day training. Try and get the un scented kind.
- Power bar and Collars
- you need a good olympic bar and 5 lb collars for the powerlifts. Always use the collars on squat and deadlift; optional on the bench. Hopefully your gym has good bar and collars. We train at the mecca, but theirs are not good enough to heavy powerlifting, so we had to buy our own ($150 for the bar). the number one thing to look for in bars is that they are straight, not bent. Put them on a rack and roll them to check for bends. If they are bent at all, they can chnage positions during a lift and really toss you around.
- don’t wear them, they are a cheat, i.e. the shirt is there solely to move the weight, not for safety. But, you can bench more with them, for sure. You also look like an idiot wearing them, and they are hard to put on take off without help. At least, wait till you can bench 1.5 x bodyweight before messing with them. And then, consider getting a denim shirt from Frantz—these are not legal in all federations, but they are easy to put on/off, don’t make the wearer look like a total idiot (i.e. you can put your arms by your sides), and they are more “effective” too.
- (The difference between a bench shirt and squat suit: in the squat, you are unsupported in the bottom position—with a heavy weight, you could easily strain the support muscles, inner thigh and hams. The suit basically reinforces these muscles. In the bench, at the bottom position you are supported, since the bar hits your chest if it goes too low. There is no safety need for the shirt. In fact, I have seen guys injured by their shirt—either by losing control of the bar when the shirt rips, or by having it pull them out of their groove, so that the bar lands in an undesirable spot, like the mouth.)
- Things to avoid
- Also, never wear wrist straps for deadlifts—that robs you of your grip development.Same for gloves—plus they are illegal equipment.Wrist wraps are optional, but I would use them only if you have an injury. Same for elbow wraps (which are not legal for bench press competions).
It is futile to try and pass on technique via the written word, or even still photos. You have to see live action and get running commentary. If at all possible, find an experienced powerlifter to critique your style periodically. If a mentor is not available (and even if they are) buy a training video out of PowerLifting USA. I suggest the ones by Ed Coan (the alltime best powerlifter), as he is known as a great technician who gets the most out of his lifts.
But, a few comments:
First, always do your powerlifting with good form—never cheat to get the lift (bouncing in the bench, squating high, avoiding lockouts in bench and deadlift, bouncing the bar on the floor during reps in the deadlift, etc). If you cheated, you got nothing. Zero. Its that simple, because thats what you’d get in a contest.
- Bench press
- there are two styles: touch and go, and pause. When training specifically for competition, you have to practice the pause: the bar must come to a complete stop touching your chest. In power training not specifically for a contest, its better to move the bigger weights by using a touch and go style. That means you press up as soon as the bar touches the chest—but there is still no bounce or cheat at the bottom! Typically the pause takes 10 lbs off your bench.
- power squats are different from bodybuilding squats. The motion is pretty similar to that of sitting down on a toilet with a wide stance.
- there are two legal styles: sumo and conventional. In conventional, your feet are together and your hands wider than your feet. The bar comes off the ground easy, but there is a sticking point near the knees where the back is put under tremendous stress in a rounded position. I don’t recommend this style,m as it is more injury prone. (My partner once ruptured his discs like popping popcorn pulling 675 this way some years ago. Then he passed out from the pain, and had to spend a month in bed to recover). I recommend sumo: you take a wide stance, and your hands go inside your legs, similar in position to the bottom of a squat. The hips take up much more of the load, and the hard part of the movement is to get the bar off the floor; after that it glides up.
- Important note
- when doing reps in the deadlift, set the bar down completely at the end of each rep (keep your hands on it tho)—don’t cheat by bouncing it off the floor or cutting the motion short and coming up early. You want every rep to be like a single, otherwise you will be weak in the starting position.
It is important to mentally psyche up before attempting a heavy lift. Based on my experience, I’d say the difference between psyched and unpsyched lifing is about a 10-20% drop in strength, plus the weight feels ponderous and heavy when there is no psyche. Proper psyching should put you in a state of extreme rage or fear—the primitive emotions. By the time you start the lift, the conscious mind should be completely shut down—there is no thought, and then even no emotion. You want to completely lose your mind, and perform the lift using only instinct. When you can reach this state (it takes a lot of practice), there will be no physical sensation at all during the lift—your body is numb, you are not aware of your limbs, you may lose your sense of hearing as well, and for that brief time there is just a direct link between the mind and the muscles, with out the normal conscious interface. Its a pretty weird mental state, one that cant be reached any other way than by putting extreme demands on your body.
Many people try to psyche up by making a ruckus—they swear, stomp around, have people slap them, bang their heads on the wall, yell at themselves, etc. But, its really all in your mind. I advocate the silent psyche. Keep it in your mind. I look totally calm on the outside while psyching up, but inside there is a violent storm raging in the brain.
The training lifts are divided into the three primary power lifts, and all other movements are classified as assistance lifts. The purpose of the assistance movements is to develop and maintain muscle mass over the entire body, and to be sure that muscles get worked through a full range of motions and angle. This will assist with the stability during the primary lifts, and helps prevent weak links from developing. (The older style was to train weak parts of a primary lift directly, e.g. work on the sticking point in the benchpress. The modern approach is just to do assistance work to build a good foundation of strength and mass).
Thorough warmup is important prior to the power lifts, since you are going to stress the body severely. I suggest the following warmup sequences: (sets x reps)
1 x 8, 1 x 5, 1 x 3, 1 x 1, work set(s)
where the work set(s) are the actual sets you want to do that day. The weight jumps should be roughly equal between each set above: i.e. the first set is with 20% of the target weight, then 40%, etc til you reach 100% for your work set. If you are using more than 5 plates on the bar, insert more 1 x 1 warmup sets. For example, I usually warm up by adding plates (45 lb plates), so that my sequence is (reps x weight) 8 x 135, 5 x 225, 3 x 315, 1 x 405, 1 x 495, 1 x 585 in the squat if I am squating > 600. For bench, I stop at 1 x 315, though.
Gear for warmups & sets:
- use you chalk on all warmups for all powerlifts.
- always wear your belt for all squats and deadlifts.
- don’t wear a belt to bench press—it interferes with arching your back.
- wrap your knees to squat after your first two warmup sets.
- if you are going to wear a power suit to squat and deadlift, use it only on your last two warm ups and your heavy sets. (same for bench shirt)
- If you deadlift with baby powder, only use it on your heaviest set—its really only needed for singles.
- if you use special shoes to squat/bench/dead, wear5 them for the entire warmup and lifting sequence.
Minor injuries are a part of power lifting. You will always have cuts, bruise, aching joints and sore muscles when you start taxing the body. It requires skill to decide which injuries to ignore and which to pay attention to. Here are some simple rules of thumb (but don’t blame me if you end up in the hospital 🙂
- Bruises and broken blood vessels on the skin and in the eyes are generally harmless, although they can look pretty bad.
- Same fro all manner of skin abrasions.
- Deep muscle aches and aching joints are common but not a sign of serious injury. Same for tendonitis.
- Minor muscle tears occur frequently. If a muscle tear actually causes a loss in strength, you need to avoid working that area til it heals. If a muscle tear results in no loss of strength (even though it may hurt while lifting) you can train as usual.
The bottom line is usually: if an injury makes you get weaker, do something about it. Otherwise, ignore it. Its not unusual to train with fairly (even extremely) painful injuries, as long as you stay strong.
Here’s a tip: ibuprofin helps a lot with the pain (at least you can get to sleep at night 🙂
Similarly, you can train through most minor illnesses. But don’t train with a viral chest infection and a fever—it can damage the heart, according to what my doc told me.
The powerlifting routines I present are periodized routines, in which you hit all three lifts roughly once a week, an progress in poundage—with fixed reps—from week to week. The reason for the fixed number of reps is (a) to build strength you need low rep sets with heavy weights, plus (b) when using heavy weights, a one rep change is a huge change, so varying reps is not a very gradual way to vary the intensity. Instead, the reps are kept about the same and small changes are made to the poundages. this allows for a gradual increase in intensity.
A good way to structure the individual workouts is as follows:
Primary + Assistance
<none> bis, tris, forearms
This gives you a total of four different workouts. If you would rather just have 3 workouts (they get a bit long tho) add the tri’s to chest day and bis and fores to dead day.
As for the assistance work, here are rules of thumb for selection and performance:
- stay away from straight bar work—too much stress on joints only use a straight bar for your power lifts.
- do all your work with cables, machines and dumbbells.
- never do work that puts your back in an unsupported position (e.g. T-bar rows). Only use back machines that support the torso.
- never wear belt or wraps or straps for assistance work. Those are all tools to allow you to lift heavier weights, while the goal of assistance is to work the muscles without stressing the joints and tendons to much.
- use full range of motion and decent form on assistance; again, moving biggest possible weights is not the purpose. Muscular conditioning is the goal.
- try to avoid doing anything that involves bending over during assistance—conserve the back and keep the blood pressure down.
Here are good exercises from which to select the assistance:
- leg press, hack squat, leg extension, thigh abductor/adductor
- various leg curl machines
- seated and standing calf raise
- flat bench flyes, flat bench dumbbell presses, incline bench flyes, incline dumbbell presses, pec dec, cable crossovers.
- dumbbell shoulder press, over head machine press, dumbbell laterals, machine laterals, cable reverse cross overs (for the rear delt), rear delt machine.
- pulldowns to the front or behind the neck, with various hand positions, machine rows on machines that provide chest support. For the lower bakc, oat most only do light work on a lower back machine—deadlifts are enough intense lower back work.
- shrugs and upright rows (straightbar is required here).
- all manner of crunches and leg raises—just contract the abs; the range of motion is very short (otherwise you work the upper thigh)
- dumbbell curls, cable curls, preacher machine curls
- cable pushdowns, machine french curls, cable french curls.
- hammer curls, behind the back wrist curls (need a straight bar for these).
- assistance performance
- for each muscle group, select 2–4 assistance exercises (the more complex the muscle, the more exercises) (be sure to hit front side and rear delt). For each assistance exercise, do 3 sets of 8 reps each: the first set is a light warmup, the second set is moderate, and the third set is hard, so you can barely get eight reps. But always get eight—that is your goal. Never do more reps, and if you do less, back off on weight the next time. If you are using a lot of weight (e.g. leg press with many plates), you can add in an extra set to build up to your hard set more gradually.
WEEKLY SCHEDULE (MICRO CYCLE)
Here are three common and reasonable ways to arrange the basic workouts into a micro-cycle: If you have an arm day, it can go on any empty day except before bench day (since you need fresh arms to bench)
The latter (III) is an 8 day cycle, in which you bench twice in 8 days. This allows for somewhat faster bench progress, taking advantage of the fact that upper body generally recovers faster than lower body.
LIFTING CYCLES (MACRO CYCLE)
Now these weekly cycles need to be arranged into larger training cycles. I present two basic ways: the former is better for people who are starting out, and who are not training for a contest. It is more open ended and lets you develop your strength in a less planned way.
I. SELF REGULATING CYCLE
Progression on the power lifts:
start the cycle for each lift with a weight you can handle fro 5 sets of 5 reps. Every week for the lift, you increase the weight (by 20 lbs in the squat and deadlift, 10 lbs in the bench; cut those in half if they seem like big jumps for the weight you are using). Whenever you can’t get 5 reps on a set, you throw that set out in the future. Continue this way, until you are left doing just one set of 5. At that point, if 8 or more weeks have gone by, stop the cycle (for that lift). If not, and you want to keep going longer, continue increasing the weight, and drop at least 1 rep each workout: i.e do no more than 4 reps the next time (its ok if you can’t get that many though), and continue, planning to drop one rep each time. You will reach a single in at most 4 weeks (proabbly less) and stop the cycle after that (you can stop any time before the single as well).
Apply this procedure to each of the powerlifts. You can stop them at different times as they peter out. When you stop for one lift, just go into a holding pattern for it by doing one set of 5 with a fairly light weight, until you terminate all the others. Make the cycle run at least 8 weeks, but no more than 12. 8–10 is best. Starting with 5 sets of five, and assuming you drop one set per workout and then one rep per workout at the end would result in a 9 week cycle.
Progression on the assistance: *unlike* the power lifts, there is no projected steady increase in the weights used for assistance. These sets are done more instinctively, and you should just look at them as little contests: your goal is to pick a weight for your hard set that you can barely get 8 with. If you get 8 easy, you were a wimp. Use more weight next time. If you miss 8, you lose, it was too heavy. Be more conservative next time. Never do more than 8; if you have something left, save it for next time. There is no need to take these sets to failure all the time. Also, if you feel a little weak, there is no harm in dropping down, and vice versa. Just use instinct to select the weights, and have fun with it. The rigid progression is for the power lifts.
Also, towards the end of the cycle (the last couple weeks), start to go easy on the assistance, and you can even cut back on the number of sets some. The power lists will be pretty draining by then.
II. PRE-PLANNED (CONTEST TRAINING) CYCLE
if you are training for a contest, you cant afford an open ended cycle like the above. You have to know you will peak on a certain day. So, you have to plan a cycle of a known length and plan the weight jumps you will need to reach your target lifts. You may not quite reach your goals, but that is ok.
You may also want a planned length cycle to coincide with the quarter system at school, or any other time marks in your life.
Again, use all sets of 5 reps. For each power lift, you will do one hard set, and one backoff set. The backoff set is there as a gauge and to practice the movement: your hard set may degenerate into a single double or triple, which can make it hard to judge your performance (e.g. if you miss a single, how strong are you?). Use how you feel on the backoff to gauge status in that case.
For the backoff set, use about 90% of what you use on your hard set.
Here is a reasonable schedule of planned jumps: Let W be the target weight you want to lift for a set of 5 at the end. Assume there are 8 workouts during the 8 week cycle.
Then: for the squat and deadlift, start at W – 100lbs and take the following weekly jumps:
20lbs, 20lbs, 20lbs, 10lbs, 10lbs, 10lbs, 10lbs
and for the bench, start at W – 50 lbs and take jumps half that size.
(You can of course reduce the jumps listed in proportion to the weights you will be lifting).
Assistance progression: same free format as described in the other macro cycle strategy.
ASSEMBLING MACRO CYCLES
The 8 week (roughly) macro cycles described above should in turn be strung together to for a sequence of several cycles. At the start of each new cycle, set a reasonable goal (e.g. add 20 lbs on your best set of 5 in squat and dead, 10 in bench) and start the new cycle that much heavier (e.g. up by 20 in squat and dead, up by 10 in bench). You can do as many as six of these cycles in a year, and that gives you plenty of opportunity to increase you squat and dead by ~ 100 lbs and bench by 50 lbs, which would be plenty of gains for one year. Alternatively, you could do two power cycles in a row, and then do two of the bodybuilding cycles I described in previous posts, so that you alternate between strength gains and mass gains. In this case it would probably be good to throw in a 4–6 week fat reduction cycle every year, too (i.e. use a maintainance workout, and the sort of cyclical diet I described above for 4–6 weeks.)
If you compete, you need to decide what weight class to go into. It is a fact that anyone can get stronger by getting fatter—but who wants to look like a pig? I suggest you try to compete at 8–13% bodyfat, and try to squeeze in the lower weight classes. It is a much more athletic thing to do. Also, you can easily drop 3–5 lbs over the last three days before the contest and then pop back to you final weight with a little recarbing and sodium loading. The trick is to eat zero carbs the last three days before weigh in, and go on a low sodium diet (no added sodium at all—keep intake to < 600 mg /day) and drink a gallon of distilled water per day fro the last two weeks before the show. use a sauna to drop any remaining weight if you have to, and dont eat or drink anything within 18 hours before the weigh in. After the weight in, recarb (complex day before, simple same day) and sodium and water load as much as possible.
Contests are allows rushed and disorganized, and conditions usually rang from bad to worse. You’d think they’d have it down by now, but they don’t. Before you compete, attend a show and try to sit in on the rules briefing as well, if you can. It help to have someone with you at the show to help with your gear as well.
There are three major organizations: ADFPA (for drug free), USPF (the largest, most official (and officious) organization, currently drug free at the national and international level) and the APF (formed by the lifters, for the lifters. Drugs are ok, and they are more lenient on judging criteria and choice of gear). USPF has the most shows.
When training for a contest, use the preplanned workout stlye. It is also helpful to “bring up a single”, I.e. take an additonal hard set which is just a single rep, to practice technique on the single. This starts out easy. and should be your first work set, and you junp it in weight each week similar to the set of 5. By the end, it turns into a max or near max single done with good singlke technique (whiuch differs subtly from rep technique).
Good strength—for anyone—is a 600 lb squat, 400 lbs bench, and 600 lbs deadlift. These are the sort of lifts a good college level athlete is capable of, if they trained for it.
Good powerlifter strength is those weights + 100 lbs, and the strength level good high school level athletes are capable of is those weights – 100 lbs.
I ignore the weight of the lifter above, but I’m talking about someone weighing at least 200 lbs.
More generally, squat and deadlift 3 x bodyweight and bench 2 x bodyweight is good strength for a power lifter. That is nearly national level.
Powerlifting mottos to live by:
That which does not destroy you will make you strong.
Tired does not mean weak, injured does not mean weak, only weak means weak.
here are the top lifts and lifters for some representative weight classes:
Lift Wt Lifter
Men 165 lbs
S 760 Perez
B 505 Perez
D 733 Inzer
Tot 1890 Alexander
Men 181 lbs
S 843 Bell
B 562 Confessore
D 790 Coan
Tot 2110 Bell
Men 198 lbs
S 870 Bell
B 600 Lee
D 860 Coan
Tot 2204 Coan
Men 220 lbs
S 965 Coan
B 628 Confessore
D 865 Coan
Tot 2370 Coan (But I thought he hit 2430?)
S 1030 Passanella (275 lbs bodyweight)
B 705 Arcidi (308 lbs bdywt) (But Anthony Clark has hit 730 in unsanctioned meets recently, weighing 330)
D 920 Heisey (> 308 lbs bdywt)
Tot 2460 Pasanella (308 lbs)
The all time best lifter overall, based on formual, is Ed Coan with his 2370 total at 220 lbs.
Here is a selection from the women, just to make the guys reading this feel weak:
Women 125 lb
S 440 Jeffery
B 248 Jeffery
D 408 Jeffery
T 1100 Jeffery
Women 165 lb
S 567 Dodd
B 363 Harrell
D 534 Dodd
T 1317 Dodd
Women 181 lb
S 579 Reshel
B 352 Grimwood
D 589 Reshel
T 1483 Reshel
Women 198 lb
S 633 Reshel
B 385 Harrell
D 604 Reshel
T 1565 Reshel (Note: these records are close to my own best lifts at 198!)
(The latter are also the overall best for women).