Powerlifting: the basics

Maryssa, reigning champion of the 25-lb bodyweight class, demonstrates correct use of alternating grip in the deadlift.

While still somewhat confined to the realm of obscurity, powerlifting is a growing sport, particularly for women. It is estimated that about 10% of competitive PLers are women. Part of the appeal of PLing lies its relative simplicity: it is a one-person activity, the lifts can be fairly easily learned (though it takes a while to fully master them), equipment is minimal, and meets generally consist of a few people getting together with a barbell and a scorecard. For women, PLing is also inviting because competitors are divided into gender, weight, and age classes, which means that each person is only competing against those like them. At most lower levels of competition, men and women compete in the same event (though not against one another), in numeric order by bodyweight, and this tends to result in a feeling of collegiality and mutual respect.

There are three lifts used in PLing: the squat (aka the back squat), the bench press, and the deadlift. While different federations have different rules, here are some rough guidelines for each lift. For more detailed instructions, make sure to check the rulebook of each PL federation or organization.

the judging

The first thing to know is that different federations have different rules. So, when you begin to compete, ask for the rulebook of the organization which is hosting the meet, and read it carefully. Rules cover everything from attire to equipment to procedures for each lift, etc. It’s also worth attending as many competitions as possible before you set foot on the platform, just to see what the day’s events involve, and under what conditions you are expected to lift. It’s a good idea to try to emulate these conditions in training practice a few times, so that you’re prepared for the setting, procedures, and pressure. A competition lift can be much different from a gym lift. For instance, you won’t get a mirror to check your squat position or depth.

Before the competition, you will be weighed, and assigned a weight class. Weight classes for women range from around 95 lbs. to around 190 lbs., and usually increase in about 10 lb. increments. Anything heavier than about 190-200 lbs. is considered a superheavyweight (SHW) class, and all SHWs compete together.

You will also likely be assigned an age class. Most federations have at least a couple of different age classes, such as teen classes and master (over 40) classes.

In competition, generally there are three judges seated to the front and sides of the lifter. Each judge has a pass/fail vote, expressed by three lights. A white light signifies a pass, a red light a fail. A lifter must get at least two white lights in order to pass a lift. The judges are looking for things like proper depth (on squat and benchpress), proper racking and unracking, and so forth. Some federations require lifters to pause at certain points in the lift (like at the bottom in the squat, or at the top in the lockout of the deadlift), or to wait for a command (such as “squat” or “press”). A lift will also receive three red lights if the lifter does not complete the lift.

Each lifter is given three attempts at each lift. A lifter must complete at least one attempt at each lift to continue in the meet. So, if you pass all your squat attempts, but not one of your bench attempts, you won’t be allowed to continue on to the deadlift portion. Lifters are allowed to select which weight they will use for each attempt. For the first attempt, most people select a weight they know they can do perfectly. Let’s say that your most recent personal record (PR) in the gym is 100 lbs. For your first attempt, you might choose to do 80 lbs, so that you know you can do it, and you stay in the meet. For the second attempt, you might do 100 lbs. You know you can do this one, probably. If you do well here, you might feel lucky and ask that the next attempt be 110 lbs. Quite likely you will make this lift too, due to the excitement of being at the meet and the adrenaline rush. Or, you might fail. Either way, you will stay in the meet, having chosen your weights well. You are judged by your best successful attempt.

At the end of the meet, assuming you made it through, you will be assigned a total. This is the sum of your best numbers in each lift. So, if you have successfully completed a 150 lb. squat, a 100 lb. bench, and a 200 lb. deadlift, you will have a total of 450 lbs. The person with the best total in each weight/age/gender class wins that class.

the squat

The PLing squat is usually done in a particular style. Unlike a bodybuilding or Olympic lifting-style squat, the PL squat is generally done with a relatively wide stance and the bar sitting as low as possible on the back. The lifter descends to parallel, which refers to the top of the thigh being parallel to the floor (often you hear people claiming to squat X ridiculous lbs to parallel, but it’s deeper than a lot of folks think, so be suspicious of these claims). The wide stance recruits more of the glute and hamstring muscles than a narrower stance, so that the lifter can move much more weight.

In competition, the lifter steps up to the rack, which is loaded with a bar. She steps under the bar, gets into position, and steps away from the rack (this is known as a walkout). Often she must wait for the squat command from the judges. Then she squats to the proper depth, waits for the command to ascend if she has to (or just pauses there if she doesn’t), and ascends. She stands and waits for the command to rack the bar, racks the bar, and steps backwards away from it.

the bench press

The bench press is most people’s weakest lift. One trick that PLers use (and this is legal, although it probably shouldn’t be) is to retract their shoulder blades and arch their back (keeping hips and shoulders on the bench), so that their chest is up higher and the bar has a shorter distance to travel. Some people have bench arches that would make a yogi proud. I think this is a bit bogus, but hey, you might as well learn to do it if it’s legal. Both feet must also remain on the floor (shorter lifters can have plates put under their feet).

The lifter lies on the bench and gets into position. She reaches up for the bar. Often the spotters will unrack it and hand it off to her, or she may have to unrack it herself. She waits for the bench command, then lowers the bar evenly to her chest, pauses or waits for the press command, and presses it evenly back up (in other words, both arms must press the bar up without allowing the bar to tilt). She waits for the command to rack and does so, or sometimes the spotters help to get it back onto the rack.

the deadlift

This is the lift (in my opinion) that separates the girls from the women. The rules tend to be a bit more relaxed for this lift, in that you can lift either sumo or conventional style, dive down to the bar and rip it, or squat down carefully and adjust your grip before lifting.

Whatever style you choose, you must pull the bar off the floor and into the lockout position. While you can pause (cause, hey, that sucker is heavy), you cannot allow the bar to travel back downward or hitch it on your legs. The lockout position is a standing position with legs straight and shoulders back. You must pause in the lockout, then set the bar down under control. There are no spotters for this lift.

the equipment

Different competitions have different equipment needs. The basic PLing ensemble consists of a singlet, a tshirt (no logos allowed, except for a few equipment manufacturer labels), and footwear of choice (some feds have rules about proper footwear, and some lifters use different shoes for squatting and deadlifting). Raw competitions generally only allow the lifters to wear this, but sometimes allow a belt. Chalk is permitted in all cases. It is debatable how much equipment adds to a lift, but people feel that 10-20% is about right for full equipment.

For competitions where equipment is permitted, there are different items used for each lift. For the squat: a squat suit, which is a very tight sort of singlet; a belt; knee wraps. Lifters usually chalk their hands and backs where the bar rests. For the bench, a bench shirt, which is again a very tight sort of t-shirt, and sometimes wrist wraps are allowed. Lifters chalk their hands and entire backs (I think this is a bit goofy… I mean, it’s not like most people are prone to suddenly sliding off the bench, but anyway…). For the deadlift, lifters often wear lifting slippers, a belt, knee socks to prevent the bar from chafing the shins, and the hands are chalked. Some lifters use talcum powder on their shins and thighs to prevent chafing, but this is often frowned on since spilled powder can make the platform slippery.

the links

Does this sound like fun to you? Well then, check out some of these links.
If you’re at all interested in PLing, check out Deepsquatter’s site, particularly the Strength email list. Tips, training, meet reports, and more.

Powerlifting.com is your one-stop information shop.

The doctor, as always, is in. Dr. Squat’s excellent site is great for the budding PLer as well as the average newbie.

Jackal’s Gym has some handy little calculators for calculating your max, as well as a periodized program based on your goals.

Weighty Matters is a good all-purpose site.

Knowing which federation you want to lift in is important. Most require some kind of membership, so check it out in advance if you plan to compete. Federation websites are great places to start for learning rules and what is available in your area.

International Powerlifting Federation

Asian Powerlifting Federation (bet you didn’t know Uzbekistan had a PL federation!)

Canadian Powerlifting Union

Down Unda, both Australia and New Zealand

European Powerlifting Federation

U.S.A. Powerlifting