Powerlifting is one of a few types of competitive weight lifting. It is a sport of strength that focuses on three “big” lifts: squat, bench press, and deadlift. The goal is to lift the most weight possible in each lift while competing against others in your class.
Other types of competitive lifting include Olympic weightlifting and Strongman. Olympic lifting is actually only two lifts: the snatch and the clean and jerk. (Fun fact: Technically, when you see the word “weightlifting” written as one word, it refers specifically to Olympic weightlifting.) Strongman is much more varied than either Olympic weightlifting or powerlifting and is often described as a sport of “odd lifts”; it also challenges endurance more than either of the others. The goal of all three is the same, though: perform feats of maximal strength.
Within the sport of powerlifting, there are a two primary styles: raw and equipped. Equipped powerlifting includes the use of a squat suit, knee wraps, bench shirt, and deadlift suit. While it may not sound like much, these “suits” are very rigid and typically allow a lifter to lift much more than they would without it. Raw powerlifting is the exact opposite: there is no extra equipment to assist the lifter. Raw powerlifting was created in the ‘90s as a response to the rise in popularity of equipped powerlifting. However, knee wraps are often permitted and used even in raw powerlifting.
Singlets are the required attire at powerlifting meets. While most people compete in all three lifts, it is usually possible to sign up for just one or two lifts, and occasionally there will be bench press-only meets. Most meets are co-ed (but naturally male dominated), but women-only meets are popping up as more women become aware of and interested in the sport. In competition, athletes will have the opportunity to perform a single lift at the heaviest possible weight in three or four attempts (depending on the meet). There are also many rules for exactly how to perform the lifts and what qualifies as a “rep.” Lifters are judged against others in the same gender, age, and weight class.
To prepare for a powerlifting meet, lifters will dedicate between four and six months to training. Some training programs focus almost exclusively on the squat, bench press, and deadlift, while others will include assistance work to provide balance. It is common for powerlifters to work one-on-one with a coach, to prepare both physically and mentally for the rigors of training and the competition itself. As a relatively solo sport, the coach-athlete relationship becomes especially crucial. In some cases, athletes train with a small cohort or even in a powerlifting class.
The three lifts also look quite a bit different on the platform than in the average gym. The squat is a low-bar squat, as compared to the high-bar variety most people use when doing a back squat. Some people will pull their deadlift conventionally, but most lifters are stronger in the sumo deadlift and will use that stance in competition. Powerlifters also employ a certain technique to arch their back in order to shorten the necessary range of motion in bench press, making it look far different than your typical bodybuilding-style bench press. And since these are maximal attempts, the reps in competition aren’t always “pretty.”
As with any other sport, some powerlifters consider themselves exactly that: they are powerlifters, and that’s it. That’s their sport, and they are committed to it. Others choose to compete in powerlifting meets when they so desire, while not dedicating themselves to the sport entirely. It is becoming more common for powerlifters to compete in other modalities (such as Olympic lifting) as a break from powerlifting training, or simply cycle through different competitive seasons.
What powerlifting is powerlifting not? It is not glamorous. It is not simply showing up and lifting a heavy barbell. It is not about obtaining a certain physique. It also is not focused on conditioning.
What is powerlifting? It is the sport of demonstrating commitment to pure, absolute strength – both physical and mental.
When I first started training seriously five years ago, I fell in love with powerlifting-style training and I knew that my first competitive endeavor would be a powerlifting meet. As a decidedly uncompetitive person, it was only recently that I began to feel the tug of interest. I started specifically training for powerlifting at the beginning of the year, but just cemented my commitment to my first meet this summer. To prepare, I have hired a powerlifting coach who is himself a world record-breaking powerlifter, and I’m officially 14 weeks out from my meet. This is when most powerlifters, even seasoned ones, begin their countdown to the big day. Since this will be my first-ever meet or competition of any kind, and needless to say – I’m nervous. But I am simultaneously confident in my ability to train properly, give it my best, and then leave it all out on the platform. Winning isn’t the goal; the experience and the strength that comes with it is.