This is the second half of a two-part series by Lifestyle Sports writer Sean Collins. In the first part, Sean got you started on what it takes to begin in powerlifting. Now, we will take you into a deeper look at the training and community involvement. You can read part one here
What To Expect From Powerlifting
Right off the bat, you should expect to have a wonderful first six months. You will easily progress your weights session by session (or at the very least, week by week). As you progress in load, you’re getting stronger, building new muscle, and investing positively in your health, athletic performance, and longevity.
You’re making great progressions because this is new and exciting to your body. The sensitivity to that specific stress is quite high, so the adaptations to the stress is also, in turn, quite fast. This is due to Selye’s theory of General Adaptation Syndrome, or GAS for short, which stipulates that external stressors signal hormonal adaptations to resist the stressors imposed on the body.
This is the theory behind the basic saying of “whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”.
At first, your body will be able to make adaptations very quickly (think back to how long it took you before you were able to ride that bicycle successfully for the first time), however, the road from zero to 80% is easy and crowded, while the road from 80% to 100% is a lot more lonesome and tougher to travel.
At first, you’ll likely begin training 2-3x per week for about an hour and a half at most. Over time, you’ll need to add more volume, more intensity, and more frequency in order to keep progressions going (remember that the body needs an increase in stress to get stronger). This will require more and more time. An intermediate to advanced powerlifter typically trains 3-5x per week for 2-3 hours a session.
In addition to increased time in the gym, successfully powerlifting also requires attention paid to the following three factors that could easily improve (or detract) your training:
- Nutrition: in order to support the growth of new muscle and recovery from hard training sessions, it is customary for powerlifting athletes to follow guided dietary instructions.
- A common practice is for athletes to use IIFYM, or If It Fits Your Macros, which in essence provides flexibility to your diet.
- As a general rule, 70-80% of your meals should come from sensible choices (lean proteins such as chicken breast, low-glycemic carbohydrates such as oatmeal, brown rice, and sweet potato, and healthy fats such as avocado, olive oil, and fish oil), while the rest can be “flexible”, such as the occasional treat (sweets like cookies, ice cream, etc) or fast food.
- To set up your own macros, start by tracking your calories, macros, and weight fluctuations for a week. If you gain weight, you’re in a caloric surplus. If you lose weight, you’re in a caloric deficit, and if you stay the same, you’re in caloric maintenance. Typically, when folks first start powerlifting, they should try to focus on gaining weight to support the muscle-building environment. In order to gain weight from a deficit or maintenance number, add another 500 calories per day, primarily in carbs and proteins, and you should be able to gain about 1 pound per week.
- Sleep: besides food, this is the biggest and most important recovery method to pay close attention to. Sleep allows your body to repair and restore, and not getting enough sleep can really hamper your progress. Try to get at least 7 hours of sleep (ideally 8). If you are running off of little sleep, a pre-workout or coffee is a band-aid, not the solution. More sleep is!
- Stress Management: although the least important of the three variables (because we are all stressed out), it’s still important to recognize that chronically-elevated levels of stress is a factor in your day to day performance in the gym, and athletes should certainly take steps to reduce the distractions and stressors that occur outside of the gym.
Like I said earlier, there is no right or wrong time to choose when to step on the platform. Sometimes it helps to sign up for a meet that’s three to four months away, and use that as a bit of extrinsic motivation (paired with your own intrinsic motivation to get stronger, of course!) to push your training.
It’s easy to skip a workout when there’s no sense of urgency. However, when you’re a month away from your first competition, you’re a lot less likely to sleep in that morning.
When looking to compete, it’s important to weigh your options carefully. First, do some research on the different federations offering competitions in your area. While there are many federations out there for you to compete in, not all of them might be up your ally.
The two biggest federations are USAPL and USPA. USAPL is affiliated with the IPF, or the International Powerlifting Federation, which enforces the rules set forth by WADA / USADA, or World Anti-Doping Agency / US Anti-Doping Agency when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs.
The USAPL is recognized to be the highest standard of drug-free, raw powerlifting. However, USPA is a popular second option and has the most similarities to USAPL, except that it does not enforce drug testing/drug-free sport as rigidly. If you wish to compete fairly against folks in your own weight class and you’re a drug-free athlete, USAPL is your go-to for seeing how you stack up locally to other powerlifters.
Regardless of which federation or competition you decide to participate in, make sure you brush up on the expectations and rules (depth requirements on squat, commands, and attire regulations) of that competition, and ensure you’re signing up for a raw competition (and not geared/equipped meet). A lot of meets are raw-only nowadays, but some meets may be specifically organized for equipped powerlifters. Equipped powerlifters are athletes who lift with very specific attire that assist in moving a very impressive weight, so much so that weights for these meets are typically significantly higher than raw competitions.
It’s important to note that the skills required for the sport of equipped powerlifting are entirely different to the skills required for raw powerlifting, and the while the attire may assist, it is not entirely the responsibility of the garment to lift the weight- equipped lifters are super strong and talented in their own right!
The process of your first competition can be confusing (and daunting), so here are a few quick tips:
- Don’t worry about weight class. One of the quickest ways for you to kill your early gains is to cut weight to arbitrarily fit into a weight class you think you should be in. The biggest priority for you is to have fun and set a new personal record.
- Bring CARBS! These things can last a long time (hours on end). To keep energy and fuel levels high, bring your favorite carbohydrate-based snacks (anything from candy to bananas) and caffeine.
- Be Patient: One of the main reasons meets last so long is because they typically follow a round-robin system (flight A squats their first, second, and third attempts before the second flight of squats). If you are on the first flight of lifters, you probably want to get warmed up about 30 minutes before the start of the actual competition. If you are in a second or third flight, you have plenty of time.
- Review the meet information: this is typically glanced over by first-time competitors, but it is riddled with great information, such as:
- Start times
- Guidance on legal attire/equipment
- First-timer tips
- Contact information to meet director for specific questions or concerns
- If you don’t know, just ask! Meet directors are responsible for providing the information necessary for athletes to do well.
- Get yourself a coach or friend who is experienced. Most meets allow for one person to be in the warm-up room with you, and this person is super important! They can load weights for you, time your warm-ups, and give you commands (if applicable) to practice. Worst case scenario, I’m sure you can reach out to esteemed powerlifting coaches via email or Instagram for basic advice on your first meet.
How to Succeed
Here are a few quick tips on how to succeed in your first few months of powerlifting training:
Don’t get distracted by what your role model is doing.
An 18-year old doing a program written for Noah Syndergaard might be super enticing, but it won’t make that kid any better, and it might make that kid get injured.
Remember, what Sean Noriega (former baseball athlete now turned world-class powerlifter) is doing in the gym to make himself better isn’t what you need to start. He’s trying to go from 90% to 92% in a manner of months (or even a year). An intermediate lifter would be highly unlikely to survive his training program injury or pain-free, let alone a novice. Don’t worry about how someone else squats, trains, or eats. Focus on what works for you.
Find A Community (Or At Least A Training Partner)
While a competition on the horizon is a great way to galvanize your training program, it’s also a good idea to not go from competition to competition every cycle. Outside of competition, a training partner (or team) is super important to keep you motivated to show up. Training partners can increase your safety (giving you spots on heavy days for one), but they can also increase your performance- competing against someone your same size, or being cheered on by other folks united by the pursuit of strength, or being expected to be in training at a certain time and place truly does wonders to progressions.
Volume drives strength and muscle size, intensity is the expression of strength
Maxing out every single training session will lead you to injury, overtraining, and quitting far too early. Recognize the value of sub-maximal work, and how that can contribute to the tenants of getting stronger (both neurologically and physically). In fact, muscular growth typically comes from high-volume, low weight, low rest strategies. Maxing out is only asking for trouble, especially when you do it all the time!
Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint
While you may be able to make an amazing amount of progress early on, each cycle that passes also creates marginal utility (hello economics!). Over time, you may go from adding 100 pounds to your squat in five months to training for a year to add 5 pounds to your squat. This is what is both so grueling and exciting about powerlifting!
About the Author:
Sean Collins (CSCS, USAPL Club Coach) is the co-owner and head powerlifting coach at Murder of Crows Barbell Club (located in Crown Heights, Brooklyn), the largest barbell-training facility in all of New York City. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, and a USA Powerlifting Club Coach. He currently works with 50+ powerlifting athletes of ranging experience levels, and recently took seven athletes to the 2017 USAPL Raw Nationals Championship in Orlando, Florida.