When we set out to start Lifestyle Sports 101 and our Performance section, we were looking for people in sport who could make an impact at the grassroots level, all the way to the pinnacle of the sport. That person in powerlifting is Sean Collins. Sean is an “in the trenches” coach that is respected not only for his skills but for who he is. If you have ever thought about Powerlifting and what it is and how to get started, this article is the magnum opus – in other words, there is no place better to start your powerlifting career.
The Basics of Powerlifting
By Sean Collins
Welcome to your first step in a long (yet rewarding) journey to being your strongest self! First, let’s get the basics ironed out:
“Powerlifting is both a sport and training methodology centered around “the big three” barbell movements: back squat, bench press, and deadlift.”
As a sport, athletes compete against each other within their respective weight classes. The winner is the individual who lifted the highest total (the heaviest successful single squat, bench, and deadlift rep combined).
As a training methodology, the goal is to acquire strength over time. You do this using four basic tenets:
- Build a relationship between your body and your mind: at first, progressions will be primarily neurological in nature (your brain improves). You’ve done this before: remember the first time you rode a bicycle? Now fast-forward to the last time you rode a bicycle, pretty easy in comparison right? Well, that’s because your mind got way more efficient at “instructing” your muscles to ride that bicycle. It’s important to do these movements as correctly as possible, as you are most impressionable early on.
- Specificity: In-line with the mind-muscle relationship, you didn’t get really good at riding a bicycle by playing golf 90% of the time. At first, the majority of your training should be focused on doing the traditional exercises under lighter loads to learn the skill of the movement as best as you can.
- Build Muscle: In powerlifting, muscle is a utility for progression, not the end-all-be-all like in bodybuilding. Over time, your current muscle fiber will become more and more efficient at executing the movements. However, you will only get you so far. Throughout your training career, we need to focus on building more muscle to increase the total available muscle fibers to recruit maximally to ensure progression.
- Progressive Overload: We need to stress our muscles just enough to produce a response that triggers favorable muscular and neurological adaptations. We’ll get more into this during our programming discussion, but we both measure AND ensure our progress by increasing in weights over time.
- Increased muscle size and strength: No athlete has ever said: “Dang, I lost this game because I was too strong!”. In competition, size and strength have their obvious benefits. However, in the day to day living, having an increased amount of lean muscle mass allows you to burn more calories, and tackle daily activities way easier.
- Increased bone health: Compound resistance exercises (such as most movements found in powerlifting) is shown to increase bone mineral density, making your bones significantly stronger and resistant to injury.
- Longevity in the sport: While you may lose your explosiveness and speed around 30 years old, strength can be forged closer to (and beyond) your 40’s.
- Mental health: The benefits of powerlifting don’t just stop at the physical element: several athletes accredit powerlifting for their ability to manage/relieve chronic mental stress, which is a huge “silent killer”. Also, progressing in a sport that you can do for years and years really helps break up the monotony that sometimes comes with day to day living.
How To Get Started in Powerlifting
Thankfully, there isn’t a very large up-front investment to get started. Here is what you absolutely need, and what you might want down the line.
What you need:
- Time: you have chosen to train, not to exercise. Exercising is random, an inefficient movement for the sake of a short-term feeling or response, but will eventually stall out. Training is utilizing the help of a guided program (or methodology) to meet a specific goal. For example, your favorite baseball player trains the deadlift to increase the strength of their hips during throwing or hitting motions. They are certainly not taking a Sunday morning bootcamp class to get better at their sport. Make sure you can train three times a week, with an average time of 1.5 hours per session.
- A program (or methodology) to follow: because you’re training, you need a solid program to follow (and to track your progress) in order to efficiently get you to your goal of getting stronger. At the beginning, you would likely want to get a “linear progression” program, which features increases in load on a daily or weekly incremental increase while giving you specific recommendations in sets and reps. There are plenty of methods or programs specifically tailored to beginner powerlifters, such as Starting Strength.
- A training facility: the gym you decide to go to should, at the very least, possess a basic powerlifting set up: a bench, a barbell, and a squat rack (ideally, more than one of each so you don’t run into equipment availability issues). Narrow down the list of facilities by geographic availability (the closer the better) and budget. Ideally, this gym allows the use of chalk, which helps your grip (especially under heavier loads).
- Attire: you need comfortable clothing (a cotton t-shirt, shorts or pants that give you unrestricted range of motion). Most importantly, you should have a flat-soled shoe, and leave those running shoes at home. A flat shoe, such as the Chuck Taylor Converse, will fare better than a running shoe, primarily because the flat shoe allows an athlete to feel grounded, and thus be able to effectively drive through their feet, while a running shoe will cause a lot of instability and squish while deadlifting or squatting, especially as the athlete gets stronger.
*Pro Tip* In case you can’t hit a deep squat using a flat shoe, it’s likely that your ankles are tight. If you slip a 5lb weight under your heel, you should be able to hit much better depth by simply allowing your ankle to flex forward a bit easier. This mimics the effect of “squat shoes”.
Things That Can Help
Some of these do become necessities over time. The earlier you get them, the better you can ensure your training experiences uninterrupted progress.
Equipment: the following articles of equipment/attire will aid in your progressions in a major (and some minor) ways, from most important to least:
- Knee sleeves: primarily used to provide warmth and support to the knee joint, this allows athletes to squat without developing knee pain later on in the program. I remember running my first few months of powerlifting training without knee sleeves, and I could barely walk between sets at times. Knee sleeves really helped me train pain-free, and are an absolute necessity for intermediate to advanced powerlifting athletes. Since they do have a supportive aspect to it, you should expect to squat more weight with sleeves on.
- Leather belt: not velcro, not padded: leather throughout. This is a tool to increase intra-abdominal pressure by pressing your abs against it by way of using a big breath directly into the belly. This increases tightness and directly protects your lumbar spine by stabilizing it with the “cushion” your breath provides.
- Squat shoes: a huge upgrade to the chucks you dug up from your closet, these are designed with an elevated heel to allow your ankle to flex and extend easier, which allows athletes to comfortably squat deeper. They are pretty flat throughout the shoe, so this allows athletes to “feel the floor” and drive from a stable position.
- Wrist wraps: not completely necessary here, but if you experience wrist-pain during benching or other pressing exercises, this may help stabilize and support your wrist-joint to continue training pain-free.
Coaching: whether online or in-person, hiring a reputable powerlifting coach will be invaluable early on. This ensures your movements are correct, and you’d likely receive custom powerlifting programming that addresses your specific weaknesses. This is a partner you can work with to ensure you progress safely, efficiently, and optimally.
Hiring the right one early on will be instrumental in your future success. Ask for testimonials and/or referrals, and do research on their current athletes (Instagram and Reddit are your friends here).