How to Get Started in Powerlifting

by Ryan Stinn

Well, you’ve been going to the gym for a little while now, or maybe a long while, and you started to hear about powerlifting, that sport made up of those three lifts you have been doing anyway. Maybe your lifts are close to being a record of some type. Cool! Or maybe it just sounds interesting to you. well read on and I’ll do my best to help you on your way.

As you probably know, but just in case you don’t, powerlifting is made up of three lifts: Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift. Now there are places you can just bench press, or just bench press and deadlift but we aren't going to cover those here, for this article we are going to talk about the big three: Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift. 

So, if you want to start powerlifting you need to be doing those three lifts, and the closer you are doing them to the competition specifications the better, so let's do a quick run down.  

The basics I’ve described below apply to most powerlifting federations, but there are some variances depending on where you’re competing so be sure to find out a bit about the federation you’re choosing before your competition! 

The Squat

The first lift in a competition is the squat, or the back squat as it’s sometimes referred to. The basic requirements of the lift are:

  • You lift the loaded barbell out of the rack and step back in position.
  • You stand upright with your knees locked waiting for the referees signal to ‘squat’.
  • Upon receiving the squat command you squat down until the top of your quads at the hip joint goes lower than the top of your knee. This is referred to as squatting below parallel. 
  • After achieving the required depth, you stand back upright without the bar going downwards or taking a step.
  • Stand at the top holding the bar until the referee gives you the rack command.

Oof that might have sounded like a lot, but you are probably doing all of this in training already, the only thing to be sure about is that you are squatting low enough. It is also good practice to make sure you hold the weight before you start the squat and after you stand up. A lot of new lifters are almost walking the weight back into the racks before they finish standing up. However, in competition, you need to wait to receive the commands so getting used to holding for a few seconds before and after the movement can pay real dividends!

The Bench Press

The one lift everyone is surely doing already! How much ya bench?!? Let’s break it down to make sure you know the drill:

  • With or without help from the platform crew you take the barbell out of the rack.
  • Hold the barbell with straight, locked arms until you receive the start command from the referee.
  • Lower the weight until it is touching your chest and pause there until you receive the press command.
  • Press the weight to the top without the barbell dipping downwards and hold it with locked, straight arms until you receive the rack command. 

Of all the lifts that seem to catch up first time competitors it’s the bench and that press command. So I would definitely recommend starting to train with a pause on your chest and try to make sure the bar is motionless and not bouncing or moving around during the pause. The next hang up for people is butt and/or head coming up off the bench, as those must stay down. Leg drive is good but you need to make sure your butt is staying in contact with the bench at all times. 

The Deadlift

Most people either love or hate the deadlift.  Generally, there are those who are really built to deadlift and then everyone else. The nice thing is that for those who aren’t built for deadlift you can pull sumo and that might be better for you! Lets go over the basics:

  • This one is simple, you approach the bar, grip it and pull it to the top without hitching or supporting it on your legs.
  • Stand straight at the top with knees locked and shoulders back until you get the down command, then control the bar to the floor keeping your hands on the bar until it is on the floor. 

That’s basically it! It’s great because by this point in the competition you are too tired to listen to too many commands. The biggest issue I see with new lifters is dropping the bar after completing the lift, it’s always terrible to see someone work so hard to make the lift, receive the down command and then just drop it. So I highly recommend training to put the bar down, you don’t need to put it down gently but you do need to keep your hands on the bar until it is on the floor. 

Now that we’ve covered the basics of the big three lifts and how to perform the powerlifts in competition how do you get started? Well I would recommend starting with a free program that you can find online, maybe you are already following one, if so great! If not I’ve heard good things about Calgary Barbell’s Free 16 Week Program. That said there are a ton of programs out there, and that’s also a problem. It can be very hard to resist program hopping and thinking the grass is always greener on that other program. Find a program and stick with it for at least 8-12 weeks.  Unless you are getting injured, just stick with it! 

What about equipment? Do you need knee sleeves or a belt or wrist wraps? Nope, at least not to start. You will probably find a point where you feel like you need these, your knees will get achy or your wrists will be painful when squatting or benching. You can avoid some of that by getting stuff before that sets in but you certainly don’t need it to train. I would generally recommend some knee high deadlift socks to protect your shins, they can just help to reduce unnecessary bleeding and scraping. 

How do you find a meet to do? Well in Canada and in the federation I compete in, the Canadian Powerlifting Union you can check out their events calendar that will list the upcoming meets. From their site you can also find your provincial affiliate by going to Resources -> Provincial Affiliates in the top menu. 

Once you are ready to compete you will need a singlet and knee high socks and some type of athletic shoes, but that’s really about it. If you are thinking about your first meet you should go read our article Are You Ready For Your First Meet

I highly recommend trying to find a local group of lifters to train from and learn from, powerlifting maybe an individual strength sport but it is great with a good team!