Fitness

How To Start Powerlifting

Photography Glen Burrows; model Tom Eastham

Powerlifting 101

What is it?

Technically, it actually means competing in the Big Three lifts (bench, deadlift and squat) – it isn’t considered good form to call yourself a powerlifter if you just train in them. The sport comes in “raw” (just T-shirt and shorts) and “equipped” varieties, the latter allowing knee and elbow wrapping, alongside spring-loaded suits that provide a hefty degree of assistance.

What is it best for?

Raw strength. “While it can have some carryover to building muscle, powerlifting’s main focus is one-rep strength in the big three,” says powerlifter and coach Tom Hamilton. That means lots of low-rep training, watching your figure (it’s a weight-category-obsessed sport) – and, of course, focusing on the finer technical points of the big lifts.

What are its limitations?

“Its strength may also be its weakness,” says Hamilton. “A heavy focus on maximal strength and particular lifts during a programme may cause overuse injuries – and, of course, there’s the danger of neglecting qualities like conditioning or mobility.”

The outside view

It’s a pretty niche sport – and rife with infighting – but fun. “Powerlifting seems fairly misunderstood but can be a great entry into weight training generally,” says Olympic lifting coach Alex Adams. “As long as powerlifting programmes have enough variety they don’t do you any harm. Problems arise when you become too specialist and only do the competitive lifts.”

Instant expertise

Go sumo

Most comps allow either regular or sumo-style deadlifting – you should experiment with both. For the latter, keep your feet double shoulder-width apart and your hands inside your knees – it’s an ideal option for a tall man.

Mention Westside

Westside Barbell, founded by Louis Simmons, turns out the strongest lifters ever, thanks to an ultra-competitive atmosphere and Simmons’s combining of speed-lifting “dynamic” days with all-out max effort sessions. Also worth noting: they rarely do the Big Three outside competition, building strength with endless variations like the box squat and close-grip bench press.

Know your programmes

At some point, somebody’s going to ask you what you’re “running”. Lifter and coach Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 is the safe option, but for extra points mention the Cube (a popular new method based on Simmons’s ideas), Coan-Phillipi (a deadlift programme used by the man regarded as the best lifter ever, Ed Coan) or Smolov (four times a week squat plan – for maniacs only).

You’ve made it when…

It’s not as simple as dividing your total by your bodyweight: limb length, muscle size and overall stress make a difference – put your numbers into wilkscalculator.com for a readout powerlifters will respect. “To be a competitive high-level powerlifter you’d need to aim for a Wilks of 400-plus,” says Hamilton. “If you have no desire to compete but enjoy the three powerlifts, a 300-plus Wilks would make you one of the stronger guys in your gym.”

Get Triple-Threat Strength

“One way to train is a daily undulating periodisation, or DUP, approach,” says Hamilton. “This means you use a variety of reps and sets throughout the week for the same movement, allowing you to spread the volume over the course of the week.” So you might go heavy on one day, do light reps for speed on another, and have a moderate high-rep day on the third. Here’s a typical workout.

1 Squat

Sets 4 Reps 3

“Do your first set off your rate of perceived exertion, or RPE,” says Hamilton. “They should feel like a 9, or very, very hard – but how heavy that is will vary from week to week. Do your other sets at 85% of your max.”

2 Bench press

Sets 3 Reps 6

Do these at 75% of your max. In powerlifting, it’s all about the set-up: keep your grip wide enough that your forearms are vertical under the bar, and press into the floor with your feet to help the lift.

3 Pull-up

Sets 3 Reps 6

These should be hard but doable. Add a weight vest if you need to.

4 Dip

Sets 3 Reps 10

Add a weight belt, a dumbbell between your ankle or – if your gym’s really cool – chains around your neck.

Powerlifting Training Plan

If you’re keen to get started with powerlifting here’s a training plan from Scott Britton, CrossFit and powerlifting athlete and co-founder of charitable fitness competition Battle Cancer. There are three workouts on the plan, each focusing on a different lift. You’ll need to know your one-rep max for the squat, bench press and deadlift to do the workouts.

Squat Workout

Warm-Up

Start by mobilising your hips, lower back and hamstrings with these moves.

1 Standing quad stretch

Stand with your feet hip-width apart and bring one heel up towards your bum, holding it in place. Pull on your foot to gently bring your knee towards the floor and push your hips forwards. Don’t hold your breath while performing the stretch.

2 Box stretch

Stand in front of a box and place one heel on it. Straighten your raised leg and slowly move your torso forwards, moving your head in the direction of your leg. If you feel a sharp pain in your hamstrings, ease off. Repeat for the other leg.

3 Air squat

Squat down but pause at the bottom, keeping your torso upright. Move your weight from side to side and allow your hips to ease into the position. Try a few controlled bounces in the bottom of the squat and then stand up. Grab hold of something sturdy if you cannot maintain your balance without any assistance.

Main Workout

1 Barbell-only back squat

Sets 3 Reps 8

Start with just the unweighted barbell on your back.

2 Barbell back squat

Set 4 Reps 8

Progressively add weight across these four sets to finish a little under your working weight. The working weight is 70% of your one-rep max. So if your one-rep max is 100kg you should finish on 60kg here.

3 Barbell back squat

Sets 5 Reps 5

Now you’ll do reps at 70% of your one-rep max. The last set should be a real effort to complete. If you manage all five sets with little effort, then increase the weight by 5-10kg next week.

4 Barbell pause squat

Sets 5 Reps 3

Drop to 50% of your previous one-rep max and complete a squat, but hold at the bottom of the move for a count of three seconds. Make sure to count “one one hundred, two one hundred, three one hundred”, then lift.

5 Lat pull-down

Reps 100

When squatting you have to ensure a tight thoracic muscle group. These are the upper- and mid-back muscles and they keep the bar tight on your back.

Choose a light weight on the lat pull-down machine. Hit 100 reps on the machine on the same weight. Make sure you breathe and really engage your lats, shoulders and core as you pull the cable towards you.

If you don’t have a lat-pull down machine at your gym do 25-50 pull-ups instead.

Leg Destroyer Finisher

You have hit most of the muscle groups already, but ending with this 15-minute circuit will increase your explosive power.

Each station has a one-minute time cap. If you don’t finish the movements in the minute, make a note of the reps completed and keep the weights the same until you can hit all the suggested reps across the minute throughout the whole circuit.

Repeat the following circuit five times in total. The suggested weights are 20kg in each hand for men and 12kg for women.

1 Walking lunge

Time 1min Distance 15m

Holding two dumbbells by your sides, take a big step forwards, lowering until both knees are bent at 90° and your back knee touches the floor. Then lunge forwards on the other leg. Keep your chest up throughout.

2 Dumbbell deadlift

Time 1min Reps 15

Holding dumbbells by your sides, hinge at your hips to bend down and touch the dumbbells to the floor, then stand up tall, pushing your hips through at the top of the lift.

3 Elevated dumbbell goblet squat

Time 1min Reps 15

Place a weight plate on the floor and stand with your heels on the plate to elevate them while keeping your toes on the ground. A 5kg plate is perfect for this. Hold a dumbbell against your chest with both hands. Squat down, keeping the dumbbell in front of your chest.

Bench Press Workout

Warm-Up

Start with these triceps and pectoral stretches.

1 Resistance band overhead triceps extension

Secure a strong exercise band on the bottom of a solid stand – ideally a squat rack or weightlifting rig. Standing with your back to the anchor, press the band above your head, then bend at the elbow. Hold this tension as the band tries to pull your arm down and you feel your triceps being stretched. Repeat a few times with each arm.

2 Dumbbell flye

Lie on a bench with a light dumbbell in each hand. Open your arms as wide as possible in line with your upper chest with your palms facing up. Hold this position to let the weight of the dumbbells stretch your pectoral muscles. Ensure your arms don’t move above or below your upper chest because this can put pressure on the delicate rotator cuff muscles in your shoulders.

Main Workout

1 Bar-only bench press

Set 4 Reps 6

Begin with some explosive bench presses using an empty bar. As you push the bar off your chest imagine that there is a huge weight on the bar.

2 Bench press

Set 4 Reps 8

Progressively add weight across these four sets to finish just under your working weight. The working weight will be 60% of your one-rep max. If your one-rep max is 60kg you should finish on 30kg here.

3 Bench press

Sets 5 Reps 5

Now you’ll do reps at 60% of your one-rep max. The last set should be a real effort to complete. If you manage all five sets with little effort, then increase the weight by 2.5-5kg next week.

4 Close-grip bench press

Sets 5 Reps 3

Start with your hands in your normal bench press position, shoulder-width apart, then bring your hands closer together by at least two hand widths. The aim here is to try to manage 50% of your one-rep max, ensuring that your arms are locked out at the top of the lift.

5 Incline dumbbell press

Sets 3 Reps 10

Set a bench to a 45° angle and sit on it, holding a dumbbell in each hand by your chest, then press the weights up. If you fail to hit ten reps in a set reduce the weight.

6 Triceps push-down

Sets 10 Reps 10

Set the dual rope attachment to head height on a cable machine and hold the handles. Ensure your elbows are tucked into the side of your body and pull down on the rope, straightening your arms and triceps.

If you don’t have a cable machine you can grab a strong resistance band and loop it high on a stand or rig. Hold the band in both hands and pull down, extending your triceps.

Deadlift Workout

Warm-Up

Start by warming up your lower back, upper back and hamstrings.

1 Downward-facing dog

This yoga stretch is great for preparing for the deadlift. With both hands and feet on the ground, drive your hips up and back. Take deep breaths throughout.

2 Single-leg deadlift

Stand on one leg with a small bend in your knee. Reach down to the ground in front of the standing leg with one hand, moving your non-standing leg backwards to help maintain balance. Hold the position for a few moments to stretch your hamstring. If you need a little help balancing, hold a kettlebell – the added weight can help.

3 Kettlebell fold

Stand on a raised platform like a weight plate or step with your feet together, holding a kettlebell in both hands. Keeping your legs straight, fold over, tucking your chin into your chest as you let the kettlebell lower as far as possible. This will stretch your spine.

Main Workout

1 Deadlift

Sets 2 Reps 5

Start with either very light weights or training plates and do really explosive deadlifts, making sure your hips thrust forwards and that you’re breathing through the lift.

2 Deadlift

Sets 4 Reps 5

Progressively add weight across these four sets to finish a little under your working weight. The working weight will be 70% of your one-rep max. If your one-rep max is 100kg you should, finishing on 60kg here.

3 Deadlift

Sets 5 Reps 5

Now you’ll do reps at 70% of your one-rep max. The last set should be a real effort to complete. If you manage all five sets with little effort, then increase the weight by 5-10kg next week.

4 Banded deadlift

Sets 5 Reps 3

Keep the weight on the bar from the previous sets, and gather together two identical exercise bands and four heavy dumbbells to use for this lift. Place a dumbbell in front and behind each end of the bar and loop the bands over the dumbbells to hold down each end of the bar.

The extra resistance that kicks in as you lift the bar will help you work on your grip and leg drive, and test your will to hold on.

5 Bent-over row

Sets 3 Reps 10

Keep 40% of your one-rep max weight on the bar. With a slight bend in your knees, grasp the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart and lean over the bar with your back straight. From here, pull the bar towards your midriff.

6 Weighted sit-up

Sets 3 Reps 12

Grab a weight plate – anywhere from 5kg to 20kg – and hold it against your chest in the top sit-up position. As you lean back, widen your legs beyond shoulder-width and keep them straight. Sit back up.

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