Powerlifting: a beginner's guide
You've probably seen a man walk into a gym - he probably had a beard - and load a barbell with 45-pound plates so that the steel was literally spinning, sending shock waves across the floor with the most impressive squats you've ever seen.
And at this point you've probably wondered, "But how do I do that?
The answer is: bodybuilding.
Unlike bodybuilding, which focuses on obtaining a certain body shape, powerlifting is about obtaining as much raw power as possible.
In its original simplicity, powerlifting is not always beautiful, or even glamorous. But it is practical, undeniably badass and a guarantee that you will never have to get off your couch.
"Being a powerlifter is being dedicated to one goal: figuring out how strong you can get, and then getting even stronger," says Sean Collins, C.S.C.S., certified USA Powerlifting Club coach and owner/coach of the Murder of Crows Barbell Club in Brooklyn, New York.
"A powerlifter takes three seemingly simple exercises - the deadlift, squat and bench press - and works to learn and surpass every aspect of them, because strength is as much a skill as it is a quantifiable attribute."
Here is Men's Fitness' guide to getting started with powerlifting.
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What is powerlifting?
Powerlifting is a strength and conditioning sport involving three tests of maximum load: squat, bench press and deadlift.
At first glance, powerlifting is pretty simple: develop as much strength as possible, mainly through the "big three" basic elevators:
• Low bar squat • Bench press • Deadlift
But if you talk to powerlifters long enough, you'll find that they often develop a mystique about their training.
Like marathon runners and Ironman triathletes, powerlifters work to the limit of their own physical capabilities.
This means that powerlifting is very demanding and extremely exhausting, both physically and mentally. You can't fake it: Just you and a dumbbell on a platform, in a perpetual battle against gravity.
And for athletes who want to go beyond just "training" and dedicate themselves to the quest for hardcore strength, it is rewarding - and ultimately transformative.
And although powerlifting has a bit of a brutal reputation - powerlifters like to say their sport is all about lifting things and pushing them down - anyone who has ever bench-pressed twice their bodyweight or lifted 500 pounds knows that powerlifting is a sport of mental strength as well as finesse.
"There is so much to learn: posture, ground stance, breathing, optimal foot position, barbell position, eye opening, head position, activation," Collins explains. "It's worth taking the leap to get strong because you learn so much about your body and yourself," Collins concludes.
5 reasons why you should become a powerlifter
- strength means everything.
"Strength is the most valuable investment you can make in your life," Collins says. "No athlete has ever said, 'I lost the race because I was too strong.' No one wants to run to the car anymore when they have to unload groceries."
2) You become mentally stronger
In the same way endurance training eventually becomes a mental battle against the lungs, strength training requires a psychological composure of steel - not least because training often involves going all the way to failure and immediately returning to the platform.
"With dumbbells, you learn discipline, sacrifice, how to push through a weight you thought was impossible, and how to deal with the darkness when you lift a weight you've never lifted before," Collins says.
- It's safe
Under the eye of a good coach and with proper preparation, the injury rate in powerlifting is much lower than in sports such as soccer or basketball.
According to an oft-cited 1994 study in the United Kingdom, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, it is closer to tennis and volleyball. (In addition, strength training has been shown to reduce the risk of osteoporosis).
- Longevity is rewarded
Basketball players are "old" at 30 and soccer players peak in their 20s.
In contrast, powerlifters are generally strongest between the ages of 35 and 40, making powerlifting an affordable sport if, for whatever reason, you didn't start as a teenager.
This is due to the "old man's strength" phenomenon, the low risk of injury and the psychological veteran nature of the sport.
- What you need to know
As with any other sport, from bodybuilding to basketball, progress in bodybuilding gets harder over time and requires more effort and dedication. And like anything worthwhile, it takes time and attention. "The road to 90% is relatively easy," Collins says. The road from 90 to 100 is damn hard. That and "your friends seem much more likely to ask you for help when they leave their apartment," he says.
What you need to start powerlifting
It seems obvious, but choosing a gym is an important step. Of course, in theory, you can do powerlifting at a regular gym.
But if you're serious about the sport, it's ideal to train at a gym that promotes powerlifting - or at least a gym set up so you can take your time doing bench presses and squats without getting dirty looks from staff and other lifters.
(Use the USA Powerlifting gym search engine to find the nearest gym). You can also watch and learn from experienced lifters and trainers.
If there isn't one near you, you can always look at your local CrossFit gym - some have separate powerlifting clubs that train independently of CrossFit classes. Furthermore, powerlifting does not require a lot of personal equipment.
Powerlifters often wear special powerlifting shoes (our recommendations here), with a sturdy, slightly raised heel so that lifters can better grip the barbell while tightening their rear chain.
For deadlifting, simple Chuck Taylor All-Stars or deadlift shoes are appropriate, as their thin rubber heels limit the lifter's range of motion and maximize the foot's contact area with the ground.
Another aid is chalk. "It supports the grip in deadlifts and bench presses and improves the firmness of the squat," Collins says.
Many powerlifters invest in special equipment such as knee pads and lifting belts, but you can probably wait until you are serious about powerlifting before doing so.
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