Powerlifting is a strength sport where you compete against other lifters to achieve maximum totals on the squat, bench, and deadlift. It's also a sport that anyone can start (it's safer than most contact sports), and because of that, you can powerlift well into your 60s and beyond.
I sat down with two-time national powerlifting champion, exercise scientist, and powerlifting coach Kristen Dunsmore, M.S. (Ph.D. pending), to discuss powerlifting for beginners.
Dunsmore shared her thoughts on how to start powerlifting safely, tips on choosing a gym and coach, and getting the most out of your training.
What is Powerlifting?
Powerlifting is straightforward: you compete in three lifts–the squat, bench, and deadlift. You get three attempts for each, and your highest lift of each movement is added up for your competition total.
Powerlifting competitions (called meets) are broken up by gender and weight class to keep things evenly matched. There are also optional special competition groups for teens and masters competitors (lifters over age 40). Competitors are then ranked by their totals, and the highest total in each category wins.
History of Powerlifting
Early powerlifting can be traced back to the many feats of strength documented in the cultures of ancient Greece, India, and Scotland. Back then, it was indistinguishable from the other strength sports that exist today, such as bodybuilding or Olympic weight lifting.
It wasn't until the mid-20th century that these strength sports started to grow a following and differentiate from one another. Small groups held competitions of strength throughout the U.S. and U.K. As the interest grew in muscle sports, bodybuilders and Olympic weightlifters broke into factions to do their own thing.
Finally, in 1972, the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) was born, and since then, the sport has seen an enormous increase in popularity and participation from men and women of all ages.
While feats of strength may have drawn crowds for millennia, powerlifting didn't become popular until the internet age. Since the early 2000s, powerlifting has especially grown in popularity with women, and it's easy to see why.
My Powerlifting Story
When I was 17 years old, I suffered yet another ankle injury, and this one required surgery. As a soccer-obsessed athlete all throughout my childhood and teen years, I accumulated injuries like some people collect baseball cards. After this one, though, my doctors had enough.
I was told I could no longer play soccer, and I should hang up my cleats. Because I was a competitive kid, I asked if there was any sport I could play.
"You can powerlift. Keep your two feet on the ground, and get stronger."
So that's just what I did.
Fast-forward 12 years, a few powerlifting competitions, and 15 pounds of muscle later–I'm so glad I did.
Powerlifting was a profoundly positive experience that taught me so much about strength–both mental and physical–as well as integrity and grit. I also got to meet and train with some of the world's top competitors (who are all fantastic people, believe it or not).
I gained muscle, got much stronger, and learned the benefits of a dedicated training program.
The powerlifting community is warm and welcoming, and there is something so powerful about pushing yourself to your limits and testing your strength.
Benefits of Powerlifting
You don't have to take my word for it. The benefits of heavy strength training, such as powerlifting, are well-studied and speak for themselves.
Strength & Muscle Gain
To get stronger and build bigger muscles, you must lift heavy and use progressive overload. Numerous studies have shown that heavy resistance training programs such as powerlifting are highly effective in increasing muscular strength and size.
As we age, we progressively lose bone mineral density in addition to muscle mass if we don't fight to keep them.
According to a review published in Current Sports Medicine Reports, regular strength training promotes bone development and can increase bone mineral density by up to 3%.
Regular strength training also builds muscle and strengthens tendons and ligaments, All of which improve coordination and help prevent injuries. This has been observed for athletes and adults of all ages, even with lower weights.
Increasing muscle size, strength, and tendon and ligament health translate to improved sports performance and overall function. This is why almost all competitive athletes participate in some form of sport-specific weight training. Strength training builds overall athleticism and physical resilience.
Empowerment & Confidence
I can personally attest that powerlifting can profoundly affect your confidence. After completing a few powerlifting training programs and participating in my first meet, I was empowered to keep going and tackle other challenges in other areas of my life.
A Sport for Life
One of my favorite benefits of powerlifting is that it provides an athletic outlet for life. Unlike most sports where you're forced to retire in your teens or twenties, you can safely powerlift well into your 80s.
While mastering three exercises may sound easy, powerlifting coach Kristen Dunsmore says they're far more technical than people realize.
"Competitive powerlifting has very specific rules on how each lift must be done, as well as commands you must learn for competition."
According to Dunsmore, one of the most common mistakes new powerlifters make is not bothering to read the rule book for their federation and becoming disqualified at their first meet.
Squat, Bench, & Deadlift
The squat, bench, and deadlift, also known as the Big 3, make up the entire sport of powerlifting, so you'll get loads of practice on each lift in your training program.
What's crucial to understand about the powerlifting form is the point of the sport. Which, put simply, is to move as much weight as humanly possible from point A to point B.
So, powerlifters do everything they can to shorten their range of motion.
While each federation has different rules for the lifts (more on that later), the general form for each is as follows.
Starting with your knees locked, lower the bar slowly and controlled below parallel, and return in a controlled fashion to the top, locking your knees again. A full-depth squat requires maximum mobility and stability, so it may take time to get there.
"A new lifter may require squat regressions such as a bodyweight squat. That's why working with a coach is important. Your program should be tailored to address your weaknesses."
You may have seen lifters bending themselves almost in half on the bench and thought, "That looks like cheating!"It's not, actually. They are simply using a powerlifting strategy called "Arching." The powerlifting arch helps the lifter stabilize their body and push more weight safely.
Bench rules require keeping your head, shoulders, and butt in contact with the bench throughout the lift and your feet flat on the floor. You must also pause the weight on your chest. No bouncing allowed.
Two variations of the deadlift are typically allowed in competition: the conventional and sumo deadlifts.
Stand with your feet near shoulder width apart and on an angle (some may be slightly narrower), and grab the bar outside your knees. Your back should remain flat while you reach your hips back.
Stand with your feet wide and your toes on more of an angle, and grab the bar shoulder width apart (your arms will be inside your feet). Your head and shoulders will be higher than the conventional deadlift position.
As with the squat, you must finish with your knees locked out in competition. The movement should be smooth, without hitching or pausing the bar on your thighs.
Powerlifting Programming Basics
"Beginners can get away with a simpler program, so I'd recommend squatting and deadlifting twice a week and benching 3-4x weekly," says powerlifting coach Kristen Dunsmore.
Most new powerlifters should plan on running a 12-week strength program to start, training 3-4 days a week.
"Your goal is to get comfortable under the bar and master the basic movement pattern. You're building habits that you'll add to later," says Dunsmore.
You should also include additional strength exercises, called accessory lifts, that will help you build muscle and function.
Powerlifting workouts are typically programmed using a percentage of your one rep maximum (1RM)for each lift.
For example, your squat workout could be:
Squat, 3x8 at 65%
But for new powerlifters who haven't tested their 1 R.M. yet, the ratings of perceived exertion scale (RPE) is the next best thing.
RPE allows you to rate how difficult an exercise feels at any given point, which is incredibly useful. This type of subjective difficulty scale is necessary because humans do not perform identically from week to week. So, weight and volume are going to feel different.
RPE enables us to adjust our training as needed to keep progressing and seeing gains in our strength while minimizing the risk of injury and overtraining.
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Warm-up, Mobility, and Injury Prevention
Powerlifting coach Kristen Dunsmore says that while it's impossible to completely prevent injuries, as all sports come with risks, you can do things to lower that risk.
Importance of the Warm-up for Powerlifting
The most critical step to prevent an injury is to include a proper warm-up, as with any other strength training workout. This means starting with a general warm-up, including 5-10 minutes of easy cardio to raise your heart rate and get blood flowing to your muscles, followed by a workout-specific warm-up.
"Everyone's warm-up will look different because we all need different activation and mobility exercises to address our individual needs," says powerlifting coach Kristen Dunsmore. This is another reason you might want to invest in an experienced powerlifting coach, according to Dunsmore.
Your warm-up should mimic the exercises in your workout as closely as possible: the more specific, the better.
Secondly, Dunsmore suggests you must be dedicated to mastering the form for each exercise in your program.
A proper warm-up and good exercise form are the best ways to prevent injuries in the weight room.
Warm-up Examples for Powerlifting
Setting Goals for Powerlifting
As with any sport or new exercise program, you'll want to set measurable, specific goals for yourself to help guide you along the way.
"Don't compare yourself to other lifters years ahead of you," powerlifting coach Kristen Dunsmore cautions. She says building strength and muscle mass takes time, so instead, fall in love with the process principle of training.
You can't control the outcome of a meet, but you can control how you show up, how prepared you are, and your attitude going in.
How to Track Progress
It would help if you track the weights you use and your RPE for your lifts for your coach and yourself. This will help you evaluate training effectiveness, map your strength gains, and give yourself something to compare in the future.
You should get in the habit of filming at least one of your working sets during training. You can send these to your coach for valuable form feedback or review for yourself to critique.
Finding the Right Gym & Coach
Powerlifting coach Kristen Dunsmore says that finding a qualified coach is ideal, as lifting with a barbell is more advanced and technical than other workouts. Beyond that, if you want to compete in powerlifting, you will need someone experienced to program your meet prep and stand with you on competition day.
"There is a lot that goes into a powerlifting meet. From learning lifting form, to choosing the right program, to picking your opening numbers, you want someone experienced helping you along the way."
Powerlifting coaching is an investment, and averages $100-$200 per month for personalized coaching. If you need a more cost-effective option, there are apps and free programs out there.
"Coaching is important because everyone starts in a different place and will need tailored tweaks and adjustments to their training and form. If you want to compete in powerlifting, invest in a coach when you can," says Kristen Dunsworth, powerlifting coach.
What to Consider When Choosing a Coach
Once you've decided you're ready to invest, how do you pick a powerlifting coach?
Powerlifting coach Kristen Dunsmore shares a few parameters to consider when evaluating coaches.
Education & Credentials
Look for a related bachelor's degree in Exercise Science, Kinesiology, Health Sciences, etc. There are no powerlifting certifications per se, but the highest quality fitness professionals usually hold some kind of certification, such as in personal training (NASM, ACE, ACSM, and ISSA are all excellent options) or strength and conditioning like the CSCS from the NSCA.
Powerlifting & Coaching Experience
The most important credentials for a powerlifting coach are that they have successfully competed in powerlifting themselves and coached others successfully in powerlifting meets.
What to Consider When Choosing a Gym
If you're starting your powerlifting journey, you'll want to choose a gym that gives you access to the equipment you will need for training.
Powerlifting coach Kristen Dunsmore says there are benefits to training at a powerlifting gym, such as:
- Competition-specific equipment such as kilo plates, competition racks, etc.
- It's easier to find a training partner
- Most P.L. gyms have a warm, welcoming environment for new lifters
"As with any sport, you want to train how you'll compete. So it's helpful to have access to kilo converters and competition equipment so you can get comfortable with them."
Make sure you visit the gym before signing up to evaluate their equipment, the facilities, and the vibe. While a powerlifting-specific gym has its perks, it's certainly not required.
If you choose to lift in a commercial gym, ensure they have an adjustable squat rack, a deadlift platform–ideally with bumper plates–and an adjustable bench rack. Check out this tool from USA Powerlifting which can help you find a dedicated gym.
Selecting Powerlifting Equipment
While many powerlifters revel in lengthy discussions about the merits of specific equipment, powerlifting coach Kristen Dusnmore says more is less for beginners.
"The only equipment required for a powerlifting meet is a singlet and long socks. After that, knee sleeves, a belt, and wrist wraps are really all you need," says Dunsmore.
Recommendations for Choosing Equipment
If you're considering purchasing any of the above, read the rulebook for the federation you plan to compete with.
"Each of the federations has different rules when it comes to equipment, and you don't want to show up on meet day with the wrong stuff."
Powerlifting coach Dunsmore recommends sticking with the brand SBD. That's because SBD is the most recognized and trusted brand in powerlifting and is the gold standard for most federations.
Best Powerlifting Equipment Options
- SBD Deadlifting Socks
- SBD Knee Sleeves
- SBD Lever Belt
- Inzer Lever Belt
- Guide: Building the Ultimate Powerlifting Home Gym
Powerlifting Competitions & Events
U.S. Federations & Rules
If you want to compete, you'll need to choose a federation. There are many out there, some conduct drug tests and some do not. Some specialize in a small powerlifting niche called equipped lifting. Take your time to explore your options and review their lift requirements for competition.
Powerlifting coach Kristen Dusnmore recommends beginners stick with one of the top three federations for natural powerlifters (sometimes called raw).
Powerlifting Coaches, Apps, & Free Programs
Best Apps for Powerlifting Coaching
Best Free Powerlifting Programs
Best Powerlifting Book
Train with Kristen Dunsmore
Frequently Asked Questions about Powerlifting
What are the benefits of Powerlifting?
The physical benefits of powerlifting include increased strength, muscle size, bone density, and injury prevention with improved performance.
The mental benefits of powerlifting include all the mood-boosting benefits of other forms of exercise and the empowerment and confidence that come with finding the limits of your strength.
Powerlifting provides an athletic outlet for life. Numerous competitive powerlifters regularly compete into their 70s.
How can powerlifting improve my overall strength and fitness?
Whether you choose to compete or not, powerlifting is an excellent addition to any strength program, as you will gain size and strength by mastering the big three lifts and training consistently.
Should I work with a powerlifting coach?
Yes, you should work with a powerlifting coach, especially if you are interested in competition.
There are also cost-effective options available, as many free programs exist, and powerlifting apps can automate your programming using artificial intelligence.
Are there any specific certifications or qualifications required for powerlifting coaches?
Powerlifting coach Dunsmore says formal education is helpful but not always required. Look for a bachelor's degree in Exercise Science, Kinesiology, Health Sciences, etc.
The most important credential for a powerlifting coach is that they have successfully competed themselves and coached others in powerlifting meets.
How often should I compete?
According to powerlifting coach Dunsmore, new powerlifters can compete 3-5 times yearly. Advanced lifters may only compete once a year, as their gains are slower and preparation takes much longer.
Powerlifting is an empowering, challenging sport with a welcoming culture that will transform your body and mind. What began as an obscure sport in garage gyms in the 1970s has grown into a thriving international sport with its own culture.
New powerlifters should plan on training 3-4x weekly and running a strength program for at least 12 weeks. The purpose of this first program is to become familiar with the form for each exercise, build strength, and form the habit of training hard.
Warming up before your workout is crucial, and you'll benefit significantly from working with an experienced powerlifting coach.
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Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Resistance Training Load Effects on Muscle Hypertrophy and Strength Gain: Systematic Review and Network Meta-analysis.
Current Sports Medicine Reports. Resistance Training is Medicine. Effects of Strength Training on Health.