The fundamental goal of powerlifting is to get strong. This is different from bodybuilding, where the goal is to develop large muscles and lower bodyfat. Because of this, different training techniques are required. Strong and big are different things.
Strength is embodied by the three basic lifts: squat, bench press and deadlift. These are lifts that the human body can move the most weight in, and have a good chance of not breaking.
A real powerlifter does all three lifts, to develop overall strength. A huge number of so-called “powerlifters” only do the bench press, but bench pressing is really just the tip of the power iceberg. The real challenges lie in the other lifts. If you are going to powerlift, do all three lifts.
To maintain bodyweight, get about 15-20 calories per pound of bodyweight (a rough estimate). If you need to bulk up, this should be closer to 25 calories per pound. If you want to lose fat, use a cyclical low carb diet (always keep the fat low, about 10-20% of calories), but do 2-3 days in a row of very low carbs (0.0-0.5 gm / lb) and high protein (2-3 gm / lb) followed by 1 day of high carbs (2-3 grams / lb) and moderate protein (1 gram / lb). The low carb days force your body into a state of fat burning.
Aside from dieting to lose fat, keep the protein / carb / fat percentage of your diet around 30% / 50%-60% / 10%-20%, and get 1 gram per pound of quality meat (preferably red or dairy) protein per day.
Consume simple carbs about a 1/2 hour before your workout (either fruit or carb drink, 200-400 calories), and re-carb with about 100 grams of simple carbs within an hour of training. Get a good dose of protein within an hour after training. Protein can be taken in large amounts, contrary to the 30 gram per meal myth. It stays in the intestines for nearly a day, so the body gets plenty of time to process it. Eating 3 meals a day plus a couple snacks is convenient and effective (versus the 6 meals a day bodybuilders recommend).
Get your nutrients from normal food, and a good multi-vitamin. Use protein powders and weight gainers mainly for convenience, rather than out of habit.
There are plenty of useful supplements on the market that work at increasing muscle mass. You can increase your strength and muscular endurance by using these in addition to your training and diet. Caffeine is very effective as a fat burner. One of the main ‘strength’ supplements would be creatine; people have been using this continually for several years now, and so far there have been no reported cases of any ill effects.
You will need a good regulation power belt. Get a single prong belt (two prongs are too hard to put on tight). Buy a good belt; it is the most important gear. It should be very stiff as opposed to being soft and comfortable.
Knee wraps are also a necessity. These are worn for squatting but not deadlifting.
A good cross trainer shoe seems to be good for general-purpose powerlifting. Once you get strong, you may want to use proper squat shoes for squatting and a good flat-soled shoe (wrestling shoe or tennis shoe) for deadlifting.
Once you can squat and deadlift over 2 times your bodyweight, you may want to consider wearing a powersuit. They are a pain in the ass to put on though; they are very tight and can even leave bruises on your legs! But they do provide added safety when moving heavy weights, as well as adding to what you can lift.
Use this on all your powerlifts. Always on your hands, plus chalk knees before wrapping them, and chalk the back for squatting and bench pressing.
Power bar and Collars;
You need a good Olympic bar and 5lb collars for the powerlifts. Always use the collars on squat and bench, optional on the deadlift. Hopefully your gym has good bar and collars. The number one thing to look for in bars is that they are straight – not bent. Put them on a rack and roll them to check for bends. If they are bent at all, they can change positions during a lift.
Don’t wear them, they are a cheat! The shirt is there solely to help move the weight, not for safety. You can bench more with them, for sure. But you also look like an idiot wearing them (hard to put your hands at your sides) and they are hard to put on and take off without help. At least, wait till you can bench 1 ½ times your bodyweight before messing with them.
The difference between a bench shirt and squat suit is that in the squat, you are unsupported in the bottom position; with a heavy weight, you could easily strain the support muscles, inner thigh and hamstrings. The suit basically reinforces these muscles. In the bench, at the bottom position you are supported, since the bar hits your chest if it goes too low. There is a far less safety need for the shirt.
Things to avoid;
Wrist straps for deadlifts. This robs you of your grip development. Same goes for gloves and elbow wraps (which are not legal for bench press competitions).
PRIMARY LIFT TECHNIQUE
It is futile to try and pass on technique via the written word, or even still photos. You have to get out and see live action. If at all possible, find an experienced powerlifter to critique your style periodically. If a mentor is not available, you could try buying a training video. I suggest the ones by Ed Coan (the all time best powerlifter), as he is also known as a great technician who gets the most out of his lifts.
Always do your powerlifting with good form. Never cheat to get the lift. Cheating includes bouncing your bench, not squatting low enough, avoiding lockouts in the bench and deadlift, bouncing the bar on the floor during reps in the deadlift etc. If you cheat you got nothing. It’s that simple, because that’s what you would get in a contest.
There are two styles: touch and go, and pause. When training specifically for competition, you have to practice the pause. The bar must come to a complete stop when touching your chest. In power training not specifically for a contest, it’s better to move the bigger weights by using a touch and go style. That means you press up as soon as the bar touches the chest, but there is still no bounce or cheat at the bottom! Typically the pause takes 10lbs off your maximum bench.
Power squats are different from bodybuilding squats. The motion is pretty similar to that of sitting down on a toilet with a wide stance.
There are two legal styles, sumo and conventional. In conventional, your feet are together and your hands wider than your feet. The bar comes off the ground easy, but there is a sticking point near the knees where the back is put under tremendous stress in a rounded position. I don’t recommend this style, as it is more injury prone. I recommend you taking a shoulder width stance with your hands inside of your legs, similar in position to the bottom of a squat. The hips take up much more of the load, and the hard part of the movement is to get the bar off the floor; after that it glides up.
When doing reps in the deadlift, set the bar down completely at the end of each rep (keep your hands on it though). Don’t cheat by bouncing it off the floor or cutting the motion short and coming up early. You want every rep to be like a single; otherwise you will weaken in the starting position.
It is important to mentally psyche up before attempting a heavy lift. Based on my experience with lifting, I’d say the difference between psyched and un-psyched lifting is about a 10-20% drop in strength, plus the weight feels ponderous and heavy when there is no psyche. Proper psyching should put you either in a state of extreme rage or fear – the primitive emotions. By the time you start the lift, the conscious mind should be completely shut down; there is no thought, thus disabling any emotion. In a sense, you want to completely lose your mind, and perform the lift using only instinct. When you can reach this state (it takes a lot of practice), there will be no physical sensation at all during the lift, your body is numb, you are not aware of your limbs, you may lose your sense of hearing as well, and just for that brief time there is only a direct link between the mind and the muscles without the normal conscious interface. It is a pretty weird mental state, one that cannot be reached any other way than by putting extreme demands on your body.
The psyching up of yourself really isn’t about yelling, grunting or making any kind of noise; it really is all in your mind. I advocate the silent psyche. Keep it in your mind. I look totally calm on the outside while psyching up, but inside there is a violent storm raging in the brain.
The training lifts are divided into the three primary power lifts, and all other movements are classified as assistance lifts. The purpose of the assistance movements is to develop and maintain muscle mass over the entire body, and to be sure that muscles get worked through a full range of motions and angles. This will assist with the stability during the primary lifts and helps to prevent weak links from developing.
Thorough warm-up is important prior to the power lifts, since you are going to stress the body severely. I suggest the following warm-up sequences:
1 x 8, 1 x 5, 1 x 3, 1 x 1, work set(s)
The work set(s) are the actual maximal sets you want to do that day. The weight jumps should be roughly equal between each set above: i.e. the first set is with 20% of the target weight, then 40%, etc until you reach 100% for your work set. If you are using more than 5 plates on the bar, insert more 1 x 1 warm-up sets.
Gear for warm-ups & sets:
Use chalk on all warm-ups for all powerlifts.
Always wear your belt for squats and deadlifts.
Don’t wear a belt to bench press – it interferes with arching your back.
Wrap your knees to squat after your first two warm-up sets.
If you are going to wear a power suit to squat and deadlift, use it only on your last two warm ups and your heavy sets.
If you use special shoes to squat / bench/ deadlift, wear them for the entire warm-up and lifting sequence.
Minor injuries are a part of powerlifting. You will nearly always have aching joints and sore muscles when you start taxing the body. It requires skill to decide which injuries to ignore and which to pay attention to. Here are some simple rules of thumb:
Bruises and broken blood vessels on the skin and in the eyes are generally harmless although they can look pretty bad.
Same for all manner of skin abrasions.
Deep muscle aches and aching joints are common but not a sign of serious injury. Same for tendonitis.
Minor muscle tears occur frequently. If a muscle tear actually causes a loss in strength, you need to avoid working that area until it heals. If a muscle tear results in no loss of strength (even though it may hurt while lifting) you can train as usual.
The bottom line is usually if an injury makes you weaker, do something about it. Otherwise, ignore it and work around it. It is not unusual to train with fairly (even extremely) painful injuries, as long as you remain strong.
Similarly, you can train through most minor illnesses. But don’t train with a viral chest infection and a fever as it can damage the heart according to what some doctors say.
CHOOSING A WEIGHT CLASS
If you compete, you need to decide what weight class to go into. It is a fact that anyone can get stronger by getting fatter, but who wants to look like a fatty? I suggest you try to compete at somewhere between 8 – 13% body fat and try to squeeze into the lower weight classes. It is a much more athletic thing to do… remember, this is still a sport! Also, you can easily drop 3 – 5lbs over the last three days before the contest and then pop back to your final weight with a little re-carbing and sodium loading.
WHAT CONSTITUTES STRONG?
More generally, squatting and deadlifting 3 times your bodyweight and benching 2 times your bodyweight is good strength for a power lifter and that would put you close to National level.