Powerlifting 101: For the Beginner Powerlifter

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powerlift1So, you’ve been hitting the gym and are ready to try powerlifting?

That feeling creeping around the back of your head right now is self-doubt.

And I get it. 

You don’t think you’re strong enough; it’s something I’ve heard from my clients countless times.

As a guy who deadlifted 520lbs while weighing 174lbs (in a hoodie and jeans, no less), I still wasn’t satisfied with my strength levels. You might never be as strong as you want to be, but that shouldn’t keep you from competing.

I am going lay out five important guidelines for you to follow on your journey.

The Basics

Powerlifting is a strength sport comprised of three different lifts: the squat, bench press, and deadlift. You get three shots at each lift, and the highest of each will get added into your total score, aptly called, Your Total.

1. These Important Rules Will Make or Break Your Lifts

In every federation you lift in, there are certain directives for when and how to lift. You can find them in your handbook and since I know you have read it, I won’t get too crazy in-depth here (seriously, read the rule book).

The squat requires that your hip crease is below the knee in order for it to count.

If you execute the lift and you see three red lights on the board, it doesn’t count. Don’t sweat it. You get two more tries. Two or three green (or sometimes white) lights means your lift is good.

The bench press has some rules you should follow, too. The bar has to make contact with you. If you do not make contact with your body, the lift does not count and you’ll see those three red lights.

Other important technical rules that you have to follow include:

1) Your shoulders have to touch the bench at all times.

2) Your butt has to be in contact with the bench at all times.

3) Your feet have to be in contact with the floor.

Depending on the federation you are in, you can either be on the balls of your feet, or your feet have to be on the floor, flat. This is dependant on the federation, and the rules may vary from one to the other, but this isn’t an issue because you’ve thoroughly read the rule book, right?

4) Your head has to be in contact with the bench.

This is also federation specific, but since you’re a beginner, just keep your head touching and you’ll be fine.

5) Your grip can vary, but the widest you can go is the point at which your index fingers touch the rings. Any wider is too wide to count. This is universal.

6) Death grips (thumbless) and reverse grips are federation specific. If you are ever in doubt, and the rulebook is unclear, ask the meet directors. 

Thankfully, the bench is the most technical of all the lifts you’ll do.

For the deadlifts, it’s simple. You pick the weight up sumo or conventional; staggered, hooked, or double overhand grips are all acceptable.

The only thing that can’t happen (and this applies to all the lifts) is that the bar can’t reverse directions. Even if it stops for a bit, don’t let it reverse. Complete the lift and you’re golden.

2. Know the Cues

Aside from the technical nuances of the lift, you also have to make sure you’re following the cues from the judges.

For the squat, there are two: squat and rack.It goes like this: the announcer calls your name and you have one minute to get ready before you step under that bar and walk it out.

It goes like this: the announcer calls your name and you have one minute to get ready before you step under that bar and walk it out.

Once you’re ready, look at the judge directly in front of you and give him or her a nod. The judge will say, “Squat!” and you squat following all of the technical rules from above.

When you lock it out, you wait. The judge will then say, “Rack!” and upon hearing that, you walk the bar back to the rack. There will be spotters there to help you.

Do not ignore the cues.

If you ignore them, and your lift is flawless, it still doesn’t count. You don’t want to lose credit for something so minuscule.

The bench is a little bit more involved. Two of the cues are always universal, so we’ll talk about those first.

After lowering the bar to the point of contact, pause. After your pause, the judge will say “Press!” and then you bench press. 

When you lock it out, pause again. The judge will say “Rack!” and then you rack the weight.Not too different from the squat commands, right?

Not too different from the squat commands, right?

The one difference you might encounter depending on the federation is at the beginning of the bench. Some feds have an additional “start” command for the bench press. After the handoff, when you’re locked out, the judge will yell, “Start!” at which point you lower the bar to your body in preparation for the other two cues we discussed. 

As for the deadlift, the announcer will call you up and say the bar is ready.

At this point, you go up and lift the bar. Once you lockout, hold it, and the judge will take their raised hand and wave down, signaling for you to drop it.

When you drop it, follow it. Don’t just let it go, or it won’t count. You also don’t have to do a slow negative rep either. Just follow it, and know that it’s OK to make a little noise. 

3. Equipment Matters

It’s real tempting to get caught up in the tiny nuances of the sport because of all the shit you see powerlifters using on Instagram: knee wraps, knee sleeves, wrist wraps, belts, squat shoes, deadlift shoes, and so on. Resist the urge to worry about most of that.

Things you do need:

A singlet: get one without a logo. Some federations have rules regarding that, and will disqualify you if your singlet has a logo on it. You can, however, get an awesome singlet with a cat on it if you want. Either way, if you don’t have a singlet, you can’t compete. 

Chalk: there will usually be chalk provided, but sometimes it runs out. Plus, you have to warm up, so you don’t want to have to go off looking for chalk when you’re trying to get in the zone. It’s better to be prepared with your own. 

Knee high socks: these are required so that you don’t get blood from your shins on the bar. Any color will do, though I personally prefer pink because it goes with my belt.

Optional, But Recommended:

A belt: while not a requirement, it’s nice to have. It’ll help you brace yourself by maximizing your intra-abdominal pressure, and it might even add a few pounds to your lifts. Inzer makes a good belt, or you can get an affordable one from Elite FTS.

Squat shoes: If you don’t use squat shoes, use whatever shoes you normally do. Vans or Chucks are super common, so don’t stress about buying anything fancy.

–  A pre-workout: Okay here’s the deal, this is not going to turn you into a good powerlifter. But a pre-workout may help you get a few extra pounds, and get you motivated to go to the gym in the first place. Just make sure to choose a high-quality one and not one that’s just back with stimulants. For some recommendations, check out our recs on the best pre-workouts for beginners.

4. Your Training and Your Lifts

No matter what program you’re using, practice your cues during your heavier sets.

If you are lifting with experienced competitors, it’ll be easy to do. Have them cue you the same way the judges will. Practice pausing and everything, because this is where beginners will most often get in trouble during their first meets. Practice at your gym and it you won’t get tripped up at a meet. 

Also, make note of what kind of weight you’re moving in the gym. You don’t want to be that guy or girl who goes to the meet and picks out an impossible opening attempt. Ideally, pick something you can easily lift for your opening attempts. Something you can hit for three reps in the gym is a good bet for your openers.

Just know that if you pick an opener and it’s too high, you can’t go back down in weight. It either has to stay the same, or go up.

From there, be conservative. Don’t try for a massive PR if you don’t think you’ll hit it. You’ll be able to compete again and improve those numbers. 

5. Your Weight Class

You will be put into a weight class, but you should not cut weight for your first meet. Why?

  1. It’s a highly stressful thing to do for your body.
  2. If you’ve never cut weight, it’s very easy to mess it up and come in too heavy, which defeats the purpose.

I didn’t listen to this advice; few people I know do, but it is important! That said, if you do decide to try to drop into a lower weight class, make sure you’re doing it safely. 

That’s About It

Those are all the tools you need to begin.

Powerlifters are some of the most supportive and encouraging people you’ll meet, and they can be a fantastic resource for your development as an athlete. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned powerlifter, all of you are doing the same thing: lifting heavy weights. You’ve got the same rules and the same obstacles to overcome. 

More often than not, I’ve found that the people who you compete against can be your biggest supporters during the meets, and I hope your experience is as fun and rewarding as mine’s been. 

About the Author

In addition to being a fan of music and heavy metal, I am an avid player of table top RPGs, and I am a personal trainer in Tampa, FL as well as a graduate of the prestigious University of South Florida. I am available for fat loss consultations and pain relief as well, and I can be found at and on Facebook.

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