Powerlifting is the sort of sport that you generally fall into. I’ve never heard of an absolute beginner walking into a gym with expressed intent of competing in the sport. It’s a sport that you might gravitate to after you’ve spent a certain amount of time in a gym and have decided you have an interest in strength training. Also, powerlifting gyms and qualified coaches are few and far between. Unless you are very lucky, you’ll have to go out of your way to find them. Lastly, compound movements like the squat and deadlift are relatively technical and intimidating to the uninitiated. (It always blows my mind that people afraid of the squat (which is relatively easy to “bail”) and not the bench press, which involves lifting heavy weights over your face, throat and chest)
Sooner or later, you might realize that setting goals and getting stronger are powerful motivators. So you search out qualified coaching in one of the more common strength sports like Crossfit, powerlifting or Olympic lifting. As you surround yourself with like-minded people and get stronger, chances are that you’ll eventually be encouraged to compete. As your gym mates will tell you, nothing focuses your training as much prepping for a meet and, besides, powerlifting meets are a lot of fun. While I didn’t doubt that prepping for a meet makes you extra focused, I declined to compete because I told myself that I lift for myself, not for external validation. Besides, like every powerlifter ever, I felt I should only compete when my lifts were “good enough”. See, my squat is average for my weight and age, my bench press is actually well above average but I have a “poverty” deadlift. It’s OK for a commercial gym goer, but it’s rather below average for a powerlifter. “Ridiculous”, said my coach and the PL team members, “Nobody cares. Just do it, get out there and compete”.
I finally allowed myself to be talked into signing up for a competition. I noticed – and I remember this phenomena from my days of competing in martial arts tournaments – time seemed to telescope. All of the sudden, 4 months did not seem like a very long time. Every workout, every week of training and every phase of my programming became of utmost importance. So, yes, you become very focused almost immediately. Powerlifting is actually more athletic than most people would suspect. It’s very common for a lifter to be good in 2 of the lifts and struggle in the 3rd. It’s relatively rare to be strong in all 3 lifts. Most commonly, you’ll see lifters that have a pretty good deadlift, a decent squat and an OK bench press. So the challenge, when you’re training for a competition, is to maintain or improve your strength in the lifts that you do well, while striving mightily to improve the lift that presents the most problems.
Powerlifting is not bodybuilding so the most common body type is what I’ve heard referred to as “fuscular”. Jacked, for the most part, but not exactly 6 percent body fat. Everyone you speak to you will tell you that the biggest error a novice competitor can make is to cut weight for a competition. Nevertheless, a week out from my first competition, I weighed myself and realized that I was on the borderline between 2 weight categories. I had signed up for the -100 kgs class…and if I didn’t weigh in at 100 kgs or under, I would be put in the -110 kg class. I shuddered to think what those guys deadlift, so I changed my diet. Not radically, but no beer and no sugar outside of whole fruits. I drank only water and black coffee and ate very cleanly, protein with lots of vegetables and limited amounts of rice and quinoa. I realized when we got to the competition for the weigh-in that my team mates and most of the other competitors had been dieting as well. As I weighed-in at 97 kg, the woman recording the weight said “That’s it, you’re good – time for a cheeseburger!”.
The vibe at a local level powerlifting meet is indescribable. Yes, there are lots of jacked women and men walking around and yes, there will be nonstop rock and rap blaring from huge speakers near the lifting area but, nevertheless, it’s one of the most chill, laid back, kumbaya sporting events you’ll ever witness. Everyone (including your direct competition) couldn’t be nicer or more encouraging. It’s as if lifting really heavy things is roughly equivalent to eating a pot and Ecstasy laced brownie. Everyone is happy, hungry, talkative, laughing, literally hugging virtual strangers, etc. Bear in mind that I live in Northern Europe, so the behavior I just described is even more remarkable. And while the physical effects of heavy lifting go a long way towards explaining this phenomenon, I think a contributing factor is the opportunity to be around like-minded people. Powerlifting is very much a niche sport. As I’ve said in previous posts, it’s a somewhat lonely passion and one that is sometimes prone to being subtly or even overtly discouraged by one’s family, friends and co-workers. The complex programming, the nutrition, the endless tweaking of technique and the training itself take a huge amount of time. Outside of one’s powerlifting team mates, nobody understands or even cares about it. You hear plenty of semi-marathon prep chat, and not a little bragging, around the water cooler at work, but mention a 5 rep squat PR you just hit recently and an awkward silence will follow. So a powerlifting meet is really just a large-scale geek out for powerlifters, a rare opportunity to let their freak flag fly. It means that a few times a year you are surrounded by people who “get it” and are just as passionate about all the minutiae as you are.
So, yes, you will see some great lifters and big lifts. You’ll also see lifters of many different levels of experience and ability. Everyone there understands the dedication, passion and nerve it takes to compete so there is huge respect for anybody who goes out there gives it their all, whatever the weight. Many people imagine that a powerlifting meet is the sole preserve of anti-social skinheads, but I have rarely seen (outside of Mardi Gras) such an example of people of all races, nationalities and sexual orientation genuinely getting along and having a laugh. After your first powerlifting meet two things will happen; firstly, you’ll kick yourself for being such an ass and not listening to those people who told you to “just compete!” and, secondly, you’ll be even more motivated for the next one.