I am a novice powerlifter.
I have competed in one powerlifting meet, one for which I trained very briefly.
My perspective on powerlifting doesn’t come solely from a weightlifting background.
In fact, it comes from a variety of things: life as a group exercise instructor, being a spinning junkie and part-time TRX instructor.
My weightlifting history is rather short. Prior to powerlifting my background was strictly kettlebell training after I fell in love with the sport in 2013.
Soon after watching kettlebells transform my body I decided to train for the StrongFirst certification. I wanted to help others learn how to train with kettlebells.
After I attained the StrongFirst certification I began working with barbells. It is important to know I did *not* start training with barbells with the goal of powerlifting in mind.
Learning barbell lifts was a way for me to add a greater load to my training; I could handle more weight by way of loading a bar, instead of holding heavier bells.
Two and a half short months with barbells flew by and I decided to set my sights on a powerlifting competition.
This timeline was not exactly ideal for a first-timer. Regardless of whether or not I would have the perfect contest preparation, I decided to sign up for my first powerlifting meet.
I had eight weeks to prepare.
Strength training with barbells for powerlifting taught me even more than I realized I could learn.
If you take nothing from this article, take away that no matter how strongly you feel about your “way” to exercising, eating, etc. having an open mind always leads to growth, change and knowledge.
I learned five things that I want to share with you about powerlifting.
These five things are my opinions.
Overall lifting barbells changed my mindset towards training in general.
Never again will I judge a workout’s efficacy based on how much sweat it induced.
Never again will calorie burn concern me.
Dive in to my beginner’s perspective and learn about my takeaways from powerlifting.
1. Volume is relative
Powerlifting program cycles have varying amounts of volume.
For the purposes of this article, when I say “volume” in regards to training I am referring to the amount of repetitions.
In a powerlifter’s mind “five by five,” (or “5×5” as it is written), is a *lot* of volume.
In kettlebell training, completing sets of 10 goblet squats or 20 kettlebell swings is not unusual.
In the group fitness world an instructor may have clients do bodyweight squats for one minute or sets of 25 repetitions.
In powerlifting five to eight repetitions is *high.*
I would have never imagined that five sets of five reps could be so challenging.
For those of you who have never barbell back squatted, having 45 to 95 pounds on your back when you first begin is daunting.
As you place the bar on your back and unrack the bar it feels like the weight of the world is on your shoulders.
Adding a squat with that load on top of you is nerve racking, to say the least.
You have to trust your technique.
The feeling of the load is a different kind of tough, however, than a spin class or jumping lunges.
You don’t really sweat; you will be slightly out of breath by repetition number five.
But just as soon as your breath starts to feel challenged, you are finished with the set and you proceed rest for three minutes, minimum.
As time moves on and you begin adding around five pounds per week to your 5×5 sets, no longer does 5×5 seem minimal. It seems like a lot.
It feels heavy.
It is heavy.
On mornings of five by five training days I would sip on my pre-workout nervously.
No matter how much weight you are lifting watching the strength build right before your eyes, week after week, is enthralling.
It takes a little bit of nerve and a lot of heart.
Even more, after a few weeks lifting five sets of five it’s common to begin 3×3 set rep scheme.
That means you complete three sets of three reps at the specified weight– a load which is greater than the number at which you did sets of five reps.
As the weight continues to increase in your first powerlifting program cycle you move from three sets of three to two sets of two.
The volume (at heavier weight) will drop; but it drops appropriately.
For instance, the first time I ever completed the two sets of two phase, there was absolutely no way I could have squatted more than two reps at 155 pounds.
For me, volume is a mental thing.
I am uber confident when it comes to three reps.
When it comes to five reps I get nervous.
You would think I would feel *most* confident squatting five sets of five reps because it is typically a lighter load.
Not the case.
Deadlifting five sets of five reps is incredibly taxing, too. The greatest load I ever hit before the meet was five sets of five at 185 pounds.
Here is a video of me deadlifting three reps at 195 pounds.
You may think I would like the two sets of two because there are fewer reps to do.
I think two sets of two is frightening/challenging/invigorating in *both* the deadlift and the back squat because it feels heavy.
In 2×2, after one rep you feel *incredible;* but it’s heavy; it’s as if there is no way you could do it again without rest.
The ultimate feeling of brute strength: going for that second heavy pull or push.
The challenge of doing two sets of two reminds me of 5×5.
In a perfect world I would always do three reps when squatting.
When it comes to deadlifts singles are always the *best.*
I mean, who wouldn’t want to only do one rep at a time?
Confidence is another overarching takeaway from powerlifting: when you train smart, you will NEVER pick up a weight you cannot physically lift.
The only time you will not be able to lift it is if you tell yourself you can’t.
Depending on what you are doing, volume really is relative. My perspective changed on my first program.
Five reps is the new 12 reps feeling for me– tough and challenging.
2. The lifts are skills; the training is practice; ankle mobility is required.
A backflip takes time to learn, right?
Waterskiing is not just something to try and do without a coach.
I admonish you: learning a loaded back squat or deadlift without the eye of a professional to cue you and write a smart training program is almost dangerous.
Once you have the coach you need to practice.
Your mind must shift from “workout mode” to “training/practice mode.”
My online strength client, Erin, has a specified practice day in her program.
Here’s what her training schedule looks like:
Monday: upper body
Wednesday: lower body
Saturday: “practice with barbells”
She literally goes to the gym to practice the skills on Saturdays. She works on deadlifting light weight to encourage speed off the floor, bench pressing the bar with pauses and squatting to a low box to work on hitting depth.
You want to practice and get better at the skill, not exhausted from calorie burn.
If you want to sweat or burn calories, then conditioning is a better option.
You can still do conditioning while training for powerlifting if you desire…
…but you cannot treat your lifts like conditioning.
If you have physique or fat loss goals you *can* do conditioning in tandem with powerlifting, but I learned the hard way that your lifts must come first if you want to get better in the sport.
Try to condition just one to two times per week and avoid doing it on the days you lift.
It is important to note that lifting heavy weights taxes the muscles…. a lot.
You will need to recover and refuel with superb nutrition. Subsequently, you *may* get leaner on your powerlifting program as you build strength.
However, you might not get sweaty during the process.
Powerlifting takes advanced skill level.
Just like a snowboarder must practice heel and toe-side turns, a powerlifter must break down the movements and practice each piece of each lift.
A snowboarder may have to change their bindings and/or practice stretching in order to improve mobility and flexibility in their stance…
In gymnastics you may have to tend to your shoulder mobility for flips…
Just like other sports, squatting in powerlifting takes a lot of ankle mobility— something of which I have very little.
I am constantly working to improve the range of motion in order to hit “depth,” (aka to the bottom of the squat).
Long story short, powerlifting lifts are skills and it is important to break skills down into pieces and improve the little pieces in order to get better.
3. Each practice builds on the next. You must trust and commit.
I alluded to this point once already when I said, “you will never pick up a weight that you cannot physically lift.”
For beginners on a smart, strategic lifting program you will pick up heavier weights each week.
It’s similar to someone beginning to train for a half marathon for the first time. You follow a program that builds on each run you complete.
Even if you are only adding two to three pounds to each lift each every week, you will be making progress.
It’s neat because as a beginner you begin to see the progress quickly.
Instead of always judging a “workout’s” efficacy based on how much you sweat, you will feel accomplished when you write down greater numbers in your log.
In order for it to work you have to show up.
Going to the gym and training must be habitual. It must be routine. It must be dogmatic.
Once the habit is set and motivation is unwavering all you have to do it perform the correct, programmed set and rep schemes all the while taking notes of what weights you’re lifting. Your log will let you know how much to increase each week.
It’s almost like baking cookies or building Ikea furniture.
You read the directions and follow the steps.
Find a program you trust and then commit to the program.
Nutrition must be in check and other forms of fitness can go by the wayside.
Let me re-phrase, other forms should go by the wayside during your training cycle.
You *can* do some sort of conditioning or power walking for mental sanity or a stress relief. As mentioned, conditioning is manageable if it is only a few times a week.
I learned the hard way that it is physically, mentally and emotionally stressful to follow a smart program when you are taxing your body in other ways.
For example, I was teaching three spin classes a week during my first competition prep cycle.
When I decided to compete in powerlifting I could not necessarily just quit my job at the spin studio.
In order to perform well and hit the lifts in my program while maintaining the energy to carry on my other life tasks, my nutrition had to be in check.
It was a no brainer that I should eat more on lifting days–especially when the goal of each session is to lift heavier than you did before.
I made sure to never skimp on protein and drink BCAAs while spinning and training.
I ate at least 300 calories before every morning training session.
Carbs were my best friend Monday, Wednesday and Fridays. I upped my carb intake about 50 grams more than usual.
If you are an active, busy person trying to follow a strength program or powerlifting program, for performance’s sake you must eat well.
Eat protein and eat carbs.
If you are a new powerlifter who has the goal of getting leaner in mind, nutrition must be in check.
Good nutrition will help the strength training do its job more effectively.
Stay as diligent with your nutrition log as you are with your training log. The two go hand in hand.
4. Powerlifting is an awesome sport if you want to get super strong and don’t necessarily want to look “jacked.”
Nutrition must be prioritized anytime you seek changes in your physique.
I am very proud of how far I have come with my strength. It has taken consistent dedication and effort.
The side effects of powerlifting programming have effects on my physique; I have gained more lean mass…
…and a booty.
The powerlifting programming has also had an awesome effect on my overall strength in general.
For instance, I always wanted to carry the strength to crank out sets of 10 chin ups any time, any place.
This feat requires a ton of strength, for sure. My program for powerlifting had a great amount of pull-up and chin-up variations in it. I finally made it to that lofty (or not-so lofty), 10 chin-up goal!
Increased strength is an amazing feeling. Increased strength does not mean you get “huge,” “bulky,” “meaty” etc. It does not mean you have to look jacked and shredded.
Smart training programs will help you get stronger; but stronger does not mean you have to look huge.
Added strength *can* absolutely help you lean out, if you are seeking to do so.
If you are making strides in the gym and eating accordingly you can and should see some changes in your physique. Powerlifting gave me much bigger glutes and more developed abs as I gained lean muscle mass.
I lost fat and got stronger.
5. Strength builds over time
The coolest part about powerlifting as a sport is that you watch measurable changes happen in your strength. Just like a runner who begins to build endurance and run further each run, a powerlifter begins to add more weight each week.
The second coolest part is that you know even leading up to your first meet that if you continue to train this way you will get even stronger down the road.
For instance, my five rep max increased 10 pounds after my first meet. My two rep squat max went up 30 pounds.
The longer you follow a powerlifting program and train consistently the more strength you build.
Even better, it doesn’t just disappear in a week and maintaining it doesn’t require hour long sessions day in and day out.
In fact, over time I have begun to do *less* work and see greater results.
Following a powerlifting program entails squatting, bench pressing and deadlifting, but is not exclusive to those lifts only.
One of the main reasons why I truly love the powerlifting programs written by my coach is because there is always pull-up programing. During the powerlifting program I followed from February through the beginning of March I increased my weighted chin up from 30 pounds to 42 pounds!
Don’t forget, more strength over time does not mean bigger, bulkier muscles unless you *want* bigger muscles and therefore, eat accordingly.
Powerlifting has given me a more relaxed approach to training. I am less stressed about the calorie burn or sweat factor and less out of breath while training.
I constantly work on taking longer rest between sets. I try not to let my lifts feel like conditioning.
I feel stronger, look leaner and don’t have to to feel like I must “train meaner.” I do less and feel better.
Prioritizing my program and never missing a training day is important.
It has given me confidence to share my strength with others whether it be through sharing instagram videos, discussing technique, or sharing basic information about what your first competition is like.
I feel like I can let people in on a whole entire fitness world they didn’t think that they too, could be a part of.
My online strength client Katie has watched my strength build with me via instagram videos. Each time I meet with her to train in person at the end of her program cycle she brings up my lifts.
She says she can’t wait for her 1 rep max to increase. It motivates her not only because she is also in the process of building strength but trusts in the process when she sees how being on a smart program can impact strength, if you follow it correctly.
I have learned that powerlifting is a realm of fitness which I truly enjoy.
It is not the end all be all and it is not the only way to improve athleticism nor is it the only way to attain a great physique.
It is not the only way to learn about strength.
Powerlifting is my new favorite way to train after keeping an open mind to the sport.
Keep an open mind and the world is yours from which you can learn.