From the outsider’s perspective, every guy at the gym is simply “lifting weights.” But then you throw in terms like “powerlifting,” “bodybuilding,” and “strongman.”
The lines understandably get blurred.
Yet, it’s important to realize that powerlifting and weightlifting are two entirely different things.
And bungling the two terms—or confidently calling yourself a powerlifter when you’re simply a weightlifter—is enough to help you lose respect from the guys at the gym.
So what exactly is powerlifting?
And how do you get into powerlifting as a beginner?
Keep reading to find out!
Table of Contents
- What is Powerlifting?
- What Age Should You Start Powerlifting?
- How Many Days a Week Should You Train for Powerlifting?
- Getting the Most Out of Your Powerlifting Workouts
- Popular Powerlifting Programs
- Popular Powerlifting Organizations
- How Do You Get Into Powerlifting?
What is Powerlifting?
Powerlifting is an offshoot of weightlifting that focuses on maximal strength during “odd lifts”— bench press, deadlift, and squat—for sets of one rep at near-max intensity.
But powerlifting isn’t only confined to your local gym.
Elite powerlifters (and even some novices trying to break into the industry) will register for powerlifting competitions to see where they stand among others in their weight class.
That’s where we separate the boys from the men.
Each powerlifter will have their shot on the platform, attempting each of the three lifts a total of three times. The highest of each lift goes toward the powerlifter’s “total.”
The champion is the guy in each weight class with the highest total at the end.
It’s that simple.
What Age Should You Start Powerlifting?
Realistically, you can start powerlifting at any age.
You may be able to find local powerlifting competitions with a “junior” age class accepting powerlifters as young as 14.
So between 14 and 18 are great ages to get into powerlifting.
Studies show that our muscular strength and power will peak around the age of 25.
That’s obviously as long as you’re lifting consistently to build strength and power continuously.
So getting into powerlifting during your mid to late teens means you can spend those first few years locking down good form on the three major lifts.
By the time you “peak” around age 25, you’ve put the previous decade to good use in the gym. You’ll be well ahead of your competitors, some of whom wait until they’re beyond 30 to start.
What better way to get a leg-up on your peers?
Already well past 18? Then the best day to start is today, the second-best is tomorrow.
How Many Days a Week Should You Train for Powerlifting?
Three to five powerlifting sessions a week is considered “ideal.” But many novices assume that powerlifting training sessions are strictly about cranking out sets of the three major lifts.
That’s not true in the slightest.
Let’s say you were shooting for four training sessions a week.
You might focus on heavy lifts of the bench press on Monday and Thursday, squats on Tuesday, and deadlifts on Friday. The order and frequency can vary from week to week.
But your workouts should also include more minor movements, or else you’re neglecting tons of muscles in your body.
So you could finish out workouts with things like cable rows, shoulder presses, or ab exercises.
Getting the Most Out of Your Powerlifting Workouts
The three key exercises are obviously important in powerlifting. Yet, what’s even more significant is the intensity of your sets and the number of reps you’re doing during workouts.
Here’s what you need to know about maximizing your powerlifting workouts:
- For “heavy” lifts, focus on 85%+ of your 1RM and limit sets to 5 reps.
- Aim for 3-5 sets for each exercise during your workout.
- For “auxiliary” or “light” lifts, shoot for 3 sets of 8-10 reps at about 70% of your 1RM.
- Add extra plates to the bar (5-10 lbs) once you hit your upper rep goal.
- Allow 2-4 minutes of rest between super heavy sets.
As much as you always want to be testing your totals to see how you perform at a competition on any given day, this will set you up for failure.
You cannot expect your muscles to work at near-max intensity several times per week, recover in time for the next workout, and still avoid overtraining.
So go hard in the gym, but take it easy on your muscles.
Popular Powerlifting Programs
Powerlifting is complex, especially if you don’t have a firm grasp of the sport’s principles just yet. So where do you begin?
Well, take a look at some of the more popular powerlifting programs.
The Best Program: StrongLifts 5×5
This A/B split consists of three alternating workouts per week, focusing on five of the major compound lifts—bench press, deadlift, squat, overhead press, and barbell row.
If done right, this powerlifting routine can help you add an extra 30 pounds to your bench press and 60 pounds each to your squat and deadlift by the end of the first 12 weeks.
This program makes a great introduction to powerlifting and won’t eat up all of your free time.
We’ll be honest: The StrongLifts 5×5 program isn’t for everyone.
So if you’re looking for an alternative, we have two other options for you.
Madcow’s 5×5 program is an excellent follow-up program for StrongLifts. Instead, you’ll focus on increasing the weight between sets, slowing your gains weekly, and reducing squat intensity.
Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program is ideal if you enjoy the variety. As you push through the cycle, you’ll target sets with fewer reps (3 and 1), so you can see where you stand competition-wise.
Just keep in mind that not all powerlifting programs online are good, and not all are good for beginners like yourself.
Popular Powerlifting Organizations
Whether you’re looking to sign-up for powerlifting competitions or train to specific standards, you’ll want to decide on a powerlifting organization to affiliate with.
So here are some of your options:
- United States Powerlifting Association
- International Powerlifting Federation
- World Powerlifting Congress
- World Drug-Free Powerlifting Federation
It’s important to understand that all organizations and federations are different.
Some will have strict limitations on gear you can use (denim, polyester), others will either have raw or unequipped lifts, and a few will have rules against the use of PEDs.
So choose wisely.
How Do You Get Into Powerlifting?
Getting into powerlifting comes with a good deal of training, and there’s no better day to get involved than today! Here are some tips for getting into powerlifting as a novice:
- Get a gym membership (specifically, a gym with power racks, squat racks, barbells).
- Focus on the three major lifts (bench press, deadlift, squat), but squeeze in other minor exercises as well.
- Prioritize 5 sets of 5 reps when training at 80%+ of your 1RM.
- Hit the gym 3-5 days a week, varying intensity and exercises during the week.
- Invest in specialized lifting accessories like a lever powerlifting belt to unveil your true potential on the platform.
It’s time to hit the gym and start adding some weight to your totals!