The Beginner’s Guide to Powerlifting

January 27, 2024

What is Powerlifting?

Powerlifting is a strength-based sport focused on three key lifts: the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Participants compete to lift the maximum weight possible for one repetition in each of these lifts. The sum of the best attempts from each lift determines the competitor's total score, which is then compared against others in their weight class. Unlike bodybuilding, which emphasizes physical appearance, powerlifting prioritizes sheer strength and technique. Powerlifting competitions are divided into different categories based on weight class, age, and experience level, making the sport accessible to a wide range of individuals.

Powerlifting Gym in Richmond BC

Benefits of Powerlifting

Powerlifting offers numerous physical and mental benefits:

  • Physical Strength: Regular training increases muscle strength and endurance.
  • Bone Density: Weight-bearing exercises help in improving bone health and reducing the risk of osteoporosis.
  • Mental Health: Lifting heavy weights can improve mental toughness, reduce stress, and enhance mood.
  • Discipline and Focus: The sport requires dedication to training and nutrition, fostering a disciplined approach to goals.
  • Community: Powerlifting has a supportive and inclusive community, offering a sense of belonging and motivation from fellow lifters.

Powerlifting vs. Bodybuilding

Powerlifting and bodybuilding are two disciplines within the realm of strength sports and fitness, each with its unique focus, training methodologies, and competition goals. Understanding these differences is crucial for athletes to decide which path to pursue.

Focus and Goals

  • Powerlifting: The primary goal is to maximize strength in the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Powerlifters train to increase the maximum amount of weight they can lift in these three exercises. Competitions are based on the total weight lifted across these lifts, with athletes divided by weight class.
  • Bodybuilding: Focuses on building muscular size, symmetry, and definition. The goal is to achieve an aesthetically pleasing physique through muscle growth and fat reduction. Competitions judge athletes on their muscle size, body proportion, symmetry, and stage presence.

Training Methodologies

  • Powerlifting Training: Emphasizes lifting heavy weights for fewer repetitions to increase strength. Training cycles, known as periodization, are designed to peak performance for competition. Powerlifting workouts prioritize compound movements (squat, bench press, deadlift) and include accessory exercises to target weaknesses and prevent injury.
  • Bodybuilding Training: Involves a higher volume of exercises with more repetitions and sets at a lower intensity compared to powerlifting. The focus is on inducing muscle hypertrophy (growth) through a variety of exercises that target all muscle groups. Bodybuilders often employ techniques like drop sets, super sets, and isolation exercises to enhance muscle definition and size.

Nutrition and Lifestyle

  • Powerlifting Nutrition: The primary focus is on performance and recovery, ensuring the athlete consumes enough calories and nutrients to support strength gains. While body composition is important, powerlifters may prioritize macronutrient intake to fuel heavy lifting sessions and recovery.
  • Bodybuilding Nutrition: Extremely detailed and regimented, with an emphasis on lean muscle gain and fat loss. Bodybuilders often follow strict diets and may cycle through bulking (eating at a calorie surplus to gain muscle) and cutting (eating at a calorie deficit to lose fat) phases to achieve the desired physique for competition.


  • Powerlifting Competitions: Athletes perform three attempts at maximum weight for the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Success is measured by the total weight lifted across the best attempts in each lift.
  • Bodybuilding Competitions: Competitors go through rounds that may include posing routines and comparisons. Judges evaluate muscle size, symmetry, and definition, as well as stage presence and posing skill.

Choosing Your Path: Bodybuilder vs Powerlifter

The choice between powerlifting and bodybuilding depends on your personal fitness goals, interests, and the physical and mental challenges you enjoy. Powerlifting offers the thrill of pushing your limits in strength, while bodybuilding focuses on sculpting the body and achieving aesthetic goals. Many athletes find satisfaction in both disciplines, sometimes even combining elements of each to meet their objectives.

The Big Three Powerlifting Movements in Competition

In powerlifting, success is measured by the total weight lifted across the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Each of these lifts plays a crucial role in building a competitive total, and understanding how to maximize performance in each is key.

Squat: Building Your Base

  • Strategic Opening: Your first attempt should be a weight you can confidently lift for 2-3 reps in training. This approach ensures a solid start and builds momentum.
  • Progression: Plan your attempts in a way that allows you to build towards a personal record (PR) while being mindful of the day's performance. Incremental jumps that respect your training outcomes and how you feel on the meet day are crucial.
  • Technique under Pressure: Practicing squats under simulated meet conditions can help you maintain form when under the mental and physical stress of competition.

Bench Press: Adding To Your Total

  • Building Total: While often seen as the lift where athletes lift the least amount of weight, the bench press offers a critical opportunity to add kilos to your total. Optimizing your technique, including leg drive and bar path, can result in significant performance improvements.
  • Attempt Selection: Given the generally smaller jumps in weight compared to the squat and deadlift, strategic attempt selection to maximize your total is crucial. Small, calculated increases can contribute significantly to your overall performance.
  • Overcoming Plateaus: Incorporating variations like board presses, spoto presses, and using bands/chains can help break through sticking points.

Deadlift: The Final Movement

  • Pulling for the Win: The deadlift is the last lift in the competition, often determining the final standings. Training should therefore not only focus on building strength but also on strategic planning, knowing when to push for a PR based on the total needed to win or place.
  • Energy Conservation: Properly managing your energy throughout the meet is crucial to ensure you have enough left for your best deadlift performance. This includes nutrition, hydration, and mental focus strategies throughout the competition day.
  • Grip Strength: Since the deadlift is heavily reliant on grip, incorporating grip-specific training and choosing between a mixed grip or hook grip can be decisive factors in your performance.

Programming and Periodization for the Big Three

Effective training for powerlifting requires more than just practicing the lifts; it necessitates a well-thought-out program that balances intensity, volume, and recovery. Periodization strategies, such as linear, block, and undulating periodization, are used to systematically increase the load and manage fatigue over time, peaking for competition.

  • Pre-Competition Phase: Focus on specificity, practicing the lifts as they will be performed in competition, including adhering to commands and using competition equipment.
  • Off-Season Training: This period should address weaknesses, build muscle, and improve technique, often incorporating variations of the big three and accessory work.
  • Deloads: Regularly scheduled deload weeks help manage fatigue, reduce the risk of injury, and allow the body to recover and adapt.

Mental Preparation for Powerlifting Meets

The mental aspect of competing in powerlifting is as crucial as the physical preparation. Visualization, routine development, and stress management techniques can significantly impact performance, especially in a high-pressure environment like competition.

Popular Powerlifting Programs for Beginners

  • Starting Strength: A simple and effective program designed for beginners to quickly gain strength through focusing on the main lifts.
  • StrongLifts 5x5: This program emphasizes simplicity, utilizing five sets of five reps for each of the main lifts, perfect for building a solid strength base.
  • Wendler 5/3/1: A more advanced program that allows for gradual progress in strength, using a percentage-based system for weight progression.

Starting Strength

Starting Strength is focused on linear progression, meaning you aim to add weight to the bar every workout. It's typically structured as a 3-day per week program, alternating between two workouts.

  • Workout A
  • Squat: 3 sets of 5 reps
  • Bench Press: 3 sets of 5 reps
  • Deadlift: 1 set of 5 reps
  • Workout B
  • Squat: 3 sets of 5 reps
  • Overhead Press: 3 sets of 5 reps
  • Power Clean: 5 sets of 3 reps or Barbell Row: 3 sets of 5 reps (as a substitution)

You alternate between A and B each workout day, adding weight each time (e.g., 5 pounds to the squat and deadlift, and 2.5 pounds to the press and bench press).

StrongLifts 5x5

StrongLifts 5x5 also emphasizes linear progression with a focus on increasing the weight by small increments every session. It's designed as a 3-days per week program with two alternating workouts.

  • Workout A
  • Squat: 5 sets of 5 reps
  • Bench Press: 5 sets of 5 reps
  • Barbell Row: 5 sets of 5 reps
  • Workout B
  • Squat: 5 sets of 5 reps
  • Overhead Press: 5 sets of 5 reps
  • Deadlift: 1 set of 5 reps

You alternate between workouts A and B on each training day throughout the week, adding 5 pounds to each lift (except the deadlift, where you add 10 pounds) every session.

Wendler's 5/3/1

Wendler's 5/3/1 is designed for slow, steady progress through four-week cycles, each focusing on increasing the weight of the core lifts. It's a more advanced program that allows for customization and includes a variety of assistance work to address weaknesses.

  • Week 1: 3 sets of 5 reps (65%, 75%, 85% of your 1RM)
  • Week 2: 3 sets of 3 reps (70%, 80%, 90% of your 1RM)
  • Week 3: 3 sets (5 reps at 75%, 3 reps at 85%, 1+ reps at 95% of your 1RM)
  • Week 4 (Deload): 3 sets of 5 reps (40%, 50%, 60% of your 1RM)

The core lifts are the squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press. Each lift is performed once per week, and you add assistance exercises according to the program's guidelines or based on personal needs.

Assistance Work

For all programs, assistance work can be added to address individual weaknesses or goals. This might include exercises like pull-ups, dips, lunges, and other compound or isolation movements. The key is to ensure the assistance work complements the main lifts and doesn't lead to overtraining.

These samples provide a basic framework for each program, but it's important to consult the official sources or a strength and conditioning coach for detailed programming, especially to tailor the program to your specific needs and goals.

Finding the Right Powerlifting Gym

Choosing a gym that caters to your powerlifting needs requires consideration of several factors beyond the basic equipment. The right facility not only has the necessary tools but also fosters a supportive community and environment conducive to growth and learning in the sport.

Essential Powerlifting Equipment

A powerlifting-friendly gym should be well-equipped with:

  • Heavy-Duty Power Racks: For safe squatting and bench pressing.
  • Competition-Style Bench Press Setups: These have specific dimensions and provide a stable platform for benching.
  • Olympic Weightlifting Bars and Plates: Look for gyms with bars that have the appropriate knurling for grip and plates that can withstand being dropped.
  • Deadlift Platforms: A designated area that allows for deadlifts without damaging the floor or equipment.
  • Quality Flooring: Durable, impact-absorbing floors are essential for heavy lifts.

Atmosphere and Community

The gym's atmosphere can greatly influence your training experience. Consider these aspects:

  • Community Support: A gym with a strong sense of community among its members can provide motivation, advice, and encouragement.
  • Experienced Lifters and Coaches: Access to knowledgeable individuals can be invaluable for technique improvement and advice.
  • Positive Environment: Look for a gym where members respect each other's space and equipment, and where you feel comfortable and welcomed.


  • Local Powerlifting Communities: Online forums, social media groups, and local competition attendees can provide recommendations based on personal experience.
  • Attend Local Meets: Visiting powerlifting meets can give insights into where successful lifters train and offer networking opportunities.

Additional Amenities

While not strictly necessary, certain amenities can enhance your training experience:

  • Specialized Equipment: Items like safety squat bars, chains, and bands can add variety to your training.
  • Recovery Tools: Facilities like foam rollers, massage tools, or even saunas can aid in your recovery process.
  • Educational Resources: Gyms that offer clinics, workshops, or have a resourceful library can be beneficial for learning and progression.

Making Your Decision

Selecting the right gym is a personal decision that should align with your goals, comfort level, and training preferences. The best powerlifting gym for you is one where you feel challenged yet supported, with access to the necessary equipment and a community that encourages your growth as a lifter.

Must-Have Powerlifting Equipment

1. Powerlifting Shoes

These are crucial for providing a stable base for the squat, bench press, and deadlift. The non-compressible soles ensure efficient force transfer, while raised heels in some models can aid in achieving greater squat depth by allowing a more upright torso.

2. Singlet

Standard competition attire that allows judges to accurately assess form and depth, especially in the squat. Its tight, stretchable fabric supports a full range of motion and meets federation regulations.

3. Powerlifting Belt

Increases intra-abdominal pressure, offering significant lower back support during heavy lifts. It also aids in stability and force transmission, which can improve performance and reduce injury risk.

4. Knee Sleeves/Wraps

Provide knee joint support, warmth, and compression, potentially reducing injury risk and improving squat performance. The choice between sleeves and wraps often depends on personal preference and specific federation rules.

5. Wrist Wraps

Support the wrists during heavy lifts where the wrists are under significant load, helping to prevent strains and injuries. This is particularly important for bench presses and squats.

6. Chalk

Improves grip on the barbell by absorbing moisture and reducing slippage, essential for maintaining a secure hold during lifts like the deadlift and for preventing bar movement in the squat and bench press.

7. Deadlift Socks

Protect the shins during deadlifts from barbell scrapes, made from durable materials to withstand bar friction. They're also required in many competitions for hygiene standards.

Common Powerlifting Mistakes to Avoid

  • Rushing Progress: Increasing weights too quickly can lead to form breakdown and injury.
  • Neglecting Weak Points: It's crucial to work on all aspects of the lifts, including sticking points.
  • Poor Nutrition and Recovery: Adequate nutrition and rest are essential for muscle growth and recovery.

Competitive Powerlifting

Competitive powerlifting offers athletes the opportunity to test their strength in a formal setting, adhering to specific rules and regulations. Competitions are divided into various classes based on weight, age, and sometimes experience level, allowing lifters of all backgrounds to participate. The primary goal is to achieve the highest total weight lifted across the three main lifts: squat, bench press, and deadlift.

Preparing for a Competition

Preparation involves both physical and mental aspects:

  • Physical Preparation: This includes following a structured training program leading up to the competition, focusing on technique, strength, and peaking at the right time.
  • Mental Preparation: Competitors should familiarize themselves with the competition flow, rules, and handling nerves and focus on the day of the event.
  • Equipment Check: Ensure all gear is compliant with the federation's regulations, including singlets, belts, and shoes.

Powerlifting Federations in Canada and the United States

Powerlifting is governed by several organizations, each with its own set of rules, weight classes, and competition standards. Here are some of the key organizations in Canada and the United States:

  • USA Powerlifting (USAPL): Known for its strict drug-testing policies and adherence to International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) standards, USAPL is one of the largest powerlifting organizations in the United States. It offers a platform for both novice and experienced lifters.
  • American Powerlifting Association (APA): The APA offers both drug-tested and non-tested competitions, catering to a wide range of lifters. It is known for its inclusive environment and hosts events across the country.
  • Canadian Powerlifting Union (CPU): The CPU is the national organization for powerlifting in Canada and is affiliated with the IPF. It strictly adheres to drug-testing protocols to promote a clean sport. The CPU organizes competitions across all levels, from local meets to national championships.
  • North American Powerlifting Federation (NAPF): Serving as a regional federation for the IPF, the NAPF includes member countries from North America and the Caribbean. It hosts championships that serve as qualifiers for world-level competitions.

Joining a Federation and Competing

To compete in sanctioned events, athletes typically need to become members of the respective organization. Membership involves registering through the federation's website, paying an annual fee, and sometimes completing a drug-testing consent form.

Competitors should choose meets that align with their experience level, goals, and preferred federation's standards. It's also beneficial to attend a few competitions as a spectator or volunteer to gain insights into how meets are run and what to expect.

On the Day of the Competition

  • Weigh-In: Lifters must weigh in on the day of or the day before the competition to be placed in their weight class.
  • Equipment Inspection: Officials will check that all gear meets federation standards.
  • The Lifts: Competitors will perform three attempts at each of the squat, bench press, and deadlift, with the highest successful attempt for each lift contributing to their total score.
  • Awards and Records: After the competition, awards are typically given for the top lifters in each class and division, and records can be set at local, national, and international levels.

Competitive powerlifting can be an exhilarating and rewarding experience. By understanding the structure of competitions, preparing adequately, and aligning with a federation that fits one's values and goals, lifters can enjoy a fulfilling competitive journey.

Calculating Totals in Powerlifting Competitions

In powerlifting, an athlete's performance is evaluated based on the combined total weight lifted in the squat, bench press, and deadlift. This total is the sum of the best successful attempts in each of these three lifts during a competition. Here's how the process works and why it's crucial for strategizing in competitions:

Understanding the Total

  • Best Attempt for Each Lift: During a competition, lifters are given three attempts at each of the big three lifts. The highest weight successfully lifted in each is recorded. Only successful lifts that comply with competition rules and are completed without infractions are counted.
  • Summation: The totals are calculated by adding the highest successful attempt from the squat, bench press, and deadlift. This sum represents the lifter's total for the competition.
  • Total=Best Squat+Best Bench Press+Best DeadliftTotal=Best Squat+Best Bench Press+Best Deadlift

Strategic Implications

  • Attempt Selection: Knowing how to calculate your total is crucial for planning your attempts. Lifters often select their opening attempts conservatively to ensure they get a total on the board, then strategically increase the weights in subsequent attempts based on their performance and the competition's standings.
  • Competition Strategy: Understanding your total in relation to your competitors can influence strategy, especially in choosing third attempts. For example, if a lifter needs to outlift a competitor by a certain amount to win or place higher, they can adjust their final deadlift attempt accordingly.
  • Setting Records: Powerlifters aiming to set records in their federation or age/weight class need to be aware of the existing records and calculate their needed totals to surpass these marks.

Tools for Calculating Totals

While calculating your total is straightforward, many lifters use online calculators and apps to track their progress over time, simulate competition scenarios, or plan attempt strategies. These tools can also adjust for different weight classes or compare totals across different federations that might have slightly different rules or equipment standards.

The Importance of Totals

The total is the definitive measure of a powerlifter's performance in a competition. It determines standings within weight classes and overall winners in some meets. A higher total not only signifies victory but can also qualify a lifter for higher-level competitions, such as national or international championships.

Prioritizing Safety in Powerlifting

Safety in powerlifting transcends the mere act of lifting weights; it's a comprehensive approach that encompasses preparation, execution, and recovery. Ensuring safety not only helps in preventing injuries but also in promoting longevity in the sport. Here’s how lifters at all levels, especially beginners, can prioritize safety in their powerlifting journey:

  • Technique Mastery: The cornerstone of powerlifting safety is the proper technique. A focus on mastering the form for squats, bench presses, and deadlifts under the guidance of experienced trainers, like those at BLK BOX GYM, ensures that movements are executed efficiently and safely. This includes understanding the correct setup, execution, and completion of each lift.
  • Proper Equipment Use: Utilizing the right equipment—such as powerlifting shoes for stability, belts for back support, and wraps or sleeves for joint protection—can significantly reduce the risk of injury. Additionally, ensuring that all equipment, including bars and plates, is in good condition and appropriate for powerlifting is crucial.
  • Spotter and Safety Bars: Especially when attempting near-maximal lifts, having a spotter or using safety bars can be lifesaving. Spotters can assist in the event of a failed lift, while safety bars in a power rack can catch the weight if you lose control. Never underestimate the importance of a safety net.
  • Warm-Up and Mobility Work: A thorough warm-up increases blood flow to the muscles and improves joint mobility, preparing your body for the heavy lifting ahead. Incorporating dynamic stretches and mobility exercises specific to powerlifting can enhance performance and reduce the risk of strains or sprains.
  • Listening to Your Body: Recognizing the difference between pushing your limits and pushing beyond your current capacity is vital. Pay attention to signs of overtraining, such as excessive fatigue, decreased performance, or persistent pain, and adjust your training accordingly.

Book A Free Consultation Today in Richmond BC

Starting your powerlifting journey? BLK BOX GYM is the perfect place to kick things off. Our Richmond personal trainers are here to guide you through everything from nailing your technique in the squat, bench press, and deadlift, to picking out the right equipment. They're all about personalizing your training plan to fit your goals and keeping you motivated along the way. Our personal training studio in Richmond BC provides everything you need to succeed, from top-notch equipment to a supportive community of fellow lifters and coaches. With our guidance, you'll not only build strength but also learn proper form, recovery techniques, and more. Ready to take your powerlifting journey to the next level? Book your free consultation today at BLK BOX GYM.

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Written by

Ken Lu

Ken has a Bachelor's Degree of Psychology from the University of British Columbia, specializing in Sport Psychology. As well as being a Certified Personal Trainer, Ken is also a Movement & Mobility Specialist, and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He has trained for and won the 2018 NPAA BC Men's Physique Championship.