Powerlifting, how the BLEEP does it work?

OK so since anytime I tell someone that I powerlift I get the “OMG! That’s crazy, throwing all those weights around!” thing, I figured it was high time to explain just what powerlifting actually is.

So, the ten second description is, powerlifting is an Olympic sport consisting of the backsquat, deadlift and bench press. Winners are determined by the total combined weight lifted across all 3 lifts. That’s a bit of a simplification, but it will suffice. So let’s get into the details.

The backsquat

Cara Westin, lead coach & owner of FNStrong, squatting at a competition. Notice the feet out, hip mobility, vertical shins.
This is a fairly classic lift you see a lot in the gym, though you often see it done horribly wrong. The number one thing I hear from people is “I can’t squat, I have bad knees”. If you’re squatting in a way in which you’re overloading your knees, you’re 100% doing it wrong. I’ve had bad knees for a large portion of my adult lift, and I have had 400lbs on my back, and my knees never hurt.

To properly do a squat, get under the bar and position your feet slightly splayed and a bit wider than shoulder width. The actual position will vary with your hip mobility, but generally wider is a bit better than narrow. Place the bar across your traps and place your hands on the bar, usually around where the “power rings” are on the bar. Head up, chest close to vertical, snap to standing to unrack the weight. You should now be standing with the full load on your shoulders, tight from head to toe. If you’re on a “mono rack” (which pulls the rack away when you’re ready to squat) skip the next part. If you’re on a “normal” squat rack, carefully step back one step, being sure to stay tight and vertical. This is the “walk out”. Some people prefer this, I personally like the mono rack. Now you’re ready to squat. Keeping your upper body at a slight angle, bring your glutes back and bend your legs until the top of your thighs are parallel to the ground. Keep your head up, eyes forward, hands on the bar. Then reverse the motion, keeping your core tight and near-vertical, using your glutes and hamstring to snap to standing, finishing strong to upright with your hip flexors. That’s one squat.

In competition there would be a judge that would be yelling commands at you, such as “unrack, squat, rack” but in day to day workouts we just warm up to our working weight and then, depending on the day, work up to either heavy singles or 5x5s or whatever the order of the day is. Occasionally we squat onto a box (kind of like sitting down in the middle of the squat, but you stay tight throughout. It helps you go low into your squat.) or use bands or chains for what is known as “accommodating resistance”. This makes the moment hardest at the top, but eases up in the middle, allowing you to “overload it”, which helps you lift more weight over time.

Benefits of the squat are huge. While a lot of people think of the squat as a “leg day” movement, the truth is that it is a full body movement. Your core is engaged. Your arms, shoulders, back take some of the load. Your legs from feet to glutes engage and push. When doing a “high volume” set of 5×5, its amazing how high my heart rate gets. 160+ easy, which is higher than when I’m running. Squats build full body durability.

The Deadlift

Mark Bell, legendary “Meat Head Millionaire” showing how its done at his Super Training Gym in West Sacramento, CA (copyright Mark Bell)Deadlifts are one of those exercises that look easy, but have a ton of moving parts. They’re also brutally “full body”, more in fact than a squat. Don’t be fooled, you can definitely get your HR way up doing these.

There’s a few different styles of deadlift, but the “standard” deadlift starts with your feet fairly close together. The bar is against the front of your shins. Grab the bar overhand (some do mixed grip) just onto the knurling on the bar. I recommend chalk. You are now bent over like you’re touching your toes. Bring your butt down while raising up your shoulders, trying to slightly arch your back. You’ll feel the bar tension up. When your back is fairly flat, begin to stand up, keeping the bar close to your legs as possible. When the weight gets really heavy, its recommended you use socks/knee sleeves to keep from bloodying up your legs, but with light weight it isn’t a problem. As you stand, keep your arms straight and at the end finish strong with a hip snap through your flexors, just like the squat. That’s one deadlift. Return the bar back down the same way it came up. Never, ever drop the bar. Your knees are on the way down, you really don’t want the bar to hit them. Not to mention your shins. Just control it back to the ground.

Benefits of the deadlift are similar to the squat, but more focused on the upper body. Your grip strength is important here, and this movement builds that a ton. You do use your legs, back, etc a lot here as well, and doing a high volume deadlift workout will absolutely disassemble you. In a good way.

Bench Press

The Fat Panther, benching 205lbs on a bow-bar, off a 1-board. 

This is the movement most familiar to anyone who has been in a gym, and it is also the movement that’s done with the wrong form most. By “wrong” I mean both in terms of efficiency as well as safety.

The position and movement of a proper bench press is extremely complicated. I will try to hit the basics, but a knowledgeable trainer is key. You start prone on your back on a bench, bar above you right in front of your eyes. Bring your feet up on the bench and rock back onto your shoulders with your hands on the bar. Notice your chest is now “up to the bar” meaning it is rocked back. This allows you to engage your lats. While keeping your chest up, gently bring one foot down to the floor on the side of the bench, then the other, with your back arched keeping your chest up and your butt just barely touching the bench. At this point your entire body is flexed. Head to toe, you are tight. Unrack the weight (or get a hand off if the weight is too much to unrack alone). Keeping your entire body tight, bring the bar down swiftly but controlled to your chest, keeping your elbows out. You should literally feel tension across your entire body. The bench is a full body movement. Then, using your lats primarily along with your triceps, push the bar back up, keeping the bar in a vertical space above your chest. Do not “push down” towards your feet. This is one of the biggest mistakes people do, especially when they lose tension, because it allows you to engage your biceps. This works.. for a moment, but you’ll run out of power before you lock out. Stay vertical, stay tight, lock out, rerack.

Bench press primarily builds the lats, triceps, upper back, chest. However, it 100% engages most of the muscles in your body when you do it right. When I did my last single rep max (235lbs, which is my body weight) the part of my body I most felt the lift in was my glutes. Which seems weird, but made my coach very happy. It meant I was pushing full body.

Is Powerlifting for me?
So, why should you powerlift? Well, here’s a good reason. When I started, I was just over the edge for needing statins for my high cholesterol. I was overfat. 235lbs and about 25-26% body fat. I had back issues, quite bad ones. There were days I hurt myself laying in bed. Seriously. Getting up from a chair occasionally resulting in throwing out my back. I wasn’t weak, not really, but my body overall was fragile.

After 6 months of powerlifting, I went back in to test my cholesterol. I was still 235lbs, exactly. However, my cholesterol dropped by 1/2, putting me well within the healthy range. My body fat percentage dropped by 2 to 3%. I had zero back issues. 6 months later, I’m ready to do another bodyfat test and should likely be close to 20%. I’m aiming for somewhere between 18 and 15 percent, we’ll see. A lot of that will depend on my diet. But more importantly, I’ve never felt strong, more capable or more durable. Occasionally I might have a little ache show up in my back, but its rare and goes away quickly. And being strong is extremely fun.

If you’re thinking this is only for big hulking rhinos like me, think again. We have 90lb women in my group. We have 200lb women in my group. We have 150lb guys, and 300lb guys. Powerlifting is about form. We don’t “throw weights” around. We don’t jump on boxes. We strain the body in slow, but powerfully controlled ways. Our focus on skill and form mean a lot of safety. And powerlifting scales. That 90lb woman literally could not lift the bare bar when she started. I know, that’s a trope, but its true. She couldn’t even lift 35lbs or do a single “knee” pushup. Now she busts out pushups like they’re going out of style and is lifting nearly her body weight. And her core could take a tactical nuclear strike. She literally is only 20lbs down from me in our ab work and I’m more than twice her weight! The most important thing is how this has affected her work. She works with older, sick folks at the hospital. While generally speaking they are trained not to lift or carry their patients, things happen. Patients fall or trip or otherwise need to be supported. She is able to far more effectively help her clients by being strong, and it improves her own safety as well. Strength is never a weakness.

If you’re in the Sacramento area and are interested in powerlifting, we are having our fall SPF classic meet on September 19th, 2018. There’s all kinds of classes you can compete in, from everything, to just bench. If you’re looking to train, we’d love to see you join us at FNStrong at Capital Strength & Performance in mid-town. Message me here, on Twitter or Insta and we’ll get you in to give it a try.

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