Photography Glen Burrows; model Tom Eastham
A change might be better than a rest – at least when it comes to training. If you’re in a rut, the experts at Coach’s sister title Men’s Fitness have assembled everything you need to know to give something new a try. This time: Powerlifting.
What is it?
Technically, it actually means competing in the Big Three lifts (bench, deadlift and squat) – it isn’t considered good form to call yourself a powerlifter if you just train in them. The sport comes in “raw” (just T-shirt and shorts) and “equipped” varieties, the latter allowing knee and elbow wrapping, alongside spring-loaded suits that provide a hefty degree of assistance.
What is it best for?
Raw strength. “While it can have some carryover to building muscle, powerlifting’s main focus is one-rep strength in the big three,” says powerlifter and coach Tom Hamilton. That means lots of low-rep training, watching your figure (it’s a weight-category-obsessed sport) – and, of course, focusing on the finer technical points of the big lifts.
What are its limitations?
“Its strength may also be its weakness,” says Hamilton. “A heavy focus on maximal strength and particular lifts during a programme may cause overuse injuries – and, of course, there’s the danger of neglecting qualities like conditioning or mobility.”
The outside view
It’s a pretty niche sport – and rife with infighting – but fun. “Powerlifting seems fairly misunderstood but can be a great entry into weight training generally,” says Olympic lifting coach Alex Adams. “As long as powerlifting programmes have enough variety they don’t do you any harm. Problems arise when you become too specialist and only do the competitive lifts.”
Most comps allow either regular or sumo-style deadlifting – you should experiment with both. For the latter, keep your feet double shoulder-width apart and your hands inside your knees – it’s an ideal option for a tall man.
Westside Barbell, founded by Louis Simmons, turns out the strongest lifters ever, thanks to an ultra-competitive atmosphere and Simmons’s combining of speed-lifting “dynamic” days with all-out max effort sessions. Also worth noting: they rarely do the Big Three outside competition, building strength with endless variations like the box squat and close-grip bench press.
Know your programmes
At some point, somebody’s going to ask you what you’re “running”. Lifter and coach Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 is the safe option, but for extra points mention the Cube (a popular new method based on Simmons’s ideas), Coan-Phillipi (a deadlift programme used by the man regarded as the best lifter ever, Ed Coan) or Smolov (four times a week squat plan – for maniacs only).
You’ve made it when…
It’s not as simple as dividing your total by your bodyweight: limb length, muscle size and overall stress make a difference – put your numbers into wilkscalculator.com for a readout powerlifters will respect. “To be a competitive high-level powerlifter you’d need to aim for a Wilks of 400-plus,” says Hamilton. “If you have no desire to compete but enjoy the three powerlifts, a 300-plus Wilks would make you one of the stronger guys in your gym.”
Get triple-threat strength
“One way to train is a daily undulating periodisation, or DUP, approach,” says Hamilton. “This means you use a variety of reps and sets throughout the week for the same movement, allowing you to spread the volume over the course of the week.” So you might go heavy on one day, do light reps for speed on another, and have a moderate high-rep day on the third. Here’s a typical workout.
Sets 4 Reps 3
“Do your first set off your rate of perceived exertion, or RPE,” says Hamilton. “They should feel like a 9, or very, very hard – but how heavy that is will vary from week to week. Do your other sets at 85% of your max.”
2 Bench press
Sets 3 Reps 6
Do these at 75% of your max. In powerlifting, it’s all about the set-up: keep your grip wide enough that your forearms are vertical under the bar, and press into the floor with your feet to help the lift.
Sets 3 Reps 6
These should be hard but doable. Add a weight vest if you need to.
Sets 3 Reps 10
Add a weight belt, a dumbbell between your ankle or – if your gym’s really cool – chains around your neck.