5 Smart Assistance Exercise Strategies for Powerlifting And Overall Strength Mastery

5 Smart Assistance Exercise Strategies for Powerlifting and Overall Strength
By Charles Staley

A familiar core concept of strength training (and powerlifting in particular) is the idea of partitioning workouts into “core” and “assistance” exercises. An exercise will typically receive “core” designation based on it’s importance to the lifter’s overall objectives, and “assistance” drills are pretty much exactly what they sound like: they’re performed with the idea of shoring up weaknesses that for whatever reason, the core exercises don’t manage to address.

A simple example of this concept might be a powerlifter who performs low-bar back squats as a core exercise, and perhaps front squats as an assistance exercise. In this example, the front squat is chosen for it’s ability to more intensively target the quadriceps muscles, which are quite often a weak link in the low-bar back squat, which is a more hip-dominant movement.

Although the use of assistance exercises is common in the sport of powerlifting, it isn’t universal. In fact, one of raw powerlifting’s current superstars, Andrey Malanichev (who recently squatted 1014 pounds faster than you can squat 135) recently stated that he really doesn’t perform any assistance lifts at all — he simply trains the 3 “big” lifts, and that’s it. Other top lifters, such as World record holder Mike Tuchsherer seem to follow the same strategy, but in truth, ALL great lifters work on shoring up their weak spots — some just do it in less obvious ways than others.

Really, what we’re talking about here, is where your training should ideally fall on the “specificity continuum.” As a powerlifter, training nothing but the 3 contests lifts, and always working up to maximum weights, would be considered 100% specificity. If you did the exact opposite of that (whatever that is) you’d be operating at 100% generality. Like pretty much everything in life, neither extreme yields optimum results.

Here then, are my top 5 ways to find the sweet spot between specificity and variability in your assistance exercises:

1) Pause In Key Places

I’ve often noticed that I tend to assess the difficulty of a particular rep based on the entire movement path. This is not an accurate assessment however— the most accurate way to assess the difficulty of a heavy rep is not how fast the rep was in general, but rather, how fast the rep was at the sticking point — the range of motion where your leverage is worst.

Perhaps the most efficient (and specific) way of doing this is implementing pauses at these sticking points of your core lifts, whatever they happen to be. For this article, I’ll tend to use the 3 power lifts in my examples, but if you’re using the military press or pull-up, or any exercises as a core lift, the same principles will still apply.

 

I first took serious notice of pausing after looking at some of Mike Tuchsherer’s training concepts, which made a lot of sense to me. I first implemented this idea on squats, which, due to my height, long levers, and previous knee surgeries, have always been particularly challenging to me. My usual warmup involved doing 3 sets of 5 bodyweight squats just to loosen up, and then I’d move on to the bar.

Rather than simply performing 5 standard-tempo reps with bodyweight, I decided to pause for a full 5 seconds at the bottom (my weakest point of the movement). What I noticed (and it was much to my surprise by the way) is that I felt more mobile and warmed up after one set performed this way, than with my typical 3 sets the way I’d been doing them before!

Proceeding to the barbell, I understood that by implementing a pause at the bottom of each rep, I shouldn’t expect to use the same weights I’d normally use, but as I worked my way up, something suddenly occurred to me: I really hate it at the bottom of the squat! Even with light weights — for me, it’s just an uncomfortable place for me to be. Fast forward 3 months, and guess what? By doing lots of 3 and 5-second holds at the bottom, I began to become more comfortable down there. The “hole” was becoming a more familiar, and hence, comfortable place to be. That, along with the fact that I was significantly increasing my time under tension at my sticking point, dramatically increased my confidence, as well as my overall proficiency in the squat.

If you’re new to pause-training, start by adding a few “back off” sets at the end of your normal session, and make the weight light enough to that you can do a solid 3-second pause at your sticking point, wherever that might be for you. These sets needn’t be more than 3 reps by the way — remember, your overall TUT will be fairly long due to the pauses.

2) SLIGHTLY Vary Your Bar/Hand/Foot Placement

Even though more traditional assistance exercises (like front squats, good mornings, and close-grip benches for example) can and do work for a lot of people, I think a better approach is to simply vary your stance, grip, and/or in the case of the squat, bar placement.

In squatting for example, where the quads are often a weak muscle group, simply switching to a high-bar position is often plenty of additional stress for the quads, and it’s very lift-specific stress at that. In the bench press, I DO like close-grips, but my suggestion is to bring your grip in only about an inch per side, rather than the 4-6 inches that’s much more typical. Again, this slight tweak is plenty to target those weak triceps, but not so much that your pecs are under-loaded. And for the deadlift, a slightly wider grip than usual will deliver the same benefits as doing deficit pulls, since you’ll need to squat down a bit more than normal at the start.

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Overall, simply making slight changes in your normal stance or grip can be all it takes to reap the rewards of the assistance lift, without the drawbacks of a movement that’s too general to transfer to the core lift you’re trying to improve. If you find that such changes are not sufficient however, you can always move toward even less specific exercises, but my advice would always be to err on the side of specificity, at least initially.

3) Strategic Belt Use

About six months ago, I was becoming enamored with the idea of making my training as tough as possible, for the purpose of psychological hardening. I was doing things like taking less rests between sets than usual, taking bigger jumps in my warmups than normal, and training alone and/or with no music.

Another tactic I used was training beltless. I reasoned that this was one of the things I REALLY relied upon, so perhaps by taking away that luxury, I’d harden up in a way that would benefit my training. At the very least, I figured that if I could increase my baseline beltless PR’s then my belted PR’s would increase as well.

Long story short, I quickly abandoned the strategy, and here’s why: Without a belt, I lost so much core stability that I could no longer squat enough weight to provide an adequate training stimulus to my legs. Now there are two ways to read into this, which I’ll share with you right now:

You might argue that I need to to do assistance work for my core. And perhaps you’d be right, but first let me share the other possibility with you. I’ve always looked at the belt as an anchor for my abs — something they can push against in order to better stabilize my torso. To better appreciate what I’m talking about, imagine a 400 pound box sitting in the middle of a slick tile floor, and you’re trying to move it by “leg pressing” it in a seated position. It doesn’t work of course, because as you push with your legs, you simply slide backward, away from the box. the problem is, you’re strong enough, but you’re lacking an anchor. What if, on the other hand, that box was about 3 feet from a wall? Now, you can wedge yourself between the wall and the box, and this time, you’ll succeed because now, you’ve got something to push against.

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Cutting to the chase, I now use a belt for my heavier squats and pulls, but I do occasionally perform fairly heavy belt less lifts just for the sake of variety and developing mental toughness. Your mileage will vary of course — I’m simply providing the rationale for the decision I made regarding belt use.

4) Lats Are A Lifter’s Best Friend

Interestingly enough, the lats end up being crucially important in 2 of the 3 power lifts (the bench and deadlift). They also seem to play a big role in core stability, which of course, should express itself during squatting performance. So here we have an example of assistance lifts that don’t outwardly resemble any of the power lifts, but that in reality, can play a key role in all three. In this particular case, we’re not looking at movement-specificity, but rather, muscle-specificity.

weighted chins

I’ve always found that people vary considerably with respect to which exercises seem to be most effective for lat training. Some people absolutely thrive on rows for instance, where others (me included) find that vertical pulling movements are much more effective. While superficially, rowing variations seems more specific to deadlift performance, I’m not sure it matters much in the big scheme of things. The main take-home point is, you need strong lats, almost no matter what your core lifts happen to be.

5) Periodize The Specificity Continuum

A time-worn principle in sport science is that each training cycle should move from general to specific. While I’ve argued for slightly more specific types of assistance lifts in this article, I don’t necessarily think you need to start each training cycle that way. Looking at 12 weeks worth of squat training as an example, you might in fact implement front squats as an assistance drill for the first 4 weeks, then high-bar squats for the second month, and finally, paused low-bar squats during the final phase.

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With this type of strategy, no need to abruptly switch from one exercise to the other every 4 weeks. Instead, gradually phase one exercise in while simultaneously phasing the older exercise out: week 4 might feature 4 sets of front squats, while week 5 might be 3 sets of front squats and 1 sets of high-bar squats. The following week, 2 sets of each, and so on and so forth.

6) BONUS STRATEGY: Trust Your Intuition!

While it’s always best to trust in science, and to prioritize principles over individual practices, not everyone falls in the middle of the bell curve. So if you’re convinced that a specific assistance exercise or strategy has been paying off for you, I’d certainly continue with it, even if it’s not on my list of favorites. In fact, if you’ve noticed any specific and/or unusual correlations between an assistance lift and a core exercise in your own training, I’d love you to share it with me.

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About the Author

“One of the signs of a great teacher is the ability to make the subject matter seem simple. Charles Staley is one of these rare teachers. After listening and talking to him, you suddenly achieve a new awareness of training. You go to the gym and, suddenly, everything makes sense, and you wonder why you haven’t been doing it his way since day one.” – Muscle Media 2000 magazine August, 1999

Prominent both the United States and across the globe, Charles is recognized as an insightful coach and innovator in the field of human performance. His knowledge, skills and reputation have lead to appearances on NBC’s The TODAY Show and The CBS Early Show, along with numerous radio appearances. He has also authored more than a thousand articles for leading fitness publications and websites, and has lectured to eager audiences around the World.

Charles is not only a thinker, but also a doer: At age 54, he competes in the sport of raw powerlifting, and is a 2-time World Champion (220 and 198-pound weight classes). Find Charles online at www.TargetFocusFitness.com. For distance coaching opportunities, email Charles at charlesstaley@me.com.

charles

How Much Protein Do You Really Need?

By Eirik Garnas
www.OrganicFitness.com

Official dietary guidelines generally recommend that everyone should get between 10-20% of their daily energy from protein, and some health authorities even argue that high protein diets (>20%) have adverse effects on health. Even though people who are very physically active have higher protein needs, the recommendations still apply as these individuals usually consume more total calories. However, if we look at the human dietary patterns throughout our evolutionary history, it’s clear that the average protein intake in most countries today is on the low side. While this doesn’t mean that high protein diets are necessary optimal, the mismatch between the typical protein intake in the western diet and the average protein intake in ancestral diets, in combination with the scientific evidence showing the benefits of “high” protein diets for weight loss, muscle growth, and prevention of several types of chronic diseases, suggests that the official recommendations are lower than optimal for many people. This is especially true for strength trainees and other physically active people who want to maximize protein synthesis and gain muscle and strength.

Fresh butcher cut meat assortment garnished with Salad and fresh rosemary

When discussing intake of the different macronutrients, the most common practise is to either present the percentage of daily energy intake or grams per kilogram or pound of bodyweight per day. For the average female eating around 2000 kcal per day, a protein intake of 15% equates to 75 grams of protein, and for a male eating 2500 kcal the same percentage gets him about 93,5 grams of protein.

Dietary protein recommendations, such as the RDA in the U.S. of 0.8 g protein per kg bodyweight per day, are largely based on nitrogen balance studies. While these studies indicate the amount of protein that is needed to avoid loss of protein from tissue, they don’t say much about the level of protein intake that will optimize body composition, gene expression, and health.

Human evolution: Dietary patterns characterized by declining levels of protein intake

Hunter-gatherer diets are generally (not always) high in protein

Although there’s a lot we don’t know about the diet of our paleolithic ancestors, it’s believed that preagricultural human diets generally were higher in protein than the typical western diet. While macronutrient intake in hunter-gatherer diets varied/vary greatly beetween different tribes, estimates show that protein intake in ancestral-type diets is generally much higher (19-35%) than that of the typical western diet (15%) (1). These numbers have later been questioned by other reesearchers, but it’s widely accepted that the diet of ancient humans contained more protein than the levels consumed in industrialized nations today. Since the prehistoric human diets in many ways represent the default human dietary pattern, it could be argued that a protein intake of 20% or more is actually within the normal range, while 15% could be considered a low protein diet.

It’s important to note that protein intake in the diet of hunter-gatherers and other non-westernized populations varied/varies depending on geographical location, season, climate, etc., and while the traditional diet of some populations, such as the Maasai and the Inuit, contain a fairly high percentage of protein, other cultures have/had a fairly low intake. Regardless, the fact that subsistence data from 229 hunter-gatherer societies shows an average intake that is well above today’s recommendations highlights the discrepancy between the average protein intake in modern diets and protein intake in the diets we’ve been eating throughout most of our evolutionary history.

Just imagine the stereotypical image of a group of hunter-gatherers sitting around a fire at night and gorging on meat from today’s hunt. We know this definitely wasn’t the case for all ancient humans, as some paleolithic tribes likely subsided on mostly plant food. However, we do know that periods of fasting, large meals eaten at night, and a high (compared to today) intake of animal source foods was a common feature of the hunter-gatherer diet.

Silhouette of summer garden BBQ isolated against fire

One of the reasons I think it’s important to learn more about the lifestyle of prehistoric humans is because their dietary practises involve many of the factors that modern science has shown are healthy for us. I don’t think we have to try to emulate the diet of paleolithic humans, and I don’t think 10000 years is too little time to adapt to neolithic foods. However, there’s no denying that periods of food shortage (fasting), consumption of nutritious whole foods, a relatively high protein intake compared to today’s standards, and other aspects associated with the ancestral dietary pattern are beneficial to humans in the modern world.

We have to remember that this ancestral environment is where our human genome was forged, and although there have been some adaptations since then, we clearly haven’t adapted to many aspects of the modern, western lifestyle. Using this default human environment as a framework when determining the optimal diet and macronutrient intake in the 21st century is therefore a good idea. However, we do have to remember that hunter-gatherers didn’t aim for a targeted protein intake or necessarily did what was optimal, they typically just ate the most palatable and calorie-dense foods available. Also, they clearly didn’t perform goal-oriented training in the way bodybuilders, weight lifters, and other athletes do today.

Agriculture led to the dilution of protein in favor of carbohydrate and/or fat

Let’s take a look at the macronutrient content and energy density of foods that were available before the neolithic revolution. One striking characteristic of the food items that were available prior to agriculture is that most foodstuff which are high in carbohydrate and low in protein, such as fruits, vegetables, and tubers, have a low energy density and high fiber content (Some exceptions exist). However, with the advent of agriculture, domestication of cereal grains and new processing techniques led to a dramatic change in the human diet. To be clear, I don’t think foods that were introduced after the agricultural revolution are necessary bad for us. However, grains have a high carbohydrate content (unless they’ve been fermented or processed in some way), a low content of high-quality protein, and a relatively high calorie density and poor micronutrient profile compared to fruits and vegetables. Is this problematic? Not necessarily. However, if we eat a grain-based diet, high quality protein is often diluted in favor of carbohydrate.

Processed, westernized food is often low in protein

These changing macronutrient patterns have become even more apparent over the last centuries, as new products with an “unnatural” macronutrient composition have made their way into the human diet. While highly processed foods often are high in both carbohydrate and fat, foodstuff available to our prehistoric ancestors didn’t contain this potent combination. Yes, nuts provide a fair amount of both of these macronutrients, but they are generally considered low in carbohydrate. Also, the amount of work that goes into making nuts edible suggests that they’ve never been a substantial part of the human diet.

One of the characteristics of many westernized foods, such as potato chips, pastries, and baked goods, is that they are calorie-dense and high in carbohydrate and/or fat, not protein. Unless they had access to tubers and other plant-based foods that are relatively rich in calories, our ancient ancestors had to subside on animal source foods, which are often (not always) high in protein, to get enough energy. However, today we can quickly meet our daily energy requirements by eating food that is high in calories and low in protein.

If we take a closer look at the western dietary pattern, there’s no surprise that the average protein intake is so low compared to ancestral diets. Highly palatable and calorie-dense foods are typically high in fat, starch, sugar, salt, glutamate, and/or other highly rewarding food ingredients, and protein is therefore diluted in favor of the other two macronutrients. It’s well established in the scientific literature that protein has a potent effect on satiety, and it’s therefore no surprise that food manufacturers deliberately engineer products that are fairly low in protein; one of the strategies that keep us buying and eating more of that specific food.

The fact that quality sources of protein are far more expensive than sources of carbohydrate and fat is another reason many food manufacturers deliberately keep the protein content of their products low. Also, since grass-fed meats, eggs, and seafood are relatively expensive compared to sources of the two other macronutrients, there’s no surprise that so many people end up with a less than ideal protein intake.

Essentially, when we eat these types of “westernized” foods, we have to consume more total energy throughout the day to meet our daily protein requirements.

Fat loss

I’ve previously discussed the benefits of high protein diets for weight loss, which basically bowls down to these primary factors:

  • Protein has a very strong thermic effect
    You can basically eat more calories on a high protein diet than you can on a low protein diet, since the thermic effect of macronutrients is about 2-3% for lipids, 6-8% for carbohydrates, and 25-30% for proteins (2).
  • Protein has a potent effect on satiety
  • Studies suggest that a low percentage of protein in the diet leads to a higher total energy intake
    The protein-leverage hypothesis suggests that protein intake is prioritized over fat, carbohydrate, and total energy intake. The idea that humans prioritize protein when regulating food intake is interesting in terms of the western dietary pattern as it probably means that we’re not only diluting protein in favor of the other macronutrients, but that one of the reasons so many people eat more food than they need to sustain body weight is that they’re trying to reach a targeted protein intake. There’s no compelling evidence showing this type of leverage for any other nutrients in the human diet. Some researchers have proposed that we keep eating in an attempt to reach a targeted intake of certain micronutrients, but this has not been scientifically shown. If you substitute some of the protein in your diet for carbohydrate or fat, you’ll probably feel the effects of this protein leverage pretty quickly.
  • High-protein diets potentially improve leptin sensitivity in the central nervous system (3)

High-protein diets seem to be especially beneficial for resistance-trained athletes who want to preserve lean body mass during a prolonged calorie deficit. For this population, consuming as much as 2.3-3.1 g/kg of lean body mass per day of protein (depending on the severity of caloric restriction and leanness) will likely maximize muscle retention (4,5). This elevated protein need largely stems from the high levels of muscle mass these athletes carry and the energy deficient diet (absolute protein intake required to achieve nitrogen balance is generally higher when you eat a low-calorie diet).

Strength development, muscle growth, and athletic performance

Generally, bodybuilders and most experienced strength trainees tend to consume a much higher percentage of protein than the average Joe. A high protein intake in this population primarily stems from conventional wisdom linking high protein diets to enhanced muscle growth. The notion that we need to consume a lot of protein is so ingrained in the fitness community that some trainees seem to think that more is always better. However, not everyone feels this way. Dietary recommendations from “official” sports institutions rarely advocate a protein intake that is higher than 1.4-1.7 g/kg/day, and while this protein intake might seem high to a layman, many strength trainees and bodybuilders consume a lot more than this. And this is where there’s a lot of controversy; how much protein do you really need to optimize athletic performance? Let’s have a look at the literature:

Total intake: Most studies indicate that a protein intake of 1.6-2.0 g/kg/day is sufficient to maximize muscle protein synthesis and optimize strength gains and hypertrophy (6,7,8.9) Dr. Stu Phillips, one of the world’s leading researchers on protein consumption and hypertrophy, revealed in a recent interview with Bret that his most recent study shows that about 1.8 g/kg is enough to maximize muscle protein synthesis (10). However, more protien is not going to have adverse effects, and some studies indicate that a higher intake (2-3 g/kg) could enhance hypertrophy- and strength-related adaptations (11).
For athletes involved in endurance training, getting between 1.3-1.8 g protein per kilogram of body weight seems to be a good general guideline (12).

Although there’s now plenty of research on protein intake and athletic performance, there are some limitations to these studies. Two of these are: 1) Studies showing benefits of a very high protein intake (e.g., 3 g/kg/day) typically compare the high protein group to a control group eating well below recommendations for strength/power athletes (e.g., 1.2 g/kg/day). It’s therefore no surprise that the high protein group see greater resistance training induced muscle and strength gains. It would be interesting to see more studies comparing a high intake (e.g. 1.8-2 g/kg/day) to a very high intake (2.5-3.0 g/kg/day).
2) Studies on protein intake and athletic performance typically look at protein synthesis, hypertrophy, and strength gains.
High protein diets have been linked to increased satiety, elevated thermogenesis, and a lower absolute energy intake, indicating that simply looking at protein intake from the perspective of maximizing protein synthesis could be too narrow.

Protein timing: When should you be getting these essential building blocks into your body? I recently wrote an article where I took a closer look at protein timing and strength training, and the conclusions from the most recent meta-analysis suggest that the so-called post-workout window doesn’t close 30-60 minutes after a workout, and that your results won’t suffer from waiting a couple of hours after training before you consume food.

When it comes to protein distribution throughout the day, a general recommendation is to eat 3-5 protein rich meals. If you eat less than 3 meals, you’ll have problems getting enough total protein into your diet. However, contrary to what many people think, there’s no advantage to eating 6-8 meals a day if the goal is to maximize protein synthesis. Actually, studies indicate that 4-5 large meals are superior to 6-8 when it comes to protein synthesis and muscle repair, given the same daily total protein intake (13,14). The notion that eating every other hour is the optimal way to go for muscle growth is one many lifters still cling to. However, it has scant support in science, and from an evolutionary and physiological perspective it makes little sense

Protein quality

I’m not going to talk a lot about protein quality in this article, as I think this is common knowledge for most folks reading this blog. Personally I find that there is a significant advantage to eating red meat on a regular basis if the goal is to build muscle and strength (No, unlike what you’ve been told, high-quality meats don’t give you colon cancer or heart disease). This beneficial effect largely stems from the amino acid profile and high creatine content in red meat, but there could also be other factors that are important. Scientists often refer to the red meat factor when discussing the benefits of red meat on absorption of nutrients such as iron, and this “unknown” factor definitely also extends to other areas.

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Wrapping it up

Optimal protein intake depends on several factors, such as activity levels, goal, and the amount of lean mass you carry. Since a lot of data suggest that the body has its own hard-wired mechanisms for regulating protein intake (the protein-leverage hypothesis), it could be argued that protein consumption takes care of itself. However, these mechanisms were forged in the ancestral natural environment and evolved to deal with a diet rich in simple, whole food. When you eat a diet with a low percentage of protein (as so many modern humans do), reaching this target level could mean eating more calories than you need to sustain body weight. This is especially true for athletes and strength trainees who have higher protein needs.

The idea that high protein diets are harmful has little support, neither from an evolutionary nor scientific point of view (15,16,17). However, getting your protein from quality sources, such as grass-fed meats, free-range organic eggs, traditionally fermented dairy products, and seafood, as opposed to for example processed meat, is clearly important.

In the end I want to emphasise that although “high” protein diets are very effective for a wide variety of purposes – especially for weight loss and muscle growth – this doesn’t mean that everyone should eat these types of diets. Many healthy populations have thrived on diets that contain only 10-15% protein, and those who aren’t working out and just want to stay relatively healthy don’t really need that much protein. However, I would argue that keeping protein fairly high (compared to the average intake in the western diet) is often beneficial, as an increased intake of high-quality protein often leads to a lower intake of other inferior sources of energy. Also, protein’s effect on satiety, weight regulation, and a wide range of health markers suggests that getting at least 15-20% of your calories from protein is beneficial, regardless of your goals.

About the author

eirik-garnas_organic-fitness-authorName: Eirik Garnas
Website: www.OrganicFitness.com
facebook_buttonBesides studying for a degree in Public Nutrition, Iíve spent the last couple of years coaching people on their way to a healthier body and better physique. I’m educated as a personal trainer from the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences and also have additional courses in sales/coaching, kettlebells, body analysis, and functional rehabilitation. Subscribe to my website and follow my facebook page if you want to read more of my articles on fitness, nutrition, and health.

Should I do a Powerlifting Competition?

Should I do a Powerlifting Competition?
By: Tim Henriques

If you have been lifting seriously for a while and you have gotten a bit stronger, you might be pondering the idea of competing in a powerlifting competition. If you are thinking about doing just that, you probably have some questions. Since powerlifting is my thing, let me see if I can be of some assistance to you. If I don’t address your questions directly in this post, feel free to pose them in the comments section and I will get them to there.

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Sammie squatting

The first question most lifters have is this: Am I strong enough to compete? The short answer is probably yes. Most powerlifting competitions don’t have minimum qualifying standards that you need to reach before competing. Understandably, most lifters don’t want to get destroyed their first meet so I will give you a quick guideline here. If you can hit the following lifts you will hold your own at most local powerlifting competitions:

Chart

To be clear I am not saying that by hitting the above numbers you will win your weight class or you’ll be the strongest person there. I am saying that you should fit right in and you won’t feel “weak” if you can perform these lifts. Certainly there will be some really strong people competing – there are usually 3-5 beasts competing in each competition that are on a really high level. But there will also be people you might not expect to find at a competition: kids and teens often compete; powerlifting is very popular with master lifters (over 40) including a pretty big group of 60 and 70 year old lifters that are competing. Of course at younger and older ages the weights being lifted are noticeably less. And most importantly, the environment at a competition is usually very supportive and positive because everyone there is trying for a PR and everyone knows how hard you have to work to make serious progress in this sport. Most lifters are very friendly and happy to talk about training. A competition is a great place to meet like-minded people. If you want more detailed information on how you might stack up against the competition, refer to the lifting classifications that are found in my book All About Powerlifting. (Bret’s note – this is not an affiliate link, but it’s a great book on powerlifting that I recommend)

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Erin deadlifting

When you are ready to compete the first thing to do is to find a competition that is right for you. Consider the following:

Geography – expect to drive 2-3 hours to find a meet, sometimes it is more, sometimes it is less. If there is a specific, big competition you want to attend then you may have to fly to it. Powerliftingwatch.com is a great place to start your search.

Cost – powerlifting is a pretty cheat sport (compared to something like golf it is super cheap) but there are some costs associated with it. These things include:

  • The entry fee for the competition (usually $70-100)
  • Joining a federation for a year (usually ~$30)
  • Purchasing a singlet to compete in (~$30) [Eastbay and WWsport.com are good places to find singlets]
  • Cost of travel to and from the competition including a potential hotel stay

Date – find a powerlifting competition that is a good date for you to train for. Generally 2-6 months away is ideal, if it is more than 6 months away that may not really motivate you and you can’t just try to peak for the meet for that long. If it is less than 2 months away you may not feel like you have enough time to give it your all in training. Most lifters follow a specific meet prep for 2-3 months to be their best on the platform.

Federation – there is not just one governing body in powerlifting, this is either good or bad depending on how you look at it. It is bad because there isn’t always one set of rules everyone follows, it is good in that it allows various lifters to find what works for them. Basically there are 2 big questions you want to ask.

The first question is are you going use powerlifting equipment like bench shirts, squat suits, etc? If this is your first meet then the answer should be no, don’t even worry about this. But be aware if you compete in a federation that allows gear (usually referred to as single ply (1 layer) or multi-ply (2 or more layers) there may be some people at the meet using it. The gear is super strong, often adding 30-50% to a lifter’s max, so it is almost like 2 separate sports. If you don’t wear any gear that is called raw powerlifting. You can still wear a belt and wrist wraps if you want. Likely you’ll just compete in a competition that is close to you, but if the idea of another powerlifter wearing gear in the competition bothers you then compete in a raw competition.

Squat Suit and Bench Shirt

Squat Suit and Bench Shirt: Used in Geared Powerlifting

The second thing to consider is drug usage. I am assuming you are drug free and the numbers posted above reflect that. Some federations drug test, some don’t. If someone chooses to use steroids that is up to them but that person should not compete in a drug tested federation. Again if you are new you may just be selecting competitions based on proximity, but if drug use bothers you than select a drug free or drug tested federation. The USAPL and 100% RAW are 2 of the top drug tested federations in America.

*Bret’s Note: Sammie and Erin competed in a NASA meet for their first competition with the Operation Get Strong & Sexy posts – see HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE if you didn’t follow that series. I competed in 100% RAW for both of my competitions – see HERE and HERE for those recaps. 

When the day of the competition comes you’ll want to know a few things to make it go as smoothly as possible. It is natural to be a bit nervous and this applies to first timers and well as the experienced vets. There will be a weigh-in either the morning of the competition or the day before. Weigh in in your underwear so you are as light as possible (a tie is decided in favor of the lightest lifter). You will have to turn in your openers at the same time. Your openers the weights you are going to start with in each lift. It is very important to realize that once you turn in a weight, you can never lower that weight. If you think you can bench 300 and you start with that but fail, you can’t drop back down to 275, you are stuck at 300. If you miss it you just get a zero which is called bombing out and you can’t complete the competition. This is a giant no-no and bombing out shows you don’t know what you are doing so don’t do that. There are many strategies available to select your openers but I suggest using 87.5% of your goal weight, assuming your goal weight is pretty realistic. For example if you have benched 290 in the gym with really good form, you might be hoping to hit 300 in a meet. If that is the case then you could open with 260. You get 3 tries at each lift, you can repeat a weight (if you miss it) or go up. You can up as much as you want, most lifters go up 2.5-10% on each attempt. In our example our lifter might go 260, then 285, then 300. It is worth noting some meets will do their lifts in kilograms. If this is the case then be sure you are familiar with the transition from pounds to kilos (our lifter would open up 117.5 kg in this case).

After you complete your lift then you will go to the scorer’s table and tell them what you want to lift next. Each lifter in your group will go once, then everyone will go a second time, then they will finish with their last try. Squats is always first, then the bench press, and then the competition finishes with deadlift. If one is curling that is usually the last lift performed but not all federations contest that. A powerlifting total is your score which is the addition of your best squat, bench, and deadlift. If a person squats 400, benches 300, and deadlifts 500 their total is 1200 lbs.

Each lift has a few key rules, I can’t cover every scenario due to space here but these are the super key highlights.

Squat

  • You will walk out and you will get the command to “Squat”.
  • Once you get that command you cannot move your feet.
  • You must squat so that your hip is below your knee eg so that your femur is pointing down toward your hip – this is the most common mistake newbies make.
  • Once you finish squatting you must stand up, keep your feet locked to the ground, and wait until the judge says “Rack”.

Bench Press

  • You will lift the bar out of the racks (it is okay to get a lift off), start with arms straight.
  • Lower the bar to your chest and pause the bar on the chest. Keep your feet flat and motionless and keep your butt on the bench.
  • Once the judge says “Press” then you can lift it up – this usually takes 2-3 seconds to receive the press command.
  • Hold the bar with your arms locked once it is finished until the judge says “Rack”.
  • The most common issue here is not realizing how much harder a paused bench is than a touch-and-go which is what most people do in the gym.

Deadlift

  • The bar is on the ground, walk up to it, grab it.
  • You can use conventional form (hands outside your legs) or sumo style (hands inside your legs, feet spread wide).
  • Stand up straight with the bar and hold it until the judge says “down”.
  • As long as you aren’t relying on straps to do deads you are probably performing these with adequate form.

If you compete in the strict curl be aware that the curl is performed up against the wall and it is much harder that way, practice this and take at least 20% off of what you can do standing up. A curl bar will be used.

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Bret curling

Powerlifters are broken up into various classes based on weight, gender, and age. At the end of the competition is the awards ceremony. Because there are so many weight classes and age groups for each gender, it is pretty common to receive some sort of an award at a powerlifting meet. If you don’t want much competition, just compete in your specific age group. If you do want competition, compete in the Open division for your weight class, which means you will be ranked among all of the lifters in that division.

Powerlifting competitions tend to be relatively long, usually starting around 9 am (with weigh-ins possibly before that time) and then wrapping up around 4-6 pm. Some might go shorter, some might go longer. If a competition has 2 lifting platforms it will move faster. Depending on the level of organization of the meet director, the award ceremony might just be 15-20 minutes or it might take an hour or 2. You will want to bring some food and drinks with you, trying to eat something small after squats and then possibly after deadlifts is a good idea to keep your energy levels up. It is important to stay hydrated during the competition since it is a long day.

One of the challenges in powerlifting is managing fatigue. I am not talking about muscular fatigue but emotional fatigue, the type of fatigue you get when you are amped up and on edge for an extended period of time. You have to perform 3 heavy squats so you get fired up for that, then you have to relax for an hour or two, then you hit the bench hard, relax again, and finally it is deadlift. The psyching up and then relaxing multiple times can be hard for some lifters to manage. Usually in the gym you just psych up once, hit the lift, and then you move on to the assistance stuff. Maxing on all three lifts in the same day can be pretty draining.

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Bret deadlifting

It takes some guts to get up on the platform – where it is just you and the weight – and test yourself to see what you can do. But because of the sports individualistic nature, it tends to build self-confidence. Be proud of what you can accomplish, learn from your mistakes and your defeats, and use that motivation to fuel your next training cycle. One of my favorite things about the sport is that it is extremely rare for a person to compete in powerlifting competition and then at the end they say “That sucked, I wish I had not done that”. Usually the only time that happens is when the person thinks they will lift some huge amount of weight, their form is way off, and then the platform is a rude awakening to them. But if you have been training hard and smart, if you are prepared, meets are usually pretty awesome. I think the most common response after a lifter competes in their first competition is “I can’t wait to do that again, only next time I will lift more weight”. That statement alone is the best response I can think of to the question “Should I do a powerlifting competition?”

Author Bio

Tim Henriques is the Director for the National Personal Training Institute of VA/MD/DC. NPTI is a 600 hour long program for people who wish to become personal trainers. Tim was a Collegiate All-American Powerlifter and he currently coaches his powerlifting team, Team Force, which won their federation’s National Championships in 2013. He regularly teaches, lectures, and writes on the topics of health and fitness. He recently released a book entitled All About Powerlifting which has been hailed as “the new bible of powerlifting”.

All-About-Powerlifting

A Spectacular Glute Transformation

Here is Casey Bergh’s story. 

I have no history of athleticism and up until three years ago, I lacked knowledge about fitness in general, and had absolutely no exposure to bodybuilding and the weight room. I weighed 220 pounds after having each of my children and my only goal after having my second was simply to get “skinny” again. Somewhere along my journey, I accidentally stumbled across bodybuilding. I braved the weight room with a beginner’s program and the rest is history.

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After 18 months of lifting my body had completely transformed. I had a fully developed upper body and a pretty decent set of quads and hammies. The only problem was my Glutes! They were below average at a healthy body weight and when I dropped fat to enter the world of competing, I found that I had NO muscle!

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All I really wanted was a good pair of glutes- I trained legs heavy twice a week, I squatted, deadlifted and leg pressed heavy (probably with less than perfect form) I fell victim to the “all you need to do for a great butt, is squat” trend, I was devastated with my lack of results despite my intense efforts to develop a good set of glutes. I am 5’10” and was sure that my lack of development was a direct result of being too tall, and having the absolute worst glute genetics possible… I’m still convinced these two factors work against me but I made a decision exactly one year ago to build the best set of glutes I possibly could. I took pictures that day that were so upsetting I could hardly stand it but I told my husband, “some day, people will hire me to teach them how to get glutes like mine!”

Then, I set to work. I read every article, forum thread, blog post, I subscribed to Bret’s newsletter and ordered his book. I ordered bands and most importantly, I started hip thrusting. At first my heaviest set of 10 was around 80 pounds and it just about killed me. I was so excited it was the first time I felt my glutes really working and it was a real eye opener for me.

What changed over the course of this past year that led to my transformation? I now go into the gym with the intention of training glutes, not legs. I begin with band work (sumo walks, x-band walks, monster walks, side lying clams, etc.) I often incorporate band hip thrusts or donkey kicks with a 20 lb ankle weight in as my first exercise. I spend a lot of time just trying to fire up the glutes before going into any heavy lifting. I alternate each leg day (2x/week) as either a squat day or deadlift day. Instead of going into the gym and just trying to “go heavy” I now understand that making measurable progress and following some type of program is crucial to making gains. I have recently become more focused on powerlifting and making strength gains but never neglect to follow up my core lifts with direct glute training. I hip thrust twice a week and my current PR is 365×3 (my squat PR is 240×1 and conventional deadlift is 250×2). I have learned how to properly engage my butt in each lift. I have built my body up to what I consider to be an ideal amount of muscle mass for me and for the next year my goal is to focus on strictly building my glutes but maintaining my current size for the rest of my physique. I would like to hit 400 lbs on my hip thrust before the end of this year! Aside from the hip thrust, my favorite exercise is the sumo deadlift, I recently started incorporating it into training and after getting used to the new movement, was able to progress very quickly with it.

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I already mentioned the importance of progressive overload above but if I had to sum up the “how” of my glute transformation, It would simply be: to get better and stronger at squatting, deadlifting and most importantly, hip thrusting. Hard work, consistency, trusting the process and pushing through obstacles all tie into the above, during the time that my body changed, my entire outlook and attitude had to change and I learned the power of goal setting, discipline and the compound effect that occurs over time from making small, consistent changes in in my training approach.

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I would also like to mention that aside from the changes I made in training, a huge factor in my transformation can be attributed to my diet. I increased my caloric intake gradually but drastically over time. After being overweight as a teenager and young adult and then losing 80 pounds, that is easier said than done, but with an increased knowledge about diet and consistent tracking of my macronutrient intake, the results that followed were undeniable and I have been able to re-define the role that food plays in my life, it is no longer the enemy but a tool that enables me to achieve my goals.

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During this process I became an NASM certified personal trainer and I can actually say that countless times, women have approached me in public and at the gym and asked me “can you teach me how to get glutes like yours?” My own clients have had amazing results in the glute department by applying the same principles. Thank you Bret for all of the knowledge and resources you’ve consolidated into one place that have allowed me to literally change my life and body and to help others do the same!

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About the Author

Casey Bergh in an NASM-certified personal trainer in Turlock, California. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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