Beginner’s Guide to Powerlifting—Lifts, Competitions, Judges
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Do you have a client interested in powerlifting?
If you’re a trainer without much experience in the powerlifting world, keep reading.
It’s important to understand powerlifting is not the same as “weightlifting” (also called Olympic weightlifting). Weightlifting consists of two lifts:
- Clean & jerk
Powerlifting is three lifts:
- Bench press
The goal of all three movements is to lift the maximum amount of weight for one repetition. However, it’s not just the weight that’s important. While competing, there are specific guidelines and lifting form each competitor must follow. So, in addition to max strength training, a powerlifting program must emphasize proper lifting techniques for the squat, deadlift, and bench press.
If your clients are ready to explore the powerlifting realm, follow along as we unravel some of the basic info you need to know to help guide them.
As mentioned, a powerlifting competition consists of three core lifts: squat, bench press, and deadlift (performed in that order). Using proper form, each athlete has three attempts (at each exercise) to lift as much weight as possible for one repetition.
All competitors are divided into categories based on their age, gender, and body weight. The winner of a category is the lifter with the highest total weight (sum of the best of each of the three lifts) with any ties going to the competitor with the lower body weight.
Considerations for a First Powerlifting Competition
Starting a new sport or competition can be overwhelming! If your client is wanting to prepare for their first powerlifting competition, they should consider the following:
Select the Right Powerlifting Coach
If you aren’t the right coach for their powerlifting program, helping them find the right powerlifting coach is one of the most important components of their preparation. Ideally, they should consider joining a powerlifting gym to ensure access to the right equipment and expertise.
A coach with experience competing can be incredibly valuable. But, it’s also important for a coach to have the skills to teach the correct squat, bench press, and deadlift technique and the knowledge to build the proper program for strength training and recovery. In addition to teaching and developing all three lifts, the coach should also help guide a client’s mentality, competition day nerves, and nutrition.
Choose a Powerlifting Federation
There are many federations, nationally and internationally. Generally speaking, each federation is a different group that organizes powerlifting competitions, sets standards, judges, records scores, etc. Although each federation has its own guidelines, many rules are similar while others are quite different. So, clients need to research and determine which federation is the best fit.
The International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) seems to be one of the largest and most respected federations, but you can find a list of the different powerlifting federations here.
Pick the Competition
A client should collaborate with their powerlifting coach to determine the best competition (based on date, location, training preparation, goals, etc.). Once that is determined, the client can submit the appropriate forms and fees for sign up.
Powerlifting Competition Basics
Like previously mentioned, the standards, rules, judging, etc., vary between federations. To provide some insight into some of the standards, here is an outline of some powerlifting competition basics aligned with the IPF rulebook.
The system for judging a powerlifting competition includes three referees (one of them is the head referee), each with their own set of two lights. The lights are red and white and indicate whether the lift was valid or not. The white light means “good lift” while the red light means “no lift.” Each referee will make their judgment and all three lights will display the decision simultaneously. The decision is made when 2 of 3 or 3 of 3 lights are the same color.
The referees are also responsible for ensuring the equipment and attire of each athlete meets the appropriate standards.
From the barbell to the weight (discs), to the collars, all equipment has specific guidelines that must be met.
For example, all three lifts are performed on a raised platform. The square platform can be no more than 10 cm off the ground. It must be non-slip and measure somewhere between 2.5 m to 4 m on each side (example: 2.5 m x 2.5 m or 4 m x 4 m).
The client should read the rulebook specific to their federation and ensure they train with equipment similar to what they’ll experience on competition day.
Competition attire has several different requirements. The information below is not comprehensive, so be sure to review the federation’s rulebook to ensure your athletes are prepared. The following list provides a few of the current standards for the athletes’ attire during an IPF competition:
- Basic attire: singlet with straps that remain over the shoulders
- Socks: only 1 pair allowed; the sock cannot touch any part of the knee or knee support (knee wrap); the deadlift requires socks above the calf and below the knee to protect the shins
- Lifting belt: weight belt can be worn
- Wraps: wrist wraps and knee wraps can be worn (although both have size requirements that must be adhered to)
The basic guidelines for performing each of the lifts (according to IPF standards) are below. Keep in mind, it isn’t comprehensive of the things that could potentially disqualify an athlete or an individual lift.
To begin the squat, the athlete will face the front of the platform and the spotters will assist them in lifting the weight out of the squat rack. Without any further help from the spotters, the athlete will step back into position and remain motionless until they receive a visual signal and voice command from the referee to begin the squat. They’ll lower into a squat until their upper leg (at the hip joint) is below the knee joint. Without any bouncing at the bottom of the lift, they’ll press back up into a standing position. When the athlete’s knees are locked and their body is motionless, the squat is complete, and the referee will signal to rack the weight.
The head of the bench will point toward the front of the platform or at a 45-degree angle. The lifter’s head, glutes, and shoulders should press against the bench and will remain there throughout the entire lift. The feet must remain flat on the platform at all times, and the barbell should be gripped within the 81 cm mark. The spotters will assist the athlete with lifting the bar out of the rack. When all spotters have released the weight and the athlete’s elbows are locked and stable, the referee will signal to begin the bench press. The lifter will lower the bar until it contacts their chest (or abdominal region) and pause briefly. At this point, the referee will signal for the lifter to press the weight back up. When the elbows are locked and the bar is motionless, the bench press is complete, and the referee will signal to rack the bar.
The competitor will face the front of the platform. In one complete upward motion, the athlete will lift until the shoulders, knees, and hips are locked in a standing position. Once the bar is still, the referee will signal for the athlete to lower the barbell down to the ground (1).
If you’re a novice lifter, we hope this has inspired you to explore a powerlifting program, sign up for a powerlifting competition, or have a better appreciation for this strength sport and the level of work, detail, and commitment a competitive powerlifter has to put into their training plan.
Become an expert in all things powerlifting with ISSA’s Powerlifting Instructor Course. Learn the proper form and training techniques for all three lifts and help take your client’s 1 rep max to the next level.
- International Powerlifting Federation. “Technical Rules Book 2021.” Powerlifting.com .2020. https://www.powerlifting.sport/fileadmin/ipf/data/rules/technical-rules/english/IPF-Technical_Rules_Book_2021docx.pdf. Accessed Jan. 2021.
ISSA Advanced Powerlifting Specialists have a desire to improve individuals' daily lives and improve their strength. Focused on the science behind how the body moves and reacts, specifically in the three core movements: squat, deadlift and bench press. Advanced Powerlifting Specialists are knowledgeable in the why and how of this specific technique and are prepared to help individuals of all ages.
Becoming an Advanced Powerlifting Specialist through ISSA means you will be one step closer to helping people improve their strength and lifestyle.