A beginner's guide to powerlifting

19/10/20 (8 Minute Read)

View Author Info: Niamh Doyle - Peak Performance 

About The Author Image - Niamh Doyle - Peak Performance

About The Author: Niamh Doyle - Peak Performance

Niamh Doyle is a performance coach and personal trainer originally from Co. Clare but based now in Galway. Her love of powerlifting and strength sports aids in her work to help people get stronger and confident through resistance exercise. Niamh is a big believer in stepping away from the shackles of aesthetics and focusing on how training makes you feel and what it allows your body to do. Niamh has also competed in powerlifting for nearly 4 years and is a strong proponent for the benefits of the sport, above and beyond the challenge of simply competing.

Blog Image - A beginner's guide to powerlifting

If you’re considering starting powerlifting, then you’ll need to look at how you structure your training and receive guidance for your first competition. It may seem overwhelming, but hopefully, this article will be a helpful introduction to powerlifting. It’s an amazing sport, with a fabulous community of people (yes my bias is blatantly obvious, apologies). 

But starting powerlifting means you need to know the foundational elements of technique to optimise your maximum possible strength while reducing the chance of injury.

Powerlifting is a sport that tests maximal strength in the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Athletes compete in either male or female categories which are further divided into body weight and age. The goal of powerlifting is to lift as much weight as you can for one repetition in your given class. 

At the end of the competition, the heaviest squat, bench press, and deadlift — that are passed by the judges — are added up to give you your total. The competitor from each class with the highest total wins. 

Powerlifting training involves doing the main competition movements frequently in your workouts. However, there is also a large focus on ‘variations’ of those movements to help improve any weaker areas of your lifts. The powerlifting technique is also something very specific to the sport. How you perform the squat, bench press, and deadlift as a powerlifter will be much different than if you are a bodybuilder due to the rules that exist in a powerlifting competition and because powerlifters aim to reduce the range of motion as much as possible.

To start, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. It is important to note that you don’t need fancy equipment or to lift any certain weight to do a powerlifting meet. Instead, take your first meet as a massive learning opportunity and as an arena to have fun. Try not to stress that you’re not lifting ‘loads’ like other powerlifters you may train with or see in competitions; powerlifting is a sport with amazing longevity and ‘slow and steady’ definitely wins the race when it comes to gaining strength without risking injury. If you’re consistent the number on the bar will increase.

So what are the benefits of powerlifting? Starting with the obvious, you will increase your maximal strength. This means that you will increase physical strength not just in the gym, but in everyday life too. If you’re someone who competes in another sport, then using powerlifting training and principles can increase your performance in those activities by making you more powerful in certain movements. You will learn how to move your body more efficiently, increase muscle mass, and become more durable. 

As we age, we lose muscle mass at a faster rate than earlier in life. And our muscle mass begins to significantly decrease after the age of 40. High-intensity strength training, like powerlifting, has been shown to slow down this decrease. Powerlifting training has been suggested to increase bone density mass, which reduces your risk of diseases like osteoporosis and getting bone fractures. This is particularly important for older individuals and athletes involved in contact sports like rugby. Powerlifting is a sport you can do for many years. A lot of sports have an early ‘retirement’ age, however in powerlifting, as long as you’ve mastered the technique and generally avoid serious injuries, you can compete for decades. Furthermore, one can remain competitive regardless of the age division they compete in.

Powerlifting is also a great context for setting and achieving goals. Even those who don’t possess a passion for work or other hobbies may find that lifting weights provides a means for self-improvement. It’s especially motivating for people to see their numbers higher than what they previously lifted. Powerlifting can give your gym sessions a purpose. Some people find themselves aimlessly going to the gym and not having any deeper reason ‘why’ they’re lifting weights. Powerlifting can provide a sense of purpose for people, which keeps them more committed to their workouts and overall goals. 



We will now venture into powerlifting technique. Any powerlifting federation that you compete in will have certain standards for each of the lifts. There are rules around how deep you need to squat, how you can or cannot position your body on the bench for a bench press, and what a lock-out position in the deadlift looks like. You must practice these movement standards in training if you want any chance at passing a lift in competition. You can be physically strong, but it doesn’t matter if you can’t lift to the technical requirements of the sport. Bear in mind, if you start breaking the movement standards in training, then don’t expect that it will magically ‘come together’ in a meet environment. 

Let’s now talk about the technique that will get you strong and keep you safe.: 


Squat Technique

Find your optimal squat stance based on your leverages. For most people, it’s likely going to be slightly outside shoulder-width, with your toes pointed slightly outwards.
Understand how to brace, this will create intra-abdominal pressure and protect your back.
To initiate the squat, bend both your knees and hips at the same time, not one before the other, in a steady, smooth motion. 
Understand the optimal knee position for your squats. Don’t believe the myth that your knees cannot travel forward, but you don’t want them caving inward as this could cause an injury. 
Ensure you’re squatting deep into where your hip crease is below the plane of the knee. Recording yourself completing a squat from the side or asking someone who knows about competition standards can help you assess your depth.
As you stand up from the bottom of the squat, make sure the hips and barbell rise at the same tempo so that you don’t lean forward too much. 


Bench Press Technique

Learn how to do a proper bench press arch, where you purposely try to extend your mid-back to reduce the range of motion and activate the muscle fibres of your lower pec. 
Find your optimal bench press grip, you can alter this over time so don’t worry too much, to begin with. 
Bring the bar down with a controlled tempo, this will ensure that you are not using pure momentum to push the bag back up and are genuinely strong enough to list the weight in your hands. Make sure to practise the pause on your chest, which is required in competition. 
When benching, it is important to use your entire body to press the barbell, including using your legs by forcefully pressing your feet down into the floor. For many people, this takes time and comes after much practise of the movement.
The bench press bar path should follow an ‘up and back’ trajectory (not vertical) when driving the weight off your chest. 
Hold the barbell as low down in your palm as possible so that the weight isn’t straining your wrist and that your wrist and forearm are directly stacked under the bar.
When finishing the movement don’t casually lock your arms, be quite aggressive and certain. In competitions, the referees need to be sure that you are finished with the movement.


Deadlift Technique

You can choose between deadlifting conventional or sumo techniques; either is acceptable in competition. 
Find your ideal deadlift grip width. Make sure not to grip the bar too wide because it will create a longer range of motion. Also, make sure to squeeze your hands hard, so that you don’t fail on grip. If you can use chalk in your gym, do, as it is permissible in competitions.
Keep your back straight while deadlifting. Avoid rounding, especially through the low and mid-back as this could cause serious injury. Start slowly with the weight, don’t force yourself to move up weight if your form cannot keep up. 
Just like the squat, you’ll want to learn how to breathe properly in the deadlift, which will protect the spine. 
Think about the initial drive from the floor as a “push”, which will activate your quads to extend the knee. Imagine you are pushing the ground away with your feet. Then, once you get to the knee, think about the lift as a “pull” to drive your hips toward the barbell. 
Pull aggressively into the lock-out and finish with your hips, shoulders, and knees locked. 

The key to starting to powerlift at competitions is to get your technique right, be consistent with a powerlifting program that’s individualised to you, and lastly sign up for your first competition as soon as possible so you can start practising your competition skills and catch the powerlifting bug!


Photo credit: No Lift Podcast/James Lynch