Diet and Nutrition

So you wannabe a powerlifter?

So you think you want to be a powerlifter, but you have no clue where to start? Well then it’s a good thing your reading this article because I am going to try and break down the essentials so you’ll be ready to step on the platform by the time you are done!

This article describes how you can get started in the sport the right way. I’ll touch on the different federations, use of equipment, powerlifting nutrition and gives some sample programs for the big three. After reading this article you should know what it takes to be a powerlifter.

Getting Started: A Few Federations

Powerlifting, like many sports, is one composed of skill; strength and an underlying desire to get better. Unlike other sports, however, powerlifting remains (and most likely will) an underground sport. While the cult following is plenty in numbers, to a beginner it would almost seem impossible to get started.

The first step for any beginner lifter looking into the world is to find locations of any and all meets and competitions that may be available to attend in the future. It doesn’t matter which federation as long as you can attend and be a spectator. I highly suggest starting your powerlifting career by attending as many meets as you can; this will give you a better idea of the timing of the meet, various rules, judging procedures, opportunities to get in touch with other local powerlifters, and ultimately what you are training for.

Once you are ready to compete you will need to pick a meet to train for. When searching for competition in your area you are probably going to find that there are several different federations that offer various different types of competition. The following are a quick break down of some of the more popular federations in America.

World Powerlifting Congress
  www.Worldpowerliftingcongress.com is the home of the WPC and it’s American branch the APF. These federations are considered to be the home of the strongest lifters in the world and are gateway federations for the only professional organization in powerlifting, the WPO (World Powerlifting Organization).Unlike the traditional federations the WPC/APF/WPC has evolved over the years and uses the latest in high-tech equipment such as the mono-lift and are also known for having less-restrictive policies in regards to lifting apparel, as well as varying drug policies.

USA Powerlifting

USAPowerlifting.com is the official site of USA Powerlifting, which is the American branch for the IPF (International Powerlifting Federation). The USAPL allows only approved single ply equipment and has a very strict drug testing policy. It is also known for its strict judging (especially in the squat) making it a very different which federation than that of the APF or WPC. The USAPL does not use a monolift, instead preferring the traditional method of walking-out a max effort squat attempts from a squat stand.  

World Association of Bench and Deadlift

  WABDL.org will give you information regarding World Association of Bench and Deadlift (WABDL), a federation dedicated to bench press and deadlift specialist. You won’t find either a monolift or squat stands for the WABDL crowd, just the press and pull. The judging is considered (by many) to be less than strict, and there are several confusing rules regarding gear (for example, some brands of shirts must be single-ply, while others may be double-ply).

All in all, the WABDL federation is possibly the biggest federation around today, but also has the largest number of divisions available to lift in meaning there is often very little competition; just don’t tell that to any of the WABDL lifters!

International Powerlifting Association

You will also stumble across many meets hosted by the International Powerlifting Association (IPAPower.com). This federation is mostly represented in the Midwest, but occasionally you will see meets pop up on the east and west coasts. The IPA has garnished a reputation for handing out gifts in the lifts with slack judging, but this depends widely on who is running the meet and where (which is true about any federation, really). It is very similar in to the WPC/APF in regards to rules expect that lifters can choose to lift in either tested or non-tested divisions.

American Powerlifting Association

Another popular federation is the American Powerlifting Association (APA) whose homepage is www.apa-wpa.com. The APA floats somewhere in-between the APF and USAPL in regards to rules and lifting equipment with rules such as – no canvas material allowed, no bench shirts pulled down past the shoulders, and no use of briefs under a squat suit.  

The bottom line is this; no matter what your preference on drug testing, divisions or gear regulation, there is, more than likely, a federation that will cater to the bulk of your needs. The list above is only a partial list of powerlifting federations (the most popular in America), but there are literally dozens of various federations available at your disposal. Cruise sites, ask questions and watch a few meets –you’ll be on your way before you know it!

How Do I Train?

To reiterate, your first step to becoming a powerlifter is to search out and decide which federation or federations apply to you and attend a meet! When you have a pretty good idea of what federation you would like to be an active member of, it’s time to pick a meet and get to training. A word of the wise, to any and all beginners (and advanced lifters alike)…never lose sight of the fact that you are a work in progress, not a finished product! Everyone had to start somewhere, and it is often nowhere near where he or she are now. This sport is about baby steps, incremental advancements and consistency!

When you’ve decided on a meet and picked up a few pieces of equipment for your gym or dished out your life savings for a commercial gym membership, it’s time for you to train.

There are several different training styles (which I will touch on, albeit briefly, later on in the article) you can utilize, but the underlying component for any lifter and their success is a positive attitude!

You will make progress with any training program as long as you put every ounce of effort and dedication you have into it. There are no secrets, no special set or rep schemes –nothing replaces hard work and discipline! Powerlifting is difficult, it takes time and above all it takes work.

It isn’t always comfortable to be a powerlifter, but it should be noted that very few things worthwhile in life are easy; if it were easy everybody would do it.

Get your head in the right place, and get to work…pick up heavy things, put them down, eat good food and get some sleep. Rinse. Repeat.

Now, the best and biggest names of the sport will all tell you that powerlifting is one sport where you cannot afford to train the way someone else does without first finding out what works for you. There are various templates (or training philosophies) available to help you get started with figuring out how to train; Westside, Metal Militia, 5×5, Bulgarian Volume routines, etc. Arguably, however, the most popular methods of training are the Westside Barbell system, and the Metal Militia system (for bench only, although, they have recently begun to train their squatting and pulling with much success).

The Westside Barbell Method:

If you’ve read anything about powerlifting online or discussed training ideas with powerlifters you may have met, you’ve probably heard plenty about the Westside Barbell Method. Revolutionized and made available to the public for free, Louie Simmons is largely regarded as The Man when it comes to structuring successful training and getting freaky strong –as proven by the numerous records that have come out of his gym, Westside Barbell. The basic underlying principles of the Westside Barbell Method include the Maximal Effort Method (ME), which is maximal force against a maximal load, teaching the lifter to strain and hold form under heavy weight. The Dynamic Effort Method (DE), which is maximal force against a sub maximal load, teaching the lifter strong and violent reversal strength, as well as acceleration all the way through the top of the lift. The Westside Barbell Method uses specialty exercises, and has been largely responsible for the introduction and widespread use of the Glute-Ham-Raise (this isn’t to say that a GHR hasn’t been done before, but, it was nearly unheard of before Louie popularized it), as well as the pioneering of a Reverse Hyperextension Machine (created and patented by Simmons himself).

What makes the Westside Barbell Method tricky is that it requires the lifter to think, and, have a great idea of how his body responds to training, certain principles and specific exercises. The lifter, in essence, has to know how to gauge his or her progress based on how they feel. Accessory movements are largely decided by the lifter themselves, with the focus on building your weak points to better develop your overall strength. For the beginner lifter, this can be quite the task, and more often than not ends up with less than satisfactory results. This isn’t the fault of the training methodology, mind you, but a lack of experience and judgment on the part of the lifter –a common misconception.

For more information on the Westside Methods, check out Louie’s site at www.westside-barbell.com, as well as Dave Tate’s site, EliteFTS.com. Both sites provide free articles (full of information) and Elite Fitness also provides a very useful Question & Answer forum.

Metal Militia: Bench Press With a Side of Evil

Bill Crawford and Sebastian Burns know how to bench press. More importantly, they know how to teach and develop the bench press –in anybody. They have traditionally been know to train for bench-only meets, however, the Metal Militia crew has since made the transition to competing in full power meets. Their squat training and deadlift training is relatively new and has yet to be explained in detail in any of their articles, but, it should be noted that the lifters that are a part of Metal Militia are very open when it comes to discussing training. If you head over to MetalMilitia.net and shoot off a few E-mails, I’m sure any and all of your training questions will be answered.

The bench routine is a killer one, both in producing results and in beating the crap out of your body. The program relies heavily on full range of motion practice in your bench press shirt (which will be talked about later), utilizing triples, doubles and singles. Board presses (without the shirt) follow, and the workouts usually end with back work, trap work and some light tricep work. They do incorporate an accessory day in their workout week, which consists mainly of raw (sans shirt) pressing, decline pressing, more boards and more accessory work (back, traps, triceps, etc.). What makes Metal Militia difficult for most people is the volume (workouts tend to be lengthy), and the intensity on both days is fairly high (multiple rep-maxes on both days, personal record attempts, etc.). However, one cannot argue with results, and Metal Militia has shown the powerlifting world, again and again, that they know how to bench press big.

There are many more training programs out there (if I had to guess, I’d say a rough estimate would be just short of two-trillion various templates for your choosing), so don’t be afraid to experiment with various programs and ideas, as well as incorporating training philosophies from one program to another. A good example would be the ever-popular combination of Westside methodology for training your squat and deadlift, and Metal Militia training for your bench press. In any case, don’t get caught up in one system at the expense of experimentation. Remember, even a program that doesn’t yield results can be useful (how else will you learn what does not work for you?). This is especially true for beginners getting into the sport: experiment, experiment, experiment! Here is an example of a 3-day program that I followed early in my powerlifting career:

Day 1

Squat – free squat

Warm up

  • Week 1 – 60% 2 sets of 3 – briefs and wraps
  • Week 2 – 65% 2 sets of 3 – briefs and wraps
  • Week 3 – 70% 2 sets of 3 – briefs and wraps
  • Week 4 – 75% 2 sets of 2 – briefs and wraps
  • Week 5 – 80% 2 sets of 2 – briefs and wraps
  • Week 6 – 85% 2 sets of 2 – briefs and wraps
  • Week 7 – 90% 2 sets of 1 – full gear
  • Week 8 – 95% 2 sets of 1 – full gear
  • Week 9 – 50% – raw
  • Week10 – Meet 1st) 80% 2nd) 90% 3rd) 100% 4th)??

Accessories – Aim to add weight every week to the exercise

  • Leg Curls or Glute hams 3 x 10
  • Reverse Hypers or 45 hypers 3 x10
  • Abductors 2 x 10
  • Adductors 2 x 10
  • Seated Calf raises 2 x 20
  • Abs 5 x 10 – decline sit-up w/weight

Day 2

Bench

Warm up

  • Week 1 – 70% 1 sets of 2 –Shirted
  • Week 2 – 75% 1 set of 2 –Shirted
  • Week 3 – 80% 2 sets of 1 – Shirted
  • Week 4 – 75% 2 sets of 2 – Shirted
  • Week 5 – 80% 2 sets of 2 – Shirted
  • Week 6 – 85% 2 sets of 1 – Shirted
  • Week 7 – 90% 1 set of 1 – Shirted
  • Week 8 – 95% 1 set of 1 – Shirted
  • Week 9 – 70% 1 set of 1 – Shirted
  • Week 10 Meet day 1st) 80% 2nd) 90% 3) 100% 4th) ??

Accessories – Aim to add weight each week

  • Raw – 2 board / 3 board / 4 board (rotate) Work up to 3 rep max each week
  • Rack Lock outs – Work up to a 5 rep max each week
  • Pushdowns – 3×10
  • Front Raise 2×10
  • Side Raise 2×10
  • Rear Laterals 2×10

Day 3

Deadlift

Warm up

  • Week 1 – 75% 1 set of 2 – full gear
  • Week 2 – 80% 1 set of 2 – full gear
  • Week 3 – 85% 1 set of 2 – full gear
  • Week 4 – 90% 1 set of 2 – full gear
  • Week 5 – 80% 2 set of 2 – full gear
  • Week 6 – 85% 2 set of 2 – full gear
  • Week 7 – 90% 1 set of 1 – full gear
  • Week 8 – 95% 1 set of 1 – full gear
  • Week 9 – 75% 1 set of 1 – full gear
  • Week 10 – Meet 1st) 80% 2nd) 90% 3rd) 100% 4th)??

Accessories – try to add weight every week to the exercise

  • Pulldowns / Bent rows / seat rows (rotate) 3 x 10
  • Leg Curls or Glute hams 3 x 10
  • Reverse Hypers or 45 hypers 3 x 10
  • Abductors 3 x 10
  • Adductors 3 x 10
  • Abs 5 x 10 – Russian twists w/ weight

Powerlifting Gear: No, This Is Not a Debate Article

I’ll go ahead and preface this part of the article with my stance on powerlifting gear; it’s part of the sport, if you want to succeed (in geared powerlifting) you’re going to have to wear and learn gear. There. Done. I’ll save the arguments about whether it’s fair or not for the Wannabebig forums or a different article. For the time being I will give you a basic idea of what makes certain types of gear different than others.

Bench shirts: Denim Vs. Poly

Denim and the older Poly shirts were widely different from one another; with the poly providing more spring and rebound in the bottom of the lift, while denim provided more support and more “stopping power.” However, poly shirts have since been developed into serious pieces of equipment. The Inzer RageX and the various METAL shirts provide stopping power, rebound (that carries through the top of the lift) and a generous groove, which is much easier to learn and get a feel for, especially for the beginning lifter.

Bench Pressing using a Bench Shirt

The denim shirts (most popularly from Inzer and Karin) have also been developed into some pretty tough pieces of lifting gear. The easiest way to figure out what kind of gear is for you is to, again, experiment! More often than not, if you attend a few powerlifting meets some of the lifters there will usually have used gear that they will more than willing to part with. Personally, I’ve found several shirts in the garbage at meets, with a minor run or tear in the fabric that was only a few dollars to patch at the local upholstery store.

For a beginner, the newer poly and denim shirts can be quite intimidating, and rightly so –tough gear is no joke. All is not lost, however, as there are several “intro” shirts perfect for learning the fundamentals of bench press shirts. Inzer has a line of “Blast” shirts that are perfect for beginners – easy to use, easy to get on and off, and a very forgiving groove. Groove, while we’re talking about it, is the path the bar needs to take to get the most support from the shirt, for denims the groove is very strict, that is, you have to be right on the bubble of support or else you lose the press –and maybe the bar! For shirts with forgiving grooves, it means that you have a little bit of wiggle room, that is, the bar can float a small amount and still receive strong support from the shirt, making them much easier to use.

Squat Suits: The Modern Day Athletic Mummy

Almost as intimidating as a bench shirt is the squat suit, a piece of modern torture device that is the cause of much heartache and frustrating to get the hang of. Especially for beginners, which find it very difficult (and uncomfortable) to even get the suit on! Like the shirt conundrum, you have two basic choices in powerlifting squat suits, poly suits which provide less support but more rebound and spring, and canvas suits, which provide stopping power with great support but less rebound. However, also like shirts the new age poly and canvas suits have very similar characteristics. The new poly suits (Inzer T-Rex, METAL Ace, etc.) provide a great deal of rebound, but are thick and sturdy enough to also grant stopping power and support. Similarly, the new canvas design (available predominately by Inzer in their Leviathan) has poly inserts that make up sections of the suit, combining the rebound of poly with the unreal support and stopping power of traditional canvas.

Ultimately, squatting style will decide which suit works the best for any given lifter, with the general consensus being if you better at box squatting you are more appropriately suited for canvas (which “feels” much like a box squat), while a faster squatter who relies on rebound to reverse the squat will be better suited for a poly suit, taking full advantage of the pop from the suit.

For beginners, fortunately, there are several suits available, which are neither as difficult to use nor as expensive to purchase (the high end suits can cost you as much as 300 big ones…). Inzer has a line of single and double-ply (ply, in this case, means layers) poly suits that are dirt cheap but provide a fair amount of support for the cost, and Frantz also has low-end suits available for competitive prices. Again, if you hang around enough meets you will come across beginner suits…lifters who have spent time in the sport have to agree –who hasn’t owned a few Z-suits in their day!

Belts, Wraps and Shoes: Learn to Accessorize your Outfits

While the task of researching, learning and deciding what kind of suits and shirts are right for you may seem daunting enough, powerlifting gear (unfortunately!) doesn’t end there. Perhaps the most important aspect of gear would be the use of a belt; no, not the tapered bodybuilding-esque belts of the yester year, but instead a sturdy, 13mm single prong belt (available from numerous sources, including but not limited to Inzer or EliteFTS). I strongly feel that the best belt for any and all powerlifters is a 13mm (the available sizes are 10mm and 13mm, which refers to the thickness of the belt), single prong (compared to a double prong, making it twice as difficult to get both prongs in their holes –especially with a belt tightener) belt. To make sure your colors don’t clash, there are just short of three thousand (rough estimation) various colors available for your selection.

Pictured: Inzer Z Wrist wraps and Metal Black Wrist Straps
Pictured: Inzer Z Wrist wraps and Metal Black Wrist Straps

Wrist wraps, seconded only by the powerlifting belt, are the most important piece of equipment one could purchase and employ. Now, everybody has their personal opinions on wrist wraps, however I have found the biggest variable when it comes to wrist wrap support is how they are wrapped, not on the actual brand. Your basic choices are twelve, eighteen and thirty-six inch wraps (measurement are for length). Obviously, the longer the wrap the greater number of times you can wrap it around your wrist and forearm. If you’re looking for a little support for say, squatting, go for a shorter wrap, but for heavy pressing nothing beats the thirty-six inches.

Pictured: Inzer Z Wrist wraps and Metal Black Wrist Straps
Pictured: Inzer Z Wrist wraps and Metal Black Wrist Straps

Knee wraps are, perhaps, the most painful and annoying of all powerlifting gear for the majority of lifters. You have heard about people struggling in squat suits and bench shirts, but, there are a handful of lifters that cannot squat with knee wraps –and it doesn’t matter how long they practice! In any case, you again are presented with choices regarding brand as well as length. Now, there are more noticeable differences between various brands of knee wraps; some contain more rubber within the wrap, for example. For a beginner, I would strongly recommend picking up a pair of Inzer knee wraps, they are affordable and can really take a beating. I have had the same pair of Inzer knee wraps for nearly my entire powerlifting career! Similar to the wrist wraps, with knee wraps you have a choice of length: two meters and two and a half meters. Again, personal preferences prevail but remember the longer the wrap the more times around your knee, giving you more support.

Pictured: Inzer Z Knee Wraps and Metal Black Knee Wraps
Pictured: Inzer Z Knee Wraps and Metal Black Knee Wraps

When it comes to choosing belts, knee and wrist wraps, there are two things to consider. First, rules in your given federation (for example, some federations only allow two meter wraps, while the APF allows two and a half meter wraps) and second, trial and error. If you’ve started to train with powerlifters in your area (after researching and located federations in your area, and then getting in contact with local powerlifters…) you will, more often than not, be able to try used gear that your training partners have but are not using. Take advantage of this! As a beginner make it a point to always try gear –albeit wraps, suits, briefs or shirts. Nobody knows how you feel in gear better than you do!

Eating: Something to do Between Training Sessions

Now, anywhere you look online you will stumble across hundreds of diet articles, several catering towards powerlifters as a general population. However, diet (in this case we are referring to everything that goes into your mouth, not diet in the traditional sense, of trying to lose weight) is relatively simple. It isn’t easy – it’s simple. What I am getting at is that we all pretty much know and understand how we should be eating, but we often don’t. As a powerlifter, it is important to get enough calories in that you recover from training sessions during the week, this does not mean that powerlifting gives you the excuse to pack away McDonalds and pass your gut off as an essential part of powerlifting! Eat lean meats like chicken, fish and various cuts of beef. Add in a side of carbs and some veggies, think pasta, rice, potatoes, peas, corn, etc. For snacks, feel free to hammer protein powder; fruit (dried fruit is great) and nuts make great snacks as well. Don’t forget to increase your water intake, while avoiding empty calories from liquids like soda. Other than adding in a daily multi-vitamin supplement, there is little else you need to know (or worry about) when it comes to eating. Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, and make good food selections before trying to figure out nutrient macro and micro ratios. Louie Simmons was once asked how his lifters at Westside Barbell ate, and he answered, “our guys eat good.” Those four words nearly sum up the complicated nutrition considerations of powerlifters –just eat good.

I mentioned protein powder (check out Nitrean Protein), and I strongly feel that powders are a great way to sneak in more good calories and protein into a diet with ease. When it comes to selecting powders I usually go by price. You can find numerous supplement sites online, or pick up a tub of protein at your local nutrition store. I pick up a basic whey protein isolate mix – I pay about twenty bucks for five pounds of powder. There are very expensive brands out there at your disposal, but I’ve had more luck with a cheap generic supplement and spending more money on whole food. Creatine Monohydrate (check out Creatine 500) is, perhaps, the one supplement I would also recommend for beginners (not only of just powerlifters, but any lifter in general). It’s one of the most studied and scientifically backed up supplements available, and, it’s very reasonably priced.

Those are the basics when it comes to eating, and I am sure there will be more than enough experts who will recommend fancy diets and calorie calculators and micro-ratios…however I stand firm in my suggestion to keep it simple and eat good food. Don’t make it any more complicated if you don’t have to (and for what it’s worth, I’ve never had to)! There are times, though, when you should feel free to feed your sloppy side, that is, don’t shy away from a burger or pizza with the guys on Friday night! Eat well, drink a lot of water, and hit up the drive-through without guilt a couple times a month. Diet? Check.

Mobility & Flexibility: Buy Your Yoga Pants

I know what you’re thinking, you want to be strong and flexibility sounds like something for overweight women at Curves. While I did initially agree with you, I have since adopted a very accepting stance on the inclusion of flexibility and mobility work for powerlifters. In addition to aiding my lifts directly, the benefits of flexibility and mobility work carried over into my daily life. Tight shoulders and pecs, a stiff lower back and old man hips were plaguing me day in and day out. I initially wrote it off as part of the territory, you know, some discomfort that nobody can escape as a powerlifter. While that may be partly true, I didn’t realize how much pain I was putting myself through by avoiding girly flexibility work. I started adding few movements in my warm-up before each of my training sessions during the week -various movements with bands or kettlebells, and slowly added more and more movements over a period of months (as to not negatively affect my training). At home I would do a little foam rolling work, some dynamic mobility drills for my hips and shoulders, and (occasionally) some light movements with bands.

I could write a novel about the various drills and movements I currently make use of to increase my mobility and flexibility, however, this is a perfect time to make a plug for a few close friends of mine (who really know their stuff when it comes to warm-up and mobility). I urge powerlifters, beginner and elite lifter alike, to invest in the Magnificent Mobility DVD created by Eric Cressey and Mike Robertson, and the Inside-Out Warm-up DVD and manual by Mike Robertson and Bill Hartman. Anything and everything you need to know about how to perform various drills and movements as well as how to employ these movements into your current training routine are included in the above two products. Take care of your body and give back to the sport; buy Magnificent Mobility and Inside-Out today!

Looking Back: What I Wished I Would Have Known Sooner

This part of the article will be the easiest for me to write, being that I have about a billion things I wish I would have known back when I entered this sport. Instead of flooding you with endless paragraph after paragraph, I’ll go ahead and just list what comes to mind when I think about what I wish I would have known as a beginner…If you haven’t eaten in a while I’d go make a sandwich and get a water bottle before attempting to finish this in one sitting (consider yourself warned!).

  • I wish I had found strong people to train with right from day one. Training with stronger people than you is the one sure way to get better!
  • I wish I spent more time hammering the basics of lifting; presses, squat, pulls, rows, pull-ups and heavy abdominal work. I now find myself going back and making up for the foundation work I didn’t do before.
  • I wish I were more dedicated to performing vigorous warm-ups before every lifting session, and spending time stretching when I was finished. Like bullet number two, now I have to back track a little bit.
  • Extensions don’t build a big bench press –rely on boards, rack lockouts and full range of motion work in your shirts.
  • Find a Glute-ham-raise and a Reverse Hyperextension…there are exercises that try to duplicate these two machines, but “try” is all they do.
  • I thought I was working hard, when I realized I wasn’t I was floored. If you think you’re working hard enough, you aren’t. You’ll know when you’re working hard!
  • The one muscle group used in all three of the powerlifts is the back (lower, mid, upper, lats, traps, etc.), and I would be stronger than ever if I had spent more time building my back. Row, pull, shrug –build your back!
  • A fast lifter is a strong lifter! Do your speed work.
  • Ice is free and easy to use; don’t be afraid to ice elbows and joints daily –even if you’re not facing injuries. Pre-hab is much easier to deal with than rehab.
  • The Total-Gym will not get you strong. Chuck Norris lies!
  • The strength from yours hips gets to the bar through your body, or more appropriately, through your core. Do your heavy abdominal work –heavy situps and side bends. Save the bodyweight crunches for your girlfriend!
  • Do not get discouraged; everybody has a bad week, weeks or even months! It’s part of the sport and will teach you more than you could imagine. Learning how to overcome stagnation and plateaus is individual and cannot be taught.
  • Have fun! At the end of the day, this is why we do it –never forget it!

Written by AJ Roberts

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – So you wannabe a powerlifter discussion thread.