Powerlifting is a sport that has you strive for the heaviest weights in the bench press, squat, and dead-lift. Each federation that you can join has its own rules. They all require you to learn skills to maximize your performance. You may use support gear or reduce the range of motion to make the lift easier yet still meet the standards for competition.
Many assume that success in some activity comes mostly from practice as opposed to natural ability. Hopefuls therefore train like Olympic lifters to get explosive, like swimmers to develop lean muscles, and like powerlifters to get strong. They ignore that those that succeeded had the potential to do well in the first place. Those with less talent faded to reveal the elite. Dedication and effort matter, but you still need some base raw material.
Lifting the most weight does not always stimulate the most muscle growth. Powerlifting encourages extreme positions that maximize leverage at the expense of safety and balance across all the working parts. Their advice is relevant only to their sport but has penetrated the realm of the ordinary lifter.
Avoid these powerlifting concepts for general training.
You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
– Arthur Jones
- Avoid support gear.
Support gear, while needed to maximize the poundage of your lifts in the federations that allow it, develops crutches and leads to imbalances when training.
- Avoid ultra-wide stances, grips, and other extremes.
An ultra-wide stance may make it feel easier to reach a parallel squat but overemphasizes the hip extensors and reduces the stimulus for the quads and calves. This will irritate the hip joints as well and make the motion feel less smooth. An ultra-low bar squat will have the same effect.
An ultra-wide grip will reduce the range of motion required for the bench press but flares the elbows. This will stress the shoulders and also reduce the contribution from the triceps.
Sticking out the chest and pulling back the shoulder blades as far as possible will reduce the range of motion for the bench press. This slight decrease though destroys the rhythm established when the scapula and glenohumeral joint work together. This causes too much movement at the shoulder, which brings harm.
Avoid overarching the back while placing your upper traps instead of your shoulder blades against the bench while bench pressing. This hyperextension of the spine harms the lower back. It just reduces the range of motion, which you could voluntarily limit if needed anyway.
Avoid tucking the elbows too much. This can prevent your elbows from staying under your wrists, again aggravating the shoulders.
Avoid these problems by using medium grips, stances, and positions.
- Avoid dead-lifting.
Dead-lifting, especially with a barbell, overemphasizes the hip extensors and the lower back. This neglects the quads and calves while also putting harmful forces on the spine and hips.
If you do decide to dead-lift, use a trap bar to strike a better balance. You want your lower body movement to evenly address all the involved muscles. A low bar squat fulfills this need best.
- Avoid very low reps.
You do need very low reps to gain the specific adaptations and practice for powerlifting. Motor unit recruitment establishes that effort matters more than the load for recruiting the fast-twitch muscle fibers so long as the load is not too light. Using moderate reps and fairly heavy weights will keep you safer.
- Avoid accommodating resistance.
Bands and chains make the portion of the exercise near and at the lockout more difficult. You feel stronger here, so it may seem right to overload it more. This is a mistake. It only feels easier here because you have better leverage. Your muscles work less hard. This practice makes any exercise less efficient.
The length-tension relationship establishes that more connections form to create a muscle contraction in the middle range versus the endpoints.
Powerlifters sometime justify it anyway by saying it aims to teach you explosiveness. Explosiveness comes from the right mindset. When handling a heavy weight or a weight that becomes heavy through fatigue, try to move as fast as possible. Even if you move slowly, you will stimulate the changes associated with moving fast.
- Avoid speed work.
Many powerlifters will dedicate a couple days a week to develop speed. They will perform many sets for low reps with medium weights to focus on moving as fast as possible. They argue this best builds power that then transfers to using heavy weights.
Although fast movements do address the fast-twitch muscle fibers, they do so poorly. The force-velocity relationship states the slower movements allow enough time for more connections to form that create tension. You still need a high effort to recruit the fast-twitch muscle fibers, but it must feel heavy to maximize tension.
Speed days may indirectly work by providing a pseudo-rest day. Fast contractions burden your recovery less than heavy contractions. Including it works inefficiently though. You would spend your time more wisely to rest or perform some other worthwhile exercise.
- Avoid too many warm-up sets.
Many powerlifters will perform at least 5-8 warm-up sets. This occurs before they even start on their numerous working sets. This increases the risk of overtraining and serves no purpose toward creating more tension or even safety on the heaviest set.
Unless you are very strong and working up to a single rep or two, this will just exhaust you before your best effort. Consider 1-2 warm-up sets instead. Save your energy for when it counts.
- Avoid partial rep training.
For uniform motions, your muscles work about evenly throughout the range of motion. The idea of the lower, middle, or upper third of any exercise somehow developing into a weak point makes no sense. The length-tension relationship establishes the strongest range always exists in the middle for everyone. The same muscle fibers work at the endpoints that work in the middle, only in stronger or weaker states.
The portion of your bench press when your elbows are furthest away from your shoulders when viewed horizontally will always represent the sticking point. This position has the worst leverage, but your muscles function strongest here to make up the difference.
Train with at least some range of motion but emphasize the midpoint of a good exercise.
- Avoid assistance exercises.
Many experts in fitness and athletics feel you need variety to stimulate the muscle and keep your body guessing. Powerlifters argue that variety prevents burn out from lifting heavy. Variety just exposes you to harmful positions and exercises though.
Changing up your exercises up creates an appealing illusion. Your skills deteriorate, so this causes the exercise recently brought back to increase rapidly. Your body relearns how to do it. This does not create true strength and size gains but changes mostly the nervous system.
During this suboptimal period though, you may get the rest you need because your body works less hard compared to an exercise it has mastered. This explains the real reason why variety may appear to help.
Powerlifters also have classic assistance exercises they recommend such as the glute-ham raise and reverse hyperextension. These bring no special qualities to address the posterior chain. They just work the glutes and hamstrings with far too much range of motion. Too much range of motion has nothing to do with tension, the main stimulus for more size and strength, and risks the safety of your joints.
Other exercises may aim to fix weaknesses. Consider that weaknesses develop from failing to use medium grips, stances, and positions instead. Adaptation occurs from progressive overload and allowing sufficient rest until the next bout, not the diversity of exercise.
- Avoid periodization.
Periodization pre-plans your workouts for months on end. These predictions have poor accuracy. You end up tilting back and forth between undertraining and overtraining.
Strive for a rep goal. When you achieve this then add weight. This will maximize your results as long as you have a sound plan.
You will hit diminishing returns as you advance. This reality does not call for complicated schemes like periodization, but only the understanding that the jumps have to occur in smaller increments. You may want to go up just 2.5 pounds instead of 5 for example.
Avoid Powerlifting for General Training
The highest achievers do not always give the best advice. If someone never struggled like the average person, how can they compare better and worse?
Top powerlifters with raw ability, support gear, and performance drugs will far surpass the average person in strength. It seems natural then to seek out their guidance. Remember that the quality of their ideas must stand on their own merit and work well for you in the end.
Some of these concepts must play a role in powerlifting. Avoid mixing sport with developing fitness though. Avoid powerlifting for general training.