What Is Powerlifting?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on June 15, 2022
4 min read

Powerlifting is a weightlifting sport that consists of three barbell lifts:

  • Back squat
  • Bench press
  • Deadlift

Competitive powerlifters work hard to increase the maximum amount of weight they can lift for each of these movements. In competitions, they have three tries to successfully lift a pre-chosen amount of weight using each lift.

Wondering how to powerlift? These are the three main powerlifting exercises.

Barbell back squat. To do this exercise, place a barbell on a rack at around shoulder height. Get under the bar so it rests on the back of your shoulders and neck. Place your hands on the bar, a bit wider than shoulder width. Stand up fully with the bar on your back and take two to three steps backward, placing your feet slightly wider than shoulder width. Squat down, holding the barbell on your back. To meet competition standards, your hips must go below your knees at the bottom of your squat. Then, press back up to standing, walk forward, and re-rack the barbell.

To make your squat even more successful, squeeze your shoulder blades together to make sure your back is straight the whole time. Tighten your core to give your body the most strength during the lift.

Barbell bench press. Outside of powerlifting, this exercise is sometimes called a chest press. Lie face-up on a bench after racking your barbell at the appropriate height. Grab the bar with your hands, grips set a little wider than your shoulders. Press your feet into the ground as you unrack the barbell, holding it over your sternum. Bend your elbows, bringing the bar down to touch your chest. Then, push the bar back up and re-rack it.

Barbell deadlift. Stand behind a barbell with your feet about shoulder width apart. Your feet should be facing forward or slightly turned out. Bend down with your hips back, almost as if you are sitting in a chair, and hold the barbell against your legs while keeping your back straight and looking forward. Push your hips forward to stand straight up with the barbell in your hands. Then, send your hips back again to lower the bar to the ground.

Many powerlifters use an over-under grip with one hand facing up and the other facing down for deadlift. You should not be doing this lift with your back muscles. You should primarily feel your glutes and leg muscles doing the work.

Powerlifting can be dangerous if it is not done correctly. Work with a coach to ensure you have proper form to avoid injuries. Coaches can also double as a spotter to make workouts safer than lifting solo. Here are some powerlifting safety tips:

  • Use a spotter, especially when you are trying a new lift or lifting heavier weights than usual.
  • Some powerlifting racks allow for the use of spotting arms for bench presses and back squats, allowing you to safely get out of the lift without a spotter if you cannot complete the lift.
  • In addition to using proper technique to perform the lifts themselves, use good form when loading and unloading the bar and moving heavy weights around the gym.
  • Stop lifting if you feel pain. Ice the injured area a few times per day. If your injury doesn't get better in a few days, consult a doctor.
  • Use safety clips on your barbell when doing back squats and deadlifts. This prevents the weights from falling off and injuring your feet.
  • Take rest days to give your muscles a chance to recuperate.
  • Always warm up. Many powerlifting programs recommend working up to the peak of your workout by starting with several reps on an empty barbell, then increasing the weight.
  • Use the proper powerlifting equipment and follow all safety rules at your gym.

The basic powerlifting equipment you need to get started includes:

  • A barbell
  • A set of strength-training plates that will fit on your barbell
  • Safety clips
  • A barbell rack
  • A bench
  • Sneakers or shoes with good grip

Once you get more into the sport, you may want to get more specialized equipment including:

  • Powerlifting shoes
  • A weightlifting belt
  • Knee sleeves
  • Chalk for gripping the bar
  • Wrist wraps

In general, strength sports like powerlifting have many health benefits, as this sport:

  • Increases bone density and reduces the risk of osteoporosis later on in life
  • Increases metabolism and can help you manage your weight
  • May reduce symptoms of arthritis
  • Can help with depression
  • Can reduce the symptoms of heart disease and diabetes
  • May keep your mind sharp as you age

Considering starting a strength sport? There are a few sports that have some similarities to powerlifting.

Olympic lifting. This weightlifting sport is one you see performed in the Summer Olympics. It consists of lifts called the clean-and-jerk and the snatch. Lifts derived from these main two lifts are also popular with Olympic weightlifters. These lifts include:

  • Front barbell squat
  • Deadlift
  • Hang clean
  • Push jerk
  • Power snatch

Olympic lifters often start with these derivative lifts to work on the skills and strength needed to perform the two main lifts involved in the sport.

Strongman. Strongman competitions consist of several events, most of which use fitness equipment based on everyday objects. The events include:

  • Yoke carry
  • Tyre flip
  • Truck pull
  • Barbell back squat
  • Power stairs (lifting various weights while climbing stairs)
  • Log press
  • Loading medley (carrying a heavy object and placing it on a surface)
  • Keg toss
  • Hercules hold (holding up two 160kg pillars for as long as possible)
  • Frame carry
  • Atlas stone events (performing strength tasks with a large round stone)

Crossfit. This popular sport includes moves derived from powerlifting, Olympic lifting, strongman, and more. Workouts consist of a "WOD" or workout of the day that everyone in the gym participates in with modifications to accommodate differing ability levels.