Powerlifting is an excellent way to train functional fitness. What is functional fitness? Doing work. Moving an object or your body over a distance to accomplish a task. Lifting a bag of dog food into the trunk of your car. Placing a large container of laundry detergent on a shelf. Walking. Swimming. Climbing a ladder. Running. The list goes on…
Powerlifting can be used by anyone to improve strength and fitness. But powerlifters train for strength. Their purpose is to put as much weight on the bar as they can. Many powerlifters compete in events called powerlifting meets. The meet is designed to find the lifter with the highest “total,” or the one who has the most combined one repetition maximum of three main lifts. Strength and technique are important in these three lifts, but accessory work is also utilized to improve upon the strength and mastery of the lifts.
The three lifts are:
• Back squat
• Bench press
The Back Squat
The back squat is a multi-joint exercise. It utilizes so many muscle groups that it is the king of all weight lifting exercises. It is an excellent way to develop leg strength and core strength. To perform this exercise, the bar is placed on the upper back, across the shoulders. With hands on the bar for stabilization, maintaining an upright posture and proper lumbar spinal curve, flexion of the hips initiates the movement. Flexion of the hips means the lifter decreases the angle, or “bends” at the hips. As the hips descend toward the ground, the knees and ankles begin flexion (bending) as well.
As this motion is occurring, the feet remain locked to the floor so that the knees and ankles can produce external torque against the floor. External torque is produced by sending the knees toward the outside of the body. Torque is a twisting or rotational force, so imagine the heels of your feet are twisting against the floor towards the outside of the body. It is important to create and maintain torque, because it stabilizes and protects the knee joint. It also sets the hip joint into an optimal position during the movement.
During the descent, the body needs to remain rigid. The core muscles should be tight, pushing the abdominal muscles into the spine. The calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and lats fire and stay tight during both the descent and ascent. The descent ends when the quads go below parallel and the lifter is in the “hole.” At this point, the movements are reversed and the lifter ascends back to the starting position.
A power lifters goal with the back squat is to squat as much weight as possible for one repetition. This goal is achieved by practicing the lift in different, low repetition back squat workouts. For example, the lifter may choose a rep-scheme such as five sets of five reps, increasing the weight each set. Another example would be a back squat training session consisting of seven sets of three reps. Increasing the weight each set. And, of course, a workout consisting of one rep is important in training as well.
When the squats are complete, the lifter would continue the workout with accessory exercises. These exercises are limited only by the imagination. Leg extensions, leg curls, reverse-hypers, sit-ups, back extensions, front squats, overhead squats, body-weight squats, lunges, and stretching.
Just like the back squat, the deadlift is also a multi-joint exercise utilizing several muscle groups. It develops core strength, hip strength, and back strength. To perform this exercise, the lifter stands shoulder width apart, with shins touching the barbell. The knees are slightly bent, and the ankles and hips are in flexion so that the hands can grip the bar just outside of shoulder width. The arms remain locked, and they do not bend at any time during the lift. The core muscles and glutes remain engaged, squeezed, and locked as the lift is performed. The hamstrings, glutes, core, lower-back, and upper-back work together to move the bar from the floor to the fully upright, standing position. After a brief pause, the movement reverses, and the lifter lowers the bar to the floor.
As with the back squat, a powerlifter’s goal in performing the deadlift is to lift as much weight as possible for one repetition. A lifter trains for this also in a low-repetition workout. Similar to back squat training, one would perform five sets of five deadlifts, for example, with the aim of increasing the weight each of the five sets. Sets of three, sets of two, and single repetition sets are also utilized to increase deadlift strength.
Accessory exercises for deadlift training are also utilized. Rowing exercises with barbell, dumbbell, cables, and machines are common deadlift accessory exercises. As are pull-ups with different grip variations. Sumo deadlifts, and deficit deadlifts are different deadlift variations that can also be used to develop strength.
The Bench Press
The bench press is arguably the most popular weight lifting exercise that exists. Functionally, it simulates moving from a prone position to an extended position called the leaning rest. It is a multi-joint exercise that utilizes the chest, shoulders, and arms to move a barbell from full extension, to flexion, and back to full extension. The lifter begins face up on a bench with the barbell racked above them. A grip just outside of shoulder width, or wider, is used to un-rack the bar to move it to the starting position. The bar descends to the chest and back to the starting position in a smooth, fluid motion. A spotter and safety arms should always be used during this exercise. And, as with the back squat and deadlift, a one-rep maximum is the goal.
Training the bench press utilizes sets of low repetitions, just like the back squat and deadlift. There are many, nearly infinite accessory exercises that compliment the bench press. Incline and decline bench pressing with a barbell and dumbbells are most common. Dumbbell and cable flys are also popular ways to increase bench press strength. Body weight exercises such as the push-up and hand stand push-up are effective strength building exercises for the bench press.
Powerlifting can be intimidating. The name alone can instill images of very large animalistic men lifting unimaginable amounts of weight. But we are Normal Humans, and Normal Humans can utilize powerlifting to increase our health, strength, and fitness. Whether you are squatting, deadlifting, or bench pressing 10 pounds or 1000, work within your limits and compete only with yourself. This will always make you better, and is another tool we can use for our own personal improvement.