What the Heck Is Powerlifting?

WOW! So I had my first powerlifting meet two months ago (where does the time go?) and my second meet just last weekend! And if you follow me on social media (Facebook or Instagram—I’m a very flakey tweeter!), you know that they went really well! I want to dive right into talking about the day itself, but I think I should probably start with a little introduction to the sport itself for those of you not familiar with it, since I know it’s not especially well known!

Powerlifting consists of three lifts: the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift. (It’s different from Olympic lifting, which includes overhead movements, such as the clean and jerk and the snatch.) The lifter has three attempts at each lift and has to lift each attempt for one repetition. On meet day, competitors are weighed in to determine which weight class they’ll compete in, since generally, heavier competitors are able to lift more than lighter competitors. (At some competitions, weigh-ins are the day before, and some competitors abuse dehydration and depletion tactics to compete in a lower weight class. Then they gorge themselves and rehydrate in order to gain it all back before the meet, since it’s advantageous to compete at the size one’s used to lifting at. I’ve seen pictures of people losing 30 lb prior to weigh-ins and then gaining it all back by the evening!)

Then, it’s on to the lifts. The squat is judged not only on whether you can squat the weight (duh!) but also on whether you’re able to squat below parallel (the hip joint should sink below the knee joint) and follow commands. There are two only two commands with the squat: “squat” and “rack” (put the bar back on the rack after the squat). Even if you successfully squat, if you don’t listen to the commands, it’s a fail!

(As a disclaimer, I’m not an expert in any of the lifts; this footage is just to show you a rough example!)

Speaking of failing, there are three judges for each lift, and each of them has a “vote” as to whether the lift was good or not. These “votes” are shown via white and red lights next to the platform and operate on a majority basis, so as long as there are two white lights, the lift counts!

The bench press has three commands: “start,” “press,” and “rack.” So once you have the bar in position, you have to wait until they tell you to lower it (“start”). Then you have to wait until they tell you to “press” it back up (after it’s been stationary on your chest) and then “rack” it.

(I know there are probably a lot of questions about my arch—see this article for an explanation of why I arch [besides the fact that it’s fun!].)

The deadlift has just one command: “down.” So after you come up to the bar, you have one minute to lift the bar off the ground and then lock your knees. The bar can’t waver (it has to move in only the upward direction; it can’t move downward at all on the way up), and you can’t outright drop the bar (you have to at least be holding it while it descends, even if you’re not letting it down in a controlled manner).

(As a side note, I really have to work on keeping my back neutral during the deadlift. Ideally, it won’t round as much as it does when I pull!)

A lifter has three attempts at each lift. If one attempt was successful, the lifter can decide how much he or she wants to increase the next attempt by. If the lift was unsuccessful, the lifter can either stay at the same weight or increase it (if the last lift was unsuccessful due some technical reason, and the lifter is feeling confident he or she might want to lift more). But there’s no going down in weight, so the first lift has to be guaranteed doable! If the lifter misses all three attempts at any lift, it’s called “bombing out,” and the lifter gets an overall score of 0 (even if he or she does well in the other two lifts).

So finally, the highest successful lift of each is added together for the lifter’s total (unless, of course, the athlete bombs out). Then, there’s a formula that takes into account the lifter’s body weight and calculates how strong he or she is relative to his or her body weight (this is called the Wilks score), and that’s how the winners are determined.

OK, so now that all of the technical business is out of the way, I get to talk about what meet day was like for me!

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