When I was in my late teens my family and I would spend three to four hours of quality time together in the gym on the weekends. We had friends who talked us into training for a local meet. They slapped a squat suit on me to see what I could do. After what I thought was a massive fail, i.e. struggling to avoid being crushed by the weight, they said I did “Great!” and that I should train for a meet in the amateur teen division. I agreed & so my powerlifting journey began.
Like most things, there’s more to powerlifting than one would initially think. The hardest part is getting the weight to move. Once it’s moving, keeping it going is a breeze. I exaggerate. Sometimes it would feel like you were hitting a brick wall or trying to lift a building. So much effort and zero movement; the weight would not budge. Mentally this was deflating. When training as a powerlifter, strength matters, yes but technique, flexibility, mental capacity, diet, goal setting, consistency, rest, and trusting the process are all requisite pillars to be a successful powerlifter.
Let’s talk technique. Bench pressers are allowed to arch their back, as long as their butt remains glued to the bench. Why? This decreases the distance that the bar has to move. Keep in mind the formula for Mechanical Power: Power = Force x distance / time (1) or P = Fd/t. Increased Force (F) plus decreased distance (d) equals greater Power (P) and a successful lift. Force times distance is also called Work (W). I was able to take advantage of this strategy doing a pseudo back bend on the bench which gave me a huge benefit. It helped me to significantly reduced my range of motion & increase my bench numbers. Mind you, when benching with this form, be prepared for concerned on lookers to correct your form. I always got a good laugh and appreciated their kindness. I’m sure it looks ridiculous but most people don’t bench in this fashion unless you train at a powerlifting, bodybuilding or olympic lifting gym.
With squats, I distinctly remember doing quarter squats as part of my training. Trying to hold & stabilize 400 pounds on my back in a cage was a lot for 140 pound girl. It felt like my spine was going to snap but it didn’t and I got stronger so c’est la vie. In this case, we were building Power (P) by increasing Force (F) with reduced distance (d). Overloading the system helped with stability, neurological development, and mental toughness. This technique also helped the weight to feel “light” when you had it on your back in a meet. I remember my second or third warm up set when building up to a one rep max on squat day was 135 pounds; start with the 45 pound barbell, then 95 lb, 135 lb. At this point I started to feel warm and started slowing down and taking longer rests in between each set so that I could put some “real weight” on the bar.
The Deadlift was my weakest lift which is probably why I don’t have a pic of me deadlifting. My technique for deadlift was to keep pulling even when it didn’t feel like it was moving even though it was, just very slowly. Whether you’re a conventional deadlifter or prefer sumo, time (t) doesn’t really matter in a lift as long as the it is successfully completed in a meet. Many times the lift is slow especially on the third and heaviest lift, & hopefully a PR. The faster the lift is accomplished the more powerful the lifter.
Breath is huge! If you notice in all of my pics below my face looks like a cherry tomato because I’m holding my breath through the entire lift. Breath provides internal support. If you release air during the lift you will collapse and will miss the lift. There’s no way do recover from a deflated core.
Equipment helps! Squat suit, bench shirt, belt & knee wraps. These are all tools that enable you to lift more than you could otherwise with out them. I have never competed in a raw meet. Those lifters are impressive and require their own methodology. Training to establish a powerlifting total in a suit is different than lifting without them. The squat suit offers substantial hip support; it’s tight, thick and not elastic. It can cut off your circulation if you gain weight, fat or muscle, or wear it too long. And depending on the suit you’re using, (I was a single-ply girl) you have to have enough weight on the bar for it to move. As you can see from my pics, I wore Titan. The body moves differently in a canvas suit. It’s forced into a different position which can alter the bar path causing you to miss the lift. Re-learning how to squat, bench and deadlift in a suit can be painful which is where the mental side comes into play again. I had to learn to “love the pain.” I trained myself to like the feeling of the wraps digging into my skin; a little masochism goes a long way in the world of equipped powerlifting.
Fun story! One Saturday after lifting in my squat suit, my legs decided to swell more than usual to where we could not get the squat suit off! I had three people trying to coax this leech of a suit off of me. We tried lying me on the floor, lots of baby power to absorb the sweat and help slide the material down my skin. Nothing was working. I was laughing with tears streaming down my face as I tried to relax my body. My legs were purple, fat and swollen and the suit wasn’t budging so we got scissors. Ha! They were able to slide the scissors up my thigh and cut the suit off finally. What a relief. I thanked everyone and limped into the locker room. I should have kept the suit as a memento but I think I was so over it that I threw it away. Besides I had the scars that the scissors left as a reminder. In all fairness, the person with the scissors was a surgeon so I was in the best hands possible. Now all that’s left is its memory. True story.
Here’s an in-depth video on equipped lifting for those of you who are interested.
I competed in the 132 pound weight class. On average, I walked around at 140 pounds during this time in my life. I gained quite a bit of muscle (and fat) after months of lifting very heavy, minimal cardio and increased protein intake. If I was under 140 pounds then I was doing great; if I was over 140 pounds then I needed to dial it in. I weighed 155 at my heaviest. In order to make weight, I would crash diet and cut my calories to 1000 per day. It was brutal. I hated it. I was miserable because I would eat protein powder only, drink a ton of water and sleep as much as possible. It worked. I would lose ten pounds in ten days. The good news was that weigh-in was the day before the meet which gave me time to rehydrate, eat and recover for the next day. Sometimes I was so drained and weak that it wrecked my meet and I would miss my lifts. Other times I was able to pull it off and successfully hit my lifts.
That was a hard pill to swallow, learning how to cope with defeat after months of work. My powerlifting years taught me perseverance. If I miss this lift this time, try again. If I don’t get it today, try next week. My failures taught me how to accept my current capabilities, to create plan on how to proceed towards progress, and follow through with that plan even when I didn’t feel like it.
These life lessons apply to a multitude of situations. When I was in school struggling with a chemistry course, I remembered my powerlifting days. I thought, “If I can do it physically, then I can do it mentally.” And it was true! I successfully completed the class to which I credit powerlifting.
I have always struggled with balance and limitations when it comes to food. Tell me I can’t have a thing and I want it more. When I wasn’t allowed to have sugar guess what I wanted! Ice cream, chocolate, peanut butter and a lot of it, all of the time. I was obsessed. I didn’t realize that I was an emotional eater until later. I would eat when I was happy, sad, lonely, bored, you name it. I felt like Fat Bastard in the Austin Powers movie, “The Spy Who Shagged Me.” “I eat because I’m unhappy and I’m unhappy because I eat.”
first powerlifting meet
For those of you interested in training for your first powerlifting meet, here’s an amazing article by Bret Contreras, the “glute guy.” More booty building exercises on our Booty Assembly page. He gives great advice on which mistakes to avoid as a powerlifting novice. If you have yet to compete in your first powerlifting meet then take a look. It was save you unnecessary heart ache.
don't watch the meet
Being a spectator can be exhausting. Your don’t realize how merely sitting in the audience watching people lift heavy weight is so draining. If you have ever attended a meet as a spectator then you know firsthand. There is loud music, you’re watching person after person get pumped up to move an unreal amount of weight. Plus if you see one of the lifters miss their lift that can mess with you. It’s better to just stay relaxed, calm, preserve as much energy as you can until it’s time for you to warm up and go do work!
I had big strong glutes when I was lifting but I also had big strong quads and hammies. I remember that my legs felt heavy. I didn’t mind it at the time. Squatting and deadlifting do help build those muscles but if you are looking to primarily grow the glutes you must hip thrust. If I had known about the hip thrust movement then that would only have added to the strong foundation that was built with squats, deadlifts and bench.
1.5 grams protein per pound of body weight. This is difficult to do but it is possible. I consumed an ungodly amount of protein. Lifting heavy tends to increase one’s appetite. Moving massive loads burns a multitude of calories. If you’re looking for a good protein calculator, agnroots has a great one.
Let me tell you that powerlifting is a great outlet. Significant energy is required to move a massive amount of weight. There is a reason that you rest three minutes between each lift during a work out session. Typically you’re going for a one rep max. I remember when I thought that anything over three reps was cardio. I also used to do warm-up reps with 135 pounds for squats, like it was nothing, baby weight. No belt, just a quick down-and-up a few times to get the blood flowing.
Learning to streamline all of my energy for a single lift required focus. If the lifter allows distraction to creep in they may miss their lift, or worse. The lifter doesn’t want there to be any reason on their end that they missed a lift. In order to prevent this, rituals are developed in order to properly prepare. Each lifter develops their own rituals. It’s interesting to watch when you’re at a lift. Each lifter has a habit or something that they always do. It’s like going through a check list physically. It’s almost like your body knows what to expect based on the order of events you perform in preparation for the work you’re about to do.
My ritual was very much the same. I would warm up to start working towards a one rep max. It was important that I was focused on the goal. The goal is feeling good, and putting energy into each lift, that’s it. Everything else was blocked mentally. No conversations with anyone in the gym that I knew. My friends knew not to come up and make small chat when I was in all of my gear with my headphones in. I would wear head phones and listen to the music needed to get me revved up when preparing for a lift. We used smelling salts, a good smack on the back, grunting, yelling, swearing, thinking of something that pisses you off. The knee wraps that were very painful, the squat suit, remember everything that your body is supposed to do. Tight core, big chest, hold your breath, ass back, knees out, drive through the heels, wait for the signal to life, explode out of the bottom, lock out, show control. After the lift the complete opposite occurs. Now for three minutes, the goal is to relax. So it’s walk over to their chair, release the knee wraps, listen to calming relaxing music and just rest. Then start the process all over again.
It can be helpful to create an alter ego to accomplish your goals. It’s still you just a different version of you. One who is strong, brave, not afraid to be on a stage, powerful. I would tell myself, “this is light weight. Pick it up. Get up bitch. You like the pain.” When my knees were getting wrapped I would train myself to like the pain. I would use that to help move the weight. Lifting heavy weight requires a tremendous amount of mental energy. Do whatever it is you need to do to get you into the best state to lift heavy.
trust the process
I think one of the best skills I developed from power lifting is mental strength. Knowing that you’re not always going to have amazing lifting days. There will be days when your body feels like it’s working against you. It doesn’t want to move the weight. This is part of the process. Sometimes there are days when you feel like you’re regressing but you’re not. Learning to get in the right mindset, an optimal state in order to perform your best. Trying to move heavy weight when you’re not mentally present is not recommended. Sometimes it’s better to take a break. Do something else. It’s also important to be able tot differentiate laziness from taking a rest day to prevent burn out or injury.
Yoga helped me decompress. I was first introduced to yoga at this time in order to reverse the effects of holding substantial weight on my spine. It also helped to support joint health and help relax my stressed muscles. Yoga held the best unexpected benefit of promoting mental health and wellness. After about three months of three classes per week, I was less anxious. My emotional state stabilized; I didn’t have the usual highs and lows through tout the day.
Hind sight is 20/20. I would have changed a few things in regards to diet if I knew then what I knew now but that’s life. I would have incorporated more whole foods and had a healthier diet in general. I would have chosen to eat of the earth. If the earth makes it, then it’s okay to eat. Again everything in moderation. Fruits, veggies, lean meats, natural carbs. I would have limited the processed foods and eaten more colorful nutrient dense foods. I once had a doctor tell me to eat all the colors of the rainbow. Each color food offers various nutrients.
I would have learned to listen to my body. For example when I was craving a cheese burger, then I could have nuts or avocado. Try replacing the craving with the natural equivalent. Adding pink Himalayan salt or everything salt to avocado is delicious and filling. It will satisfy your craving.
I had the scarcity mind set I wasn’t allowed to eat so many things. I didn’t allow myself to eat fruit because it contained “sugar.” But now I know that sugar in a banana has potassium, vitamins, starch, and digestive enzymes that help the body to process all of the protein. Any food that is grown in the sun contain beneficial energy over processed boxed foods that do not come from the earth.
Whatever challenge you’re currently facing, try applying the principles of powerlifting. Sometimes things don’t go as planned. You may not accomplish what you were aiming for the first time around. Perhaps you still have yet to do so. Sometimes you miss a lift that you previously hit; so frustrating! You may miss the lift, promotion, opportunity, presentation, or fill in the blank. That doesn’t mean that you are a failure. Remember to keep trying. Be sure to rest, work on your weaknesses, improve, try again & eventually you’ll get it.