by Chris Manrodt


Are you just getting started in Powerlifting? Have you heard about lifting but aren't sure what it really is? Are you interested in playing a sport, but need to get bigger, stronger, or both to crack the starting line-up? This section of the Strength On-line Page is devoted to helping the beginner. A lot of the lifting information out there is written for folks who compete regularly in Powerlifting meets, or who have a several years of lifting experience. I will attempt to make this column humorous and interesting as I try to shed light on the basics of successful, injury free lifting.


There is a lot of great information out there in books and on the web, but a lot of it is cryptic or written for the iron-head who lives in the weight room, who thinks of nothing but lifting. This can be very confusing to those not familiar with the vernacular of the Powerlifter. So, I have written below a list of terms that may make the rest of the info out there a little easier to dig in to:


Gym Talk:
If you are new to powerlifting, or to weightlifting and gyms in general, my first suggestion is to find a more experienced lifter to show you the ropes and suggest some things. While there are many books and many valuable sources of info on the web, nothing can replace real human contact with someone who has handled heavy weight. Small details like: where to place your feet, how to grip the bar, when to breath, all can make a huge difference in the success of your lifting. This is especially true early on, when learning good form is so important.
Many lifters tend to use a lot of terms that may not be familiar to the beginner. So, in order to improve your chances of connecting with a lifter, and not annoying him/her, here are some terms they will likely use if you ask them questions about lifting:


Equipment Terms:


Wheel - A 45 lb. (20 kg) Olympic barbell plate. Also referred to as the “plate.”
Smaller plates are sometimes likened to American Currency:
Quarter - A 25 lb. plate.
Dime - A 10 lb. plate.
Nickel- A 5 lb. plate.
So, if the three-hundred-pound Iron-head at the gym asks you to help him load the bar, and he says, “Three wheels and a quarter,” then he would like you to place three 45 lb. plates and a 25 lb. plate on the bar. With a standard Olympic bar, that would weigh a total of 365 lb.
A few notes on loading the bar: 1) Always put larger plates on first, and smaller ones next. This makes the bar more stable. 2) Always put the same amount of weight on each side of the bar. A small difference in weight can be uncomfortable, a larger difference in weight is dangerous. 3) When loading and unloading the bar, always remember to stagger the weight. In other words, if in your eagerness to be helpful, you unload the 3 wheels and quarter off of one side of the bar while the Iron-head is still catching his breath on the other side, the weight will tip right onto him. At the very least, he will jump out of the way of the swinging iron, and you will have lost your chance to get on his good side. At the worst, one of you will end up injured, either by the weight itself, or by the ensuing reaction to your over eagerness.
Here are some other training terms you may hear:
Repetition, or Rep- A single movement in a given exercise. For the power lifts described below, the completion of the entire movement from start to finish is called the “rep.”


Set- A single session in a particular exercise. More technically speaking, it is the total event while the lifter is engaged with the weight. A typical set consists of one to fifteen reps, but can sometimes consist of more reps if you train with lighter weights.


Forced Rep- This is a repetition performed after the lifter is unable to continue lifting the weight on his own. At this point, a spotter provides a minimum amount of assistance to a lifter in order to complete the rep. This enables a lifter to continue to work a fatigued muscle. Forced reps can increase the intensity of the lift, especially for intermediate and advanced lifters in serious training.
Typically, a lifter will tell the spotter that he or she would like to do a specific number of forced reps after they go to failure, before they begin the lift. Back to our example, it is important that you be attentive to the Iron-head when he reaches failure, so that you can help him complete the forced reps as requested.
One other note: You should remain silent when you are spotting a lifter. Do not distract a lifter engaged with heavy weight, as this can be very dangerous. The only exception to this is to provide brief guttural grunts of encouragement if the lifter is struggling to complete a rep. Terms like “Up!” “Squeeze” “All you!!” “Push!” and my favorite “C’mon!” are all acceptable. You may hear others, but they loose their effectiveness if the become more than about two syllables.
Powerlifting:
Powerlifting is a sport in which the athlete attempts to lift the most weight for one repetition, as tested in three different lifts. In competition, the person who lifts the most combined weight in these three lifts is declared the winner. Note: Powerlifting should not be confused with Olympic style Weightlifting. While these sports are similar in the way a meet is organized (each lifter gets three attempts in each lift, increasing weight with each attempt) Olympic lifting tests the Clean-and-Jerk and the Snatch. These two lifts can be studied elsewhere.
And while we are at it, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a bodybuilder. While both bodybuilders and powerlifters use weights in order to train muscle, the end goal of a bodybuilder is the size of the muscle and the shape of their body. This includes pumped-up arms, a narrow waist, and a big lat spread. The end goal of the powerlifter is to gain strength such that they can move the heaviest weights. In competition, the objective for the bodybuilder is to impress a panel of judges who observe symmetry, proportion, and tone. The objective for the powerlifter is to beat gravity!! So, now that we have that out of the way, do you want your body to be aesthetically pleasing? Or do you want to be as strong as you possibly can? If your answer is the latter, then read on. (And stay away from all those glossy mags full of veiny biceps. They are full of irrelevant information, and they confuse many beginners with their workout descriptions. 30 sets for Biceps!?! In one workout!?!?!)
In fact, the some of the most famous people to do powerlifting are not actually competitive powerlifters, because they can make money with their strength in other sports, like American Football.


Here are the three lifts used in Powerlifting competitions:
Squat
At its simplest, this lift is performed as follows: Place a bar across your shoulders (behind the neck, preferably in a somewhat comfortable position) and then bend at the waist and knees until you are basically in a seated position. Many have compared this movement to one used when lowering yourself onto a toilet. Then, stand up! Its that simple. The key element of the squat is knowing when to stop lowering and stand up again. The lowest point of the movement is referred to as the “depth” of the squat. The depth of a lift is measured by comparing the level of the top of the hip with the upper surface of the knee. The deeper the squat is, the more challenging it is. More to the point, as ascribed by the name of this site, it is critical that you train squats at a depth which is appropriate to the lifting rules of the federation you would like to compete in. (More on Federations below.) A squat that is not deep enough is cheating the movement, and you will be disqualified in competition.
While there are many myths and legends surrounding the squat, it has proven itself as a major test of strength and power. Most of the negative press out there about squats comes from those who do them with poor form. A lot of guys will try squats after reading their first bodybuilding magazine and then get hurt. Or, some high school sophomore will watch an all-state senior tackle, and then try and repeat his gym lifts. This scenario has gotten squats banned from many high school weight rooms. However, this is not due to a problem with squats, as much as it is a problem with the squatter.
As a beginner, squats can be a tough exercise to learn. It took me more than three months, with the help of a collegiate strength coach, just to get a clean rep with body weight on my back. If you haven't done squats before, try them with no weight first, to get a feel for the movement. Then, do them with just a bar, with no added plates. This amount of exercise may be enough to get you sore the first time you do them, because squatting makes the muscles of the hip stretch in ways the aren't used to stretching. Your body will quickly adapt to this new stress, and you will increase strength and training weight within a couple of training sessions.


Bench Press
This is the lift that most people will ask you about when you tell them you are into powerlifting. To perform this movement, lie flat on your back on a bench while holding a bar with both hands directly over your chest. Lower the bar until it touches your chest, then push with all your might straight up until your arms return to an “upright and locked position.” There are a lot of good articles about the finer points of bench press performance, so I will only touch on a few basic points that seem to plague beginners doing this lift.
The bench, for some reason, brings out the worst in many lifters when it comes to maintaining good exercise form. Perhaps the age old question, “How much do you bench?” has driven these foolish gym warriors to load weights onto the bar that are beyond them. So they sacrifice the benefits of doing the exercise properly, in order to brag about how much weight the supposedly used at the gym.
Here are some obvious Don’ts: For one, keep your backside on the bench. Lifting your pelvis up into the air with your legs may make the lift easier by improving leverage, but you are more likely to slip a disk or doing something else that will injure yourself. I know, I know, you may see pictures of some powerlifters who will arch their back when they lift. But they do this with a static contraction. In other words, the torso remains in that position, motionless, from start to finish. There is no thrusting or heaving of the torso or hips during the lift.
Secondly, bring the bar to a stop on your chest, then push up, without bouncing or heaving. Bouncing the bar places a lot of concussive stress on the rib cage, which could lead to injury. Also, you are cheating your muscles out of a chance to grow, by taking away the stress that they should be getting from the lift. For example, there is a guy at my gym who loads 275 on the bar every week and then bounces three reps of his chest, heaving his torso upward as he bounces the bar. My point? He has been doing the same weight and reps for over six months!! You are better off using less weight for good strict reps than you are pushing yourself to use weight that forces you to cheat. Plus, when you make it to the platform for competition, you must use strict form or be disqualified.


Deadlift
This is perhaps the most primal of the three lifts, and is always performed last in a meet. Grab the bar with both hands, without bending your arms and pick it up off the floor until you are standing completely upright with your shoulders back. This lift, for many, requires less attention to technique than the others. So much so, that there are actually a couple of ways to perform it. Using the first method, referred to as Conventional style, the lifter places his feet roughly shoulder width apart and places their hands just outside of where their legs touch the bar on the floor (A picture illustrates this much better, and this site has some good pics). The second is called Sumo, where a lifter places hands closer together, and places their feet much wider than their hands, with feet pointed outward. The Sumo lift is generally used by lifters with shorter legs and a longer torso, because it gives them a leverage advantage with their legs. Longer-legged lifters tend to benefit from the Conventional style. However, most lifters have tried both styles in order to identify their best advantage for their body type and strengths.


Assistance Work:
This is the broad term given to all the exercises a Powerlifter will do in addition to the three core lifts (see below.) The term is basically used to describe exercises which help build strength for the power lifts, and in general are designed to target specific muscles or muscle groups. The unspoken truth is this term is that in order to get strong as a Powerlifter, you have to do the power lifts. All other exercises are there just to help out, and cannot replace the muscle stimulus created by the three core lifts.
For bench press, assistance exercises would include Dumbbell presses, triceps exercises, shoulder exercises and variations in the bench press (incline, decline, etc.) For squat, this would include leg presses, leg curls, leg extensions, etc. For deadlift, rowing, pulldown, and lower back exercises are considered assistance.


Federation:
No this has nothing to do with Star Trek(editor's note: most everything IS related to Star Trek), or the American Civil War. Federation is the word that is used to refer to any organization which holds and promotes powerlifting meets. Federations provide rules for performance and judging of the lifts, and they organize competitions and keep records. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there are more than 27 independent powerlifting organizations out there. In this respect, Powerlifting makes Professional Boxing look organized. The Alphabet soup of some of these organizations is listed on this site under Powerlifting Info. Typically, the beginner shouldn't care too much which federation they lift in at the start. Try to find a meet that is not too far from home. When you have been to one or two meets, then you may want to consider some of the differences between federations before pursuing additional meets, like: gear vs. no gear, drug testing vs. no drug testing, international affiliation, etc. etc.


Gear:
Gear refers to everything that the lifter wears during lifts that is not part of “normal” clothing. This would include a weightlifting belt, any type of wrap for joints, and any special lifting suits. Originally, gear was designed to provide safety, especially in the squat. A sturdy leather Belt and knee wraps are pretty standard for folks who train squats with much more than 1.5x body weight. The most common piece is the “squat suit.” This suit looks a lot like a singlet that a wrestler wears, but is much tighter. A suit can help stabilize the hip during the squat, and can provide some safety benefit when in the “hole.” These suits will also allow you to handle more weight. This fact has spawned a variety of companies to make more advanced suits which, so they claim, may help you to squat even more weight. However, advanced technology and clever marketing has created a large variety of additional equipment that can be purchased. In general, beginners should not use any gear, other than a belt. If you squat heavy, you may want to consider a pair of good knee wraps when going for heavy sets. Suits are generally not used much during training, except for the last few sessions right before a contest. So, you probably donut need one unless you plan on competing.
There is also a host of other gear which has been born from this industry: Bench Shirts, Deadlift Suits, Groove Briefs, Elbow Wraps, Wrist Wraps, etc. etc. Most of this gear is really designed to help you lift more, and is not really there for much safety benefit. The only excepting might be wrist wraps, which can help take some pressure off your wrists making some lifts more comfortable.


Drugs:
I feel it is necessary to mention drugs in any introduction to Powerlifting, if for no other reason than the perception of drug use. Just about every Powerlifter whose been at it a while has been accused or questioned about drug use, and more specifically, about anabolic steroids. Steroids are such a big problem in lifting that some powerlifting federations even put the words “Drug Free” right into their name. The reason? Drugs can make you stronger, especially if you train hard and eat like a starving Chihuahua going after a Taco Bell stand. But, drugs can also screw up your body, increase your risk of cancer, and give you a host of other health problems. If you spend much time in powerlifting, or even just reading about powerlifting, be prepared to hear about the drugs. The debates on the Go.Heavy forums are usually fast and furious, because opinions vary greatly on the subject. Personally, I believe almost anyone can get strong without them, if they are willing to be patient and take care of themselves. Eating, sleeping, and living life peacefully will enable you to benefit plenty from those trips to the gym. The only beginning lifters out there who should be on steroids are women in their child-bearing years who do not want to become pregnant. :-)