Lift Your Game With Powerlifting

When you think of powerlifting, you might think of athletes pushing extremely heavy weights that are beyond the capability of the average gym-goer. It’s long been a misconception that powerlifting is a sport suitable only for serious athletes and ‘crazy muscle men’, but it turns out to be very practical for a much wider population. Now powerlifting training techniques are starting to gain huge traction in the gym as people realise the power they can add to their training regime, regardless of what sport they’re training for.

Whether you’re a runner, footy player or CrossFit competitor, it’s likely that your chosen sport will benefit in some way from increased strength or having greater power production. Strength, in particular functional strength, can make you more resilient to injury, more balanced in your muscle development and make you more efficient too, whether you’re running up a steep hill or picking up an opponent in a tackle or judo throw.

To build functional strength, then, why not borrow from a sport that specialises in it? Enter powerlifting.

Dominic Cadden, a coach and endurance athlete turned World Masters and Commonwealth Open powerlifting champion, says for those who have discovered the benefits, powerlifting seems like an obvious choice for building functional strength.

“It comes down to this – do you want to be that guy in the gym who looks like Tarzan but lifts like Jane, or do you want to be good at a sport and functional for a variety of activities? Powerlifting can help you have a stronger, more resilient body with greater power-to-weight ratio – vital characteristics for pretty much every sport out there.”

Powerlifting Builds Functional Strength

A lot of people think of their weight training in terms of ‘hitting’ particular body parts. Powerlifting, however, is about training a movement, recruiting as many muscle fibres as possible, as fast as possible, with as much technical mastery as one can muster for a better power-to-weight ratio.

“It helps that we work through a relatively long range of motion and hit a lot of stabilising muscles,” says Dominic.

“The combination of speed, balance and the range of movement required in powerlifting training makes it very applicable to a wide variety of sports.

“It’s very effective training to develop better posture and spine health too, not only because you learn to lift correctly, but also because it helps your bone density.

“I can spot a powerlifter from a bodybuilder-type of trainer a mile away. With their shirt off, the bodybuilder might have a more chiselled chest, but the shoulders are rounded and the posture is hunched. In powerlifting, we pull our shoulders back on all three competition lifts, which puts us in a good posture where our chest is always open and expanded.”

Powerlifting Builds Real Muscle

There is often a fear among athletes and sportspeople that lifting a heavier weight will result in getting ‘too big’ for their sport, but this is not necessarily true.

“Lifting heavy alone won’t necessarily make you bigger,” says Dominic. Powerlifters can continue to get stronger but still stay the same body weight, making it a powerful training tool for some because extra size can come at a cost to agility, speed and fitness.

“The flipside of this is when people think they have to lift in a bodybuilding fashion because they think that if they get more muscle they will be stronger and more effective at their sport. But a bigger muscle doesn’t necessarily mean stronger.

Generally, when you become stronger in proportion to your size, you become more effective at your sport.

Low Risk of Injury

While it may appear that powerlifting training increases the risk of injury because of the higher weights, the techniques employed in powerlifting actually make it a safer way to lift.

“We have rules about how to lift which sees a very low injury rate in powerlifting considering the weights that are being lifted,” says Dominic.

“Often, at the gym, I see people increasing the weight they lift or doing more reps in a set amount of time, not because they became stronger or more powerful, but because they find better ways to cheat. Their form suffers and this is where the risk of injury comes in. On the other hand, powerlifting’s strict techniques are all about protecting the lifter.”

For example, the typical gym technique for a squat lift sees the feet remain narrow and parallel with the bar high on the shoulders/neck, which risks injury to knees and neck plus uneven musculature through the upper legs that can contribute to knee problems.

However, the powerlifting technique sees the bar positioned lower down the back, which allows the head to be in line with the spine. Heels are under hips or wider and toes turned out so that knees are protected, travelling over the line of the feet.

There is also less chance of repetitive strain injuries with powerlifting.

“Many gym-goers stick to higher reps at a lower weight thinking it’s safer for their sport, but most sports rely on high repetition of trained actions, so repetitive strain and general wear and tear is the real risk. It’s better to do less, more effective reps,” explains Dominic.

Lifting heavy weights in such a precise and controlled manner also improves body awareness generally, which helps to prevent injuries in all physical activities.

Dominic says that most powerlifters know that the slightest change, intentional or by mistake, in technique changes the outcome of a lift, and his awareness carries over into any other sport.
“For example, I’ve become much more aware of what my muscles should be doing when I run since I began powerlifting,” he says.

Low Volume of Training

The relatively low volume of training required to hold or improve maximum strength through powerlifting makes it fairly complementary to most sports as it doesn’t impact too heavily on your weekly training regime.

At the elite and professional levels, many sports have long used powerlifting movements like squat, bench press deadlift and/or assistance movements like front squats, hang cleans and single-arm dumbbell rows built into programs that go through strength, power/speed and, in some cases, hypertrophy phases.

Dominic explains that it’s all about adjusting the volume (total work done) and intensity so that you’re not overtrained. It can even work well for endurance sports.

“For five months now I’ve trained running three times a week and strength three times a week, and that was after a long lay-off from running and two torn hamstring tendons. My running just keeps on improving and now I’m running up to 45km on trails at a time.”

Powerlifting Into Your Training

Here are Dominic’s top tips for gradually introducing powerlifting techniques into an existing training regime:

  • It’s best to get some instruction on technique first and start at a time that’s not going to interfere too heavily with your other sports and activities e.g. don’t start powerlifting training in the lead up to your footy finals.
  • Lead in gradually – even more advanced powerlifting programs have what’s called a ‘ramp’ phase at the start of a training cycle. The strain on both body and mind is different when you go from lifting a weight you can do for 10 reps to lifting a weight you can lift for five – then lifting for three reps and a maximum single are very different again.
  • Good core strength and balance are essential for lifting heavy free weights with reasonable speed. You can work on this first with exercises such as overhead squats (very light!), medicine ball throws from a kneeling position, get-ups/Turkish get-ups and kettlebell work on two legs first, then one leg.
  • When you lift heavy weights, it’s vital to get your body position (the ‘set-up’) right before you start to lift. There’s no one-size-fits-all way to set up since one lifter may be biomechanically different to another. Again, this is where some initial advice on technique is important.
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