How to train like... a powerlifter

How to train like... a powerlifter

Next up in our special series, Gymbox VPT Suzana Sorokova shows us how to embrace our inner strength and train like a powerlifter. You ready? Because she certainly is.

How do you image a powerlifter to look like? A big monster of a man with big belly and a massive beard, lifting a tonne of weight? Or do you envisage an overly muscular-looking female? Well you're wrong.

Before I tell you what’s the 'secret' is behind lifting heavy, while staying lean and fit all year round, let me tell you one thing – you don’t need to be or look huge in order to become a powerlifter. What you do need is a willingness to work hard, and an inner drive to get stronger – as well as wanting more weight plates on the bar, of course. As you might have guessed, powerlifting is all about developing power and lifting bad ass weights.

If you want to train like a powerlifter, you need to know that your training will need to consist of practising, and getting better at three main lifts: the squat, the bench press and the deadlift. Plus some additional exercises which will compliment the big three lifts. This will avoid overusing the certain muscle groups, as well as helping you avoid injury. You are only as strong as your weakest link.

The Squat

The three most common questions when it comes down to powerlifting squat are: should I squat high bar or low bar, what is the best squat stance/foot position, and how wide should you grab the bar?

Powerlifters tend to hold the bar across the lower part of their back/on top of posterior deltoids (low bar), which is more comfortable position with heavy weights, although a lifter’s back is leaned forward a way more. However, not every (power)lifter feels comfortable holding the bar this way, so instead of going low bar they choose to go high bar where the bar sits high on their upper back/trapezius muscle near the base of the neck. This allows a lifter to stay more upright.

Where do you hold the bar? You need to consider your shoulder flexibility. If your shoulders are flexible enough, you will be able to grab the bar just outside your shoulders. This will keep your upper back tight as well as help you keep the barbell securely in its place. If you can’t grab the bar this close, grab it wider, pull your shoulder blades together, and try to stay as tight as possible. Tip: try to move your fingers closer to your shoulders every time you grab the bar/squat, so your hands get closer to your shoulders without trying to do that/forcing them to do so in one go.

Squat stance width is another hot topic out there. When you try to find the right answer online you will come across as many different answers as there is plates/dumbbells at the gym. There is no right answer, because your stance is dependent on flexibility of your hips, the length of the bones in your upper and lower legs, the anatomy of your hip joint, ankle mobility and so forth. Stick to the stance you feel the most comfortable with – the one that doesn’t cause/give you any ankle/knee/hip pain.

Generally speaking your feet should be turned out, pointing in the same direction as your knees. If your feet are turned out too much this won’t allow you to squeeze/use your gluteus (bum) muscles as much, so try and experiment with it in order to find your ideal squat stance. Get it right and you will feel stable, which will allow you to produce as much force as possible.

The Bench Press

This is the most technically challenging movement of the three power lifts. Because of this, it’s simply not possible to prescribe an optimal bench press model/technique. Each and every lifter performs a bench press differently, in their own unique, way. As you may have noticed, the bench press is quite popular among gym goers. It’s a matter of pride in the gym, because who doesn’t want to possess massive chest like the one Arnie has, right?

There are two types of bench press. Bodybuilding and powerlifting style bench. I’ll now talk about the latter one. Powerlifters bench with an arched back, which can appear dangerous. Benching with an arched back limits the range of the movement, and allows lifter to lift significantly heavier weights because it uses mainly the lower part of the pectorals, which is the strongest part of the chest. The feet and the head should not move, and the butt should remain in slight contact with the bench.

A lifter with a comparatively stronger chest or one looking to work the chest to the highest degree possible would benefit most by using a wide full (thumb wrapped all the way around the bar) grip, whereas a lifter with extremely strong triceps would be able to lift the most weight with a relatively narrow grip.

Useful tip: If you're having difficulty locking out the weight at the top of the movement, it’s most likely because of your triceps are too weak. If you're having difficulty getting the weight moving at the bottom of the movement (of your chest) this is due to your chest or your lats (back muscles that stabilise your shoulder blades when benching) being too weak. Strengthen your weak links, and you will strengthen your bench press.

The Deadlift

The deadlift is the base upon which all real back strength is built. There really isn't a more raw or true-to-life exercise. It works your back from the base of your erectors (lower back) to the top of your traps. Training the deadlift is surprisingly simple. Kind of! Hit it hard and heavy and then let your body rest and grow.

There are two main deadlift styles or techniques. One being the sumo style, because it resembles a sumo wrestler’s stance (the feet are out wide, and the hands are placed inside the legs). The other technique is the conventional style, where the stance is narrower, generally shoulder-width, or closer with hands placed outside the legs. The conventional style works the entire posterior chain, including your hamstring, glutes, erectors, and upper back musculature (traps). The sumo style tends to involve more of the hips and glutes. Generally speaking, the closer you are to the bar, the better. But, this isn't necessarily true in all cases. You want to watch the bar path as the bar leaves the floor and starts to ascend. When the bar leaves the floor, it should travel up in a straight line. If it moves in toward your body as it leaves the floor, then you are standing too far away from the bar. Conversely, if the bar moves away from your body, you're standing too close to the bar.

Finally. Is it possible to stay in shape and get leaner while getting stronger at the same time? It sure it is! Anything is possible when you are committed. If someone tells you otherwise, then they haven’t put the work in. Give your body what it needs in terms of the right amount of food, training and rest. The results will follow. Heavy lifting requires mental strength as much as it does physical. But, once you get mentally stronger your body will transform into a lifting machine. Start light but right, then progress onto heavy and tight.

Want to train with Suzana? Then get in touch.