What is Powerlifting? Who Powerlifts? Why?

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As a brief aside before I answer the ominous questions above, PowerliftingToWin.com is a site dedicated to competitive powerlifters. I’m writing this piece to give competitors a quick reference they can use to bring friends and family up to speed on what exactly it is that they do.

If you’re a complete novice, this will help a lot. If you’ve been around the sport for any length of time, you won’t learn much of anything. I respect your time and don’t want you to waste it. With that said, let’s begin.

I do want to say that it is particularly difficult to “grasp” Powerlifting culture from an article. If you want a more immersive experience, grab a copy of Power Unlimited. To this day, Power Unlimited is still the best powerlifting documentary ever created in my opinion.

Powerlifting Basics

Powerlifting is a strength sport. The whole point of the sport is to find out just how strong you really are. The basics are incredibly simple. In competition, a powerlifter stands alone on a platform and tries to lift the heaviest weights he is capable of for a single repetition. Judges look on to ensure that the rules are followed.

Powerlifters perform three competitive events: the squat, the bench, and the deadlift. A lifter receives three attempts for each event. Only the heaviest successful attempt is counted. At the end of the competition, the lifter’s best lift from each event is added together to make up the lifter’s “total”. For example, if a lifter squatted 405, benched 315, and deadlifted 500, his total would be 1220lbs. In conjunction with weight classes, gender, and age groups, this total is then used to determine placing and awards in the competition.

Squat, Bench, Deadlift

Squat, Bench, and Deadlift performed by Kirk Karwoski, Jim Williams, and Benedikt Magnusson (left to right).

Who does Powerlifting?

Despite many peoples’ misconceptions to the contrary, powerlifting is actually a highly inclusive sport. You don’t need to be a lumbering giant to participate. Although, mastodons are welcome as well! Both men and women have their own divisions. For each sex, there are approximately ten weight classes. The men’s weight classes range from 114lbs all the way to 308lbs+. The women’s weight classes go as low as 97lbs and as high as 198lbs+. The age groups cater to everything from various sub-junior categories (teens and under) to different levels of master’s competition (40+, 50+, 60+, etc.). At any given powerlifting meet, there will be just as many novices as experienced lifters. So who does powerlifting? The honest to God truth is… everyone.

I’m not just paying lip service to participation, either. You could argue that everyone plays every sport. Sure, I’ve seen older fellas playing pickup basketball at the YMCA, too. Powerlifting is very different though. Thanks to organizations like the IPF (International Powerlifting Federation), everyone, no matter their demographic profile has the opportunity to compete in meaningful international competition against people just like them; everyone has the opportunity to stand atop the highest rung of the podium, gold medal around their neck, their country’s flag at their back, as the national anthem plays to signify their victory. And if that doesn’t send chills down your spine, nothing will.

IPF Master's Worlds Bench Press Championships 2013
IPF Master’s Worlds 2013 Bench Press Championships Awards Ceremony
Credit: purepowerlifting.com

So… Why Powerlifting?

Powerlifters’ motivations are as broad as their demographic profile. For many, competition is a driving force. It isn’t uncommon to find that out any given powerlifter has been a competitive athlete for most of their life. No matter what sport you play growing up, you almost always have a reason to hit the gym. Powerlifting lets people continue to fulfill that role as an athlete.

Though I’ve harped on competition over and over in this post, and given the name of this site you can’t be too surprised, most powerlifters are primarily intrinsically motivated. They compete against others, sure, but their biggest competition is the person facing them in the mirror each morning. They want to get stronger. They want to test themselves. They want the satisfaction of breaking personal records. They simply want to be better.

You see, powerlifting is often a microcosm of life itself. In the beginning, things aren’t so hard and the gains come quickly. As you get older, you must be smarter, you must work harder, and you must stick to a plan for many, many months just to return some modest improvements. Powerlifting is exactly the same way. Most powerlifters simply love, and thrive off of, that constant and never-ending improvement.

As much as I can try to convey the “soul” of powerlifting to you through text, I’m guaranteed to fall short. Until you’ve been around a group of powerlifters for long enough to really immerse yourself in the culture, you won’t quite “get it”. And that’s okay.

That said, if you’d really like to get inside the mind of a powerlifter, I highly recommend the Power Unlimited DVD. Power Unlimited is one of the few documentaries out there about the sport and it is without a doubt the best. The DVD has been (illegally) uploaded to YouTube here:

Alternatively, you can support the sport by purchasing a Power Unlimited DVD from Amazon. Hey, I’ll admit it; I watched it on YouTube first.


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