What is Powerlifting? - An Illustrated guide

By Kain Lyon - Thursday April 22nd, 2010 - DO NOT REPRODUCE WITHOUT PERMISSION

Powerlifting is a sport that combines three seemingly simple lifts, the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift to form a total, which determines the winner. Each lifter is allotted three attempts in the three lifts (or disciplines) with the best successful attempt in each discipline added to the total.

Powerlifting, in this humble authors opinion, is the greatest sport in the world and the foundation of all sport. For what other sport and training methodology do all athletes from other sports revert to when they realize they need to get bigger and stronger than the competition? Some might say Olympic lifting, or some elements of strongman training, and while I do not aim to discredit those forms of training or those disciplines, but what do Olympic lifters and strongmen do to get stronger in their sports? I can assume that it will incorporate, if not heavily rely on, some forms of squatting, bench pressing and deadlift, the three events of Powerlifting.

I started as a competitor, then I began coaching, then I became a referee and finally a meet director, and what I see on the internet are volumes and volumes of information on training, gear and supplements, more information than I could ever hope to explain here, but what I see very little of are guides of how to lift at an actual competition. Sure, I could just say go and read the Technical Rulebook of the IPF to learn what you need to know, and I have in the past, but judging by the performance of a lot of first time lifters I can safely assume that this is not overly effective. What I present to you here, is an illustrated guide to APU/CPU/IPF Powerlifting, the competitive sport. It should not be taken as a replacement to giving the rulebook a good read, but more of a supplement to build your knowledge and understanding of the rules.


For those who train exclusively in a commercial gym shall for the most part, be in awe at the luxury inherent in the competition grade equipment used at the average Powerlifting meet. The rack, which can be used for both squat and bench press, shall be able to be tailored to any body type a competitor has grown into. The bar will have useful and sharp knurling for your grip, the weight plates shall be calibrated to within a quarter percent of the advertised weight in kilograms, and it will all be sitting on a slightly raised, carpeted platform of at least 2.5m x 2.5m.


An ER Squat/Bench Combo Rack on a carpeted platform. Beautiful chromed calibrated weight plates can be seen in the background.

Of course the warm-up room where lifters get prepared for their official competition attempts may not be up to the same standards but that shouldn't matter at all. It is important for all lifters to know how high they would like the racks set for their attempts (they are usually numbered) and every lifter should know the weight of their first attempt in kilograms before they are called to weigh-in.


In an APU/CPU/IPF Powerlifting competition, weigh-in begins two(2) hours before the start of the competition and lasts at least one and a half(1½) hours. If you have trouble making weight and need to re-weigh in be sure to ask the official conducting the weigh-in of the procedure pertaining to that, as they should know and be able to tell you.

I have conducted many weigh-ins, sometime single-handedly having to move through thirty or so lifters as quick as possible and there is nothing more frustrating than a lifter who holds up the show. With this in mind I am going to give you a list of Dos and Don’ts for weigh-ins that will make it as painless as possible for both you and the officials.


  • Have your first attempts in squat, bench press and deadlift in kilograms and memorized

  • Have your squat, bench press and bench press safety rack heights on the competition equipment being used, memorized and ready to tell the referee when he asks

  • Bring your membership card and an age identifying piece of ID

  • Be prepared to strip to your underwear and socks as that is how you must weigh-in

  • Mention any special equipment (Foot Blocks, Squat racks in, etc.) that you may require

Do Not:

  • Wear multiple layers of clothing – the longer you take to dress and undress the more you slow things down

  • Wear excess amounts of jewelry or a watch – you should not want to weigh-in wearing these items as they are heavy, and time consuming to remove

  • Forget your attempt cards in the weigh-in room – you need these.

Equipment Check

I am not going to go too far in depth into equipment check other than to say typically, but not always, it is run during weigh in or in the half an hour after; furthermore, you must bring everything you intend to wear on the platform, socks and underwear included, to get checked in.


The squat is regarded by many lifters as the main event at a Powerlifting competition, and you would certainly not see me disagree. If you are reading this, then I can only assume you are on the internet and have seen in some form the squabbling that occurs over video clips of competition squats. Arguments over squat depth, judged from a poorly record video clip from a bad angle do nothing but undermine the sports credibility. But we will get to squat depth in a second, but first, as a first time competitor preparing to perform your first competition squat attempt, what do you need to know?

When the first round of squats begins, you should find out your position in the flight by looking at the scoreboard, which according to the rules must be visible, so you can plan to be ready when the bar is loaded for your first attempt. You most likely have to get your knee wraps and belt on, and possibly your squat suit straps up, so allot yourself sufficient time to do so before your bar is loaded. You don’t want to be late for your own attempt. You are given one(1) minute from when the speaker announces that the bar is loaded to set up, walk out your squat and receive the “Squat” command from the chief referee. One minute is oodles of time for those who have a solid set up and walkout, so it important to pay attention to details in your training.

The top three things I see people do that prevent them from getting a “squat” command are:

1.     Not having their knees locked

2.     Not standing upright enough

3.     Wearing the bar too low on their back

The first two are by far the most common, with the third being rare but worth mentioning.

An example of proper squat stance


Two technical issues that will prevent the referee from allowing you to squat: Unlocked knees and not standing upright enough, respectively.


Top: Legal bar placement Bottom: Illegally low bar placement

After you receive the “squat” command, you are to bend your knees until you achieve adequate squat depth, being defined as the fold at your hip descending lower than the top of the leg at the knee, then you may immediately ascend and wait for the “rack” command. You may have a friend or coach indicate to you verbally when you have hit depth, just make sure that person understands when depth is, because it seems a lot of people do not.

An example of obvious squat depth that will be sure to get you white lights.

A high squat

Proper squat depth illustrated

Improper squat depth illustrated

At the risk of sounding simplistic, if you achieve squat depth and ascend smoothly, then barring any technical mistake, your attempt should be successful. Wait for the “Rack” command then replace the bar into the rack. You then have one(1) minute to submit your next attempt to the score table. One thing I should mention at this time, is that during any attempt you are unable to lift the weight, DO NOT DROP/DUMP THE BAR, the spotters are there to help you, let them, don’t endanger them.

Bench Press

Bench press is by far the most technical lift of the three. There exists many minute details that can mean the difference between a successful lift or a technical failure. As soon as you finish your third attempt of squats, you should immediately begin your warm-up for bench press. Sometimes meet directors take a 10-20 minute break between each discipline, sometimes they just begin right away. Once again, when the first round of bench press begins, you should find out your position in the flight by looking at the scoreboard.

You are given one(1) minute from when the speaker announces that the bar is loaded to set up, receive a lift off and receive the “Start” command from the chief referee. Setting up properly is very important as the smallest technique flaws can prevent you from receiving the “start” command so once again it is important to train with a mind for details.

This is an example of a proper starting position on the bench press, please take note of the following things:

  • Feet are flat on the floor

  • Buttocks in contact with the bench

  • Shoulders in contact with the bench

  • Head in contact with the bench

  • Arms/elbows locked

  • Thumbs around the bar

Proper bench press form.

Improper Bench Press form. Heels are off the floor, Buttocks and head is off the bench surface.

These details are required as per the technical rulebook, any changes to the proper starting position that are made during the lift can result in a technical failure. After receiving the “Start” command, you must bring the bar into contact with your chest, holding it motionless until the referee issues the “Press” command, at which point you should press the bar upward until your arms/elbows are once again locked taking care to avoid unevenly extending you arms and avoiding any downward motion once you have begun pressing the bar. Then all you have to do is wait patiently for the “Rack” command to be given.


Deadlift appears to be a very simple lift, both in technique and rules. However, it is the event that decides the outcome of the meet, so one should always have a handler who can do the math needed to determine potential placing and weights needed. As soon as you finish your third attempt of Bench Press, you should immediately begin your warm-up for deadlift, and you should find out your position in the flight by looking at the scoreboard as soon as the first round of deadlifts begin.

You are given one(1) minute from when the speaker announces that the bar is loaded to set up your stance, set your grip, and begin your lift. There is no start command in deadlift and the attempt starts as soon as a pronounced attempt to pull on the bar has occurred. Deadlift is a little different than the other two lifts as it is the one where your position as the end of the lift is most closely scrutinized. To ensure that you have no reason to technically fail an attempt make sure that your position resembles this at the end of your lift, regardless if you are a conventional or sumo deadlifter.

Ready to begin deadlifting. The back is straight and the shoulders tight.

A properly locked out conventional deadlift. Sumo deadlift should not be any different from this except your hips will be farther forward.

 This is an example of a proper finishing position on the deadlift please take note of the following things:

  • Shoulders back as far as possible, thereby pushing your chest out

  • Knees are locked

  • Standing upright


 An improperly locked out/not lock out at all deadlift. Notice the slight bend in the knees and the chest not out thereby making it obvious the shoulders are not back.

There are few things worse than having a hard pull, getting it to the top, and then failing the lift technically. No one likes to end their meet that way. That is why you should practice and ensure that you lock out your deadlifts properly in training.

Still More to Learn

Once again, the information I have presented above is designed to allow you to go to a powerlifting meet and not bomb out/get disqualified. It should not be taken as a replacement for the Technical Rulebook of the IPF. There is still loads of information that should be sought out like the types of gear approved in competition, how to use it, training methodologies for powerlifting and any other rules within your own regional federation for competing.

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