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A Beginners Guide to Powerlifting

Powerlifting is a sport focused on strength, the most you are capable of lifting. The three main lifts are Bench Press, Deadlift, and Squat and the idea is to lift the heaviest weight possible for a single repetition. In competition, a lifter has three attempts for each lift and the heaviest successful attempt is counted.

For non-competition lifters, it’s about the strength as well and the challenge of bettering yourself mentally and physically. It takes training just like any other sport, and not just heavy lifting, but accessory lifting and mobility as well as core strength to help improve those big lifts.

How to start powerlifting

Gym and Training

  • To begin with, you need to find a good gym! One that has the equipment you need, but also good training. Many gyms will have intro programs for people who have not lifted before or need refreshers. Another alternative is getting a private personal training lesson for more individualized feedback to make sure your mechanics are good before going to a class or going on your own.

Start light

  • Don’t start off by trying to see how heavy you can lift. Begin with lighter weights so that you can focus on maintaining form even when you’re tired.
  • Start with just the bar (45lb) and do 10 reps, add weight incrementally by 5-25lbs depending on how things feel. You ultimately want to get to about 8 reps while feeling like you still could do many 2-3 more.

Use RPE and RIR for intensity

  • Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is a great way to track intensity of your workouts. It correlates well with objective measures like heart rate, and more subjective measures during workouts like Repetitions-In-Reserve (RIR) which means how many more reps you would be able to do at the end of your set. If you squat 150lbs for 8 reps, but could probably do 1-2 more reps before failure, then your RPE is probably pretty high. But if you get to 8 reps and you feel like you could do another 8 reps, then your RPE is probably lower.
  • There is a study showing that subjects are able to accurately estimate how close to failure they are by using repetitions-in-reserve and the error was within about 1 repetition for bench press and leg press (Hackett, 2017).

Actually use your rest time

  • Rest time is essential during resistance training with a focus on strength. Muscles reach fatigue relatively quickly, but is dependent on the intensity of maximum strength being used. Blood flow to the muscle can be occluded (blocked) at intensities as low as 20% of your maximum strength, a rest period is needed to re-establish blood flow and oxygen to the muscles being used (Willardson, 2008).

Benefits of powerlifting

Having more strength helps protect your body in all situations. If your back is stronger, then it is less likely to get overworked bending over and doing activities of daily living. Being stronger helps support your joints better and improve stability.

Older Adults

  • You can be any age and start powerlifting, and it benefits all ages from young kids to older adults. Sarcopenia or age related loss of muscle mass and strength and is associated with increased risk of functional impairment, poor health-related quality of life, physical frailty and premature death (Pinedo‐Villanueva, 2018). Increasing strength increases function, and can help increase longevity. 

Young Children/Teens

  • A summary of an article discussing safety of lifting with adolescents concluded: “Children can improve strength by 30% to 50% after just 8 to 12 weeks of a well-designed strength training program. Youth need to continue to train at least 2 times per week to maintain strength. The case reports of injuries related to strength training, including epiphyseal plate fractures and lower back injuries, are primarily attributed to the misuse of equipment, inappropriate weight, improper technique, or lack of qualified adult supervision” (Dahab, 2009).

Individuals with Injuries

  • A study in the BMC Sports Science, Medicine, and Rehabilitation Journal looked at individuals between the ages of 18-65 years of age, with lower back pain for >3 months that was at least a 4/10 or higher in the past 2 weeks that did not have any experience with heavy resistance training. 
  • After an adaptation phase learning correct techniques, weight was progressed in 4 different exercises: squat, bench press, deadlift, and pendlay row. There was a clinical meaningful reduction in lower back pain and improved pain related disability and self efficacy. The study included qualitative interviews which are interesting to read as well. Participants felt an extended familiarization phase and close supervision by the physical therapist with powerlifting experience was very important, and all of the participants felt that increased strength made their daily life activities easier (Tjøsvoll, 2020).

How to determine your 1 Rep Max

  1. Warm up with light cardio activity and dynamic stretching
  2. Do 6-10 reps, using a weight that’s about 50% of what you think your max will be
  3. Rest for at least 1-2 minutes
  4. Increase the weight up to 80% of what you think your max might be and do 3 reps
  5. Rest for at least 1-2 minutes
  6. Add weight in approximately 10% increments and attempt a single rep each time, resting for at least 1-2 minutes between each attempt
  7. The max weight you can successfully lift, with good form and technique, is your 1RM

Some examples of warm ups before powerlifting

  • Light PVC or broomstick mechanics warm ups to focus on making sure your start position is ideal and helpful to maintain good mechanics throughout the movement.
  • Dynamic stretching (active movements that stretch muscles, not static stretches where you hold the stretch for long periods of time)
  • Bar only lifts or low weight bar lifts to continue to warm up, then progressing to 10-12 reps at what you think is 50% of your 1 Rep Max, then progressing to 4-5 reps of 70% of your 1 Rep Max

How Therapydia can help you in your powerlifting

At Therapydia, we are constantly assessing and analyzing people’s movements. We can help you break down your form and improve your performance in lifting either in-person or via virtual treatment session. 

When starting out, having your form assessed is key to making sure you aren’t going to injure yourself as you increase the load. As you are adding weight, recording a video of yourself from the front and from the side will help your therapist see how you move under load. There are many faults or issues that can be present when lifting heavier weight that aren’t noticeable during bodyweight or light weight movements.


For either in-person or virtual appointments, try to send the video a few days before the appointment so your therapist has time to watch it and analyze your movement and give you feedback during the appointment.



Hackett, D. A., Cobley, S. B., Davies, T. B., Michael, S. W., & Halaki, M. (2017). Accuracy In Estimating Repetitions to Failure During Resistance Exercise. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 31(8), 2162–2168.

Willardson, J. M. (2008). A Brief Review: How Much Rest between Sets? Strength and Conditioning Journal, 30(3), 44–50. doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e31817711a4

Dahab, K. S., & McCambridge, T. M. (2009). Strength Training in Children and Adolescents: Raising the Bar for Young Athletes? Sports Health, 1(3), 223–226. doi: 10.1177/1941738109334215

Tjøsvoll, S. O., Mork, P. J., Iversen, V. M., Rise, M. B., & Fimland, M. S. (2020). Periodized resistance training for persistent non-specific low back pain: a mixed methods feasibility study. BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil, 12(30). doi: 10.1186/s13102-020-00181-0


By Jane Kruszewski, PT, DPT, OCS, ATC | Therapydia DC

Jessica Jones

Physical Therapist

Jessica recently moved to Seattle from Boston, MA and is excited to join the Therapydia team. Her treatment experience includes orthopedics, sports medicine, pediatrics, and vestibular therapy. Jessica received her Doctorate in Physical Therapy from Northeastern University in Boston, MA in 2016. She has completed the Pediatric Physical Therapy Residency at Boston Children’s Hospital and is in the process of completing a Comprehensive Vestibular Rehabilitation certification. Jessica believes in empowering and inspiring patients to take control of their health through education, movement, and exercise. She enjoys treating patients of all ages and levels while utilizing soft tissue techniques, neuromuscular re-education, balance training as well as therapeutic exercise. In her free time, Jessica enjoys yoga, dancing, kayaking, and hiking with her dog!


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