The Great Powerlifting Experiment

For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you know I recently competed in my first powerlifting competition. You also know that I suffer from a diagnosed chronic illness that was finally diagnosed back in March and it’s been doing a number on my body. But me being me, of course I decided to give my chronic illness the bird and competed anyway.

My goals were simple: spend 2 months training under a powerlifting style of lifting, gain strength, complete all three lifts, and attain a combined lift of 500lbs.

Spoiler: I accomplished all my goals, despite a few bumps in the road.

What is Powerlifting?

From USA Powerlifting: Distinct from weightlifting, a sport made up of two lifts: the Snatch and the Clean-and-Jerk, where the weight is lifted above the head, powerlifting comprises three lifts: the Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift. Powerlifting competitions may be comprised of one, two or all three of the lifting disciplines.

As you may recall from my post on bodybuilding, I didn’t mean to become a bodybuilder, I wanted to do weightlifting, but a recently repaired shoulder just couldn’t handle the overhead work. That’s why I went with powerlifting instead of weightlifting; my shoulder can now handle a modest bench press, but not the overhead lifts needed in weightlifting.

Powerlifting is as very distinct from bodybuilding. The goal of bodybuilding is to mold and shape the body, through exercise and nutrition, to fit a very specific athletic aesthetic. Powerlifting is about using weightlifting to build a body capable of maximum lifting capability. And yes, your body’s shape is very different in each discipline.

What are the Lifts?

The Three Kings of weightlifting: squat, bench press, and deadlift. Regardless of sports focus, most weightlifting regimes will incorporate these three foundational lifts and their variations.

Squat: Pop it like a squat! The booty makers and quad killer. A squat requires the standing lifter to hold a loaded barbell across their shoulders and bend deeply at the knees until the knee goes parallel to the hip crease, then return to the standing position.

Bench press: The simplest of the three, the lifter lays on a bench, holds the loaded barbell over their chest, allows it to come down (slowly, please!) to the chest, and then presses up until it returns to its original position.

Deadlift: A standing lifter uses two hands to pull the loaded barbell from the ground until the lifter is standing fully erect.

How Did I Train?

As you know, I have a very long history of sports and a five year background in weightlifting for bodybuilding. Surprisingly, the program I found and used was similar to my bodybuilding regime but with fewer reps. I focus on hypertrophy for bodybuilding, which is achieved by lifting a lower weight for higher reps. The goal is to use volume to build muscle fibers and that is why bodybuilders achieve that wonderfully sculpted look.

For powerlifting, I needed the exact opposite: high weight, low reps, and go until failure on the last set. (Failure is when the muscles are no longer capable of the exercise.) Because you go to failure, you also do fewer sets overall. My bodybuilding workout takes me anywhere from 45-75 minutes in the gym and I found I could finish my powerlifting workouts in 30-40 minutes.

In bodybuilding, I used a fabulous coach who set both my workouts and nutrition/macros. Once I took a break from bodybuilding, I started leaning heavily on to find new and interesting lifts. came through for me during my experiment and I found their 5/3/1 Program.

5/3/1 Program powerlifting lifts and weights
From the 5/3/1 Program

This program builds your strength on 4 week cycles, 3 building weeks and one active recovery week. I liked that everything scales to your known single rep max (the greatest weight you can lift one single time). Everyone has that one exercise they are best at; for me it’s the deadlift, and it allows you to progress up in each lift based on your own strengths.

The only drawback was that it doesn’t have much accessory work. I know I shouldn’t be focused on accessory lifts while training for powerlifting, but after five years, I felt like something was missing from my lifting days. The only thing I used as any kind of accessory work was my Fat Grips, to build my grip strength up, since I knew I was weak there and it would have a direct impact on my lifts.

And I ate. So much more than in bodybuilding. I did keep track of my intake, I did have a specific macro load I was trying to hit, but when you are eating to maintain or even gain, it’s like mana from heaven. There’s so much more wiggle room in the diet. Pizza? Sure! Another delicious cinnamon roll protein bar? Sure! A glass of wine? Well, yes, in moderation. While I do enjoy my wine and IPAs, alcohol is still a detractor when you’re building.

One note about my health and this program: the medication I’m on, Lupron, is a hell drug. It’s the G-D devil and I intend to refuse treatment before the next course. Lupron is used for folks with prostate or ovarian cancer, endometriosis (Hi! It’s me!), and other illnesses that require full hormone suppression. Lupron is chemo-adjacent and sent me into a very rapid and early chemically induced menopause while I started this program. I knew it would cause weight gain and hoped to capitalize on those extra calories for muscle building; however, it also included fatigue, bone pain, joint pain, loss of strength, sleep loss, and hair loss. I hit a few new PRs (personal records) the first couple of weeks, but as the rapid onset menopause hit me, I plateaued just as I should have been hitting my new goal lifts. If I do this again when I’m healthy, it will be a much more accurate look at how the ExRx program’s efficacy.

Day of the Meet

What I expected: I’ll admit I had no idea what to expect from this meet. It was small, run by a dedicated but inexperienced team, and many of the competitors were also new to the sport. It was perfect for me to dip my toes in but it lead to a very long day. I think the only thing I expected was that I would do my three lifts and hope I made my target total weight.

What I saw: First and foremost, lifting for a crowd is amazing! The announcer always noted when a lift was someone’s PR attempt and hearing a crowded room scream for you as you lift the heaviest thing you’ve ever held is powerful. One of the other ladies took me under her wing and helped explain how competitive lifts worked because it was very different from how I trained. (Oops!)

What sucked: I had no idea that competitive lifts differed from how I lift in a workout. There are commands to start and/or return to your starting position. I also learned that I needed to squat much deeper than I was used to in my workouts. That threw me and I had to drop my starting lift by 40lbs to ensure I could make at least one lift.

Why one lift? Well, as I learned, you get three attempts to lift the heaviest weight you can successfully complete, but once you state your first weight, you cannot go down. So, if you fail your first lift, you can’t drop weight and most people are stuck with three failed lifts. Fortunately, my new mentor helped me set three good weights and the organizers allowed me to change before we officially started. And thank goodness, too, because it got rough!

My Three Lifts

With a goal total of 500lbs, I needed to make sure I had a successful lift in each category.

Squat: I had hoped to lift between 185lbs and 195lbs (my PR), but after testing out the much lower squat depth, I changed my starting weight from 175lbs to 135bs. Thank goodness! I lifted 135lbs, 155lbs, and 170lbs successfully, but I’m not sure I would have made that 175lbs opening lift which would have resulted in a failure.

Opening squat of 135lbs

Bench press: I didn’t realize how far down I would have to go for the bench and didn’t factor in the small pause at the bottom where I waited for the “lift!” command. I’m glad I started at only 105lbs because that pause killed me. I was successful on 105lbs but failed twice at 115lbs, a weight where I can I normally do two or three reps. It was disappointing to now be a combined 30lbs below where I thought I would be as I chased 500lbs and it meant I would have to attain a new PR on the deadlift. Thank goodness for that crowd!

Deadlift: Deadlift is my specialty. I have thick thighs and dumps like a truck from years and years of running, cycling, and lifting. It’s also the only lift that I performed in the gym like they do in competition; the only difference is locking at the top until they give the command. But since I lift to lock out anyway, it was just holding on a little longer. My previous PR is 220lbs but if I didn’t try at least 225, I would miss my 500lbs goal.

I’m happy to say I successfully lifted 185lbs, 200lbs, and then went for it on 225lbs. Hearing the head judge yell “PR! PR! PR attempt” and the crowd immediately responding and cheering as I set for the lift was powerful. The weight went up so smoothly, that I probably could have added another 5-10lbs and made it, but I made the safe choice at 225lbs.

Total weight: 500lbs
Squat: 170lbs
Bench: 105lbs
Deadlift: 225lbs

Second place powerlifting medal

Will I do it again?

A strong maybe. Even now, about a month later, my health and strength are still declining and I have another month before this course of medication ends. I know I’m facing another two months or so before my body normalizes and then it’ll be time for a second round of surgery with a 6-8 week recovery. It will be a while before I can compete again and while I’m open to it, I’m waiting to see how recovery goes before committing to my next big adventure.

Happy trails!

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15 Comments on “The Great Powerlifting Experiment

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  7. I hope you continue after healing. The 5/3/1 was developed by Jim Wendler years ago, and has an accessory component to it was well, if you look at the original program. It’s a great starting PL program. Another good one in your recovery would be the Strong Lifts 5×5. It’s a great base strength builder, and when executed fully can be used for 3-4 months to build strength, then transition to 5/3/1 for 12-16 weeks of peaking

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