Powerlifting is a brutally simple sport—he or she with the most plates on the bar wins.
Of course, as strength athletes, we know there is more to it than that.
The rise of raw powerlifting has brought with it a demand for a different training approach, one that respects movement quality and athlete longevity. The sport isn’t just about who can squeeze into the tightest suit anymore. It’s also about expressing strong, healthy movement.
Though many of my students compete, I’m hesitant to call myself a “powerlifting” coach because for me the weight on the bar is of far secondary importance. Rather, the squat, bench, and deadlift are options for tools that may serve the goals of the student, just like the swing, get-up, and goblet squat.
No doubt there are a few of your kettlebell students with an itch to compete or at least explore the possibilities of the barbell. StrongFirst methods are equally applicable in the context of powerlifting and will provide a sense of continuity in training.
In this case study, we’re going to look at how two lifters with vastly different training histories used hard style training to find success on the platform.
Heavy Lifting for the Girevik
Tracy showed up to my kettlebell class with all the best qualities you could ask for in a student—enthusiasm, work ethic, big goals, and impeccable technique to boot, thanks in no small part to her work with Julie Miller, SFG II. After the first few weeks of training, Tracy’s strength potential became readily apparent and we began technique practice on the power lifts.
Low rep, higher set barbell work proved to be a great complement to the denser nature of kettlebell-centric sessions. Additionally, incremental loading showed clear progress week after week, instilling a strong sense of momentum and motivation.
As with all types of training, the proper powerlifting mindset to adopt from the outset is one of practice. It’s tempting to chase “newbie gains” and max attempts, but rehearsing the “body language of the elite” with submaximal efforts will yield personal records for years to come.
Like most experienced kettlebell athletes, Tracy brought stellar hip power from heavy swings coupled with get-up-bestowed shoulder strength—a great foundation for the powerlifts. Effectively transferring these skills to heavy back squats, bench presses, and deadlifts is all about becoming one with the bar. For my dollar, this starts with two familiar hard style concepts—lat engagement and irradiation.
Our hands serve as our most direct control of the bar, even when the bar is on our back. Upper back tightness is key for bracing against big weight on the back squat. This tightness is best achieved by combining grip and lat packing. I recommend setting a hard grip first, then diving under the bar, pulling it downward while maintaining a tall chest as the shoulders squeeze tight—all this before we even unrack the weight. The tighter the wedge into the bar, the easier the squat. A proper setup will have heavy attempts feeling much more manageable on the back, allowing the lifter to focus on the leg drive.
Irradiation techniques commonly taught for kettlebell military presses are applicable to the bench press as well. Many gym-related shoulder issues have their root in sloppy presses. A setup similar to the one detailed above will stabilize and protect the shoulders during the bench press. The lats also have the added task of supporting a strong arch. While the degree of arch will be dependent on the mobility and goals of the athlete (a casual lifter need not adopt the Gateway Arch of St. Louis), some amount will allow the shoulders to be “tucked” into the back pockets—a powerfully effective cue.
Obviously, a tight grip and total body tension is mandatory for a heavy deadlift.
Seeking to dive further down the rabbit hole of strength performance, Tracy and I attended an SFL Certification last year. A devastating combination of theory and practice, the three-day Certification amplified and focused the skills from kettlebell work into the powerlifts and their accessories. Our major takeaways were the value of front/Zercher squats and even more lat engagement strategies. Attending this Cert should be a no-brainer for any coach who touches a barbell.
The moral of the story: while a different animal than training with the kettlebell, taming the bar requires the same high-tension principles—simply applied in new ways.
From the Gym to the Platform
Tracy’s meet prep programs typically follow a three-cycle pattern of hypertrophy, strength, and peak. The first cycle serves to increase muscle and work capacity while offering the opportunity to experiment with new accessories or skills. Valuable accessory lifts include paused front squats, incline dumbbell bench, and deficit deadlifts. Depending how far out the next meet is, this phase may last between three to five months.
Next comes the strength cycle where more time is dedicated to the competition lifts and accessories drop off. We have found success in both linear overload and daily undulating periodization (DUP). DUP might be best reserved for more experienced lifters during longer strength cycles. In any case, each training day is dedicated to a specific lift—deadlifts one time per week, bench and possibly squat two times per week depending on progress and recovery.
Peaking is an art and science. For new to intermediate lifters, a short peak tends to work best. A week of doubles and singles around 92-97% respectively (typically the first and second meet attempts), and a back off week with extra rest before competition tends to do the trick.
Once an athlete is proficient at the lifts and has the training experience of peaking for a max attempt, a competition may be in the cards.
The Hard Style Powerlifter Game Plan
Everyone should have a great first meet experience. In preparing yourself or your students, heed this game plan for success:
- Attend a meet. Observing a competition first-hand is the best way to get started. Familiarizing yourself with the flow and logistics of a meet will relieve most apprehension. This is also where you’ll meet other lifters and officials who will be happy to answer any questions you have about powerlifting.
- Respect periodization. Plan the work and work the plan as Doc Hartle would say. Remember that a personal record is the result of the thousands of reps that came before it.
- Sign up! Nobody is ever “ready” for their first meet. Your main goals should be to have fun and make all your attempts.
- Get a coach. It’s disheartening to see lifters falter during competition due to over or under warming up, faulty attempt selection, poor nutrition planning, or negative mindsets. Yes, powerlifting is an individual sport, but having support during training and the meet can make all the difference—so make sure you find a coach to guide you.
For more, read Danny Sawaya’s article on powerlifting preparation.
As StrongFirst instructors and practitioners, you likely already possess many of the skills required for success in powerlifting. Through the application of these skills, Tracy has medaled six times and claimed numerous USAPL state records all while achieving her SFG II and SFL ranks.
Swings for the Hard Style Powerlifter
At one of her competitions, Tracy befriended a fellow lifter who would soon join our powerlifting team. Having found powerlifting as her preferred method of training, Cindy Amatuzzo needed an outside-the-box performance edge.
We went to work on the foundation of movement—breathing. The breath can make or break any lift. Practicing appropriate abdominal bracing and the “power” exhalation unlocked a new plateau of strength and control in Cindy’s lifts. The hard style plank and dead bug variations are low-tech, high-yield drills for connecting breathing patterns with core activation. With these breathing skills in place, we moved on to applying proper breathing to the power and kettlebell lifts.
Basic kettlebell moves were introduced into Cindy’s training gradually and have subsequently found a place in all phases of her programming. The kettlebell deadlift, swing, goblet squat, half get-up, and bottoms-up holds have proven most useful for her corrective and accessory strategy:
- The Kettlebell Deadlift: This exercise is used to solidify all the subtle cues of an effective hip hinge. Lat engagement, hip position, breath, torque, neutral spine, and glute activation all seem easier to coach, learn, and practice with a kettlebell. Though Cindy’s competition deadlift style is conventional, sumo kettlebell deadlifts are a great warm-up after sitting all day before moving to the bar.
- The Kettlebell Swing: “Cardio” is a thorny issue for the powerlifter. The pursuit of maximal strength can leave some holes in general athleticism. And while a powerlifter doesn’t need to pass the snatch test, heightened GPP comes in handy for volume-heavy hypertrophy blocks. We need a robust set of lungs without compromising the joints or wasting training time. The swing delivers.
- The Goblet Squat: Much like the kettlebell deadlift, the goblet squat makes coaching and tweaking squat mechanics a cinch. For Cindy, goblets squats with pauses and slow eccentrics are easy ways to maintain mobility and core control without the technique demands of barbell front squats.
- The Half Get-up: The get-up is a one-stop-shop for developing “in-between” strength patterns. But due to knee issues, the lunge portion of the get-up is often contraindicated for Cindy. Not to worry as the first half of the move (up to the tall seated position) still gives the training benefits of rolling patterns and shoulder stability. Get-ups are typically paired with thoracic extension and rotation drills before bench press and squat sessions.
- The Bottoms-up Hold: The kettlebell is often lauded for its application in shoulder strength and rehab training. While I keep Cindy’s overhead volume fairly low, we do utilize the bottoms-up clean position for working shoulder stability in a low-risk environment. Bottoms-up holds and walks emphasizing total body “zipped-up” tension are used to prime the shoulders for bench work.
With a student’s spirit, Cindy has added nearly 50kg to her powerlifting total in one year, breaking many state records along the way. Additionally, she’s gone above and beyond to further the sport by serving as a state referee.
What Really Matters
StrongFirst methods give the coach a foolproof framework for strength development. Alas, mere knowledge does not an effective coach make. Belief builds champions.
Foster a community where this belief can grow. Though powerlifting is an individual sport, being part of a team is a game-changer. I owe much of my students’ success not to my coaching skill, but to the potential they see and encourage in each other.
I spoke with a young coach at nationals who asked advice on growing a team. I gave him three points to consider which, after further thought, are still the best I have to offer:
- Walk the walk. Push your comfort zone and keep a beginner’s mind, lest you forget that good teachers are good students.
- Focus on “cans.” Success breeds momentum breeds success. Seek out ways to celebrate your athletes’ improvements, big and small.
- There are strengths and “areas for improvement.” Each area for improvement is a stepping stone to more progress. Avoid the “W” word.
I’m not very interested, much less qualified, in taking an advanced lifter to the top of the powerlifting world. Rather, it seems most valuable to make real strength training accessible to the masses in a smart, safe way. Empower all of your students with your belief and the skills of strength. You might be surprised where it takes them.