Why Powerlifting Is a Sport for Nerds

Editors’ note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Arguably, there exists a certain stereotype or perception of a powerlifter: a brooding hulk, distant from and disinterested with the Space Age-looking Nautilus machines, who isolates himself to a black iron gym with primitive looking equipment. And the goal of powerlifting — to win by lifting as much weight as possible — seems painfully simpleminded.

Despite this idea that powerlifters are alpha-brutes who just “pick things up and put them down”, strength athletes tend to be more cerebral than some might think. But, what sorts of thoughts and considerations might be behind a powerlifter’s seemingly “thick” skull? Well, effectively developing strength is more complicated than just adding a little more weight to the bar at every gym visit and psyching oneself up for a PR. Progress and success require specific modes of thinking.

I’m a competitive powerlifter, and although I’m hardly on the verge of breaking records anytime soon, I move enough weight to turn a few heads at a standard commercial gym and in turn, I have had people approach me with questions. Typically, I get asked some form of, “What should I do?”

“What should I do to get a bigger chest?”

“What supplements should I take?”

“What should I eat?”

The problem with these “what” questions is that they overlook many important factors. Coming from a layperson, the “what” question signals a misguided mode of thinking that tends to focus on results but ignore processes.

“What” questions tend to neglect the reality that more advanced lifters require different training stimuli and nutrition. They ignore that more advanced lifters have different skill levels and higher work capacities. They overlook myriad essential considerations which dictate that “what” a relatively developed lifter should do, is and ought to be very different from “what” a novice should do in the gym. Misguided questions yield unhelpful answers.

As a powerlifter, I am not just thinking about “what to do”, because such an approach amounts to doing without thinking — doing without considering the key questions of “why”, and “how”.

Perhaps the main reason why I do powerlifting is because of the health benefits. I personally prioritize physical strength because it, in my view, provides the foundation for our physical abilities which, if developed and maintained over time, should lead to a longer and more productive life.  Importantly, I have also chosen powerlifting because of the modes of thinking involved in the sport, and how those modes of thinking apply not only in the gym and on the platform, but also at our jobs and in our daily lives.

Therefore, when I encounter the “what” question, I attempt to flip the script, invite a discussion about larger goals, and then do my best to offer guidance on how to achieve them. In powerlifting, strength starts in the mind. While it would not be possible to detail in this short space the myriad thought processes involved in mindfully developing as a strength athlete, or at least as a physically stronger individual, there are a few key modes of thinking.

Safety

Many people appear to think that powerlifting is a dangerous sport because of the amount of weight that an athlete lifts. Outsiders seem to have the impression that people who lift very heavy weights are risk-tolerant individuals hungering for some kind of an alpha status.

However, powerlifting is a labor of love. It is not a particularly lucrative sport even at high levels, and so people who compete in the sport do so because it is meaningful to them. Being unable to train and lift due to an injury is something that many, if not most, powerlifters dread. Thrashing oneself cuts against a lifter’s self-interest, and thinking about and practicing safety as a skill is key.

Consequently, powerlifters are always thinking about safety — on every rep of every set. Good lifters will treat an empty barbell with the same respect as a heavily loaded one, and set up for a warm-up in the same way that they will for a max attempt.

Safety, here, is not some abstract concept. Rather, there are techniques. As with anything in life, there is no foolproof measure to completely ensure safety. However, one can drastically reduce the risk of injury when lifting by (a) breathing using the Valsalva maneuver, (b) staying “tight” by keeping one’s muscle’s contracted, (c) by bracing one’s core, (d) by rooting one’s feet into the ground, and (e) by wearing proper footwear to ensure a stable surface on which to lift.

Math and Physiology

Powerlifters are nerdy. It is more likely that one will hear a powerlifter talking about angles and leverages between sets than brutishly grunting during them. Developed lifters, strong as they are, do not simply overpower a weight — they outsmart it.

The mathematical formula for “work” (that is, “work done = force x distance”) is common knowledge in the powerlifting community. Powerlifters therefore look at a lift like a puzzle, and figure out through analysis, trial, error, and practice, the appropriate body position in order to minimize the variable of distance and in turn work, in order to lift the greatest amount of weight. This could mean, for instance, arching one’s back on a bench press, or pulling a deadlift using a sumo rather than a conventional stance.

Likewise, powerlifters think in terms of leverages and momentum in order to minimize the amount of force necessary to execute a lift. Here, the body is viewed from a biomechanical standpoint, and understood as a system of joints and hinges.(1) Poor positioning results in strength leakages, and good lifters think about how to plug any such leaks.

And, during training, lifters routinely use baseline analyses, in which a 1 rep max is used as a baseline for programming daily, weekly, and monthly training. Lifters will strategically use percentages of that 1 rep max, with varying rep and set schemes, to build work capacity, accumulate and manage fatigue, progressively overload weights, and stimulate strength development in order to deliberately facilitate the desired adaptation to training.

Logic

Notions of optimization, as opposed to simple maximization, are key. In other words, strength development in general, and powerlifting in particular, are not merely about maximizing weights by adding pounds to the bar in a rote manner. Instead, it is about optimizing performance. This typically means that a powerlifter will use submaximal weight for the vast majority of a training cycle in order to optimize performance in competition and make the most significant progress over the long run.

The concept of optimization is, in important ways, connected to the concept of efficiency. The logic here is that a lifter will opt to move a weight as efficiently as possible. This means that one will be hard pressed to find a powerlifter ever making matters harder than necessary for himself, for example, by training atop yoga “bubbles” like Lebron James.

A powerlifter’s logic is that by being as efficient as possible — such as by wearing hard-soled lifting shoes and minimizing the distance one needs to move the barbell — it will be possible to lift the heaviest weights in the safest ways, and that doing so provides the most effective means for developing strength, and ultimately, the best results.

Programming

Powerlifters do not wander into a gym and then figure out what to do. They go in with a plan.

Although different powerlifters use different plans, there are some common denominators. For instance, powerlifters often think in terms of some form of periodization.(2) That is, powerlifters generally will not just aim for a desired number of pounds they wish to hit on the squat, bench, and deadlift, and then simply keep adding a pound here or there to the bar until they eventually achieve those goals.

Rather, a training cycle is typically divided into periods, such as one that builds work capacity, followed by one involving hypertrophy, followed by one in which the resulting larger muscles are trained for strength, followed by a peak phase. These periods are sequenced into a logical order, and so, a powerlifter spends the vast majority of his time thinking about developing strength rather than constantly testing it.

Nutrition

Muscle, as opposed to fat, generates the force to move weights. Body composition, achieved largely through nutrition, then, is key. Powerlifters are therefore thinking about diets in a particular way.

Leafy greens are indeed good for health, but salad alone does not help a strength athlete to recover properly and build muscle. Strength athletes therefore need to be mindful about building meals around lean and healthy protein sources. They need to be thinking about consuming enough carbohydrates to fuel intense training. They need to be thinking about regulating how much healthy fat they consume, and when they consume that fat, because fats slows digestion and could negatively impact a training session.(3)

Notably, powerlifting is a weight class sport. Athletes therefore need to be especially careful with the quality and quantity of what they eat, in order to ensure that they make weight.

Appearances Can be Deceiving

Powerlifters might look like a bunch of “lunks”. But if one stumbles upon a herd of lifters in their natural habitat, one will be more likely to overhear them reflecting on the angle of their bar paths than boasting about a bicep pump.

Powerlifting is still a sport that the general public remains unfamiliar with, and when laypeople hear the phrase “strength development”, there is a tendency for them to express their understanding of the endeavor as a relatively directionless circuit of exercise machine work.

Fortunately, powerlifting is a growing sport, and increasing numbers of people are taking up barbell training. Those who are more serious about strength development in general, and powerlifting in particular, will often be thinking in terms of safety, math and physiology, logic, programming, and nutrition.

So, if you see someone in a power rack squatting a relatively large amount of weight below parallel, then consider that that individual may be running many if not all of these thought processes, rather than simply “picking things up and putting them down.”

Featured image via @marksmellybell on Instagram.

References

1. Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, 3rd Edition, Mark Rippetoe, The Aasgaard Company, 2013.

2. Scientific Principles of Strength Training, Dr. Mike Israetel, Dr. James Hoffman, Chad Wesley Smith, Juggernaut Training Systems, ebook, 2017

3. Understanding Healthy Eating: A Science-Based Guide to How Your Diet Affects Your Health, Dr. Mike Israetel, Dr. Jennifer Case, Dr. Trevor Pfaendtner, Renaissance Periodization ebook, 2016.

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Daniel Braun, J.D., LL.M., is an attorney and adjunct professor in New York City, as well as a bronze medal-winning competitive powerlifter in the USAPL.Prior to powerlifting, Daniel obtained his Black Belt in Okinawan Shito-Ryu Karate and trained in the U.S., Canada, and Belgium.Daniel played years of competitive ice hockey growing up, and earned a tennis instructor certification from the Coaches Association of Ontario. Over the years, he has written numerous legal and non-legal articles, publishing them in scholarly (peer reviewed) and non-scholarly outlets alike. Daniel is coached in powerlifting by Jason Manenkoff of Iron Arena, and trains with his wife, Lauren. The views that Daniel expresses in his articles are solely his own personal opinions.