Powerlifting and weightlifting often incorporate elements from each other, which has led many athletes to wonder if they should just make the switch from powerlifting to weightlifting, or vice versa. I grappled with this decision myself for over two years — here’s why I finally decided to make the leap to weightlifting.
To Switch, Or Not to Switch
I was previously competing in powerlifting as a USAPL athlete, albeit sparingly; my last powerlifting meet was in the end of 2015.
I stopped competing at that point for personal reasons, but after spending the next two years considering my options, I realized I wasn’t particularly enchanted by the idea of benching six times per week (my highest frequency), squatting in the low-bar position, and generally being locked into a single sport that for most competitors doesn’t even pay money. At least, not in any drug-tested federation I found.
Overhead pressing is awesome.
Finally, I didn’t love the in-fighting within the sport of powerlifting.
“What fed are you in bro?”
“IPF OR BUST”
“Everyone in X federation is garbage/a cheater/sold uranium to the Russians”
How do you have a unified sport with more federations than cups of water in the ocean? You don’t.
Finally, speed qualities diminish with age faster than any other athletic quality1, so the clock is always ticking. I decided I needed a sport that brought more fast twitch muscle fibers to the table.
Photo by @dooooker
Why Weightlifting Won
Speaking generally, being fast feels really good, and so does being flexible. They feel good not only physically, but mentally as well.
If you wanted to develop extreme thoracic extension ability, this is also the sport for you. I say “ability” and not just strength, because a sport like strongman is, ostensibly, just as good at developing really strong thoracic erectors and general scapular retraction strength. But the weightlifting movements (all of them) require long periods fixed in thoracic extension, which isn’t commonly seen in most sports, including strength sports.
[Check out our interview with Stacia-Al Mahoe to learn how she competes in both powerlifting and weightlifting at the same time.]
The proprioceptive benefits are great, too: a fundamental component of excelling at weightlifting is knowing where your body and the bar are situated in space at all times. The only things better for body awareness that I can personally think of are gymnastics and martial arts. As a weightlifter, you’ll definitely improve your body positioning not only at rest, but at speed, and these skills transfer to practically every other sport, too.
However, learning the lifts requires a massive time investment if you ever want to be good at them. So if your sole aim is to get faster and feel better, it’s probably best to stick to simpler variations like the high pull, push press, overhead squat, and their respective variations.
What Changes Must Be Made
The biggest change I think most powerlifters would have to consider is the emphasis on technical repeatability, or consistency from rep to rep. In powerlifting land, the following sentence is totally valid:
“The rep sucked, but I’d get 2 whites so whatever.”
No. Absolutely, positively, get that mindset as far away from me as you can. I request a restraining order.
I’m not saying everyone disregards their form when they max, rather that the rules usually emphasize that the weight must be moved from one position to another. However you get it there is on you, and a breakdown in form won’t always cost you the lift.
But technical repeatability is of the utmost importance in weightlifting and not only should you be consistent, you should be good.
Plenty of people, especially some disingenuous coaches, like to say that the powerlifts are technically complex; this is false. While they’re far more complex than most exercises, they don’t compare to the precision required for the snatch and the jerk. One thing that adds so much complexity is the need to change direction several times in very quick succession, where one error or break in form can cause you to fail.
In books like “The Art & Science of Lifting” by Greg Nuckols and Omar Isuf, and “Supertraining” by Mel Siff et al., you can find the following point: More frequent practice of any skill, even when the volume of skill-practice remains constant, results in not only faster but ultimately better skill acquisition across time. In an ideal world, prepare to do several hundred repetitions of the snatch, jerk, and correctives over the course of the transition if you really want to learn the lifts.
And even when you’ve developed the skill to test your first one rep max — hopefully guided by a wise coach — in most successful training systems you’ll always be practicing the Olympic lifts anywhere from 2 to 4 times each per week.
Dos and Don’ts — A Basic Guide
Do find a reputable coach.
Though it might seem just as simple as powerlifting, it’s very unlikely you’ll learn weightlifting from a series of videos on YouTube and if you do, you’ll wind up with contrasting and competing viewpoints. Don’t program hop. Even if a training program isn’t great, it’s still probably better to learn one whole style at a time, and not be all over the place.
Do every rep as perfectly as possible.
I don’t care if you have to drop the weight down to 45 pounds until it’s perfect.
Do practice with the bar.
Saying “it feels weird with no weight, but I’d definitely get the timing down with 100kg” is a sure sign that you’re doing something wrong with 100kg too. If you can’t do something without weight, re-evaluate both your coordination and mobility.
Do a metric tonne of mobility for the rest of your life.
Seriously. Even if you’re naturally very mobile, work to become more mobile. As you beat yourself up, you can become pretty tight. Don’t become any level of tight that could interfere with your lifts or your general health.
Don’t rush the process.
Don’t worry about fancy exercises or toys if you can’t do basic stuff.
You can play around with whatever you want when you front squat triple bodyweight, which most people probably never will. If your dip in the jerk isn’t good, but it is in the push press, you’re just scared of failing the jerk. Again, this is something a coach is for, not a writer on the internet.
Don’t treat the pull for weightlifting like the deadlift.
It is absolutely not a deadlift. Its goal is to get the bar onto your shoulders or overhead as fast as possible, which involves a different bar path.
Do realize that a powerlifter’s definition of “bracing” is much less serious than the weightlifting version.
You will probably cramp a few times, but you’ll quickly realize why 77kg Chinese lifters have erector and upper back development that rivals most powerlifters and bodybuilders.
Don’t ever stop pulling the bar up into your neck.
Do push through the balls of your feet for the entire extension of the clean, snatch, and jerk.
Where do you push off from when you jump? Is it your heels? Nah, fam, it is not.
What Doesn’t Change
Big and strong. Don’t stop squatting heavy. You have to pull heavy, and you must squat heavy. Find me a weightlifter who’s successful in any weight class without a monstrous squat.
This is still a strength sport, so while you still absolutely must be strong, you should also be jacked. Bigger muscles can be stronger muscles.
Don’t stop doing ”bodybuilding” work like bicep curls and pull-ups and rear delts. Not only does getting jacked feel good and look good, but it’ll also make sure you stay healthy and injury resistant.
[Check out these 6 reasons weightlifters can seriously benefit from bodybuilding.]
Besides what I’ve already said, not much really. Find a good coach, stay healthy, have fun, and always pull the bar into your neck or I will find you.
Also, maybe learn to read Russian or Chinese.
Featured image via @burnscolin by @doooker on Instagram.
Editor’s 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.
1. Journal of Sport and Health Science Volume 2, Issue 4, December 2013, Pages 215–226 doi:10.1016/j.jshs.2013.07.001