If you are a powerlifting coach, gym owner or training buddy who is preparing an athlete for a meet, you’ve got a challenging task. As well as peaking the athlete for PRs on the big three lifts, you’ve also got to help them win the mental battle of competing. In this article, I’ll cover both aspects to position you to best prepare your athlete for success.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- The Role of a Powerlifting Coach
- Communicating with the Athlete
- The Training Program
- Principles That should Underlie the Training Mesocycle
- Goal Setting
- The Phases of Competition
- Order of Competition
- Competition Day
- Keep Your Athlete Nourished
- Warming Up
- The Round System
- Make Sure your Athlete Doesn’t Fail a Drug Test
- Competition Day Coaching Tactics
- Expectations of Coaches at a Meet
The Role of a Powerlifting Coach
A powerlifting coach is tasked with three main responsibilities:
- Train to achieve max lifts in the bench press, squat, and deadlift.
- Mentally prepare for optimum performance.
- Perform their best on competition day.
The coach will work with the athlete to develop a year-round training program. The program should be designed for progressive improvement in the three lifts, peaking on competition day. This involves providing guidance on how to train to prevent injury, and enhance recovery. The coach should also guide the athlete’s nutrition, both off-season and during competition season.
A powerlifting coach does not, however, need to be a nutritionist. For a tailored day to day nutritional plan, the athlete will have to employ the services of a registered nutritionist.
A good coach will also be an effective motivator, and somewhat of a psychologist. He should know how to work with the natural highs and lows experienced by the athlete, providing strategies to keep them on an even keel and motivated to stay focused in the gym and keep making improvements when the other things in their life are not going as planned.
A coach sets up the ideal environment for the athlete or athletes they work with, encouraging them to reflect on who they are, define their own goals and the abilities needed to reach them, as well as to grow, adapt, and thrive. The trainer creates a network of support and acts as a mentor and motivator, sharing their ups and downs, as well as shaping their powerlifting ambitions into small, achievable goals, each of which is a stepping stone to ultimate success.
An effective powerlifting coach can be an asset to athletes at every level. Beginners will need more guidance in the technicalities of the lifts and the rules of competition. More experienced trainers benefit from having an objective analysis of their training. Having a coach to keep them on track is another big plus.
Traits of an Effective Powerlifting Coach
- Understand and be able to coach a catalog of exercises that underpin
the squat, bench press and deadlift movements.
- Have a good foundation in the technical aspects of powerlifting such as
conditioning, flexibility and muscle group activation that will aid performance output for competition.
- Be proficient in adding, loading and spotting the bar correctly within a
training session (or coaching someone else to do this).
- Be able to produce an athlete-centered and sport-specific training program.
- Be able to disseminate information in varying formats to match different
individual learning styles.
- Understand the use of a training diary and related training principles.
- Be able to work with simple data (such as data from a training diary) and
tailor it into an athlete-specific training programme.
- Have a strong understanding of the sport’s governing body’s rules, including knowing how and when record attempts can be made, the role of the technical officer (referee responsible for running a competition) and the processes to follow if an athlete does not make body weight.
- Have a good foundation in, and experience of, preparing for competition, to include the more intricate tactical elements such as reading and ‘playing’ the scoreboard and understanding the significance of lot order.
- Be able to deliver to and work with individuals from different social and cultural backgrounds.
- Be able to understand the coach/athlete relationship and how the dynamics can alter as the athlete’s life changes; for example, if they get married the dynamics between coach and lifter change as a result.
- Possess good communication skills, including listening skills.
- Be prepared to learn and know when to hand it over to others.
- Take responsibility for, and understand, any ramifications of their decisions and actions.
- Be honest with themselves and others.
Communicating with the Athlete
Effective communication is a talent that most individuals have to work very hard to master in order to succeed as coaches. Learning to listen is a crucial component of the process, and the coach needs to be ready to solicit open feedback from others after communicating a message or issuing directions. Clarity is crucial in communication, and it should never be assumed that communications have been comprehended because ambiguity can readily seep into the process.
The coach should be explicit about intention and context, as well as what meaning is related to the message they intend to convey.
To help ensure that all parties are clear on goals, objectives, any actions to be taken, and who is to take responsibility for what, they should request that the message they are delivering be relayed back to them.
The Training Program
Training for a competition should begin the day after the last meet. If you’re working with an athlete who hasn’t competed before, it should begin a year out.
A yearly training program is called a macrocycle. For competitive powerlifters the macrocycle is usually timed to coincide with a powerlifting competition, rather than running from January to December.
The macrocycle is broken down into several mesocycles. These may be of varying length, but the most common is four cycles of twelve weeks each. Each mesocycle is designed to achieve a strength peak in the three big lifts, with each of these peaks being a stepping stone towards the ultimate peak on competition day.
Let’s zoom in on a mesocycle that can be repeated four times throughout the training year. There are seven phases to the mesocycle as follows …
12 Week Mesocycle
|Wk 1||Wk 2||Wk 3||Wk 4||Wk 5||Wk 6||Wk 7||Wk 8||Wk 9||Wk 10||Wk 11||Wk 12|
|Phase One||Phase Two||Phase Three||Phase Three||Phase Four||Phase Four||Phase Four||Phase Five||Phase Five||Phase Six||Phase Six||Phase Seven|
Let’s now break down each of these training phases:
Phase One: General Preparation
Main Objective: Recuperation of general work capacity
The first phase involves general strength and mobility work that will prepare the athlete’s joints, develop coordination and generally get his body primed for the work ahead.
This is a time when you will work with novice trainers to identify weaknesses and develop their technique. Experienced weightlifters should use this phase as an extension of the training phase which followed their last competition lift.
Prior to beginning the program, you will need to establish what the athlete’s one rep max is on the bench press, squat, and deadlift. This will form the basis of most of your lifts. Start with a weight that can allow the athlete to do 3-4 reps, then add weight and go for two reps. Add more resistance and go for your max single.
Phase Two: Basic Preparation
During the second phase the emphasis is on learning and fine-tuning the technique of the big three exercises. You will have the athlete perform a number of variations of these exercises that will help with their various phases.
Phase Three: Special Preparation
Main Objective: Improvement of leg and lumbar strength
In Phase Three, there should be a noticeable increase in training intensity. There will be a marked emphasis on increasing the strength of the lower back and legs, which are vital to success in the big three lifts. Don’t be surprised if the athlete’s bench, squat, and deadlift actually go down a little during this phase – that’s natural. You will be going up to 80% of 1RM of the front and back squat and 65-75% on the bench and deadlift.
Phase Four: Pre-Competition
Main Objective – Perfecting Technique / Explosive movements
There will still be some residual emphasis on perfecting technique in Phase Four, but the main emphasis is on ramping up strength and explosiveness. You will be speaking from volume to classic exercises. This is when all the pieces come together for increased intensity and volume. Your bench press, squat and deadlift will go up to 90% of your 1RM during this phase.
Phase Five: Control of Competition
Main Objective: Improve preparation control with competition simulation. Improve psychological preparation and perfect technique.
During this phase your athlete will be reaching their peak intensity at 95-98% on the bench press, squat and deadlift. You will be simulating what they will experience on competition day, fine tuning their technique further and getting psychologically locked in on competition day.
Phase Six: Direct Competition
Main Objective: Improvement of technique & results.
You have now reached the pre-competition phase. You want to maintain the athlete’s strength and power levels from the last phase while also getting rid of as much fatigue as possible. Anything that will impede the athlete’s ability to access the strength potential that they have worked so hard to attain needs to be eliminated. The focus will be on the classic lifts and the intensity and volume during this phase will be low (bench press = 60-80%; squat = 60-70%; deadlift = 60-80%).
Phase Seven: Recovery / Transition
Main Objective: Restore, recovery, mental relaxation
We are now in the post competition phase. The athlete has nailed his new 1RM and is now in a recovery mode as you both transition into a new mesocycle. The training will be low intensity and low volume.
Principles That Should Underlie the Training Mesocycle
To be able to lift more weight, your athlete has to lift more weight. As a result, your objective as you progress through the phases of the program is increased load. When a stressor is placed on the body, it will respond by adapting to the needs imposed by that stressor. But when that need is met it will no longer respond. When the stressor is a weight, the body responds by getting stronger. To continually get stronger, you need to keep adding resistance.
Specificity of Adaptation
In order to bench, squat and deadlift heavy weights, you need to bench, squat and deadlift heavy weights. These three exercises uniquely involve an amalgamation of strength speed, timing, technique, precision and focus. There are no other exercises that will replicate them.
As a result, actually performing the three big lifts should form the cornerstone of the program.
However, there are a number of auxiliary exercises that will help you to better perform them. Generally, the more closely these moves replicate the classic moves in terms of position, mechanics and speed of execution, the better.
Specificity also comes into play in relation to loading and repetition. The end goal of the program is to bench, squat and deadlift the heaviest possible weight for a single rep. As a result, muscular stamina and endurance are not a concern for us. So, we need to limit or even reduce endurance or stamina based training that will eat into the ability to generate explosive strength and recover from each session.
This is a measure of degree of effort and is expressed as a percentage of one rep max (1RM). This is the most weight the athlete has ever lifted in the exercise with proper form for one repetition.
The following chart shows how the percentage of 1RM relates to training intensity.
|%age of 1RM||Intensity Level||Usefulness|
|70-80||Light-medium||Technique, Speed work|
|80-85||Medium||Power, muscle gain|
Note: The auxiliary exercises in the program should not be based on a one rep max. Instead they should simply provide a set and rep count. You should select a weight that will ensure that the last 3 reps of each set require a maximal effort to lift with proper form.
Rep range is a key variable that will affect your training outcome. Because your end goal is to lift for a single max rep, rep ranges between 1 and 3 will be commonly used in this program. This is the ideal range for strength, speed and power development (with loads of between 70-85%).
In this rep range, you will be relying almost exclusively on the phosphagen metabolic pathway for your training energy. This pathway makes use of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP depletes quickly and is replenished by creatine phosphate. As a result, you should have the athlete take 5 grams of creatine monohydrate daily over the course of the mesocycle.
You should also make selective use of slightly higher rep ranges, between 4-8. While these also develop strength, they are more associated with muscular hypertrophy.
Rest Between Sets
Your rest between sets should be long enough to allow for full recovery without being so long that you actually cool down from the workout. The sweet spot for recovery between sets is 2-3 minutes.
Heavy low rep weight training takes a minimum of 48 hours for full recovery. As a result, you should intersperse heavy training days with lighter sessions. Heavy days should fall on Monday, Wednesday and Friday with lighter work being done on Tuesday and Thursday.
Do not train your athlete on the weekends. Allow these two days as an opportunity to recover, both mentally and physically.
A psychological strategy utilized in powerlifting to assist lifters in achieving their overall goals is goal-setting. A coach establishes goals and incremental targets as part of a comprehensive lifting strategy by choosing which body weight class a lifter should compete in and developing a training program for them. One objective in this strategy may be to add 2.5 kg to the bench press and reduce 1 kg of body weight in twelve weeks.
I recommend focusing your athlete on outcome goals.
Underlying “performance goals” that are focused on the lifter’s performance alone, independent of what other competitors may accomplish, are set in order to reach an outcome goal.
By contrasting the performance result with a prior result the athlete has already attained, the outcome is determined.
For instance, the performance objective for a powerlifter who gained a 90 kg bench press and seven white lights in January may be to reach a 95 kg bench press and eight white lights by April. The lifter’s total will go up if they succeed in this goal, which will help them earn a medal, which is their ultimate goal.
The Phases of Competition
Prior to the event, a technical meeting will be held to which all competitors and their coaches will be invited. The objective of the meeting is to ensure that everyone is one the same pages and that fair play will be assured.
During this meeting the chairperson will read out the names of the athletes in each weight class. They will usually then require the athlete or coach to show the athlete’s passport to confirm their name and date of birth. Make sure that you are both prepared for this.
Any discrepancies need to be sorted out at this meeting. Failure to do so may result in your athlete being unable to compete.
The competition schedule will also be spelt out during this meeting, along with the clarification of the rules and protocols.
Order of Competition
The competition schedule will be sent out ahead of time. It is up to you as the coach to check it carefully. Don’t rely on the format from previous competitions with the same organization, as they may change from one event to the next.
In order to help your athlete remain as calm and collected as possible on the day of competition, you should familiarize them with the run of the day. One way you can do this is by taking them to as many powerlifting meets as possible. Get them to observe what’s going on all around them. This should include what the athletes are doing as they wait for their event and how they get themselves into the zone in the moments before lifting.
When your athlete arrives at the venue, he will be required to sign in so that his name can be ticked off the lifting register. He will then be required to fill and sign a drug testing form. He’ll then need to be prepared to take a drug test at any time.
A tip I’ve learned as a coach is to check that the order of events is the same as advertised. It is quite common at smaller events for organizers to bring a weight slot forward if there are not many lifters in that category.
You and your athlete should arrive early. Well ahead of the event have him get on the bench press and under the squat rack to confirm their rack heights. This may be different to the rack heights in the warm-up room.
Prior to the weigh-in there will be a kit check. Qualified referees must inspect all clothing worn on the lifting platform. A single referee may handle this in a divisional competition, but at the national level and higher, there may be five referees or more.
Each component of the kit must be examined to make sure it complies with the regulations and checked off the kit checklist. For instance, every wrist and knee wrap needs to be measured to make sure it is the right length. If the wraps are excessively long, the lifter must determine whether to use them at all, shorten them to the proper length, or try to borrow a pair that is the right length.
A designated technical officer will be stationed in the warm-up area throughout the competition to watch that no lifter is using unregistered equipment. If something seems off, a lifter may be prevented from going out for a lift. The lifter’s 60-second lifting time will be reduced by the time it takes to ratify this. Making the right kit decisions within the parameters of the rules is crucial because doing otherwise can be very distracting for the lifter and potentially have a negative impact on performance.
Prior to the weigh-in, a lot draw is conducted, and each competitor’s lifter receives a random number that serves as theirs for the duration of the competition.
The lot order numbers are used to determine the order in which the lifters are weighed.
Coaches should be aware that the lifter with the lower lot number will lift first if two lifters want to attempt the same weight in the same lifting round. The lifter with the higher lot order will be able to observe whether the lifter with the lower lot number made a successful effort or not on final lifts, which can be a disadvantage. This provides individuals the option to maintain their weight if the attempt fails or increase it if it succeeds. In either case, they are in a better position than the lifter who has the lower lot order.
The lifter must head to the weigh-in area after completing their registration documents. There, they will find a list of the athletes’ names, nations (or clubs), and allotted lot numbers. The weigh-in begins two hours before the competition and lasts for 90 minutes for all approved events. Regardless of lot order, lifters are urged to arrive five minutes early and ready to go. The next lifter on the list is called if a lifter’s name is called and they are not there, and the first lifter named must wait until all the others have been called before mounting the scales.
A lifter will be asked to disclose their rack heights and opening lifts when they are called to the scales. They also need to show proof of their age as well as verification of their identification and federation membership at this time. An additional requirement at IPC Powerlifting competitions is a lifting license.
After the weigh in, the lifter receives attempt cards with their name, nation or club, weight class, and body weight on them. For the squat, bench press, competitors are allowed three attempts, with five on the deadlift. The lifter has up to five minutes before the start of the round to modify their declared initial attempt. After finishing a lift, a person has 60 seconds to announce their next attempt.
It is your job as the coach to hand the attempt card to the designated referee, who co-signs to confirm that they have received the request for the next attempt.
The crowd and coaches can follow the action thanks to the scoreboard next to the lifting platform, which receives all the information entered at the weigh-in. In order to prevent coaches from having to go back and forth, there will also be scaled-down versions of the scoreboard in the warm-up area.
Keep Your Athlete Nourished
If a lifter weighed in first, they might have to wait up to 1 hour and 45 minutes before lifting; if they were last or had to reweigh, they might only have to wait 25 minutes. It is your responsibility as the coach to make sure that the athlete is consuming quality foods. The main idea is to consume fluids and food that provide delayed release energy, such as beverages or carbohydrates to help with energy dips throughout the competition, all of which should be digested relatively easily.
The last thing you want is for your lifter to become dehydrated. If you do have to dehydrate him in order to lose weight for the weigh-in, make sure that you quickly rehydrate. But lifters should avoid consuming too much fluid too soon. Getting in and out of their lifting kit to go to the bathroom is difficult and time-consuming.
As the coach, you should guide your athlete through the warmup process. Stretching, executing some lifts without lifting gear, donning the gear, and lifting weights gradually by lowering reps on reps and increasing the weight until they reach their competitive one-rep maximum are all part of the warm-up routine.
Until the previous group of competitors has finished their last round, lifters are typically not allowed to warm up in the warm-up room. Lifters should arrive in the warm-up area early, choose their own set of racks and attempt to ‘claim’ them before everyone else.
The Round System
When the competition starts, the bar is loaded to its lightest weight, and the announcer declares the weight to be attempted as well as the lifter’s name. The chief referee will declare “Bar is loaded” if all the referees are in position and satisfied that everything is correct.
The lifter has 60 seconds to begin the lift after the clock starts. The lifter enters the platform, positions the lift, and attempts the lift within the referee’s cues. No matter how successful or unsuccessful their attempt, they have sixty seconds to leave the stage and declare their next try.
Lifting is conducted following what is called the round system. The lifts happen in ascending order of lot number if more than one lifter is attempting the same weight. The bar is then gradually loaded with heavier weights until everyone in the group has completed their first rep. For instance, the squat’s starting weight could be 180 kg, and the final weight could be 270 kg with the final lifter’s first try. Round 1 ends once each lifter has made their initial attempt. The bar is then lowered to the lifter’s starting weight in Round 2.
If a lifter or coach disagrees with a referee’s ruling, they have the ability to protest the ruling and must do so within 60 seconds of the disputed lift being finished by completing the appropriate paperwork. Regardless of where the tournament takes place, a fee of US $100 is currently due to the lifting federation of the event.
The lifter will have another chance to take the lift at the end of the round if the decision is reversed, but the lift cannot be taken back. The federation will keep the fee if the ruling is upheld.
Make Sure Your Athlete Doesn’t Fail a Drug Test
Powerlifting as a sport works within the World anti-Doping Association (WADA) guidelines. As a result, you and your athlete should be prepared for a drug test within 12 hours of competition.
There is a three-strike limit on drug tests: If a tester shows up at the location and time the athlete provided and cannot reach them to conduct the test, they will record a strike next to the athlete’s name. A lifter who obtains three strikes could face a two-year suspension from the sport. In essence, failing a test is equivalent to getting a positive result.
Regardless of the outcome, the athlete is accountable for the results of their drug test. They have to take into account everything that goes into their bodies.
If you are going to have your athlete take supplements, you both need to know how to read the product labels in order to identify any banned substances.
Athletes should be aware of the possibility of product contamination during manufacture if they choose to use supplements. They might be taking vitamin C, for instance, and the business that makes it might also produce a particular kind of cough medicine that has some prohibited chemicals. A conveyer belt (or other similar device) may be employed in the manufacturing to distribute them before the vitamin C is moved. The athlete may test positive if the vitamin C tablets contain even small amounts of the prohibited chemical. It is the responsibility of the athlete to conduct research on the substances they use.
Any over-the-counter medications that athletes use, whether at home or abroad, should be carefully considered, especially herbal and cold/flu remedies. Preparations and substances are likely to vary from nation to country, so the athlete is best served by bringing all of their own medications and dietary supplements along with the necessary paperwork.
Competition Day Coaching Tactics
Tactics can play in every competition. A good coach will know how to maximize tactics to the best advantage of his athlete.
In order to make strategic judgments, a coach must be aware of the lifts that their lifter can thrive at and those that best fit the opponents. To give an example, suppose a lifter is a skilled squatter, which can put him 25 kg in front, but an adversary has an excellent deadlift (the last
of the three powerlifting lifts) and could easily add another 30 kg to his weight.
The best strategy would be to gradually increase a total over as many lifts as you can. The first lifter would either have to be 30 kg in front after the bench press or alternatively if both lifters have a comparatively similar sub-total, you should pressure the opponent to take risks on their deadlift.
This can be done by signing up your athlete up for a weight that he is comfortable with, lowering this before their turn. This can compel the adversary to increase their own initial deadlift. As a result of being forced to open higher, they may struggle on subsequent
A coach must keep an eye on the effort that other lifters are making during their second and third efforts. It also helps to be familiar with the lifters’ prior performances. For instance, it would be very helpful to know whether any of the three lifters who are all starting within 5 kg of your lifter’s opening weight are able to make significant incremental jumps. If so, they may easily pass your lifter. Similar to the previous point, it would be extremely helpful to know if they are starting at a weight that is close to their limit because this would mean that they would have very little room to add to the bar in following attempts.
Since the weight of the last try may be changed three times total before the lift is actually performed, tactics can make all the difference in the final round and may alter practically up until the last minute.
For instance, lifter A might declare a final try at 150 kg while still deadlifting 145 kg. They might, however, alter their minds and want to compete for a gold medal at 155 kg, in which case they adjust their attempt. Then lifter B puts in 155 kg, so lifter A reduces their weight to 153 kg in an effort to force B to disclose the higher weight (using their most recent weight change), in the hopes that B will falter and A will win. On the other hand, it can be a tactical benefit to have the choice to increase the following attempt after observing the opposition go first.
The crucial thing is to pay close attention to other lifters and take into account their body weight, lot order, lifting sub-total, and overall total that would be gained or lost if the last lift was successful or unsuccessful. The outcome of the competition may depend on your last-minute tactics.
Expectations of Coaches at a Meet
- Always set a good example for participants and fans to follow.
- Give positive reinforcement of athlete performance.
- Respect the judgment of officials and abide by the rules of the event.
- Develop and enforce penalties for participants who do not abide by sportsmanship standards, in training, and in competition.
In this article, I’ve presented a comprehensive guide to preparing an athlete for powerlifting competition. The advice, tips, and tactics we’ve covered have come directly from the trenches and really work. Use them as your template for guiding your athlete to success at their next powerlifting event.
Interested in becoming a certified powerlifting coach? Look up the International Powerlifting Federation for more information.