Powerlifting is not strength training
(And Vice Versa)
by Alec Enkiri | 10/11/19
With the advent of social media and the re-introduction of raw powerlifting federations, powerlifting and powerlifting style training have exploded in popularity in recent years and become somewhat of a niche phenomenon. This has had many positive effects on the fitness community as a whole. It has encouraged many people who otherwise would not have done so to embrace barbell training (as opposed to machine or dumbbell only style training) and training to get stronger, creating objective, tangible improvements in the physical capabilities of their bodies. It has also encouraged many women to start lifting heavy weights so that they can build strength and muscle instead of just going to the gym to try to get "toned," and it has simultaneously drastically reduced the stigma that has long been attached to those women who have previously bravely ventured into this realm. These are all good things! Having a physically capable body is very important. Strength training can improve overall quality of life, increase bone mineral density, help keep elderly people independent longer, and help stave off a whole host of other ailments. The more people who partake in this endeavor the better. However, this rapid explosion in the popularity of powerlifting has also brought with it a great deal of confusion in regards to what the aims of strength training actually are vs. how they relate to the SPORT of powerlifting and training for that sport in particular. Today I want to address one of these points of confusion and that is the widespread total conflation of generalized strength training with powerlifting training.
Just Another Stupid Meathead
I myself train for overall strength, power, and enhancing general athleticism, and the foundation for all of these things is the strength training I perform. I consider this framework to be both my passion and my forte. I have also competed in several powerlifting competitions over the years and somehow that seems to predominate everything I have done. One of the comments I receive most frequently from people who are not familiar with my content goes something like this:
"Being fit isn't about being a good powerlifter. You're just another stupid meathead who thinks maxing out your bench press is the answer to everything but I bet you can't even run at all."
This is just a re-enactment of a comment that I've received about 1000 permutations of, but you get the point. Uninformed people see me do a heavy squat or deadlift and they automatically assume that powerlifting is the only endeavor I have any knowledge in and that I'm trying to extrapolate that knowledge into fields where it isn't applicable. But the reality is, true powerlifting training has made up only small percentage of my total time under the bar and in the world of strength training & general fitness. I started learning how to lift weights properly in 2008. I trained to maximize my powerlifting total for about 3 of those years (2014-2016). 3 out of 11 = 0.27. Ergo, 27% of my total training time/research has been spent on powerlifting. The rest has been split between a myriad of categories, such as general strength training, athletic enhancement, training for sport, power development, Olympic weightlifting, and building overall well-rounded general fitness across multiple categories.
So, here's kind of what I want to go into today:
the actual, tangible differences between training for powerlifting specifically and general strength training
the potential applications of general strength training as compared to powerlifting specific training
why people confusing all strength training as "powerlifting" matters
Let's start with the first point, the tangible differences between the two endeavors.
"I pick up heavy things and then I put them down."
Powerlifting Is NOT Strength Training
When training for powerlifting you have three concerns and three concerns only: the maximum weight you can squat for one rep, the maximum weight you can bench press for one rep, and the maximum weight you can deadlift for one rep. As a whole, that is a somewhat limited scope and focusing on it and it alone at the expense of everything else is going to lead to many holes in other places. These holes should be considered unacceptable for someone who does not intend to compete at a high level in powerlifting or for someone who does not care if they are truly maximizing their absolute genetic potential on those three lifts alone or not. Therefore, when training for general strength development, as opposed to powerlifting specifically, you have many other concerns as well.
I find this to be somewhat freeing of a concept! Yes, it means you have more to worry about overall and more bases to cover in your training, but it also means that you don't have to worry about whether only those three lifts are improving or not because you can use 100 other lifts in their place instead to continually build strength. Don't feel like back squatting? Do a zombie front squat. Bored of the bench? Focus on your overhead press off of pins. Deadlift stagnant? Learn how to do a power snatch or hit some heavy kettlebell swings. The possibilities are endless! But the point is you are no longer confined to such a limited number of lifts and their immediate derivations, and progress is no longer viewed through such a narrow scope. You can do anything you want! You can make any big, taxing exercise your primary lift. Ultimately, getting strong across a greater variety of exercises is going to make you a more well rounded individual. It may not maximize your powerlifting total, but on the whole it's quite likely that in the long run you will actually end up being stronger overall, more overall resilient, and less beat up.
Another thing to consider is rep ranges. When training for powerlifting you have to be good at doing max singles, there is no way around it. If you aren't good at max singles then you aren't a good powerlifter and you are leaving pounds on the platform. Getting good at this, however, takes a lot of practice. In fact, many of the modern powerlifters practice heavy singles in their training pretty much year round. But that practice can be very draining, both physically and mentally, and it can also invite injury. That's just the cost of doing business.
1388lbs Raw Powerlifting Total @ 162
The good news is, when training for general strength (and not worrying about powerlifting specifically) you don't EVER have to do a heavy single if you don't want to. Never. Not even once! Busting out max singles is a skill. If you don't practice it you won't be good at it, therefore to be a good powerlifter you must practice it. But ultimately, when training for general strength, you can build just as much overall strength by doing heavy sets of 3-5 reps until your damn ears bleed and never doing a damn single or maxing out a lift in your entire life. This is less stressful on the nervous system, less stressful on connective tissues, less stressful psychologically, and less likely to cause injury.
Maximal weight is not necessary for building maximal strength. Heavy weight is necessary for building maximal strength, but maximal weight is necessary only for displaying that strength. It took me a long time to fully grasp this concept, but this is a very important distinction that must be noted as removing this part of the equation negates a great deal of the risk that is present during the endeavor and makes it much more user friendly to a much larger population of people. There is no need to display maximal strength (or practice the act of displaying it) unless you are competing in a strength sport that requires you to do so. General strength training and even training for athletics and improvement at traditional sports do not have this requirement and thus all the benefits of strength training can be reaped for these endeavors without ever dipping your toes into that pool of extra risk.
Different Methods Means Different Applications
Now that we've covered the major technical differences between the two activities let's touch on the different applications of them. I kind of already unwittingly divulged some of these in the last segment, but let's take a slightly deeper look anyway. So true powerlifting training, with all it's specifications and idiosyncrasies, should be viewed as applicable only to the sport of competitive powerlifting. This seems obvious when you say it, but there are people who don't acknowledge this. Those people are only painting you a portion of what truly training for maximizing your powerlifting total entails, but there is a lot that goes into it that simply does not translate into anything else beyond it, thus rendering it pointless in other applications. Things like overly wide stance sumo deadlifts, overly wide grip bench presses with massive arches, and ultra low bar/wide stance style squats all have absolutely no place beyond the sport of competitive powerlifting. These things are not necessities for training for powerlifting by any stretch of the imagination, however, many high level competitors use them to their advantage because they help them to maximize their powerlifting totals.
The problem is that due to the more extreme positions that are present, these technical manipulations tend to place more stress on the applicable joints (namely the hips, shoulders, and lower back) than their less extreme variations. They also overemphasize the development of the hips and they drastically reduce the range of motion of the lifts and thus the total work performed. Collectively, this is going to reduce the carryover that these lifts have into general strength and into other non-barbell based activities while also placing undue stress on certain joints, which simply makes them unsuitable variations for people who do not have competitive aspirations. Couple this with the fact that these lifts are often maxed out or simply performed for max singles, which as I just pointed out is also an unnecessary practice for maximal strength development, and you have a recipe for something that is not only potentially injurious (both in the short and long term) but also relatively pointless if your goal is not just to put up the absolute biggest total you can.
A zombie front squat is basically the complete opposite of a low bar back squat.
As a side note, this is also why it's so incredibly important for competitive lifters to give themselves a sizable off-season. This gives them the opportunity not only to take a break from the ultra heavy work and benefit from the physical and mental reprieve that that entails, but also to incorporate more exercise variety, focus on building up their base, and not worry about having to be peaked all the fucking time. It seems like with Instagram, every lifter thinks they have to be able to match their PR's every single week out of the year, but this simply isn't feasible, especially as you move up the ladder of experience. Drugs might let you get away with it for a while, but in all likelihood these permanently peaked lifters will have very short careers. Anyway, end tangent.
Lastly, it's also one thing to practice these sorts of movements after you have spent several years building up a generalized base of formidable strength and muscle, but with the explosion in popularity of raw powerlifting you have many very young and inexperienced trainees practicing these specific training methods with no base to stand on or fall back on to. Of course, not every high level powerlifter trains this way or even competes this way, but many of the younger and more inexperienced lifters seem to be gravitating towards at least some of these lift variations (probably because they allow them to lift more weight initially), frequent max out sessions, and just overly specific training methods whether they intend to compete or not. Just like when you specialize in any sport too prematurely overuse injuries and sub-optimal compensations are going to become par for the course and these things will bite you in the ass eventually. It's not a question of if, but simply when.
Now, contrast this powerlifting style training with general strength training where the goal is simply to build as much overall strength, power, and bodily resilience as possible, and the applications of this approach are much more broad sweeping. Here I'm talking about an approach similar to what would probably be considered "powerbuilding," but with the addition of true power/conditioning work and sans any of the fluff that is often contained in bodybuilding style programming. The meat and potatoes of the program are going to be a squat (front squat, high bar squat, box squat, SSB squat, zombie squat, pause squat etc), a hip hinge (deadlift, trap bar deadlift, Romanian deadlift, weighted hyperextension, snatch grip deadlift, power clean/snatch, high pull, etc), a press (bench press, overhead press, incline press, weighted dip, Larsen press, close grip bench press, pin press, push press, etc.) a pull (chin-up, row, face pull, pulldown), something explosive for the lower body (vertical jump, broad jump, jump squat, kettlebell swing, power clean/snatch resisted sprint, unresisted sprint, etc), maybe something explosive for the upper body, and some form of conditioning work to tie it all together.
Power is kind of a big deal.
You would focus mostly on progressively building up your standard straight set rep schemes, e.g. 5x5, 5x3, 4x6, 3x8, etc. etc. with some occasional forays into auto-regulated training territory where you ramp up to heavy sets of 3, 4, or 5 with a back-off set or two afterward for brief periods of time. You rotate through exercises and set/rep schemes after every few months when things become stale or you simply get fucking bored of what you're doing. You're not tethered to any specific variations or rep schemes. You don't have to be able to max out your lifts on any particular day (or ever). And you can focus on other things that are typically neglected by traditional powerlifting training, like conditioning work and power development. All you have to do is eat well, sleep well, be consistent, and focus on quality reps and slowly adding weight to the bar on your big lifts. This approach is much more applicable to a much broader range of things. The carryover across the board is going to be immense and is going to be present in pretty much everything else that you do outside of the gym, whether your goal is to get bigger, stronger, and faster for your sport, be super fit and healthy in general, or just be capable of handling any task that life throws your way. This is the basis of general strength training, and this is comprehensive fitness. Powerlifting as a focused and elite endeavor is not.
Now, this doesn't mean we cant use aspects of powerlifting training to our advantage, but I think it's important to remember that these competitive exercises existed before powerlifting existed. They have been adopted by the sport of powerlifting and it is simply borrowing them and molding them around its ideals. It's not the other way around. Thus, using these competitive exercises or their immediate variations does not mean that you have to go "all in" with powerlifting training. Take away what is applicable to everyone, the aspects and ideas that would make anyone a better lifter e.g. become a student of lifting technique and learn how to lift the most weight in the safest and most efficient fashion possible; learn how to master auto-regulated training using the RPE scale; pause the majority of your bench press reps on your chest to build more raw upper body strength & power while reducing your risk of a shoulder or chest injury. Take the applicable parts that will make you a better lifter and simply discard the rest unless your goal is to maximize your powerlifting total.
Why All This Matters
Before someone jumps down my throat I feel obligated to mention that I am in no way, shape, or form suggesting that people who practice purely powerlifting style training are not strong. They are immensely strong and are far stronger than I could ever hope to be, especially at the elite level. However, the difference between me and them is that they are trying to become capable of maximally displaying their immense strength in a very specific fashion and that fashion is not necessarily conducive to other goals outside of that endeavor (of which I personally have many). They are trying to become the best and strongest powerlifter they can be, not the strongest, fittest, and most well rounded version of themselves that they can be. To accomplish the latter goal requires more than the highly narrow focus powerlifting entails, and to accomplish the former goal requires ignoring the things that make you more well rounded (quite the conundrum I know!).
But the fact is, most people who lift don't actually ever plan to step on a powerlifting platform and using the generalized approach I described above they can still achieve most of the squat, bench, and deadlift gains they would otherwise have achieved using a powerlifting specific program, but while simultaneously building more overall strength throughout their body (and likely muscle as well), developing their ability to produce power (which has shown to be related to all-cause mortality), and also improving their conditioning. It's simply a more comprehensive version of fitness because it's not tethered to maximizing performance in a singular sport or event, which makes it far more likely to have positive transfer into a multitude of different arenas. Strength is the basis of all movement and this is strength training, thus it should prepare you for anything. It should build you up in totality rather than pigeonhole you or make you a three trick pony. That's why these are distinct endeavors and should be viewed as such. Obviously there is going to be some overlap, but they are not the same thing. Thus, the training required to maximize each goal is ultimately going to be very different and the two ideas should no longer be conflated.
An example of the type of shit you can do when you're no longer training for powerlifting.
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