Competition Differences: Powerlifting and Weightlifting

Meets are for everyone regardless of age, skill level, or background. Barring any injury, the ultimate goal of a powerlifter or weightlifter should be a meet. Meets may seem the same across the board; athletes hoisting heavy weights, sashaying around in a singlet, coaches calculating and jockeying to win.

While that may be true, there are nuances you’ll need to know to make sure you succeed according to the sport*. If it’s your first meet I suggested you check out this article, find yourself a knowledgeable and reputable coach to help guide you, and read this piece so you don’t embarass yourself or your athlete.

The only embarrassment you want on meet day is wearing the same singlet as someone else. If that happens, reenact Highlander.


Lifts Tested

This is going to sound pedantic but just in case we need clarification of the lifts each sport encompasses, here we go.

Full powerlifting events test the squat, bench, and the deadlift. There are “Push/Pull” events that only include the bench (push) and deadlift (pull) and then stand alone events for just the bench or the deadlift. Some meets allow you to compete in multiple divisions (Full, Bench, Push/Pull, Equipped, Equipped Bench, Raw); if you have the money to spend on all the entry fees, go for it. Remember all of this when we get to the length of the event.

 PrettyStrong Powerlifting member Stephanie Mahan squatting raw at a IPF World Event representing USAPL

Weightlifting events are much simpler to figure out as they only test the snatch and the clean and jerk.

East Coast Gold athlete Danielle Hudes snatching at her first weightlifting competition


Both sports require singlets. Note that there are some looser local rules for youth; check with your meet director.           

Singlets don’t have to be bland. Ignore the fact one of these athletes is a WWE wrestler. Act like The Nutty Professor and ask for “Spandex! Allllll Spandexxxxx!!!” for your next singlet

For powerlifting individuals who choose to lift raw wear singlets similar to weightlifters- ones with no extra help or give. They are just tight and show off your curves. Raw powerlifters can wear wrist wraps, non-supportive neoprene knee sleeves, and belts. Belts are typically one or two prong with latches; you won’t see Velcro belts in a sanctioned meet. Regardless of whether they are lifting raw or geared, all powerlifters must wear tall socks protecting their shins (keeps blood off the bars as well).
But for those who choose to lift equipped (geared powerlifting), there is a whole universe of suits and equipment. Single-ply, double-ply, and multi-ply aren’t referencing the brand of toilet paper you use; that’s the plethora of suits and shirts geared lifers have to choose from. Different federations allow for different fabrics and plys.

Nick Weite squatting in supportive knee wraps and the Titan Super Centurion squat suit at the 2014 IPF World Championships

Those Squat and Deadlift suits, as well as Bench shirts, help push an athlete out of the hole of the respective lift because they provide a resistance during the eccentric portion. That  is why you see athletes going slowly down in a geared Squat and Bench or taking a while to reach down to get to the bar on deadlift.

2013 Junior National Champion  Natalie Cantrell, an equipped powerlifter, being wrapped in supportive knee wraps

Weightlifters are allowed non-supportive singlets, wrist wraps, non-supportive knee wraps or knee sleeves, and a belt.

Nonsupportive singlets, like this one for the Lab Gym, can double as weightlifting and raw powerlifting singlets

A majority of weightlifters will use a Velcro belt but I’ve seen prong belts as well (with the latch to the side). It depends on what the athlete is comfortable with.

Mississippi Barbell athlete Amber Gaspard is a minimalist in a singlet and wrist wraps at the 2014 Universities event

Warm Ups

Regardless of your sport my personal preference is to start earlier than you’d think (especially if you are new) and then slow it down if necessary. This is especially true if there are a lot of athletes in your session and you are having to work in with them.

You shouldn’t have to fight with anyone over a barbell like this bone so long as you’re polite in the warm up area

If you have to get into gear for powerlifting make sure you allocate time to putting it on. That sounds like a no-brainer but if you’re lifting in gear chances are the suit or shirt is hard to put on (or you’ll need help); I’ve seen people rush warm ups because they put their suit on too late and bomb out. Don’t be that guy. Get help if you need it and start wiggling your way into your equipment with enough time to spare.

Spent 25 minutes getting into my suit and now I only have 5 minutes until I lift?

I recommend my powerlifters be ready and sitting when their flight starts unless they are far down the flight list. Even then give yourself time to rest before your opener. For weightlifters I like them sitting down and ready about 4-5 attempts out; this fluctuates dependent on the athlete–some like minimal rest.

USAW Level 5 coach Danny Camargo times his weightlifters warm ups so his athletes aren’t rushing to the platform for their openers

Picking An Opener

In raw powerlifting a good rule of thumb is to open with what you could triple. This typically means about 88-92% of your max dependent on how you perform. It should be something you are comfortable with doing that will give you confidence moving into your second attempt. Every athlete is different but it shouldn’t be something you worry about them missing.

Geared lifters need to pick something that is light enough for them to hit without worry but heavy enough to allow resistance so they can get low enough (squat) or touch their chest (bench).

Regardless there should be room for improvement between the first and second attempt. Geared lifters need to pick something that is light enough for them to hit without worry but heavy enough to allow resistance so they can get low enough (squat) or touch their chest (bench).

PrettyStrong Powerlifting athlete Mikelina Belaineh getting advice before a national event

For weightlifters if it is your first meet or if you have a lot of butterflies stay on the lower side. If you miss an opener it shouldn’t be on strength. You know your athletes limits. The same confidence issues as in powerlifting are a factor here as well. Unless you’re trying to make a World team, don’t push the envelope on your opener. I’ll have my athletes open around 90-93% but again, that can change on their abilities. The point is to get in the game and live to see another lift.

An athlete should be confident and calm before on their opener like Mississippi Barbell athlete Vic Sanders.


Each lift in powerlifting has its own command coupled with hand signals.

    • Squat: “Bar is loaded”, “Squat” with a downward hand motion, and “Rack” with a hand motion towards the judge.
    • Bench: “Bar is loaded”, “Start”, “Press” and “Rack” with a hand motion towards the judge. 
    • Deadlift: “Bar is loaded” with a raised hand, “Down” with a downward hand motion.


Powerlifter Nick Weite competing at USAPL Pro Deadlift at the 2015 Arnold Classic

Before you are called to the platform in powerlifting you may also hear “(Name) On Deck” (two lifts out) and “(Name) In The Hole!” (lifting next).

Weightlifting has two commands regardless of the lift. Depending on the event, those commands may actually be buzzers and lights.

  • “Bar is loaded”
  • “Down”


Each sport has a panel of three judges watching the lifts. In order for a lift to count towards the athlete’s total, he must receive at least 2 out of 3 white lights. Some events the judges will use red or white colored flags instead of lights.

 “Don’t put chalk on my platform and tell me it’s snowing!”

Be sure to brush up on the technical rules for your federation (USAW/IWF, USAPL). Things like foot movement (powerlifting), a misplaced elbow or a knee on the floor (weightlifting) can cause a red light being issued.

Not all judges will smile like Team USA World Universities coach Jason Poeth so be professional on the platform.

Time Between Attempts

In both sports weights are loaded in ascending order. This means the first person to lift in a session is lifting the least amount of weight.

Please don’t use this clock on meet day!

Powerlifting meets have “rounds” within the session. In round 1 of the Squat athletes will all attempt their first lift. Each athlete has one minute to receive the start command at that weight. Once everyone has tried their attempt, round 2 begins. Weights are loaded and taken in ascending order once again. If an athlete misses an attempt in round 1 or 2, he cannot go for it again until that round has been completed and the next begins. In a nutshell, you will never follow yourself. Powerlifters typically will not re-warm themselves; they may stretch  but because the lifts are typically more of a grind than in weightlifting the longer rest time is generally welcomed.

Don’t be like Jessie; keep an eye on the card table and you will know how much time you have and it will be plenty

Weightlifting follows the same outline as powerlifting far as bar loading is concerned (ascending order) but that’s where the similarities end. In weightlifting if an individual misses his lift, if no one is attempting the same weight, he will follow himself. In that case he has two minutes before he has to lift again unless his coach bumps his attempt higher to give him more rest time. If your athlete hits his first attempt and you make a bigger jump for his second attempt, then he may have a lot of time before his next lift. In that case he will want to stay warm and hit a light weight, do a snatch or clean deadlift to knee, or a pull. It’s up to you but just something to keep him primed.

Coach Smith handling warm up attempts and coaching Mississippi Barbell Vic at a meet. Photo credit: Amber Sheppard

Stay close to your athlete in the warm up room like Mississippi Barbell’s Tyler Smith

Bar Loading

In powerlifting, there are more factors to consider then just loading the bar and lifting it when calculating your time. There are rack heights for squat and bench that need adjusting before the athlete can step on the platform. While seasoned spotters and loaders can move the weights and the rack heights swiftly, this isn’t always the case. Keep an eye on the clock and your placement so you aren’t caught off guard.

A powerlifting competition bench by ER Racks will need height adjustments for each lifter

Weightlifting requires bars to be loaded and tightened as well but there’s no rack adjustments. On occasion wooden blocks will be needed for younger athletes, blood will need to be removed from a bar or the platform swept but all in all, it runs pretty quickly.

Mississippi Barbell athletes adjusting a weightlifting bar

Attempt changes, however, play a big role in the timing of the event.

Attempt Changes

You won’t have many changes in powerlifting. Any changes of an opener must be made by 3 minutes prior to the flight starting. There can be some jockeying of final attempts, especially in deadlift Even then you are allowed only two changes. There can be a fast and furious “switch-a-roo” (clearly a non-technical term) between a few lifters jockeying for a higher placement but your athlete’s placement in the round won’t change drastically.

Weightlifting can turn your world upside down if you are not paying active attention to the card table throughout the entire meet. You can change a weight three times per lift attempt. It doesn’t always mean increasing it; as long as the bar is not loaded to that weight you can decrease your attempt. There is always a lot of card scrambling so it’s best to keep an eye on the table more than you may think necessary. If you are unfamiliar with the process I suggest checking out the USAW article for more help.

Coach Sheppard (left) and Smith (right) with coaching mentor Danny Camargo (center) at a national event in 2014

Stay close to the table and if you are too scared to weasel your way to it, at least stay by the monitors at bigger events

Rule Nuances

Powerlifting only allows for a 2.5 kilo (5.5 pound) increase for attempts whereas weightlifting allows one kilo ( 2.2 pound) increases.

Have your attempts listed in kilograms for both sports beforehand. You have a limited time to get your next attempt to the table so time is of the essence. Some venues will have conversion charts but please don’t ask a table worker to do your conversions for you. They have enough going on. Invest in a calculator or conversion app.

Failure to know your sports’ rules can result in you missing out on all of this gold

Once the Rack command or the down signal has been called, get off the platform. The loaders have to tighten or change the weight and you are in the way. Be confident in your lifting ability anyway; walk off the platform and celebrate once the lift has been credited to you.  Time isn’t on your side so get moving.

In both sports if you fail to tell the table of your next attempt in the allotted time frame, a weight will be chosen for you. In powerlifting a 2.5 kilo increase applies and in weightlifting it’s one kilo. An added caveat in weightlifting is that if you fail to tell the table your declaration in thirty seconds you are unable to make any changes for that lift.

Follow these tips and you can jump for joy like PrettyStrong Powerlifting’s Amanda Carroll

Length Of Event

If you like spending sunrise to sundown at an event, powerlifting is the sport for you. Especially on the local level.

I can’t guarantee you’ll see George Clooney at a powerlifting event

If you want to walk in and be done with daylight (or evening) to spare then weightlifting is calling your name.

That’s not a knock on either sport- it’s just the nature due to the number of lifts taken and the speed of those lifts. Powerlifting has 9 lifts per person whereas weightlifting has 6. Many times powerlifting has more than one flight on a platform for a session; this means all of flight 1 and all of flight 2 will do their squats before flight 1 can move on to bench press. As you can imagine it can take quite a while sometimes. If your meet director has manageable flights then you should give them a metaphorical hug.

That’s not including bar loading time, attempt changes, cleaning of equipment, and awards ceremonies. Some events will do awards at the end of each session; others at the end of the entire meet. For those events with multiple categories, awards can run long. But hey: if you made it to the podium none of that should matter. Even if you didn’t make it there this meet you should still clap for your competitors. No one likes a poor sport.

Regardless of the event, you’d be remiss if you didn’t pose like a Bodybuilder after collecting your hardware.

Our next article will feature training advice for those who want to compete in both powerlifting and weightlifting.



* Federation references in this article are USAPL and USAW



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