Strength sports are increasing in popularity so it comes as no surprise that many people are suiting up and stepping on to the platform for the first time. What is interesting is the increase in “hybrid athletes” at these competitions: those who compete in both weightlifting and powerlifting*. We’ve already explored the differences between weightlifting and powerlifting meets so now we focus our attention on the difficulties athletes who wish to transition face. Athletes can compete in both but they have to be cognizant of the pros and cons in doing so and be smart about their training to remain healthy and competitive.
Weightlifting to Powerlifting
It’s a much easier transition for weightlifters to compete in powerlifting. Why? All weightlifters do is squat, pull, and press things overhead. That’s essentially what the snatch and clean and jerk encompasses. So for a weightlifter they show up on a powerlifting meet day and perform their “accessory” lifts: squat and deadlift, and the bench press.
Squat: Think back on the last weightlifting meet you attended: how many weightlifters did you see head over to the squat rack immediately following the award ceremony? Likely more than a few. The squat is a weightlifter’s bread and butter. The only differences between a weightlifter’s squat and a powerlifter’s squat is where the bar is placed (high bar vs. low bar) and sometimes the foot placement. Weightlifters squat narrowly to mimic their receiving positions in the snatch and clean; that’s not to say powerlifters can’t squat narrowly but they typically have their feet open a tad bit wider. This can be due in part to those powerlifters who lift equipped and the single or multi-ply suits force them to do so.
High school junior Gates Willson, a former powerlifter, in his first weightlifting meet in 2015. Photo credit: Tim Addison
Bench: Out of all the lifts tested in a powerlifting meet, the bench is likely the most troublesome for a weightlifter. However a weightlifter typically has a strong upper body and can adapt pretty easily. Powerlifters arch their back to lessen the distance they have to move the bar whereas most weightlifters, if benching in their programs, remain flat backed. An individuals’ arch will depend on their mobility but it can be improved on. Not all powerlifters arch (check out World Record Holder Jennifer Thompson below) but a vast majority do.
USAPL World Record holder Jen Thompson flat back benching (she has since broken this record). Photo credit: USA Powerlifting
USA World Team Member Meghan Pellatt benching with an arch in training. Photo credit: Meghan Pellatt
Deadlift: Clean deadlift, snatch deadlift, clean pulls, snatch pulls: what do they have in common? Aside from foot placement, they can be considered deadlift variations. While it may seem like it makes sense for an athlete to pull “sumo” (wide stance) since it’s less distance for the athlete to pull the bar off the ground, for a weightlifter they want to stay conventional. Stick with what they know and more importantly what they do on a daily basis. They are more powerful with that “narrow” stance even though they may have a longer distance to travel from the floor. A weakness in the posterior chain or tight hips will limit which stance an athlete will choose.
One of the most accomplished powerlifters/weightlifters Caleb Willaims sumo deadlifting. Photo credit: Powerlifting-IPF
Functional fitness athlete Katie Hogan conventional deadlifting. Photo credit: SuperTraining.tv
Powerlifting to Weightlifting
Powerlifters’ learning curve in their weightlifting transition is a little steeper than what their weightlifting counterparts endure. The snatch and clean aren’t typically in a powerlifter’s regime but that doesn’t mean they can’t learn. The weightlifting movements require strength, which the powerlifters possess, but they also require speed and mobility. Years of bench press or squatting without proper stretching can cause a powerlifter to spend just as much time stretching as he does perfecting his technique. Patience is going to be the athlete’s best friend.
Snatch: For those individuals who got into powerlifting through functional fitness gyms, the transition or fluctuation isn’t difficult. For those who didn’t then this will likely be the most difficult challenge they face. While a long slow grind (in some cases) works in powerlifting, that’s not the case in weightlifting. The overhead squat needs to be a top priority in the powerlifters’ initial training regime along with snatch balances while they build their base for the snatch. Particular attention should be paid to position work for the beginner athlete in both the snatch and the clean.
State powerlifting record holder and champion Kimmy Trowbridge snatching in her first weightlifting meet. She went on to qualify for USAW Nationals and American Open. Photo credit: Tim Addison
Clean: The good news is the clean isn’t an entirely new concept for powerlifters. Many powerlifters got their start in high school or college weight rooms where they were taught to power clean. Some even front squat in their powerlifting regimes. It should be noted that for weightlifting transition the powerlifter should refrain from crossing his arms on this moment; if mobility is his concern then he should continue stretching and releasing until he can get a grip on the bar or use straps around the bar as an extension for him to hold.
Former Team USA Skeleton athlete Kristina Jackson setting up to clean at her first weightlifting meet. Photo credit: Tim Addison
Jerk: Even while learning the technical nuances of the jerk the powerlifter can still compete in a weightlifting meet: he can power jerk or push press his way to a total. Perhaps he may be more efficient at a power jerk than a split jerk. Only time will tell which jerk he will choose but attention should be paid to all variations in the learning process.
Highland Games competitor Scott Burnside in his first weightlifting meet power jerking. He went on to win his 2014 American Masters weight class. Photo credit: Tim Addison
Variations dependent on how close a meet is should be taken into consideration. The closer to a meet you get you should start weeding out some of the movements and narrowing down. This is a sample from the start of a cycle for a weightlifter who has a powerlifting meet at the end of the cycle.
Press variation to 10 RM with drop sets
Squat up to 10 RM with drop sets
Bench press up to 10RM with drop sets (those with shoulder issues can lessen reps)
Weighted Abs: 10×3 sets
Day 2/Day 4
Snatch or clean from hip/thigh up to 5RM with drop sets
Snatch or clean dead-lift 10 RM with drop sets
Snatch or Clean Pull From Power Position 10RM with drop sets
Bent rows 10RMwith drop sets
Pull ups body-weight 3-5×10
Hanging Leg Raise: 10×3 sets
Back off variation of Day 1
Snatch and clean and jerk: 8-12 reps (of each exercise) @ approximately 70- 80%
Front squat 3RM
It is possible to be a competitive strength athlete in multiple sports. If this is your goal you need to plan your training cycle for the year and taper for your specific events. You can perform well at both sports but just know that it will take some time to adjust. Take copious amounts of notes on how your body responds to the training. It would highly benefit you to find a coach who can not only steer you in the right direction but also keep you safe on your strength journey.
Obstacle course racer and functional fitness athlete Janice Ferguson in her first weightlifting meet. Photo credit: Tim Addison
*For the purposes of this article, we will be discussing raw powerlifting (no multi-ply suits or supportive knee wraps).
** Training courtesy of Mississippi Barbell‘s Tyler Smith