More and more women are taking up powerlifting to tone up, burn fat, get stronger and feel awesome – should you?
There are few places in today’s day and age where the division of the sexes is still so apparent than at a chain gym.
Here the men dominate the weights room and the women monopolise the cardio area, pounding every treadmill as far as the eye can see, counting down the minutes – and the calories – until it’s all over.
If you do happen to love cardio that’s great! Keep at it. Yet having asked a lot of women if they even like running, the answer nine times out of ten is, “no…not really!”
Yet they continue to slog it out. Why?
They seem to stick with it because of the persisting myth that you have to do cardio to achieve fat loss.
Either that, or they’re too intimidated by the weights room to venture in. However, things are changing. More and more women are taking up powerlifting – let’s take a look at why.
Goodbye treadmill, hello squat rack
Heard of #thisgirlcan or #strongisthenewskinny?
There is a movement happening, and it’s a very good one. Women in gyms everywhere are finally freeing themselves from the shackles of the treadmill and making full use of that gym membership. They’re getting in the squat rack, lifting heavy and enjoying their training.
It’s no surprise then that the number of women training in strength sports, like powerlifting, has sky-rocketed in recent years.
Type the hashtag #girlswhopowerlift into iInstagram and it returns over 900,000 results.
And the number of women deciding to compete in British powerlifting competitions has also risen by five times in the last five years, according to the British powerlifting website.
Elite female powerlifter Louise Sinniah-Burr (Senior Under 52kg English Champion 2017 no less) explains why:
“Female powerlifting, and the standard of it, is growing massively in Britain. I think this reflects a positive change in mainstream views on what women who lift heavy look like.
“They’re strong, healthy, happy, and confident. One of the great aspects of strength sports – whether you compete or not – is that the discipline and strength developed results in a strong body and mind, empowering athletes in all aspects of their life. All reasons for why I love the powerlifting lifestyle!”
So, what is powerlifting?
Powerlifting focuses on the three BIG lifts: the squat, the bench press and the deadlift. The aim is to perform each lift once with as much weight as possible (a one rep max).
The winner is whoever ends up with the biggest total in your category (i.e. the combined weight of each of their best lifts).
When it comes to competing, it’s all about relative strength. You will be competing against your own gender, weight class and in some cases your age group which means anyone can get involved.
The powerlifting community is a friendly and inclusive one and, although competitions are a great way to meet likeminded people, you don’t have to compete or even focus on one rep maxes to reap the rewards of nailing the three big lifts.
Your fat burn power-up
There are girls all over Instagram performing an alarming array of intricate and creative moves involving bands, cables, ankle weights and the smith machine.
Variety is great! BUT…
If your aim is to burn fat and tone up then the bread of butter of your training should centre around some form of squat, bench press or deadlift. You could even throw in an upper body pull.
As the big three are compound moves, your whole body is involved in the movement and you’ll get more fat burn for your buck.
The more you can lift, the more muscle you will likely build. This can help to increase your resting metabolic rate in the long term which means you’ll be burning more calories, even whilst you catch up on Survival of the Fittest later that evening.
Yet more significantly, as you get stronger, you’ll be able to move more weight around and therefore burn more calories within your workout.
Plus, if you enjoy it, you won’t be tempted to skip a workout. And as we know, consistency is key for fat burn. Regular weight training beats a once-in-a-blue-moon, half-hearted plod on the treadmill every time.
Your future self will thank you
As we age, we become more prone to muscle loss (sarcopenia) and bone loss (osteoporosis).
Studies have shown that weight bearing activity can greatly help retain bone density and protect against muscle atrophy (loss) as we get older.
No matter what age or level you’re at, you can get strong and build muscle.
With a few sessions to focus on technique, lifting is perfectly safe. The one thing that isn’t safe is being weak. If you want to avoid hip replacements in later life, the sooner you start lifting the better.
It’s a great confidence builder
The media and society seem to focus solely on weight loss when it comes to women. Constantly telling us that we should diet. Shrink ourselves. Burn off the calories and burn ourselves out.
The great thing about weight training is that it forces you to change your mindset from what your body ‘should’ look like to what it can actually do.
And that’s an awesome feeling.
For Louise, it completely changed her perspective:
I first started lifting simply because I wanted to look and feel stronger. After committing to a bodybuilding competition on a whim (after seeing a friend compete), I had no choice but to throw myself into the process.
But it wasn’t the moments of success that kept me lifting, even after bodybuilding. It was the realisation that, through lifting, I could literally morph my body and mind into anything I could articulate or visualise. My parents instilled strong, independent, feminist values in me but lifting provided proof, completely changing my perspective on life and expectations of myself.
The lessons I take away from winning, failing, injuries – all the experience and learnings that come from building a passion into a lifestyle – make me a more resilient person, which feeds into all aspects of my life, including my career.”
The focus in powerlifting is a positive one – on growth – rather than a negative one on becoming less.
No matter how you feel about your body, once the weights on the bar start going up and you see yourself getting stronger, then no-one, not even your inner critic, can take that away from you.
Don’t worry, you won’t get hench
Even if you really tried to. Even if you trained regularly and in a calorie surplus for years, you still wouldn’t look like a man.
Women don’t have the same hormones as men for that kind of natural growth. Instead you’ll be adding tone to your shape.
Plus, rather interestingly, you can still increase your strength without increasing your muscle mass. This is largely due to getting better at the skill of performing the lifts, and neural factors enabling increased level of muscle activation.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at some elite female powerlifters. The best thing is that we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg and, as the sport gathers popularity and becomes more competitive, it’ll be fascinating to see what the true potential of female strength is.
Is powerlifting for you?
Sure, you might start lifting because you want to get ‘toned’ but sooner or later you’ll start paying more attention to the weight on the bar, than the weight on your bathroom scale.
You’ll start getting curious. You’ll wonder how much more weight you could lift and what your potential might be.
Aesthetic goals might be what get you started but hitting performance goals are what keep you hooked.
Powerlifting for beginners
Ready to give it a go? Here’s a simple program to get you going if you’re new to lifting.
Simply aim to stay within the RPE range (the rate of perceived exertion) – in other words, how difficult you find it out of 10. For example, if the RPE is seven then you should pick a weight that you could comfortably perform another 3 reps with.
There are three days in the programme and you’ll repeat the program for four weeks, each time aiming to add a bit more weight to the bar every week or two. Ensure you rest at least one day between training days. Here it is:
Day 1: This is your hypertrophy day, meaning you’re working with higher rep-ranges, aiming to build muscle.
Day 2: This is your power day. You’ll be lifting heavier than the hypertrophy day, but for less reps. The aim is to perform the reps with force, so the bar should be moving speedily.
Day 3: This will be your strength day. The weights will be heavier than the other two days and you might be slower at performing the moves. That said, your technique should never break down.
|Back squat||3||8||6 to 7|
|Bench press||3||8||6 to 7|
|Romanian deadlift||2||6||6 to 7|
|Lat pull down||3||8||6 to 7|
|Back squat||3||4||8 to 9|
|Bench press||3||4||8 to 9|
|Deadlift||3||4||8 to 9|
A few powerlifting tips
To go with the plan, here are some tips from me:
- Try investing in a session with a PT or powerlifting coach who can correctly show you how to perform each exercise and how to set up the squat rack.
- Focus on your form first, over the amount of weight on the bar. Don’t let ego get the better of you!
- Make sure you write down (on paper or on your phone) the weights you’re lifting for each exercise, so you can track your progress.
If you’re interested in competing, then make sure you’re performing the lifts according to IPF rules:
- Squat – you need to squat deep enough so that your hip crease is below the top of your kneecap.
- Bench press – you must have your bottom and shoulders on the bench, your heels on the floor and the bar has to touch your chest motionless before you then press it up.
- Deadlift – once you’re upright, you must be in a lock out position, where your shoulders are back, hips are forward, and knees are straight.
Finally, I’ll leave you with a few more words from Louise. I think they represent how the whole female powerlifting community feels:
Competing – or completing a programme designed to help you achieve specific goals – means overcoming so many fears: fear or underperforming, fear of not getting the result, fear of losing or not being up to the standard required.
Lifting is a truly accessible way to overcome these fears every day. The bad days are just as valuable as the good ones when you decide to approach them as an opportunity for improvement.
No matter what gender, weight, race, shape or age you are, your limitations are only those you choose to believe in. And when you succeed in lifting something heavy – you feel unstoppable!