Powerlifting for seniors

Powerlifting for seniors

Today we will talk about powerlifting for seniors. Powerlifting is a great sport for senior athletes and active senior citizens who want to challenge their bodies and gain some serious strength.

Powerlifting is an official sport with several federations with different rules. Unlike Olympic weightlifting it’s not an Olympic sport but there are national leagues in virtually every country in the world. Most leagues have a masters series for older athletes and seniors. Usually the highest masters age group is 70+.

You don’t have to have a history in strength training to become a powerlifter. If you have any kind of athletic background and have full mobility in your limbs you are good to go. Of course, you need lots of practice in the three movements that powerlifting consists of. If you have no prior lifting background it’s practically mandatory to find a competent coach who has experience in coaching senior athletes.

The great thing about powerlifting is that you can actually compete and have success in the masters series. This can be a great motivator for the competitive types who might find exercising for health just boring.

Powerlifting will improve your strength, mobility and general health immensely compared to being sedentary and it’s a great way to meet new interesting people.

But before we talk more about powerlifting for seniors, let’s look at what powerlifting actually is!

What is powerlifting

Powerlifting is a strength sport that consists of three main lifts: The squat, the bench press and the deadlift. The lifts are performed with a barbell that is loaded with weight plates.

In most federations you get three tries for each lift before moving to the next lift. There are federation specific strict rules at how the lift has to be performed and what equipment is allowed. We will talk about them more when look at the lifts.

Competitors are split into classes according to gender, weight class, and age. After all the lifts are performed, the best lift of each exercise is summed for a total. The lifter with the highest total wins.

You can also compete in powerlifting with only one or two discipline. For example only bench press or bench and deadlift. There are many people who only compete in one lift to break the world record in that lift. This is because you can become better in a single lift if you focus all your effort into mastering it.

Federations and performance enhancing drugs

The largest and best known organization is the International Powerlifting Federation or IPF. IPF is the original powerlifting federation and one of the rare that use drug testing.

As most strength sports, powerlifting is riddled with performance enhancing drug use. This is because drugs like anabolic steroids and growth hormone offer immense advantage in building strength and muscle mass. That’s why there are several powerlifting federations which don’t test for PEDs and down right encourage their use because you can’t simply win as a natural athlete.

performance enhancing drugs are common in powerlifting

Many of these federations are a bit extreme also in the sense that besides encouraging drug use they practice equipped lifts to absolutely maximize the weights being lifted. Equipped powerlifting means there are special suits and shirts for all the lifts that give support for the lifter and allow larger weights to be lifted. In reality of course it’s not the lifter that does all the work, but some of the energy is stored in the elastic suits at the beginning of the lift.

In the most extreme form this kind of powerlifting simply can’t be considered healthy because the lifters are often obese, suffering long term side effects from drugs and lifting heavier loads than their skeletal structure can handle.

But it’s entertaining and unfortunately that’s what people want to watch. Just like in NHL or NFL, drugs make everything bigger, faster and more exciting to watch. In the case of powerlifting it’s also about breaking new records. There are many lifters that are willing to risk their long term health to break the world record in their weight class.

On the other extreme there are drug tested federations like the IPF in which all lifts are performed without special lifting equipment, except for a belt, also referred to as raw or classic powerlifting.

Usually the raw natural lifters are much healthier but unfortunately much weaker than the PED using counterparts. This doesn’t they are weak by any normal standards. Practically all lifts are in the 100kg to 300kg (220lbs to 660lbs) range in most weight classes.

We cannot recommend anything else but drug free classic powerlifting for seniors. In reality seniors would get a much larger strength boost from PEDs due to the lowered amount of natural anabolic hormones and growth hormones, but the risks are also that much higher.

When practiced correctly powerlifting is an extremely safe sport that improves overall health so there is no need to be afraid of injuries or becoming a bulging body builder. A natural lifter will often gain significant strength during the few first months of training but after that you have to fight for every added pound. Especially as a senior.

You will also build significant muscle, but not the kind you see on young body builders. Building that kind of muscle mass always requires steroids. Think of a healthy and strong farmer or a construction worker and you are closer to reality of a natural powerlifter.

Let’s look at the lifts! (raw or classic ones)

The squat

The squat is the first lift in a powerlifting contest. It is a movement that specifically tests the maximum strength of the legs but requires immense strength of the whole upper body as well as it supports the bar.

Before the actual lift the lifter positions him/herself under a barbell that is stationary in a rack. The lifter then lifts the weight of the rack and takes a step backwards and stabilizes in an upright position with fully locked knees and hips.

Once the referee gives the command to commence the lift the lifter begins to squat into a parallel position. The hip crease needs to go below the top of the knee for an accepted lift.

Once the lifter is at the bottom of the squat position they will begin the actual hard part, standing up. The upward motion needs to happen with the first try and in a continuous upward movement.

Once the lifter reaches completely upright position where the must lock their hips and knees. On the referees command the bar is returned to the rack and the lift is completed.

The squat is a relatively simple lift with few technical rules. Here are the most important ones:

  • The bar can’t be lower than 3 cm below the top of the anterior deltoids.
  • The squat has to start and stop with locked out knees and hips
  • The recovery from the “hole” (bottom of the squat) has to happen in a single continuous movement
  • You can’t reset or move your feet after the lift has begun.

The bench press

The bench press is an upper body lift where the lifter lies on a bench and presses a barbell to straight arms.

The lift begins by the lifter lifting the bar from the rack to a full lock out over their sternum. Once the referee gives the command to start the lifter lower the bar until it touches the chest.

The upward lift begins after the referee gives the cue to “press”. The lift is completed once the arm are in full extension and the bar stationary. The lift will end when the referee gives the cue “rack” and the lifter returns the weight to the rack.

Bench press is a true test of the upper body pressing strength. It is the most dangerous lift in powerlifting because there is a possibility of catastrophic failure with the bar falling on the lifters face or neck. That’s why it’s important to always have spotters or if practicing alone, safety pins.

Here are the most important rules of bench pressing:

  • Your butt needs to stay on the bench at all times. Any rising of the pelvis will lead to a failed lift
  • The referee cues must be followed strictly
  • The bar can not sink into your chest after the cue to press
  • Any downward movement of the bar at the pressing portion of the lift is not allowed

The deadlift

The deadlift is seemingly the most simple lift of the three and usually the heaviest. Rarely a lifter can squat more than deadlift.

In the deadlift the lifter pulls a barbell from the platform to a standing position. The knees and hips need to be fully extended and the arms straight and shoulders back.

There is no referee cue for the deadlift. At the end of the lift the referee will cue “down” for permission to lower the bar. Besides the full extension of the end position there are couple simple rules:

  • The feet cannot move once the lift starts
  • Any movement of the bar will count as an attempt. So no “pulling the slack out”.
  • There can’t be any downward movement of the bar before the lift is completed.
  • The lift must be completed in a continuous manner, no “resting” on the thighs

There are couple things that lifters can vary in the deadlift. Mainly the lifting technique and the grip. The two ways to lift the bar of the ground are the conventional deadlift where your legs are between your arms and the sumo deadlift where your legs are outside your arms in a much wider stance.

The conventional deadlift is more leg and back dominant while the sumo is a bit more hip dominant. Which one is better for you depends on your individual leverages and preference. Only way to find out which one is your stronger position is by trying.

There are three ways to grip the bar. Only two of them are really used in competitions because the double overhand grip is too weak and grip is many times the limiting factor of a deadlift. In the double overhand grip both your hand go over bar palms facing you. The problem with this grip is that it allows the bar to roll out of your palms, limiting the maximum load.

The most used grip is the mixed grip where one hand is overhand ant the other underhand. This prevents the bar from rolling and makes the lift much easier than the double overhand grip.

The last option is the hook grip. It’s a double overhand grip where you wrap your thumbs all to way over the bar and grip your finger over them. The thumbs create a hook “lock” between the finger and the barbell that prevents rolling and losing grip.

The hook grip is the strongest of the grips if done with correct technique. Unfortunately it’s also very painful because your thumb will be pinned under a heavy load. But you get used to it!

Powerlifting for seniors

For seniors there are few important considerations in powerlifting. The first thing is to realize there are always risk involved when you are lifting seriously heavy barbells.

Even if you are one of the fortunate ones that has never had lower back pain and have maintained full mobility in all your joints to old age, it’s possible to injure yourself doing powerlifting even if you do everything perfectly.

On the other hand it’s quite possibly injure yourself doing everyday stuff and your overall health will surely deteriorate without exercise as you grow older. So it’s really a choose your poison situation.

There are safer forms of exercise that offer the same benefits as powerlifting with less risk. Like doing strength training in the gym and combining that with low impact cardio. This will offer all the same health benefits but might not be as motivating if you are very competition driven person.

The second thing to take into account is that your progress can be very slow. Strength training and powerlifting is as much about the mind as it is about the body. As we get older our bodies become less strong and adaptations happen much slower than before. This is mainly because of hormones.

A teenager who has stopped growing in length is in the optimal position for training powerlifting and other strength sports. This is because the have very high testosterone (boys especially but ladies as well) and growth hormone levels, which will support fast adaptations (strength) to stress like weight training. Fortunately strength will increase even without these hormones due to neural adaptations but increase in muscle mass will be minimal.

Unfortunately these key hormones are very low in senior people, both men and women and these adaptations will happen much slower. But this doesn’t mean you should give up, you should just accept the facts and do your best. The adaptations will happen, you just need to give rest and diet a bit more priority and be consistent.

How to get started

If you are interested in powerlifting the best place to get started is your local powerlifting association or organization. Most cities and even smaller town in America and in many other countries will have some sort of organization for powerlifting.

It’s very likely there are already several seniors that compete in master series and are willing to share their knowledge and get you started. Most organizations also organize courses for beginners which is a great way to try the sport.

If there really isn’t any organization in your town you might try to find an experienced trainer or coach that knows how to teach you the lifts.

Powerlifting is completely possible to train even at a home gym but because of the technicality and high weights used in the lifts it’s extremely important to learn the proper pattern with a qualified coach.

Preferably one that has taught powerlifting to seniors before as there are likely certain mobility issues that need work.

The important thing is to take your time and be safe. Powerlifting is not for everyone and there is no shame in giving up if you come to the conclusion it’s too hard or uncomfortable for you.

You should still incorporate some form of strength training in your routine to reap all the great benefits it offers to seniors. You can download a free strength training program that’s designed for seniors from the form below. It can also be used for priming your body for powerlifting, because it teaches the necessary movement patterns for the squat, the deadlift and the bench press.

 

Conclusion

We hope you enjoyed reading about powerlifting for seniors and got excited about the sport! Powerlifting is a great sport for all ages as it builds strength, mobility, balance and resilience. When you start powerlifting, you will soon be surprised how strong you actually are.

It’s quite the feeling to realize the weight that felt crushing and painful on your back just a few months ago is now a light warm up weight. It builds confidence in your abilities and in what you can complete with consistent hard work.

If you have any questions about powerlifting, please ask in the comments section below. We promise to do our best to provide you with an answer.

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See you next time!

Elder Strength

6 comments

  1. Congrats! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article, as I am interested in seniors and my background is in physical education.
    Your paragraphs were informational and concise and the media used was on point and followed your subject very well.
    I am new to this, so I may be easily impressed, but so what? Good content and presentation!

  2. What frequency of a particular workout do you recommend?
    In other words, how many times a week to dead lift for max gains?

    (I am 74 yrs, 5’6″ and recently deadlifted 320 and want to improve.)

    1. Great question Scott! You are at a level at your age that makes training requirements highly individual. I actually think your best bet would be to get a powerlifting coach with lots of experience in training older athletes.

      What kind of program did you follow to get to your current level and how long have you been lifting? A couple of general tips I would give is that if you want to specifically improve the deadlift, train it at least twice a week as strength is exercise specific so you need to hone the skill. Once light, one heavy workout. Both will remain well below maximum weight to reduce the risk of injury and to reduce central nervous system fatigue. So for example on Monday, (after warm-up sets) do 5 sets of 5 at 50-60% of your max and on Friday 3 sets of 3 at 75-85% of your max. Start light and increase the weight with the smallest possible increment each week if you can complete the sets with good form.

      Anything that allows you to increase workload and intensity (weight) over time without compromising your recovery will work reasonably well. Also, you didn’t mention your bodyweight. Deadlift benefits greatly from increased body weight to an extent so you can try eating more, including plenty of protein in your diet. Also, remember to listen to your body. Heavy deadlifts are taxing on the body and the older you get, the more you have to pay attention to recovery. Hope this helps!

  3. Thanks for the response. I am at 185 lbs. And lift once a week per body part. Change programs often.

    I eat carnivore. and that seems to be helping several things.

    1. Not a problem Scott! Two things came to mind immediately. For optimal strength gains, you shouldn’t constantly change your program. At your level, considering your age you could try an intermediate powerlifting/strength training program that incorporates periodization but keeps all the movements the same so you build movement specific strength. Check out Texas Method and 5/3/1 for example. Once again I would recommend talking to a qualified coach to check there are no issues with your deadlift and other compound lift forms, as the risk of injury increases as the weight goes up.

      While I’m not completely against the carnivore diet, I suspect the reason it works for so many people’s health and digestion wise is that they have unresolved food allergies/intolerances. Meat is easy to digest and has pretty much everything our body needs to survive. Remove any irritants like certain grains, dairy, salicylates, FODMAPs etc. and your digestion will miraculously improve with simply eating meat. BUT, and this is a huge but, there is VERY strong scientific evidence for negative health effects of especially red meat (inflammation, negative metabolic effects, colon cancer etc.). While meat has almost everything needed for survival, it’s not optimal. You need certain nutrients (especially Vitamin C) for optimal health and they are found abundantly only in vegetable sources.

      But I don’t want to preach to people what they should eat. If it works for you, it’s at least worth exploring. But for improving your strength levels and exercise perofmenace there is one crucial thing missing in the carnivore diet. Carbs. While you can improve your physical performance on a low carb or ketogenic diet, it’s far from optimal. Carbs are the preferred source of energy for high demand work for our bodies and there is a strong body of scientific evidence to back up the benefits of carbs for improving strength and muscle mass. I suspect this effect is even more pronounced in seniors due to the less optimal hormonal environment for muscle growth.

      So if I was in your situation and my main goal was to gain strength, I would check my form with a professional, get on an actual intermediate/novice (depending on your overall strength) strength training program and include some carbs from healthy whole food sources and see where it goes. If you have digestion issues with a regular whole food diets, try adding one carb source at a time to your carnivore diet for a week or two, to see what causes problems.

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