Don’t Confuse Barbell Training with Powerlifting

There is a lot of confusion regarding Starting Strength and powerlifting. Starting Strength is a method, a systematic approach to developing general strength for everyone. Powerlifting, on the other hand, is a sport in which athletes compete for the highest total in their squat, bench press, and deadlift, trying to lift the most weight possible under the rules of the competition. So, even though many powerlifters use Starting Strength’s principles, Starting Strength is not a powerlifting program.The fundamental goals of Starting Strength and powerlifting are different.

The Three Criteria

In order to develop strength, the Starting Strength model uses three criteria for exercise selection, choosing movements and performing them in such a way that:

  1. Uses the most muscle mass
  2. Uses the greatest effective range of motion
  3. Uses the most weight possible

Powerlifters only truly subscribe to one of these principles: use the most amount of weight possible – because weight on the bar is the only determinant of the winner.

As a means to this end, powerlifters will often:

  • Use the most amount of muscle mass – because muscle moves weight.
  • And use the shortest legal range of motion allowed by the competition ruleset. – the shorter the distance the bar travels, the more weight you can move.

Sumo Deadlift vs Conventional Deadlift

Let’s use the deadlift to illustrate this difference. The deadlift is both an excellent builder of strength and one of the competition lifts of powerlifting. The Starting Strength deadlift is performed in the conventional manner with the hands outside of the legs and a narrow stance. This makes for a longer distance to lockout, therefore utilizing the greatest effective range of motion.

Powerlifters may elect to use an ultra-wide stance and narrow grip, the sumo deadlift, shortening the range of motion so that they can lift more weight. The conventional deadlift is a superior builder of strength as compared to the sumo variant of the lift. But, to the powerlifter, this distinction is relatively unimportant. The powerlifter will utilize whichever variant puts the most amount of weight on the bar, whether that is conventional or sumo.

Powerlifting and Starting Strength

While these two paradigms are different, there is still significant overlap. Powerlifters must get strong. And it is for this reason that powerlifters should utilize the principles of Starting Strength during training. A predominantly sumo deadlifter would be well served by spending a considerable amount of time training the conventional deadlift.

As another example: too often we have seen wide grip, high arch bench pressers fail to make any appreciable progress on their bench press. The athlete is spending too much time practicing their competition movement and not enough time actually training to get stronger in general.

The athlete has decreased the range of motion so substantially in an effort to increase the total weight on the bar that it becomes a poor builder of strength. By narrowing the grip and utilizing a more moderate arch the athlete will progress their competition bench more effectively than by simply practicing their competition style 100% of the time. Train to get strong, practice to move the most weight.

Starting Strength aims to increase general strength for health and fitness, while powerlifting is a competitive sport where athletes compete against one another to move the most amount of weight within a specific ruleset. So while many of the same training principles can be used by both powerlifters and starting strength trainees, it’s important for everybody to understand that the two pursuits are very different.

Check out our podcast episode: SS vs Powerlifting for more information.

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