I don’t know about you, but I cruise the web and often find myself gravitating to articles written by beginning powerlifters as I like to see what other lifters like me are doing and how I compare because let’s face it, lifting is always a competition even if it’s just in your head. So, I pull up these articles and almost right off the bat I realize what these guys are doing bears no resemblance to what I am doing.
Often these articles talk about how happy they are they set a PR at a meet squatting 500, but missed that darn 525. They squeezed out a decent 420 bench, but you know that 450 just stays out there taunting them, and it’s flat out a shame they can’t pull over 600 off the floor when everybody can do that. Ahem. It’s clear these guys are in another universe compared to me. Not all articles are like that of course, but you get the idea.
So, I thought I would write about an average guy who caught the iron bug and just wants to work hard and be strong and see what happens along the way. I’ve kept logs from the first day I started lifting seriously for powerlifting exactly 2 years ago (2-21-11) at 46 years old, and I as I was analyzing them recently thinking of a new program to use, it occurred to me others out there might benefit from seeing exactly what realistic progress is for a typical person willing to put in the time and effort in their first two years.
No 500 squats, no massive benching, and certainly no 600 deadlifts! Just a guy slowly putting together some respectable lifts after two years as I’ve put about 175 lbs on my squat, 75 lbs on my bench, and even 150 lbs on my personal cross to bear, the deadlift.
Now that sounds great and I’m sure some guys out there would take that those additional pounds over 24 months in a heartbeat, until they realize where I started, at practically ground zero with the lower body lifts, although I had a somewhat decent bench (You gotta have an answer when somebody asks whaddaya bench, right? Who goes to the gym seriously and doesn’t bench? It’s practically un-American!). But, even with bench I soon realized it wasn’t as big a number as I thought.
I now know for a lifter just starting out like me, especially as low as I started could gain over 100 lbs a year with squats and deadlift, and perhaps 50 lbs a year on his bench. You could gain even more than that if you are young and full of those raging hormones from your teens and twenties. So, you see I’m a bit below average, but I just look at it as more room for me to grow later. It’s all relative, and you stay at lifting long enough and everyone roughly evens out, aside from the truly gifted or ultra-dedicated and this article isn’t about them. They’re the guys squatting 500 in their first meet.
I started out in February of 2011 with a half squat of about 200 lbs or so, but actually no ability to squat to depth whatsoever. I could bench about 200ish pounds (I had never maxed a bench press) and could trap bar deadlift 225 on a good day. So, it’s safe to say I was about rock bottom for a guy weighing in the 180s. However, 13 months later, March 2012, at my first meet, I totaled 870 lbs with a miracle 302.5 squat, 238 bench press, and a 347 lb deadlift.
My second meet, October 2012, after missing all three third attempts, I still I totaled 924 with a 319 squat, 253 bench, and a 352 deadlift. My next meet is in April 2013 but as of this week, the second anniversary of my start in powerlifting, I have hit a 375 squat, a 275 bench, and a 370 deadlift in the gym leading into my next meet in April 2013 where I expect to total well over a 1000.
Awesome numbers those are not, but they are awesome to me as I know exactly what it took to get them and along the way, I learned some very valuable lessons that I think are important for beginners to know. Nothing Earth shattering, but the kind of basic information that is in my opinion a lot more valuable than the latest routine or supplement craze. I learned a lot of lessons to be sure, but I think the most important were:
- Pick a good routine to do, and this is not what you think.
- Get involved in some sort of lifting group or a like-minded community on the web at minimum.
- Consistently work on your form pretty much forever.
- Have patience, expect highs and lows and the long haul.
- It’s a lifestyle.
No doubt you’ve heard those things before and that’s because they are the truth, but there is also more to them and those things mean slightly different things depending on where you are in your lifting journey. In my first two years, this is what those things meant for me.
Pick a good routine: Two years ago, I had done some bodybuilding type stuff after cardio, but I had begun to hate cardio and really got into lifting. Now, there are a million routines out there, but here’s the key thing, I picked a beginner routine because, well, I was a beginner! Mariuz Pudzianowski’s routine was not going to work for me not only because his “supplements” are likely to be quite a bit different, but also because he was hundreds of pounds ahead of me in lifting years. I also picked one with key basic compound lifts because I didn’t know how to do most of those so I figured I’d better learn if I was going to get strong.
Those deductions led me to a Bill Starr routine that just spoke to me as being perfect for me. It had all the lifts I wanted to learn and it was also in line with my original goals, basic powerbuilding in the big lifts as I didn’t intend to lift competitively at first. So, don’t pick Ronnie Coleman’s muscle blaster if you want to be a powerlifter, and don’t pick Bill Kazmeier’s routine if you want flat abs. I mean it sounds basic to pick a routine to match your goals, but you see it all the time people picking the wrong routine because they want to look like Arnold and lift like Zydrunas Saviskas . However picking the right routine was even more important for me as it led to my second valuable lesson.
Join a group or community. Now there were some serious lifters in my gym, but none were powerlifters. Still, just knowing they were there to spot and encourage or even just joke around had kept me in the weight room regularly during my year of “bodybuilding”. However, the site where I found the Bill Starr routine had a forum, so I ventured in to see if anyone had used the routine and could give me advice about getting started since I literally knew nothing. Knowing what I know now about the forums out there on the net, I’d have never done that without my steel underwear in place as there seems to be so many places that just want to kick you in the nuts, but back then I had no idea there even were other forums.
Anyway, luckily for me it was this site, Muscle and Brawn, as you can imagine given where this article originates, but point is I got loads of advice and encouragement, started a log and was merrily on my way to getting stronger. Without that pile of advice and encouragement, I might easily have packed it in when the going got tough. But when you’re in a group getting positive feedback you are more likely to keep going. Simple as that, join a group to make it easier to reach your goals.
Then about 9 months in I found the going getting pretty tough again. That was when I learned my third lesson. Improve your form constantly. I made some decent gains at first as any newbie would, but I began to slow way down in progress, especially with squats and bench. On advice I started taking video of my lifts and posting them up and realized right away looking in the mirror is not a good way to judge depth, nor can you critique your own bench or deadlift while actually doing the lift. Suffice it to say form became an obsession and it still is.
But it is important to note as well that you will not know your form flaws until you start going heavy. That’s when the weaknesses appear, so don’t assume you can “perfect” your form at low weights and that form will stay with you right up until squat 500. Nope, as you progress flaws to fix emerge, fix those and then new flaws will come along sure as stink on a monkey. Ever vigilant with form is the watchword of good lifters, so swallow your pride, video and be honest with yourself and you will keep improving.
Moving into my second year, I was getting pretty good at my lifts and it was mentioned I should compete. Now, I didn’t know a lot about powerlifting meets, but I knew there were 132 lb guys who could lift more than me, so I was skeptical to say the least. However, I decided I needed to challenge myself or maybe just cross off a line on the bucket list or whatever, but I decided to look around for a meet and that is my fourth big lesson learned.
Compete. So when a meet turned up literally a mile from my house, I took it as a sign that I had to go for it. It was now or never. So, I signed up and as I recollect, was almost immediately horrified at what I had done. I mean actual big strong people would be there lifting 500 lbs while I was barely benching over my body weight. I was nervous as a cat in room full of rocking chairs, but I was committed at that point.
Well, turned out to be one of the better decisions of my life. A lot of things good things happened starting with the fact I got a hell of a lot more serious about my form, diet, recovery, you name it, I got more serious about it. I mean I was in real trouble of going out on a stage an embarrassing myself in front of actual lifters in my home town! I got focused let me tell you and worked my butt off. Still, I went in pretty nervous as I looked at the meet numbers from the year before and knew my lifts were nowhere near the level of most of the guys my size.
But, the meet turned out to be an absolute blast. Of course I lost, but so what. I had a great time, learned a lot, met more like-minded people, ALL of them nice as can be. See powerlifting is a competition for sure, but it is with yourself and everyone knows that. The absolute strongest guys out there will take time to say or do anything to help you out. They want to see you make your lifts as much as you do.
To have a whole room full of people all pulling for you to make a lift is an awesome feeling. I’m positive that’s why I hit what I call my miracle squat. I had no business trying 300+ as my best was 290 in the gym and I didn’t even hit that regularly in the weeks leading up to the meet. But I had been told any normal human who put in the work over their first year of training can squat 300 and I was not going to go out there without giving it a shot, and darned if it didn’t go up. I’ll never forget that moment the rest of my life. It was a weight most guys in my group were opening with or was their safe second attempt, and it went up like molasses in winter, but everyone was excited for me like I won the lottery.
That squat is a great memory for sure, but I still remember that I was 12th out of 14 lifters in my weight class and now that I knew I wanted to keep doing meets, I was determined not to be near the bottom any more, but getting that kind of strong is not something that comes quickly for most of us average Joes.
Which leads into patience as the fifth lesson I learned and I think it is the most difficult for me as it is for others probably. I wanted to get back out there and raise my total right away. Everyone wants to get ripped and strong and right now dammit! But, it doesn’t work like that. After your first year bump, your gains will slow down. You’ll still get stronger if you continue to work, but bottom line is it will take longer to make gains. But, that’s OK because it leads into my last lesson learned.
Maybe the most important lesson I learned is that lifting is a lifestyle. You choose to lift as a hobby, sport, whatever and you can dabble in that for a while and move on to something else. That’s fine for some people. But when you choose to be strong and stay strong it becomes a lifestyle. To me, there’s no point in working hard for a year or two to hit some goals you set at the beginning, then give it up to go back being weak which is what will happen if you stop lifting or stop trying to progress.
But more than that, as I went along I noticed I became more knowledgeable about nutrition and proper sleep. I became a more disciplined and self-confident person. I made new friends and had great life altering experiences. I regularly set goals and achieve them with weights and in other aspects of life too. All these and more are powerful things that shape who you are and how others see you.
So if you’re still with me, I’d like to sum up by saying don’t be discouraged by seeing articles by monster lifters ripped to the gills and it seems like they are just pouring plates on the bar regularly moving awesome weights and you feel like you are going nowhere. I’m proud of just being average, putting in the work and making fairly steady progress every year. I learned a lot about lifting and myself. I hope some of this will help you get you where you want to go and that you will learn some valuable lessons of your own along the way.