So You Want To Be A Weightlifter? What You Need To Know To Get Started

Let’s stage a coup of weight rooms across the country, tell the magazines and their five-pound weight routines where they can go, and get serious about heavy lifting!
Publish date:
April 16, 2012

A hug with my training partner after I broke a national powerlifting record

Take back the weight room

When my post on lifting heavy came out recently, the number of comments asking for help getting started was overwhelming. It seems a lot of you want to know how to start moving some serious iron. I love it!

Let’s stage a coup of weight rooms across the country, tell the magazines and their five-pound weight routines where they can go, and get serious about heavy lifting!

Going for a 193 pound squat at the USAPL National Championships

I’m going to share with you what I learned in my experience of going from a non-athlete to an honest-to-God powerlifter in a year’s time. But I have to say this first: I am NOT a personal trainer. I am NOT a fitness professional in any way, shape or form. I’m a writer who also happens to lift weights, so I’m reporting here, not giving you health or training advice. Got it? Good.

Besides, I’m not at all a good role model -- I pushed past my limits until, I kid you not, I needed spinal surgery. I’m still recovering. If that scares you, you’re smart. Heavy weights are a serious matter and you can be do serious damage if you aren’t careful.

That said, I’m an extreme case. Most women don’t go from couch to squatting 200 pounds in a year’s time. I didn’t listen to my body’s LOUD warning signs, and I had unconventional training methods. In short, I wasn’t careful.

Be smart though, and you can do incredible things. I’m telling you now, you won’t even believe what you find out you’re capable of.

So. A lot of you said you didn’t know where to start, or that you were intimidated by the muscleheads in the weight room. So let’s start with some basics.

What’s a powerlifter?

This is a strong-ass woman or man who picks up the heaviest stuff possible. Specifically she bench presses , she deadlifts -- that’s picking up the barbell off the floor and standing up straight -- and she squats, which is putting the barbell on your back (unless it’s a front squat or some other variety), squatting, and standing up.

The goal in powerlifting is to lift the maximum amount of weight you can for a single rep. The focus is on sheer, brute strength so training emphasizes that.

This is not to be confused with Olympic lifting, where the weights go over your head, and in my book, you need more coordination and technical prowess; or bodybuilding, where you’re judged on physical appearance in competition, rather than on how much weight you can move. I don’t care which one you do, just know the difference.

Welcome to the gun show

How do I get started?

Before you set foot in a gym, arm yourself with knowledge. I have to thank all my fabulous lifter friends who gave me feedback on this question. The intimidation factor probably has more to do with being unsure of yourself than anything else.

Get yourself to a library or bookstore and get some good, old-fashioned texts on weightlifting. "Starting Strength" and "New Rules of Lifting for Women" are highly recommended. I borrowed my husband’s "Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding" just to learn which muscles did what.

Hit up websites that some fearless female lifters out there are running. I like the no nonsense and (There are others but I get annoyed by the hot-body cliques so I’m not sending you there.)

I’m putting this ahead of getting a trainer because at risk of sounding like a schoolmistress, it’s YOUR responsibility to be educated. I don’t care how many certifications a trainer has, he or she does not know everything. Besides, they’re human and can make mistakes.

(Oh, and about those muscleheads: Most weightlifters I know love to share their knowledge. If they’re acting pissy it’s because you’re wandering around bewildered, getting in their way. Refer to arm yourself with knowledge, above.)

Don’t go it alone.

This is crucial as a beginner. A professional trainer is expensive, so if your funds are limited, get a good one (more on that shortly), have an exit strategy and soak up everything you can from them.

Ask a million questions (good ones are OK with questions) and make notes. Ideally, you would work with them every single time. But unless you’re an heiress, to work within a budget, try this arrangement my husband has with his trainer -- ask them to work with you one day a week and give you a program for your other workout days. You may need to see them more than once a week at first, just to get some basics.

On your days without the trainer, get a friend or two to train with you. In fact, this is as important as having a trainer. The support I had from my fellow lady lifters was staggering. The day I squatted 200 pounds, I swear it was because of the power of their thundering voices cheering me on.

I can’t emphasize enough how much you will need each other -- spotting is the least of it. Lifting heavy can be brutal. You’ll think you can’t do it many, many times. But with your friends yelling for you, you’ll try so much harder. And a little friendly competition never hurt anyone.

I was so lucky to be surrounded by amazing, strong women who helped me out when I could barely bench press the bar, inspired me to keep getting stronger, and were genuinely thrilled for me when I met my goals. Find these women where you live.

You don’t need me to tell you how to use social media, so do whatever it takes to find them if you don’t have friends already raring to go.

Get the right trainer.

This is the guy or the girl you’re handing your dreams to. Treat the search accordingly. You’re going to have a rigorous wish list here, so it will take some patience finding the right person. Invest the time.

Client/trainer relationships, especially in a sport as demanding as powerlifting, can be intense and are loaded with the potential for dysfunction. Finding a good fit can make all the difference in your success, and quite frankly, in your health and well-being.

Nobody says you have to go to a gym. Some trainers make house calls!

1. Get someone who has worked with women and is willing to and interested in “letting” women lift heavy. Many aren’t, but plenty are. Talk to women they’ve trained -- the longer they’ve been together, the better because in the honeymoon phase when a lifter is seeing tremendous gains, they are willing to overlook mighty big flaws. If possible, observe a training session.

  1. 2.Ask the trainer about their training philosophy. Are they a yeller, in your face? Or do they calmly urge you on? Both can be effective. Ask how they will develop your program. They should be asking you what your athletic background and goals are. Ask them to help you set tough, but possibly attainable goals.
  2. Dealbreakers: Run, don’t walk, if they don’t like to be questioned, or if they assume their way is the only right way.
  3. 3.Get someone with significant experience. I don’t mean to dis young trainers, but so much of what a good trainer knows comes from years of experience and continuing education. If you already know a lot yourself, this may not be as big a deal. But if I had it to do over, walking in brand-spanking new to lifting -- and to athletics in general -- I would have looked for someone far older than the 25-year-old I went with.
  4. And when I fired said trainer when I was seriously injured on his watch, I found a new one who’s older than me -- and it’s world of difference.

What if you just can’t find a trainer? Keep trying. But in the meantime it’s more important than ever to keep learning. Stuff your head with everything you can. Understand the major lifts and the accessory work. Study the various programs like Wendler 5/3/1 and the badass Russian stuff.

A friend/training partner becomes even more important without a trainer. Start a female barbell club, get the word out, and who knows? Maybe an incredibly cool trainer will find you!

Know what you want and why.

Powerlifting is a very goal-oriented sport. Nobody says you have to go out and compete in a powerlifting meet (although I think it’s well worth a try -- having a specific event to train for is hugely motivating). If you want to do well, you will have to focus on getting strong.

I struggled with this every single day -- I wanted more than anything to be strong, but there was always a but. But I wanted to try boxing. But I wanted a six pack. But I wanted to get into better cardio shape. My trainer said no to all of that, because I needed a single-minded focus on getting strong, and working on anything else (he said) would have detracted from that. Granted, I was out to break records, not just build a nice set of guns.


But still. Think about what you want out of this. Do you want to be able to carry the big bag of dog food yourself, pick up your growing kids, be the one in the office that people call to help move something? That’s great -- and you can do those things.

Do you want to compete, to break records? You can do that, too. Do you want to do it to be able to eat all you want? Hey, it worked for me, but that was truly just a bonus side effect. Because for me, it was about finding out how much I was capable of.

Once you find out how the confidence you’ll build spills over into the rest of your life, you’ll be hooked. Just be honest with yourself. I think you’ll have the greatest success if, at the end of the day, you just want to get strong and let the rest of the stuff take care of itself.

That’s all for now. What do you want to know next?