A powerlifting total is the best and simplest measurement of a lifter’s performance. To those who take this sport seriously, the ultimate goal of every training session and every pre-meet prep is to hit the highest possible total (hopefully without injury).
Because powerlifting is a rather small sport, coefficients like the Wilks score are used to determine a lifter’s relative strength based on their total and their body weight, so they can be ranked against substantially larger lifters. However, that’s a topic for an entirely different time, and I won’t be touching on relative strength and coefficients today.
Instead, the focus for today will be on the idea of a “respectable” powerlifting total, and the anxiety that befalls beginner lifters who are worried about competing.
To these beginners, I have two things to say:
1.) The powerlifting community is rather small and incredibly supportive. It’s a chill and nurturing environment, and;
2.) There are assholes in everything, but they’re a vocal minority. Ignore the pricks who put you down for just starting, and not being as strong or as knowledgeable as someone with years and years under the bar. But don’t make the mistake of confusing useful criticism for douchebaggery.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about powerlifting totals, and when they start to look impressive – and why that might matter.
Strength Standards are Short-Sighted
Whenever someone starts with powerlifting and starts to grasp how difficult it might be to get to a certain point, or once they’re starting to make progress and want an idea of how far they can get, they’ll try to figure out how strong they might be relative to others in the sport. And that’s natural.
When we get better at something, we want to test ourselves. It’s plain to see who’s stronger or weaker in your gym – you can just watch them lift – but a gym is typically a rather tiny sample size, and most of us want an idea of how we match up to the average lifter in the country or even the world.
This is especially true in the age of the Internet when information about nearly anything is at our fingertips. It feels good to imagine being in the top 25%, 10%, or 5% of lifters in the world.
Others want to know how strong they have to be to consider competing with other lifters, not wanting to appear weak.
But strength standards don’t mean much when you consider that the factors that affect strength are complex and numerous. Hard work does not inform a person’s powerlifting total, although it plays an important role. There are many other factors at play, including how long they’ve been training, their sex, their weight, leverages, genes, gear, and “gear”.
Given that powerlifting is a relatively small sport with a massive variance in all these factors, it’s hard to pinpoint what “standard” strength looks like. You can sit down and get the median bench press, squat, and deadlift for people in your weight class – but what does that do for you without proper context?
In my opinion, both strength standards and the act of classifying lifters into arbitrary categories based on their total relative to their bodyweight are useless endeavors.
If you want to see how strong you are relative to a percentage of the population out of simple curiosity, that’s fine. I did that when I started, too.
But DO NOT use strength standards to try and figure out what a respectable powerlifting total might look like for a guy or gal your age, height, and weight. You’d be comparing yourself with someone who might not have the right tools for the job and lifts less than you, but arguably worked just as hard. Or you might be comparing yourself to the 17-year-old who just pulled 700lbs at RPE8.
Instead, rely on the only real metric you have – your training progress.
Set Goals Based on Pace and Experience
In my opinion, if you’re looking to figure out what kind of a gym total to aim for before competing, then my advice to you is this – just keep training until you feel emotionally and psychologically ready to compete. And part of becoming emotionally and psychologically ready is accepting that you really shouldn’t be reading too much into your first meet.
You’ll be nervous, and chances are that there will be people much stronger than you who are lifting much more weight. Go to your first meet to test the waters, having fun, and meeting local lifters.
Then gauge how well you did, set a goal for the second time around, and get serious about doing your best to compete with yourself first, and compete with others second.
When training at the gym, set goals based on your current progress and never try to look ahead too far. Life gets in the way, injuries and minor setbacks happen, and plateaus can come out of nowhere. If you’ve just pulled 200kg/440lbs off the ground for a shaky single, you might already be eyeing 227.5kg/500lbs.
Instead, you should be thinking about 205kg/451lbs. That’s a goal you can achieve in the coming weeks. A jump of over 50lbs, on the other hand, will typically take a few months of hard work. Powerlifting is about identifying those small, achievable steps that eventually net you the long-term dream-like goals you have. But if you dream “too big”, you’re setting yourself up for potential disappointment.
I’m not telling you to put yourself down or deny yourself the fantasy of pulling 500lbs, 600lbs, 700lbs, and so on. But learn and internalize the lesson of setting and achieving realistic goals before you start to sign up for competition. It’ll be an important one.
Aim to Compete as Soon as You’re Ready
On that note, I do think that anyone who wants to enjoy powerlifting as more than just a cursory habit should consider competing in the sport, especially if it’s a sport you love. It doesn’t matter what your total is. People show up and squat one plate.
No one will give a shit how much you lift, unless you’re a wonder child and have the potential to actually break a state or national record in your first competition, in which case, go ahead and find a really good coach because this is probably your sport.
But if you’re an average beginner at powerlifting, try not to pay attention to records and totals – aim to break a personal record on the platform, celebrate with your favorite meal and a week off, and then get back to work with all the lessons you learned in your first meet, and a revigorated interest in doing even better next time.
A Respectable Powerlifting Total Is One That Keeps Growing
Back to the original question. In my opinion, a respectable total is one that continues to grow. Many factors feed into a powerlifting total, but the one factor that matters the most is hard work. It’s the one that should command the most respect. And the only way to determine that someone has been working hard on their total is when you see it grow year after year after year.
It doesn’t matter how high or low your total is right now. If you keep outdoing yourself, a few pounds at a time, and always bring 100% of your spirit to the platform each time you compete, then you deserve to feel proud of yourself and you’ll certainly have the respect of your fellow lifters.