How the Powerlifts and Sport(s) Go Together Like Peanut Butter & Jelly

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Today’s guest post comes courtesy of strength coach, and good friend, Kelsey Reed. Some of you may recall Kelsey’s popular post – Fitness Marketing to Females: Don’t Be a Victim! – from a few months ago.

She’s back. And this time she’s discussing the powerlifts and how applicable they are when training for sport(s).


Recently, I have been immersed in Easy Strength by Dan John and Pavel. (Tony mentioned it HERE.) If you’re a strength coach and you have not read it, do yourself a humongous favor and do so. Your athletes will thank you.

Dan and Pavel divvy up the various types of trainees into four quadrants. Today’s post will focus on Quadrant III: athletes/clients who possess a symbiotic relationship of strength training and their sport or goal in question. I’ll leave the other three quadrants as a mystery awaiting your discovery.

Unless you work with elite athletes, Olympic hopefuls or professionals, the bulk of your clients will be in QIII.

The mentality when working with said clients should be:

They are ___ athletes (i.e. football, soccer, or fill-in-the-blank) who happen to lift, NOT lifters who play ____.

Personally speaking, this has always been helpful for me to keep in mind when I’m tempted to allow one of my teenage boys to go for a 1RM (the answer is usually “No.”). After all, my athletes are training with me to improve their sport performance, not their weight room performance.

In general, there are two types, or spheres, of training: general physical preparedness (GPP), and special physical preparedness (SPP).

As strength coaches, our job often falls more in the realm of GPP rather than that of SPP. The bulk of GPP training is derived from the basic human movements: push, pull, hinge, squat, carry/walking pattern, and crawling. Those look remarkably like, bench press, rows, deadlifts, squats, and farmer carries.

Nikolay Vitkevich, a full-contact black belt and world-class powerlifter, says:

“You must clearly understand the difference between basic training and special physical preparation. [SPP] is different for everybody; one beats up on a tire with a sledgehammer, another does figure eights with a kettlebell, and someone incline presses. Basic training is roughly the same in all sports and aims to increase general strength and muscle mass. Powerlifting was born as a competition in exercises everybody does.

Did you read that last sentence? Read it again and let it sink in.

A strength coach can easily accomplish 90% of what an athlete needs by intelligently dispersing those movements throughout the training week. From a training economy standpoint, you can’t go wrong by placing a premium on squatting, deadlifting, and pressing.

Deadlifting, squatting, and pressing are exercises every athlete should perform. They are the meat and potatoes (or meat and sweet potatoes for the Paleo adherents out there) of strength and conditioning. The number of muscle groups involved in the powerlifts allows for higher poundages to be used, which in turn, stimulates the neuromuscular and endocrine systems in ways not found in other exercises. The effect produces really strong people. And with everything else being equal, the stronger athlete will win.

Not that it’s impossible to become strong without the powerlifts, it just takes much, much longer. You cannot beat the efficiency and efficacy of picking up heavy things in building powerful athletes.

The powerlifts are also scaleable to each athlete’s strength and experience level.

A 9 year-old can benefit from the squat while using a 5 pound plate as much as a 20 year-old with 200lb on the bar in the next rack over.

That same little guy can deadlift with 15 lbs, while our older athlete has 300lb on her bar: both will increase the strength in their posterior chains. The 9 year-old may learn how to hold a plank (still a press) while an older athlete benches, again both are developing full body strength.

What’s more, the powerlifts are broad enough to apply to every sport and so effective at strength building, why wouldn’t you use them?

Now, before you attack me with pitchforks and PubMed articles, I know that some lifts are not optimal choices for all sports or for all athletes. It’s the difference between contraindicated exercises and contraindicated people.

For example, I will rarely (if ever) bench press an overhead athlete, but will defer to one of the hundreds (literally) of push up variations.


I would be remiss to note, too, that non-powerlifter athletes should use the powerlifts, but should not train like a powerlifter.

The powerlifts, programmed appropriately, build a solid strength foundation from which speed and power will spring.

What do I mean by that?

Powerlifting methods can produce CNS fatigue, joint/muscle soreness, and require substantial recovery time. Which is fine if the athlete’s sole goal is to add weight to the bar. But, the human body has only so much capacity for adaptation and recovery. QIII athletes are focused on another goal, typically involving their sport, and need to have plenty of gas in the tank for sport practice.

Another point to remember, in most, if not all athletic endeavors, power (force x velocity) is driving force behind quick athletic movement, like this dude:


Max strength does contribute to maximal power output, but only up to a point. If it takes .3 seconds to reach maximal force output but a broad jump only takes about .1 second, you’re not going to be able to express your full strength in that brief amount of time.

Therefore, power athletes (which is pretty much every sport) need to increase their rate of force development. To prevent this post from becoming longer than the lines for the new Star Wars movie, read this and this for more in-depth information.

Max strength and power are not distinct entities, but the latter is built upon the former. Thus, it is imperative to develop a solid strength foundation from which an athlete’s power explodes (pun definitely intended). How to train for power is another post for another day.

As Yoda Pavel says, “Power is strength compressed in time, so to get powerful, you must get strong.”

Athletes have a limited amount of time and energy therefore, exercises that require minimal amount of time are ideal; the powerlifts fit the bill. Like peanut butter is to jelly, barbell work should complement sport practice in an athlete’s overall development.

About the Author

Kelsey Reed is head strength coach at SAPT Strength & Performance located in Fairfax, VA. Bitten by the iron bug at 16, Kelsey has been lifting ever since. Her love for picking up heavy things spurred her to pursue a degree in the Science of Exercise and Nutrition at Virginia Tech.

Now she spends her days teaching and coaching others in the iron game. In her down time, she lives life on the wild side by not following recipes when she cooks, fighting battles through characters fantasy fiction novels, and attempting to make her cats love her.

Kelsey, along with her husband, Coach Steve.

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Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

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