8 Things I've Learnt from Coaching Powerlifters

By PPT Level 3 Trainer, Sean O’Shea

I honestly never thought I’d end up coaching powerlifting. It wasn’t like its been a dream of mine to coach either. I kind of just fell into it.

For me, I started training like most people in search of improving my physique, and stuck to more ‘bodybuilding’ style training. When I started training, I spent more time and effort researching how to build bigger arms and pecs, than a bigger squat or deadlift.

Since then, I’ve trained and coached face to face sessions for over 10,000 hours (going on 14 years as a trainer). Through practical experience, and a ton of personal development and research, I’ve learnt how to get people strong! It just so happens that a few of those strong people don’t mind throwing around a few kilos on the competition platform!

As with any client, you learn a thing or two. Working with the competitive powerlifter has been no different!

Coach Sean O’Shea and athletes Mary Elasi and Jennifer Borg
  1. Specificity is KING 

For average Joe’s like myself, it’s always fun and enjoyable to try new things in the gym. Whether it’s exercises, rep ranges, or programming methods, changing things up in the weight room is a great way to keep things interesting. But not with POWERLIFTING. To be great at something, you need to be specific and try not to deviate too far from the goal. In any given program, you should expect to squat, bench or deadlift in some capacity. The only real difference being how much of each!


  1. Powerlifting programming can be REALLY, REALLY boring

I could see this one upsetting some….. but whatever man.
Personally, I love writing programs for my lifters, but I love all things strength! I get pumped up playing with periodization models, loading percentages and the small planning tweaks that make up a great program. I know that the ‘Big 3’ are a gateway to all things strength (and many other goals), and they should really be the backbone of any good program. But most ‘normal people’ don’t feel the same way.

As mentioned in point one, you can expect plenty of the same stuff when you’re powerlifting. Through my many hours of experience, I know that not everyone feels the same way. 


  1. Everyone is REALLY, REALLY different

Everyone one of the lifters I’ve coached shows differences in how they handle training loads, will have different biomechanics and structure, and responds to exercises differently. Some are ‘grinders’ with their second rep looking like their last, and the others will reach failure at the blink of an eye. I truly believe that recognizing this individual difference, is an area many powerlifting coaches will make some the best progress with their athletes. Especially once they move beyond beginner training status.

  1. Cardio isn’t necessary for weight loss

There’s been MANY a comp in which a lifter has needed to drop a few kilos to make weight. Many would think the best way to do this would be to include some cardio type training (like jogging on the treadmill) in the program. Time and time again though, we’ve been able to drop the kilos AND make weight, all without the inclusion of cardio

**Side Note** This is not a cardio bashing article, and I’m 100% an advocate of including some type of cardio work in most (if not all programs). In relation to point 1 though, specificity is KING, and any training that is not specific to the ultimate goal MAY be detrimental to the powerlifter. More on this another time.


  1. AGGRESSION is a VERY valuable training tool

The ability to ‘switch on’ and get fired up for a key set or workout can be the difference maker for a lifter. For me personally, I find it NEAR IMPOSSIBLE to hit anything decent in the gym without getting a little bit jacked up for a set.

The key is to develop a sense of ‘controlled’ aggression, and transfer it to something good. No point getting fired up, and only to tire yourself out before you even start the set. My suggestion, pick a song that fires you up, and play that shit loud on your iPod, and try to time your ‘peak aggression’ around 20sec prior to that big effort. Staying pumped up any longer that that will more than likely be too late. 

  1. The VALUE of AMRAP sets

I first came across the concept of AMRAP (or As Many Reps As Possible) sets through an American Coach, lifter, and all round smart dude, Eric Helms.

There would be many times within a training block that I’d find myself trying to work out if the athlete was on target to hit their goal lifts, but never really had an accurate way of addressing it. I’d use a few differen’t methods or training benchmarks to assess, but was never confident that I was on point. Personally, that never sat well with me and I knew there had to be a better way. Enter AMRAPS!

AMRAP sets are basically sets performed to failure (or pretty damn close) at a sub-maximal load. You can then take that number, enter it into a AMRAP calculator, and end up with a pretty decent idea of where your lifter is sitting. Of course, you could just perform a 1RM test to get an idea, but there’s a risk in doing so, and you may end up just burning your lifter out.


  1. Training to FAILURE is not something that’s essential (or beneficial) for max strength development

Ball busting sets of back squats may be common in bodybuilding circles, but not so much in powerlifting. Typically, I’ve found that we’ve seen WORSE results when it comes to strength development when going to failure with our powerlifters. Don’t get me wrong, there’ll still be a time and a place for this in our training programs, just not in the competitive lifts. With respect to training to failure, I’ll tend to:

  1. Wait for a hypertrophy phase, NOT a strength phase – definitely benefit to pushing a few sets to failure when it comes to muscle growth
  2. Use failure based techniques and training mostly on our accessory movements, not really the competitive ones.


  1. ‘Average Joes’ are not powerlifters

Probably the most important thing I’ve learnt. Like most trainers, you’ll tend to go through ‘phases’, and the influence of your own training will often be reflected in your client’s programs. Although there’s plenty that we can ‘borrow’ from powerlifters, we don’t all need to train like one. Keep your own training programs and techniques goal specific at all times for best results, and less injuries.


All in all, I’ve learnt, and taken a ton of great info from my time coaching powerlifters and plan to continue to do so. Although it wasn’t something that I ever thought I’d get involved in, I’ve loved every minute of it so far. It’s a great sport, and the support and camaraderie that fellow coaches and lifters show each other is reason enough to get involved. If you’ve ever thought to get involved, or just want to check out what all the fuss is about, head to powerliftingaustralia.com.au, check out the competition schedule, and head down to a comp near you!

If you’d like to know more about how our team at Performance Personal Training can help you with your powerlifting goals, get in touch to find out more about our coaching and training services HERE.