How to Start a High School Powerlifting Team, Pt. 1

by Chris Dertz

Powerlifting is one of the fastest growing sports out there, especially at the high school level. Coaches and athletes who are interested seem to have a common question… where do I begin?? This is the first of a 2-part series on How to Start a Powerlifting Team, based on my experience as a coach.

Planning and Considerations

The year was 2016. My son, Eli, was in 8th grade. A multi-sport athlete, Eli had been working with athletic performance specialist Jeff Lyrenmann since the 4th grade. One day after we were done training, Jeff showed Eli a photograph from years before. In the photograph, a young Jeff was squatting an astounding 270kg (that’s almost 600 “Freedom Units”, or pounds, for anyone not familiar with the metric system) at a bodyweight of 74kg. Seeing Jeff’s photograph made Eli realize that once you become the strongest guy in the gym, it’s time to find a stronger gym! That was the primary impetus for finding a powerlifting meet for Eli. 

“#Powerlifting is one of the fastest growing sports out there, especially at the high school level. Coaches and athletes who are interested seem to have a common question… where do I begin??”

Of course, we didn’t know anything about powerlifting! We didn’t know the rules, we didn’t know the procedures, we didn’t even know what the lifting uniform was! And concepts like openers, warmups, record attempts…that was so far off our radar screen that they weren’t even considered. In fact, Eli’s first time deadlifting was at the meet! We ended up going into the meet completely clueless and, while Eli posted a total in his first meet, we certainly could have been a lot better prepared. The purpose of this article is to help you, the high school teacher or coach looking to find competition for your student-athletes, to establish, prepare, and lead a high school powerlifting team

Eli Dertz – 13 Years Old2016 APF State MeetTeen 1 Raw 181lbs Weight Class821lbs Total

Eli Dertz – 18 Years Old2020 APF Raw Power ChallengeTeen 3 Raw 275lbs Weight Class1,626lbs Total

Starting Out:

The first step is to generate interest and identify potential lifters. Typically, the biggest and strongest students in most American high schools are the varsity football players. Most likely, there are some players on the football team who would perform well in a powerlifting meet so this would be an obvious place to start. With that being said, you will want to cast a wide net.

It takes a special person to walk up to the platform in a skin-tight singlet in front of a crowd and complete a squat, bench press, and a dead lift that must meet the approval of 2 out of 3 officials who themselves have competed as powerlifters. These aren’t gym lifts where a ¼ depth knee-bend is claimed as a squat or a bro-spotter rows the weight off his buddy’s chest on the bench press while screaming, “It’s all you!” or a horribly hitched deadlift is bounced off the floor between reps like a basketball. Rather, these are lifts performed under competition conditions to a uniform standard. There’s nowhere to hide on the platform and if the lift doesn’t get at least two white lights from the three officials, it doesn’t count. And if the weight can’t be lifted, there is no one for the lifter to blame but themselves. The Iron isn’t moved by excuses or feelings. It’s the ultimate judge.

So, given this, what students in the building should you be recruiting? 

You might want to start by looking for kids who don’t fit in with traditional team sports. The kinds of kids who want to compete or be a part of something but have not had the opportunity. The kids who often get overlooked. Anyone can coach the superstars…the elite athletes in the building. That’s easy. Recruiting kids for powerlifting gives you a chance to reach out and build a relationship with kids who otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to be a part of something. Powerlifting can be that thing for those kids. 

Here’s an example.

I want to tell you about Paul. Paul was a couple years younger than Eli. Paul had never played any sports when he was younger. Born into a prominent farming family in our county, his parents reached out to my wife and I and wanted to know if Paul could train with our boys. Sue, Paul’s mom, told us that they had to pour out half a bag of livestock feed because the full 50lbs bag was too heavy for Paul to carry. In fact, Paul couldn’t even do a single push-up. They knew that our son Eli was into weights and they thought that the training was exactly what Paul needed. So we said, sure, we would love to have Paul join our training sessions!

Over the years, many of Eli’s peers have asked if they could train with him. We always had an “open door” policy. However, none of those kids lasted more than a few weeks. Eventually, they all had too much homework or too many sports practices, or whatever the excuse was. They would miss a session and then miss more sessions until they finally dropped away, one by one. Except for Paul. He was the only one who stuck it out. The only one who kept showing up in the weightroom, at 7pm at night in January after a grueling, 3-hour wrestling practice, to put the work in under the bar with Eli. 

One night, about two years in, Eli was doing pull-ups. Paul told me that he was going to do a pull-up. I didn’t think he could do a pull-up but I said, “OK Paul…let’s go!”. So, Paul got up on the pull-up bar. And he pulled. And he got his chin over the bar. And then he lowered himself. But he didn’t let go. He completed 2 more pull-ups before dropping back to the floor. Remember…this was a kid who couldn’t complete a single PUSH-UP in 7th grade and here he was now, 2 years later, knocking out 3 full-ROM pull-ups. This past weekend, Paul totaled over 1,000lbs in a powerlifting meet. In 20+ years of coaching, that is my proudest moment. The moral of the story? Find kids like Paul to start your powerlifting team!  

Paul, as a 7th grader in 2016
Paul, as a high school junior in 2020 with a 402lbs deadlift and a 1,014lbs powerlifting total.

It can be as simple as having an announcement read over the PA system at school that says, “Mr. Dertz will be in the weight room tomorrow morning @6:30am for anyone who is interested in learning more about the sport of powerlifting.” You can also put fliers up around school to advertise the club. Or maybe your school has a designated study hall period or “Learning Lab” time during the day in which you can schedule a meeting to promote the club with an informational slide show. Here’s the thing…you don’t need a lot of kids! We started here at Eastland with 1 kid. Now, we are up to 10 and I feel confident that our numbers will only grow!     

Once You Have a Couple Kids on the Team

So you have found some powerlifters. How should you organize training? What should the expectations be? My suggestion would be to start slow. The worst thing you can do, after recruiting kids to the team, is to chase them away by doing too much, too soon. The great thing about powerlifting is that it is simple and objective. What the kids do in practice is what the kids will do in competition. I recommend a simple, 2-day training program. Find two days a week in which you and the team can have the weight room to yourselves. The training session should be divided into the following parts:

  1. Warmup
    1. I’m a big fan of RPR. If you don’t know what it is, learn it. It’s great stuff.
    2. Simple dynamic warmup. Shout out to Coach Josh Edwards, head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa.
  2. Competition Lifts Training
    1. Keep the reps low and the speed fast. Anything over 5 reps is cardio. Kids will get a lot of mileage out of 5 sets of 5 reps or 8 sets of 3 reps. It can be really simple. Just try and set a new 3-rep or 5-rep max each week.
    2. It’s ok to bench press 2x a week. But keep squats and deadlifts 1x a week.
  3. Accessory Movements
    1. Lots of rowing. Program 2 reps of pulling for every 1 rep of pushing
    2. Hit the posterior chain hard. The “Go” is a lot more important than the “Show”’!
      1. Deadlift is a hinge pattern. On deadlift days, program squat movements for accessories
      2. On squat days, program hinge movements as accessories
    3. Use accessory movements to hit higher volumes. Think 5 sets of 10 reps per movement
    4. Abs/Core training – Do it if you think it is needed. My opinion is that if kids are following a program that is based around ground-based, compound movements done with free weights, they are getting plenty of core work. Show me a high school kid who squats 2x bodyweight and I will show you a kid who has a strong core.

Here’s a sample split you can use:

Day 1
Squat Training
Bench Press Training
Hinge Accessory
Rowing Accessory
Day 2
Deadlift Training
Bench Press Training
Squat Accessory
Rowing Accessory

This should get you off to a solid start. In Part II, I’ll give some direction for finding a meet and how you can manage the big day for the kids. 

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