Powerlifting is fundamentally about brute strength; it’s not especially elegant or sophisticated. You can be a great powerlifter, if not a great athlete, as long as you’re strong. Powerlifting demonstrates absolute strength: the maximum musculoskeletal force that one can apply to a given movement – like a squat – in a single effort. Such strength is demonstrated by a one-repetition maximum (one-rep max), the heaviest weight one can lift unassisted for the given movement while maintaining proper form and technique.
Heavy Weight and Low Reps
Training with strength as your priority requires moving heavy weight for relatively few repetitions (reps). Powerlifters generally stay with low reps, normally 2 to 4 per set because the stimulus response is nominally an increase in absolute strength. Powerlifters also occasionally do some training sets of near maximums or one-rep maximums; we usually refer to performing these sets as “doing singles.” A one-rep max discounts a spotter’s help, cheating, and/or partial range of motion – a half squat wouldn’t count unless you were purposefully doing partials.
The fact that you are resistance-limited to this comparatively low number of repetitions (under 6) qualifies the resistance as “heavy.” In other words, the resistance (i.e., weight) is not so much that you can do at least 2 reps, but is too heavy for you to do more than 6 reps if you tried. The weight at which 4 reps are possible is, for most people, roughly 90 % of the weight they could do for 1 rep.
Training to Failure in Range
To stay in this range, you must use enough weight to limit yourself to it while trying your best to surpass it. This is a part of what it means to train to failure: trying to do as many reps as possible to ensure the muscular response effectively corresponds to the stimulation. To quit well before approaching actual failure defeats the purpose of the “low” rep range. For example, performing 4 reps with a weight with which you could conceivably do 7 reps, except that you decided to quit when you hit 4! This is very important because quitting misleads you about the appropriate resistance for being constrained in the target rep range that best promotes an absolute strength increase.
Low Reps for Fast Twitch Recruitment
Two to 4 reps is not a random range; rather, it corresponds to the muscle fibers recruited by resistance approaching our limits. Heavy lifting (i.e., the task of moving a weight that demands our greatest effort) ideally recruits a large number of muscle fiber at once to accomplish the lift. This places tremendous strain on the fibers and causes them to pack tightly together. The tightness of this packing is known as muscular density. The reason many strength athletes can be described as “rock solid” is because they, in fact, have denser, harder muscle.
A powerlifting workout routine, therefore, specifically develops, and relies on the development of, fast-twitch (sometimes referred to as fast-glycolytic or Type II b) muscle fibers. Fast-twitch fibers produce comparatively high force because they contract quicker than other fibers types and they grow well when properly stimulated by heavy weight.