Youth Sports Profile: Powerlifting

Does your child want to be a heavy lifter? Check out this sport.

Youth powerlifting - teen girl lifting barbell
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While not the same as Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting has its own set of devoted athletes and fans. It may seem simple: lift the most weight to win. But successful youth powerlifting requires dedication and attention to technique. Does your child have the power and passion for powerlifting?

The basics: Powerlifters compete in three events, attempting to lift the heaviest weight in each. Competitions may include one, two, or all three events.

For each, lifters make three attempts, and their best of those three (heaviest weight) becomes their score for that event.

  • Deadlift: lifting a barbell from the floor, until the lifter is in a standing position with knees locked (the arms are straight, so the weight is at thigh level)
  • Bench press: pushing a barbell up from the chest, while lying down with head, shoulders, and back on a bench
  • Squat: squatting down until thighs are parallel to the floor, with a barbell on the shoulders

Both male and female athletes compete in powerlifting, and athletes are categorized by sex, age, and bodyweight.

A mathematical formula called the Wilks formula is sometimes used in scoring. Each lifter is assigned a multiplier based on his or her bodyweight. Once all the athletes have performed their lifts, their totals are multiplied by this Wilks number. The competitor with the highest final figure is the winner.

Skills needed/used: Strength, determination, focus.

Best for kids who are: Willing to train seriously and with attention to technique; persistent.

Season/when played: Can be year-round. High school competitions usually happen in winter and spring.

Team or individual? Individual, but lifters can train together as a team to represent a school or club.

Levels: USA Powerlifting (USAPL) has youth levels for kids starting at age 10. They can then proceed through age-based levels up through Junior (age 20-23). Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) also has age-based groupings, as does the Natural Athlete Strength Association (NASA). In NASA events, kids 13 and under are judged by their form and ability, not just the amount of weight lifted.

Age kids can start: USA Powerlifting has divisions for kids 10 years old and up. AAU allows competitors as young as age six. It is safe for kids to start weight training in a controlled, supervised manner as young as six or seven years old.

If your child wants to start powerlifting (or any form of weight training), make sure to find a qualified instructor to supervise his training. It's important that young lifters know how to lift safely, with proper technique, and that they develop strength in their core and shoulder muscles to protect their growing bodies.

Appropriate for kids with special needs: Yes, depending on the child's challenges.

Powerlifters can compete in the Special Olympics and the Summer Paralympic Games. Some visually and physically disabled athletes compete in powerlifting meets against able-bodied competitors.

Fitness factor: Powerlifting does not burn lots of calories like more cardiovascular exercise does. However, it strengthens muscles and bones, which is important for good health and overall fitness. Strength training goes hand-in-hand with cardio exercise to improve metabolism.

Equipment: Some powerlifters wear special supportive suits to help them perform; they compete in "equipped" events. Alternatively, lifters can wear a non-supportive singlet for "raw" or "non-equipped" events. Belts, shoes, wrist and knee straps are permitted in both kinds of events, although rules lay out detailed specifications for these items.

Costs: Membership in the USAPL (required to enter its meets) costs $30/year for youth, or $15 for a six-month high school seasonal membership. Lifters will need to buy their own suits, wraps, belts, and so on. A suit can range from $50 to over a hundred dollars; wraps and sleeves are in the $20-25 range; a basic belt starts at about $25.

Time commitment required: This will depend on the coach's or trainer's requirements and on the athlete's level of competition. Meets can last a few hours or a few days, including time for weighing in (up to 24 hours in advance of competition).

Potential for injury: Medium. Powerlifting is not a contact sport, so traumatic injuries are less common. During training and competition, spotters and loaders are on hand to keep lifters safe. Paul Rogers, Verywell expert on weight training, says that overuse injuries are more typical (than traumatic injuries) in weight lifting. Read his tips for safer lifting and injury prevention.

Another concern in powerlifting is performance-enhancing drugs. Young athletes may be tempted to use unsafe supplements or illegal drugs in order to build muscle. They need to know that this is dangerous and won't be tolerated in competition. Since lifters must weigh in before competition and compete at a set weight level, "making weight" through unsafe methods is another risk parents should be aware of.

How to find a program or event:

If your local high school has a powerlifting program (check its website), you can also contact the coaches there about how to get your child involved in youth powerlifting in your area. Or if you see a meet advertised, contact its director to find out about local trainers.

Governing bodies:

If your child likes powerlifting, also try: Football, rowing, wrestling, track and field (field events).

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