The big three take-aways from Powerlifting:
STRONGER is BETTER
Although his humor remains our family’s favorite, this joke is more sad than funny. Actually, he describes one of the most accepted popular fallacies, that you can achieve a certain size, weight, body composition, or “look” and be done.
The idea of being done with physical training should be anathema to all human beings with even an ounce of blood pumping through their veins. The opportunity to be active, to sweat, to put our muscles to work, to feel the thrill of exertion is nothing less than a GIFT. Our bodies are incredible machines, capable of incredible feats of endurance and STRENGTH. Still, many of us–far too many of us–allow these incredible machines to sit idle, deteriorating and recompositioning into a pitiful shadow of what they could be–what we OUGHT to be.
You see, a platoon of dismounted infantrymen had been taking fire from some pretty wily insurgents and they were requesting aerial close combat support. They’d also run into some landmines, whether insurgent booby traps or relics from soviet occupation, maybe we will never know. In the end, it didn’t really matter who buried the anti-personnel mines. The explosions that resulted wounded our boys just the same.
I remember that we needed to get a good bead on where the good guys and bad guys were, so we banked our helicopter over the consolidated group of infantrymen. Our boys were placing some well-aimed M240 machine gunfire on the last known enemy location. In the center of their hasty perimeter were three huddled soldiers. A radioman, a medic, and a prone soldier lying still on an increasingly blood soaked tarp. His camouflage pants were in shredded tatters, below his knees there were no legs at all.
I will never forget that sight. I don’t want to forget that sight. Not only does it remind me of the sacrifice, courage, and grit of the American Infantryman, it reminds me that every breath, that every step is a blessing, a precious GIFT. I refuse to be ungrateful for something that is so priceless (and startlingly fragile). Life may be busy. I may be tired in the morning. The kids may have been up all night. But, doggone it, I am NOT going to miss my opportunity to train my body, to care for this mortal tabernacle, to get stronger.
Why Strength and Conditioning?
Get the MOST out of life
When you are fit you have the chance to experience the world on an entirely different level. Not long ago I found myself in Brazil on a work trip. I was lucky enough to have my wife along. Instead of just lounging on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro (which is admittedly worth doing), we climbed the Pedra da Gavea coastal monolith. It’s a massive slab of granite and jungle that towers over the city.
It was incredibly strenuous and challenging. If we hadn’t trained up for it I doubt we would have made it. From the top everything looked incredible, breathtaking views in every direction. Our sense of accomplishment and appreciation for the experience is something we will always treasure. Plus, laying out on Ipanema Beach after that hike was decidedly more pleasant, we felt like we had earned that moment of relaxation!
Build Stonger Relationships and Create Memories
When I think about my favorite memories with my own siblings I always smile at the hilarious conversations at the dinner table, or gathered together as a family in my parents’ living room. Still, some of my most cherished memories are the adventures.
Climbing Wheeler Peak in New Mexico, running a Tough Mudder, cycling along the Wasatch Front, camping in the mountains, playing sports, helping build a fence, pouring concrete in Grandpa’s backyard, even going out with mom for a sunrise hike, these are the memories that stand out. Through unified sweat and toil my siblings and I forged bonds of friendship that have kept us close to this day. Sure quality time can manifest itself in a variety of ways. I’m just here to say that the BEST ways always seem to involve a physical component.
Be More Survivable and Robust
I have long joked that the Army’s Physical Fitness Test (APFT) of timed pushups, sit-ups, and 2 mile run does a good job incentivizing soldiers to be scrawny. No one would ever argue that physical stamina is not important, especially for a soldier.
Nonetheless, take two fighters of similar skill but different weight classes and my money is on the bigger, stronger fighter. One of my favorite steely-eyed Bandit Troop pilots used to always give me a hard time when we had running on the physical training plan. With a knowing grin he would say, “Running breeds cowardice sir, let’s get back on the matts.” I am very pleased to see that the Army’s next evolution in the APFT now incorporates a max weight deadlift. It looks like the Army is finally realizing that a strong soldier is a more durable soldier. A strong soldier is a better fighter. A strong soldier is harder to kill.
There are, of course, many more reasons why you should be fit and strong. But I’m going to stop trying to convince you of what should be obvious.
Where do I start?
It is really quite simple. Fitness is a product of deliberate strength training, cardiovascular conditioning, and proper nutrition. Physical transformation is not only probable, it is a biological imperative when you demand progress in these three arenas.
No miracles will happen overnight. Thomas Paine’s idea of “that which we obtain too easily, we esteem to lightly” is particularly applicable to fitness. Consistency, deliberate effort, and a willingness to challenge yourself are key. Your diligent actions will do nothing less than make you stronger, faster, leaner, healthier, and undoubtedly tougher.
When it comes to dedicating yourself to a training program there are two things I know to be true.
- I can promise you that it will be worth it
- I can also promise you that is will NOT be EASY.
After all, I said it would be SIMPLE. But when it comes to forging a stronger, better physique, simple does not mean easy.
Quick disclaimer, challengemyfamily.com is not affiliated with any product or program discussed herein. We have no financial incentive whatsoever directing the input I offer below.
I’d wager this site reaches about 10 readers in all (hi mom!) so rest assured that every bit of opinion and insight I offer is done with the sole intent of seeing my family and friends get stronger and healthier. Actually, I would call that the greatest incentive of all.
The CURSE of TOO MUCH INFORMATION
Strength, conditioning, nutrition, you could google any one of those terms and find a plethora of information online. The fitness industry is alive and well. It is thriving more than ever due in large part to the growing ubiquity of social media and its very own fitness communities. The over-abundance of fitness information and the fact that there are plenty of eager consumers willing to pay for the latest diet fad or fitness programming makes finding reliable information difficult.
Luckily for us, there are some simple, old-school, tried and proven methods to improve each arena of the fitness trifecta.
When it comes to cardio there are countless methods to perform some useful metabolic conditioning. Jogging, running, cycling, rowing, hiking, and crossfit all offer excellent means of elevating your heart rate and challenging yourself. There are blogs, youtube channels, and websites that will give you ideas to get out and work up a sweat. I will not spend too much time addressing cardio, but suffice it to say that you should periodize your cardio to match your training goals.
If you’re training for a race, you should train up for that race, taper down immediately prior to the event, execute the race, and then recover. Learning how to periodize your training will apply equally to cardio and strength training. If you get out and do cardio two or three times a week for around 30-60 minutes, you’re doing good things.
As far as nutrition is concerned, I’ll say that 80% of how you look is a result of what you eat and how you nourish your body. Way too many Americans are over-fed and under-nourished. We eat tons of unhealthy calories and then act surprised when our waistlines grow and we feel lethargic.
Be wary of any and all diet fads.
Diets are, by their very nature, transient modifications of eating behavior that (statistically speaking) see the dieter rebounding back or beyond their original weight once it’s over. Although I have no qualms with moderate bulking and cut phases in a nutrition plan, I think basic rules of thumb come in very handy.
For me, I choose to be a bit more strict during the work week and on the weekend I allow myself some “cheat meals (or days).” So, Monday through Friday I avoid consuming any liquids besides water, milk, and protein shakes. Why drink sugar-drenched, high-calorie, carbonated beverages? One or two on the weekend, sure, but if you’re drinking multiple cans a day you are willfully putting your health at risk.
On work days I also try and limit eating obvious sugary foods and deserts. Treats taste better when they are saved for special occasions anyway. Eating healthy amounts and types of macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, and fats) is the best way to go. This email isn’t about nutrition, but even if it were I would tell folks to start SIMPLE. From Monday through Friday cut out OBVIOUS unhealthy items from your personal menu and watch how BIG an impact even those small acts have.
Lastly, we come to strength training. Of the three arenas of fitness, this is the arena where I believe there is probably the most ignorance or flat-out misinformation. Strength training, real programing that demands progressive overload, for a long time has been shrouded in mystique and relegated to competitive lifters and professional sports teams. Only within the last few decades has information regarding strength training come out of the shadows and become readily accessible.
Today we do not need a division one strength and conditioning coach to train us up on the basic barbell lifts and generate a plan for linear progression. With some ingenuity, we can gain access to world-class instruction and learn more than we need to develop our own personalized strength program.
Strength training, of the three domains of fitness, is also the most important.
Sure you need to eat cleaner and you need to get in that cardio, but when you develop strength you increase your overall work capacity. Strength training requires the most diligence. Conditioning, as an adaptation, happens fairly quickly.
There is a reason why high school football teams do two-a-days only a few weeks prior to the season. They only NEED that many weeks to establish the conditioning necessary for success. Of course, conditioning also deteriorates quickly once the demand and consistency subsides. Not so with strength training, when you train for strength you are overloading your central nervous system and forcing it to become more efficient and recruit more muscle fibers.
When you engage in progressive resistance training you force your muscle fibers to grow, your bones to become more dense, and your connective tissues to thicken.
There is no better means of increasing strength and size than powerlifting, bar none. The great Pavel himself says, “When it comes to building muscle-prime meat, strong as it looks- powerlifters are ultimate experts.”
Powerlifters, with Herculean effort and zealot-like intensity train three compound multi-joint exercises- the SQUAT, BENCH PRESS, and DEADLIFT. In a world filled with dumbell curls, clean and jerks, bosu-ball situps, kettle bell swings, rack pulls, windshield wipers, kipping pull-ups, skull crushers, pec deck flies, glute-ham raises, and yoga, Powerlifters focus on doing fewer things better.
A collegiate study looked at two groups. One did the big three powerlifts (squat, bench, deadlift) and the other group did powerlifts plus a bunch of barbell curls and bicep exercises. In the end guess whose arms were bigger.
The answer…both groups saw the SAME amount of arm development. Compound lifts demand you use your body as a holistic system and, accordingly, cause your whole body to get stronger. Want a thicker neck? Do heavy barbell squats. Want bigger forearms? Do squats. Want bigger pecs? Do squats. Counter intuitive? Maybe. But add 100lbs to your Squat and tell me your whole body didn’t get bigger and stronger. I dare you.
Although there are many other excellent compound exercises out there, the powerlifting big three remain the time-tested best for packing on muscle and developing massive strength gains. They remain on top because the technical execution of each lift, albeit highly important, is immensely easier than even a moderate weight barbell snatch.
Anyone, and I mean ANYONE, can learn how to squat to proper depth, bench press with a full range of motion, and deadlift a loaded bar from the floor.
The best news is that some of the finest coaches out there have provided their insights and instruction for our benefit.
Recommended Reading List
If you are serious about getting stronger, there are a few books that I would consider required reading. You certainly do not need to read them all prior to developing your own program. But, you will be amazed how much more effective your training will be when you start increasing your depth of understanding of strength programming. Each bullet below is a hyperlink, so that you can go ahead and add these gems to your personal library.
Starting Strength : This is the first book you should read. Mark Rippetoe’s treatise on strength training is so well-worded, informative, and useful that any serious lifter that has NOT read it should be slapped. His theories regarding the “novice effect” and his introductory lifting program are solid gold. I recommend everyone new to lifting start with this book and with this program. It has no equal.
Bigger Leaner Stronger: Michael Matthews is no powerlifter. He is more of a physique competitor, yet he admits to being a bit of a Rippetoe acolyte (as am I). He acknowledges that in order to look strong and formidable, you need to get there by pushing formidable weights. His book is affordable, readable, and has the absolute best input on nutrition and healthy eating that I have read to date.
Purposeful Primitive: The magnum opus of Marty Gallagher, this book is not so much a book as it is a conglomeration of thirty-plus years of articles, bios, programs, and insider information on the strength game. This author writes with a passion and eloquence akin to the likes of Tolstoy and Hemmingway. He lays out the old-school, tried and proven methods for building strength, and does so with style.
Bigger Faster Stronger: Shepard highlights the importance of strength training with athletics. His emphasis on establishing goals and breaking personal records helps lifters tap into the infinite reserve of enthusiasm. His work also provides excellent insights into programming workouts around competitive schedules.
Practical Programming for Strength Training: Here we have another excellent piece by Mark Rippetoe. This volume addresses programing in greater depth, gives the reader access to programs targeting the novice, beginner, intermediate, and advanced lifters. He also provides excellent input regarding special populations, such as older lifters or lifters who are dealing with chronic injuries.
Like many folks new to the iron game, you may have some misconceptions regarding powerlifting that we should probably clear up before we go any further.
Won’t powerlifting make you too bulky?
- I wish. Try as I may, I have been powerlifting for over five years and have not managed to pack on the slabs of massive muscle that my vanity has wanted. Certainly I have put on more muscle, definitely more muscle than I was ever able to get doing P90X, Crossfit, or traditional Bodybuilding routines.
- Powerlifting, better than anything else out there, allows you to achieve systemic overload and trip that proverbial “hypertrophy switch.” Still, unless you are willing to eat massive amounts of food or use anabolic steroids the likelihood of you getting huge and bulky is nonexistent.
Won’t powerlifting make me look manly?
- YES, if you’re a man. Wouldn’t you WANT to look more manly? Powerlifting will develop your entire body. You can’t show me a highly disproportionate man that can squat over 350 lbs, bench over 300, and deadlift over 400lbs. The joke of the bodybuilder with big arms and scrawny “getaway stick” chicken legs does not happen with powerlifters. Same goes for those chuckleheads with big arms and a wimpy chest/back, powerlifters they ain’t.
- Now, if you’re a woman, NO, powerlifting will not make you look like a man. It will make you look like WONDER WOMAN. For too long our society has embraced that doggone damsel in distress trope. Women have the capacity to become incredibly strong, athletic, and powerful. My daughter is going to grow up looking up to her mother. It makes me immensely proud that Journey will see her mom crushing some heavy weights inside the power rack. She will be a princess, yes- but a warrior princess.
Doesn’t it get old just doing Squats, Bench Presses, and Deadlifts?
- Nope. There is an infinite variety of training programs and variations on the these three core lifts that could easily keep you entertained and busy for a lifetime. But, the fact of the matter is powerlifters do way more than the three main lifts. Of course, they DO center their training around the core compound lifts, but they also use a variety of assistance exercises to help them develop as a whole. Jim Wendler even recommends in his book 5-3-1 that powerlifters think like a bodybuilder when it comes to symmetry and aesthetics.
- So, as a powerlifter you’ll still have plenty of time to do those pull-ups, dips, farmers walks, and even bicep curls. In the pic, my kid brother Chance hams it up for the camera as we end our workout with a bit of assistance work, adding a bit of volume to an already intense training session.
Do I really need to have a training journal and track progress?
- Absolutely. Unless you keep track of your numbers and quantify your results after each lift, you will never be able to truly progress. If you are serious about this, you should be take measurements of your neck, arm, waist, thigh, and note your total body weight. When you develop your strength program, you should have specific poundages you intend to lift for a specific number of sets and reps. By planning ahead, you know exactly what you need to do when you go in the gym. Make a plan. Work that plan.
How can I find time to be a powerlifter?
- Easily. Another major benefit of powerlifting is that it is absolutely NOT time intensive. The amount of training benefit you gain from heavy lifting is incredible, but you can only sustain true intense output for so long. Most of the training programs that I recommend have a 3 day training split, typically lifting on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Those sessions should be about 45 minutes in length. If you go much longer you start suffering from the law of diminishing returns and hormonally things start going south.
Getting Started with Strength Programming
Not all powerlifting training programs are created equal. Just as you would not offer a sirloin steak to a newborn baby, you would not have a brand new lifter jump right into a Westside barbell periodized training plan. Unless you plan on becoming a competitive powerlifter you will likely never need to get into the elite level of programming. Which is a great thing, because there are many very accessible programs perfectly designed for novices up to intermediate lifters.
I myself like to cycle between the programs listed below.
For anyone completely new to strength training I recommend they start with number one on this list and then advance from there. You will advance to the next evolution in programming only after you reach an insurmountable plateau. This usually occurs after 8 to 12 weeks for beginners, and 6 to 8 weeks for intermediates like me.
Although “randomization for muscle confusion” is a mighty popular theme these days, I am here to tell you that if you do not dedicate at least a solid 6 weeks to a training plan then you are simply giving up and not offering the program a fair shake. It takes time for your body to adapt and grow stronger. It takes focus and repetition to ingrain new movement patterns. Strength is a skill hard won and without consistency, there will be no truly quantifiable progress.
After dedicating a solid 8 to 12 weeks to one program and before starting the next, it is important to deload. Take a week or two away from heavy lifting and allow your body to simply recover. You will come back into the next program stronger and ready to continue making gains.
If you are not a rank beginner and are no stranger to the big compound lifts, then please check out this cool link, it shows you where you measure up in the three main compound lifts (Squat, Bench, and Deadlift) as compared to the general lifting population. Perhaps you have already run out a linear progression training plan and are an intermediate lifter, ready to get started with Wendler’s 5-3-1 or the Texas Method.
Here are my favorite lifting programs to get started with powerlifting. Each hyperlink takes you straight to an in-depth presentation of the programs. They are ordered in sequence deliberately based on complexity and training level.
- Starting Strength 3×5: Here is where you first discover what you are capable of. You master the main lifts and systemically add weight to the bar.This is linear progression in its purest most distilled form.
- Stronglifts 5×5: When you graduate from Starting Strength the next level is the higher volume brutality of the 5×5 set-rep scheme. The added volume enables even more hypertrophy and is conducive to simple linear progression.
- Wendler’s 5-3-1: This is your introduction to periodized training. I love his idea of going all out on the last set for max reps, as well as the idea of using 90% of your 1RM for training. Staying sub-maximal helps prevent injury.
- Texas Method 5×5, 2×5, 1×5: Intermediate lifters will love the Texas Method. It’s variation between volume, recovery, and high intensity allow you to achieve linear progression as measured by weeks rather than workouts.
- The Bridge: Lifters who have been training for a few years and that are looking to break out of plateaus and into the realm of more advanced programming will love Austin Baraki and Jordan Feigenbaum’s Bridge program. It introduces highly effective assistance work, with some serious volume and intensity. The program’s highlight is the concept of Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) and how that translates to strength programming. The link sends you to their website where you can download this program for free. It comes with a 30 page eBook to make sure everything is clear. These to coaches happen to also be MDs, so their credibility is rather high in my book.
WHERE to train though?
For cardio, the world is your oyster. Head to the hills for some hiking or hit the trails for some jogging. Invest in a bicycle and discover the beauty of your entire community. When it comes to strength training, any place where you can get your hands on free weights will do.
You certainly do not need to train in a health spa or some hoity-toity gym. In fact, most gyms are filled with super expensive exercise machines designed to help frail old people stave off the effects of osteoporosis. A barbell is always a better tool for building coordination, strength, and size than any hammer-strength machine.
Those cams, cables, plates, and polished chrome devices may seem special and high-tech, but they are distractions. Most gyms are stock full of shiny, time wasting venus fly-traps.
Here is my beef with most gyms. If you can find a gym that doesn’t fall victim to the following shortfalls, then you may be a lucky one.
Most Gyms are Lame
Most gyms are EXPEN$IVE! Almost all gyms require a monthly fee of anywhere from $30 to $150 depending on the services available. Some crossfit boxes charge as much as $175 a month! That’s $2100 a year, over $10,000 in less than 5 years! Since I plan on lifting for a lifetime, that’d be over $50,000 within 20 yrs.
If you’ve followed #familyfinance you’d know that such spending is ludicrous. I know child care at the gym can be enticing, but then again you could just lift at home while your kids are asleep. I’ve heard that planet fitness only charges $10 a month. That’s a great price, but see issues 2-5 below.
If you’ve ever been to a gym the day after the New Year you know how crowded it can be. Perhaps you don’t mind waiting 10 minutes for the squat rack to open up, or for the benches to be clear. Maybe it doesn’t bother you when you walk over to a bench and find the man-sweat and bodily fluids of previous lifters all over the place.
Some people may appreciate the unsolicited advice from the local bodybuilders or ne’er-do-wells. For me, I prefer where I lift to be a quasi fortress of solitude. I like lifting with my lifting buddy, family, and close friends, not creepy strangers.
Does your gym have a sign that says “no chalk allowed.” If so, rest assured that your gym cares more about cleanliness than your personal safety. Gyms are full of rules designed to make life easy on management. They don’t let you take dumbells and plates out of their designated area. They get upset if your heavy sets of deadlifts make a bit of noise, and I’m not even talking about dropping plates.
If you’re in the Army, you better make sure you’re in the right uniform. I’ve seen Soldiers get chewed out for not having their PT belt on INSIDE the post gym. Oh, and gyms have HOURS of OPERATION. I remember dragging my lazy butt to the gym a few years ago only to find that it was closed for the holiday.
I’ve heard that a collegiate study tried to discover the single best supplement to improve performance during a workout. The finding was intriguing. It wasn’t caffeine, or creatine, or any chemical at all, it was music. We all know that the right music can put you into the mood to really push some weight, to give it everything you’ve got.
Pearl-Jam, Metallica, Daft Punk these artists have the uncanny ability to make adrenaline pump through my veins. Alas, most gyms I have been to either play no music, or play the least inspiring tunes imaginable on their speakers. I guess you could wear headphones or ear buds, but if you’re not careful you can damage your eardrums.
Sadly, most gyms forget the simple truism that “less is more.” Walk into a Gold’s Gym and you’ll find cable machines, leg press machines, smith machines, leg extension machines, leg curl machines, calf raise machines, machines galore. Then, in the corner you might find a few power racks or squat racks, but they are usually occupied by other well-meaning lifters. Check out the strength and conditioning gyms of any Division One football team and you’ll probably find ROWS of power racks and deadlift platforms and open space.
Strength coaches know that there are no replacements for the tried and proven methods of old-school powerlifting and olympic lifting. One of the BEST things about Crossfit is how it proliferated the use of barbells, power racks, and free weights. So, most gyms are not just crowded with people, they are crowded with time wasting machines and the free weights they DO have are mismatched, misplaced, and mistreated.
Garage Gym Freedom
So, if you are one of the lucky few who have access to a great gym, with an affordable fee, and reasonable rules and equipment, then I recommend you lift there. If not, and you are one of the many lifters eager to work hard but unsatisfied with their training venues, then let’s talk a bit about the unlimited potential of your garage, or basement, or spare room.
For a relatively small sum of money, you can fully equip your garage with everything you need (and more) to crush a world-class strength training protocol. If you are savvy with the internet, you’ll probably find a good deal of the equipment you need on craigslist or on a garage sale page. I have a bench that we found at a garage sale in Ft. Rucker a decade ago and it is STILL going strong. It was some of the best $20 I have ever spent.
Now, let me give you a snapshot of my garage gym and then provide some input on what I recommend you purchase for your own home gym.
Garage Gym Essentials
The very first thing I recommend you purchase is a set of dumbells. You can go with a set of cast-iron hexagonal dumbells as I have, or you can purchase some of the more swoopty power-block adjustable weight dumbells. Although dumbells may seem pricey at first, you’ll be glad to hear that with even a tiny bit of care they will last a lifetime.
I purchased my dumbells while was still a West Point cadet and they are still going strong. Dumbells open up the world of free-weight exercises, providing beginners with a chance to get into compound lifts and enabling more advanced lifters to get creative with their assistance work. Dumbells are an absolute must for a home gym.
You will want a bench as soon as possible. The bench not only enables you to perform the core compound lift of the bench press, it also allows you to do a plethora of great assistance exercises such as skull crushers, extensions, the dumbell fly, and more.
Pick a bench that can incline and you are in for even more great training. Benches can get really expensive, but if you choose a generally reputable brand that offers some simple specifications for weight capacity, you will be fine. It doesn’t need to cost a fortune.
Soon enough, you will want to graduate from pure dumbell work to the big-boy world of the barbell lifts. When you purchase a barbell, do not forget the aphorism, “buy nice or buy twice.” I would steer clear of barbells that come in package deals like this link.
Cheap barbells will bend and permanently warp under heavy loads. They will also wear out and the sleeves will not rotate properly causing the weights to become cumbersome during the lift. I would stick with the high quality products from Rogue.
I own the Rogue B&R Bar, but any 20kg, 7′ long power bar on their site will be great. Just make sure the bar has CENTER KNURLING. Once, for lack of options, I found myself squatting with a really whippy, olympic weightlifting bar. The bar had NO center knurling and the smooth surface of the metal slipped down back, causing me to miss the lift and dump the bar, luckily without injury. Remember, we are POWERLIFTING. So, get a bar conducive to that training methodology.
A barbell needs weights like a flower needs petals. It is not complete without them. Unlike a flower, though, you don’t need anything too flashy and colorful. You COULD get colorful plates like these competition bumpers, but you really don’t need them.
All you really need is something simple like these old school York plates. I myself put some money toward some black Rogue Echo bumper plates and I have been absolutely satisfied with their performance. How much weight should you get? It depends.
To save on shipping costs I recommend getting EVERYTHING at once (including barbell and rack) so maybe 2x10s, 2x15s, 2x25s, 2x35s and 4x45s. Of course you’ll want 2×2.5s and 2x5s. To get into microloading you can buy a cheap set of fractional plates on Amazon too. They are very helpful when you start approaching your physiological limits but want to maintain that linear progression.
The Power Rack is the centerpiece of your garage gym (or ANY gym for that matter). The Rogue R3 Power Rack is, to me, the absolute best rack on the market. It is the gold standard. Its world-class, durable construction, and modular capacity puts it in a league of its own. Plus, Rogue as a company has the absolute best customer service and warranties.
You will not find a better product anywhere. Another major bonus of the Rogue racks are their modularity. Our family’s rack has the matador dip station, and kids pullup bar attachments. Rogue offers many more attachments that will allow us to spice things up down the road. If your budget is super tight, then Titan makes some decent racks too, but of a bit lesser quality.
Rings are a great addition to your gym because they allow you to do dips, pullups, rows, and muscle-ups all while allowing your arms to operate independently of each other. The increased demand for stability makes for some challenging and highly productive assistance work.
You don’t even need to break the bank for a set of official rings. There are tutorials online on how to build your own rings out of some simple PVC and webbing. I made a set back in flight school and they have served us well ever since. You can connect them to the trusses in your roof with some Rock Climbing Bolt Hangars.
These solid pieces of iron are a relic of the past, but still highly effective tools for some great training. We have four kettlebells ranging in weight from a light .25 pood to a fairly heavy 2 pood (seriously, that is the nomenclature those crazy Russians use to measure their kettlebells).
I love kettlebells for KB Swings, front squats, and Turkish Get Ups. The Turkish Get Up is the best tool for identifying muscular imbalances.
Few exercises rival the dip when it comes to strengthening the shoulder girdle and chest. Weighted dips are even better. I would be wary of attempting weighted dips on rings, but at a dip station or on a matador you can’t go wrong.
Ideally your power rack will automatically provide you with a pullup bar. But if it does not, then you’ll need to probably invest in some metal pipe and get creative. Sure the rings will allow you to do pullups, but there is something about rigid bar pullups that help develop the back and lats. You can also switch your grip and do chins.
If you struggle with pullups you can invest in some bands and do some assisted pullups. Band-assisted pullups are darn near impossible to perform on rings.
Now we enter into a bit of the luxury items. A climbing rope is great for a few reasons, but the most important one is that they are FUN. If you want to help your children develop strength and coordination then get them on a rope.
Teach your kids how to perform the lock or grapevine and you will provide them with a life skill that will benefit them for years to come. Another plus-side of having a rope in your garage is it gives you easy access to the attic without a ladder!
I do not think you need a deadlifting platform. There, I said it. Platforms are so doggone popular these days you would think that a gym is not a gym without one. But, truth be told, if you have some horse-stall mats on the ground and you lower your weights under at least some control, you will damage neither your bar nor your floor.
Now, if you are into the histrionics of chucking a loaded barbell from the overhead position then you might need to look into a legit platform. But for powerlifters, some simple (and affordable) horse-stall mats will do. I recommend buying these things local from a tractor store. They are heavy and will last forever.
Having something to write your workout on comes in handy. When you are going to a gym you’ll want to have your workouts written in your training log. But if you are home, you can write your workouts right on the wall. When Sara and I lift we put our workout on the board and all of our targeted reps, sets, and weights.
When we execute each lift we walk over and put check marks on the board or write the total number of reps we hit if we are going for an all-out work set. Call it Pavlovian reinforcement, it feels good to check things off, to write down your victories.
It has taken years to cobble together our family’s gym, after all Rome was not built in a day. Nonetheless, it was in late 2015 that I finally became too fed up with Army gyms and decided to get serious about our garage gym. Our gym is far from perfect, but it is perfect for our family.
I am sure you will find something that suits your needs as well. I would just encourage you to bundle your purchases as much as you can to prevent wasting money on excess shipping costs. Rogue sends its equipment via freight and will lump everything into one fixed cost. They really do have the best customer service in the business.
Here is my invoice.
WHAT equipment do I use?
Beyond the gym equipment, there are a few items of training apparel that I wish I had invested in sooner. There is no need to go crazy in this arena, especially for novices, but when you start getting closer to your physiological limits this equipment will help you prevent injury, train harder, and help you be an overall better lifter. Here are my recommendations, in order of precedence.
We are not talking about chalkboard chalk here. Magnesium chalk is the stuff that rock climbers use to keep their hands dry while scrambling up a crag. It is the same stuff that gymnasts use to get good purchase on a pommel horse.
Magnesium chalk helps prevent callouses by drying out your hands, it helps prevent your skin from folding over itself. The chalk also enables you to tighten your grip to vice-grip level, allowing you to recruit more muscle fibers during the lift.
A lifting belt helps you increase your intra-abdominal pressure. Thus, it turns your trunk into a rock solid air cushion for your spine, helping you prevent injury and pull more weight. Certainly it behooves you to train without a belt too, but if you start getting into maximal numbers you should seriously consider belting up.
As a lifter well into his thirties I can attest to how FEW injuries I have sustained while belted versus the MANY injuries I have subjected myself to without one. One time, on a moderately heavy work set of unbelted squat I strained a serratus muscle. I hurt my ABS while SQUATTING?! I have never had any such issues when I have been wise enough to put on a belt.
Belts come in a variety of shapes and sizes. There are decent cheap belts of the Harbinger variety and there are the more prime-time belts like the Inzer Forever Lever Belt. As you can see, after ten years of using a regular bodybuilding belt I finally graduated to an actual powerlifting belt. It’s thicker dimensions offer a night and day difference.
You probably do not need anything to fancy, but some wrist wraps will go a long way toward injury prevention. If you are lifting and pushing heavy things, it is not a bad idea to try and stay ahead of highly common injuries such as wrist pain.
During one zealous period of lifting during a deployment I was able to pack on some solid muscle and I enjoyed some increases in strength. Unfortunately, I progressed quicker than my joints could keep up and before I knew it I was dealing with micro-fractures in my wrists.
The Docs assured me that rest would solve the issue, and it did, but I wouldn’t have had to take a big hiatus in training if I had just trained smarter and used wrist straps from the start.
No-one would attempt heavy squats while standing on a mattress, yet everyday there are innocent folks in the gym doing just that when they lift in their soft and cushy running shoes. I admit that I was pretty reluctant to pull the trigger on a pair of lifting shoes because I figured I didn’t really need them.
Truth be told, you don’t REALLY need them. You can slip off your running shoes and squat and deadlift barefoot. RECORDS have been set by guys deadlifting barefoot. Still, for a decent price you can get a pair of weightlifting shoes with a non-compressible sole, metatarsal strap, and laces and take your training to the next level. When you are giving it all you’ve got to bump up your maxes by even a few pounds you will be glad you have these shoes. I have a pair of Inov-8s.
If you keep your eyes on the internet you can find sales. I bought mine for $75 even though it looks like now they retail for $135.
The last piece of training attire that I recommend are knee sleeves. Yes, you can probably do without them. Yes, they are a bit of a luxury. A luxury, that is if you have healthy knees that have not been ground up as a result of years of pounding.
My knees are luckily pretty healthy despite my fair share of ruck marching, running, and jumping out of airplanes. I hope to keep them that way and so far Mark Bell’s Strong Sleeves have helped quite a bit. They offer warmth and stability unlike anything I have ever experienced before. When I get into heavy work sets on squats I am glad to have these bad boys.
Make fitness a family affair!
Every dad wants to be a hero to his kids. One of the easiest ways to inspire confidence and credibility with children is to be STRONG and muscular. I love it when my boys join me in the gym for a workout. Watching them do their pushups and pullups makes my day.
The discipline and tenacity born from strength training will benefit every aspect of their lives. Some hold the misconception that weight training will somehow stunt a child’s growth or hurt their joints. The countless number of powerfully strong farm boys throughout history negate such doubts. I want our kids to be friends with the barbell and to be eager to train hard.
So, #powerlifter is really a two part challenge.
- Take command of your personal fitness. Sit down and write REAL and ACHIEVABLE goals in your training log. Make a plan for NUTRITION, CONDITIONING, and STRENGTH. Then, go out and work that plan for at LEAST 30 days. For example, my goals could be A) cut out soda-pop from my diet. B) Go walking for 40 min. three times a week. and C) Begin the Starting Strength training plan.
- Help your kids become fit. Be an EXAMPLE. It doesn’t have to be anything too elaborate. Perhaps challenge your kids to do 15 pushups a day, Monday through Friday for the rest of the month. Maybe get them started in a sport or help them learn a new skill such as a properly executed pullup. Either way, help your kids become active. Help them begin their journey to become strong and become all that they can be.
Join the challenge. Become a powerlifter. Do you have what it takes?