Tips for the Raw Powerlifter

Tips for the Raw Powerlifter

I’ve written before about preparing for a raw powerlifting meet and how it seems that there is an endless wealth of information on training for geared powerlifting but very little information for raw lifters.

For raw lifters, the important thing to remember is that you’re training for raw strength. That sounds obvious, but it’s an important thing to keep in mind. Geared lifters train for geared lifting, which is in and of itself practically its own sport. The addition of powerlifting gear changes the very dynamics and technique of each lift and sets it apart completely. Remember that you’re trying to be as strong as possible—you just happen to be prioritizing three lifts. With that being said, here are a few tips.

You need to train the actual lifts. There is a significant neurological component to maximal lifting and having frequent practice with the lift can maximize that. This is similar to what has become famously referred to as “greasing the groove,” but it’s a fact that good trainers have known about for many years. When you frequently train the actual lifts, you’re perfecting your own personal technique and teaching your body to get better at that lift. This is especially important when you’re getting closer to a meet.


Of course, we all want a little variety in our training. It’s always a good idea to cycle different exercises into your training so that you can strengthen the muscles in a different fashion and bring up weaknesses, but resist the urge to go nuts with the variety. One way to introduce new or different exercises into your programs is with assistance work. This way you keep practicing your main lifts but have the variety necessary to bring up weaknesses and keep you from getting bored. Try cycling assistance movements every three to four weeks. As Jim Wendler says, “Don’t major in the minor.” Assistance moves are there to do just that—assist. Be sure that you are choosing assistance movements wisely, too. Some movements have better transfer than others, and remembering this principle can be vital. What’s going to help your bench more—triceps kickbacks or heavy Swiss bar pressing?

Assistance Work

While we’re on the subject of assistance work, I’d like to elaborate a little. The main purposes of assistance work are to strengthen weak points and promote balance. Promoting balance is critical because there are areas of the body that the power lifts fail to adequately train. While people like to say that the squat and deadlift train the entire body, the fact remains that they just don’t do the job the way other movements do. Training the upper back is crucial to structural balance and can help develop a bigger bench. The abs could always benefit from some dedicated work, too. Focus your assistance work on areas that otherwise wouldn’t be trained.

Weak Points

Bringing up weak points can be looked at in two ways—weak points of the body (such as the neglected areas above) or weak points of the lift. For a raw powerlifter, assistance work should also be related to the points during a lift where you miss (i.e. the bottom, the middle, or lockout). For example, a bencher who misses at the lockout might include board presses or heavy close grip work to strengthen that aspect of the lift. Prioritize full range of motion movements over partial lifts, but don’t abandon partials all together. Partial movements like lockouts have many benefits like strengthening the tendons and ligaments. Another important benefit of lockouts is that they build confidence with a higher weight. It’s very common to feel anxious about getting under the bar for a max attempt with a weight you’ve never lifted before. Rack lockouts can build confidence with that weight because you’ve already lifted it successfully.

Band & Chains

Don’t go too nuts with the bands and chains. These are great tools to use and can make your training a little more exciting, but they shouldn’t make up the heart of your program. Because the strength curve of a raw lifter is usually weak at the bottom and strong at the top, these devices strengthen the top and fail to do the same for the bottom of the movement. Treat them as partial movements and use them sparingly.


Another thing to focus on with raw lifting that might seem like commonsense is to minimize gear use in your training. Obviously, you should be aware of the gear restrictions of your federation, but even things like a belt should be saved for your heavier work. The logic here is simple—get stronger without the gear and you’ll be that much stronger with it. Most coaches say to hold off using a belt or anything supportive until you’re around 85–90 percent of your max. That’s a pretty good rule of thumb to follow.

Solid Programming

Finally, my advice is to have some kind of solid program to structure your training. The benefits of an effective program can’t be overstated. For starters, having a program prevents you from going into the gym and just screwing around. A program can keep you focused on your goal even when you feel like crap. It also will systematically steer you toward that goal by using techniques that have been proven to work. I prefer programs that have an element of autoregulation. Basically, this means that a program should allow room for the daily fluctuation that is inevitable in your strength level and motivation as well as the stressors that you encounter every day. If a program has you doing 85 percent of your max for six reps today, it doesn’t have any autoregulation. How do you know that your strength level that day allows you to do that? Keep this in mind when shopping around for a good program to follow.

Also remember that more advanced lifters may be able to train with less structure because they know how their body will respond to training and they have the experience to change things as they go. The most important thing to do is to just find what works for you.

Other than the tips above, remember to adhere to the basic tenets of strength training—eat for big lifts and listen to your body.

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About the Author

Christopher Smith is a strength coach and ACSM certified personal trainer from New York City. He is the founder of Train Better Fitness. In addition, he is a record setting powerlifter and an overall health and fitness fanatic. Contact him at or at