Some powerlifters fail to prioritize the tools of their trade. In order to elicit elite performance, it's paramount that you have the proper equipment and train in the appropriate environment.
Life circumstances can make finding the best place to train extremely difficult. For most, it comes down to commitment. Two sacrifices one must consider are willingness to travel and higher membership fees. Even if you're still unable to make things work, I'm here to give you some advice, which may better your preparation for battle.
Bars and plates
An NBA hopeful wouldn't dare practice on a nine-foot, eight-inch rim with a soccer ball. Likewise, powerlifters shouldn't deadlift with a commercial gym bar and octagonal plates. If you lift in an organization that uses a different bar for each of the three disciplines, you'd be doing yourself a disservice by training with one power bar or worse yet a commercial gym bar. Contrary to popular opinion, training with a bar that makes the movement more difficult isn't a wise move. Your chance of underperforming due to unfamiliarity with the equipment being used is another unnecessary variable in the equation. Powerlifters should strive to minimize training variables.
A: Texas Power Bar B: Mastodon Bar C: Texas Deadlift Bar D: Sabertooth Bar
Aside from the USAPL/IPF, most North American powerlifting organizations use a different bar for each discipline. A standard bar found at a commercial gym or health club is typically seven feet long, 28–31 millimeters in diameter, and 44–50 pounds. The finger guide marks (also known as "rings") are typically spaced closer than on a regulation powerlifting bar. The bars found in health clubs most resemble those used for the bench press in most powerlifting federations. The main differences are the ring specs, tensile strength of the steel (load capacity), and knurling. The rings are placed on the bar as a landmark allowing lifters to set their grip and to ensure that the lifter's hands are placed within the legal grip width limit outlined in the rulebook. Knurling is a rough pattern that is cut into the bar to enhance a lifter's ability to hold onto it. Powerlifting bars have deeper, more aggressive knurling compared to what you see at local health clubs. For the bench press, the most commonly used bar is the Texas Power Bar made by Buddy Capp, although some organizations that feature multi-ply lifting may opt for an oversized bench bar like the elitefts™ "Sabertooth." It's eight feet long, weighs 60 pounds, and has a 30-millimeter diameter and sports extra long sleeves. The sleeve is where the plates are loaded. Extended sleeves allow additional plates while also leaving room for the side spotters to operate. If you aren't used to working with an oversized bar, you might be thrown for a whirl because the weight distribution changes significantly. Lifters with smaller hands may struggle to grip a thicker bar.
The Texas squat bar, made by Buddy Capp, is typically used for the squat. At eight feet long and 31 millimeters thick, it's larger than any other powerlifting bar. Squat bars also have additional center knurling to keep it from sliding off the lifter's back. If you're used to squatting with a seven foot bar in training, the Texas squat bar may be awkward. Smaller lifters may really struggle with the weight distribution. Lifters who squat with a narrower grip may have difficulty balancing the longer bar. The thicker diameter may also affect bar placement. Larger lifters may find these differences favorable, although they'd be wise to keep them in mind.
Bar stiffness is another factor, though somewhat dependent upon squat style. Squatters with faster descents may find the "whip" distracting. The whip of the bar is a product of a quick deceleration occurring on the eccentric portion of the squat and then the lifter's ability to time the upswing of the bar on the ascent. This whip can help a lifter squatting with a quick descent. The thicker, stiffer squat bar may not "whip" at all. One of my lifters mentioned this in his training log when forced to use a Texas power bar. He noted, "Somebody else was using the squat bar on Monday, so I had to use the flimsy power bar we have that makes any weight over 315 pounds oscillate up and down like a f**king yoyo. It made the groove feel much different." As mentioned before, some of these multi-ply organizations may also elect to use a "Mastodon bar" for the squat. Going from a standard seven-foot, 28-millimeter gym bar toThe Mastodon bar that elitefts™ sells (which is eight feet, 35 millimeters, and weighs 60 pounds) may feel completely foreign. Compared to a standard bar, the Mastodon is a monster!
The last bar I'll discuss is the Texas deadlift bar. They're both seven feet six inches long and 27 millimeters thick. The smaller diameter makes the bar easier to grip. Paired with the extra length, the diameter allows the bar to flex under heavy loads. Your deadlift style ("yank" as opposed to taking the slack out of the bar) may keep the weight on the ground despite the bar starting to flex upward. Forming this bridge between the weight plates would essentially put the lifter in an advantageous position prior to the weight coming off the floor. Utilizing the bar's "feature" may make the lift less difficult. Deadlift bars are known to whip at lockout, which can really throw you off if you aren't accustomed to it.
Octagonal-shaped plates aren't ideal for deadlifting. They're often a different height than their round counterparts. So pulling more than one rep would be difficult because the plates may not land flat, which puts the lifter in a less optimal start position.
The final issue with plates is calibration. I weighed virtually every plate in my gym. I was disappointed when I found out that they varied between 42 and 46 pounds. If most of your plates are light, you could be in for a rude awakening at your next competition. Not only are kilogram-calibrated plates more precise, but they're thinner, which brings the weight closer to the lifter's center of mass. Furthermore, kilogram plates allow you to practice making jumps congruent to the way they'll be in a meet (190 kilograms (418 pounds) versus 415 or 420 pounds). There really isn't any substitute for training with kilogram-calibrated plates.
"You can't shoot a cannon out of a canoe." This analogy illustrates the differences between typical benches found at health clubs and the two main types of benches used at powerlifting meets. What I will refer to as the American-style bench (as best represented by elitefts™) features a 12-inch wide pad that's 2- to 3-inches thick. The "European-style benches" are typically found as part of a "combo rack." A combo rack is a mobile style rack used for meets that can be switched from squat to bench configuration very quickly, eliminating the need for two separate pieces of equipment, but this does not offer the precision and functionality required from an elite powerlifter. These benches have a smaller pad in both width and thickness. The pad width is 11 inches versus 12 inches and the thickness is 1.5 inches versus two to three inches.
A wider bench pad may be advantageous because it gives the lifter more surface area to push from. Larger lifters may be impacted more when they find their rear deltoids completely off the bench. A thicker pad allows the lifter to sink into the pad. This compression allows the bench pad to conform to the body, which also increases stability. Some manufacturers now design "fat pads" for the bench in an effort to increase stability and decrease the risk of injury. Their ads for the "Donnie Thompson Fat Pad" state that "the Thompson Fat Pad by Rogue is the proper bench pad to maximize power and minimize injury. It's benefits include promotion of scapular movements, elimination of shoulder hangover, optimization of back and upper body positioning, and an increase of mechanic leverages". The problem with using this type of pad in everyday training is that the advantage it gives you would turn into a disadvantage at a meet on a normal sized pad because you've become accustomed to the increase in stability and surface area to drive off of when using the thicker pad.
Lastly, for those who have problems with their butt coming off the bench, a thick pad may somewhat help to "hide" your butt visibly coming off the bench because the pad may fill the gap as your body sinks into it. On another note, commercial gym benches (i.e., Hammer Strength, Cybex) are typically lower to the ground than regulation powerlifting benches and have even thinner pads (as thin as 10.5 inches). Commercial bench pads are also slippery because they don't have the non-slip surface found on powerlifting benches. In turn, this further reduces stability and makes arching more difficult. Benches found at most health clubs are without a spotter's platform, making the job of your lift-off guy/training partner much more difficult. Lifting off for someone is also a skill that must be practiced in the same manner with the same equipment used in competition.
Monolifts, squat stands, and power racks
Lifters competing on monolifts should train accordingly on a monolift. However, if you're a lifter who walks out his squats, you had better be walking out your squats in training, as both the walkout portion of the squat and the squatting using a monolift are two separate skills. Most lifters squat out of a power rack or squat stands. To mimic meet conditions, set the J-hooks in the power rack facing out as opposed to facing a wall or mirror. Unfortunately, most commercial gyms have "half-squat racks" that basically have three immobile rack heights facing a mirror.
I also recommend squatting on carpet. Carpeted platforms are required by most powerlifting organizations. While this is less significant, we're always trying to replicate meet conditions in an effort to breed success. Squatting on wood, rubber, or concrete may feel different under a lifter's feet, especially when walking out squats and making precise adjustments before executing the movement.
Some organizations list the equipment specifications on their entry forms. Otherwise, you should contact the meet director to inquire about the platform and warm-up area. Then you'll be prepared to practice like you play. A properly run meet will have identical or close to identical equipment in both the warm-up area and platform. The USAPL and RPS both do this well. Sadly, there are some organizations that drop the ball in this department. These organizations should probably be referred to as "disorganizations," as they often lack judging lights, fail to start on time, and don't require their judges to pass any type of formal test. Buyers beware. If you do arrive at a meet where the equipment in the warm-up area is different than what's on the platform, you may want to sneak a few warm-ups on the platform beforehand.
The bottom line is this: training with the proper equipment increases your probability of success. Going into a meet when you're unfamiliar with the bars, benches, and racks being used is a gamble. In a sport centered around poundage, that isn't a risk worth taking. Practice how you play.