Jan 29, 2015
Able to Overcome

Paralympic powerlifters have the same goals as their Olympic counterparts, but there are some definite variations to their training. A veteran coach explains the nuances of working with these athletes.

By Dr. Kyle Pierce

Kyle Pierce, EdD, CSCS, is an Associate Professor of Kinesiology and Health Science and Director of the USA Weightlifting Center for High Performance and Development at Louisiana State University-Shreveport. He trains able-bodied weightlifters and disabled powerlifters and was named the United States Olympic Committee Weightlifting Coach of the Year in 2006, 2007, and 2010. He can be reached at: [email protected].

Powerlifting is one of the fastest growing Paralympic sports over recent years, but it also has a significant history. The Summer Paralympic Games were first held in 1960, and only 18 men, all with spinal cord injuries, from 10 countries competed in Paralympic weightlifting.

In the years following, more disability groups were added to the event, and the rules began to reflect those used in able-bodied powerlifting competitions. In 1992, the event name was changed to Paralympic powerlifting, and more than 100 men from 25 countries competed.

Women began competing in Paralympic powerlifting in 2000, the same year that able-bodied women began competing in Olympic weightlifting. Last summer in London, there were 200 Paralympic powerlifting competitors. Currently, more than 5,000 athletes from 115 countries are ranked worldwide.

I became involved with coaching disabled powerlifters after the 2008 Olympic Games when I was asked to host a clinic on disabled powerlifting as part of a Paralympic academy here at the USA Weightlifting Center for High Performance and Development at Louisiana State University-Shreveport alongside C.J. Bennett, a 20-year weightlifting friend of mine. C.J. competed in able-bodied weightlifting, performing the snatch and clean and jerk, even though he has cerebral palsy. He has also coached many athletes in both weightlifting and disabled powerlifting, including several who competed at the 1988 and 1992 Paralympic Games.

Since we put on the clinic, we’ve had competitive disabled powerlifters train in our center, and we’ve coached numerous lifters with Down syndrome who have gone on to compete in the Special Olympics and USA Weightlifting competitions. All of our lifters train together regardless of abilities or disabilities. They also train year-round, because we constantly have lifters competing in various competitions from the local level to the World Championships and Olympic Games.

CLASSIFICATION & COMPETITION In order to compete in Paralympic powerlifting, athletes must meet a minimum disability standard. While the first Paralympic powerlifters all had spinal cord injuries, categories of minimum disability have expanded to include all of the following:

– Amputees (double or single above-knee and below-knee amputations and ankle and hip disarticulation) – Athletes with spinal cord injuries, spinal cord lesions, spina bifida, and polio – Dwarfs (maximum height is 4 feet, 9 inches or 145 centimeters, and the athlete must exhibit another disability besides being of small stature–excluding pituitary dwarfs from this category) – Les autres (literally means “the others,” athletes with motor paresis of the lower extremity) – Athletes with cerebral palsy.

A Paralympic powerlifter must be able to fully extend his or her arms with no more than a 20-percent loss of extension through the elbows. To lower the risk of injury, the athlete must be able to fully grip and control the bar. Potential Paralympic athletes must be assessed by an authorized classifier. International Paralympic Committee (IPC) powerlifting classifiers are medical doctors or physiotherapists and trained sport-specifically to assess disabilities.

Competitions are divided into weight classes for men and women. Amputees have weight added to their body weight to account for missing limbs. As of Jan. 1, the Paralympic powerlifting weight categories (in kilograms) are as follows:

Men: 49, 54, 59, 65, 72, 80, 88, 97, 107, 107+ Women: 41, 45, 50, 55, 61, 67, 73, 79, 86, 86+

Additions to the lifters’ body weight are made for amputees as follows:

– For each through-ankle amputation, add 0.5kg. in all weight categories – For each below-knee amputation, add 1 kg. up to 67 kg. body weight and 1.5 kg. for 67.01 kg. body weight and over – For each above-knee amputation, add 1.5 kg. up to 67 kg. body weight and 2 kg. for 67.01 kg. body weight and over – For each complete hip disarticulation, add 2.5 kg. up to 67 kg. body weight and 3 kg. for 67.01 kg. body weight and over.

The bench press has always been the sole event in Paralympic weightlifting and powerlifting. In comparison, powerlifting competitions also include the squat and deadlift, while Olympic-style weightlifting consists of the snatch and the clean and jerk.

When performing the bench press, Paralympic powerlifters lay on a specially designed bench that allows them to strap their legs for additional stability. Official competition bench straps, personal straps, or a combination of the two can be used. Straps are allowed anywhere on the legs from the ankles to the top of the thigh. With the exception of amputees without hips, they can’t be placed across or above the hip line or directly across the patella, unless severe contractures of the legs dictate otherwise.

The International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) allows athletes to use a supportive shirt (though the IPC does not). Known as a bench shirt, it is used to improve performance in the bench press, and it is usually made of stiff polyester, denim, or canvas and comes in single- or multi-ply thicknesses. There are different rules for equipment for the various powerlifting federations, but the IPF stipulates that support shirts must be made of one-ply stretch material. As a testament to how helpful bench shirts can be, it is reported that famed powerlifter Scot Mendelson’s bench press record “shirted” is 1,030 pounds and his best “un-shirted” is 715 pounds.

There are special exceptions in competition for specific disability groups. An orthosis or special shoes are allowed for les autres and athletes with spinal cord injuries. For lifters with cerebral palsy, flexed legs can be supported by a wedge. Wherever possible, the athlete’s legs, feet and/or prosthesis should be extended on the bench. (Athletes with amputations can be granted special exceptions depending on the type and level of amputation. These exceptions must be formally granted and officially verified by an IPC classifier.)

As the lifter prepares for the bench press, the barbell is taken from the rack with or without the help of a spotter or spotters. The lifter holds the bar at arms’ length with elbows locked until the chief referee’s audible signal. After hearing “start,” the lifter lowers the barbell to the chest and holds it motionless. In IPF competitions, the audible signal “press” is required before the athlete presses the bar back up to the start position.

The athletes must keep their arms evenly extended as they press the bar back to arms’ length and lock the elbows at the top. When the barbell becomes motionless in this position, the chief referee signals “rack” and with help from the spotters, the barbell is returned to the rack. A majority decision by three referees determines a good lift.


I train both able-bodied and disabled lifters, and while there are differences between the two training programs, the same basic principles can be applied. Regardless of whether we are concentrating on just the bench press for Paralympic athletes or multiple lifts for able-bodied athletes, the workouts should be based on the scientific training principles of overload, variation, and specificity.

Periodization is an effective method of applying these principles to most sports, including powerlifting. Our macro- and mesocycles consist of four phases. Each phase has different goals and requires different degrees of variation.

Phase 1, Preparation (general and special): During general preparation, our goal is to develop strength endurance. The high volume and repetitions (sets of 10) we employ in this phase are not typically performed often by powerlifters and weightlifters, but this approach is important for several reasons when compared to using lower volume and repetitions. The athlete experiences greater changes in body composition, increases in testosterone and growth hormone concentrations post-exercise, increased resting testosterone-cortisol ratio, better performance, fewer injuries in the subsequent higher-intensity training periods, and most importantly, the establishment of a physiological and structural foundation that will emphasize maximum strength and power in further training.

Special preparation is also part of the basic strength phase because it’s when we develop maximal strength capacity. The gains in basic strength provide an appropriate foundation for power specialization and further high-intensity work. Large muscle group exercises for strength development are generally performed for five repetitions in this phase.

Phase 2, Pre-Competition: The goal in this phase is developing maximal strength and power capacity. It is a high intensity, technique-oriented phase. A sharp rise in power can be expected during this phase as a result of increased strength and the reduction of fatigue in response to decreased volume. Repetitions decrease to three, and/or clusters of three singles.

Phase 3, Peaking: In this phase, performance is brought to its maximum through further volume reduction and increased intensity. Lifters focus on performing their competition lifts for single repetitions. The week of a competition is a taper week, with reduced volume and intensity leading up to competition day.

Phase 4, Transition: During this phase, also called active rest, lifters are encouraged to participate in another sport or activity or occasionally weight train at low volume and intensity. The length of this phase depends on where the athlete is in his or her yearly plan.

Implementing exercises other than the bench press is essential for Paralympic powerlifters to improve. Exercise selection is dependent on an athlete’s disability, but overall, there are two main areas to address: strengthening stability and creating and maintaining lordotic curve.

Because the bench press is performed by Paralympic powerlifters with their legs straight on the bench, stability is of utmost importance. The development of a wide, muscular upper back can provide great support.

I like any kind of rowing or pull-to-chest motion to develop the upper back muscles. Seated cable rows, lying (face down) dumbbell rows, and pull-downs to the chest are among the exercises that can be performed. These exercises should be especially emphasized in the preparation phase of training.

The ability to create a reasonable lordotic curve (arch) in the back, if the athlete is able to attain it, is important as well. Wheelchair users in particular need upper, middle, and/or lower back work as a result of their tendency to sit forward in their chairs. This forward sitting can cause a kyphotic curve (a convex curvature) that may result in a bulge at the upper back. Performing each and every lift using a lordotic curve, when it is appropriate, is highly important. The back should be in this arched position even when performing rowing/pulling exercises.

Dwarfs can generally perform straight-leg Romanian deadlifts or back extensions to strengthen their lower backs. Other athletes might need to perform floor back extensions without weight in order to strengthen this area.

Midsection or core work, such as crunches or planks, is essential. Twisting at the top of a crunch is good work for the obliques. Weight can be added behind the athlete’s head to increase resistance when performing crunches. Pelvic tilts, as with abdominal exercises, can also be performed by those who are able.

Overloading partial movements of competition lifts is another training method that can be employed by disabled powerlifters. Just as weightlifters perform partial movements of the snatch or clean from the hang position or blocks, disabled powerlifters can use a power rack to accomplish overloading at various points throughout the range of motion of the bench press.

Paralympic powerlifters can also benefit from eccentric or “negative” work. Some weightlifters might lower the bar from the knee to the floor on a pulling exercise or perform negative squats on occasion. Including negative training can assist in controlling the lowering and holding of the barbell during competitions.


In our training center, athletes of varied abilities, ages, and gender train together. They have mutual admiration and respect for each other. For example, when one lifter moves so a disabled athlete can lay down his crutches or transfer to the bench from a wheelchair.

Even more inspiring are the moments when an athlete performs a personal record in training. For big lifts like these, the gym gets quiet except for a few shouts of encouragement–even for a young athlete performing a lift with 15 kilograms on the bar. It is also stirring when an Olympian performs a heavy clean and jerk and then goes over to spot a disabled powerlifter who aspires to compete at the same level one day. These are welcome sights to potential lifters of all abilities.

There are individual differences and considerations taken with all athletes in all sports. But I like C.J. Bennett’s advice to me about training disabled athletes best: “You train people by their ability, not their disability.

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