Goal Setting For The Powerlifting Beginner – Why You Shouldn’t Be Realistic

Much of the advice provided to powerlifting beginners on the topic of goal setting focuses on determining what ‘realistic’ or ‘average’ progress looks like. I think this is a mistake. If you’re a powerlifting beginner, eliminating the words realistic and average from your vocabulary will help you realize your potential.

Those new to lifting often ask about progress. Specifically, they want to know what good progress looks like. Browse any gym forum and you’ll come across legions of novice lifters asking things like – 

“What are some realistic strength goals for a new powerlifter?”

“What’s the average deadlift after a year?”

They’re questions that make me shudder, and they should make you shudder too. This isn’t about to devolve into a pseudo-motivational ‘reach for the stars’ talk, don’t worry. This advice is for every powerlifting beginner, whether you’re ambitious or just want to dip your toes in.

Two points:

1. No one knows what’s realistic for you.

2. You should forget about what’s average.


No one knows what’s realistic for you.

This might sound really obvious. 

“Of course people are different, but you could give me some rough strength targets if you knew a little about me.”

Eh, I don’t think so. In the strength world people vary a lot. People vary a lot in general, but in the strength world differences are especially profound. But okay, let’s say we know a bit about the curious beginner.


Take these three lettered beginners, who already know how strong they are:

  • Beginner A starts out able to bench, squat, and deadlift the bar alone.
  • Beginner B starts with a 40kg bench, and a 60kg squat and deadlift. 
  • Beginner C starts out able to bench 80kg, squat 100kg, and deadlift 120kg.

We have a good gauge on the strength levels of these novices. Can we give them some realistic numbers now? Surprise, surprise…

No.

We know how strong they are, but how fast they will progress from that initial strength level is unknown. Rate of muscular growth isn’t related to initial muscularity in the untrained individual, and given strength and muscle growth correlate strongly, it’s quite possible ‘naturally strong’ beginners could find themselves struggling to grow stronger, whilst ‘naturally weak’ beginners quickly surpass them.

Unfortunately this means for Beginner C – though they might seem like the prodigy of the three – could progress slower than A and B. Or not. No one really knows.

We haven’t touched other factors yet, either. As it turns out, our beginners have more going on than just initial strength level:


  • Beginner A promised her dying grandfather she’d be the strongest powerlifter in her class one day. She has significant time to dedicate to the hobby, a coach, and has her eyes on some premium performance enhancing drugs.
  • Beginner B works 55 hour weeks as a lawyer. He wants to lift to offset chronic muscular dystrophy that will slowly reduce his muscle mass over time. He has a gym membership but can only make it in twice a week sometimes. 
  • Beginner C works in construction and does long hours. He has as yet undiagnosed scoliosis and a shoulder imbalance from years of tennis. A friend encouraged him to try powerlifting, but he wants to balance it with long-distance running. 

With this new knowledge our perception of the three beginners has shifted. Even so, there’s still so much that’s hard or impossible to predict. Genetics is a huge one. Personality is another. Beginner A has the impetus, the time, the resources – all great advantages – but what if she lacks discipline or is unable to apply herself at the gym? Beginner B looks like he has his work cut out, but he may be an exceptionally gifted strength athlete and progress quickly despite his condition. In turn this might motivate him and cause him to take strength more seriously, creating a cycle of positive reinforcement. 

My point here is that there are far too many factors to even begin to advise powerlifting beginners on what’s realistic without spending significant time closely monitoring them – ie. the role of a dedicated strength coach. Without working closely with an individual, what’s realistic is impossible to determine.

Now, at this point you might get what I’m saying. However, you might be thinking to yourself, “Why don’t we just take a big old sample and average out the rates of progress? Individual quirks and differences will even out and we’ll find the average rate of progress.”

Well, people have, and it’s genuinely interesting stuff. But I still don’t think it’s helpful information for a beginner. This brings us to point number two.


You should forget about average.

The problem with ‘average’ relates to the athlete’s mindset.

There’s an irritating cliche that’s often repeated in the sports world (and everywhere else),

“You shouldn’t compare yourself to others.” 

“Your only competition is yourself.” 

You’ve heard people say this. When they do, they often have an air of smugness that makes you think dark thoughts. That aside – they’re just bad pieces of advice for a lot of us. You might thrive on competitive spirit, and aspiring to be stronger than people around you can be hugely beneficial if harnessed correctly. Moreover, powerlifting is a sport – it involves literal competition. Why anti-competition sentiments are thrown about in the sporting context, I don’t know. But I digress. 

Comparing yourself to others is fine, if it works, but don’t compare yourself to the ‘average powerlifter’there’s no such person

Why do beginners show such interest in the idea of an ‘average powerlifter’, though? 

I suspect ambitious beginners are looking for numbers ‘to beat’ while less confident beginners are looking to hedge their bets and prepare themselves for mediocre results. In either case, the beginner who shackles themselves, by way of comparison, to the ‘average powerlifter’, shoots themself in the foot. 

Here’s why – 

  1. If progress meets the standard the beginner deemed acceptable, complacency may result. For example, a beginner who aims to gain 50kg on their deadlift over a 12 month period and gains 40kg in the first 6 months may needlessly ease up on their training. In this way great potential may be wasted. 
  1. If progress is slow, or they suffer setbacks, this may create a negative feedback loop whereby the beginner resigns themselves to lower standards, thus putting less effort into training, making progress even slower, and so on and so forth. They may assume they’re simply not built for strength training, when in reality slow or halting progress can result from a range of factors under their control.
  1. The key concern – In the race to achieve certain target numbers, the beginner might neglect to learn proper form, correct imbalances, and other foundational aspects of strength training that should be prioritised when one is new to the gym. 

Remember, as a powerlifting beginner there are a lot of factors – visible and invisible – that will affect how you progress in your strength journey. The average lifter doesn’t really exist – it’s just a composite of individuals as unique as yourself. It not only makes zero sense to compare yourself with the average powerlifter, it may well prove actively harmful – or at least restrict your potential progress.


so what should the powerlifting beginner do?

If you’re a powerlifting beginner, consider comparing yourself to the best of the best. Really.

When you’re new to strength training you have no idea how you’ll respond. You could be poorly suited to strength training, but you could just as well be a future world-record holder – even if you have no intention of actually taking it that far. 

When it comes to goal setting, my advice to powerlifting beginners is – assume you are an exceptionally gifted strength athlete. When you adopt this champion mindset, several things become obvious:

  1. You should first prioritise safe execution of the powerlifting movements (to set yourself up for the long and illustrious career you may or may not end up having).
  2. You should prioritise building a strong base of strength, conditioning, and mobility.
  3. With the foundations laid, you should then strive towards quickly progressing, perfecting your technique as you go.
  4. You should act as though getting stronger depends entirely on the choices you make. This is the essence of the champion’s mindset. If you are a gifted athlete, then plateaus, setbacks and slow progress must be a result of unoptimised diet, sleep, training, and so forth – mere hurdles that can be overcome on your path to greatness. There are always things you can improve, and blaming factors outside of your control will only hurt your potential, whatever it may be.

You can’t know your potential when you’re new to powerlifting, but if you act like you’re an elite athlete at the start of your career, the next steps become clear. Adhering to the four points above puts you in a great position to get as strong as possible, as quickly as possible – without skipping fundamental steps that will set you up for long term success. 

In summary – if you’re a powerlifting beginner or new to lifting in general, don’t worry about realistic goals – they don’t exist. No one knows exactly what your potential is, not even you. Don’t tie yourself down with notions of average progress either. It doesn’t matter if you’re happy with below average, average, or above average results – you’ll be the best you can be when you ditch the words ‘realistic’ and ‘average’.

Whether you’re gifted or cursed, you maximize your chance of success with a champion’s mindset.

This may be a cop-out answer, but I maintain it’s the best one for someone getting started on their powerlifting journey.

Cheers.

Alternatively:

“Bro you should go for a 3000lb total in 12 months, it’ll be sick as.”

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