As the sport of powerlifting continues to grow and grow, I am seeing more and more people ask questions regarding their first powerlifting meet. Often they will describe how they intend to approach it. Often the ideas, approach or goals that they list are far from ideal, almost guaranteeing a bad experience.
“Do Your Own Research”
That’s not meant to be as critical as it sounds. You can’t know what you can’t know and I imagine most readers of my site know how I feel about the whole “do your own research” thing.
Mind you, powerlifting arguably has more good information on the web available than many other activities. It certainly does compared to things like bodybuilding/physique sports or general fat loss.
I think the reason is that powerlifting is an objective thing. What you did either worked or it didn’t. You either improved or your didn’t and there isn’t any of this “Well I think this worked” nonsense to it. The lift went or it didn’t go and that’s all there is to it.
And there is quite a bit of information for beginners in terms of doing their first powerlifting meet. A lot of it deals with the endless details. Lifters can find checklists of everything they need to take, what to eat, etc.
Honestly, I recommend taking a book especially as a spectator. As much as I love the sport of powerlifting, I think it’s dull as dirt to watch. Even when I’m handling my lifter, it’s a lot of sitting around doing nothing for only a little bit of action.
Don’t get me wrong, I love watching big lifts, watching lifters grind through something they should have missed. It’s doing it for 8 hours that exhausts me. Anyhow. Take a book is what I’m saying.
Your First Powerlifting Meet
My goal with this list is mainly this: I want to see all first time powerlifters have a good experience. I want them to go to their first meet, do well and come out of it feeling awesome. Even if they never do a second meet, they should have gotten something good out of that first one.
Mind you, most people get “the bug” after their first meet. There’s something addictive about it so don’t be surprised if following my guidelines puts you on a path of determined effort to do more and more meets. You’ve been warned.
So let me give you six (and a half) tips that will help to ensure that your first powerlifting meet is an incredible experience.
Now let’s look at each.
Tip 1: Just Go
Perhaps the most common question that people ask when they are looking at their first powerlifting meet is “How do I cut weight to make such and such of a weight class?”
And in almost all situations the answer is simple: don’t. Just don’t.
Weight cutting is one of the unfortunate requirements of the weight class sports. My lifter does it for her meets and most other lifters do too. And certainly it can be important at the higher levels. Athletes may be competing for records or championships, there is the issue of the Wilkes coefficient, etc. And that’s all good and well.
And beginners should basically never do this. Weight cutting can be it’s own dark art and the effects can range from nothing to a huge performance drop to worse. People have put themselves in the hospital with this stuff and some sports such as wrestling and rowing have strict guidelines because athletes kept dropping dead from excessive weight cutting practices.
More importantly, there’s usually no purpose for a first time powerlifter to weight cut. Realistically you’re not going to set records or win your class unless you’re the only one in it. You have no idea how it might impact on your performance. So just don’t.
The Exception that Proves the Rule
There are occasional exceptions, that rare phenom lifter who has the potential to go to their first powerlifting meet and set all the records.
We had one here in Austin at a meet a few years ago. A female junior lifter, an ex-bodybuilder with incredible muscle mass and perfect levers. Someone got her into powerlifting and she had the potential to set all the junior world records in her class at her first meet.
In that situation it was worth it for her to cut weight to make a weight class. As a bodybuilder she also had experience with the process.
Realistically, you are not that rare lifter in that situation. You’re not going to win, you’re not going to set records and you have no clue how weight cutting might impact you. So don’t do it.
So just go. Go compete. Have fun. Enjoy the day and the experience from start to finish. You’ll meet some of the friendliest most amazing people at the typical powerlifting meet.
I’ve been involved in a lot of sports and powerlifting is one of the most welcoming (strongman is right up there). Everybody is there to lift or support the other lifters and people will bend over backwards to help you.
So just go experience it and don’t worry about anything else.
Tip 2: Know the Rules
Like any sport that exists, powerlifting has its own rules. This is complicated by the literally 2 or 3 dozen federations in existence although they tend to be more similar than not.
Regardless, you should at least be familiar with the rules of powerlifting and the federation you’re competing in. All of them should provide a rule book in one form or another although a lot of it won’t be useful.
I have been coaching Sumi Singh in the same federation for over 2 years now and I still read the rulebook every night before her meet. Yes, we all know I’m a little bit cracked but this is how I ensure that I didn’t miss anything or forget anything or mis-remember anything.
It mattered at one meet, where world records were on the line and the nature of attempts was different than I was used to. If I hadn’t read the rules like the obsessive that I am, I’d have screwed up her meet. And I won’t have that.
But you should read the rules or be familiar with them too.
There are endless things to be aware of such as when the weigh-ins are. They might be the day before or 2 hours before. Generally you put in your first attempts at weigh-in but this isn’t universal. In Revolution Powerlifting Syndicate they ask for at least a rough first attempt a week before the meet so that they can set up the lifting order. They let you change it at the official weigh in.
You need to know about membership cards, and what equipment is or is not meet legal. On which note, for your first powerlifting meet, do not even consider wearing gear such as a bench shirt or squat suit. You need a singlet, shoes, a lifting belt, underwear, a t-shirt, long socks for the deadlift and maybe wrist wraps and/or knee sleeves (NOT wraps).
Note: I know there are lifters out there who have trained with a high level coach in gear from day 1 who will take issue with my comments. You know who I’m talking about and it isn’t them or you. So drop it.
As much as anything you must know the rules of the lifts and this ties in with the third tip I’ll address in a second. Here federations can differ slightly and this is why you must read the rules or find someone who has.
Tip 3: Practice the Commands
This is probably the second most important tip in this list and I cannot overemphasize it enough. For each of the three lifts, there are verbal commands which are given. And you must practice them in training prior to the meet. Mind you, this means finding someone who knows what they are or who is willing to learn them.
A primary reason is that following the lift commands is part of making a successful lift. If you don’t follow the commands that is an automatically failed lift. And you can’t follow the commands if you don’t know what they are.
And if you haven’t practiced them prior to your first powerlifting meet, you’re likely to have a bad time. Here’s why.
When you train at your gym, it’s a known environment. You are probably using your normal rack, bar, plates with the same people (more or less) and environment. You’re used to it. You’re on autopilot.
And at the meet all of that disappears. Suddenly you will be squatting without a power rack around you. You will be standing out in space with none of your normal cues or surrounding. You will have a head judge sitting a few feet in front of you staring at you. There will be 3 or 5 or 7 guys standing around the bar spotting you. Music will be blaring and people will be walking around in front of your line of vision.
Lifting in a meet is nothing like lifting in your gym.
And you will have enough to worry about at the meet with all of that going on to try to learn the commands at the meet. So you must practice them in training to make them as automatic as you possibly can so it’s one less thing to worry about.
Of course this means either finding someone who knows the commands or is willing to learn them. They aren’t difficult but if you don’t have a consistent training partner, find a powerlifting gym in your area. Most powerlifters are the friendliest most helpful people you’ll ever meet. They will bend over backwards to help out beginners. So find a gym and ask for help. Odds are you’ll get it.
Or go watch a meet to see how the lifts are done. No matter what you do, you need to be familiar with and practice the commands. And in a sense, I’d almost go further than this and say “practice the competition.” By which I mean mimicking as closely as possible the conditions that you’ll experience at the meet.
A Primer on Powerlifting Commands
So let me run through the commands on each lift briefly along with common errors. The first command you need to know is “The Bar/Platform is ready/loaded.” This is called when it is time for you to lift on all three lifts. From that point you have 60 seconds to make your attempt. If you don’t, you get red lights automatically. Since all lifts start with that command, I won’t repeat it below.
For the squat there are two commands.
After you bring the bar out and show control of it, you get a SQUAT! command along with a downward arm movement from the head judge. At this point you can begin the attempt when you’re ready. If that means waiting a few seconds to get settled, that’s fine.
You squat until you hit depth (crease of the hip below parallel) and then stand up with it. Assuming you completed the repetition, you get a RACK! command with an arm movement towards the rack. At this point the spotters will help you back to the rack.
Here is my lifter Sumi Singh squatting at the USPA Master’s Cup
Common Squat Mistakes
There are several common squat mistakes that occur that cause a lifter to get red lights. Perhaps the most common is not hitting depth. Lifters get nervous and rush and cut depth. I’ll address that in more depth (haha!) in tip 5.
Lifters often forget to wait for the SQUAT command. Automatic reds. After locking out, they want the bar off their back and don’t wait for the RACK command. Automatic reds. Practice.
Note: if a meet is using a monolift, this gets a little bit weirder. Judges will typically give the SQUAT command as soon as the monolift is out of the way. If you then start to walk it out, that’s reds. You have to tell the judges that you will be walking the bar out (which is legal) so that they will wait to give the SQUAT command until you’re set up. My advice? Don’t do your first meet in a federation using a monolift. It’s just one more thing to worry about.
Other Squat Advice
On the topic of the squat there are other things you can practice. For example, do you squat in front of a mirror? Well, whether you know it or not you’re getting cues about depth and where you are in space from it. Even the power rack being around you is probably acting as a type of cue. Cues you won’t have in the meet.
If you can find a way to take the mirror out of the equation, you should do so. In some racks, you can switch the safeties and face away from the mirror. This isn’t universal and you shouldn’t ever squat where you have to walk backwards to get the bar back into the rack.
Practice this on a lighter day. You will have to now figure out where your head goes, what are you looking at? If you can’t do that, put brown paper over the mirror so you can’t see yourself. Find a way to not rely on the mirror and feel where you are in space.
Do you have a buddy giving you commands? If you can do it, have them sit in front of you about where the head judge would be to give the verbal and arm commands. Basically the more you can practice “meet conditions” in training, the less of a shock they’ll be on the platform.
Oh yeah, most importantly, you MUST find someone who knows what legal squat depth is and who will be honest with you. There are tons of guys in the gym who will tell you a half squat is below parallel. Find a powerlifter or go to a meet and see how deep legal depth is (protip: it’s deeper than you probably think). If you don’t you will have a bad time.
The Bench Press
Of the the three lifts, the bench press is the most complex. It has 3 commands and numerous places for lifters to get red lights for making mistakes. Mistakes that are minimized if you practice.
After the bar is loaded command, the lifter goes to the bench and gets set up. This takes as long as it takes and federations differ in whether or not the feet must be flat or can be on the toes and if the head has to stay in contact, etc. Some will let your feet move from flat to the toes or vice versa while others won’t. Read the rules.
After the lifter brings the bar out to arm’s length they get a BENCH or occasionally START command. At any point after this they lower the bar to their chest. There it must pause with the weights motionless on the chest. Most federations will give a PRESS command at which point the lifter attempts to press it to arms length.
I say most as not all do this. USAPL does not, or at least did not, give a verbal PRESS command. Either the lifter decided when to press or they could have a coach call it. My advice: pick a federation with a PRESS command. It’s way easier.
After the bar is locked out, a RACK command is given at which point the spotters will help the lifter put the bar in the rack. Here is my lifter Sumi Singh at the USPA Master’s Cup. If you wonder why you’re hearing another PRESS command it’s because they were running two platforms. That was the other lifter.
Common Bench Mistakes
For first time lifters a lot can go wrong on the bench. Due to nerves, not waiting for the START/BENCH command is perhaps the most common. When I first handled Sumi at a meet, I hadn’t been coaching her (and my leg was broken so I was only handling her but couldn’t hand off). I watched her bring the bar out on her first attempt and start to lower it before the command. Reds.
Not waiting for the START/BENCH command is insanely common. When it happened to Sumi at her first meet, at least a dozen lifters came over to tell her that they had done it too at their first meet.
Not pausing on the chest is the number two error. Sometimes this is a consequence of being a gym lifter who does a touch and go or bounced bench press. But some of it is that your nerves cause you to lose your mind a little bit. Time dilates in a weird way on the platform and you feel like the bar has been on your chest forever. So you start pressing early. Reds.
Finally is not waiting for the rack command. A lot of lifters get in the habit of what my old training partner called the “rep and rack” where as you push to lockout you go back straight into the uprights. Reds. Practice this. Push to lockout, pause a beat, then rack the bar.
Other Bench Advice
On top of simply practicing the commands, there are a few other things to consider with bench. One is the pause. If you’re not pausing your benches in training, practice on at least some reps. Do it on the first rep of a set or the last. But do it.
First and foremost this ensures that you’ll pause at meet. It’ll also give you a far better idea of your poundages at meet since going from unpaused to paused bench can easily take 5% off the bar. You may find that you’re a lot weaker off the chest than you were from your previous unpaused bench.
In fact, consider long pauses, 2 full seconds from time to time. As I said above, time dilates in a freaky weird way on the platform. What you think is a long time is milliseconds. Getting used to staying tight and holding the pause longer helps to train this. Also, some judges take longer to give the press command than others. You have to be prepared for this eventuality. Practice or you’ll have a bad time.
Finally, consider what you’ll be doing in terms of a handoff. All meets will have someone who can hand off the bar for you. However, they don’t know how you want the handoff. How do you count it off, where do you want the bar, etc? If they put it in the wrong place or you lose tightness, you’re gonna have a bad time.
So ask if you can have someone at your gym not only hand off for you but go to the meet with you. I think most would benefit from a skilled handler on meet day (I’ll do a video/article on how I approach that later) but that’s not always realistic. At least having a consistent handoff on bench is a godsend at meet day. So talk your regular training partner into coming with you and buy them lunch.
I’d note in this regard that when we practice commands in the gym leading into the meet, it’s as much for my benefit as for Sumi’s. I want my handoff to be identical on every repetition so we practice it relentlessly in the gym so it’s automatic on the platform for both her and I.
Let me finally note that if you aren’t going to have someone to handoff for you at meet, consider bringing the bar out yourself. This is legal although it take more energy to do it that way. If you’re going to do this at the meet do it in the gym so you’ll have a better idea of how your poundages might be impacted.
Honestly, a bad handoff is worse than no handoff. At least bringing it out yourself you can put the bar where you want it. It’s not ideal but it’s worth considering if you don’t have someone to both consistently practice with you and go to the meet.
The deadlift is the simplest of all three lifts as it has only one command. After the bar is loaded command, the lifter approaches the bar and starts the lift when they are ready.
Once the bar is locked out at the top, the head judge give a DOWN command with a downward arm movement. At this point the lifter can lower the bar (and most will dump it quickly) but their hands must stay on the bar all the way down. This is Sumi lifting at the USPA Master’s Cup again.
Common Deadlift Mistakes
To be honest, deadlifts are usually missed for technical or strength reasons rather than commands since there is only the one. Usually the lift simply doesn’t go. Sometimes the lifter gets called for hitching or ramping. If it’s too heavy they don’t get their shoulders all the way back. Or their knees may not be locked.
It’s conceivable that someone could rush the DOWN command but I can’t recall ever seeing it. Mainly make sure to wait and keep your hands on the damn bar. If you drop the bar deliberately not only is it reds but they may disqualify you outright.
There’s not really much more to say about the deadlift. If you can you might have a buddy sit where the head judge would be and give verbal and arm commands. If you’re in front of a mirror, face away from it.
Practice the Commands
So practice as much as is realistic. Not only the commands but under as many of the meet conditions as you can. With my lifter we start practicing commands 6 weeks out. On the Monday/Tuesday workouts we practice commands on all three lifts. During lighter squats on Wednesday she faces away from the mirror to practice figuring out her head position or having people walking through her line of sight.
Every Saturday she does a meet mimic where she does all three lifts in meet order and performs singles at 90%+ of her max under full competition commands. That means I call BAR IS LOADED and she has 60 seconds to make her attempt. I give her full commands and hold her to competition standards for depth, pausing her bench, etc.
At the meet I want her lifting, not thinking.
And that means putting it on autopilot in the gym.
If you find that excessive, at least do it for 3 weeks going into the gym on at least some workouts. More is better but the last thing you want is to be learning the commands in the warmup room or during your first attempt at the powerlifting meet. I’ve seen it happen. Yes, it probably can be done. I don’t think it’s ideal.
Tip 3a: Do A Meet Prep
Coming out of Tip 3 is tip 3A (hence six and a half tips) which is to perform a short meet prep the week of the meet. This is something I’ve always done over the 20 so years I’ve taken lifters to meet.
By a meet prep I mean do a short workout a day or two before the meet where all you do is the three competition lifts in order: squat, bench, deadlift. I’d say in most cases, lifters typically go to their last warm-up set or so for a couple of repetitions. It’s heavy enough to maintain fitness without causing too much fatigue.
Related: What is Supercompensation of Training?
This workout has a number of purposes. One is just to keep the lifter both loose (i.e. mobile) along with keeping them sharp. A lot of lifters go flat if they take too many days off from training. Many men tighten up although women don’t usually have this problem.
My own lifter doesn’t have issues with mobility but she goes completely flat with too many days off. She also forgets what a heavy weight feels like on her back or in her hands and this workout lets me keep her primed for the meet. Without it she’d look terrible on the platform.
It’s also one last chance to practice commands. As with her Monday/Tuesday workouts and the Saturday meet mimic, we do the meet prep under full competition conditions. She wears her singlet (which feels different than her normal training clothes as it’s a bit slipperier) and we go through the exact warmup she’ll do at the meet (which I time, a topic I’ll discuss in another video/article), etc.
For a new lifter, this is not only a great time to practice commands but to do it when the weights are relatively light. So there is less to focus on overall. Just go through the competition movement to your final warmup (maybe your opener on squat and bench, maybe), practice commands, etc. The meet prep shouldn’t take that long. Most of the time for Sumi is changing shoes.
Now, for about 10 years I didn’t take any lifters to meets. And as I came to learn only recently, this was about the span when lifters abandoned meet preps. People advised taking the final week before a meet completely off. And for most people, I think this did far more harm than good.
I have to think this came out of the insanely geared powerlifting that was popular at the time. Guys doing 700 lb 3 board presses with a shirt were so beaten up they needed a week off. For raw lifters, I think it’s a mistake to skip it. It doesn’t take long and so long as you stop at your final warmup it shouldn’t tire you out.
It lets you get in one last quick workout to practice commands, have every lift go perfectly, etc. That’s the mindset you want to carry into the meet. Success.
Here is an example of Sumi Singh’s meet prep on a Thursday morning before a Saturday meet. It’s her full competition warmup to 3 work repetitions and that’s it.
Tip 4: Go to the Rules Meeting
So pretty much any meet you go to will have a rules meeting. Usually it happens at 8am for a 9am start. During this meeting, the organizers and judges will walk everyone through the rules for each lift in addition to providing any other necessary information.
That is reason enough to go. But there is another reason: if you are unclear on anything, ask. Just ask. Nobody will think you’re stupid for asking a question and realistically other new lifters have the same question anyhow. So ask.
Hell, I’ve been taking lifters to meets on and off for 20 years now. I’ve been taking my current lifter to meet for 2.5 years straight in the same federation. And I’m still usually the one asking the dumbassed questions (dumbassed equals I should know by now) questions at the rules meeting.
Sometimes it’s about records. Sometimes about attempts. I may ask where we should put powder on the legs for deadlifts. Anything I’m unsure of I ask. Because if I don’t ask I won’t know. And if I don’t know, that may hurt my lifter’s meet. And I refuse to allow that.
So if you have a question, don’t be shy or get embarrassed. Everybody has to learn and you learn by asking. Don’t be rude, don’t interrupt someone who is busy. But if you have a question ask.
I think a lot of beginners to the sport don’t realize that among their other duties in judging and running the meet, the organizers truly want every lifter to have a great meet. They want everyone to succeed because that means they will come back. And if you don’t know something ask.
Tip 5: Be Conservative on your 1st Attempts
So this will be far and away the single most important tip I will give in this article. It will also be the one that I will drive into the ground.
So at meets you have to put in your first attempt before the meet, usually at the weigh in. Technically you can change this once on the day of the meet before the lifting starts. But I don’t want to get into that here since it’s not something a beginner should be fooling with.
The key thing to be aware of in a powerlifting meet is this: once you’ve taken your first attempt, you can never lower the weight. If you miss it the weight can stay the same or you can raise it. If you make the weight, you will go up by some amount.
But the weight can never be lowered after the first attempt.
So if you take 225 on your first squat and miss it, you can take 225 again or go up. You can’t reduce the weight below 225 EVER. Here’s why this is important.
If you don’t make a single squat you have bombed out and your meet is over (the same holds for bench and deadlift). Most meets won’t let you do the other lifts if you bomb out on squats. So if you miss all three, you’re done for the day. And in most cases that means you’re not going to do another meet because you paid a bunch of money to miss three lifts and feel like a failure.
Bomb outs happen far more often than they should. For a beginner I don’t think they should happen at all. Usually it’s because a lifter, through no fault of their own, picked a first attempt that was too heavy. Maybe they weren’t hitting depth in the gym, maybe a lot of things. And they miss all three squats. And that’s it for them. Their day is over.
It upsets me. By that I don’t mean I’m upset with the lifter. I’m upset that they didn’t get better information to ensure a good meet. That’s why I wrote this article.
Now sometimes a lifter bombs out because they hired a coach who didn’t know their ass from a hole in the ground and who picked an opener that was too heavy. That does upset me. I mean I get upset at the coach who should have known better and who, so far as I’m concerned, let their athlete down. It shouldn’t happen. EVER. Because that’s a lifter lost to a great sport because they put their trust in someone who didn’t know what they were doing.
Let me note that this is different at higher levels of competition (and with gear) where things can just go awry and bombouts may happen for neither reason. I listened to a podcast recently with Matt Gary where his wife Sioux-z talked about bombing out of an international meet. This is a record holding experienced lifter and sometimes shit happens. She had a bobble on her first squat, overcorrected on her second and something else weird happened on her third. It happens.
But for a beginner, bomb outs on squat shouldn’t ever occur. It shouldn’t occur in someone’s first powerlifting meet in general although goofy stuff can happen on bench sometimes. But never on squat. So let me tell you how to approach your first attempts to avoid bombing out.
The Common Approach to Attempt Selection
When you read articles about selecting attempts for powerlifting meets, what you will most commonly see is something akin to what I’ve shown below.
So you start with your best triple, jump to your best double and then attempt to hit your previous best or set a new PR. You’ll see other schemes out there but this is sort of the generic approach.
Contrary to what most would say, my advice for a first time powerlifter is this:
Do not ever ever ever do this. Ever. EEE-VER.
This is absolutely fine for someone with some experience who knows what to expect on the platform, working with commands, etc. As a beginner you do not. And you honestly have enough to worry about at your first meet without worrying about hitting PR’s or setting new records. It’s great if it happens but, to me, that shouldn’t be the goal of your first meet.
The goal should be to have fun, have a great experience and come out feeling successful. And I’ll address the inevitable hardhead criticism to what I just wrote below.
The Benefits of Conservative Attempt Selection
Rather, I entreat you to be more conservative in your attempt selection.
In fact, I’d say that more strongly and suggest that you always go lighter rather than heavier. Always.
Here’s are a few reasons why:
When you start light and make your first attempt, you can always move up. Always. But if you start too heavy, you not only risk missing your first attempt but bombing out completely. It’s a no brainer to me.
There are other benefits to starting lighter. One, you’re more likely to make it. More importantly, you get on the board. By that I mean you make a successful lift. Now, you’re on the board. So no matter what happens on your second and third squat, you can’t bomb out on squats (you might on bench).
That should be the goal of your first squat and nothing else: GET ON THE BOARD.
Then realize this: nobody cares what your first attempt is. Nobody but you. All anybody will ever see is the heaviest weight you made for the day. If you squatted the bar for your first attempt and then finished at 315, they see that you made 315. That’s it.
NOBODY CARES WHAT YOUR FIRST ATTEMPT IS.
I daresay it’s men more than women who tend to pick excessively heavy first attempts since they tend to have more ego wrapped up with what’s on the bar.
But beyond that remember what I wrote above: the entire environment of the meet is different. You’ve got endless distractions, differences from your known environment in the gym and worrying about commands. The absolute last thing you need to be worried about is the weight of the bar on your back or how heavy it feels on your first attempt. Always start lighter than heavier. Always.
More Benefits of Conservative Attempt Selection
There are additional benefits to conservative attempt selection. The first is always to make a successful lift and get on the board. Now you’re carrying positive momentum and success into your second attempt. Success breeds success so make sure and succeed.
Consider the alternate situation, where you miss your first squat. Maybe it was technical maybe it was too heavy. Maybe it was both. Now you’re carrying that miss into the next repetition. You’re not thinking about how to make the lift but how to not miss it again. You’re worried that you might bomb out. You get the idea. Succeed first and success follows. Fail first and well…you may be in for a bad time.
Since it’s light, sink your first squat deeper than normal. It’s light. Take it low. This will at least ensure you don’t get called on depth. But there is another benefit that doesn’t get talked about much.
Judges are human. And if they see you bury your first squat and you make the lift this can bias them to thinking of you as a “lifter who makes lifts and squats deep”. And they carry that into your next attempt and you might give you more of the benefit of the doubt if your next squat is a bit higher.
And once again, if you start light you can always go up. If you start heavy and miss, you may bomb.
Which would you rather do?
Ok, I think I’ve made my point. What do I actually recommend?
A Conservative Approach to Attempt Selection
Last year I read an article about attempt selection for beginning powerlifters that I am currently unable to find again. It provided the same basic guidelines as I made above with the following comment. The author pointed out that he knew a coach who started every lifter at 85% in the squat.
The author opined that while he personally felt that was too light, he had NEVER seen one of that coach’s lifters miss their first attempt. Not ever. There is a lesson there and that should be the goal of your first meet: make the first attempt. Get on the board, get momentum. I think you get it by now.
I recommend picking a weight for your first attempt that you could squat perfectly for 5 reps on a bad day. It should feel like nothing more than a final warm-up. Make the lift, get on the board, get success. Once you’ve made it and get on the board, you can go up from there.
For your second attempt, I’d say now go to about 87-90(92)% or your best triple. This should still be eminently doable. Nail it, now you’re 2 for 3 and you can carry that success and momentum into your final attempt.
For a third attempt, maybe go to 95% or your best double. I’ve shown this below.
Even that single rep with your best double should go. Now you’ve (ideally) gone 3 for 3 in your first powerlifting meet on the squat. And you will carry that success and momentum into the bench press.
Yes, this is conservative, no doubt. But it almost guarantees success which, in my opinion is the goal of your first meet.
Response to the Hardheads
Any hardhead lifters reading this (who will invariably be male) will go “But this means the lifter is leaving weight on the platform”. Meaning that they didn’t lift as much as they possibly could for the day.
Well, yes, that’s true. But let’s remember who I’m talking about: beginning powerlifters. The goal here is not to set PR’s or records necessarily. Yeah, it’s great if it happens but that’s not the primary goal to me.
At your first meet you goal is, or rather should be, to go, have a great experience and come out wanting more. So ask yourself which you’d prefer
- Being conservative and having a fantastic day of lifting where you make most or all of your lifts
- Going for broke and having a shitty day of lifting where you make a few lifts or even bomb out
To me the choice is easy. There is always another meet to attend to go heavier now that you have your first successful meet in your pocket. Whereas a shitty meet, or worse yet a bomb out, likely means you’re never going back.
Hell, even if you only ever intended to do one meet, what memory would you rather have? One of a fantastic experience where you made all your lifts or one where you missed half or more of them by trying to make macho hardheads happy?
Attempt Selection for Bench and Deadlift
So you survived squats, now what? For bench and deadlift the same rules basically apply with some slight differences. Let me look at each.
On bench, consider being even more conservative than on squats. There are two reasons for this.
The first is the pause. If you don’t typically pause, you can expect it to take a good 5% off of your best bench numbers. You have to learn to stay tight, not sink or heave the bar, etc. Your numbers will be down compared to the gym assuming you bench like most people I watch.
The second is one that doesn’t get talked about much. I’d say it’s most common for lifters to train squat and/or deadlift on a different day than the bench press. It’s not universal but it’s certainly common. And this has an implication at the meet that people forget about.
After squatting heavily, your shoulder girdle tends to be a little bit more tired than it would be otherwise. That means you’re going into the bench press differently than when you do it on bench day by itself. Combine that with the pause and your strength potential is likely to be down from when you bench on its own day.
This is something else to consider doing in training, doing squat and bench press in the same workout at least some of the time. I mentioned that my lifter does 6 Saturday meet mimics where she does all three lifts in competition order without a break except to change shoes. The meet is, comparatively speaking, easy since she has 2.5 hours between events to mentally and physically recover.
So I might say go as low as 80-82.5% for your first bench attempt. I mean something that is just a trivial weight. You’re dealing with a tired shoulder girdle, the pause, 3 commands, the handoff, spotters, etc. It can be overwhelming.
Remember the goal of the first attempt: GET ON THE BOARD.
Even if you miss your second and third bench, you’re still in the meet if you made your first.
Once you’re on the board you can’t bomb out of the meet and now you can go up in weight. Nobody cares about your first attempt. Make it for three white lights, get success, get momentum. Then go up. You might jump to 85-87% or even a bit higher here, go to your best triple at 90%. Depends on you. Finish at 92-95% and make the lift. Boom, three for three if it all goes right. That’s success and now you can carry that into the deadlift where you can get a little bit nuts.
For deadlifts, it’s a little less important to be conservative although that depends on the lifter. Some lifters get a LOT out of adrenaline at meet. My own lifter will easily lift 20 lbs more at meet than she can in the gym. Others don’t get so much. I’d say that sumo, being more technical, requires a more conservative attempt selection since you may get too anxious or amped up and lose your technique or position. On conventional you can pretty much go beastmode.
Keep in mind that deadlifts happen at the end of a very long day. Not only do the lifts take energy out of you but sitting around on your ass for 5-6 hours is exhausting. You may not have as much get up and go as when you did deadlifts on their own day in the gym. Even if you do them after squats you won’t have as much vim and vigor left.
Still, pick a reasonable first attempt something you could do in your sleep. GET ON THE BOARD. It’s almost more important here. Because if you’ve made it to deadlifts and you make your first attempt, you’ve done what you came to do:
You finished your first meet.
By making even a single deadlift, you made a total. You completed the meet. Even if you tank your second and third deadlifts (which you shouldn’t), it doesn’t matter. You went, you finished. That means you won. Even if you came in last in your division. You still won. You put your ego on the line, lifted under strict conditions and you completed the meet. That should be the goal of a first powerlifting meet. Everything else can come later.
After the first attempt, well deadlift lends itself to bigger weight jumps. I still like to see people go 3 for 3 but you can get away with a lot in the deadlift just with sheer grit and anger. Still, keep it in your pants until your second meet if you can.
A Final Comment about Conservative Attempts
Let me beat this dead horse a little bit more. When you go to meet, no matter who you are, you are going to be anxious. My lifter is a seasoned competitor with nearly a dozen meets under her belt and she still gets nervous.
Mind you, I get more nervous at the meet but I think a good coach should be more nervous than their athlete. If I’ve done my job and prepared her correctly she just has do execute the plan and lift 9 times. That’s her entire job.
Me? I’m wondering if I prepared her in training, did I pick her attempts correctly, when do I warm her up, etc. There’s a ton of other stuff I do on meet day to ensure her meet goes well which stresses me out and exhausts me. I’ll do another video on that eventually.
But you will be nervous. You will. You’re thinking about everything in this video/article. Will I hit depth? Will I make my first attempt? Will I bomb out? Etc. That’s on top of everything else going on: commands, music, people, spotters, etc, etc.
And after you make your first attempt, that anxiety will go away and you will relax. I don’t mean physically under the bar but mentally. You’re on the board, you can’t bomb out now, you made the lift. Because now your brain isn’t putting half of its energy into worrying and you can put more into lifting. That’s partly why success breeds success. Because it lets you relax.
If that means going 80% on your first for squats, do it. Start light, get on the board, get success and then move up on your second and third. Nobody cares about your first attempt.
Tip 6: Get Feedback
The reality is that even if you do everything I suggest in this article things can go awry. On your first squat, you may still cut depth even if it’s light. You get anxious, everything is different, you rush, you cut depth. It happens to everyone. And you get red lights.
First, it is what it is. Every lifter has gotten and will get reds throughout their career. The perfect meet is 27 white lights and some lifters have never gotten it (mine did once). Everyone gets red lights, everyone misses lifts and bombs out, even the most seasoned competitors do it. It happens.
When you get red lights, and you will, go ask the judges (politely) why you got reds right after the lift. I think a lot of first time powerlifters don’t realize that they can do this. As I said, the judges and people running the meet want everyone to have a good meet and that means helping lifters fix mistakes by telling them what they did wrong.
If you don’t ask, you won’t know. So ask. Maybe you didn’t hit depth. Maybe you had soft knees meaning they weren’t locked at the end. Maybe you rushed the commands. But ask.
You now have at least 10 minutes until your next attempt. At the very least you can think about what you did incorrectly and fix it. In some cases, you have time to go actually fix it in the warm-up room. Some personal anecdotes.
Fixing My Lifter’s Bench
I mentioned earlier in the article that Sumi missed her first bench at her first powerlifting meet by rushing the START command. She hadn’t practiced and had an unknown handoff person (as she put it she had an unknown “nutsack” in her face). She also trained alone and hadn’t practiced getting a handoff at all. And she missed her first attempt like so many miss their first.
Clearly I didn’t have to ask the judges what happened, I knew what was wrong. But it gave me 10 minutes to fix it.
So I took her to the warmup room and asked a coach who wasn’t busy if he could help her practice (remember, I had a broken leg). The coach handed off for her and I gave her all three commands for a couple of reps. Then she went back and smashed her second and third attempt.
Fixing My Lifter’s Squat
About a year later at a meet, Sumi missed her first squat on depth. I don’t know why or what was going on but she did. And I had 10 minutes to fix it.
I ran her back to the warm-up room and put her through 5 quick singles going deeper than she normally squats. I started her light and pyramided up to basically reinstill proper depth in her brain. It’s good she works on a short rest interval because she can’t have had more than 45 seconds between reps.
But we had the time, I had to fix it, we did and she made her second and third squat.
If You Don’t Ask, You Won’t Know
And you should do this on all three lifts. If you get reds, politely ask why. In some cases, you can ask a lifter who saw it but the judges are generally better. They know for sure what they called the red light for. Ideally ask them what went wrong.
At least think about the mistake or if you have time, fix it between attempts. If you don’t know what needs to be fixed or how to fix it, ask a lifter. If they aren’t busy, most powerlifters are utterly willing to help you out if you just ask. Explain to them what the judge told you and ask them to help you fix it.
Even if you can’t fix it the meet you’re at, it gives you something to correct before your next meet. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great when meets go well. But when something goes wrong, that’s something for you to fix before the next meet. Then you can make a different mistake and fix that. But if you keep fixing every mistake that happens at a meet, well…that’s how you make continuous progress.
But you can’t know what mistake to fix if you don’t know what it was.
And hopefully those 6 (and a half) tips will help to ensure you have a fun, successful first powerlifting meet.