Are you thinking about trying your hand at powerlifting? You’ve been seeing your strength and performance improve at the gym, and maybe you’ve been following a progressive training strategy that has you set up to peak. Why not test your one rep maxes in a competitive setting with a stage (a.k.a. platform) and people cheering you on? It’s time to try out your first powerlifting meet!

Powerlifting Competitors and Coaches

What is powerlifting you might ask?

Powerlifting is a strength competition where athletes perform their heaviest single rep squat, bench press, and deadlift. Competitors are categorized by gender, weight, and age (so that a 110lb teenage girl isn’t competing directly against a 225lb man!) – because of this you may register as the only competitor in your age/weight/gender class! That’s one of the really awesome things about powerlifting, you are just really competing against yourself (and your personal bests) putting your training and hard work over the months leading up to the competition to the test.

Training for a Powerlifting Meet

Speaking of preparing for a powerlifting meet – what does training look like for a competition? While you could certainly just go into a powerlifting meet with no prior training or planned peaking, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice (and wasting at least $120). For our athletes looking to compete in a full powerlifting meet (squat/bench/deadlift) we almost always recommend a minimum of 16 weeks to prepare and build the strength and power needed for the platform.

We like a linear progression for our training program, starting with a block of high rep/low weight capacity building work that will transition over the following months into lower reps at a higher weight each session (ideally). Having a coach to objectively write a customized workout program for you is the best way to ensure that you are getting in the stimulus needed to build strength, improve technique, and set you up for a successful meet day.

How many training days should you expect, and how often should you train each of the 3 ‘big’ lifts? Well…it all depends on the lifter, their training experience, injuries and/or limitations, and schedule. But most often we recommend at least 3 days per week of training, and find most of our competitive athletes are well set up with a 4-day training program. Frequency depends once again on the lifter and their experience, and also the lift. Most athletes respond well to back squatting twice per week, bench pressing two or three times, and deadlifting once per week.

Make sure that your coach is accounting for your fatigue as you go through the program, planning out training weeks throughout your 16 week cycle where the volume and intensity are reduced is highly recommended.

Picking Your First Meet

There are lots of different powerlifting federations (governing bodies who host competitions on local, state, national, and international stages) to choose from, and each one is a little bit different when it comes to the rules and regulations surrounding your competition. Be sure to check out the handbook or rulebook for your specific powerlifting federations more than the night before weigh-ins! 

Two of the most well known powerlifting feds in the United States are USPA (United States Powerlifting Association) and USAPL (USA Powerlifting), and hold competitions frequently. Both offer drug-free competitions, and are recognized on a national and international level.

Start with a local meet in your home state (unless a competition is a good excuse for you to travel then go for it – there are no rules about competing out of state), each federation updates their website with events regularly so start looking 4-6 months out so you have plenty of time to start your training prep.

Registering might feel a bit nerve wracking because of the weight classes, age groups, and specific classification terminology:

  • Full Power → competitor performs squat, bench press, and deadlift
  • Bench-only → competitor only performs bench press
  • Deadlift-only → competitor only performs deadlift
  • Push/Pull → competitor performs bench press and deadlift
  • Raw → no specialty gear allowed besides knee sleeves, belt, and wrist wraps
  • Classic Raw → same as Raw, but knee wraps are allowed instead of knee sleeves
  • Single-Ply & Multi-Ply → specialty squat, bench, and deadlift suits are allowed; also known as equipped powerlifting or geared powerlifting

When picking a weight class, find one that you already comfortably sit in (rather than diet down 10lbs) – for example if you currently weigh around 160lbs it would be better to register in the 165lb weight class than the 148lb weight class. 

Unless you are aiming to snag a state or national record, cutting weight doesn’t make the most sense for your first powerlifting meet. Weight loss and physique changes may be a by-product of the increased intensity of your training program, but building muscle mass and losing significant scale weight simultaneously is not the easiest goal to accomplish (for most anyone but a completely untrained/detrained individual).

Weigh-Ins and Gear Check

Depending on which powerlifting federation you choose to compete in, your weigh-in and gear check for your first meet will fall anywhere between 24 hours to 2 hours before stepping onto the platform. If you’re concerned about not quite making your weight class, be sure to avoid drinking or eating much of anything the morning of weigh-ins, and use the restroom as frequently as necessary before stepping on the official scale. Your coach will be a great resource when it comes to meet day weigh-in preparations, as would a registered nutritionist/dietician for specific recommendations.

Once you’re weighed in, you’ll also need to give the meet directors your rack heights (for squat and bench press), opening attempts for each lift, and go through all of your gear to make sure that all of your equipment is approved by the standards laid out in your powerlifting federation’s rule book. You’ll need to have everything that you plan on wearing on the platform to be checked by an official – from your singlet and shoes all the way to your undergarments. Check out this handy checklist for weigh-in and gear check:

Powerlifting

Attempts and Projected Performance Through Training

Throughout your training cycle leading up to your first powerlifting meet you should be in constant contact with your coach about your performance (i.e. weight used on competitive lifts and technique) so that you can formulate a plan for a successful meet day. When you’re nearing the end of your training cycle, your coach will likely have a good estimate of where you will be able to start each lift (opening attempts), as well as your second attempts. You and your coach may decide together what your goal for the final attempt will be, or your coach may decide in the moment what your third attempt will be by the performance of your second.

If you’re not working directly with a coach, here’s a good rule of thumb for choosing your attempts:

1st Attempt: weight that you’ve easily achieved in training for 2 or 3 reps

2nd Attempt: gym PR in current training cycle (or just above)

3rd Attempt: stretch goal, anywhere from 5-10lbs above current gym PR

Picking the right numbers is often the difference between a good meet day and a bad, because there are many other factors at play besides whether you are strong enough to complete the lift – technique and performance of the lift as qualified by the Federation’s rule book and judges’ criteria, ability to follow commands of the head judge, stage fright/nerves, etc. Once you have selected a weight for a lift (and you do not succeed at that particular weight) you cannot choose a lower weight for your next attempt, but must either match that failed attempt or increase by a minimum of 2.5kg (5lbs roughly).

All attempts must be given in kilograms, rather than pounds (because of the weight plates used in competition), so be sure to convert your openers to the nearest reasonable kilo weight before weigh-ins so you aren’t scrambling or make a mistake (there’s a HUGE difference between 225lbs and 225kg). One of the officials on meet day will have a conversion chart handy so that you can make an educated decision about your 2nd and 3rd attempts.

Nutrition Strategy for After Weigh-Ins and Meet Day

If you’re competing in a federation that does weigh-ins 24 hours prior to your powerlifting meet, then you’ll have the opportunity to eat as usual prior to getting on the platform. I always look forward to eating a full breakfast (or brunch) after weigh-ins, making sure to get pancakes/french toast/waffles (and/or regular toast) with bacon/ham, along with eggs and fruit. I love those classic breakfast dishes but don’t often choose them on a regular basis due to their relative calorie/energy density.

However, before a powerlifting meet I want to give my body plenty of easily metabolised energy, and carbohydrates are my number one go-to choice. Have you ever heard the term carb-loading? It’s a real thing, and a great way to set yourself up for a successful performance on the platform.

For the rest of your meals the day/night before competition, pick things your body is familiar with digesting – this is not the time to try gas station sushi! White rice, grilled chicken, fruits and veggies, greek yogurt, a scoop of your favorite ice cream, are all good things to enjoy after weigh-ins and before you step onto the platform.

Breakfast the morning of your powerlifting meet should be simple and easily digested, scrambled eggs and toast, oatmeal with greek yogurt and fruit, pancakes with a slice of bacon. You don’t want to be too stuffed, but should give your body a bit of fuel to help with any nerves or jitters you might be feeling walking into the competition venue.

But what should you pack along for snacks and meals on meet day? It could be a long day (depending on how many lifters are participating and how well the meet is run), so don’t rely on your breakfast to fuel you for the entire day! Pack yourself a few of your favorite protein and/or granola bars, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (or two), beef/turkey jerky, fruit snacks or dried fruit, and trail mix. Gatorade, gummy candies, and energy drinks are often a powerlifter’s go-to quick calorie sources during meets, but be sure to have more nutritious snacks on hand to help keep you from crashing mid-way through your first powerlifting meet.

Flights and How to Warm Up Right

The order of the lifts in a powerlifting meet is as follows: squat, bench press, and deadlift. Each lift typically takes anywhere from 45 minutes to 90 minutes to complete for all lifters, so warming up properly will be a huge key for having a successful showing on the platform.

The meet directors will organize the competitors into flights based on their opening attempts so that the spotters and loaders will be able to switch weights between competitors in the most efficient way. Once you know which flight you are in, you’ll want to start warming up when the prior flight is about two thirds of the way completed on their attempt of the lift. Don’t over do your warm-ups, you want to just get yourself moving and about 80-90% of the weight of your opening attempt.

Platform Ready!

You’re all warmed up, and ready for your first attempt – be sure to pay attention to the order of lifters as you’ll probably be surprised how quickly attempts go in the flights. The emcee of the meet will be calling out the lifters who are on the platform, on deck, three out, etc. so you’ll be able to keep track of when you need to wait for the head judge to call you out onto the platform.

Each lift has specific commands that the head judge will give you, and that you must follow so as to not disqualify your lift (because even if you complete the lift based on the guidelines laid out in the rules, but you don’t follow the commands you will have that lift disqualified and not count towards your total). Below are the typical commands to expect for each lift:

Squat:

  1. Lifter will unrack the loaded barbell, the head judge will say ‘Squat’, which you can then begin your lift.
  2. Once you have reached squat depth and returned to a standing position, you must wait for the head judge to say ‘Rack’ before returning the barbell to the squat rack.

Bench Press:

  1. Lifter will unrack the loaded barbell, the head judge will say ‘Start’, which you can then begin your lift (barbell descends to chest).
  2. Once you have lowered the bar to touch your chest, you must wait for the head judge to say ‘Press’ before pressing the barbell off your chest.
  3. When your arms/elbows are all the way locked out, you must wait for the head judge to say ‘Rack’ before returning the barbell to the rack. 

Deadlift:

  1. Lifter will have 60 seconds to approach the loaded barbell on the platform and lift to an upright and locked position. Once the head judge deems the lift locked out, the head judge will say ‘Down’. At this time the lifter may return the barbell to the floor with complete control.

A good lift requires that 2 out of the 3 judges think that you performed the attempt successfully according to the rulebook. If you get a red light from one or more of the judges, you may have the opportunity to ask the judge(s) what criteria you missed if it’s not apparent to you after completing your attempt.

Stage Fright? It’s TOTALLY Normal!

Even experienced powerlifters get nervous stepping out onto the platform, you’re not alone! Oftentimes, the most nerve-wracking lift is the squat, because it’s the first lift of the day, and you have to look straight out into the eyes of the judges and spectators. My tip for you is to pick a spot above the judges (and crowd) to stare at, listen for the commands, and come out there and do what you’ve spent months training to do!

The bench press (even though you have to follow the most commands) seems the least intimidating from a crowd perspective, and the deadlift is just fun. All about the ‘grip it n’ rip it’ mentality at the end of your competition day!

At the end of the day, participating in your first powerlifting meet should be a fun experience, full of excitement, fun, cheering on your teammates and fellow lifters, and showcasing your hard work!

Have I convinced you to give competing in a strength competition like a powerlifting meet a try? If you’re looking for a coach to design a program to help you train for your first powerlifting meet, our Director of Programming can get you all squared away – it all starts with an email to [email protected] .

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