Over the past couple of years my focus in strength has shifted from kettlebell training to the sport of powerlifting. Why?
1. I wanted a competitive outlet in my life. I felt as if I was turning into a chronic exerciser and I wanted a focus. I was an athlete growing up and really missed having that in my life.
2. All the principles I applied in learning kettlebells have transferred over perfectly to powerlifting. The mastering of tension, breath, rooting, and focus all come in to play.
Powerlifting really brought a new meaning to the words “train with purpose.” You can set many PRs in the gym, but the game changes once you step on that platform. Training for powerlifting beat the exerciser out of me and helped me find what I have been missing.
The Benefits of Powerlifting Training
In powerlifting, each session has a goal that must be met, less does mean more, and there isn’t much room for the fluff the fitness world promotes. The goal is to become stronger, period. I am forced to train smarter and have more discipline. Train with purpose: those three words really have become the driving force behind each and every one of my training sessions.
Here are a few of the things my training focuses on:
- Making each rep look like the last one.
- Making heavy weight move quickly.
- Feeling stronger after each training session, not exhausted and destroyed.
- Shooting for improvement in each session.
Improvement comes in different forms each session, and it isn’t always about lifting more weight. Often, the same weight that felt heavy two weeks ago will suddenly feel like a warm-up set. Those grindy reps that crushed you not long ago become an explosive set that makes the barbell look like a toy.
Since I began to compete in powerlifting, strength has taken on a new meaning. Over the past few years I have experimented with numerous programs and have seen lifts go up and down. I have experienced the joy of hitting PRs at a meet, and the frustration of putting in tons of work but falling short of every expectation I trained so hard for when I actually got out on the platform.
Taking all the good with the not-so-good, I will say there is no other sport I would rather compete in. The pursuit of strength makes me hungrier to accomplish greater things, even though it may take months and months of work to see incremental gains. I encourage all who are reading this to consider training for a meet. Over the past few years I have had over twenty clients compete in meets and we have formed a solid team of powerlifters at Tucson Barbell Club.
Here are a few things I would like to pass along for those thinking about competing in their first powerlifting meet.
1. Don’t Cut Weight
Cutting weight is the biggest rookie mistake I see when people are training for their first meet. There is enough going on with training and peaking for a meet. As you peak, the loads generally increase, and even though volume of training goes down, your body will be ready for the meet to be done and over with the closer to the meet you are.
Adding the stress of eating less and or water cutting has no benefit. You start to focus more on your body weight rather than the weight you lift. If you choose to cut weight, be prepared. As your body weight goes down, your risk of lifting less goes up, especially on the bench press. My own realization after cutting miserably was this: I personally didn’t get involved in lifting weights in order to brag about being the smallest strong guy.
2. Don’t Wait Until You Are “More Competitive”
I hear this from people all the time: “I want to wait until I can squat X or Total X before I register for my first meet.” The funny thing is, if they wait that long, the meet may never come.
The part of powerlifting that is the most fun is setting your own goals and beating your own personal records. If it is your first meet, it is all a personal record. Waiting to be competitive is just an excuse. The truth is no one cares what you lift — they are all focused on hitting their own personal records, not chasing yours. In other words, you aren’t as important as you think you are — just show up and lift. You will find a great and supportive community at most meets that will cheer you on.
3. Set Realistic Goals
Setting realistic goals is crucial and it often takes a coach or trusted and experienced training partner to help with this. If you have only benched 250lbs and you set your eight-week peaking cycle to hit 300lbs at your meet, you will have a harsh lesson to learn. If you are newer you will see bigger gains, but I would recommend keeping jumps to 5%. If you are a 400lb squatter a 10% jump would be a squat of 440lbs. Lifters with smaller numbers may be able to get away with the 10% jump easier.
4. Peak Smart, Don’t Miss Lifts
A five- to eight-week gradual peaking program is sufficient for most lifters. Just make sure to taper volume as you get closer to the meet. Doing lots of assistance work and extra volume doesn’t have any place in your final two to three weeks of training. Also, it is crucial that you do not miss lifts leading up to the meet.
Stay away from grindy and ugly looking reps on the peaking cycle. Nothing is worse than grinding out a weight that is less than your opener before the meet. It will get in your head, which is never a good thing. How does this happen? Doing too much volume and training too much, overestimating your percentages, setting unrealistic goals, or pushing too hard too soon.
If you know you are having an awful day and your warm-ups are slow and not getting better, sometimes it is better to lift the next day and be fresh. Less really is more in peaking. For those who normally exercise themselves into an oblivion this may be a challenge, since your workouts will be short and include only one or two lifts.
5. Practice Commands
Nothing is worse than hitting your all-time PR and turning around to see you were red-lighted because you didn’t wait for the judge to give you the rack command. Each lift has a set of commands you must follow. Your bench press must be paused, so it is best to practice this for a considerable amount of time. Benching 300 at the gym for one rep is different than waiting for a judge to tell you when to press.
At Tucson Barbell Club, we practice commands each session on our peaking cycle. Since we tend to do many singles on our peaking programs, we partner up and make sure the commands are practiced.
Additional Tip: Order your singlet ahead of time and practice in it prior to the meet — it feels different and sometimes throws people off.
6. Be Conservative and Plan Ahead
It makes me cringe to see someone walk up to their opening lift and grind it out as if their life depended on it. This should only happen on your final attempt. Even worse, is when they miss an opener.
Keep in mind, if you miss the opener you can’t go back down in weight. You have two more attempts to make it, but you pretty much know at this point it is going to be a long flight of lifts. Most coaches will recommend to open with 88-92% of your goal, or in other words, open with a weight you can hit for three or four reps.
Feeling confident with your opener is important and sets you up for more success. Many times at weigh-in you will be asked for your openers, so you should know them for about a week leading up to the meet. You don’t want to be scrambling and putting down any number. Also, have your second and third attempts written out so you have a plan. Plans can change, but it is always good to have one.
Most powerlifting federations will have a conversion chart, but be prepared to put your numbers down in kilos. You may find your attempts may be a few pounds off of what you expect, because the units don’t convert perfectly. Most federations will have their kilogram charts available online with the expected jumps in weight. This is also where having a coach or handler helps a lot.
7. Know the Federation’s Rules
Each federation has its own set of rules and they can vary. It is important to know this ahead of time so you can train appropriately. Some allow only the toes to come in contact with the ground on the bench press, and others require the entire foot to be in contact with the ground at all times. Some allow Velcro belts, others have requirements on belt width. There are lots of little things you should familiarize yourself with prior to the meet – and the sooner the better.
8. Get a Handler
Having someone to help you is important. There is a lot going on during the meet. There are different flights of lifters and knowing when to warm up is important. If you warm up too soon, you run the risk of being cold by the time you’re up to lift. Warm up too late and you are rushing right before you want to hit some big lifts.
Depending on the number of people in my flight, I start my warm up sets while the flight in front of me is starting their second attempts. Having a handler will help you keep an eye on all of that, let you know when your attempt is coming up, as well as telling the scoring table what your next attempts are. Your job should be to lift and then sit back down until you are told to lift again.
9. Bring Snacks and Don’t Get Too Excited
Be prepared for a long day. Many times meets can run over eight hours. Poorly run meets can run twelve or more hours. You could be finished with your squat attempts at 11am and not bench press till 1 or 2pm.
It is important to stay hydrated and nourished throughout your day. Sometimes you can get a meal in, but I am not big on eating meals during the competition. Calorically dense foods that don’t take up much room in the stomach are important. My ritual is to eat breakfast three+ hours before the meet. In between each of my big lifts, I enjoy one or two Snickers bars. It keeps my energy levels high and doesn’t fill my stomach. (Now is not the time to lecture me on healthy eating choices — it just works.)
Having caffeine throughout the day isn’t a bad idea for some lifters, but beware of the designer pre-workouts that amp you up. Remember, this is a long day. The higher up these pre-workouts bring you, the farther they will bring you crashing down. If a powerlifting meet was a one-hour event that would be one thing, but if you are crashing on pre-workouts after your squat and you need another fix, you are going to have a miserable day. By the time you get to your deadlift you are going to be wiped out.
Another reason I discourage taking these — especially early in the competition — is that they amp you up, when you should already be amped up just by being there. One of the keys to having a good meet — and not just a good lift — is to manage your energy. If you start screaming your head off after hitting a big squat and jump up and down like you won the World Championships you will have wasted key energy you needed for your remaining two lifts and numerous attempts ahead.
I wish you the best in your Journey in strength and hope to see you on the platform soon!
Danny Sawaya is a StrongFirst Team Leader and Owner of Evolution Fitness Systems and Tucson Barbell Club. Danny holds the 100% Raw Open State Record in the Squat in the 181 weight class in Arizona and the NASA National Record for the 181 weight class, SubMasters Division.
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