Article by, Matthew Gary
My wife and I are both active members of the USAPL as competitors, coaches, and national referees. Sioux-z was also recently voted to serve on the USAPL Women’s Committee, which is designed to promote, protect, and serve the interests of women’s powerlifting. Together we have 27 years of competitive powerlifting experience under our belts. With experience comes wisdom.
Experience and wisdom are far more precious than strength. In powerlifting, experience and wisdom often translate to smarter training, fewer injuries, bigger lifts, and a better overall competitive experience. Contrary to popular belief, the USAPL and most other powerlifting federations are built upon the membership and success of their local, grass roots lifters. The elite level lifters are rare and precious commodities. Consequently, it is vitally important for novice lifters to be successful in their first few outings. A positive first experience will encourage lifters to stay active in their organization and continue to compete for years to come. Unfortunately many lifters have a terrible first competition experience and walk away from powerlifting disappointed, discouraged, and left wondering what went wrong. Missed attempts and bad experiences often dissuade competitors from competing again.
This begs the question, “What actually did go wrong at their first meet?” The short answer is: plenty. Novice lifters make numerous mistakes that impair their overall performance. Fortunately most, if not all, of these mistakes are both avoidable and reparable.
Sioux-z and I attend as many local powerlifting competitions as possible. We genuinely enjoy coaching, competing, spotting/loading, refereeing, or merely sitting back and watching. This past weekend was no different as we attended the USAPL Navy Open Powerlifting Championships at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. We coached two novice lifters in their second contest. They both performed extremely well. One lifter made all of his attempts and established four new personal records (PR) while our second lifter went 7/9 with one new PR. Without overstating the obvious, they both had an excellent experience and will be back for more. That’s what it’s all about . . . competing, having fun, and setting PRs.
When we left the competition, Sioux-z and I were both satisfied that our lifters had done well because they were well prepared. We helped them prepare for the rigors of the meet by explaining the rules, working on form and technique in the gym, proper training, employing a sensible nutritional plan, and having realistic goals and expectations. On the other hand, we noticed numerous lifters that had horrible experiences. Most of these pitfalls were avoidable and left us wondering what we could do to help. In these situations I like to pick up the pen and start writing, or in this case . . . start typing.
Here’s a list of the top 10 mistakes novice lifters make. I’ve also included suggestions or solutions for how to rectify these mistakes and prevent them from happening again.
1. Going into your first competition blindly.
This is the root of most of a novice powerlifter’s problems. Most people only think they know what powerlifting is. I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked, “Is that what they do in the Olympics?” Even more fail to realize that a competition squat must be taken to proper depth (crease of the hip joint below the top of the knee), that a competition bench press must be paused (held motionless on the chest), and that a deadlift must be lifted to a fully erect position (knees locked, shoulders back, hips through). Consequently, the rules of performance for the competitive lifts are often misunderstood completely. Additionally, novices don’t know what to wear and what constitutes proper lifting attire. I’ve actually seen lifters bend over for their deadlift wearing gloves and using lifting straps. People fail to realize what the Round System is and how it’s used to organize a meet. Ultimately, most people are completely ignorant about the sport of powerlifting.
Suggestions: Attend and observe a powerlifting competition before entering one.
This is probably one of the most valuable experiences a prospective powerlifter can ever have. Watching a competition will answer many of the aforementioned questions which will help turn that ignorance into knowledge and understanding. You will be able to witness firsthand the rules of performance, the proper lifting attire, the execution of the lifts, and the overall flow of the contest. Spectators have the opportunity to see successful attempts and failed attempts. You’ll also have a better understanding of how strong the lifters in your weight class are, compared to you. Furthermore, all lifters have unique lifting techniques, from squat stances to grip width in the bench press and foot placement in the deadlift. Having the opportunity to view these techniques and idiosyncracies up close is extremely valuable.
It’s sensible to approach one of the competitors at the conclusion of the competition to ask for advice and information. Most powerlifters are friendly and don’t mind being asked for advice and/or opinions. It would also be advisable to speak with a referee to further understand the rules of competition. Many referees are competitive powerlifters themselves and have a more than adequate knowledge of the rules. Perhaps you saw a few lifts that you thought were successful and the judges thought otherwise. This would be a perfect opportunity to inquire as to why a certain lifter was not credited with an attempt. Clarification of the rules will help dispel any misconception, myth, or rumor that you may have heard. At the end of the day you may even discover that powerlifting just isn’t your cup of tea. If that’s the case, all you’ve spent is a few hours of your time acquiring knowledge of another sport. Overall, attending a powerlifting competition before actually competing in one is a fantastic idea and the first step toward a positive first experience.
2. Not having any advice and/or assistance from a knowledgeable coach or lifter.
Most novices compete in their first powerlifting competition without seeking the advice or knowledge of a coach or seasoned lifter. This mistake is similar to not attending a competition and creates a multitude of problems. Most of the problems arise in the area of technique and proper training. Just because someone is a good “gym lifter” doesn’t make them a strong powerlifter. In fact, most “gym lifters” perform the competitive lifts incorrectly. Far too many people have been humbled in competition when they actually have to squat rather than simply unlock their knees or they are actually required to pause in the bench press rather than bouncing the bar off their chest. Again, ignorance becomes the common theme.
Suggestions: Find a knowledgeable strength coach or experienced powerlifter.
Begin by asking questions. Be certain of those you’re questioning and learn to analyze information critically. Analyze what you hear, read, and witness. Don’t accept something just because someone said it. If you’re getting your training advice from a 92-pound pencil-neck clown who’s in the corner of your gym flexing and doing lateral raises with elastic bands, chances are your information source is tainted. That doesn’t mean you have to seek out the biggest dude in the gym either. Just make certain you inquire in the right places. Moreover, just because something is printed on a piece of paper doesn’t mean it’s the gospel. This doesn’t mean you have to refute every single nugget of information that passes through your brain, just filter it.
Perhaps there’s a strength coach at a local college or university that’s willing to answer your questions. There may be a competitive powerlifter in your gym or area that will allow you to either train with them or watch them train. Have them observe your lifts so they may check your form and technique. This is some of the best feedback a lifter can ever receive. I always have more experienced lifters watch my technique and check for flaws or weaknesses. Sometimes you’re doing something that you don’t even realize. Show them your training routine and allow them to review it for you. Accept constructive criticism and embrace the notion that this is a new pursuit and there will be some adjustments that need to be made.
If you’re unable to locate someone knowledgeable, use the internet. The internet is a wonderful tool for accessing information on just about anything and powerlifting is no different. There are a multitude of websites dedicated to powerlifting and strength training. You’ll certainly find valuable information that you can immediately employ into your program. Many of these websites have free newsletters. Sign up for a few. Some of them are packed with good information. The internet also has various sites with photos and/or video clips of powerlifting. Finally, I recommend opening up a book and reading. Wisdom, in any field, is power. There are many books and journals on powerlifting training that are worth looking into.
3. Using powerlifting gear (squat/deadlift suits, knee wraps, bench shirts) too soon.
Supportive powerlifting equipment such as squat/deadlift suits, knee wraps, and bench shirts do two things. They help protect the lifter from injury and they act as an ergogenic aid in that they allow you to lift more weight. This is an enticing proposition. It’s one that many are not able to resist. People automatically take an economic principle like “more disposable income is better” and apply it to powerlifting as in “lifting more weight is better.” Lifting more weight is every powerlifter’s goal. However, it should not be done at the expense of learning proper form, technique, and becoming stronger overall without those aids.
Many novice lifters see experienced and elite lifters utilizing supportive gear and think that they should use it as well. They spend a lot of money on the apparel and then don’t understand how to properly maximize its benefits. I’ve been competing for twelve years and I’m still trying to figure out some of the new bench shirts.
Squatting, bench pressing, and deadlifting are all skills. Our central nervous system (CNS) has to adapt and utilize the proper neurological pathways so that we are able to learn the movement patterns in order to coordinate the movements necessary to efficiently squat, bench press, and deadlift. Mastering these skills takes a lot of time and practice. Skill mastery rarely comes in one session. It’s something developed with years of practice and training. Many elite lifters are still mastering technique years after they began formal training. Technique and skill mastery also evolves as we become bigger and stronger. Your movements and technique can easily change in an effort to accommodate added or lost body weight. Once you begin adding weight to the bar, your CNS fires differently. Mastering proper lifting technique according to your body type and genetics is an arduous task. Accordingly, adding supportive powerlifting apparel changes those skills. In other words, once you’ve mastered the skills required to squat properly and then you implement a squat suit and knee wraps, you have to learn a new skill all over again.
Suggestions: Learn proper technique, skill mastery, and build a strong foundation before adding supportive equipment.
The raw (without the aid of supportive equipment) vs. gear debate will rage on forever. However, one principle of powerlifting is absolutely irrefutable. Novice lifters should learn proper form and technique first. Any knowledgeable or seasoned powerlifter will advise a novice to begin without the aid of supportive equipment so they may learn proper form and build a strong foundation. Powerlifting apparel can add artificial and immediate strength. But if you add gear too soon, disaster awaits either in the form of bombing out of a competition or worse yet, a serious injury. It’s imperative that beginners strengthen their core, connective tissues, bones, and muscles before attempting excessively heavy weights with the aid of equipment.
Strength gains come quickly for the novice. Plateaus, overtraining, injury, and boredom aren’t typical issues for those new to training. Consequently, there’s really no valid reason for adding equipment in the beginning. Set your ego aside and get stronger without it. It’s beneficial to encounter some training plateaus and then be able to troubleshoot your weaknesses. Finding solutions to stagnation is extremely rewarding. If you use powerlifting gear too soon, you’ll never properly understand how to address those weaknesses and flaws in your technique. I strongly recommend training without supportive equipment for at least three years before adding supportive apparel. (A case can be made for using a belt as it acts more as a stabilizing and protective agent rather than an aid in lifting more.) Just think of how strong you’ll be once you’ve built a solid and strong foundation. Then, and only then, should you consider implementing these aids into your training.
4. Not practicing the verbal commands in training.
There are verbal commands that must be followed for each lift.
Two verbal commands must be followed in the squat. At the beginning of the squat, the lifter removes the bar from the racks and steps back with it. Once the lifter has demonstrated control of the bar, the head referee will give a verbal command of “Squat” along with a downward motion of the arm. Upon completion of the lift, once the lifter has again demonstrated control of the bar, the head referee will again give a verbal command of “Rack” along with a backward motion of the arm.
In the bench press, the chief referee gives three verbal commands. After the lifter removes the bar from the bench uprights and demonstrates control of the bar, the chief referee will give a verbal command of “Start” coupled with a downward motion of the arm. After receiving the signal the lifter must lower the bar to the chest, hold it motionless on the chest, after which the chief referee will give the audible command of “Press.” Once the lifter has pressed the bar and returned it to arm’s length, the head referee will give the third and final verbal command of “Rack” along with a backward motion of the arm.
The deadlift has only one verbal command. Upon completion of the deadlift, the head referee will give the audible command of “Down” and the downward motion of the arm.
Many novice lifters either don’t know the verbal commands or don’t wait for them. This leads to missed attempts when many times the lift has already been completed with satisfactory form. Missing an attempt due to the failure to follow the verbal commands is absolutely inexcusable and should never happen.
Suggestions: Practice the verbal commands in training prior to the competition.
The remedy is self-explanatory. Have your coach, training partner, or a friend say the commands in training. This doesn’t have to be done every single rep of every single workout. I recommend practicing this simple drill, for each lift, during the last three workouts prior to the competition.
5. Adding and/or changing a piece of equipment (gear) the day of the meet.
Powerlifting is one of the best examples of a “practice like you play” kind of sport.
It is imperative that we train just as we plan to compete. Our lifting costume in training should be identical to what we wear on meet day. If you wear a certain type of shoe to squat in while training, you should wear the same shoe during the competition. Changing gear of any kind can drastically change your technique. At the Navy Open, one of the competitors heard that he could squat more weight with knee wraps. Having never used them in training he decided to use them at the meet. This was a big mistake. He then proceeded to miss both his opener and second squat attempts for insufficient depth. Finally my wife went over and agreed to call his depth on his third attempt, thus avoiding a bomb-out. Another lifter switched to a squat shoe the day of the meet. The squat shoes had an elevated heel that he wasn’t used to and they threw him forward in the squat. Needless to say, this was one of the contributing factors to him not registering a successful squat. Adding a pair of squat shoes to the arsenal may be an excellent idea, but not on meet day. You are better off waiting until the next training cycle to use them. I’ve seen other lifters wear a bench shirt on meet day that is tighter than the ones they used in training. With the new technology of the bench press shirts, they now go on easier but fit tighter and require more weight to touch the chest. More lifters bomb out of a competition in the bench press than any other lift. Failure to practice with the shirt you plan on wearing on meet day is a major cause for failed attempts and poor performance.
Suggestions: Practice like you compete. Wear the exact same apparel in training that you will wear on meet day.
It doesn’t matter what piece of gear it is, you need to wear it in training before the meet. If you plan on using a belt in competition, you need to wear it in training. The notion that you’re strong enough to lift a certain weight and then adding a piece of equipment on meet day will make you even stronger sounds valid in theory but often fails in practice. Powerlifting apparel affects your form and technique. Experienced lifters usually train and practice in their gear for many weeks prior to a contest. This helps to ensure there are no surprises on meet day. The only surprise a novice powerlifter should welcome is their new found strength gains as a result of initially training raw.
6. Wearing the wrong shoes.
Novice lifters often wear tennis or running shoes to compete in. I mean why not, right? You probably already own a few pairs. Why invest extra money in something as trivial as footwear? Running shoes have soft cushion-type soles. While these soles are ideal for comfort, running, and walking, they are certainly not ideal for lifting heavy weights. When you place a bar on your back to squat, gravity immediately starts working against you by pulling the weight down. Additionally, as you begin to sit back and squat down the weight is then pushing you downward toward the floor. In order to ascend in the squat, you must transfer energy through your hips, back, and legs, then through your feet and into the floor. When you do this with running shoes, the cushion soles are severely compressed. This gives you a “squishy” surface to push against rather than a solid and flat surface. This often causes lifters to struggle with their initial set-up in the squat. It also causes lifters to fall forward in the squat often creating a position that’s difficult to recover from. Furthermore, if your feet tend to pronate (turn inwards) the running shoes will likely exacerbate this condition by forcing you feet to roll inwards. The same is true if your feet tend to supinate (roll outwards). Neither of these situations is particularly desirable. Imagine running in sand. Running in sand is much harder than running on concrete because the energy transferred through your feet is dispersed through the sand. When you run on the concrete, the hard surface practically pushes back. Running shoes rarely impair performance during the bench press. However, they are definitely not favorable during the deadlift. Again your main goal when you initiate the deadlift is to drive your feet through the floor. If you have running shoes on your feet will drive into the unstable surface of the cushioned sole. This will inhibit your transfer of energy through your feet into the floor. The bottom line is that soft soled shoes cause decrements in lifting performance.
Suggestions: Purchase and train in a shoe with a flat and ultra-hard sole.
There are many manufacturers of squat shoes. Adidas, Crain, Inzer, Metal, and Safe all manufacture quality squat shoes. Talk to some more experienced powerlifters and see what they like. Get some different opinions before you make the purchase. All squat shoes have extremely hard soles while some even have a raised heel. This can be preferable especially if you have limited ankle and hip mobility preventing you from achieving sufficient depth. Squat shoes are expensive. However, this will likely be a one time investment. I seriously doubt any of you will wear them on a date, to work, or on a job interview. You’ll only wear them for training and competitions. Most squat shoes are extremely durable and will likely last you your entire powerlifting career. If anything, you may have to get them resurfaced.
I do not recommend wearing squat shoes for the deadlift. For deadlifting you want a super-flat and thinly soled shoe. Many lifters wear wrestling shoes. Some federations even allow ballet slippers. These are both ideal as they are flat and the thin sole shortens the distance you have to pull the bar.
If you don’t have the money to invest in a pair of squat shoes for squatting or wrestling shoes for deadlifting, there are still other less expensive options. The old school Chuck Taylor basketball shoe is rather popular and works well because of the hard and flat sole. Many lifters wear these for both squatting and deadlifting. Indoor soccer shoes and also a good choice as they are extremely flat. Some of the older styles of basketball shoes would be appropriate for squatting.
The powerlifting platform is not a place to be concerned with fashion. Your primary footwear focus should be on function and performance. Choose your shoes wisely. Your feet will thank you and your lifts will increase immediately.
7. Not attending the rules briefing prior to the competition.
Many novice lifters show up at the meet and assume they understand all the rules of performance. If I had a nickel for every lifter that failed to wait for the “Rack” command in the squat or failed to pause their bench press, I’d be on the cover of Forbes Magazine. Rules briefings do just that, they announce and brief the competitors of the rules of lifting performance. Proper lifting attire is also addressed. All local and state meets should have a rules briefing. (National and world championships do not have rules briefings because the lifters are already seasoned enough to know and understand all the rules.)
Suggestions: Attend and actually listen at the rules briefing.
As easy and simple as this sounds, I’ve seen countless lifters fail to attend the rules briefing only to go on and miss their opening attempts. If the competition doesn’t have a rules briefing prior to the start of the meet, ask one of the referees to review the rules. Most referees will gladly go over the rules. This is a time to listen and ask questions for clarification. Missing attempts due to ignorance of the rules is unacceptable.
8. Not understanding the timing and flow of the competition.
Many people that are new to powerlifting don’t understand the organization and flow of a competition. This starts immediately after getting weighed. Novices often don’t pay attention to when their flight starts or where they are within their flight. This is vitally important for your warm-up and mental preparation. At the Navy Open, I recall a lifter not paying any attention to when he was supposed to bench press. He didn’t realize that his flight had started and all of the sudden his name was called informing him that he was “in the wings” (fourth lifter out). Without warming-up properly he frantically put on his bench shirt and attempted a 396 pounds opening bench press attempt. I don’t need to tell you that he got crushed. He went on to miss all three bench press attempts and bomb out of the competition. Another common mistake is having your knees wrapped too long. Tight knee wraps will eventually begin to cut off your circulation to your calves and feet. One lifter was wrapped for nearly ten minutes prior to his attempt. He later told me that by the time he approached the bar he could not even feel his feet. This is obviously not a good scenario for making a successful squat attempt. Understanding the timing of the competition will put your nerves at ease and enable you to have adequate time to warm-up. Not knowing your place in your flight often comes with disastrous consequences.
Suggestions: Pay attention, listen, and look for your flight number and place within your flight.
Immediately after the weigh-ins close you should find the meet director and inquire as to the flight order. They will likely have the order of lifting and can inform you of your flight number and place within the flight. The attempts are organized incrementally from lightest to heaviest. Therefore if you know you have a light opening attempt in the squat, you can begin warming up sooner. Be sure to check your place within the flight for benching and deadlifting as it’s often not the same. Many meet directors will either announce the lifting order and/or have it posted on the wall or on a huge screen if the meet site is equipped with one.
Once the bar is loaded and the lifter’s name is called, the lifter has one minute to receive their start signal in both the squat and the bench press. They have one minute to make a determined effort to raise the bar in the deadlift. A good rule for estimating approximate timing is to look at how many lifters there are in a given flight or how many lifters are ahead of you. You can assume approximately one minute per lifter. If there are ten lifters in the flight ahead of yours you can assume they will be finished lifting in approximately 30 minutes (10 lifters x 3 attempts per lifter = 30 minutes). This formula is usually accurate. Squatting typically takes more time than bench pressing and deadlifting as lifters are often wrapping knees, etc. If you are the eighth person in a flight of ten, you can assume you’ll have seven minutes before it’s time for your first attempt. Once you’ve completed your attempt you will have approximately nine minutes between all subsequent attempts.
Know how long it takes you to warm-up for each individual lift. If in training it usually takes you 30 minutes before you hit your heaviest sets then you can allow for 30 minutes to warm-up at the meet. You may want to allocate more time as you will likely be warming up with the rest of the lifters in your flight and sharing a squat rack or bench press. Allow extra time to get fitted into your lifting attire. Tight suits and bench press shirts take more time to put on than a singlet. There’s nothing worse than realizing that your flight starts in ten minutes and you haven’t put on your squat suit yet. The energy used in quickly pulling on your suit can tire you rapidly. When coaching my lifters I always inform them, “Start warming up a little earlier than usual because you can always slow down your warm-ups but you can’t speed up.” Hastening your warm-up schedule creates fatigue and nervousness. As the day progresses, you’ll need fewer warm-ups because your body will already be primed from the previous attempts.
Proper warm-up and timing are crucial for success on the platform. If you understand the proper timing, you put yourself in a much better position for success on the platform.
Warming-up and proper timing are all aided by having a coach or handler assist you at the competition. A competent handler can make or break your day. Ideally they should be at your beck and call. The only thing a lifter should have to focus on is lifting the weight on the bar. A good coach handles his or her lifters by first helping them in the warm-up room. They load the bar for all warm-up sets and manage the timing. Keeping your lifter informed of the timing is crucial. A word to the wise, if you don’t have a coach or training partner that’s willing to assist you on meet day and you have to ask a friend or family member, make sure they have at least a casual interest in powerlifting. If your best friend hates lifting weights and would rather be playing ping-pong, you’re better off on your own. Do not invite them to assist you. Some folks with the best intentions can ruin your plans. You have trained too hard and too long for a friend to throw a wrench in your program.
9. Rushing your set-up.
Many novice lifters run to the bar and have it out of the rack before you can blink. This puts the lifter in an unfavorable position. It also creates a dangerous situation for both the lifter and the spotters. Lifting heavy weights requires precision and focus. Approaching the bar and taking control of the weight too quickly can make the attempt much harder because you’ve now placed additional forces on the bar that weren’t there before. Gravity is difficult enough to overcome, let alone added “whip” or motion on the bar. I’ve seen novice lifters rush their set-up in the squat so much that they not only forget to wait for the initial “Squat” command but they also stumble backwards out of the rack from the extra momentum the weight has generated.
Setting-up too quickly doesn’t allow you to squeeze the bar and build the necessary tension. Squeezing the bar as tightly as possible creates more tension on the bar and allows your body to recruit more muscle fibers to perform the work. This is Powerlifting 101. Slow down, set your grip, and squeeze the bar!
Running up to the bench and just flopping down onto the bench doesn’t work either. If you’re not set up properly on the bench, you won’t be able to take advantage of leg drive and you’ll likely be in a poor pressing position. When you lay on the bench to press, your body is like a table. The stronger the foundation (legs) and surface (buttocks, back/shoulders, and head) are the more likely you are to be in a favorable pressing position.
Many inexperienced lifters will also run up to bar for the deadlift, bend over, and just yank on it as hard as they can. Often they will grab the bar in the wrong place or be off-center as they initiate the pull. The deadlift is an example of a concentric only (upwards/lifting) muscle contraction. The weight is actually lifted first before it’s lowered. Consequently, your starting position is most crucial in the deadlift. If your start position is hampered because you rushed your set-up, there’s an excellent chance you’ll miss your attempt.
Suggestions: Slow down and take your time setting up for each lift.
Perfect practice helps to ensure perfect performance. It all starts in the gym. Practice a slower and more deliberate set-up for each lift. Treat every single set the same way. Treat 135 pounds with as much respect as 500 pounds. If your set-up is the same with the lighter weights, you’ll be more conditioned to execute a proper set-up with heavier weights. Make sure you’ve set your grip where you want. Upon breaking the bar from the rack in the squat, stop and allow the weights to settle. The more plates that are on the bar, the more “whip” the bar is likely to have because the center of gravity has changed by virtue of the fact that more weight is located further away from your body. If you step back too quickly with a heavy squat attempt, the bar will shake and sometimes it’s impossible to fully recover. Moreover, taking a more deliberate and methodical approach to setting-up your weights requires far less energy. Your ideal set-up expends as little energy as possible and puts your body in the most favorable position to execute the lift with proper form.
Practicing in the gym allows you time to focus on proper breathing techniques as well. Breathing properly and understanding how to temporarily fill your abdomen and chest cavity with air, allows you to tighten your core. Your trunk and torso are your support system. They’re like the column of a building. The tighter and more solid the column, the more weight your body can lift and support. It’s that simple.
Slow down, be more methodical, put your body in a more favorable lifting position, and enjoy the ride.
10. Opening too heavy.
This mistake is listed last but it’s certainly not the least important. Many lifters, especially novices, select an opening attempt that is too heavy. You don’t win with your opening attempts unless you’re Ed Coan. Opening up too heavy requires too much energy and leaves less room for improvement on subsequent attempts.
Your opening attempt in each lift, particularly the squat because it’s the very first lift of the day, is the most important lift of all three attempts. Your opener is like the first pitch in a baseball game, the first hit in a football game, or your first shot in basketball. It sets the tone for the rest of the day. More important, your opening attempt not only gets you into the meet and builds confidence but it serves as a stepping stone for the next attempt. Missing your opener only creates uncertainty, stress, and immediately puts you in a hole.
I could write an entire article on selecting attempts alone. I won’t discuss attempt selection in detail as that’s not the scope of this article but suffice it to say, selecting appropriate attempts is one of the most important decisions of your entire training cycle.
Suggestions: Select a reasonable opening attempt that helps build confidence and allows you to make the next progression to your second attempt.
Leave your ego at home. Nobody cares what you open with. The only attempts that count are the ones you make. Your openers only count toward your total if it’s the only attempt you make. Otherwise, it serves as a prelude to your other attempts. The opening attempt merely helps build your total by allowing you to make the next progression. People only remember what you finished with anyway.
Open light! That doesn’t mean that your opening squat is 250 pounds if your personal best is 500 pounds. Light or reasonable is different for everyone. Generally speaking, you want your opening attempt to be a weight that you are supremely confident of lifting on your absolute worst day under the worst possible conditions. A good rule for most lifters is to open with approximately 90% of your personal best or your best triple in training. Whatever weight you can lift for three reps is usually a very safe weight to open with. Weights may vary with the bench press as the technology of the newer shirts make it harder to get weights to touch the chest. Accordingly, you may need to open slightly heavier in the bench press. In any event, always err on the side of caution. More experienced lifters can get away with opening heavier. They are more accustomed to the rigors of the sport and have a better understanding of their bodies and their capabilities. Even under the best circumstances, I personally have never opened with anything higher than 92% of my personal best.
There were 45 lifters at the 2007 USAPL Navy Open. That translates to 135 first attempts. Of the 135 first attempts there were 35 missed attempts or nearly 26% failures. Of those 35 missed attempts, seven lifters bombed out of the competition and did not register a total. Approximately 15% of the competitors failed to complete the meet. That’s 15% too many. Bombing out of competition sucks . . . plain and simple. Most lifters will do it at least once over their powerlifting career. Many will do it in their very first meet. This leads to many lifters not ever coming back to compete again. You’re only allowed to bomb once. In my opinion, once it happens it is never, under any circumstances, acceptable for it to happen again. You learn from it, put it behind you, and make sure it is never repeated.
In conclusion, nothing ever goes as planned at a powerlifting meet. Trust me on that one. At most powerlifting meets you’ll encounter at least one thing that you failed to plan for in training. You have to be able to adapt on the fly and roll with the punches. Always think positively and make the best of a foreign situation.
As a novice, minimizing your mistakes usually equates to maximizing your results on the platform. It all starts with proper practice in training. I can guarantee that if you employ some of the suggestions and recommendations that I’ve listed, you’ll minimize these novice mistakes. The best thing to take from this article is to recognize that every mistake listed is entirely avoidable. When you can avoid mistakes, there’s an excellent chance that you’ll have tremendous success in your first few meets.
Powerlifting is a tough sport for tough people. I doubt that it will ever make into the mainstream consciousness of our society. Quite frankly, I prefer it that way. Therefore we need our novice lifters to have success, stick around for a while, and partake in the fraternity of iron that we know and love.
May all of your lifts feel light and all your lights be white.
Matthew Gary, CSCS
Matthew Gary is 34 years old and has been a competitive, drug-free powerlifter for 12 years. His educational background includes a BS in Kinesiological Science from the University of Maryland. He is also a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) via the National Strength & Conditioning Association. He uses his education and practical experience daily as he is currently employed full-time as a personal fitness consultant, performance enhancement specialist, and strength coach. He is also an active member of the USAPL where he maintains his status as a National Referee and assistant coach on the USA Men’s & Women’s World Powerlifting Teams. He regularly consults with many of the USA’s elite lifters and other top athletes. As a seasoned veteran of powerlifting, he has bombed out only once and vows to never let that happen again. He has utilized his personal experience as both lifter and coach to make sure that lifters of all levels avoid and minimize novice mistakes.
Comments, discussion, and questions about this article or any other strength endeavor are always welcome and may be sent to MLGary@aol.com.