Rookie Reminders

About the Author: Eric Cressey

Compiled by Eric Cressey

So you’ve finally made the decision to give up the “all show and no go” bodybuilder’s mentality in favor of powerlifting, huh? Glad to have you aboard; please leave your posing trunks, tanning oil, and pink dumbbell triceps kickbacks at the door. It goes without saying that one’s first powerlifting meet is an exciting, yet confusing — and potentially disastrous — event. Admittedly, I’m a powerlifter without much true competition experience under his belt, so it wouldn’t be fair for me alone to put something together on this topic. With that in mind, I met up with four experienced lifters — Jay Floyd, Ross Bowshers, Dr. Tom Deebel, and Steve Coppola — to discuss first meet madness, and collaborate on a piece on how to avoid bombing out and looking like an ass in your first meet.

EC: Welcome, fellas. Before we get started, let’s clue the Rugged audience in on your lifting backgrounds so that they know we’re talking to some pretty strong and smart lifters.

JF: I’m 25, and am about to complete my M.Ed. in Health and Physical Education. I have a job awaiting me teaching health and PE and coaching football and strength and conditioning at a high school in Georgia. I got into powerlifting after an athletic career that included football, baseball, basketball, track, and even competitive collegiate cheerleading. Lifting was also a big priority throughout; and graduated high school with a raw 500 squat and 335 power clean. My last year of cheerleading was terrible and I really wanted to be competitive in something, so powerlifting seemed like a great fit. When I first started training for powerlifting with the Westside principles, my box squat was 365, deadlift was 495, and my bench was less than 300. After seven months (approximately six weeks of which was compromised due to two-a-day cheerleading practices and a shoulder injury), at my first meet, I squatted 575, benched 335, and deadlifted 535 at a body weight of 238. At my last meet, which was 356 days after my first meet, I squatted 771, benched 402, and deadlifted 633 at 265. This was all drug free. I’m tempted to make a run at Strongman training in the near future.

RB: I am 22 and played college baseball for three years: two at the Vincensses Junior College, and one at Division 1 University of Tennessee-Martin. I had to have stomach surgery during my junior season, at which point I decided to go back home to Indianapolis. I needed some thing to keep my competitive demeanor satisfied, so I checked out an Elite Fitness seminar and got totally hooked. I did some small local meets and then had to have stomach surgery again, which set me back 6 months with no training. I have been training very serious for the last year and a half but haven’t been able to get to a meet recently because of my job and a recent injury. At a body weight of approximately 280-285 pounds, my best gym lifts are a 735×2 box squat, 505 bench press and 595 deadlift. Currently I am employed by the Franklin Boys and Girls Club and coach the Indianapolis Grizzlies College baseball team and go to school at IUPUI.

TD: I started powerlifting at the 1982 Pennsylvania Teenage State Championships, and competed approximately 12 times over six years ending in 1988. I started at 132, but after two years I moved up to 148 where I competed for 5 more years. My best ranking in the ADFPA/USAPL was Class 1. After chiropractic college, I continued lifting, but various injuries kept me from competing. In 1998, I began to learn ART, which helped to fix my injuries, and started training with Westside methods, which brought the excitement for lifting back. Last year, I did a deadlift meet and a push/pull. As of right now, I hope to be healthy enough to make a Class 1 or Master’s classification later this year. My son, Tommy, Jr., is getting into the action, too, as you can see!

SC: I’m 22 years old, and compete in the 242 weight class as an “amateur” lifter. My best meet numbers are a 725 squat, 450 bench, 620 deadlift, and a 1795 total done in IPA meets. I’ve been a competitive athlete in various sports since age 8, but have only been competing in powerlifting meets since 2003 when my college baseball days came to an end. I’m lucky enough to train with a great group of lifters in Buffalo, NY; this group includes Paul Childress and Joe Dougherty, two of the top lifters in the world in their respective weight classes. We train using a conjugate system that is similar to Westside Barbell.

EC: What are the biggest mistakes you see novice lifters making before their first meets?

JF: The biggest mistake I think beginners make is not knowing the rules and the ways of a meet. By this I mean how the warm-ups go, the technical rules, what equipment is legal, etc. I cant tell you how many times I have gone to a meet and some person during the rules briefing asks the dumbest question ever. Watch videos of lifters in the same federation that you will be competing in; doing so will allow you to see the calls and signals that are made in real competition. The best thing you can do is listen, especially during the rules briefing. Read the rules before you go. Know all the technical things so you can concentrate on your lifting. You can find articles at Elite Fitness on what to do at a meet; these helped me out tremendously. I would also recommend getting easy-to-use equipment at the beginning. Any single ply suit and bench shirt should do in the beginning. Get it early and get used to it.

RB: The most common problems have to do with equipment. For example, one of my training partners was getting ready for APF teen and junior nationals, and after a great training cycle that took his bench almost up 100 pounds and his squat close to 150 in about 20 weeks, UPS lost his squat suit, and it took him six extra weeks to get it. He got it three weeks out from the meet and the legs were too long (needed to be tailored) and it was super tight; he couldn’t even reach a parallel box with 635 pounds and had problem getting it up two weeks out! A $500 trip to Omaha was not too wise for him to go out there and bomb on the squat, so his dropped out. Get your equipment early and train in it! Other than that, powerlifting is just like any other sporting event; keep your nerves in check and don’t sweat the small stuff and everything will be fine…

TD: The biggest mistake novice lifters make is being unprepared for meet day. It’s a great idea to see exactly how things run. You have to be familiar with the time it takes to warm-up, get on equipment, get ready for your attempt, and know how to perform the lift according to the rules. A beginner should really go see a meet first.

The second mistake is not bringing enough stuff. You need meet-day food that you can tolerate, drinks, aspirin/Advil, your equipment, and any other comfort items. There can be long delays, so a book, Walkman, or Gameboy might take your mind off delays.

EC: I put you last, Steve, because I know you’ve got a ton of these. Hit what the others haven’t covered; the floor is yours!

SC: In no particular order…

1. Not going into the meet fresh, and rested enough. Too many people overestimate their recuperative abilities, and don’t realize what it truly takes for supercompensation to take place, so they essentially wind up being overtrained leading into a meet. In my experience, this tends to occur moreso on the squat and deadlift than the bench. In my gym, we recommend lifters take their last heavy squat/bench/dead at least 2-3 weeks prior to meet day, minimum. Sometimes we will push this minimum to 3-4 weeks out from meet day for the deadlift depending on the lifter.

2. Not being familiar enough with one’s equipment. It seems so obvious, yet so many people have no idea how to use their equipment come meet time. This could apply to getting it on and off in a timely manner, as well as how to perform in it. The bottom line is that you need to be confident in how to use your equipment with plenty of time to spare (weeks!) before the meet.

3. Not bringing an experienced handler – or any handler at all – to the meet with them. Although an experienced handler is preferable for obvious reasons, any handler will work to help get equipment on and off, give attempts to the scorers table, go grab food or water, tell the lifter how far out they are from being up, etc. Lack of any type of handler usually spells disaster (unless your name is Jay Floyd and you’re too cool for handlers and can wrap your own knees!) for the poor-planning lifter, and will also cause fellow lifters to get pissed off when the poor-planning lifter constantly asks them what’s going on.

4. Not bringing back-up equipment, shoelaces, etc. Anything you will use in any way on meet day, bring a back-up. Sometimes things go wrong, so you have to be ready. Speaking of readiness, be sure to pack plenty of food and drinks, as Tom mentioned.

5. Not being realistic with attempts. The novice lifter should aim to make as many lifts as possible in his or her first meet. This allows more PRs to be set, builds more confidence, and allows for steadier progression in subsequent meets. The novice lifter, in my opinion, should be hitting numbers on first and second attempts that have been done confidently in the gym (as judged by someone who has some meet experience, if possible), and should be aiming to set a PR on the third attempt. Technically, every attempt made will be a “meet PR” anyway. Failure to go into a meet with this mindset has resulted in many a novice bombing out or missing too many attempts; this not only hurts confidence, but also leaves too much doubt about what kind of numbers the lifter is really capable of hitting.

6. Not taking bands and chains off of the bar leading into meet week. Most novices probably aren’t doing advanced band/chain cycles anyway, but in the event that they are, they would be well-served to use straight bar weight on most of their exercises for a week or two before the meet. There a few reasons for this practice…most of them have to do with recovery, and the fact that the body needs to re-adjust to straight bar weight from a nervous system standpoint. Bands, especially, have a grounding effect; once taken off the bar, the lack of this grounding effect can lead to some instability in the lifter if sufficient time (a couple squatting/benching sessions) is not allowed for a regaining of balance.

7. Not knowing the rules of the federation. Jay already touched on this, but it warrants reiteration. The lifter should know the rules of his or her federation of choice prior to meet day. Different feds have different rules about each lift, and how they are performed. This might seem obvious, but I missed two benches in my first ever meet because I kept forgetting the fed I was competing in that day (USPF) had a “start” command on the bench at the time.

8. Not knowing the monolift rack height in a meet with a monolift before taking first attempts. Get under the damn bar before the meet starts and figure out your rack height, and tell the judges and scorer’s table. This can be costly if not done, as it can be a bitch to basically squat a max attempt twice if your rack height is way too low or slightly too high.

9. Not timing warm-ups properly in the warm-up room. Don’t rush warm-ups and don’t take too much time. This comes with experience, but a good idea is to try and take a warm-up every 5-10 minutes depending on how many people are competing in the meet (if there are a lot of people, as in twenty or more in your flight, ten minutes between warm-up attempts is probably not too long). Have an idea of where you fall on the opening attempts list so that you can time things a bit better.

EC: Awesome stuff, Steve. Knock back a post-training drink to replenish what that dissertation took out of you while I talk with the other guys. Before I move on, though, I’d like to add a little bit to Steve’s third recommendation. Make sure that your handler knows where the meet is, how to get there, what time it begins, and how long he/she should plan for travel to the event. I learned this hard way in my first meet; fortunately, somebody else was able to help me out. Anyway, moving on…how important do you think it is to go and watch a powerlifting meet before you compete for yourself? Did you do so before your first meet?

JF: Going to a meet before you compete is a good idea. At the first meet I went to, the meet organizer offered to let me sit next to a judge during the competition so I could see how things worked and he could explain things to me. I declined because I had been to a competition a few years before and had watched a million videos online.

RB: Not that important…When I decided to get into powerlifting, I basically started calling people in my area who were the best. I had been training for about three weeks and went to train with Ron Palmer and Rocky Tilson’s crew; they talked my training partner and I into a SLP meet that next weekend we went and did the meet never having seen one in person. In fact, my training partner, Justin Fricke, set the SLP Indiana teenage state bench press record at that meet! The people in powerlifting are great; Justin actually borrowed a shirt from Mike Coe, a WPO competitor, because his ripped. Here was a champion helping a young kid in a pinch even though he’d only known him for a week; you just don’t see that kind of mutual respect and kindness in other sports. We have found all people in powerlifting to be great and helpful, especially Jim Wendler, who has by far been the most helpful for me personally.

TD: It’s a great idea to watch a meet and a better idea to help a friend first to see the flow of meet days. I highly recommend it.

SC: I think this is very important. If possible, the novice lifter should be accompanied by an experienced lifter (whose brain can be picked by the novice as they watch the goings-on of the meet) if at all possible. I actually did not do this before my first meet, and it showed. I basically screwed up just about everything I could have on meet day. Things would have been a lot less stressful had I taken this logical step in meet preparation.

EC: What would be your recommendations for picking attempts in a first meet?

JF: It depends on how you train. If you train with a Westside-influenced program, you will probably have no idea what your 3RM is, so the idea of “picking something you can do for reps” isn’t very applicable. At my first meet, I opened at 525 even though I had never even had that much on my back before. Every meet since then I have opened with my best from my last meet. I don’t recommend that, though! I would say take something that you know you could do on a bad day. This is where working up for some heavy singles on dynamic day can help. I knew I could box squat at least 450 before my first meet, so I figured 525 wouldn’t be a problem. Since then, I have just opened high enough to be able to take medium jumps so I could get my goal. I opened at 705 at my last meet because I wanted a shot at 804 if given the opportunity. I did 705 at my last meet for a PR, but knew I had a lot left in me.

RB: Just make sure that it’s a weight you have lifted a ton of times in training; be very confident with the lift. The best way to do this is to pick a max effort weight that is usually your 90% lift – the lift you know you’re going to get easy before you head to your max attempts. A good example for me is around 440 on the bench. When I am training, I know no matter how terrible I feel I can always hit 440, and after that, it’s really time to focus. If i can hit it in the gym feeling average, I can certainly nail it in a meet with the adrenaline and ephedrine flowing and focus at an all-time high. Plus, it’s not far off my best, and screw up my total too bad…

TD: Your opener should be 100% I can make it with the flu and explosive diarrhea. Your second should be very close to a max, but you’re very confident with it. The third is for placing, PRs, or goals (e.g. 500 deadlift). Remember to be honest with your self. Don’t attempt hopes. You’ve trained and should therefore know what’s possible.

SC: I talked about this in my laundry list of novice mistakes. The first attempt should be extremely easy: something the lifter has tripled in the gym. The second lift should be something the lifter can confidently single in the gym. The third attempt should be something slightly greater than what the lifter has done in the gym. Equipment problems, strict judging, nerves, etc. can make an easy triple turn into a grueling single.

EC: Good stuff, gentlemen. A lot of federations will give newbie lifters fourth attempts if they make their first three. This is also the case with going for records, but most newbies aren’t shooting for records in their first meets. Nonetheless, if you you’re your first three and feel like you have more left in the tank, ask for a fourth. It won’t count toward your total, but it’ll be nice to go home knowing that you didn’t leave a ton of weight on the platform. Now, let’s talk planning; how far in advance should squat and bench cycles be planned?

JF: For beginners, I don’t think it matters much. Once you get a little more advanced, it should be a little more structured. For my last two meets I have done three weeks of chains, three weeks of blue bands, deload, four weeks of circa max, and then a deload week before the meet. This has worked very well for me. For my dynamic bench, I just alternate bands and chains every three weeks ending with either chains or straight weight. For my other days, I just rotate my max effort exercises. For beginners, I would just use an undulating wave every three weeks ending with a deload week before the meet. After you get more advanced, you will have to decide when you want to add in circa max phases and things of that nature.

RB: Twelve weeks is great. One thing that I need to take into account is the bar; even though I have a Texas squat bar, it still beats up my shoulders really bad, so I want to spend as little time under it as I can. If you have 16-24 weeks before a meet, use the safety squat bar or a cambered squat bar for 12 weeks or so. What I like to do is alternate the bars each week for dynamic squats for 8-12 weeks after a training cycle; both these bars really bring up weakness, so after these cycles you will be a lot stronger with a regular bar. The first time I did this last fall, I got about a 60-pound increase from one six-week cycle with each bar. You will, however, need about 12-14 weeks with a regular bar to get your groove back. During this time, get under some band tension and work on your specific weakness such as strength-speed and speed-strength. The best specific meet dynamic squat cycle I have used is Jim Wendler’s Squat Training: A Different Perspective.

TD: Eight weeks would be sufficient. If you’re farther out, just do two cycles.

SC: At my gym, most guys shoot for a solid 12-15 week training cycle leading into a meet. This number comes from years of experience combined with how most of our squat cycles are structured (5 week mini-cycles). It allows for a week or two of adjustment if things get screwed up, too. Basically, it’s enough time to get done what we’d like to get done, and if that can’t happen, there’s enough time to get done what HAS to be done.

EC: How do you structure your training in the week after a meet? I found that I was able to get back to work sooner with my bench work, but the posterior chain took considerably longer to recover. I hit my first bench session three days after the meet for a repetition day, and got back to a light dynamic squatting session five days after the competition. The days in between were reserved for some GPP, extra work for my upper back, swimming, hot tub, and even some EMS.

JF: If you did things right, you just put in at least 12 weeks of very intensive training with a meet at the end. Take some time off! You more than likely won’t have a meet for at least another 12 weeks, so who cares what you do? I see guys saying that they are going to do this or that when in reality not going to the gym at all may be the best thing for them to do. I usually take at least until Wednesday off. After my last meet, I went to the gym and did some sets of five on reverse band presses…that was all I did! On Friday, I would do my dynamic squat with straight weight going really light. I might only use 345 or so…something easy. Then, on Sunday (dynamic bench day) I would get things back to normal.

RB: Eat and sleep. I have found swimming to be great for recovery; treading water is great GPP and helps me recover

TD: The week after a meet I either go light or don’t train at all. I recommend doing other active things to get away from lifting. It also gives you a little reflection time for your accomplishments or mistakes.

SC: In my case, post-meet training, at least for a week, usually consists of light recovery work. I normally begin speed work in the second week after a meet, and won’t do a true max effort single until the end of that second week, or the beginning of the third week after the meet.

EC: Can newbies compete too often? Is there a time to just can competing for a bit and focus on training? I couldn’t wait to get back under the bar after my first meet in spite of the fact that I knew my body needed to recover; I felt like I had learned too much about what I needed to do to be more successful to be sitting around!

JF: I think beginners should compete at least every 12 weeks or so. Obviously it is going to be limited by what is around you. You might have to travel. For my last two meets, I have traveled a total of 22 hours. I think the training that you do the weeks before a meet are much better than “normal” weeks of just training. Motivation is higher and you are more likely to put in that extra effort. A beginner’s level is so low, that they are not likely to get burned out by competing more often. I competed five times last year and my total went up over 300lbs. I don’t think it hurt me any. I don’t feel that you should consider limiting your competitions until you hit Elite status.

RB: Money and time are the limiting factors. I live in Indiana and only do APF and IPA meets, but there aren’t any meets in this state for those federations. So, for me to go to a APF or IPA meet, we’re talking about a $300-500 or so weekend. I got to school full-time and work part-time, so money isn’t falling off trees for me. I had an injury this year that prevented me from doing my most recent planned meet, but it’s proven valuable in that it’s an opportunity to continue to train and get stronger over the next few months before I compete again. The PR goals will still be reached regardless of whether I do four meets this year or one. So, for me it’s really financial; if I am going to spend the money, I want to be 100%.

TD: For a new guy, I’d think up to four times a year. Many lifters of all abilities do up to that many competitions. A newbie does have to get out there to learn the ropes, so they may need to do a meet or two more each year than a more advanced guy.

SC: Yes, and yes. If there are technical problems and/or injuries occurring in a lifter, time should be taken to remedy these issues before serious meet training takes place. If the lifter is anything like me, the entire preparation, and completion of a meet can be very taxing from a mental standpoint from about 10 weeks out from the meet until it’s over. If this is the case, mental recovery is also something a lifter – newbie or not – needs to consider. Although newbies normally can, and probably should, compete a bit more often than a seasoned pro, they should take the time necessary between meets to recover, evaluate, and properly prepare for another meet. A decent number to shoot for is probably around 3-5 meets a year for most lifters new to the sport.

EC: That’s some excellent information, guys; thanks for helping out with this. I’m sure that a lot of newbies out there will benefit from it. Just as importantly, they won’t annoy the more experienced lifters with silly questions at their first meets! Then again, when it comes to the pre-meet time period, the only stupid question is the one that isn’t asked.