by Bret Contreras May 07, 2015
Several years ago, I decided to delve more into the sport of powerlifting. Since then, I’ve competed in 3 competitions, I’ve prepared clients and training partners for competitions, I’ve attended around a dozen meets, I made friends with a bunch of powerlifters and started training at a powerlifting gym, and I started following many of the powerlifting experts and reading/watching all of their material. I don’t consider myself to be a world expert in powerlifting, as there are coaches and lifters who have been submerged in the sport for most of their lives, but nevertheless I try to pay very close attention at the meets. And although my strength as a powerlifter is mediocre at best, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the training process and attempting to set PRs on the platform.
As a writer, I’ve made it a goal to encourage others to bite the bullet and commit to a powerlifting competition. Unfortunately, too many lifters attend their first meet unprepared, and they end up making mistakes that are easily avoidable. Here are the 20 most common mistakes I see first-time powerlifting competitors commit:
1. Not Hitting Parallel When Squatting in Training
A few months ago, I was watching a very strong female powerlifter train at Revolution Training System. She was squatting with 315 lbs and was very proud of her strength gains. Only problem was, she wasn’t hitting parallel…not even close. She was half squatting. I have no doubt that this lady would have went into her meet thinking that she would smoke 315 lbs, only to be disappointed when she was red lighted for not hitting depth.
I filmed her from the side view to show her femur angle at her lowest point, then helped her figure out the appropriate load to use for her squats. It turns out that she could only use 245 lbs for 3 reps when actually reaching a thigh parallel position, which is still great, but it’s 70 lbs less than what she was using.
Bret’s Tip: Squat slightly deeper in training so you’re not tempted to cut depth short on the platform.
2. Not Pausing Long Enough When Bench Pressing in Training
One of my Get Glutes members recently trained for a powerlifting competition at a powerlifting gym. Astonishingly, the coach never had her pause during her bench presses. She had to learn how to pause at her first meet.
Up until a few years ago, all of my bench press repetitions were performed touch-and-go. When I learned to pause, I had to reduce my normal loads by 10% in order to match the same set and rep schemes. Now I’m stronger at pauses and there’s not as big of a gap, but nevertheless, you must pause at the chest when bench pressing for powerlifting.
Bret’s Tip: Pause extra long at the chest so you’re not tempted to jump the command at the meet.
3. Not Being Sufficiently Familiar With Commands
You absolutely need to know this if you plan on competing. You can’t just go to the powerlifting meet and lift like you normally do at the gym. The referees give you commands during your lifts, and failing to obey the commands will result in failed attempts.
Squats have two commands – start and rack. You unrack the bar, walk out, wait for the start command, squat to parallel, wait for the rack command, then rack the bar.
Bench press has three commands – start, press, and rack. You unrack the bar with the help of a spotter, wait for the start command, lower the bar to the chest, wait for the press command, lock the bar out, wait for the rack command, then rack the bar.
Deadlifts have one command – down. You set up and pick the weight off the ground to lockout, wait for the down command, then lower the bar to the floor in a controlled manner.
There are three referees judging your lifts, and for every lift, you need to get at least two white lights for the lift to pass.
Bret’s Tip: If you get any red lights during any lift, ask the judge or judges why you got red-lighted. Many times they’ll inform you about something you weren’t aware of and you can pay extra attention during the following lift so you don’t commit the same violation.
4. Not Knowing the Federation’s Rules
Each federation has slightly different rules. Some have you squat deeper than others. Some make you keep your feet and head down during the bench; others let you pick your head up or rise up onto your toes. Many of the powerlifting federations have their rules posted on their website, so make sure you’re properly versed prior to the competition.
5. Not Choosing Good Openers
For each lift (squat/bench/dead), you get 3 attempts, the first attempt is called your “opener.” It never ceases to amaze me when lifters fail to hit their openers. An opener is supposed to be easy. This is especially true for the first time competitor. With the newbie, you want a confidence builder for the opener to put their mind at ease and let them focus on the exercise. They’re already out of their element due to being in a foreign environment, lifting in front of a bunch of strangers with spotters and judges all around. Failing to hit an opener can be devastating psychologically, which can impact the rest of the meet, so don’t be overzealous when selecting opener loads.
I usually go with a 3-5RM for an opener with first-timers. Sometimes they still get red-lighted for missing a command, but not for missing depth. The second lift is usually close to or equal to the heaviest lift they hit in training, and the third is usually a new PR weight, but of course adjustments need to be made depending on how the lifter feels. Over time, as the powerlifter gains experience and confidence, he or she can go with heavier openers if desired.
Bret’s Tip: Choose a load you could lift for 3-5 reps for your opener, then choose a heavy load that you’ve already hit in training for your second attempt, then go for a PR for your final attempt.
6. Not Warming Up Optimally
Warming up is tricky during powerlifting meets. Sometimes the warm-up room is close by and you can hear the announcers over the intercom, while other times it’s in a completely different area and you have no way of knowing when exactly you’re turn is. I’ve seen people start warming up 45 minutes early, then something happens and the meet is stalled, and they end up finally hitting the platform an hour later. When the time comes for these folks to deadlift (last lift of the day), they’re fizzled out.
I’ve also seen guys doing idiotic things in the warm-up room, such as going for a 1RM before hitting the platform. I watched a guy grind out a 6-second deadlift in the warm-up room then proudly announce, “that’s a new PR.” I was like, “WTF?!” I don’t know what happened to this guy on the platform, but I can’t imagine that he lifted as much as he could have since he would have been mentally and physically fatigued.
When I deadlift, my opener is usually something like 565 lbs, but in the warm-up room, I’ll usually do some bodyweight back extensions, some light front squats with 135 lbs, then pull 135 x 3 reps, 225 x 3 reps, 315 x 3 reps, 405 x 1 rep, then 455 for 1 rep and be done. Takes me 10 minutes and I’m ready to go. Other guys have much more extensive warm-ups.
It’s up to you to anticipate based on the flow of the meet when you’ll be stepping onto the platform so you can determine when you should start warming up. Sometimes the announcers will inform you…they’ll say something like, “flight 3 should be warming up right now.” But this isn’t always the case.
My last meet was a nightmare. The warm up room was in a different building and we had no communication with anyone inside the competition room, so we had to keep running back and forth. I came out of the warm-up room to check on the meet, only to find that my name had been called and I had around 20 seconds left to hit my squat. I quickly secured my belt and got the lift. Luckily it was my opener or I might have been too thrown off mentally to get it. At this same meet during deadlifts, I started warming up 15 minutes prior to my anticipated time, but the meet got delayed due to loading errors, and we ended up having to wait an extra half-hour before we started pulling. I was already warmed-up, but I had to “re-warm up” since I cooled down after the delay. Be prepared for annoying things like this to happen.
Some of my male powerlifting friends require 45 minutes of warm-up to feel ideal for squatting, whereas many of my female clients only need 10 minutes to be ready to go. Therefore, the warm-up needs to be adjusted per the individual.
7. Not Experimenting Sufficiently With Training Gear
This mistake isn’t as egregious as the others, but it’s still important. No coach can just glance at you and know whether you’d squat best in Chuck Taylors or Olympic shoes. You have to figure this out in training. Some folks like flat shoes for squats while others prefer a large heel, and the same goes for benching. Most prefer flat soles for deadlifting. Some find that knee wraps help them, others not so much. Some wear a belt during deadlifts, others don’t. Some prefer thicker belts, others prefer thinner belts. Some guys don’t fare well wearing Inzer singlets as they feel like their nuts are getting smashed to smithereens. Some ladies feel much more confident and perform better if they like the way their singlet looks, so some shopping around is in order. You have to do some experimenting in training to find out what works best for you in the meet. Also, make sure the gear you plan on wearing is approved by the federation.
8. Being Greedy With Body Weight
I know plenty of male powerlifters who prefer to conduct all of their training 20 lbs heavier than what they weigh in at. They’ll weigh 220 lbs all throughout prep, then drastically cut weight starting a couple days out from the meet to make weigh-ins. They cut down to 198 through diuretics, starvation, and sauna/jacuzzi alternations, make the weigh-in, then immediately rehydrate and fuel up. The next day, they’re back to 220 while competing at 198. This strategy works wonders for many lifters and gives them a huge advantage on the platform.
However, it also screws plenty of lifters. Some of these guys get exhausted from the approach and end up bombing out on one or more of their lifts. I always tell people…there’s nothing wrong with just weighing 4-6 lbs over and doing a small cut during the morning before weigh-ins. You can make weight, rehydrate, pig out on sushi and pizza, and end up being 10-15 lbs heavier. It’s a more moderate approach.
For newbies, I recommend just weighing the maximum amount for the individual’s weight class. For example, a woman competing in the 132 lb weight class should weigh 130-132 and just coast into weigh ins. The last thing she needs to be worrying about for her first competition is making weight. Don’t get too greedy in this regard, as it can go either way in terms of hurting or helping your performance.
9. Blowing Your WAD in Training
Preparation training for the meet should predominantly involve excellent technical form. In addition, you shouldn’t be grinding out your lifts in training – save the grinding and/or form degradation for the platform. A good training program has you increasing loads and gaining strength all the way up until the week prior to the meet, without making you feel completely destroyed or wiped out.
I’ve seen way too many instances where guys will pull a PR deadlift with a fully-rounded back that takes 6+ seconds to grind out two weeks prior to the meet. Then they step on the platform and can’t match it because their bodies were too beat up from blowing their WAD two weeks prior.
Bret’s Tip: In training, have stricter form and avoid grinders. At the meet, go crazy, especially on your 3rd attempts.
10. Sabotaging Your Peaking Process
Several years ago while I was in New Zealand, my buddy was a shoe-in to win a marathon. He was the fastest runner in the country. The day after the race, I asked him how it went and he said, “not good.” Apparently he decided that he needed to “carb up” for the race, so he went to a local bar and ordered a giant plate of supreme nachos. Take my word for it, this “backfired” on him really badly when he was running. All he had to do was stick with his normal, everyday routine and he would have killed it, but he let his mind betray him.
Another buddy I have decided to load up on 30 grams of creatine the day before his powerlifting competition despite having not taken any creatine for the past year. I guess he got what he wanted – more explosiveness at the meet, but it was the wrong kind of explosiveness if you catch my drift.
When it comes time for a competition, our minds play tricks on us. We get greedy. We want an edge. We do things we wouldn’t normally do, hoping for a boost in performance, but the result is often the polar opposite.
Bret’s Tip: The week before the meet, take it easy in training, don’t lift for the several days prior to the meet, stick to your normal foods that you know you tolerate well, and don’t try anything out of the ordinary.
11. Failing to Attend a Local Meet Beforehand
This may be the most important tip of all. People conjure up all sorts of misconceptions about powerlifting meets. They think it’s a bunch of ginormous behemoths who laugh at anyone who is weaker or less experienced than them. Although this tends to be the case on the Internet, it’s quite the opposite in real life. The big dudes and dudettes tend to be very helpful and supportive, and there are plenty of mediocre lifters competing who will put your mind at ease. People aren’t all staring at you on the platform with bated breath watching your every move; everyone is busy doing their own thing and there are usually a couple of platforms in use simultaneously. Attending a local meet will assuage any fears you have and get you psyched to sign up for a competition.
12. Failing to Film Your Lifts
The last meet I attended, there were three ladies competing who each bombed out on their squats. All three ladies failed on all three squat attempts, all for the same reason – not hitting depth. What was somewhat humorous is that they’d get pissed off at the referees upon seeing that they’d been red-lighted – they didn’t believe that they weren’t hitting depth (they weren’t even close). In their minds, they were descending well past parallel. Here’s the crazy part…they had a coach who was there with them!!! I can’t understand for the life of me how this even happened, but obviously their coach wasn’t well-versed in powerlifting rules, and obviously the ladies never filmed their lifts.
Bret’s Tip: Film your lifts. With squats, set the camera from the side view at knee level so you can ensure that you’re hitting depth. Watch your videos and pay attention to your form. Make sure you pause sufficiently during the bench and fully lock out the barbell during deadlifts.
13. Committing Caffeine and Ammonia Overload
This might belong in mistake #13, but I felt it was important enough to include on its own. Last meet, my good buddy took three caffeine pills prior to the meet and felt woozy the entire day. He actually ended up slaughtering all of his PRs, but that’s besides the point. He probably could have done even better had he just taken one caffeine pill in the morning and maybe one in the afternoon. Or just relied on energy drinks.
This same dude also encountered another funny situation (well, it’s funny because he ended up making the lift; it wouldn’t have been funny otherwise) just prior to his second squat attempt. He saw a bottle of nose torque (ammonia) and assumed it was used and not fresh. He took a giant inhalation and almost passed the f*#% out. His eyes were all watery and he said to me, “I don’t know how in the hell I’m going to make this lift.” Luckily, something happened and the meet was stalled for a couple of minutes, providing him ample time to recover from the fiasco.
Bret’s Tip: Stick to similar amounts of caffeine that you’re used to so you don’t disrupt the system too much. It’s fine to up the ante a little bit, but don’t go overboard. There are few things worse than trying to squat when you feel like puking. If you intend on using ammonia capsules, don’t ever do it for the first time at a meet – make sure you experiment with it prior to the competition.
14. Not Having a Training Partner/Coach That Keeps You Honest
You want a coach or training partner that calls it like it is, not someone who pussyfoots around and is afraid to put you in your place when you need it. If your form sucks, you should be called out on it. If you’re not hitting squat depth, not pausing long enough during bench, or not locking out your deads, you should be called out. If your spotter gives you assistance, he should not say, “all you bro!” On the flip side, you should welcome all of this advice and say thank you.
15. Not Understanding Kilo Conversions
After each lift, you must head immediately to the announcer’s table to inform them as to what load you intend on using for your next attempt. However, the loads aren’t in pounds, they’re in kilos. Click HERE to see an example kilo conversion table. It’s not rocket science, but if you’re not aware of this practice, it can catch you off-guard. Make sure you’re able to quickly determine the loads you want to use based off of this chart.
16. Not Bringing Your Own Supplies
Legend has it that a really strong powerlifter by the name of Chris Duffin had a legitimate chance of breaking the world deadlift record, but someone allegedly dumped baby powder into the chalk bowl, thus sabotaging his performance. Chalk is used to aid the lifter in holding onto more weight, whereas baby powder is used to coat the thighs so the barbell can glide along the legs smoothly and not get caught on anything. However, baby powder will cripple one’s grip strength, so it’s very important to not have any baby powder on the hands prior to deadlifting. Had this not happened, perhaps Chris would be credited with the world’s biggest deadlift for his weight class.
Bret’s Tip: Bring your own supplies to the meet. This is the only way to ensure that the substances are legit and the gear will fit properly.
17. Not Having a Strategy
You should have in mind the precise loads you intend to use for all nine lifts prior to the competition. You should also have in mind what warm-up weights you’ll hit before you step onto the platform. Finally, you should have in mind how you’re going to adjust the loads if things aren’t going as planned. You may feel like shit and have to reduce anticipated loads, or you may feel incredible and have to increase loads.
18. Over-Relying on a Coach
If you have a coach, hopefully you have a competent one who can dedicate his sole attention to you at the meet. However, you’re a grown ass man (or woman), so make sure you’re familiar with the entire process and plan. You shouldn’t fully rely on anyone for your performance. You have a camera and can verify that you’re hitting depth or pausing sufficiently. You can attend a meet and witness how they’re run. You can memorize the loads you plan on hitting. Your coach might be preoccupied or might be helping other athletes, so you have to take ownership and be responsible for your own success.
19. Not Doing a Mock Meet Beforehand
My client Sohee Walsh is competing at the end of this month in her first competition as a 105 pounder. I had her do a mock meet at Revolution so she could gain experience and to better enable us to select her loads. She ended up squatting 155 lbs, benching 105 lbs, and pulling 175 lbs. The squat and bench went as predicted, but her pulls were very weak on this day. I think she’ll hit 165/105/215 at the meet, but we’ll see. Mock meets are great for managing expectations. Below is footage of Sohee. Notice that we practiced the commands, which is vital. Be forewarned, my voice was out so I sound like an idiot.
20. Not Bringing Food & Drink to the Meet
The first two meets I attended had vending machines and vendors, which enabled me to fuel up adequately between lifts. However, the last meet I attended didn’t have a vending machine, and the vendors were selling barbecued beef sandwiches and hotdogs – not exactly the best thing to wolf down prior to heavy lifting. I’ve been at meets that last 5 hours total and other meets that last 15 hours total (one ended at 1 am), so make sure you come prepared for worst case scenario.
Bret’s Tip: Bring with you energy drinks, Gatorade, granola bars, and any other food items that will fuel your performance and keep you hydrated, but make sure that these foods are easy on your stomach and well-tolerated.
If you’re on the fence about competing, I highly recommend that you do so. I’ve yet to meet anyone who regretted stepping onto the platform. You’ll meet wonderful and helpful people and will be proud of your accomplishments, plus you’ll learn a great deal in the process. I hope this article has been useful in letting you know what to expect at your first meet. Go the extra mile and take the necessary steps to ensure that you come prepared, it’ll make a big difference. If you feel that I’ve missed anything important or am in error, please share any advice in the comments section below.
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