AP Level Powerlifting: Your First Meet
Posted on March 18 2019
I’d just loaded another plate on the bar for my lifting partner, Rod, as we both continued our warmups. We were at about 225lbs now, a good three or four sets out from what we felt was a good warmup for our first attempt in our first Powerlifting competition ever. We were both in the second flight but had heard things would move quick so I asked our buddy who had come along to cheer us on “Hey man, go see where they’re at real quick. Is our flight coming up?”
He re-appears 20 seconds later and says “You’ve got plenty of time. They’re only on like their 4th lift.”
“What?” I said. There’s only 3 attempts for each person in a flight. What do you mean they’re on their 4th?”
I walk over and peak around the corner myself, straining to read the names off the projector over the suns glare coming in through the open bay doors. The lifter on deck is….Rod?
“ROD, YOU’RE UP NOW!” Maybe it was the fact that Rod is a combat veteran who served in Force Reconnaissance or just the nerves of our first meet but before I’d finished the word “now,” Rod had the warmup bar racked and was standing on the platform to hit his opener, almost double the weight of what he’d just taken off his back. Meanwhile I’m sitting on the floor frantically trying to wrap my own knees because I was next and Rod was making light work of his opener. Just one of many mistakes I made in our first meet.
In Part 1 and Part 2, I discussed what I was doing to prepare for my first Powerlifting competition regarding my program, my nutrition and mindset. But I haven’t exactly discussed much about competing or the sport itself. Now mind you, I’m no expert in the matter as evidenced above. For most of my fitness journey I’ve experimented, studied, theorized and tested all types of programs and movements, serving as the guinea pig in an effort to determine the best forms of training to support members of the Military and First Responder communities. I would often go 6 months to a year without doing a Bench Press or Low-Bar Back Squat as I theorized and tested different programs and training protocols. So my experience specific to Powerlifting in and of itself is questionable at best. So let’s not call this article Powerlifting 101 but “AP Level Powerlifting.” That at least puts us at the High School level but still somewhat advanced.
At it’s most basic, Powerlifting consists of three lifts, the Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift. Many don’t know however that the strict curl used to be a fourth lift within a competition. To someone like me that makes a lot of sense as the Squat is Quad dominant and the Deadlift is Hamstring dominant. Well for the Upper Body, the Bench hits your Triceps hard so what about the bicep (albeit an upper body pull would make more sense)? CT Fletcher actually held the strict curl record for awhile at 225lbs, won in a Powerlifting meet. I have yet to see this particular exercise come back in competition and I’m not sure why (this is why we’re at the AP level still).
In a competition you will lift in that order, Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift where you’re given three attempts at each, totaling 9 lifts. The goal is of course to increase weight in each attempt where ultimately the best lift in the squat, etc will be taken and subsequently totaled in a final score. Choosing what weight you should be doing in each attempt is where theories vary widely. As a general rule, your first attempt at each lift should be at a weight that you hit for around 3 reps in training. Not only does this bring confidence in that first lift where you may have some nerves or be in a position like Rod where he hadn’t fully warmed up, but it will ensure that the lift looks good for the judges and get you at least a score in that lift. You never know how the judges will gauge your depth in the squat, for instance, so it’s best to hit a lighter weight that you know is doable just to ensure you don’t score Zero lbs in one of your three lifts.
After each attempt, you have one minute to tell the person holding the clipboard off to the side what weight you want your next attempt to be. There’s two important points here. One, have a kilo-lbs conversion chart handy. Many federations work in kilograms but you’ve likely been training in pounds. So have a slip of paper handy with a list of numbers in 5lb increments so you can make your pick quickly. For instance, if you want your opening squat to be 390lbs, you actually are going for 177.5kgs. If on your second you want to go for 405lbs, you’ll be telling the clipboard person “185kgs.” So have a chart handy. Secondly, here is where a good coach or “handler” comes in. Perhaps to you, due to nerves or some other factor, the weight felt heavier than it should have. But your coach or handler saw you hit it faster than you’ve ever done in training. So before choosing your second attempt, consult with your handler and he or she can help you decide if your next attempt should be a big jump or something small.
In general, your 2nd attempt still should not be your max but something you successfully hit in training while your 3rd attempt just completely depends. Many go for a Personal Record (PR) here. Many attempt just their maxes and some even less. The goal here is to get the most out of it that you can but still successfully make the attempt. You’re going to get the best overall score by going 9 for 9, not 6 for 9 because you consistently tried to “leave it all on the platform” for the 3rd lift and failed. This too is a “game of inches” as they say in Any Given Sunday.
Now that we understand the basics, here’s where the nuances and the “it depends” comes in.
There are a number of different Powerlifting federations. In most cases, they require that you join that federation before lifting in one of their competitions. Some examples are the USPA, USAPL, WRPF, IPL, and the IPF to name a few. Do a bit of research on these as how you train may have a direct carry-over. For instance, some federations allow your heels up when you bench and others require your heels flat. Some use a deadlift bar which is often considered a bit easier because they will bend more and the full weight of the bar isn’t actually pulled off the ground in the first few inches or two, perhaps giving you a slight advantage. Yet if you train with a straight bar, the wobble of a deadlift bar may be something you don’t want to be surprised with on meet day especially if you jerk it off the deck (if you do that you’re doing it wrong anyway). Some offer a mono-lift in the squat and others force you to walk-it out of the rack. Some of course are drug-tested, some are not. In the end, sign up for a federation that holds a lot of competitions around where you live, read the rule book well in advance, and just do it!
Classes in both Weight and Gear:
There are a number of different classes in any federation but most are generally the same. One of the main points of having weight classes is to help determine the actual strongest lifter at the meet. There’s something called a Wilks Calculator that helps determine who is the strongest lifter pound for pound. For example, you may have a 100lb lifter who squats 200lbs and a 200lb lifter who squats 350lbs. Who then is stronger? The second lifter squatted more weight but in a competition, the first lifter wins as he/she lifts 2lbs per 1lb of bodyweight vs the other who only lifted 1.75lbs per 1lb of bodyweight. The Wilks Calculator helps determine the true winner (although there is a lot of controversy regarding its accuracy).
Regarding gear, federations differ but in most there is a Raw Class that allows for knee sleeves on the squat and a Classic Raw that allows for Knee Wraps on the squat. The Knee Wraps do give a slight advantage as you can pull them a bit tighter. Again, do follow the rule book because some wraps are a bit too long (more layers with a little more spring in the hole) and sleeves may be checked to make sure you can at least get a finger under them or you’re required to get them on yourself (because the tighter sleeve will again give you a little more spring out of the hole). There is also equipped classes in some federations which is basically a thicker, more advanced singlet or bench shirt which gives your whole body more tightness and more spring in your lifts. As a beginner, you arguable should not be considering lifting equipped.
Flights and Lifting Order:
At each competition, there will be different flights and lifting order. These will typically be announced to you before the competition and depends on what everyone’s opener will be (given by you in advance). The purpose for the flight is so that if there are 50 lifters in a competition, you are not waiting for all 50 lifters to go between lifts where you’re just sitting there, getting cold and rusty. Additionally, the typically all-volunteer crew would like to just keep adding weight to the bar vice removing weight and adding weight for each lifter. There’s a lot more room for error here and affects the length of the meet. So if your lifts aren’t yet that big, expect to go in the first flight as they intend to just keep building on the bar from there.
Equipment is entirely dependent on the rulebooks per federation. I cannot stress enough, read the rule book from the start and train according to those rules. In many cases, the belts, singlets and other equipment will be regulated by certain styles or brands. Personally I believe these federations were paid off by some corporation to say that “brand such and such” are the only ones who meet their strict standards but in the end, you don’t want to be disqualified because your belt isn’t the right brand. So just buy what they say.
- Belt: Allowed in all classes but material and thickness may be regulated.
- Singlet: Required so that the judges can watch form closely. I thought I’d be embarrassed. It’s fine. And don’t hesitate to wear it to the competition under other gym clothes. Just make sure the brand or style is authorized in your federation.
- Shoes: If you deadlift in socks, you may not be able to compete that way. Read the rule book!
- Wrist Wraps: These too may be regulated in thickness so keep reading.
- Knee Wraps or Sleeves: As previously discussed and will be outlined in the rule book.
- Your underwear, if you’re wearing any at all, will likely need to be 100% cotton so the judges can ensure no extra support is provided.
- You’ll be required to wear a cotton shirt under your singlet for the Squat and Bench so that your bare skin isn’t touching the bar or bench. Cotton though so as not to provide any extra lifting support. In most cases it’s optional on the Deadlift.
- Long socks that reach the bottom of your patella (and no longer) will likely be required on the deadlift so that you don’t get blood on the bar.
A Few More Things to Consider:
- It’ll be a long day so bring plenty of food to eat between the different flights and drink plenty of water. Just lifting 9 times doesn’t seem like a lot but your body is getting put through a lot just in those 9 lifts so take care of yourself.
- The stuff you see all over a lifters legs during a deadlift isn’t chalk, it’s baby powder to help the bar move smoothly over your skin in the pull…but be careful you don’t get any on your hands or you won’t be able to hold onto the bar.
- There are 3 judges, two on each side of you and one in front. Each will give you either a red light or white light at the completion of the lift. White is good, red is bad. Two whites out of three still counts as a good lift but you may want to be careful with how much weight you choose in your next attempt if you’ve already got one judge questioning your abilities at the present weight.
- A typical training workup is 12 weeks of training hard in the three lifts. So space out your competitions accordingly. Any longer with that sort of specificity increases the chance of you simply stalling in your strength progression.
- For all lifts, there will be commands from the judges. You have one minute to make the lift from when your name is called.
- For the Squat, unrack it yourself then wait for the “Squat” command. Complete the squat and wait for the “rack” command.
- For the bench, unrack the weight (your handler can help) and wait for the down command. You will pause at the bottom (train for that) until they give you the “Bench” command. Then hold at the top until they give you the “Rack” command.
- For the Deadlift, pull when ready but wait for the “Down” command at the top. Do not drop the bar or throw it down. You must show control on the way down.
Hopefully this article keeps you from making some of the same mistakes I did. Mistakes such as missing my warmup and going 7 for 9 lifts missing a 330lb Bench on my 3rd attempt and taking too big of a jump on my deadlifts going from about 495lbs on my 2nd which felt light to 518lbs on my 3rd. Combined I totaled 1267lbs in the three lifts, not a bad showing for my first ever meet but hungry for improvement. Additionally, I am proud to say that Sheepdog Strong raised nearly $2,200 through the event for The Marine Raider Foundation, providing needed funds to the families of the fallen and other services for Raiders in need.
I’m sure I’ve missed some other rules but hopefully this article provides you with enough information and enough confidence to sign up for your first meet. And never hesitate to hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’ve got questions or would like some coaching.