Just like runners who transition from a 5k to a full marathon, there’s a certain mental acuity that comes with training toward a seemingly insurmountable goal. For powerlifting athletes, part of that is getting stronger, but part of it is pushing toward the edge of strength.
Runners attempting longer distances as part of their training programmes are just the same as powerlifters prepping for a meet. Each class of athletes brings new meaning to the mantra, “Train with purpose.”
If you’re considering training for and competing in your first powerlifting meet, there are a few things you should keep in mind.
The number one goal of any powerlifting athlete is to become stronger. Period. In each training session, there isn’t a lot of room for accessory work or any of the fluff touted by the fitness community as being “required” to achieve strength.
This means that powerlifting athletes have to train smarter, have a greater understanding of their anatomy, and have a ton of discipline. Training with purpose means that each session the goal is the same, but the approach looks differently.
Plan Your Meet to Be Perfect
If you don’t have a concrete solid plan to prep for your meet, you’re not going to perform well. That means that you need to go into every training cycle with realistic and attainable goals based on your ability now – not based on what you wish your ability to be.
Performing the basic compound lifts with precision and perfection is going to be a better use of your time than trying to use a training cycle to perfect technique on a challenging lift. Even more important is knowing when to lean on accessory lifts and gear to help you overcome stalls in your progression. The reality is that you’re not going to need chains, blocks, or bands for every single lift.
Taper your training to peak at your meet, not before. Use your training cycles to build strength and then test yourself at your meet. That’s the basic principle of competition. There’s no reason to max out each training session during a cycle. All you’re going to do is tax your body beyond repair.
Make sure you take a week off before your meet. This allows your body to recover from your training cycle fully. Use it wisely – stay active and loose but don’t put your hands on a barbell. It’s going to feel like something is missing in your life; store that energy and channel it on meet day.
Goal Setting and Tracking
Train to your skill in the sport, not the other way around. Practice the standard routine and order of events at a competition – squat, bench, then deadlift.
The farther you are from your meet, the more you have time to do variations of the standard movements and make them harder. When you’re close to competition, drop the variation and work on simple strength.
Your goals during your programming should be based on what you think you can do with good form and proper technique. However, on meet day, your goal should change.
On meet day, your goal is to go 9/9 and get 3 PRs. Now, the reality is you might not make all nine of your lifts, and you might not PR. But when you go in with that goal in mind, you’re automatically gearing yourself up for success.
There’s no sense in going into a gym without a plan. You need a quality training approach to ensure you’re getting stronger. The same goes for tracking your eating, sleeping, body weight, and energy levels. Training for a powerlifting meet is serious business; the more serious you take it, the better you’ll perform.
Tracking food also helps you learn about what macro ratio works best for your body. You’ll discover what foods give you the most energy for your lifts. You’ll also get clued into what you can and can’t eat to stay within your weight class.
Never cut weight for a meet. It’s pointless and you’re going to hate it. Besides, your lifts will suffer and you’re going to perform poorly. If you want to compete at a different weight class, get to that weight and then start training.
A week before your meet is an exciting time. You’ve done all the hard work; now it’s time to reap the rewards.
Don’t try to cut water to make weight. You need to be the strongest version of yourself, not a dehydrated version.
Make sure you pack everything a few days in advance, so you don’t forget anything.
Try to sleep more the week before a meet. This aids in recovery and helps your overall mindset.
The day before the meet means you should be entering a competition mindset. Don’t stay up late drinking or doing something reckless. Get your bag and your food ready. Go to bed early so you’re well-rested and ready to perform to the best of your ability.
On meet day, try to get there early. Check-in and weigh-in, have your openers taken and then you’re able to eat and drink as much as you want. Make sure you stay hydrated all day and don’t skimp on food. If you generally eat every two hours, there’s no reason to skip this on meet day. Since you’re going to max out nine times over the course of your meet, you need calories.
Picking Attempts at Your Meet
Don’t overthink this. Open light and finish heavy. It doesn’t matter what you open with but push for a new PR at your finish.
Make sure to make decent jumps between your attempts. But be realistic. If you know you can hit a 5kg jump, try that instead of something ridiculous like 50kg.
If you get red-lighted, ask why so you know what you did wrong. Always remember to respect the judge’s decision.
Don’t go onto a platform cold. You need to stay warm. It’s better to slow down a warmup than having to speed through it.
Pick an opener weight you can easily do for three on your worst lifting day. This means you’re getting on the board and you’re going to leave with a total, even if you don’t hit a PR.
Openers, Attempts, and Rack Heights
You need to know your opener weights and rack heights at your weigh-in so the info can be passed to the judging table. Usually, the referee who weighs you in will also be the person writing down your attempts. When giving your rack heights, make sure you indicate if the rack needs to be moved in or out for squats. For bench, let them know if you need blocks.
It’s super important to give rack heights; otherwise, you’re eating into your lifting time.
What Should Programming Look Like for a Meet?
Training for a powerlifting meet should focus on these four criteria.
- Make each rep look and feel like the one preceding it
- Move up in weight during a training session. In other words, don’t waste time and energy deadlifting 65 kg if you know you need to be working at 95 kg
- After a session, you should feel stronger and tired, but not exhausted and dreading subsequent muscle soreness
- Improve each session – even if that means something small like breath work or stabiliser activation. For a powerlifter, improvement doesn’t always have to mean more weight. Most often when training for a meet, there’s a point at which the weight suddenly feels effortless. Part of that is conditioning, but the other part of it is accepting that powerlifting is a mental game as much as it is a physical one.
Make sure you’re training to competition rules. That means squat below parallel, bench with a pause, and deadlift lockout without hitching.
Every athlete is going to approach training differently, since each starts from a different point. Before beginning a training cycle, it’s key to know your 1RM on each of the movements at a meet – squat, bench, and deadlift.
Depending on your fitness level, it’s possible train for a meet in 16 weeks. During an eight-week cycle, the first four are part of the initial volume phase, followed by a heavy phase and then a testing week. This approach is very useful for a first time meet since you’ll have time to develop more strength. For more experienced athletes, Jim Wendler’s 5-3-1 programme can be pushed indefinitely with consistent, reliable results.
Most training plans don’t include specific muscle group work that’s found in bodybuilding programming. Whether or not this is an issue will depend on if you’re chasing a physique aesthetic.
Most powerlifting athletes don’t care as much about their glamour muscles as they do their raw strength. Keep in mind that pushing any powerlifting programme will mean that your body changes. Be prepared for that.
Food and Drinks
Competition food can be tough to figure out, especially on your first meet. Over the span of a few hours, you’re going to max out nine separate times. Fuelling for it means having a well thought out plan.
Make sure you have ample food to last the duration of the meet. It’s much better to bring too much than too little. For most athletes, protein, fruit, and sandwiches work well.
It’s a good idea to have a small snack before squats to provide you with enough energy that will last. Following your squat attempts, a larger meal is fine since the second exercise is bench and that is generally less demanding than the other lifts.
A small snack after your bench is ideal to help prep for your deadlifts, which are typically the most taxing.
Consider getting a cooler bag to store your meals as they come in handy for work too.
Checklist of Gym Bag Essentials
Foam roller, elastic bands, lacrosse ball – especially if you’re worried about going cold between lifts. These are integral parts to most meets.
Knee sleeves and wrist wraps – Sleeves and wraps are controversial during training, but a must have on comp day. You might not end up needing them, but it’s better to be prepared.
Membership card and ID – You’ll need this to make sure your identity and age can be validated.
Pain reliever – It’s always a good idea to have pain reliever medication on hand. Meets are long days and your attention is going to be all over the place. It’s not uncommon to have a headache by the end of it.
Powerlifting belt – Most powerlifting athletes use a belt when they’re getting close to attempting a PR, so make sure you have yours in the bag.
Shoes – Bring the shoes you train in, which for most will mean flat deadlifting shoes and powerlifting / weightlifting shoes for the other lifts.
Singlet – make sure your singlet is federation compliant. This isn’t optional in most federations.
Strength is a relative term, and for the newly initiated powerlifter, it’s probably going to take on a new meaning. As you move through a training programme in prep for your first meet, be prepared to put in work.
It might take you months to see incremental gains, especially if you’re already technically proficient in a lift. But all that effort is worth it, because strength to the powerlifter becomes as much about what’s on the bar as what’s in your head.
When you overcome the challenge of telling yourself you’re incapable of lifting, or when you must dig deeper than you thought you could to make even the smallest gain, that’s when true strength is formed.
Train as you compete and compete as you train. It helps take the nervousness away from your first meet. When you make your training harder than your meet, you’re going to find that your first meet is easy and you’re going to PR. Warm up as if you’re in your own gym.
Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. This is your meet and your day, and this is what you’ve been doing for months on end. There’s no reason to change it up now. Have fun testing your strength and know that at the end of the meet, even if you don’t PR, you’re a stronger athlete because you’ve pushed yourself.