Every powerlifter has a first powerlifting meet. And like with any first experience, there can be a lot of anxiety surrounding it- how does it go? What will it be like? Will it be super obvious that I’m not sure what’s going on? Will someone explain this shit to me? I hate going into something blind- especially if that something requires me to be bringing my A game, like a competition. Going in blind is not something that appeals to my carefully planned and executed nature.
Every lifter there has had a first meet, and those who have done this before will happily help you out. I know that I adopt at least one new lifter every single meet, and sort of guide them through to make the experience as positive as possible. It’s not hard- powerlifting meets are amazing fun. The atmosphere is the most positive, energetic, encouraging, and fun time that I have ever competitively encountered. You should know and expect that EVERY person in the room is there cheering for you- complete strangers, the people you are competing against, other people’s coaches, everyone cheers their asses off for every single lifter, whether they are lifting for a world record or struggling to get the empty bar up. Effort, not weight, is applauded and celebrated. Everyone just wants to see you succeed, no matter what that means for you.
But what about the logistics? That, for me, was the scariest part. I was confident that I could move the weights- I prove that to myself the gym on the daily, right? But I like to have a game plan, some sort of an idea how a day looks, so that I can prepare myself for that. I’ve talked about the lead up to a meet, and given meet reports on my performance, but let’s talk about what to expect on meet day.
Or before meet day… technically. My powerlifting federation, the USPA, utilizes 24 hour weigh ins, which is to say you weigh in and get your gear checked the day before you compete. Other federations, such as the USAPL, utilize 2 hour weigh-ins, where you would show up early to the meet for weights and gear check. Either way, the process is the same once you get there, it’s the approach to weigh-ins and the recovery from any dehydrating that you did that would differ. I have never done a 2 hour weigh-in, so I can only speak to my own experiences.
Weigh-Ins and Gear Check
Pack your bag the night before with everything you’re going to wear on the platform– straight down to your underpants. This includes any lifting gear, such as knee sleeves, wrist wraps, and a lifting belt, as well as your singlet, deadlift socks, t-shirt, shoes, and yes, underpants. If it’s not checked, you don’t get to wear it on meet day. Check your specific federation rule books for the specifics, as many have rules regarding what you can and what you must wear that might include specific fabrics, brands, or even colors and decorations as being potential reasons that you cannot lift.
Rack Heights: When you get there, see right away about figuring out your rack heights. The competition rack should be set up, and usually someone will be there to assist you in this. Find the height that is comfortable to start a squat from, and also to bench from. Your squat height will be one number, and bench will be two- one for the bar hooks and one for the safeties. Write these down- I have my rack heights saved in a Note on my phone so that they are always at my fingertips.
Gear Check: Do not wear your gear to weigh-ins- just have it all in your bag. You will have your gear checked, piece by piece. Typically, the person checking will call out a piece of equipment, you show it, move on to the next, very easy. They might ask to touch a piece or look more closely, but this is usually a very short process.
Opening Attempts: You will tell the recorder your opening attempts in kilograms for each of the three lifts. This should be something you can hit an easy triple of, any day in training. You must hit your openers on each so that you can at least put up a total for the day- missing a lift would mean an incomplete meet, and no total. Be confident about these numbers.
Weigh-Ins: Once your gear is checked and openers and rack heights recorded, you will step into the room or tent with the scale alone (usually… I have been to meets where something has gone awry and there is a same-sex attendant in the room reading weights, as well, so be prepared to be naked with a stranger, just in case). You may remove whatever you want, strip straight down to naked if you need to, and step on the scale. A cord runs out the bottom of the tent or under the door so that the other person can read what it says. They record your weight, and you get dressed and come back out. The weigh-ins are done! It’s really that easy.
Often the question is posed as to which weight class to aim for. The answer is simple: for your first meet, compete where you are right now. Get the experience under your belt, and get a total on the board. You have enough to worry about without further complicating things. Additionally, this is a sport of strength, not dieting. If you’re strong where you are, lift there. As you progress in the sport, you might consider where you would be the most competitive- if you’re just a couple of pounds out of a lower weight class and could dominate there, you’ve got a case for a water cut or even a short diet. If cutting to a lower weigh class would impede your strength, though, have you really done anything good for yourself in a sport where the object is to lift the most?
Get there early though- there’s always a line, and the sooner you weigh in, the sooner you can eat and drink and whatever else you need to do that’s not thirstily and hangrily waiting in line. This is a great time to say hi to other lifters, though! Everyone is a little nervous and a little bored and a little hungry, so making a friend or two makes the process go more quickly and as an added bonus, you’ll already have a friend for meet day!
If you have 24 hour weigh-ins, be sure to pack the rest of your bag for the next day so you aren’t scrambling in the morning. DO NOT REMOVE ANYTHING FROM YOUR BAG ONCE YOUR GEAR IS CHECKED. I turned my own packing list into a Google Doc checklist, so you can save a copy to your print it out while you pack up! It’s a big ass bag. You’re pretty much moving in to the gym for the day. it’s better to be prepared with things you might, but end up not needing than it is to get there and suddenly need the thing you left at home.
Wake up early. This means go to bed early so that in the morning when you get up nice and early you’ve still slept plenty. I cannot stress enough the importance of having a relaxing morning. Try to keep your adrenaline low, save it for later when you need it, by giving yourself plenty of time to get yourself together in the morning before your meet. The athlete meeting is usually at either 8 or 9, so plan to be there a few minutes before then. Account for traffic and travel time, and allow ample time to finding parking. Your bag should already be packed, with the exception of anything you need to take from the fridge and throw in your bag.
Meet day for me starts with a shower, coffee, and a full face of makeup. Winged liner and everything. Looking around at a meet, this tactic is common- some girls go full on with red lipstick and everything. The idea is to feel powerful. If you feel like a badass with a naked face, rock it, but if you feel confident when you’re prepped to the nines, make sure you’ve got time for that contouring girl. Rock a bold highlight, watch a Jaclyn Hill tutorial, whatever you need.
This is also a great time to collect support and love from your friends… and update your social media alerting everyone that for the next week you will have nothing but amazing things to say about your badass accomplishments that are about to happen.
If you’re a breakfast eater, be sure to get that in too. Nothing too heavy, but a little something to get yourself going. I tend to keep fats just a bit lower on meet day, because I find that they make me feel bit sluggish, so maybe skip the cheese in your omelette if this is the case for you, too. If you’re not a breakfast eater, just be sure you have enough food packed. After squats, I’m almost always ravenous. If you’re a coffee drinking, definitely don’t skip your coffee. Bring a travel cup or Thermos of it to the meet, too. Some meets have coffee, most don’t, and you don’t want to be sitting there without your daily fix if it’s a necessity for you.
Also bring more water than you think you’ll need. I find that throughout the day I get so tired of drinking energy drinks/preworkout/BCAAs that all I want is some fresh water.
The athlete meeting is the first event of the day- you’ll be introduced to the judges, of which there are three: one at the front of the platform, and one at each side. They will go over the rules for each lift, including commands (which you’re an expert at by now, since you’ve been training with them for a few weeks, so this isn’t stressful!), depth and lockout requirements for each lift, and rules regarding the spotters (never under any circumstances let go of the bar- follow it straight through a failure, the spotters will have it off you before you even realize you’ve failed, I promise, but if you ditch the bar, you’re disqualified from the meet.) This is all information you already know, having read the rule book ahead of time, but pay attention just to be sure.
Many people start warming up during the meeting- foam rolling, stretching, whatever it is you normally do to get your muscles working. Do that. DON’T do anything new. If you don’t normally static stretch, this is not the day to start just because the girl next to you is sitting in the goddamn splits. You do you, boo. You’re already here, don’t fuck it up.
Keep nice and warm all day- even when it’s warm I wear a hoodie and sweatpants usually, because it’s really hard to lift your best when you’re cold. Don’t be a sweating mess, but keep your muscle and joints ready to go.
Once the meeting is over, flight lists are usually posted. Take a picture of the each flight on your phone-they will be different for each lift, so don’t rely on “I go after the girl with the pony tail.” Each “flight” or group of lifters will consist of somewhere between 8 and 12 lifters typically. Flight A will go first. Flights are determined by opening attempts- the lightest opener will go first, second lightest attempt next, and so on. Depending on the meet, this may mean men and women are interspersed if there are some guys in the lighter weight classes (114s and 123s). This is for logistical reasons- loading the bar is much easier when the attempts are similar and increasing, so it reduces the time between lifters. Flight A will go through all of their first attempts, (Lifter 1, Lifter 2, Lifter 3…), and then go straight into second attempts, and then third, in the same fashion, before flight B does the same.
If you’re flight A, start warming up right away after the meeting. If you are not flight A, take a fucking seat so Flight A can warm up, you will have plenty of time to warm up while they are lifting. Don’t be that guy. Warm up when the flight before you starts lifting. Also note that only competitors and coaches/handlers should be in the warm up area. It will be probably cramped with gear and lifters and coaches, and as much as it might calm you down to have your SO or BFF back there with you, they’ll definitely be in the way and will probably get yelled at about it eventually. In the interest of being a conscientious competitor, leave your friends in the crowd area.
Nibble on some carbs (I like pretzels or dry breakfast cereal, specifically Cap’n Crunch or Tiny Toast) while you do so. Stay out of the energy drinks until after squats, or even after bench, especially if you’ve already had or are having coffee- you don’t want to get that caffeine rush too early and be dead by the time deadlifts come around. Remember that caffeine takes about 30 minutes to take effect, so I always try to time my pre workout/energy drink to take effect just as I’m hitting the platform for my first deadlift attempt.
There will be separate platforms for warming up, and you will have to share them with the other lifters in your flight. Because flights are organized by weight lifted, you shouldn’t have too much trouble working in with someone from your same flight. Nobody is going to be squatting three times what you are and warming up to lift at the same time as you. If you have someone there with you- a coach or handler- let them load and unload your warm-up attempts to conserve energy. If you don’t, it’s very likely that someone you are warming up with has someone who will handle it. Yes really. Your warm up should not exhaust you, but should be executed to technical perfection. Every single rep as though you are being judged on it. Get your body primed to do exactly what it needs to on the platform- hit your depth, lock out at the top and wait for the rack command. You’ve got this!
When your flight is up, stick close to the platform, because time is short between attempts, and you’ll want to be cheering and hugging and high-fiving the others in your flight as they go on and come off the platform anyhow. If you’re nervous, go ahead and keep your headphones in, listen to your power songs, focus, just keep an eye on the board for when your name comes up. After each attempt, you (or your coach/handler) MUST immediately go to the table that is set up where people are working the computer to let them know of your next attempt. They will enter this into a spreadsheet that will organize attempts for the next attempt, and ensure that the bar is loaded correctly for you each time you get on the platform.
After your flight has lifted, the remainder of the flights will do their squats, and then the same thing will repeat for bench, and then deadlifts. The order may change, again, within the flight (you will never be moved from A to B, but you may be moved up or down in order within your flight) based on attempt selection, so keep an eye on the large projected screen and your ears open for your name.
As a note: bench flights take the longest. Every lifter has their own setup, and they take longer to get into position than the other two lifts. Additionally, there are more commands for the lift, so listening for each one and performing it takes a bit more time as well. Deadlifts more fast because there is very little setup- you walk up to the bar and rip it off the floor, and there is only now command- down. Additionally, deadlift is very easy to judge, with little quibbling about depth or lockout. It’s up or it’s not.
I have been to small meets that ended by 2pm- all lifters, completing all three attempts on all three lifts plus awards after, but I always plan as though it’s going to be a much larger meet, ending somewhere between 5pm and 8pm, which I have found is more often the case. Come prepared to rest between lifts, eat enough to stay fueled (but not puke on the platform), and make friends. How you organize your eating throughout the day is up to you, but my day follows a pretty regular pattern:
- 7:30am: Oatmega bar and coffee (this is my normal breakfast)
- As I’m warming up for squats: a few handfuls of cereal
- Just before squats: a banana or an orange
- After squats: One whole turkey sandwich
- Just before bench: a handful of cereal or pretzels, a couple of Sour Patch Kids
- After bench: maybe a second sandwich or other food if I’m hungry; snacks as desired but NOT to the point of feeling “full.” Some cereal, a donut, a cookie- carbs, you know. Energy drink or pre workout.
- Just before deadlifts: a couple of Sour Patch Kids (I do this between each attempt on deads)
- Water as desired. I also sip my BCAAs & creatine throughout the day, as I normally would.
Eventually, all lifters will have completed all three lifts. At this time, calculations will be done to figure out a few different things. First off, your meet total. This consists of the heaviest successfully completed lift out of each of your three attempts on each lift. Heaviest squat+ heaviest bench+ heaviest deadlift= meet total.
Your meet total, in combination with your weight from weigh-ins, is used to calculate your Wilks coefficient. This is a measurement of your strength, pound for pound. A higher total and a lower weight will net you a higher Wilks.
To win your weight class, you must get a higher meet total than the rest of the people in your weight class. Pretty simple: lift more, do better.
You may also win Best Lifter, at the end of the day, for having the highest Wilks out of the men or of the women.
At the end of the day, a powerlifting meet is an incredible, indescribable mix of tension and fun, of giggles and grunts, or celebrations and effort. You walk in to a room full of strangers, and walk out sad to separate from the new family you have created.