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Introduction to Powerlifting Competition

By Gary F. Zeolla

Mention is made throughout this Web site about powerlifting. But many are not familiar with this sport, while others might be thinking of entering their first contest. So this article will provide an introduction to the sport of powerlifting and overview what a powerlifting contest is like.

The Three Powerlifts

Powerlifting is composed of three lifts: the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Anyone who has ever worked out at a gym has either done bench presses or at least seen someone do them. Benches are so popular as you can handle greater weights in the bench press than any other upper body exercise. And they are a great exercise for chest, shoulder, and triceps development.

But the other two lifts are not quite as popular, but they should be! Squats are the best exercise there is for developing leg and hip strength while deadlifts utilize just about every muscle in the body, so they develop total body strength. In fact, performing just the three powerlifts is about all one needs for a sound training program, and no other exercises will provide the strength and muscular gains that the three powerlifts provide.

The page Proper Performance of the Powerlifts explains details in this regard, so it will not be repeated here. And for pics of yours truly performing the powerlifts, see APF PA States Powerlifting Championships - 2006 – Pictures.

But it will be said here, if you are not incorporating these three lifts in your training program then you are not making the strength and muscular size gains that you could be. And of course, if you are thinking of competing in a powerlifting contest, you need to be performing the powerlifts in training.

Divisions, Weight and Age Classes

In powerlifting, there are separate divisions for male and female lifters. These divisions are then divided into weight classes. For men, at most contests, there are 12 weight classes. They are (in pounds): 114.5, 123.25, 132.25, 148.75, 165.25, 181.75, 198.25, 220.25, 242.5, 275.5, 308.75, and over 308.75 (super heavyweights). The odd numbers are due to the pounds being converted from kilograms. In fact, some contest will use kilos at weigh-ins while other will use pounds.

The 308.75 pound class might not be seen at all contests, while some will have 319.5 instead. And for some contests, the 114.5 class has been dropped (much this writer's chagrin since this is the weight class I compete in, along with at 123s).

For women, at most contests, there are also 97 and 105.75 pound classes, while the top class is 198.25, with super heavies being over this.

At all contests, there will be an "open" division that lifters of any age can enter. But at most contests, there will also be age classes.

First, there will be teenage divisions. These are usually in two-year increments, starting at 14 years old, i.e., 14-15, 16-17, 18-19. Some contests will also have a junior category for 20-23 year olds.

Then some contests will have a sub-masters division for 35-39 or maybe 33-39 year olds. Then masters divisions will start for those 40 and older, in five-year increments, i.e., 40-44, 45-49, 50-54, etc.

A lifter can enter just the appropriate age division or both the age and open divisions. But to enter two divisions usually requires a higher entry fee cost.

There is also usually a "best lifter" trophy. This is for the lifter from the entire contest who totals the most on a pound for pound basis. But it is not calculated by diving total weight lifted by bodyweight. It is figured out using a formula, such as the Schwartz, Wilkes, or Glossbrenner formulas. These are very complicated charts that are derived from looking at world records for the various weight classes.

Some contests will have separate best lifter awards for men and women, and some might even have separate best lifter awards for teenagers and for master lifters. But it depends on the number of lifters entered in the contest and in each category.

Some contests might also have separate divisions for police and firefighters and a Special Olympics division.

It is by having so many different divisions and classes that powerlifting truly is a sport that anyone can compete in.

Weigh-ins and Contest Length

Before the start of a contest, there will be a weigh-in period. For some contests, this might occur as early as 24 hours before the start of the contest. So for a contest on Saturday, weigh-ins might be as early as Friday morning. For other contests, weigh-ins might not begin until the evening before the contest. But for other contests, weigh-ins are only held the morning of the contest, usually starting about two hours before the contest and lasting until about half an hour before it starts.

Weighing in early is very helpful if you had weight to lose to make weight. This will give you more time to eat and re-hydrate before the contest starts. So personally, I only enter contests that have weigh-ins at least the evening before.

Powerlifting contests usually start in the morning, generally between 9:00 and 10:00 am. If there are a large number of entrants, then there might be an afternoon session as well, starting after the morning session ends.

Exactly how long a contest will last depends on the number of entrants and frankly, how well the contest is run. An average-sized contest would have about thirty lifters. If it is run well, it should take about six hours. So a contest starting at 9:00 am would not be over until about 3:00 pm. Calculating the winners and handing out the awards can take another hour or so.

What this means is, if you weigh-in the morning of the contest, you probably will have to arrive as early as 7:00 am, and you might not be out of there until 4:00 p.m.. So a powerlifting contest can make for a very long and grueling day. And this is for an average-sized, well-run contest. Larger contests and ones that are not that well-run can really drag on. The worst was a contest I entered in college. I had to be there at 8:00 a.m. for weigh-ins, and I wasn't out of there until midnight! That is exceptional, but you have to be prepared for anything when you enter a contest.

Warm-ups and Flights

Even if you're not weighing in the morning of the contest, it is still best to arrive at the contest site at least an hour before the start time. This will give you time to change into your lifting clothes, familiarize yourself with the setting, and to warm-up.

Most contests will have a warm-up warm that is separate from the contest platform. But the quality of the equipment in the warm-up room can vary widely. Some will have two or three squat racks, benches, and deadlifts platforms while others will only have one of each. And remember, you will not be the only one warming up. You will have to work in with the rest of the lifters. So again, you need to allot yourself plenty of time. But timing your warm-ups can be difficult.

At a contest, each lifter gets three attempts for each of these three lifts. The lifts are contested in the order of squats, bench presses, deadlifts. There are also specialty contests that only compete in just one lift, usually bench presses or just two of the lifts, usually benches and deadlifts. But the descriptions that follow will be based on a full power meet where are three lifts are being contested.

You want to be sure you are done with your warm-ups with plenty of time left to get to the platform and be prepared for your first attempt. On the other hand, if you finish your warm-ups too early, you'll cool off before your first attempt. However, it is better to warm-up too early than too late.

To time you warm-ups, you need to find out when you will be lifting. For most contests, the lifters will be divided into "flights" of 10-15 lifters each. So for a contest with 30 total lifters, there would probably be two flights of 15 lifters each.

The pattern is as follows: each lifter gets three attempts for each of the three lifts. All of the lifters in the first flight will perform their first attempts. The lifter opening with the lightest weight will go first. Then the lifter with the next heaviest attempt will go next, etc. In other words, the weight on the bar will always increase, never decrease. A list should be posted in the warm-up room of the order of lifters for the first round.

After all of the lifters in the first flight finish their first attempts, the weight will be decreased back to the lightest second attempt. And all of lifters in the first flight will then perform their second attempts, again, in the order of lightest to heaviest attempts. But here is where you have to be careful. The order of lifters in the second round might not be the same as it was in the first round. So you have to be listening for the announcer to know when you are up.

Generally, it will be announced on a PA system who is "up." This is the lifter who should be ready to lift. It will also be announced who is "on deck" – the next lifter, and who is "in the hole" – the third in line. Once your name is called as being "up" you have one minute to start your attempt. If you do not do so, your attempt can be disqualified. After your attempt, you then have one minute to give your next attempt to the scorekeeper.

At some contests, these limits are timed to the second, but at other contests, they don't really pay much attention to the time limits and may not even use a clock. So you have to see what it is like at the contest. But whatever the case, it is best to be prepared to start your attempt when you name is called and to give your next attempt to the scorekeeper as soon as possible.

After the second round for flight one, the same pattern will occur for the third round as everyone in flight one takes their third attempts. Then after flight one is finished, flight two will begin their attempts.

What this means is, if you are in the first flight, then you need to be ready to lift when the contest starts. However, if you are in the second flight, you will not need to start warming up until the first flight begins lifting. But this is where it can really get difficult to time your warm-ups. You really have no way of knowing how long it will take for flight one to compete all three of its rounds. But you can generally figure on at least an hour for squats, and maybe a little less time for benches and deadlifts. The best you can do is keep an eye on what is happening on the platform and time your warm-ups accordingly.

When the second flight begins their attempts, it will be time for the first flight to begin warming up for benches. But again, it can be difficult to time your attempts. Also be sure to check if there will be a break in the action between squats and benches. Sometimes, there will be something like 15 minute break to give the judges and other meet personal a break. You need to figure this into when to start your warm-ups.

The same flight and rounds pattern will be used for benches as for squats. However, at some full power meets, lifters are allowed to compete in just one of the lifts, with separate awards for the single-lift lifters. This is usually just for benches, but sometimes there are some lifters performing just squats or just deadlifts.

You have to know about such lifters as they can foul up your warm-ups. Sometimes, for instance, there are enough bench-only lifters to constitute another flight. So there might be three rather than just two flights, with usually the bench-only flight going after the regular two flights. This can make for a very long break between benches and deadlifts. So you'll need to wait to start your warm-ups.

Then after benches, there again might be a break in the action for 15 minutes or so. Then the same pattern will be followed for deadlifts. If you're lifting in the second flight you need to be careful as deadlifts tend to move faster than squats and benches so you'll have less time to warm-up if you wait until the first flight begins lifting.

What it comes down to is you really need to keep abreast of what is happening and understand you are lifting under far different conditions than you are used to in training. And it would be very helpful if you can have someone with you to keep an eye on how things are progressing on the contest platform as you're warming up.

Picking Contest Attempts and Reasons for Disqualification

Around the contest platform will be three judges. One sits in front of the lifter and the other two on either side. The judges use a system of colored lights to indicate a lift is passed or failed. A "white light" indicates the lift is good, a red light that it is not. You need two white lights for the lift to be passed. For contests competing in all three lifts, at the end of the contest, the lifter's best successful attempts for each of the three lifts are added up to give a "total." The lifter with the highest total wins. For single lifts contests, the lifter lifting the most weight wins.

However, the preceding points about not lifting under ideal conditions need to be remembered when picking your attempts for a contest. Also, you need to be aware of the rules for performing the powerlifts. Simply put, the manner in which people perform squats, bench presses, and deadlifts in most gyms would not pass under contest conditions. This is why those who have competed will just smirk when someone starts bragging about how much they lift in the gym. It's only what is done in a contest that matters.

On squats, the most important point is "The lifter must bend the knees and lower the body until the top of the thigh at the hip, NOT the hip joint, is lower than the top of the kneecap" (IPA Rulebook). Most people when they squat in the gym don't even come close to squatting down this far.

Also on squats, in most contests, once you take the weight off of the racks and get set, you must wait for the head judge to signal "squat" before starting down. Then after you come back up, you have to wait for the head judge to signal "rack" before re-racking the weight.

On benches, nothing can move except the arms. The butt cannot come off the bench, and the feet cannot come off of the ground. But most importantly, when you lower the weight to the chest, you must pause at the chest and wait for the head judge to signal "press" to start pressing the weight back up. Once the arms are extended straight, you again have to wait for the "rack" signal.

But again, when people bench in the gym, they do not even come close to following all of these steps. Butts coming off of the bench, feet kicking in the air, bouncing the bar off of the chest, or not even touching the chest, and racking the weight before the arms are straight are all commons sights in a gym, but all of these would get you disqualified in a contest.

As for deadlifts, there are two main issues to watch out for. The first is "hitching" which is supporting and bouncing the bar on the thighs at the end of the lift. Also, once you have lifted the weight, you have to wait for the head judge's "down" command to lower the weight. And when you do, you have to lower the weight in a controlled manner. Failure to do so will result in disqualification. The following link provides further Reasons for Disqualification on the Powerlifts.

But the biggest problem on deadlifts is fatigue. As indicated above, most likely you will have arrived at the contest site in the early morning. But it will be the afternoon, possibly late in the afternoon or even the early evening before you are deadlifting. Or to look at it another way, there could easily be 5-10 hours from the time you first started warming up for squats to when you are pulling your last deadlift. And many a lifter, this writer included, has simply "run out of gas" by their final deadlift attempt. This is why, even though powerlifting is a strength sport, general conditioning is still very important.

Having said all of this, going back to picking attempts, you need to be very conservative, especially on your openers (first attempts). You want to be sure you get at least one attempt completed and passed for each of the three lifts. Failing to do so will result in a "bomb out." This refers to missing all three of your attempts on a given lift. If this happens, you are out of the contest. And trust me, you will feel terrible afterwards.

So your opener should be a weight that you know you can get no matter what goes wrong. And on squats, it should be a weight you can sink so low there will be no doubt it will pass.

This is an important point as you never know what the judging will be like until the meet starts. At some contests, the judging might be much stricter than at others. So what might be considered a good lift at one contest might not pass at another. But you need to be prepared to go very deep. After your first attempt, you watch some of the lifters, and if they're passing lifts that are not quite so low, then you can cut it a little higher on your next two attempts.

That said, you don't want your opener to be so light that it is basically a wasted lift. A good starting point would be what you have done for a triple in the gym, but then to be sure, go a little bit lighter. The second attempt can be what you've done for a heavy double in the gym, and then on your third attempt you can try to match or even better a gym best.

Of course, these attempts need to be adjusted based on how you feel and how the previous attempt goes. If you miss your opener either because you simply did not come up with it or because it wasn't passed for whatever reason, then be smart. Do not increase the weight for your second attempt; repeat the opener weight. You need to stay in the contest. Meanwhile, third attempts might need to be adjusted based on what is needed for placement in the contest.

Picking a Contest

Before picking a contest to enter, you need to be aware of the mess that powerlifting is in today organizationally. When this writer powerlifted in college in the early 1980s, there was one powerlifting federation, the United States Powerlifting Federation (USPF). The winner of USPF Nationals would then compete at World's for the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF). With just one federation, there was one set of rules that everyone abided by.

However, today, there are about 20 different federations, each with slightly different rules. This is why phrases like "at most contest" or "at some contests" were used in the various descriptions above. Some federations, for instance, have a 24-hour weigh-in rule while others only allow weigh-ins the morning of the contest.

But as a new lifter, you do not need to get hung up on all of these differences and the politics behind them. When starting out, it would be best to just enter whatever federation holds contests near your home. There are two ways to go about finding a contest being held near you.

The first would be to check the list of "Coming Events" in Powerlifting USA magazine. You can subscribe to this magazine by calling (800) 448-7693.

The second is by checking the Web sites for the various federations. Most will have a "Schedule of Events" posted on their site. See Powerlifting Federations for links to these sites. Once you find a contest, it would be wise to read over their rulebook at least a couple of times. Most federations have their rulebooks posted or available for download on their Web sites.

Raw vs. Equipped

In checking out contests to enter, there is a difficult issue you will need to make a decision on. This would be whether to lift "raw" or "equipped." The former term means not wearing supportive gear while the latter term refers to the use of supportive gear. Different powerlifting federations have different gear rules. So you need to check this out before a contest.

The gear serves two purposes. The first is to protect the lifter from injury. The second is to enable the lifter to lift more weight. For the latter reason, the use of gear is very controversial. Powerlifting gear includes a belt, knee wraps, wrist wraps, squat suit, bench shirt, deadlift suit, and even briefs that are worn under the suits.

It would require an entire article in itself to cover all of the various issues and controversies involved in the use or non-use of gear. But suffice it to say here, you will need to abide by the rules of the federation that sanctions the contest you decide to enter. So find out what these are and purchase gear accordingly. But some federations have both raw and equipped divisions. In this case, for your first contest, it might be best to lift raw. There is no sense in spending money on gear until you are sure you want to continue with powerlifting. But whatever federation you enter, you will be required to wear a singlet. This is the same type of one-piece outfit a high school or college wrestler wears. See the page Powerlifting Gear and Equipment for links to companies that sell powerlifting gear, including the required singlet. And see Powerlifting Gear, Federation, and Contest Struggles and Decisions for further details in these regards.

Atmosphere and Conclusion

At some contests, there will be heavy metal music blaring, lifters screaming to psyche themselves up, and others yelling, cheering them on. At other contests, there will be no music and little screaming and yelling. Personally, I prefer the loud and rowdy atmosphere.

But whatever the atmosphere, powerlifting contests can be exciting and challenging. At the very least, planning on entering a contest will give you an incentive to be consistent in your weightlifting workouts and to train with a higher degree of intensity.

There many difficulties in competing, but these are outweighed by the many joys and benefits. I hope this article will give the reader some idea of what a powerlifting contest is like so you will be better prepared if you decided to compete. But even better would to attend a contest as a spectator before competing yourself. This way, you be able to see all of the above in action and be better prepared when it is your turn to get on the platform.


Professional Competition Grade Weight Lifting Gear & nothing less

The above article was posted on this site March 26, 2007.
It first appeared in the free FitTips for One and All newsletter.

Powerlifting and Strength Training
Powerlifting and Strength Training: Powerlifting Competition

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