My first powerlifting meet is fast approaching. There are less than 24 hours until I compete and we’re about to head of town for the meet. I’ve been trying to explain all of the finer points of powerlifting to my mom, and I’m going to have to send some description of what’s going on to my grandfather when the meet is done (Hi Paddy!), so I thought it would be a good idea to provide a brief and very basic overview of how a competition works for the uninitiated.
First things first: what is powerlifting?
Powerlifting consists of 3 compound lifts: the squat, the bench press and the deadlift.
What is a squat?
Most people understand the basic premise of a squat. You slap a heavy weight on your back, squat down and stand back up, using your magnificent and powerful hip thrust. In order for your lift to count, you must respect the commands of the judges, who tell you to when to squat and when to re-rack. Most importantly, a squat is only valid in competition if you hit parrallel: your hip crease must be slightly below the line of your knees. If you train in a commercial gym, you’ll notice that most gym-goers do not reach the depth necessary for a powerlifting squat when they step into the rack.
What is the Bench Press?
Anybody who has ever been to a gym has seen bros benching. I’m pretty sure there were cavemen who bench pressed rocks and had disproportionate upper bodies. To bench: you lay on your back under the bar, unrack the weight, bring it down to your chest and then push it straight back up. In a powerlifting bench, it’s important to engage your entire body, so lifters rely on the leg drive to help push their lift. For this reason, a powerlifting bench has a distinct arch in the back and looks slightly different from the flat-backed body building bench. The competition bench is also more challenging than the touch ‘n go bench seen in the gym: lifters must respect the press command of the judge, which forces them to pause with the bar on their chest. An uneven lock-out at the top is one of the reasons a bench might be red-lighted, but jumping the commands for bench is my biggest fear as a budding lifter.
And the last lift, the deadlift?
The most badass of all the lifts and my personal favourite. The weight is on the floor and you must pick it up. There are two types of deadlift seen in competition – the sumo deadlift, which has a very wide stance, and the conventional deadlift which has a more narrow stance. I’ll be pulling conventional. You must be able to lockout the deadlift at the top of the lift, and you have to get it up without hitching the bar on your legs.
So how is the winner decided?
There are multiple “winners” in a competition. You compete directly against people of the same sex and weight class. I’ll be lifting in the women’s 72kg category. Whoever lifts the most in a class wins. If two competitors tie, then the person with the lowest body weight wins. Each person gets three attempts at each of the lifts and their total is the sum of their best lifts. There is also an overall winner determined by wilks score – a formula which takes into account a lifter’s weight, gender, age and total.
Who decides the weight of each attempt? How come everyone starts at different weights?
A lifter is responsible for submitting each of their first attempts to the judges before the competition begins. You have one minute after your lifts to submit your next attempt. The first lift is usually an attempt that the lifter knows they can hit even on a bad day, whereas they may be aiming for a new personal best on their final lift.
What happens if you miss a lift?
If you miss a lift, you can reattempt at the same weight or increase the weight of your next attempt as long as it is not your third and final lift. If you miss your 3rd lift, your highest successful lift is counted towards your total.
I understand the idea of weight classes but what’s the deal with these “Open” and “Junior” categories?
Lifters are also divided by age. This will be my last year competing as a Junior. Next year, I’ll turn 24 and compete with the adults in the Open Category. The age categories are factored into the wilks score, but otherwise don’t play a huge role in competition; I’ll still be competing against other women who are 72kg but older or younger than me. The age distinctions become important in ranking lifters’ levels of competitiveness. For example, I am trying to qualify to compete at the Provincial championships. The Open total required to qualify is 277.5 kg, whereas a Junior only needs a total of 237.5 kg to compete in the same competition.
Who organizes all of this?
Powerlifters compete in different federations. I am a member of the Canadian Powerlifting Union and more specifically, the Ontario Powerlifting Association. The CPU is the Canadian affiliate of the International Powerlifting Federation. Although powerlifting is not an Olympic sport, the IPF is still recognized by the International Olympic Committee.
Are you taking steroids?
No, mom. I’m not. I compete raw (without the assistance of equipment) and in a tested federation. If they catch you cheating, they publish your ban on the internet for everyone to see. I think I would rather die of embarrassment than have my name published on the net for steroid abuse. Besides, I’m strong like an ox without an extra help, thank you very much.
Be careful not to hurt yourself.
This is not a question, but I want to address it, anyway. As with any sport, there is always a risk of injury. Luckily, I’ve spent a lot of time educating myself on how to best execute lifts and I have a pretty good handle on my level of strength, so I’ve done what I can to minimize my risk of injury. I’m not about to attempt a 55lb PR on my bench press, for example. There are also spotters present to assist you if you mess up a lift and can’t get out from under the bar. I do have some form issues, like any new lifter, and they become more apparent as I approach my maxes. I’m constantly working to improve my form and I never place myself in a situation where I feel that I am taking a risk that I’m not comfortable with. And if I never took any risks at all, life would be terribly boring; I would rather take the risk of getting injured doing something love than never experience my life.
There are some other nuances that go along with a competition, but I think that hits the highlights. Since this is my first meet, I expect that I will learn a lot in addition to the basics I’ve already outlined here.