Mike Armstrong has been powerlifting longer than I have been alive, and has been running meets for nearly that. Mike competes and runs shows under the Canadian Powerlifting Union (along with being their secretary), the National division of the international body “International Powerlifting Federation“. He also owns and operates ER Equipment Canada, selling high end, IPF approved racks and bars, as well as being a dealer for Bells of Steel.
After 28 years in the sport as a lifter, coach, meet director and referee, I’ve built up a pretty good list of FAQ’s, Frequently Asked Questions, and the most frequent of these comes from those that are about to enter their first contest, “how do the competitions work?”.
You can read the rule book of course , it explains all of the rules in depth, with lots of info about weighins, flight sizes, attempt cards, and so on, but falls short on actually explaining the real flow of the day.
My first contest was in December of 1985, a small event, about 20 lifters. There was no internet at the time to look for information or ask questions on forums, and I’d never even seen a contest, so it was pretty confusing. But I had a friend who had done it a number of times, with his guidance I got through it, learned a lot, lifted pretty good for the first time, and discovered that I loved the experience. I’ve been hooked ever since.
This article has been put together to attempt to let new lifters go into their first meet with a better idea of what to expect. I’ll explain both what you should be doing, and what you can expect to see happening.
A contest really starts the day you fill out your entry form and I’ve seen many that are incomplete because people don’t know what the answers are. Fill in the blanks people, they are there for a reason.
Powerlifting is divided up into weight, age and sex classes,
Weight class: A 125 lb person will not compete against a 250 lb gorilla. The weight classes you will see on the form (metric system) are the upper limit of the classes. For example, the classes 74 kg and 83 kg. If you weigh anywhere from 74.1 to 83.0, you are in the 83 class. 83.1 means you are in the next higher class (93). Most lifters will try to come in as close as possible to the upper limit, heavier usually meaning stronger.
Age class: Similar to the weight classes, the sport is divided by age, so all that trash talking to your grandpa was for nothing. The most important part, and not obvious, is that your age group changes on January 1 of the year you reach the lower limit of the next class, not on your actual birthday. For example, my birthday is in December, so the year I turned 50, I became a Master 2 on January 1 of that year. Despite being still 49 for the first 11 months, I was officially in the 50 year age group.
The ages are: Sub-Junior: 14 to 18. Junior: 19 to 23, Master: 1 40 to 49, Master 2: 50 to 59, Master 3: 60 to 69, Master 4: 70 plus. For Women the highest is Master 3, 60 plus. One final group is the Open. Lifters of any age can enter the Open class, though it is usually just the 24 to 39 year old lifters that do.
Division: Equipped or Classic. Within a few years if its inception, powerlifting began to allow lifters to wear very tight apparel, suits shirts and wraps, so tight and strong that it actually assists the lift, in a spring like mechanism,and allows you to lift more. Try doing a full depth squat next time you’re at the bar in your Gucci leather pants, feel the difference. This equipment has become very advanced and can be difficult to learn how to use to your advantage. It’s expensive as well, it’s easy to spend $1,000 or more on a few suits and bench shirts. Because of all this, the expense, the learning curve, the idea that its “legal cheating” the concept of lifting without any of this supportive equipment started to grow. Limited to non-supportive singlets and t-shirt and knee-sleeves, this style is called “Raw” or “unequipped” lifting. The IPF, our international body, adopted the name “Classic”, because it was in the style of the earliest days of the sport. The Classic lifting movement has almost taken over the sport, and many contests are now 90% Classic lifters.
Powerlifting , Bench Only, or Both: This often confuses new people. “Powerlifting” is comprised of the squat, bench press and deadlift. However the bench press being (arguably) the most popular of the 3 lifts, many only want to do the bench press. Some for just personal preference, or maybe due to injury. So a separate “Bench Only” contest is often added on to a regular Powerlifting contest to give the bench specialists a place to compete. Some brave souls though want to compete in BOTH events. This means that they will do their bench press as part of the regular powerlifting event, and then do bench again as part of the bench only contest. This can take place before or after the powerlifting contest, and is sometimes added in as an extra flight during the bench press portion of the powerlifting contest. I always do it first in contests I run.
Deadline! Pay attention to the deadline for entry, and be sure to get your entry in before it. If there is a limit on how many lifters they will take, don’t wait until 3 days before the deadline to send it in, the limit may have already been reached. Meet directors need to get trophies made, t-shirts made, work out the schedule and other details, so they need your information by their deadline to do this.
CPU Card number: All lifters must be members of the CPU on the day of the contest. We carry insurance for all lifters, but this can only be in effect if you are a member. If you don’t have your card yet, then write “pending” or similar on the entry form and send it in. Just be sure to have your card on you the day of the contest. Sometimes you can buy them at the contest, but not always. Cards run from January 1 to December 31, so don’t wait until 3 days before a contest in October to order one.
Before the Weighin
It all starts with the weigh-in, which takes place 2 hours before the lifting starts, but there is a little information you need to have before you actually step in to the weighin room. First is your opening attempt lifts. How much should they be? Only you know for sure, but a good rule of thumb is that an opening lift should be something you can easily do 3 repetitions of.
The second part is your rack settings. Odds are that the rack you use in your gym is not the same as the one you will use at the contest, so they need to know how high to set it for your squatting and benching. Get their early enough to find the rack, and work out how high to set it for your lifting. Squat height, bench height, and the height of the bench safety bars. If you use blocks under your feet, these come in multiple sizes, determine which one you want. You will be asked “racks in or out?” for squatting. This means are the uprights of the rack are outside of your hands (the most common) or inside, between your head and your hands. It’s usually only the bigger guys that like “in”, so they can put their hands on the bar right out by the collars.
The lifters in your group will be assigned a random number, called a Lot number, and your name will be called in that order, 1 to whatever. There is usually a list posted outside the weighin room. When your name is called, start taking off your clothing when you get in, down to underwear or even less if you need and get ready to step on the scale. The judges will ask you for your opening attempt for each lift, in kilos, for your rack height numbers as mentioned above, and for your CPU card to verify membership. They may ask for ID to verify your age as well.
If you know all your numbers, or have them written down, you will be in and out in a couple of minutes. If you don’t know your openers, or your rack heights, or forgot your CPU card, this all contributes to slowing down the weighin, and those waiting their turn behind you will not appreciate the slowdown.
You will probably be given a small packet of slips called Attempt cards, I’ll discuss these later.
What if you “accidentally” went to an all you can eat ribs competition when you were only supposed to be snacking on ice cubes and sitting in the sauna, and are over the limit of you class you entered? Let’s say you entered the 83 kg class, but weigh 83.2 on the scale. What to do? You have the choice to accept this and move up to the next class, 93, or you can try to lose the last .2 kgs. Sweat it off, visit the washroom, spit, whatever it takes, you have up to 90 minutes from when the weigh in started to try to make it. If you don’t make it, you have to move up.
At one time every contest included an equipment check, to make sure your equipment was all to legal specifications. But with equipped lifting being less common, and easily recognized manufacturer labels and models, it is pretty obvious to the referee’s if your equipment is not legal when you step on to the platform to lift, so formal equipment checks are less common these says. If you have any questions or doubts if your gear is legal, ask the judges at your weighin. If you do go out with something illegal you will usually just be asked to change it before the next attempt.
Let the Lifting Begin!
Okay, the weighin is over, now what? When do I warm up, when do I lift, what’s the order of lifting, etc, etc? Much of how this is determined depends on how many people are entered in the contest.
Flights. Powerlifting rules state that you can have a maximum of 14 competitors in a group, usually called a flight. This means that you will have no more than 13 other lifts between your first and second or second and third attempts. If there were 40 or 50 people in a group, it’s not good to wait as long as this would take, and could result in muscle tears from cold muscles.
If there are 14 or less competitors in the contest, you should start warming up your squat about 30 minutes before the lifting is set to start. Once you are sufficiently warmed up, go to the “lifter prep area” that will be adjacent to the competition area. The lifts will be ordered by the desk personnel so that the lightest weight asked for will go first, then the next heaviest and so on. Listen for your name, the announcer will call it out, “Tom is the lifter, followed by Bill, followed by Joe”. When it is your turn, the announcer will call “please load the bar to “x” kilos, rack height of “y” for (your name). The loaders will get it ready and signal to the head referee and the announcer who will call “the bar is loaded for (your name)”. Don’t step on to the platform until you hear that “bar is loaded” signal.
Now what? You wait for your second attempt, right? But how will they know how much you want? This is where the attempt cards you received at the weighin come in. There will be one marked Squat – Second Attempt. Fill in your name, sign in (or your coach can) and enter how much you want for your next lift. A second attempt should be something you are confident you can do once. Turn the slip in to the scoring table. Note: the attempt cannot be lower than your previous attempts, and cannot be changed once submitted (with one exception, discussed later).
A general rule on timing is one minute per lift, so a flight of 14 lifters will take about 14 minutes to go through, so three attempts equals 42 minutes. This mostly depends on how quick the loaders are, sometimes a bit faster, sometimes slower.
Important: You have ONE minute from the time you step from the platform to turn in this attempt card. If you do not, you will receive the minimum increase (2.5 kg, maybe not what you want) if the previous lift was good, or a repeat of the same amount if you had failed at the lift (again, maybe not what you wanted) .
This routine will be repeated through the second squats, then thirds. Pay attention to the order each time, you may not follow the same person on the second or third round, depending on the weight that you and the others submitted, it always goes lightest to heaviest. If two lifters request the same weight, the person with the lower lot number will go first.
Okay, 3 rounds of squats are done. Next is bench press. There will be a break in the action to allow the lifters to get warmed up for the bench press. The announcer will be calling it out, “restarting in 5 minutes” and so on. The routine for bench press is exactly the same as it was for squat. Once the bench is done, it’s all repeated again for the deadlift. After that, wait for your first place medal and start thinking about your next meet!
Deadlift changes: I mentioned earlier that there was one exception to changing a submitted attempt. It’s the 3rd attempt deadlift. Your last deadlift can be changed twice. This is used to jockey for position on the total when there are multiple lifters in one weight class, and can be put in lower than your originally submitted weight, but not lower than weight already on the bar.
Here’s how it works: Joe put in a final deadlift that will give him a 700 kg total. He makes the lift. Tom, in the same age and weight class, is up next, but his heavier deadlift will only give him a 695 total. He can put in a change to add 7.5 kgs to his deadlift and give him a 702.5 total, beating Joe’s 700. If Joe had missed his lift and wound up with say 690, Tom could put in a lower lift for himself, to be more sure of getting it, but still beating Joe. This kind of thing is very common at the national and World level.
More than 14 lifters
These days a contest of 14 or less is rare, many have 50 to 100 lifters.
How does this work?
If it’s in the 50 to 100 range, it should be broken in to morning and afternoon sessions, possibly even a third evening session. Each session will work like a fully separate contest, with its own weighin 2 hours before the published start time. Find out what session you will be in from the meet director. Often this is posted on the internet somewhere, like the CPU forum, or a provincial website.
If the contest is a more medium size, 20 to 25 or so, then it will be split into 2 groups (maybe 3 if it’s over 28). The two groups will alternate their lifting. You will be told what group you are in at or immediately following the weighin. Don’t be afraid the ask! Assuming you are in the first group, it’s much like the single group routine, except that when you are done your squats, the second group will come up and do their squats. You will be warming up your bench press while the second group is doing their squats. They finish squats and your group comes up to bench. The other group goes to the warmup room to get ready to bench after you. So the two groups alternate, one on the platform doing competition lifts, while the other is in the warmup room.
This arrangement is actually much better for the lifters, because the rules dictate a maximum of 20 minutes break between the lifts for a single flight contest, not really long enough, whereas a two flight contest gives the lifters from each group about 30 to 45 minutes warmup time, while the other group is doing their lifting on the platform.
Opening lift changes
Let’s say you are planning on a 150 kg opening squat, and submitted that at the weighin. But you’ve been sick all week, and when you start warming up, 120 kg feels like 5 tons, and you are doubtful if you can do 150. Your attempt cards will have one marked Squat One, (Bench one, etc). Write on it what you want to change your opener to and take it to the score table. You have up until 3 minutes before the contest starts, or if you are in a second flight, until the lifter who is 3 rd from the end of the first flight is called to the platform. If you don’t need to make any changes, just throw away that number one card.
Probably the second most common question I hear about a first contest is “how much should I lift”. No one wants to be embarrassed by their lifts, they want to look like a “powerlifter”, right?
Here’s the answer: IT DOES NOT MATTER. Your first contest is all about getting through it successfully, learning how the contests flow, learning to lift in from of judges and an audience, controlling nervousness and adrenaline. It NOT about how much you lift. No one will care if you have 100 pounds on the bar or 500. Thinking about that sort of thing can come in the next 10 or 100 contests, and when you accept that Gold Medal at an IPF World Championships, you won’t remember how much you lifted at your first, but you will remember forever how much fun it was!
28 years as a lifter from local to World level.
CPU General Secretary and past president.
Former IPF Assistant General Secretary
IPF Category 1 referee
(also expecting to become Commonwealth Powerlifting Federation VP in December)