“Try a powerlifting meet,” they said. “It’ll be fun,” they said.
That’s pretty much what happened and you know what? They were right. I did, and it was.
After working with CHP for a while, I started noticing my fellow athletes doing these things called powerlifting meets. The basic meet is simple: contestants get three attempts for each of three lifts: the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift. Meets are usually organized according to weight class and age, and there are various federations with different rules on which age groups and weight classes are used, what kinds of equipment you can use, and so on. Everyone who competed seemed to enjoy it, and I was told multiple times about how much I could learn from going to a meet and just watching, even if I didn’t compete.
I thus made a mental note to find a meet that I could go to. I found that there were several powerlifting books on Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited service. I read through “From Gym Lifter to Competitive Powerlifter” and found it super educational, but I still wasn’t quite ready to make the leap. As it turned out, Matt had a choir trip lined up at Disney World, so when I learned that one of my fellow CHP athletes was doing his first meet in Orlando the weekend of Matt’s trip, I took the plunge and signed up for the Europa Orlando meet, organized under US Powerlifting Association (USPA) rules. The plan was that Tom and I would fly down Friday, I’d compete Saturday, we’d pick up Matt on Saturday night, and then hit Legoland before coming home.
With the planning done, I settled in to lifting, a lot, and worrying, more than I normally would have. My goals were simple: I wanted to complete the meet well.
As the meet approached, I started getting nervous about three things. First was my technique: each lift has specific performance criteria you have to meet. For example, on the squat, when you’re all the way down, your hip crease must be below the level of your knee (this is known as “breaking parallel” on the squat). Each lift is overseen by three referees or judges, each of whom can signal that the lift was good or bad by switching on a white or red light. You need two or three white lights for a lift to count. I was worried that my squats weren’t low enough. There are also specific verbal commands you must follow in sequence; I’d heard of people getting red-lighted for returning the bar to the rack before the command, for instance. I didn’t want to screw up, but I realized it was a distinct possibility.
Second, I had to get used to the gear. In general, most federations separate lifters into three groups: raw lifters use nothing more than knee sleeves and a weight belt; single-ply lifters can use special shirts and shorts that are, basically, Spanx; and multi-ply lifters can use special thick suits for the bench and deadlift. (These latter two groups are known as “geared lifters”.) I had knee sleeves, but needed to get a weight belt (which was a shopping adventure all its own; topic for another time) and get used to it. (For gear fiends: I ended up with an EliteFS 13mm single-prong belt, which I am gradually getting used to.)
Third was weight: both the amount I was going to be lifting and the amount I actually weighed. I could say “oh, I’m strong for a triathlete,” or maybe “but I’m fast for a powerlifter”; the fact is that I am still pretty new to both so I was intimidated by being around a bunch of seasoned competitors who would be lifting a lot more than me, and I realized about two weeks out that I was not going to make the 198lb weight class without extraordinary measures. I decided that rather than try to drop weight I’d just move up a weight class– which turned out to be a really good decision.
Soon enough, it was time to pack up and go. Was the hay in the barn? I’d soon find out. The Monday before the meet, Alex had me test a few weights for openers, so I had a decent idea of what I wanted to try. On the advice of fellow CHPers, I packed a gear bag with my stuff, snacks (protein bars, Fig Newtons, turkey pepperoni), a spare roll of toilet paper, and a few other odds and ends. Tom and I had a great flight down, with good weather and a smooth ride, and landed at Gilbert’s Winter Haven airport (HOVA, the FBO there, took terrific care of us throughout our stay– I recommend them highly.) We had planned to meet Rafe and Derek, two fellow CHP athletes, at the convention center but we arrived later than expected and they had other commitments, so Tom and I had a delicious dinner at the hotel and hit the bed.
Normally, weigh-in for meets is done the day before. Because I didn’t arrive until after weigh-in closed, I had a 7am weigh-in time Saturday morning. I showed up on time and waited. And waited. And waited. The meet director showed up about 830, weighed me in at 205.6, and asked me for my initial attempts. This requires a little explanation: no matter what federation, age, or weight class you’re in, the basic structure of the meets are the same: lifters are separated into groups called flights, with the lightest weight being lifted first. The first lifter attempts a lift with whatever weight they want. Then the second lifter attempts his lift, and so on until everyone’s done. Your total score is the total number of weight moved for the best attempt in each lift. In addition, something called a Wilks score is calculated to measure how strong you are in proportion to your bodyweight.
To sequence lifters into flights, the organizers need to know what weight you’re going to try to lift for your first attempt. You can go up any amount on each subsequent attempt, but you only get three tries so there’s quite a bit of strategy involved in choosing good attempts. David Dellanave’s strategy guide was very helpful. I texted Alex my attempts and wrote them down: 115kg to open in the squat, 75kg for the bench, and 147.5kg for the deadlift. I was lifter 4 in flight 1, reflecting my relatively light opening weights. On a positive note, this guaranteed me an early start so I could get a lift in and then adjust as needed after watching the other competitors. In the flighting system, all the lifters in a flight do all 3 attempts before the next flight starts.
Rafe and Derek met me back in the weightlifting corner. If you’ve ever been to the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, you know that it’s a perfect specimen of the large, ugly, dehumanized conference center species. The Europa expo floor was up front, with lots of bright colors and noise, but the powerlifters were tucked into a back corner, with bare concrete floors and loud music richocheting from the adjacent kids’ play zone and Zumba demonstration stage. Anyway, they were both very encouraging and we had a great time chatting while Rafe and I got oriented and got our gear together.
The meet officially began with a quick rules briefing, covering everything from the flight sequencing to what kind of underwear is legal under the required lifting singlet: “tighty whities or commando,” the meet director said, and he meant it, because sufficiently compressive shorts might provide a performance advantage. After the briefing, the MC began calling lifters to the platform for their lifts.
My squat opener went really well, despite a brief frisson of worry when Derek corrected my math mistake and told me that 115kg was not, in fact, about 230lbs– it’s 253lbs. I nailed it anyway. My second attempt went equally well: nice and smooth, with good depth. One judge red-lighted me for depth, though. I should have paid a little more attention because on my third attempt at 140kg, I got the dreaded two reds– one of the judges pointed out that my depth wasn’t sufficient. Derek, Rafe, my coaches, and I all agree upon video review that I broke parallel, but that’s no matter. The judges were tough but consistent, so I didn’t feel like there was any basis for complaint. 140kg was a new PR for me, so I was happy to get it even if it wasn’t a good lift towards my final score. Key learning: if you really bury your squat deep, so that there’s no question about whether you broke parallel, you have nothing to worry about.
Once my third lift was done, I watched the other flights squat. Rafe nailed his lifts, and then the heavyweights started theirs. Interestingly, we had a mix of ages– I think the youngest lifter in the meet was 15 and the oldest was 57. There wasn’t any real correspondence between age and lifting weight, either; some of the older guys (including the overall “best lifter” winner) were as old, or older, than me. It’s pretty amazing how much some of those guys could squat– I don’t remember what the heaviest weight I saw was, but there were 2-3x bodyweight squats being dropped like it was routine.
After all three flights finished squatting, the organizers needed time to shift the equipment around. One very nice thing about lifting in a meet is that other people rack, spot, and set the weights for you– a nice contrast to the traditional gym environment where you do it all yourself. While they were doing that, Tom and I went to walk around the expo floor a bit, then it was back for the bench, one of my weaker lifts. I have big legs and a strong back, but my arms and chest are small relative to the rest of me, so I wasn’t expecting huge numbers here.
I hit my first two attempts easily at 75kg and 80kg– a new PR. Derek pointed out a couple of technical adjustments to the lift during my warmups that really helped– I need to focus on squeezing my shoulder blades together, and on the press movement it’s actually more efficient to press slightly down towards the waist than straight up. I decided to try 85kg for my third attempt and just couldn’t quite lock it out, getting three reds for a failed attempt. Still, I didn’t feel bad about it given that I’d already hit a PR. I can definitely see that my 2015 goal of being able to bench my bodyweight is in striking distance.
Tom and I made another loop around the expo and took a quick food break. Convention center food being what it is, I decided to stick with the snacks I’d brought. Then it was time to go back for the deadlift. If the squat is the lift I think is my worst, and the bench is the lift that is actually my weakest, the deadlift is my favorite. I’d deadlift heavy every day if I could. I opened with 147.5kg, easily hit 157.5kg for my second, and decided on 165kg for my third– in retrospect, I wish I’d gone a bit heavier because I felt like I could have hit it easily. Once I was done, I was able to take off some of my gear and relax to enjoy the show as the rest of the lifters did their thing. By the time the biggest guys in the third flight were lifting, Rafe, Tom, and I were in the spectator area cheering and howling as we watched the big pulls– several over 700lbs. It was really impressive to watch.
I stuck around for the awards ceremony because I figured Rafe might have won in his division. Turns out, he did.. and so did I.
In fairness, this was because I was the only person in the 220lb 45-49 division, not because I lifted a massive amount of weight. On the other hand, I did lift a hell of a lot: 370kg, or 818lbs.
That’s a good 50lbs better than my previous 3-lift total, good enough for a Wilks score of 238– just a hair below “intermediate” ranking and good enough to move me pretty close to class IV according to the USPA’s guidelines (at least at 198lbs, where I will be within a couple of weeks). This would have been an unthinkable amount of weight for me a year ago, so I am really thankful to Alex and the CHP coaches, the community at Fitocracy, and especially to Rafe and Derek for their on-site support, so to speak.
- I had a blast.
- There is a surprising amount of technique in these lifts, but unlike football or baseball, the technique is mostly invisible. For example, knowing that part of a good bench is squeezing your shoulder blades together is impossible to spot
- In triathlon, the gap between the winners and me is often so great that I find it discouraging– the magnitude of improvement required to be on the podium is sometimes so large that it seems out of reach. That wasn’t the case here; the huge amount of weight that the top lifters were moving was motivating and inspiring, not discouraging at all. I may never be able to deadlift 700 pounds, but seeing it done at the meet makes me want to deadlift however much more I can.
- Tom is super excited about going to the gym and starting to lift. I am excited for him and can’t wait to help him get started.
- When’s the next meet?