Your First Powerlifting Meet: What You Need to Know
You don’t have to aspire to become a professional or even competitive powerlifter to want to participate in a powerlifting meet. Meets are really just a place for you to test your one-rep maxes on your squat, bench press, and deadlift. I personally am motivated by the competitive aspect of it, but a lot of people aren’t. And that’s totally fine. Testing one-rep maxes is possible at the gym, of course, but it’s cool to really prepare your body and mind properly to see what you’re capable of on the platform. Here’s part one of what you need to know about preparing for your first powerlifting meet.
First, select the meet you want to do!
This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s wise to put some thought into this. I tell my clients to plan for about 10 weeks of training leading up to the meet. During those 10 weeks, you should ideally not be traveling much or have any big events planned. That’s not always possible, but preparation for a meet can cause some anxiety, so minimizing extra stress is a good idea. Two weeks before my first meet, I took a vacation to Chicago. I walked a ton in the sweltering heat for the week that I was there. When I got back to the gym for my last week of training, I was gassed. Whether or not it affected my performance on meet day, I can’t say. But feeling weak as hell in my last few training sessions didn’t do much to help my nerves. Some people prefer to just jump in and do one. More power to you if that’s your style. I can almost guarantee you that you’ll surprise yourself regardless.
You also want to pay attention to the federation of the meet that you’re interested in because rules can vary. For example, USA Powerlifting requires IPF (International Powerlifting Federation) approved gear to compete in state or national meets. So if you already have gear that isn’t IPF-approved and don’t want to shell out for new gear, you should find either a meet classified as local by USAPL or choose a different federation. You can find a list of approved gear here: https://www.powerlifting-ipf.com/rulescodesinfo/approved-list.html
Also, USAPL adheres to WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) drug-testing parameters. Some substances like testosterone are always banned by WADA, even if a doctor prescribed it to you. Other drugs, like some thyroid and ADHD medications, can be excused but must be brought to the meet director’s attention before the competition. They may require a doctor’s note or more to prove that you need it. So if you take any meds or supplements, check what that federation tests for. And you should know that marijuana is on WADA’s list, too, so either stop using it a month before the meet or go with a federation that doesn’t test for it. I know, I know… it’s magical and helps you sleep and is a wonderful pain reliever, but c’est la vie. Here's a list of everything WADA tests for: https://www.wada-ama.org/en/content/what-is-prohibited
USAPL in particular takes its drug-testing pretty seriously, so better safe than sorry. It might sound like they are rule nazi party poopers out to get you, but if you want to compete against athletes who are (more than likely) also not taking banned substances, USAPL is the way to go. If you don’t give a flying crap about that, you can do whatever meet you want. And if you take banned shit, there are meets that don't test. So do your thang.
After you find the right meet for you, you are ready to sign up! For most competitions, you will need to purchase a membership through the federation and then sign up for the individual meet. That membership allows you to compete in other meets put on by that federation for a year.
Second, get your gear!
I’m assuming since you are reading this, you plan to compete in raw/unequipped powerlifting. I’ve never met someone who just started doing equipped on their own, but hey, I could be wrong. So why would a raw powerlifter need any gear? Well, you’re really only required to have a singlet, t-shirt for under the singlet, and knee socks for deadlifting. I personally use everything the federation allows with the exception of squat shoes. I mean, why the hell wouldn’t you use everything permissible to help your performance and prevent injury? Nothing you use is going to magically make you lift that much more anyway so no, it’s not cheating. Here’s the gear you’re allowed and what to look for. As with everything else, check the rules of your federation! They aren’t all the same.
Your singlet is not going to be your best look. Accept that now.
I like a snug, cropped t-shirt under my singlet so it doesn’t bunch up and contribute to an even more pronounced FUPA than the singlet alone. Just my preference.
Knee socks are required so you don’t get your nasty ass skin on the bar during your deadlift. And you haven’t been using knee socks while you deadlift, prepare to be dazzled by how much they help the bar slide up. Within reason, of course.
One piece of equipment that is a non-negotiable for me is a belt. No, it isn’t a cheat. No, it doesn’t make your core weak. It is protection for your fucking back (!!!) in the event of an ugly lift (we are talking maximal loads here, so they usually ain’t pretty). Also, they are the key to learning a proper brace to (again) protect your fucking back. Of all of the equipment, this is the one you need to practice in and break in the most.
I highly recommend lever belts, especially for women with large breasts. I am a proud A cup and I still can’t believe I ever went for a pronged belt. Pros of the lever belt is that it will get nice and tight every time you latch it. Cons include it being tight AF or even unlatchable if you’re bloated. Women know all too well how your waistline fluctuates with your cycle. Or for myself, with mass pizza consumption. To adjust the latch, you need a screwdriver. Prong belts are good since you can adjust it at will. However, getting them on TIGHT, especially the first few times, can be a huge pain in your ass (and often an innocent bystander’s you call on to help wrangle you into it). Regardless, get a belt you like. And I recommend you just bite the bullet and get an IPF-approved one. That way, if you want to compete again (99% of you will), you can do any meet you want without having to get new equipment.
Knee sleeves keep your knees warm, improve circulation, and provide compression. All this can help prevent your knees from injury. If you have cranky knees, they can help a lot. Just make sure to get your form evaluated and go to a doctor if your knees hurt. It’s not normal for squatting to cause knee pain. I was a distance runner for 13 years (yes… I know, I can’t believe it either) so sometimes they are just stiff. But other than that, I have zero knee issues that can’t be fixed with some consistent foam rolling and stretching.
Like knee sleeves, wrist wraps provide warmth and compression, and prevent injury. They also help your grip. I use them for all three lifts. They help my grip for the deadlift and help my upper body stay tight during the squat. In fact, wrist wraps were a huge game changer for my squats. I was blown away by how much they helped. Wrist wraps are actually what I consider to be second most important next to a belt.
Footwear is an important thing to consider because what type you choose is largely dependent on you and your body’s individual needs. I wear Chuck Taylors for squats and deadlifts because they have a hard, flat sole. And I just like them. However, I’m finally making a switch to wrestling shoes because they last a hell of a lot longer than Chucks do. My feet slide in my Converse as they get worn in and I definitely lose form as a result. Wrestling shoes provide ankle support and are sturdier.
Squat or weightlifting shoes are shoes with a hard, elevated heel. They can vary in height, so it’s important to find out what works best for you. Squat shoes help people maintain a more upright torso and sink their hips deeper thanks to improving your ankle’s range of motion. Try squatting on flat feet, and then come up onto your toes and do the same. Truth is, I’ve never used squat shoes and I am a strong squatter, so why bother? I have toyed with the idea of getting a pair and seeing if they can benefit me (not everyone will benefit from them!), but…. Eh. Maybe later.
Many lifters also wear their squat shoes during their bench press, depending on the federation. In the USAPL, your heels must stay down during your bench press, but some other federations don’t have the same rule. If your federation requires your heels to stay down, the increased ankle range of motion will help with your leg drive and decrease the likelihood of your heels popping up. I wore running shoes for my bench at my last meet and they definitely helped. Squishy heels won’t affect your bench like they will your squat and deadlift, so you can bust out those old school klunkers without shame here.
Third, once again... LEARN THE RULES!
I mentioned above several times that rules will vary by federation, but it’s worth restating. Do you employ a “suicide grip” (thumbless) for your bench? Better make sure you can do that. Can you wear a v-neck t-shirt under your singlet? Check the rule book. Even if you have a coach, read the rule book yourself. Which brings me to my fourth point…
If you’re going to have a coach, get one who knows what the fuck is going on.
At my first meet, THREE women bombed out during their squats for failure to reach depth. They missed all three attempts. In the first event of the meet. What a terrible feeling. Worst part was they all appeared to have coaches. There is nothing worse than thinking you nailed a lift to turn around and see that you got red lighted for something you didn't even realize was a thing. Listen, it's easy to miss depth because of nerves or fear; it happens to lots of people. But I noticed they were missing depth in the warm-up room. That means no one ever called them on it before.
There are lots of rules at these things because there need to be standards. If you squat to depth you know that shit is wayyyyy harder than a parallel squat. (Oh, how that extra inch sucks!) You don’t want some other competitor with a half-assed squat to score higher than you. At least, I don’t. So it’s nice if your boyfriend or your buddy at the gym offers to prep you for a meet, but for fuck’s sake, make sure they know what they’re doing. Anyone can learn the rules so if they really want to help you, they'll make an effort to do it right. Remember that being a trainer is not an automatic qualifier. Neither is being strong. If you're not in a position to hire a coach, just read the rules for yourself and use those people for spotters.
All of my clients from the get-go, whether they ever express interest in competing or not, learn the lifts how they would need to perform them on the platform. I do this mainly because I insist on good quality lifts whenever possible (not everyone can/should squat to depth, for example). I also never want anyone to question the validity of my lifts. In other words, to make the Instagram Form Police STFU. I get it, I admit I think quarter squats (aka bro squats) are worthy of mockery when someone is bragging about a huge PR. I keep it to myself because to do otherwise would make me a humongous asshole (yes, unsolicited advice and criticism is fucking annoying 99.9% of the time). I might be an asshole for thinking it anyway, but unless I’m working with that person, I don’t know anything about their bodies so it’s not my business. Anyway, we all know that when people do that, they are just trying to look smart or harsh your high. Both are super obnoxious. Even elite female powerlifters get shit non-stop from Dr. Instagrams criticizing everything from their breathing to their accomplishments (“Psh, I know lots of guys who can lift that easy”). Ugh.
Anyhoo, I digress. The main thing to remember is that this is supposed to be fun. Admittedly, I'm a fun killer and the Monica Gellar of life (Friends reference anyone?). But don’t let nerves hold you back from putting yourself out there and testing what you can do. Even though I am super competitive, I’m really only paying attention to my numbers at meets. I have goals and yeah, I take it way too hard when I don’t achieve them. But it’s an amazing feeling to work so hard for something and follow through with it. You’re a hell of a lot stronger than you think you are. So let’s see what you got!