Your First Powerlifting Meet

Your First Powerlifting Meet

After 34 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 actually work?”.

You can and should read the rule book, not enough people do. It explains all of the rules in depth, with lots of info about weigh-ins, equipment specs, 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.

Entry Form

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.

Weight class: Powerlifting is divided up into weight classes, so a 125 lb person is not competing against 250 lb people. The weight classes you will see on the form (metric numbers) 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 60 year olds don’t compete with 25 year olds. 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 only exception to this is the very lowest limit, you must have turned 14 by the day of the meet. 

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. The group missing from that list 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 so.

Division: Equipped or Classic. Within a few years of powerlifting's inception, some inventive lifters figured out that wrapping your knees with tight bandages helped the squat. Then, that a really tight and tough singlet or t-shirt could also help, so tight and strong that they actually assisted the lift, and allowed more weight to be lifted. Before you knew it, companies like Titan and Inzer sprang up to manufacture this tight apparel, and squat suits, bench shirts and knee wraps became the norm for the sport. This equipment has gotten very advanced and can be difficult to learn how to use to your advantage. Expensive also, its easy to spend $1000 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 simply 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 some contests are now 100% Classic lifters, though Equipped lifting is making a bit of a comeback in recent years.

I've heard it compared to autoracing... Equipped is the Formula 1 of powerlifting, the elite but costly and dangerous, where Classic (unequipped) lifting is like street cars, cheaper, easier for regular folks to get involved with.

Powerlifting or Bench Only, or Both: This often confuses new people. “Powerlifting” is comprised of the squat, the bench press and the 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.

At a national championships, Bench Only often happens on the first day, and half of the competitors will be lifting again in the 3-lift competition one or more days later, or maybe in a separate Equipped Bench Only contest a day or two later. 

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.  If you need to withdraw after the deadline, don't expect a refund. 

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. Membership in the CPU is all done online now, go to the CPU home page, and follow the links there. The entire process takes about 10 minutes. Be sure to have your membership card on you when you go to the weigh-in.

Update: The CPU now requires an online education module called TrueSport from our national Anti-doping organization, the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, to be completed prior to meet day.  The CPU website has more information. 


Before the Weigh-in

Officially 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 weigh-in 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 there early enough to find the rack, and work out how high to set it for your lifting. Remember that the weight will compress you, novices often set their squat height too high. Get the 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 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 Weighin

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 weigh-in 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, for your CPU card to verify membership and the Certificate of Completion of the CCES TrueSport module. 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 weigh-in, and those waiting their turn behind you will not appreciate the slowdown.  Think of it like an airline gate: "please have your boarding pass and ID in hand and open for inspection".  

You will probably be given a small packet of slips called Attempt cards, I’ll discuss these in a few minutes.

What if you 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.

Update: At CPU nationals, or any international meet, like an IPF worlds, you can only lift in the age and weight class that you entered, though you can change it up to 21 days before the first day of the event.  If you are entered as a 93, and weigh 93.1 at the close of your weigh-in, you cannot lift at all.  

Equipment check.

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 days. If you have any questions or doubts if your gear is legal, ask the judges at your weigh-in. If you do go out with something illegal you will usually just be asked to change it before the next attempt.

At higher level meets there will be a referee at the edge of the platform, called a Technical Controller, whose task is to inspect the lifters gear for illegal items, improperly worn, and similar issues.  

Let the Lifting Begin!

Okay, the weigh-in 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 (20 in a Bench only contest), 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, you'd be facing 40 or 50 minutes between lifts, which could result in muscle tears from cold muscles. No one waits this long between sets at the gym. 

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 or staging 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”. There may be a screen displaying the order also. When it is your turn, the announcer will call “please load the bar to xxx kilos, rack height of xx for xxx (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 xxx”. Don’t step on to the platform until you hear that “bar is loaded” signal.

Your lift is done, 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 weigh-in 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, now what? Next is bench press. There will be a break in the action to allow the lifters to get warmed up for the bench press, usually 20 minutes for a single flight session. 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 last 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. He just can't request a lift that is lower than what Joe had on the bar. 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 the weigh-in or immediately after. 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 weigh-in. 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.

A Word About Meet Directors. 

Meet directors come in all levels of experience and skill. Some run perfect meets, where every session starts on time, have lots of volunteers, good paperwork, good warmup gear and so on.  Others are less experienced, their meets are chaotic, behind schedule, inadequate warmup equipment, not enough help etc, etc.  Hope for the former, its really much more common, but be ready for the latter.  Bring your own chalk, baby powder, pens, water, food and so on.  You'll thank yourself for it when you do run into the more chaotic meets.  

How Much?

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 front of judges and an audience, controlling nervousness and adrenaline. It's NOT about how much you lift. No one will remember if you have 100 pounds on the bar or 500, but they will remember if you bomb out. History has shown that most lifters who bomb out of their first meet never return.   

Thinking about how much you want to lift can come in the next meet, or next 10 meets, or 100, and when you accept that Gold Medal at an IPF World Championships (as I have done), you won’t remember how much you lifted at your first meet, but you will remember forever how much fun it was!

Mike Armstrong
30 years as a lifter from local to World level.
Former CPU General Secretary, past president, record keeper, championship secretary, etc, etc.
Former IPF Assistant General Secretary
IPF Category 1 referee
Meet Director, 2018 IPF Classic World Championships
World Record Bench Press, 197.5 kg @ 120+, age 61
Gold Medalist, 2015 IPF Master Bench Worlds
Gold Medalist, 2015 CPU Nationals
Bronze medalist, 2013 IPF Master Worlds
Owner: StrongArm Sport, the best Powerlifting gear you can buy!