The Virgin Powerlifter
As many of you reading this will know from social media, a couple of weeks ago both myself and my girlfriend entered our first powerlifting competition. This had been a long-standing goal of mine; and my girlfriend decided fairly late on to have a stab at it too.
For those who are unfamiliar with the sport, it consists of setting three maximum lifts, under competition conditions, in the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift. You get three attempts at each lift, ideally ending up with your third lift being a PB, or close to it. The best lift from each discipline is then added up to give you a total, which determines the winner – based on weight, age and gender.
I’d researched a lot about competing, and wanted to compete in a federation (there are many!) that limits the use of accessory equipment, and also has a robust attitude to drug use in the sport. For those reasons, there was really only one choice – the BDFPA (British Drug Free Powerlifting Association). With regional meets, one-0ff competitions, a National’s finals, and a route into European competition, all with as drug-free a guarantee as possible, the BDFPA ticked all the boxes for me.
“Raw” lifting, in this sense, means just a lifting belt, lifting shoes and no knee support of any kind – no knee sleeves, or wraps, are allowed. This makes it as close to ‘gym lifting’ as possible, and in my opinion, makes it more accessible to people just wanting to test themselves against others without needing to learn an entirely different way of lifting and training.
That said, powerlifting lifts are different to gym lifts.
There’s the little matter of squatting to depth; whatever your opinion on squat depth, no one cares at a PL meet. You squat to depth, i.e hip joint level or below knee joint, or it doesn’t count. You can whinge all you like afterwards, but if your training isn’t involving proper squats, powerlifting depth will be a shock to you.
Your bench press cannot involve bouncing the weight off your chest. It needs to be controlled, and needs to involve a slight (think around a full second) motionless pause at the point of contact with your chest, before lifting – and you need to wait for the judge to say ‘lift’. If your gym benches resemble someone desperately trying to shatter their ribs, you’ll be surprised how much LESS weight you can shift with that control and pause. Your bum can’t leave the bench either – no flailing around on the bench – and your feet must stay flat, no up on tip-toes. That last rule does differ between federations though; so worth checking.
The deadlift is the simplest rules-wise – wait until you’re told to lift, then pick it up, lock it out, and wait to be told to lower it (usually with some measure of control – dropping it will result in a bad lift). Most people will find that their gym deadlift will be the easiest lift technique-wise, simply because it can’t really be done ‘wrong’. You can use a sumo or traditional deadlift.
So, what equipment do you need? Well, the BDFPA follows the International Powerlifting Federation’s (IPF) guidelines on equipment. It’s a bit of a minefield, as some brands are allowed, but others not, despite there appearing to be no difference in equipment. If you plan on competing, and don’t have a belt or singlet etc yet, it is worth making sure they are IPF-compliant. Nothing worse than having to buy all your kit again (ahem…like I did).
Here’s a list of mine, hyperlinking to where I got it from:
Deadlift socks (just any knee length football/rugby socks will do)
On top of that, on the day you’ll need some chalk (liquid chalk is less messy), a plain T-shirt and plenty of food and water. Oh, and guys? Pants. You can’t wear boxers. Yep, I know. I haven’t worn pants since I was 12. Girls – nothing with underwired bits in it, or anything elasticated anywhere but the hem.
So, how did the day go?
We were lifting the East Midlands Divisional, which is a pre-cursor to getting an invite to compete at the National level. You have to achieve a certain minimum overall total, which can be achieved by any means as long as you get at least one ‘good lift’ in each discipline. Of course, unless you have one outstanding lift to compensate for one average lift, it’s likely you’ll need to be reasonably strong in all three lifts to qualify.
The competition was in Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire, which is stretching the definition of East Midlands a little. Because you need to weigh in at around 8am, we stayed overnight in a nearby hotel rather than have a 5am start and the stress of possible traffic etc. It’s a long day, and starting off stressed and knackered isn’t a great idea.
1RM Gym hosted the event, a great warehouse-style gym with properly solid, old-school style equipment and plates. The manager and all the staff clearly enjoy having these competitions there and were a great help on the day – as was being able to buy pre-workout and water etc .
After the weigh in – an interesting process of standing in your pants while someone gets you on the scales – you have a basic kit check. You’ll find out at that moment whether everything you’ve brought is OK for competition. I was a bit nervous about that bit, having read so much information and a rule book that makes Communist Russia look positively bohemian, but I suspect that as long as the basics are covered, you’re ok.
From there, it’s a case of a quick rules recap for everyone – but to be honest, if you’ve done your research and planning, you should NOT be finding out new information at this point. It should be a recap, not a learning experience. One thing we found on the day was that all the judges were a LOT more approachable, friendly and genuinely helpful that we were expecting. They handled the official stuff really well, but were more than happy to help a nervous newbie.
After that, it’s time to lift. We were put into ‘flights’ – basically groups of people who will lift in the same wave, usually close in weight classes – and the first bunch start warming up. There were roughly 10 people in each flight, which meant that you’d start warming up while the flight before you were actually lifting. We had plenty of time to get in all your normal warm up lifts before being called to the station.
Squat comes first, then bench, then deadlift. Our event was medium-attendance, and we started lifting at 10am and were all done by 4pm – so even a normal amount of people means a 6 hour lifting-and-hanging-around period. We heard tales of busier events going on well into the evening (so don’t forget the food!!!)
If you’re nervous about competing, don’t be. I know it sounds cliche, but everyone was so supportive, friendly and helpful. There were several other first timers there, and all age groups and ability levels. If you’re thinking there’s no point going because you’re not strong enough, just ignore that and do it. I wish I’d done one earlier. If you have ever been to a physique type show, the contrast in egos on display is amazing…
So how did we do? We both came second in our classes. I ended up with a 205kg squat, a 140kg bench press, and a 205kg deadlift – giving me a 550kg total in the Open u90kg weight class, and qualifying for the Nationals in February 2016 by some margin. My girlfriend secured a 90kg squat, a 57.5kg bench press and a 130kg deadlift, in the Open u63kg weight class – also qualifying her for the Nationals. Both of us were pretty chuffed to get that qualification on our first ever competitions (if you’d like to see the videos, please follow us on Instagram – @realworldfitness and @charle_h)
Whilst none of my lifts were PBs, they were very close to my gym-PBs, and I was really happy to have recreated gym-lifts under competition conditions. I failed a 150kg bench press at lockout, which was my only failed lift of the 9. My girlfriend got the squat and bench she expected, and added 10kg to her deadlift PB. She, like me, failed her third bench press attempt at 62.5kg, but only on a technical failure (lifting before the command!).
Having seen how it all works, and being able to perform at a decent level under the stress of competition, both of us are eager to compete again – and the Nationals will probably be the next chance. Bit of a baptism of fire for your second comp! There’s a real chance my girlfriend will be able to finish top 5 nationally in her weight class, whilst I’ll have to settle for top 12 at best given the length of time to improve between now and the end of February.
To sum up, if you’re interested in competing, just go for it. It was an excellent day, and gives a real focus to your training. The nerves on the day tend to invigorate most people, not give them stage fright, judging by the number of PBs and happy faces in general.
Thanks for reading 🙂