Congratulations! You did it! You took the plunge and signed up for your first powerlifting meet!
Now you find yourself swinging between excitement and high anxiety. What have you gotten yourself into?!
Well, before we go any further, let me reassure you: You’ve gotten yourself into something wonderful.
You’re about to discover the joys of seeing your hard work come to fruition and putting it all out there on the platform. Other members of the amazingly supportive powerlifting community will help you and cheer you on, and you’ll get to cheer for them as well.
You’ll make friends, and if all goes well, you’ll set some personal records in the process.
Your first powerlifting meet is a special thing and a memory you’ll savor forever.
However, there are a few key mistakes I’ve seen new competitors make time and time again. I want to help you avoid those. There’s no worse feeling than knowing you got red lights not because you lacked strength, but because of completely preventable errors.
Here are the top three mistakes new lifters tend to make in their first meet, and how to avoid them.
Mistake #1: Opening too high
If you’ve decided to start competing, you probably know by now that you get gets three attempts at each of the lifts (squat, bench, and deadlift), and that in order to register a total score for the meet, you must successfully complete at least one attempt for each lift. If you don’t, you get disqualified (“bomb out”).
One of the deadliest errors new lifters make is setting their first attempts—also called “openers“—too high. This mistake is one of the most common causes of newer lifters bombing out.
If you overestimate the weight you can handle on your opener, you have nowhere to go. You can’t lower the weight once lifting has started. If you fail your first attempt, the best you can do is to repeat the same weight in subsequent attempts.
That’s not a terrible problem if you miss an opener for a technical reason. Those can often be corrected.
However, if the starting weight is simply too much for you to handle, that’s not fixable, and you’re screwed.
It’s very easy to overestimate the openers you’ll be able to handle in your first powerlifting meet. Newer competitors often think they’ll be fine because they’ve successfully lifted one rep of their opening weight in the gym. They fail to account for the effect that nerves, lack of sleep due to pre-meet jitters, cutting food or water to make weight, and other extraneous factors can have on first attempts.
In my personal experience, both as a lifter and as a referee, this holds especially true of the first squat. (By the way, the image accompanying this post shows me squatting at my first powerlifting meet in 2017!)
Even very experienced competitors tend to find their first squat quite anxiety-provoking. If it’s your first powerlifting meet and that squat is the first lift you’ll ever be attempting in competition, you may quite understandably feel nervous, and anxiety can make weight feel much heavier.
Here’s the thing: No one cares about your opener. Later in your competitive journey you may start to deploy small bits of strategy in setting opening attempts, but for a new lifter, they serve one purpose, and one only:
Openers get you on the board.
Your openers are your ticket to the show. They ensure that whatever else happens, you’ll secure a total. So you want to do everything in your power to make sure you nail them.
Always err on the side of being more conservative with your opening attempts. You don’t want to open so low that it’s an enormous jump to your second attempt, but a big jump is better than bombing out.
So, when in doubt, aim lower, not higher.
Some people treat their opener as their last warm-up. A good rule of thumb: your opener should be a weight you can lift for three reps. On your worst conceivable day. On no sleep, sick, and stressed.
For a newer lifter, that will probably land you somewhere around 80-85% of your previous one-rep max. But if you need to start even lower to feel confident, that’s fine. In a first meet, feeling as confident as possible is paramount.
You can lower your opener
Many newer lifters don’t know (by the way, not knowing the rules is another huge mistake new lifters make, so read the rulebook!) that you can lower your openers before lifting begins. This can be a meet-saving piece of information.
As you start to warm up, you may discover that for any number of reasons, you’re not feeling confident in the first attempts you declared during weigh-ins, even if you did set them at an appropriately conservative weight.
If you legitimately think you may have a tough time getting your opener in any of the three lifts, you have a window of time to go to the score table and lower it. Check your federation’s rulebook so you’re aware of how much is allocated for this at your meet.
There is no shame in doing this and it’s a VASTLY better option than the alternative. I’ve done it myself, and felt very glad I did.
I’ve also seen lifters bomb out who later told me they felt quite off during warmups, and would have lowered their opener had they known they could. Unfortunately, they didn’t know that rule existed. (Again, I can’t repeat this enough: read the rulebook!)
Mistake #2: Not squatting to depth
The second biggest mistake new powerlifters make in their first meet, closely related to the first, is failing to train their squats to depth.
Let’s be clear what “depth” means. We’re not talking about “ass to grass” squats. We’re speaking here about powerlifting competitions, and in most federations, depth is defined as “the top surface of the legs at the hip joint is lower than the top of the knees.”
Like opening too high, missing depth is a common cause of bombing out. Often the two go hand in hand, because you’re more likely to cut your depth high when there’s more weight on your back.
Use the same principle here that you should with openers: assume your body will try to betray you on meet day. When it comes to missing depth, the best prevention is proper training.
The primary reason that most lifters miss squat depth in their first powerlifting meet is that they didn’t routinely hit depth in training. This happens either because they (and/or their training partners) didn’t know how to recognize depth accurately, or because they weren’t paying attention to and being honest about it.
We all squat high in training sometimes. It happens. But TRY to hit regulation depth on every rep, unless you or your coach have identified a specific reason not to do so. You want to achieve automaticity: teaching your body to perform without thinking about it.
First, though, make sure you and those you trust to help you with depth actually know how to recognize it. Many lifters and even some trainers and coaches have the wrong idea about how referees judge depth.
Most federation rulebooks have a diagram or photo showing how to recognize proper depth. (If yours doesn’t, here’s a good depiction.) USE IT. It is incumbent on you, the lifter, to know what proper depth looks like and train accordingly, because it’s ultimately your success or failure that’s at stake, not your gym buddy’s.
Second, pay attention to depth. Ideally you should ALWAYS do this, even in an off-season with no meet on the horizon, but especially do so in the weeks leading up to your competition.
If you have a coach or trainer, they should be telling you if you’re squatting high. If you have training partners, ask them to watch your depth, especially as you start your official final block leading into a meet, and tell them you want them to be brutally honest. Again, make sure they know what depth actually looks like.
Whether you train with partners or alone, it never hurts to film yourself from the side, around hip height (where a judge’s eyes will be), then review those videos and be brutally honest with yourself. I train alone, and when I’m in meet prep, I watch film of every squat between sets so I can adjust my depth on the next set if necessary.
Leave no doubt. If you’re not sure you’re deep enough, you’re probably not.
Mistake #3: Not following commands
New lifters don’t usually bomb out entirely due to missed commands, but they do miss lifts due to this mistake. No one wants to fail for something that’s so completely within their control.
Nearly all feds have the same basic commands: two in the squat (“squat” and “rack”); three in the bench press (“start,” “press,” and “rack”) and one in the deadlift (“down”).
As referees, the command we tend to see missed most is the rack command on both squat and on bench, but occasionally lifters also forget to wait for the squat/start command, or forget to pause their bench press.
Occasionally, new lifters miss commands because they simply don’t know them. It never ceases to amaze me that so many new competitors don’t take the time to learn the rules of the sport.
In particular, in almost every meet I’ve ever judged, at least one new lifter has waited for a start command in the deadlift. This gets awkward: the lifter stands on the platform looking confused, waiting for a command that will never come, and the judge sits there with their hand in the air waiting for them to pick up the bar. (Deadlift has only one command: “Down”. Once you’re called to the platform, you have a minute to approach the bar and make your attempt; there is no “Start” command.)
So, yep, I’m gonna say it again—read your federation’s rulebook before you compete!
Much more commonly, new lifters do know the commands but either forget to execute them, or anticipate them and execute them before they’re actually called, like a sprinter who leaves the blocks before the gun fires.
Just like anything else, nerves and adrenaline will make your body revert to what it knows, and what it knows is that you squat when you feel ready, and you put the bar back in the hooks when you’ve successfully finished your lift.
In a meet, you can’t just listen to your body; you have to listen to the head judge.
As with squats, there’s really only one way to prevent this mistake: know the commands, and practice them in training.
Just as you should always squat to depth, you should spend at least some of the last few weeks of your pre-competition block training paused bench press reps. (In fact, if you have discretion, consider doing paused reps even more often. It simulates competition conditions much better than touch-and-go bench, obviously, but it’s also beneficial for developing strength and control because it increases time under tension.)
Then, in the weeks leading up to your meet, start actually using all of the commands in your training. Have someone actually call them out; if you train alone and really can’t find someone (even your partner, friend or kid can do it), then call them on yourself.
But make them audible. Get your body used to hearing them and waiting for that sound before it acts.
Along with practicing with commands, many new lifters also find it helpful to train in their singlet at least once, if not a few times. Do this in a public setting if you have any qualms about wearing it, since people will be watching when you compete.
Again, we’re going back to that automaticity thing. The objective is to remove thought and extra anxiety from this process as much as is humanly possible. It takes time to make a behavior automatic, so practicing commands just once is less ideal than practicing them in every training session for, say, a month before you compete.
The more you train your body and mind to feel familiar with what they need to do, the less the chance of random mistakes, the better your mindset will be, and the more energy you’ll have to do the actual work of lifting weight.
If you find that you’re having trouble remembering to wait for commands, and you’ll have a handler or trainer or knowledgable friend at the meet with you, ask them to shout out “WAIT” at the appropriate time during lifting. This is perfectly legal and in the heat of the moment it can really help.
In fact, despite all my experience, I still got a little jumpy from adrenaline at my last big competition and nearly jumped the rack command on my second squat. My handler bellowed “WAIT!” after I stood up my third squat, and it was super helpful!
There are of course other errors and problems that can lead to red lights in your first powerlifting meet, but if you’re currently in prep, take steps to avoid just these three common mistakes and you’re already going to be a long way down the road to success.
Now go, train, practice, prepare… and then go to your meet and have a GREAT time!