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Powerlifting Pre Contest Training

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Starting Out: Contest Training 101
by Bill Piche

Are you ready to put it on the line on the powerlifting platform? You've been training hard, brief, and intensively for months and you've never been stronger in all your lifts. The time has now come to prepare for the powerlifting contest, both mentally and physically. When it comes to contest day, one must perform a one-repetition maximum (1-RM). Training for the contest does not have to be complicated, nor does it need to change significantly from off-contest training. Off-contest training should have focused on increasing overall body strength and muscle endurance by focusing on higher repetitions (8-20). The pre-contest training should consist of the same core off-contest strength training but with the addition of specific skill practice for the powerlifts.

If supportive equipment (e.g., a tight lifting suit) will be used for the contest, this equipment must be worn when performing skill sets. Skill sets are those performed to specifically master the exact technique of the squat, bench press and deadlift that will be used in the contest. If possible, the contest environment should be simulated as well.

Pre-Contest Basics

Lower reps should only be performed as part of pre-contest training. Performing lower reps means doing 5-rep sets and finally 3-rep sets. A powerlifter should prepare for the contest by lowering reps and adding weight over the course of a 6 to 12 week period. A powerlifter should never perform a 1-RM before a contest. Lower reps should be used only for the skill sets. The lowering of the reps should be done gradually over the course of several weeks. Many lifters make the mistake of lowering reps and adding weight too quickly. This leads to degradation in form, and the lifter ends up performing 1-RMs in the gym. Some lifters erroneously plan for limit singles in training. Their poundage expectations that are based on these singles are seldom fulfilled in the contest. There are many cycles (length, rep schemes, weight increases) that can be used. The bottom line is to become accustomed to progressively heavier weights for lower reps. The individual powerlifter will have to experiment to find a pre-contest cycle that works for him or her.

If possible, you should use 100-pound plates in your training before the contest. This includes the bench press as well. The 100-pound plates change the "feel" of the weight when compared to using just 45's. I can remember a friend of mine who was skeptical about the difference between using 45-pound and 100-pound plates. He was squatting 550 for a triple and was crushed with 500 on the bar when switching to the 100-pound plates. It took him several workouts to feel the new balance of the bar. Your warm ups in training should be executed as close as possible to how you'll be warming up in the contest. The purpose of warming up is to get ready for the work of the day. In the contest, it becomes more critical that you don't waste energy while warming up. I've seen many lifters leave their best attempts in the warm up area. Many powerlifters end up in a rut during a pre-contest training cycle. Their biggest failure is writing down their weights and projected reps, but then not adapting the cycle as they progress towards the contest. No one will have a great workout every workout. There are many factors in life that can affect strength levels. Inexperienced lifters often grind up weights before contest time because they either set their cycle weights unrealistically, or they fail to adapt their cycle according to how they feel. The result is often peaking early, injury, or poor contest performance. The truly great lifters seldom miss a lift during a pre-contest cycle, they always leave something in the tank. The common phrase in sports, "You play like you practice," definitely applies to powerlifting. The pre-contest workout will take longer because of the performance of skill sets and the simulation of contest conditions. In a powerlifting contest, there are often long periods of time between attempts. The skill sets performed in training should be preceded by an amount of time comparable to contest conditions. The amount of time between attempts can vary significantly. Most often it's between 10 and 20 minutes. However, some contests may be in high gear with little rest between attempts. (Lifters should be aware of this scenario as well. Normally, this occurs when there are only a few lifters in the contest.) After the skill sets are performed, the rest of the workout can be performed in the same manner as off-contest. A sample peaking cycle is presented in the table above. Only the target reps are shown. Note the decrease in reps, for the contest lifts, over the weeks prior to the contest.

The Squat

The squat is the first lift in the competition. Your performance in the squat will set the tone for the entire contest. For powerlifters, the squat is the king of disqualification! The biggest mistake is not attaining legal depth. Lifters at both local and world championship levels are eliminated by not going deep enough in the squat. Squat to legal depth in training and you should not have to worry about disqualification at the contest. If you cut them close in training, then you take the chance of disqualification in a contest. If you cannot reach proper depth, don't even consider a contest until reaching the proper depth with proper form becomes second nature. You must perform the squat in training as you would in the competition. Your squat stance and bar position should be constant. Pre-contest is no time to make technique changes. In the majority of contests, you'll have to back out of the racks to set up for your attempts. In your pre-contest training, you should not take this part of the lift for granted. A common mistake lifters make is doing a dance when they come out of the racks. You're not auditioning for a disco contest! The squat setup should be efficient with the goal being one of minimal effort. This applies to squatting regardless of whether you're competing or not. If you decide to use equipment/support gear, you must use it in training before the contest. The use of the equipment is to demonstrate strength at the contest. The full complement of equipment for the squat is a squat suit, knee wraps, belt, shoes, wrist wraps, and even supportive underwear. If you use equipment, it should be gradually introduced into training so you can become adjusted.

A suggested sequence for introducing equipment for the squat would be to first introduce the belt one session, then knee wraps and belt, a squat suit with the straps down, and then finally the full complement of equipment over several training sessions. A powerlifting squat suit probably adds 50 pounds or more to your squat. It's important when you first send for a suit that you give accurate measurements. There's no need to increase your quad size 3 inches! The suit should fit very tightly. It should not be comfortable to put on or to wear. But, it should not take three people and bloody knuckles to put it on either. Many times, lifters have left their energy in the locker room putting on their squat suit. Ridiculous! Don't be surprised to find tiny bruises in the hip and thigh area after using the suit. This is normal. In fact, if you don't get them, the suit was probably not tight enough. The squat suit will affect your form, hence why you need to practice squatting in it. It may even alter your ability to reach legal depth. Some lifters end up doing a "good morning" rather than a squat. They use a suit and bend over rather than squat, and then wonder why none of their attempts are passed in the contest. Another common mistake is to unconsciously slow the rate of descent, and the lifter pauses at the bottom of the squat. A lifter should be in control and not pause in the bottom position. Knee wraps are used to provide resistance to the bending of the leg. When wraps are worn, they are analogous to compressing a powerful spring when the lifter descends. The recoil of the wraps enables the lifter to lift more weight. Again, wraps are used to demonstrate strength. The average trainee who is not preparing for a contest has no business wearing knee wraps. Wrapping the knee does not have to be a complex task. The lifter can start just below the bottom of the knee cap and in a circular pattern wrap upward until the full width of the wrap is above the knee cap. There should be an overlap of about one-half of the wrap per revolution around the leg. The small excess can then be tucked under one of the folds. The leg should be held tight and straight during wrapping. A common mistake made by novices is wrapping with the leg bent. Obviously, the benefit of the wraps is diminished if the leg is bent to start with. A little trick to help get an illusion of depth is to make sure the loose end of the wrap is on top of your knee when you tuck it in. This can make the top of the knee look "higher" to the judges, and may even help you to get a "borderline" squat passed.

The Bench Press

The bench press is the second lift of the competition. Most novice lifters fail to realize that once they have squatted to the max, their shoulder girdle has been taxed. This can be a cause for disqualification because lifters usually base their openers on their bench press training where the only lift they performed in the workout was the bench press. There's no reason for a lifter not to make all three bench attempts. Just like the squat, if you bench sloppy in training, don't expect to have many attempts passed in competition. Some novice lifters will do their bench attempts without a lift-off. This is not recommended since you don't get credit for a heavy lift-off, and it just takes away strength from the attempt itself. In most local contests, the lifter can have his training partner lift-off. Otherwise, there are usually assigned spotters who can give a lift-off. Make sure you tell the spotters exactly what you want for a lift-off. After all, they aren't mind readers. Or, you can recruit a spotter in the warm-up room. Then at least you have the possibility of "training" the person before you get on the platform. If you've any doubt about the lift-off quality, it's better to go without a lift-off, especially if that's how you practiced the lift in training. As far as support equipment for the bench press goes, powerlifters commonly use a bench shirt and wrist wraps. A bench shirt is used to lift more weight. (Editor's note: See report on bench shirts/Page 20) The bench shirt is basically artificial shoulders and pecs. The shirt resists the bench press movement (like compressing a powerful spring) thereby giving a boost off the chest. Some lifters claim to get 70 pounds from a bench press shirt. Most will probably gain approximately 5 - 20 pounds. Wrist wraps can also be used, and can remove stress from the wrists. The shirt should be very tight and somewhat uncomfortable to wear. But again, it should not take three people, bloody knuckles, and 5 pounds of sweat to put on! Good old-fashioned baby powder can help you get the shirt on.

The shirt should be worn during pre-contest training because it can change your groove, and takes some getting use to, for full benefit. If you don't use it during the pre-contest cycle, it may actually reduce your bench press due to its awkwardness. I've seen some lifters actually lift less the first time they put on a bench shirt. For most lifters, touching the bar at a slightly lower point on the chest is of benefit when using a bench shirt. Again, practice is the key. Folding your arms in front of you between attempts provides a bit more comfort when wearing the shirt.

The Deadlift

"The contest doesn't start until the bar hits the floor." This statement turns out to be true most of the time. The lifter with a decent squat and bench press, and an excellent deadlift, will usually beat a lifter with a excellent squat and bench press, and poor deadlift. One of the biggest mistakes lifters make in the deadlift is basing their projected max on their training weights when they deadlift in a separate workout from the squat. They fail to realize the fatiguing effects of a max squat and bench press on their deadlift. Novice lifters are not the only ones that make mistake. A lot of lifters are mystified when it comes to contest time, and they fail to pull a weight they have done a triple with in training. You have to squat and deadlift in the contest. There's no reason not to double up in your training and do both of the lifts on the same training day. It will not only give a true indication of what to expect come contest time, but it will also give you greater recovery time between workouts for the involved musculature, and prevent overlap at your two workouts. This same principle applies to the non-competitive lifter as well. When deadlifting, there really isn't any equipment that will help, with the exception of a lifting belt. If you've decided to use it at the contest, you must wear it during pre-contest training. Like with the squat suit, your form will be affected by a belt. Some lifters like to deadlift in their squat suit, stating that they feel "tighter." In some cases, depending on body structure and deadlift style, the squat suit may actually hinder the lifter in getting the shoulders back to obtain the proper upright finish position.

I recommend deadlifting in a wrestling singlet that can be purchased at most sporting goods stores. Baby powder is legal to use on the upper legs, and lowers friction when the bar is sliding up the leg. I've seen lifters use chalk (magnesium carbonate) on their legs, but the idea is to lower the friction, not increase it. Another little trick to lower friction is to shave the front of the thighs, to remove any hair.

The Final Rep

It's more than likely you'll want to compete again as soon as possible after your first contest. Avoid this temptation. You should compete just like you should train ­ infrequently. Otherwise, the stress of lifting one-rep maximums can take its toll, and chronic injury can be the result. I would suggest one or two full competitions per year, with possibly a bench-press-only or deadlift-only competition thrown in between. Competing in powerlifting should be fun and enjoyable. You should lift for yourself. This applies to weight training in general. Bill Kazmaier, multiple world powerlifting champion and three-times World's Strongest Man summed it up perfectly in an interview in Milo: "If youčre trying to lift for a trophy, for the money, for the pat on the back, those are all the wrong reasons ­ you have to lift for yourself." This is a good motto to adhere to, regardless of whether you compete or not. I'll close again with some common themes that might be seen at a powerlifting contest. The list is not fictional, and in many instances provides the competitive powerlifter with what not to do.

1. A lifter takes off his bench press shirt in between bench attempts, and then puts the same one back on.

2. A lifter opens with a weight he has no chance of getting, and bombs ­ i.e., gets disqualified.

3. A lifter is wearing clothes, has a license plate, or even painted his car with his "lifting accomplishments" displayed.

4. A twelve-hour contest.

5. A five-minute break between rounds turns into thirty minutes.

6. A lifter putting on a bench press shirt with the help of four people.

7. A lifter putting on a squat suit with the help of four people.

8. A lifter putting on part of a diver's wet suit under his squat suit.

9. A lifter who thinks his thighs are a good resting place for the bar during the deadlift, and then can't figure out why he was red-lighted. This is called hitching.

10. The smell of baby powder.

11. A lifter weighs in fully dressed and then loses on bodyweight to a lighter lifter (who weighed in with minimal clothing).

12. A lifter competes with a toothpick in his mouth.

13. A lifter tries to squat on the wrong side of the racks.

14. A lifter thinks "pause at the chest" means when the bar just touches his shirt.

15. A lifter walks around with ELS (Exaggerated Lat Spread) syndrome but has no lat development to speak of.

16. A lifter fails on a squat and totally stops his effort, thus leaving the entire weight in the spotters' hands.

16. A lifter has a bench press bigger than his squat or deadlift.

This article has been reprinted, with permission, from HARDGAINER magazine issue #63. For information on HARDGAINER magazine, please write to CS Publishing Ltd., PO Box 1002, Connell, WA 99326 or visit www.hardgainer.com

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DISCLAIMER: This information is not presented by a medical practitioner and is for educational and informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read.

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