My first piece of advice is to actually sign up to compete! There’s no pressure to compete in Powerlifting, but you’ll definitely get the most out of the sport if you do. Otherwise you’re essentially just going to the gym like anyone else. Competitions are really good fun, and I find you progress faster when you start competing because you set yourself goals by a certain time which you strive to achieve. A lot of novices get into the mindset of “I’ll compete when I’m strong enough”, but you could always get stronger, and you’ll probably never feel strong enough.
The best thing to do is to dive into competing straight away. There’s no pressure to be lifting the heaviest weights at a competition straight away. Don’t worry if you’re right at the bottom of your flight. Everyone started somewhere, and Powerlifting competitions are really supportive environments. No one’s judging you for not having the biggest squat, and everyone will cheer you when you get a weight that it’s obvious is an achievement for you, and even if you don’t. It’s actually one of the things that I love most about Powerlifting - that you compete against yourself and as long as you improve, even slightly, that’s success. Also, at competitions like British University Champsionships (BUCS), there is no entry requirement, and there will be a lot of other novices there too.
In order to go to an IPF competition in the UK, you’ll need to get a membership with British Powerlifting, which can be done here, and costs £20 if you’re under 23 (a Junior) and £40 if you’re over 23, and you’ll get a British Powerlifting membership card that you’ll need to bring to the meet with you. You’ll also need to apply for the competition directly on the British Powerlifting/IPF website.
If you feel nervous about going to a relatively big ‘official’ competition like BUCS, you can always start off by going to one of the internal comps aimed at novices that CUPLC host throughout the year. These are good way to get used to how a competition works and the process of preparation and peaking for a comp, in a very relaxed environment.
Note: Powerlifting competitions can be “Raw/Classic” or “Equipped”. In an equipped competition, you are allowed to use extra supporting equipment like a squat suit, bench shirt, deadlift suit and knee wraps. This generally allows you to lift more weight. CUPLC lifters generally compete Raw, and Varsity is a Raw competition, and so this page will focus on Raw competitions. However, CUPLC lifters are completely allowed to compete in Equipped external meets as well.
The Program you’re doing should peak you for your competition. For more information on this, see our programming section.
When you sign up for a competition, unless it’s a purely Wilks based competition like Varsity, you’ll choose which weight class you want to compete in. On the day, you’ll need to make sure you weigh in under this weight, or you won’t be allowed to compete. It’s common for lifters to cut weight leading up to a competition by water cutting methods in order to make weight. This essentially involves drinking lots and lots of water in the few days leading up to the competition so that your body gets used to excreting a lot of fluid, then almost completely cutting out water about 12-16 hours before your weigh in so that you lose water weight. However, I wouldn’t recommend anything more than a very small water cut because it’s unsafe, unhealthy and definitely not pleasant. It’s also unnecessary. The extra Wilks points you gain from weighing in lighter are normally more than countered by the loss in strength as a result of an aggressive water cut. And unless you’re aiming for a podium position, there’s no reason to make sure you weigh in right at the top of your weight class. For this reason, if you’re in doubt when you’re selecting your weight class, err on the heavier side, because it’s much easier to quickly gain weight than lose weight, and makes the lead up to the competition much less stressful.
Getting to the Competition
Generally it’s recommended to make arrangements ahead of time to get to the area of the competition a day or so before to get settled in. You’ll want to limit the stressors on your body leading up to a competition to promote recovery so you’re as strong as possible on the day. For this reason, you’ll want to avoid having to get up very early on the day of the competition and driving for many hours right before you compete, which will make you stiff, cramped and could mean you’re trying to lift PB weights on very little sleep. Think ahead.
Things to Bring Along
You’ll also want to make sure you have all the equipment you’ll need/want for your competition, and that your equipment is IPF approved. For information on this, see our equipment section. The rules state you need to be wearing a singlet during your lifts, and a 100% cotton, crew neck t-shirt with no visible offensive language/logos on it (unless perhaps said logo is “SBD”). Bar grip t-shirts and compressive shirts are a no-no. You’ll also need to make sure you have a pair of 100% cotton, non supportive underwear that don’t cross the hip joint I.e: Y-fronts if you’re a guy (yes, seriously). This is to make sure no one is wearing some kind of supportive compressive underwear that could assist them in the squat. Finally, you’ll need some knee-high socks for deadlifts, and it’s recommended you bring some talc which helps to reduce friction against your legs on the deadlift.
You’ll also need to bring your British Powerlifting membership card if the competition is a British Powerlifting competition, and food/drinks you’ll need on the day (see below)
3. On the Day of the Competition
Rule one for meet day is: Don’t try new things on meet day (No, not “don’t talk about meet day”. I know you were thinking it.). Ideally you want everything on meet day to be as similar to a standard training day as possible. This is especially true if this is your first meet. You’ll already be experiencing a lot of nerves and emotions. The less you can give yourself to think about, the better. There is no reason to try a new warm up routine, cutting water weight, new equipment for the first time, making a last minute technique change, or eating some secret super performance enhancing food that you don’t normally eat.
You’ll want to know when your weigh in time is. Weigh ins are normally either in the morning at 8 or 9am, or in the afternoon. Weigh ins can be 24 hours before lifting, or 2 hours before lifting. At IPF/British Powerlifting competitions and Varsity, they are 2 hours before lifting. This means you’ll have 2 hours to rehydrate, refeed and warm up before you’ll need to start squats, depending on which flight you’re in. Around weigh in you’ll probably need to fill in a short form to confirm you haven’t taken any performance enhancing drugs. You also tell the judges what your openers will be during weigh in.
It’s recommended to bring easily digestible, high energy food, with a mixture of long lasting complex, and short acting simple carbohydrates. In English, that means you get to pig out on cookies and bagels and sweets all day. I like to also get some bananas and other fruits in there too. However, like I mentioned above, I like to keep food similar to what I normally eat for ease of digestion, so I bring my high carb oatmeal breakfast with fruit that I normally eat in a tub, and add some savoury food in there throughout the day. You’ll also want some food with some salt in to prevent cramping. Crisps can be a good idea here. You’ll want to drink plenty of water and drinks with lots of electrolytes. Some good ones can be Gatorade/Powerade, and coconut water.
Kit Check and Rack Heights
At some point in this period, well before you begin lifting, you’ll need to go get your kit checked and your rack heights sorted. Kit check just involved queuing up to get to a table where an official looks over your kit and makes sure it fits the regulations. For rack heights, there should be a squat/bench rack where you can unrack the bar and check what rack heights you’ll want when you lift. You’ll then tell the officials (often at the scoring table but it can vary) your rack heights.
Know when you’ll be expected to start lifting, and start warming up in the warm up room about 20-30 minutes before that, depending on how long your warm up is. Like I mentioned, don’t try a new warm up. Your standard one will be fine. A common mistake is to warm up excessively and end up wasting energy. An rough example of an effective warm up would be:
- 8-10 reps with the bar,
- 5 reps with about 50% of your opener,
- 3 reps at 70%,
- singles at 80%, 87.5% ish and 95% ish.
When deciding when to start warming up, if you’re not in the first flight you’ll have to estimate how long the other flights will take. Each lifter has a minute on the platform so you can estimate about a minute per lifter per attempt to try to work out when you’ll begin lifting. You/your handler can also check the boards to see how they’re progressing during your warm up. Keep in mind that you’ll be sharing bars in the warm up room, which could slow you down. If you’re stressed about timings, Bryce Lewis put out a great spreadsheet to help you out.
4. The Lifting
Finally, after hours of waiting around and stuffing your face, we get to the bit we all care about - the lifts themselves.
This should simply be a case of doing what you’ve done a thousand times in the gym already and showing off to everyone how strong you are! - I reiterate, don’t try to change up your technique on the day. The best thing you can do in my opinion is just not think about it too much, so you execute the motor pattern you’ve practised so many times before. However, there are some tips we can give when it comes to attempt selection, and the rules of a competition, which may vary from how you regularly train in the gym.
How it all Works
Lifters will go up to lift in flights of about 10-16 (although it can vary a lot). Check which flight you’re in and when you’re scheduled to start lifting. You can generally change your opener until about 3 minutes before the flight begins if warm ups go terribly. You get 3 attempts at each lift. Each lifter goes up in turn and does their 1st attempt, then all do their second attempt and so on, so you get the time the other lifters are lifting to rest between your attempts. The lifters are ordered in ascending order of weight on the bar. On the platform, you’ll get a minute to set up and recieve the start command and if you don’t do it in that minute, you’ll time out and it’ll be a no lift. This is plenty of time to get set up so don’t stress about it, but you do need to make sure you’re ready and waiting to go onto the platform when the bar is loaded for you.
After your lift, you also have only a minute to tell the officials at the scoring table what your next attempt will be, so do it as soon as you get off the platform. This will involve giving them an attempt card with the attempt written on it (which you will have been given at weigh in). You should have an idea of what you want your attempts will be but you may well have to adjust on the day if you’re feeling more/less strong than you expected.
You’re probably already feeling stressed at the prospect of all the things other than lifting that there is to worry about. It’s for precisely this reason that most lifters have a handler behind the platform. This is someone (a coach for professional lifters, but for us, normally just a member of CUPLC that knows what their doing) who sorts out all that other stuff out for you so you can just focus on lifting. They can tell you where you need to be and when, keep you updated during warm ups on how much time you have, and during your flight sort out your attempt cards and let you know when you need to be up. That way all you need to do is sit down, get some head phones on playing whatever music gets you absolutely hyped out of your mind, lift, and come off and tell them “yep, that felt good, let’s go up to our planned next attempt”. Plus you have someone to dramatically jump into the arms of after you hit a huge PB on your third attempt.
You do your squats first, then bench, then deadlifts. After each lift, there’ll probably be other flights lifting on the same platform, and you’ll have time to warm up your next lift before you need to go up.
This is a biggy. It’s very common for lifters (particularly male ones) to have a bit of an over inflated sense of what they can lift at their first few competitions, and to pick attempts that are far too heavy. Keep in mind that once your opener is set, you can’t go down in weight, only up. For this reason, make sure you open on a weight that you are 100% guaranteed to not fail (for strength at least). What we normally recommend is a weight that you can hit for an easy triple in the gym. Then, for your second and third attempts, go up in about 5% jumps. Your opener should fly up. Your second attempt should move smoothly but with a bit of effort, and your third attempt should be a bit of a grind but still realistically doable. Keep in mind that it’s the lifter with the best total that wins, and the way to get the best total is to aim to get 9/9 lifts. If you’re in doubt about whether you can get your third attempt, maybe go just 2.5kg lower. It’ll just make sure you get it and has a pretty negligible effect on your total compared to failing lifts.
The tactic of “I’ll go for what I want for my max as my opener than I get 3 go’s at it” really doesn’t work. If you miss it first time, you’ll then be fatigued and just even less likely to get it on the other attempts, and you’ll probably bomb out. So be sensible guys and gals. Also keep in mind that the lifts don’t happen in a vacuum - if you fail or grind your last squat for about 10 seconds, you may find you’ll be fatigued and weaker when it comes to the deadlifts.
Rules for the Lifts
The IPF rules for each of the 3 lifts can be found here. There will be 3 judges when you lift: one centre judge, who will give you commands, and two side judges. After you complete your lifts, they will each give you either a white or a red light depending on whether they think it was a good lift or not. You need 2/3 white lights to get the lift. So yes, there are many things you can be failed for in a lift other than just not being able to get it up. Most of them are pretty obvious, but some may be different to how you train so it’s worth going over the main rules.
You may want to check the IPF rules for the lifts to make sure there’s nothing you do in training which is technically a no lift in a competition, but here are some of the common things to watch out for:
- Depth - Depth in Powerlifting is defined as the crease of the hip joint being below the top of the knee (see below). This is probably the most common thing people get failed for. The best way to avoid it is to always train to a depth that is even lower than borderline. When it comes to a competition and you’ve got a heavy weight on your back, it’s common to get nervous and cut the squat higher than you usually would. If you always squat very deep, even if you cut it an inch or so higher than usual, you’ll probably be fine. Make it obvious to the judges that you hit depth! If it’s very borderline, you’re relying on the judge feeling kind that day, which you don’t want to do.
Failing to follow the commands of the judge - In the squat, the judge gives you two commands. You unrack the bar and walk it out in your own time, then when you look up and all the judges think you look ready, the centre judge will give you a “squat” command. You squat. You then need to wait till he gives you the “rack” command before you re-rack the bar. A common mistake at some people’s first few competitions is the instinctively re-rack the bar straight away and forget to wait for the rack command, since that’s probably what you normally do in training.
Moving the feet between the squat command and the rack command - This could go along with the last one. But it could also include losing balance slightly and having to take a small step to regain balance.
Dropping or dumping the bar after/during the completion of the lift - Yeah, don’t do this. You might do it in the gym if you fail the lift without a spotter, or just if you’re just a weightlifter at heart because hey, who needs racks AMIRITE? But in a competition, you’ll have about 5 big burly spotters around you, so if you fail the lift, they will help you up, and you should stick with the bar. If you drop it it can be dangerous for yourself and the spotters, and they can disqualify people entirely for doing so.
Not following the commands again - For the bench press, there are three commands. You set up and unrack in your own time. You can choose if you want a lift off from the spotters or not. When you’ve unracked the bar and your arms are locked out, the centre judge will give you a “start” command, so that you lower it to your chest. When s/he sees the bar is stable and motionless on your chest, s/he will give you a “press” command, which is when you press it up, then s/he will give you a “rack” command, so that you rerack the bar. Again, remember not to rerack too early. Because of the introduction of the press command, Bench Presses in Powerlifting competitions are paused on the chest for about 1 second. Make sure you take this into account in your training and train with a competition style pause in most of your bench pressing movements, or it could take you by surprise on the day of the meet.
Raising the Head/Shoulders/Butt off the bench or moving the feet/hands after the start command and before the rack command - A common error here is to lift the butt off the bench while getting leg drive to give yourself more power. Keep this in mind in your training and try to practise getting leg drive without lifting your butt off the bench. You can move your butt up the bench towards your head, so it’s recommended to try to push with your legs “up” the bench towards your head rather than off the bench. Your head and shoulders also have to stay in contact with the bench the whole time. This is different to some other Powerlifting federations, so you may see some of the American lifters you follow on Instagram lifting their head up when the bar comes into their chest. That’s legal for them, but not for you, so keep that in mind.
You also can’t move your feet or change your hand position on the bar during the lift, and your heels have to be in contact with the ground. This last point also differs some some other federations, so you may see lifters online who bench with their heels raised in order to bring their feet back further and get a bigger arch. Keep in mind that this is not allowed in the IPF or Varsity.
Hitching - Hitching is when you support the bar on your thighs in order to help you lift it up. The bar is allowed to edge up your thighs, you just can’t support it with your thighs at all.
Lowering the bar before the “down” command - There is only one command for the deadlift. There is no command to start the lift so you can set up and start whenever you like within your minute on the platform, but you have to remember to hold it at the top until the centre judge gives you the “down” command.
Dropping the bar - When you lower the bar after you lift, you’re not allowed to drop it. This doesn’t mean you have to lower it excessively slowly, it just means the bar can’t leave your hands.
It may also be worth mentioning here that you’re also not allowed to swear on the platform at any point. Since the sport involves so much hyping up/hyper-masculinity it can be easy to forget that in the IPF comps, it is a professional event and you’re expected to act as a professional athlete. Do it once, you’ll get a warning. Twice; you could get disqualified. It’s also nice to be respectful to the judges/spotters. Don’t argue with them, and a thank you handshake after your last lift of the day can go a long way.
Yes, there are quite a lot of rules. And these aren’t quite all of them, but they are the ones that people most commonly get red lighted for, and the main ones to keep in mind. You can imagine that this would be a lot to have to think about on the platform. For this reason it’s recommended that you make sure you’re familiar with the rules before the meet, and do the lifts legally in your training, so it just becomes second nature. It may be useful to get someone to give you commands in the week or two before the competition as well so you’re familiar with them.
Don’t worry if you mess up on your first competition. We all do it, seriously. Failing the odd lift because you reracked too soon or forgot to wait for the start command is very common in beginners and you wouldn’t be the only one.
5. Happy Lifting
I sincerely hope that how long and boring and complicated this page has been doesn’t put you off competing in Powerlifting. Competitions really are very fun! Particularly when you get to go along as a squad with a bunch of your other CUPLC friends. The atmosphere is electric, and you’re all screaming and cheering each other on. They’re also genuinely very supportive environments. One of the things I love about Powerlifting is that everyone will cheer you on, even if you’re lifting the lightest weights that day. If it’s a good lift or a PB for you, that’s what matters. In Powerlifting you mainly compete against yourself at the end of the day, and the goal is just to do a little better than you did last time.