A lot of people are intimidated by the idea of competing in powerlifting or weightlifting. Any event at which someone is testing their ability in front of a crowd of people can be a little nerve-wracking. Hopefully, the things that we practice and talk about during training can reduce some of the trepidation to deciding to compete.
We'll address some common concerns when it comes to the necessities of committing to a competition.
1.) The most common question is, "Am I strong enough to compete?" or "How strong do I have to be compete?"
Both powerlifting and weightlifting have grown a much larger following in the past 10 years. USAW's membership, the governing body for weightlifting in America, has swelled from about 7000 members to more than 20,000 members in the past decade. Powerlifting has become more accessible and popular than ever. More people are participating in the sport, and they come from all athletic and non-athletic backgrounds. Lifters of all skill levels are going to be present at local meets. Except for national-level competitions or well-known events with significant prizes like the Arnold, there is no minimum total required to enter. Many of the competitors at most competitions will be just like you - someone working a full-time job or going to school full-time who lifts 3-4 days a week and who has been training for less than 5 years. Not everyone will be the lifters you've probably seen on instagram competing at the world championships or nationals. There will be 165lbs women squatting 150lbs and also 148lbs women squatting 300lbs+. Some 85kg guys may snatch 60 kilos and that same session may finish with a 120kg snatch.
I feel that a better question to ask is, "Would I have fun trying max lifts with a bunch of people who are also trying max lifts?" Do you like the energy of your fellow lifters cheering you through hard workouts? Competitions are essentially max-out days with judging that tries to be as objective as possible. If you make a PR in competition, you can be certain that the lift was legitimate under controlled conditions. And if you sometimes have trouble feeling motivated for a big lift, knowing that others are attempting weights close to you or slightly higher can give you the extra confidence you need to put in your best effort at making that elusive PR.
When it comes to the question of competing, being strong already is not as important as wanting to get stronger than you were before. Usually people don't do just one competition. They do a few and try to get better with each one. Some people go on to have a whole career, and others just try to hit some personal goals before moving on to other things. If you're worried and stressed about lifting a big PR total with your first one, try not to be. Whether you make some mistakes or not, your first competition will be a learning experience that will guide you to better results in your later competitions.
2.) What do I physically need on my person or otherwise in my possession to compete?
The biggest requirement is your athlete's card from whichever organization you are competing in. USAPL (for powerlifting) and USAW (for weightlifting) both allow you to sign up for membership online, and the process is pretty straightforward. You can print off your card for USAW immediately, and USAPL will mail you your card. Both organizations will generally accept the emailed receipt for membership and your member ID number as proof of active membership.
You will also need a singlet. These can range from high-end Nike or Adidas suits or the major powerlifting brands like Titan or Inzer, or whatever you can find off Amazon (including the zany ones like pug faces or the extra cool ones that are super low cut). Yes, you will be wearing this for the entire world to see, but so will your fellow competitors. You can wear a t-shirt underneath the singlet, but you must otherwise have a one piece suit of spandex that does not cover the elbows or knees, and there must be skin showing between your socks and singlet, or between your socks, knee sleeves, and singlet if you wear sleeves.
Those are the only things you absolutely need to compete, other than the meet entry fee.
For powerlifting, you would benefit a lot from having a good pair of lifting shoes and a belt. You may or may not need knee sleeves and wrist wraps if those joints bother you during certain movements. USAPL, the organization that DSC tends to lift in, follows an approved list of equipment that you should review if you will be wearing any equipment other than your singlet and shoes. The approved list specifies not only what equipment and what sizes/widths are legal, but also what brands.
Weightlifting shoes and a belt would also be beneficial to the snatch and clean and jerk, along with knee sleeves or wrist wraps for people who sometimes get achey joints from the lifts. USAW is a little less restrictive when it comes to equipment, but does specify a maximum thickness with belts (12cm), how much of the wrist can be covered by wraps (10cm), and making sure that supportive knee equipment is not reinforced. There are actually more specifications to adhesive bandages or tapes for the athlete's hands and fingers than for the actual equipment on the lifter. Read the IWF rule book starting at page 30 for more details.
3.) How is lifting in competition different from maxing out at the gym?
Competition lifts are controlled by commands and judged to be valid or invalid upon completion of the lift. When training at DSC, we generally try to ensure all your training lifts are competition quality, but to illustrate the difference between making a PR in training and lifting in a competition, your lifts in competition will be judged by 3 trained observers and must follow commands and cues to unrack the bar, begin the lift, stay motionless upon finishing the lift, and re-racking the bar. It's a tightly controlled process and it's standardized for all competitors. It's a good idea to practice lifting with commands at least once or twice before the actual competition to familiarize everyone with the process, and we do it on test days at DSC before every meet.
There is also a fair bit of waiting in between your lifts at competition. In powerlifting, you will warm up pretty close to normal, other than sharing equipment with others, but competition follows the "rounds" system. That is, everyone declares their first attempts at weigh-in, and once the lifting session starts 2 hours later, the bar is progressively loaded from the lightest attempt to the heaviest. After each attempt, whether successful or unsuccessful, lifters declare their second attempts, and then once all the lifters have tried their first attempts, the bar is reset to the lightest second attempt which then progresses to the heaviest second attempt, and again for the third. This way, lifters in a session rest about 10-15 minutes between their attempts. There also tends to be longer breaks between events. Once one session finishes their squats, those lifters will then usually wait for the next session to do their squats before the first session will bench. So expect about a 1-2 hour wait between squatting and benching, depending on the size of the meet (bigger meets can have longer waits).
Weightlifting is different in that the bar only goes from lightest attempt to heaviest, with no resets. So, it's possible that a lifter may follow him or herself after every attempt, if there are no lifters attempting similar weights. However, with decent conditioning, this should only affect the clean and jerk, and if it looks like a lifter will be following his or her own attempts, it's generally a good idea to plan a very low first attempt to conserve energy for the others. Sessions in weightlifting move much faster. Once a session finishes all snatch attempts, there is a 10 minute clock before the first clean and jerk attempt is called out to the platform.
4.) What weight class should I try to be at?
If you're pretty close to the upper end of a weight class, say less than 5lbs, it'd probably be beneficial to go ahead and cut the weight to make that lighter weight class. For basically every other scenario, it's not worth the stress of cutting significant weight. Weight loss is detrimental to both strength and the ability to recover from training load. It'd be a bad idea to put your body through a difficult diet during a hard training cycle and then to try to perform at the high end of your ability in competition. You would not be making the most of your training while on a difficult cut. It'd be better to cut after the meet, then post a bigger total at a lower weight class at your next meet, or just not compete, do the cut, and prepare to compete at the appropriate weight class when the next one comes around.
Could you cut 15lbs to get into the next weight class down and look great in that singlet? Yes. Would it be worth all that time training and traveling and actually competing and not doing the best you could have due to fatigue, reduced recovery capacity, dehydration, and depleted glycogen? Probably not.
DSC does a few meets each year. We'll always announce it a couple months in advance, and you can always ask Chris or me about the next one. We have 20 years of competition experience between us up to a national level, so we'll make sure that you're prepared for whatever comes up on the platform for you.
Author: Brent Kim
Brent is the weightlifting coach at Dallas Strength and Conditioning. He has competed at USAW Nationals in 2015 and has been active in competition since 2006.