Aiming to be the Most Competitive and Successful Lifter Overall: Attempt Selection Part II.
Before reading this article please understand that there are many strategies that can be applied when picking attempts. This is one that has been taught to me and in application I have found to be very effective. From my perspective and those of all the coaches at The Strength Athlete, we feel that building the biggest total is the key to success competitively in powerlifting. Single lift PRs are fantastic, but sometimes you have to make the wiser choices for the sake of being a better powerlifter. Note that the key word there is better and not stronger. I hope that you can at least take something from this article to help improve yourself as an athlete or as a coach. I have to give credit where it is due and with that a big thanks to world class coach Matt Gary on this information as he's an absolute standout in the field of meet day coaching. I have a bit of a man crush on this guy, can you tell? Anyway...
Meet day is finally here. You've spent the last few months grinding, sweating, and pushing yourself in the gym and there is all sorts of emotional pressure that surrounds you as you begin this day that you have so focused your recent life on. This drives you to feel that you need to have the best day possible. Unfortunately, for a lot of competitive lifters, this doesn't always manifest itself in a stellar performance come game time. Others have said it before and I'll say it again; be the best competitive lifter you can by making the most lifts over all. The only thing that matters in powerlifting competition is your total. But if you cast aside all considerations of the potential for bad preparation; all of the pressure can become too much and lead to some bad choices when picking the weights you are going to be lifting. I want to help you avoid these bad choices. I want for you to be the best competitive powerlifter you can by building the largest total you can. As a means to this end I will share with you my interpretation of what I have been taught by Matt. I won't go over his credentials again but you can read more about him in part one of this series.
Set yourself up for success with a strong and reliable opener.
Finally you get to step onto that platform! But how much weight did you have them load for you? Will you be able to get it? Are you going to attempt a personal best on your opener to ensure that you can have two chances to set new ones with your second and third attempts? This is the right thing to do, right? These are questions that you should not be asking yourself. They are thoughts that shouldn't even be in your mind at this point. You have done the work already, you've invested your time and effort, and it's time to collect the dividends on your investment. The opener doesn't prove anything to anyone. And in 99% of cases nobody is going to be winning a meet with their openers. There are a select few exceptions to this, obviously, but the higher level of a competition you are at the less likely it is to be possible. The only thing it ensures, and really the primary purpose of this lift from a competitor's perspective, is that you stay in the meet. If you open too heavy and aren't able to come back and hit that weight you will bomb out of the competition and not even get to post a total. The percentage of lifters who bomb out after missing their first because it is too heavy is absolutely astounding. Bombing out is one of the worst feelings possible for a powerlifter after spending months preparing for a competition. Do yourself a favor and take heed to the advice that opening heavy is doing yourself a disservice. Also, should you happen to miss your opener for anything other than a minor technical error on your part, possibly even then too, repeat the same weight!
At this point, with all these considerations in mind, you're probably asking yourself what you should be opening with. The age old methodology preaches that you should open with your best triple. This seems to be one piece of advice that transcends federations as well as training and coaching methodologies; everyone likes to follow this rule. I too agree with it. However this can be a largely variable number, often not set in recent training blocks, and as a man of precision I like to have something more specific. The recommendation that I have been taught by Matt and have applied in my own recent attempt selections for all of my athletes has been that opening with 90 to 92% of your one rep max is appropriate. Be sure to use a one rep max that is realistic to the conditions and equipment you are currently competing with. Assuming it hasn't been a year since you've competed; if this isn't your first meet and there is a 100 pound discrepancy between your competition and gym personal best lifts then you may want to be conservative when it comes to the one rep max you'll use to determine these attempts. As an alternative example; if you set your deadlift max using a deadlift bar and are competing using a power bar you need to do some recalculation as there is most likely a significant difference between the two.
Build your total with your second attempt.
The second attempt is like a lonely red headed step child. It is under regarded but its importance cannot be overstated. This gives you the opportunity to strategically and reliably build your total while also allowing you to take a step toward setting a PR on one of your lifts or your total if that's in the cards for you. Do not take a PR as your second attempt! If you miss it the first time there is an astronomically small chance that you will get it on your third attempt. Another old rule here is to take the heaviest double you've ever done as your second attempt and, again, this is a reasonable rule of thumb but I really crave something more specific. A more precise and understandable guideline to follow is to hit something in the 95 to 97% range of your one rep max. This may not seem like much but with a bit closer examination you can see that this will effectively put you within 3 to 5% of your competition total PR on all of your second attempts, while allowing you to feel how well you are handling heavy weights on this particular meet day. You can then use this bodily feedback and some keen decision making skills to effectively choose your third attempt.
Maximize your total with your third attempt by listening to your body and not your emotions.
The third attempt has come! It is your time for glory! You have your favorite song on and your music is louder than it's been all day. You're shaking from all the caffeine (and maybe other goodies) that you've had. And hopefully by this point you're not still nauseous from gorging yourself on food. It's the absolute best time of the day where you get to lift the most weight in front of all of your friends or family or both. This is your moment. You feel obligated to set a new personal best and even feel some pressure to exceed this idea you've got of how your lift will look. They call your name, tell you the bar is loaded, and it's time to lift. You go out there, the crowd is going nuts as you start pulling on that deadlift bar, you give it every last ounce of energy in your body but that damned thing isn't going anywhere. It's very easy to set yourself up for an emotional and competitive failure by not picking a number here that is something you can really achieve. Be prepared to accept that on meet day things may not go to plan and you may not be able to set a PR. It is completely acceptable to match a gym PR in competition. Do not misunderstand this as me saying that you cannot try to set one if the strength is there, but don't set yourself up to fail by picking a number that's 30 pounds above your best competition performance when you haven't put 30 pounds on a lift in a single cycle since your first year of lifting. Unfortunately there is no guarantee written into any training program, that I know of anyway, that you will perform at 100% on meet day. This is due to the inherent balance of recovery, skill, and strength required for optimum performance and is really the most difficult aspect of powerlifting to master. It is also one of the best reasons to get a coach with some competitive experience but that is a topic for an entirely different article.
So now you're wondering what you should pick for your third attempt, right? Your best bet is going to be to take only the best lift you have in you that day. Obviously for newer lifters this is going to be hard to judge. Another good reason to have an experienced friend or coach select your attempts for you. Most important here, though, is going to be a strong understanding of your body and complete honesty with yourself. Generally speaking this will range somewhere between 100 and 105% of your one rep max, depending on how new you are to powerlifting. For more advanced lifters I generally suggest being comfortable with 2.5 kilogram competition bests as progress is progress and you can always go for those bigger lifts on a day that isn't so important. I will go into depth more in a future article about changing your third attempt deadlift for competitive reasons as that's really an entire subject in and of itself.
There you have it. This is my strategy for picking attempts. I will later go further into actual competitive strategy on how to properly handle a close race between two lifters but, for now, apply this for yourself and for your people and see how well it works for you!
-Hani Jazayrli, The Strength Athlete coach