Monday, August 11, 2014

A woman's guide to her first powerlifting meet – Part 1

by Gillian Ward

Making the decision to compete

I am frequently asked about the right time to enter a woman in her first meet. There is no right answer to this and is highly dependent on the personality and expectations of the individual. I strongly believe that having a concrete goal to focus on provides motivation, increases adherence and yields personal reward including a boost in self-confidence. Some women are comfortable competing very early on in their lifting careers. They want to step out there and see what they can do much like a recreational runner entering a local 5K. It's more about getting out there and following through with a goal then the actual numbers. The meet is also a fabulous place to show off strength, skill and hard work to friends and family. As a full time strength coach, I encourage my young novice female lifters to enter a meet within their first 3 to 6 months of training. I find that it maintains focus and excitement. On the other hand, I often wait longer to put my older female clients in meets. Not to generalize but it has been my experience that the older women are less comfortable putting themselves out there in a competitive setting with an audience. There are always exceptions. Additionally, many lifters will never compete. I never push anyone that does not want to. If I believe that they would enjoy it I ask them to come to one meet as a spectator and then another as a volunteer before signing up to compete. Initially women seem to be less concerned with the numbers that they put up or how they stack up to the rest of the competition as compared to men. Most women that are new to the sport just want to not look silly or be embarrassed the first time. This changes as a female lifter matures in her career.

When is the right time to choose a meet?

A novice lifter can prep in as little as 8 weeks for a meet. The further along a woman is in her training the further in advance a meet should be planned for. This is due to rate of adaptation and gains. A new lifter can PR lifts from training session to training session. An advanced lifter such as myself peaks three or less times a years as gains have slowed down. My recommendation for a first time lifter is to choose a meet 8-12 weeks in advance. This is a period of time that most people can wrap their heads around when it comes to sticking to a goal. It is also a chunk of time that you can look at on a calendar and see what obstacles are in the way. For a beginner, I have her look at the calendar as we select a meet and let her know that she must commit to hitting a minimum of 80% of the workouts in the weeks leading up to the meet. Basically, if it's a 10-week prep and she is traveling or absent for one reason or another for more than 2 weeks of it the timing is poor. Please bear in mind that I am speaking about a novice lifter. It would be unacceptable for a high level advanced lifter to have training interruption of that nature.

What meet to choose?

Some people are very partial to federation. The things that I like to look at for a novice are entry costs, size of the meet, proximity to the home/gym and comfort of the venue and warm-up area. I am the SPF state chair of North Carolina and hold four powerlifting meets a year at my gym so this one is a no brainer for my athletes. If I were in a different position, I would enter my athletes in the smallest, closest, least expensive meets. I look for a low intimidation factor and a meet that will be over in a half a day. There are many highs and lows in a powerlifting meet and the long days are physically and mentally exhausting. I understand that in addition to novice lifters I am dealing with novice spectators that are unaware of the "joys" of a powerlifting meet. Anyone that has ever sat through (or smelled) a powerlifting meet understands this.

Of note is that I only train raw lifters and have no experience with gear. Most federations have both geared and raw divisions. I encourage all first time lifters, both male and female to compete raw first and make decisions about geared lifting much further down the line.

Programming for the meet

This article is not about a specific meet prep program. Most lifters entering their first meet have a coach that handles that. If not, feel free to contact Paul or myself. We would be happy to set you up with online programming. A few things though should be consistent with all approaches. There should be an attainable goal in mind and the training should be directed towards achieving that goal. Training priority during a meet peaking cycle should be the main lifts – squat, bench, deadlift. Accessory lifts and exercises will be included but not at the expense of performance on the main lifts. Expect to do at a meet what you do at the gym. Every so often someone will hit a huge PR in competition but for the most part a gym PR and a meet PR are relatively close. For some people with performance anxiety gym lifts will exceed meet lifts.

Here is the interesting part for most women – your 5 reps max, 3 rep max and 1 rep max are all relatively close percentage wise. This is where we differ from men. The short explanation for this is our lack of testosterone. Women have a smaller amount of muscle mass and less ability to maximally recruit our muscle fibers because of hormonal differences. The opposite is also true, women do not display strength as well as men but often have greater muscular endurance due to less muscle fiber fatigue. It's usually a female in the gym that can hold a plank or a wall squat for the longest period of time. Also, have you ever noticed that a set of 20 of anything does not wreck a woman the way it does a man?

Male coaches need to be aware of these differences to ensure success and to make proper attempt selections for the meet. For example, if a woman is able to squat 225 for a challenging set of 5, I would guestimate her max around 240. It would not be shocking though if she failed at 235, especially early on in her training. I would predict a male to hit roughly 255 if his 5RM was 225 (unless he has not hit puberty and thus would present more similar to a female).

Attempt selection for women needs to keep the above fact in mind. I make much smaller percentage jumps for women between attempts than I do men. If I wanted to coach a female to hit a 135lb bench on her last attempt I would likely have her open at 125lbs, take her second attempt at 130lbs and go for 135lbs on the last. This is very different than what I would do with a man as a man would be fatigued if all of his attempts were so close to his max.

Training for the meet

In the weeks leading up to the meet the meet environment needs to be created. This means lifting with commands and on a clock. If you do not know the commands, read the rule book of the federation that you will be competing in. I cannot stress this enough – each federation has slight differences in the rules. It is devastating to miss a lift for failure to understand the commands. I lost my very first squat at my first USAPL meet for not waiting for the squat command to begin the lift. I had no idea why I got red lighted.

I usually have my lifters practice with commands during the final three weeks. We also monitor rest between attempts to recreate the rotation of a flight of lifters. It is at this time that I break out the specialty meet equipment – competitions bars, competition bench, monolift (if the fed uses one). I reserve this equipment for meet prep only. Most lifters do not have the luxury of training with these specialty pieces and will touch them for the first time at a meet when they check in and get rack heights. Because I have it, I use it. You can always move to North Carolina and come train with us :)

I also encourage lifters to wear their competition attire at least once in the gym for a workout. Sometimes this helps women feel less self conscious about being in a singlet on meet day. This allows us to see if we will run into any problems such as a slippery singlet under the bar or on the bench.

All federations that I know of require that a singlet be worn. Most require a T-shirt underneath for the squat and bench to prevent skin from contacting the equipment. Most require some sort of shoe be worn for all lifts and that the shins are covered on the deadlift.

If you are going to use a belt, wraps, sleeves or even a new pre workout stimulant – practice with it at this time. There should be nothing new added on meet day. In the second part of this article I will discuss selecting and purchasing a singlet in detail as well as the specifics of meet day planning (nutrition, packing your bag, to do list, warm-ups, etc)

Should I cut weight?

A first time competitor should not cut weight. It is an unnecessary variable. All first time lifters should weigh in at their natural bodyweight with proper nutrition and hydration. Weight cutting should be reserved for competitive lifters seeking to set records or meet qualification standards for higher level competition. The goal of a powerlifter at a meet should be to set PRs and put up the highest total possible. It is not “The Biggest Loser” weekly weigh ins. If strength is sacrificed by a novice to cut a few pounds than an error in judgment was made.

A weight cut is a temporary state. It should not be confused with weight loss. A weight cut is a manipulation of water and sodium not fat loss. If a lifter is overweight or overfat and wants to shed bodyfat, long term nutrition needs to be addressed and weight loss should happen in a healthy manner of 1 to 2lbs per week.

If the female lifter is competitive and a weight cut is appropriate it needs to remain within reason. My rule of thumb is never to attempt to cut more than 5% of your bodyweight. This means that if I wanted to compete in the 132lb class I should not attempt it unless I weight 139lbs or less going into the cut. I believe that health and performance are both compromised with more drastic cuts. Also, the smaller a person is the harder it is to cut a few pounds. Taking 5lbs off of a 200lb male is nothing, taking it off of a 110lb female is nearly impossible. The more muscle that you have, the more weight that you are able to cut through fluid manipulation. Women have a host of hormonal variables at play that make weight cutting unpredictable and difficult.

Stay tuned for part 2. If you have a singlet brand or cut that you really like post a link in comments or on the FB page. I will be making suggestions of where to buy singlet’s based on price range and body type. Maybe it’s silly but us ladies want to look good out there.

Also, if you have any meet day recipes for snacks that you like during competition please share them as well.


  1. Great info! Can't wait for part two. Also, I'm really thrilled that a woman such as Gillian Ward is posting here!

  2. Hello, glad to see that you decided to join Paul on the blog. I always have loved Paul's stuff and now that you are here, I will probably check here twice as often. Anyways, happy birthday and best of luck to both you and Paul.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this set of posts, looking forward to the next one. I am one of those lifters who is in the process of decreasing my bodyfat %, so I admit fully that I am larger than optimum. I am "apple" shaped and usually go for black clothing. I would love to know the best places to get a more plus sized singlet made for a woman's body. Thanks!

  4. Excellent article Gillian! I'll be pointing folks to this one for sure.

  5. Thank you for this post! it has been very informative and like others I am looking forward to part 2. I am with Lisa I need a good plus size singlet but for a tall girl. I don't even know where to start looking. Thanks!

  6. Thank you for the post! I'm also plus sized. I don't want to look embarrassing. So any help to build my confidence will be cherished!

  7. AWESOME advice! I'm going into my first PL meet in July, in NC! I'm 56, and just started lifting a year ago! I'm very excited about my new direction! This information is a God Send! Thank YOU!!

  8. Thank you for this article. I'll be competing in my first PL event in September and this was very helpful!