Life’s been busy to say the least. I’m looking at the date right now, and just realized that it’s been over 5 months since I competed in my first powerlifting meet alongside my fellow coaches; a day that still seems like yesterday and one that I won’t soon forget. It was an exhilarating experience and something I look forward to replicating in the near future, especially since I’ve now finished my graduate coursework in exercise physiology at Columbia University (I told you life’s been busy, right?).
We can all agree that a good training program should include the squat, deadlift, and bench press, as well as their many variations in some capacity. Well, a powerlifting meet is simply a test of pure strength in those 3 movements. For each of these 3 movements—the squat, deadlift, and bench press—you have 3 attempts to lift as much weight as possible. Like in wrestling, competitors are split into weight classes, which can vary slightly depending on the organization sanctioning the meet.
At my first meet, I competed at 182 lbs and totaled 1063 lbs when all was said and done. I hit 369 lbs on the squat, 220 lbs on the bench press, and 474 lbs on the deadlift. The squat and deadlift were both personal bests, while the bench press (with super-strict technique) isn’t far off from my personal best when I benched with different, albeit easier, technique.
The powerlifting meet was the culmination of 10 weeks of hard training, and I can’t look back at the meet without also thinking of the 10-week process it took to get there. Our VP and Director of Programming, Nick, designed my programming to prepare for the meet. The following are a few lessons I took away from this process, both from the training and the meet itself:
1) The basics work best
I am a firm believer that exercise selection is the most important aspect of fitness programming. And in this regard, believe it or not, there was nothing sexy or complex about the programming that I used to prepare for the meet. The basics, and nothing but the basics, were all I needed. You can bet that I squatted, deadlifted, and benched, but I don’t think I used more than 10 additional exercises to prepare for the meet. In fact, here are a couple of the important ones: chest-supported rows, close-grip bench presses, push presses, block pulls, Bulgarian split-squats, and farmer’s walks.
The goal of this 10-week program was to work on the 3 main lifts, with both the main lifts themselves as well as efficient bang-for-your-buck assistance exercises to help the main lifts. Simply put, it was everything I needed, and nothing I didn’t. What did matter was how these exercises were manipulated from the standpoint of periodization, sets, reps, and intensity, but this should not take away from the lesson learned here: the basics work best. And I got pretty effing strong as a result of them.
2) The comfort zone
When you are trying to lift as much weight as possible, pushing the limits of what you are capable of requires a coordinated and careful dance on the fine line between just right and too much. As I prepared for the meet, I approached numbers in my main lifts that I’d never hit before, and to think that my goal was to lift even more than that during the meet? Mind-boggling for a first-time powerlifter. But that’s what training is all about. We approach the limits of our performance in our training, otherwise, we’ll never get there when it matters most. For reference, I did pretty well during my meet, as I was able to beat personal bests that I achieved in training by 25 pounds in the squat, 5 pounds in the bench, and 20 pounds in the deadlift when it counted. Adrenaline had a lot to do with that, but I certainly would not have hit those numbers if I cowered in fear as I approached a barbell on the rack with more than 3 plates on either side for a set of squats.
Having never trained specifically for a powerlifting meet before, lifting that heavy and often at the margins of my maximum potential (at that point in time I might add, because I’m certainly going to do this again) really opened my eyes and brought me out of my comfort zone with regards to training in this manner. I’m all the better for it, and the fact that I didn’t get hurt brings to light just how important the smart management of training and everything outside of it is, when it comes to succeeding at the limits of your capabilities.
3) Recover, recover, recover
The previous sentence alludes to this third lesson. Smart training is just one aspect of fitness; what about everything else outside of the training session? I trained pretty hard during that 10-week lead-up, and my workouts would not have been fruitful or productive if I did not properly manage my training stress outside of the gym. I was mindful of my time off between sessions, and ate and slept more to keep up with my training. Especially when the training is intense, I would argue that adequate sleep and rest are essential for complete recovery. And I don’t think my tired body at the end of a heavy deadlift day would debate that notion! Trust me when I say that I was out like a light on most nights when I hit the sheets during that 10-week period. The extra sleep certainly helped.
4) Things move fast
This final lesson will be more of a brain dump about my experience during the actual meet, but in short, I’d absolutely encourage you to do one. Sure, we may participate in recreational soccer and basketball leagues in our free time, but preparing and participating in a powerlifting meet is something entirely different. Someone will win a trophy for having the highest total in their weight class, but when all is said and done, participating in a meet is a purely individual endeavor. Your biggest opponent is yourself, and your goal is simply to lift more than you did yesterday. That being said, there’s nothing like setting personal records under a particularly unique set of circumstances that make meets rather idiosyncratic: 1) in front of an audience, no matter how big or small 2) with loud metal blaring through the gym’s speakers, and 3) with the encouragement and support of your fellow competitors. It’s this fun, supportive environment that makes me want to get up on the platform again soon! I never got the sense that the meet was actually a competition; lifters shared advice on technique, commended each other on successful lifts, and it almost felt as if winning something was an unintentional consequence. I didn’t bring home any hardware, but the experience and feeling of accomplishment afterward made it more than worth it. Things certainly moved fast during the meet, even though I had to stick around for at least 5 hours to perform 9 lifts because of the large number of competitors participating. But that volume of people also adds to the fun, and watching others push the limits of their potential is motivating in and of itself.
I learned these 4 lessons over the course of a training process focused on powerlifting, but even if you don’t like or have any interest in the sport, these lessons apply across the entire spectrum of fitness. Good training is good training, and there is no substitute for working hard or getting strong, period. The squat, deadlift, and bench press just so happen to be excellent benchmarks of strength in its purest form. Fitness does not have to be fancy or complicated; at the end of the day, the basics work best—something I have learned to deeply appreciate. As with most everything else, you get out of fitness what you put in, and this will often require you to get out of your comfort zone. Preparing for a powerlifting meet kept me accountable to my own performance and progress, and I couldn’t help but feel stronger and fitter as a result of this good, old-fashioned, hard training. The best part about all this? If you choose to partake in such an endeavor, I fully believe that you’d feel the same way, too. So take these 4 lessons to heart, and happy training!
by Jeremy Lau
Jeremy Lau is a Staff Coach at Halevy Life.
Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and is currently pursuing his M.Ed. in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).
Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.
As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his life.