So, you've decided to finally ditch the old-age philosophy that you need to be a certain strength or at a certain number on a bar to compete. Now what? Where do you go from here? This brief article is a small glimpse into what to expect and how to get the wheels turning. This is not meant to be a one-stop shop but a place to open up conversations and point you in the right direction. For lifters with a little more experience under their belts, my articles regarding weight cuts and peaking into a meet can also be found here on the elitefts website.
Signing Up for a Meet
When competing, most will want to sign up for a sanctioned event under a federation's name. When a meet is sanctioned, upon completion, the results are posted to an online database where the lifter can see how their rankings stand up to others on a national; world; yearly; and all-time level. The most common way to find a sanctioned meet would be to research the federation's upcoming events on its official homepage. Many of these meets are also usually advertised through Facebook groups by state and/or meet directors' and federations' social media profiles. Gone are the days of actual print-out gym flyers, so online apps are the go-to for upcoming happenings. It will also depend on the type of meeting you are looking for regarding divisions allowed and the type of equipment to utilize on the competition platform. Many will allow raw; raw with wraps (classic raw); single-ply; and even multi-ply, depending on the use of a monolift. Asking for friends' advice on what federation and equipment are used, such as specialty bars, can also guide your hand on which to select when looking for a meet.
Above all, besides your prep, reading and comprehending the rules is a non-negotiable task for the lifter to ensure a successful and smooth first meet. This involves going over what commands will be followed, legal brand or specifications for equipment, and knowing the general flow of the meet. Meets will consist of Squat, Bench, and Deadlift in that order, with each group, or "flight" as they are referred to, taking all three of their attempts in that lift before proceeding to the next flight to do the same. Once all flights have executed that lift, the meet will take a small break or advance straight into the next lift and repeat for all the flights. Once the meet is over, the highest successful attempts of the nine lifts will be taken. Then, three for each lift or less, depending on if a lifter passed, will be added together to achieve a total and dots or wilks (depending on fed), and awards will be issued by weight class and division. Although many federations give a rules briefing before the first flight warms up on a meet day, the lifter must read and know the rulebook.
Gear and Equipment
Knowing what to wear and what not to wear is crucial to competing and training. Nothing is more devastating to a new lifter than training in a pair of sleeves only to get to gear check to find that they are not allowed because of an aspect of the material or construction. Checking your gear against the rulebook and what is allowed in your federation should play a key role in what equipment you purchase and use. This can generally be found in the back of the rulebook or the gear specifications, if not by brand, in the front pages of the rulebook. Some federations allow certain lengths of wraps and thicknesses of belts and knee sleeves, and some do not. Please be responsible and check. This also applies to single and multi-ply gear as some allow Velcro and open-back bench shirts, whereas others must be closed to stay within a specific division. On meet day, it is also good to bring comfortable shorts and sweats to put on between flight attempts to relax while waiting. Spare clothes you do not check-in for when you are not on the platform are always recommended.
Common Platform Setups
One thing to know is the flow of the meet and how the platform is designed and placed. Federations are usually set up on an 8'x8' platform to which the monolift or combo rack is secured. This is also covered with a layer of carpet. Judges' chairs are one to each side of the platform and one head at the front and center. Spotters and loaders surround the venue and range from four to six individuals. The lights that indicate whether a lift is good are located behind and usually to the side of the platform as well as a time clock. Another screen will broadcast the lineup and display the weights being loaded. An emcee will announce the lineup, usually in groups of four upcoming lifters from that flight. Lifters will enter from one side; exit on the other; proceed to the head judges' table off to the platform's exit side, and then go back into the lineup for the next attempt. Another screen in the warm-up area will indicate the same lineup as the platform to track when you are up again and how many are in front of you. This constantly changes based on the weight of the attempts, and if someone misses a lift, it is important to pay attention to the changes and weights being loaded next.
The warm-up room will consist of whatever bars and weights are used for the meet: one rack and platform for each flight, ex: three flights equal three combos to warm up on. This is standard but can drastically make or break the quality and smoothness of a meet, which is why it is important to ask other lifters who have competed before about their experiences with that venue or director. For example, if you are in flight B, you need to be ready to warm up as soon as or close to when flight A is on the platform.
Judges and Commands
Most federations will issue the following commands from the head or center judge. There are generally two commands for Squat, a "Squat" and a "Rack" command. The "Squat" is also accompanied by a hand signal for the lifter to commence the start of the lift, in which the lifter must go down and reach depth and return to the top. Once they show control and are locked out, the head judge will issue a "Rack" command with another hand signal in which the lifter must attempt to rack the weight with the help of the spotters. Instances of locking and unlocking the knees; moving feet; reversing the movement before hitting depth; and other small attributes may result in a red light or a lift being turned down by one or more of the 3 judges. Again, this is why it is so important for the lifter to know and have read the rules for that federation. A lifter needs the majority for the lift to pass or a 2 to 1 in their favor of white lights to red.
The bench consists of 3 commands, although some federations do not issue a "Start" command. Typically, a "Start" command with a hand movement is issued once the lifter has control of the bar and elbows are locked to start the lift. The spotter/designated handoff must also step out of the line of sight of the head judge to not obstruct their view to make fair, correct calls. You may provide your own handoff or have someone assist you, but clarification is needed before the event commences. Once the bar descends, it cannot change direction until it comes to a dead stop on the torso, and the judge calls a "Press" command. The lifter must then return to the top of the starting position, elbows locked, and wait until the last command, "Rack," is given for the bar to be replaced with the aid of the spotters. Offenses such as pressing too early, heaving or sinking the bar, pronounced uneven lockout, or additional contact with the equipment may all be possible means for a red light. When receiving a red light, it is always encouraged that a lifter asks the judge that issued it immediately after the call so that they may correct it in the future.
Finally, the Deadlift is the last event of the day and is always given only one command, a "Down," which is delivered once the lifter is perceived by the head judge to be fully locked out or lifted the bar as far as possible. Hitching, when the lifter humps or jolts the bar in a panic to achieve a lockout, as well as throwing their knees forward and rolling or supporting it on their thighs, are grounds for red lights. Dropping the bar or forcefully punching/throwing it to the floor can also result in a no-lift. Judges look for squared, locked shoulders and locked-out knees so the lifter stands erect and vertically with the weight. When a lifter fails to demonstrate this and show complete lockout at the top of a deadlift, it is commonly referred to as having "soft" knees or "soft" shoulders.
Lifters are always encouraged to ask the referee that issued them a red light why they received it. Many are small fixes you can clean up quickly to avoid repeating on your next attempt. However, you must ask upon exiting the platform promptly and not 10 lifts later; the same goes for the head judges' table, as they were not in the chair as one of the issuing red lights and did not know your specific situation. You have 60 seconds to get the bar moving on the platform once your name is called; and another 60, whether the attempt was successful or not, to put in your next attempt at the table. Failure to do so on the first will result in a timed-out "no lift," Failure to do so at the table will result in a repeated attempt or next chart jump in weight. In both situations, you need to be in control and aware of what is happening.
Warming Up and Attempts
You should always stick to predetermined warm-up selections, specifically, ones you have followed in training, for meet day. Deviating and trying new things the day of is a big no-no; knowing how many jumps you need to make and how much time it will take to feel comfortable is key. Never take your opener in the warm-up room and repeat it on the platform. That being said, a good rule of thumb is to set your opener at a weight that is something super easy. It is your ticket in the door and a foolproof plan, even if you feel bad, nervous, or sick. Failure to do an opener on any of the Big 3 will result in a lifter's biggest fear: the "bomb out" or disqualification from the meet. That is why you must be smart and make it easy, especially since it's your first time on the platform. Your second attempt should be slightly more challenging and maybe slightly below a personal best. Third attempts should be a reasonable PR, something you are confident you can get and have trained for. For example, if I have benched 225 in the gym with commands and ground it out, matching it or slightly upping it to the next weight jump on the chart would be a smart call. I always tell my lifters, "It is better to say 'I wish I went five pounds more' instead of 'damn, I wish I went five pounds less'." In other words, do not get hung up on a particular number but conserve energy for the total.
Food and Drink
No bigger mistake can be made than being unprepared and not having fuel for the day's performance. Many meets start at 9 am (with rules briefing at 8) and last until 4 or 5 pm, depending on the number of lifters competing. A sold-out single platform meet can have up to 50 or 60 competitors, making for a long day for the lifters and staff. Therefore, having meals and snacks that will aid and not hinder your lifting is vital.
Small meals that are not too heavy (or spicy) are great, as well as fast snacks like bananas, oatmeal bars, rice crispy treats, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Meals on the bland side, such as rice and pasta with steak and chicken, are good options. Anything you do not normally eat during training and prep should not be touched, as upset stomachs in a singlet are not a good time. Spending more time in the bathroom than the warm-up room isn't a situation you want to find yourself in.
Nonetheless, always bring a spare pair of underwear and a singlet to be safe. Gatorade and sugar-based candy in small amounts works great in between attempts, and water and hydration supplements once the flight is done. Chugging water is not a good call, as a big belly full of water can be just as unsettling. Drink and eat consistently throughout the meet rather than slam it down at an inopportune time. Pre-workout and energy drinks are okay in moderation, as a caffeine crash can be just as bad as a food coma. Again, pacing here is always the rule of thumb.
It is easy to get caught up in the nuances and anxiety of a meet, and no matter how hard you try or have practiced, you are bound to make some silly and rookie mistakes. This is part of the fun, though! Above all, each meet should be a learning experience to grow from. This sport has given me everything, and watching first-time lifters fall in love with the sport and celebrate is one of the closest things to my heart. As a director, gym owner, competitor, and referee, and having worked in multiple federations, I truly and sincerely hope this gives you everything this has given me. So shake your staff's hands, take pictures in front of the banners with your medals, and hug new and old friends alike.
For some of us, this means nothing, but to others, absolutely everything.
See you on the platform!
Travis Rogers currently resides on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he owns and operates a strength training facility, "The Bear Cave." He also works as a graphic designer, and 10th and 12th grade ELA teacher, and is active in the community with his 501(c)3 charity organization for underprivileged children. In addition, he is the WRPF MD and DE state chairman, a national-level referee, and a meet director for the surrounding area.
Travis has been in the top-10 198 rankings for the last four years in both sleeves and wrapped divisions. After double quad rupture surgery, he's begun a new journey in equipment. In his first meet back from surgery, he totaled 2138 in the unlimited 198 division.