Eyes Wide Open

In the second part of this article series, "A Case for Sanity in Powerlifting, Part 2," I discussed the three primary strategies for attempt selection in powerlifting—percentage based, upstreaming, and downstreaming. In the third and final part, I'll detail downstreaming. I believe that the downstream method for attempt selection is the most reliable, flexible, and effective strategy for increasing a lifter’s full power total.

Humans use past experience to help make decisions. Apart from skill acquisition and muscular growth, good training provides an athlete and his coach with experience. "In the gym" experiences coupled with past meet performance (if it exists) are what we use when calculating our goals and expectations at meets. Unless you do meets every week or simulate meet conditions in the gym perfectly, what constitutes an effective or entirely useful experience can vary depending on your training conditions.

While having a repetitive set up and mental approach to each lift will improve a training experience’s usefulness, “out of gym” variables like sleep, stress, and body weight may have the greatest impact on one’s strength. Unfortunately, “out of gym” variables are rarely managed to a high degree or on a daily basis. The downstream method compensates for the impact that a misrepresentative “in gym” experience may have on a lifter’s emotional state at a meet by focusing on the performance taking place on the day of competition. Gym experience shouldn't be ignored. It should be used as a “stepping off” point.

The longer a lifter and/or coach implements the downstream method, the more effective it becomes. Identifying lifter tendencies and patterns on the platform is one of the most important skills a coach can learn. If an athlete performs above average on the platform regularly, downstreaming allows for it. Likewise, if he cut a few pounds for the competition, downstreaming will help optimize his strength level and total on meet day.

The downstream method is simple in theory but requires time and experience to perfect:

  1. An athlete, through filming and the input of other more experienced athletes/coaches, chooses an opener. This opener should fall between 88 percent and 93 percent of his estimated max and should be a bar weight that the lifter has tripled on more than one occasion. Sometimes a bit of guesswork is necessary. For example, if you use a Texas template and only have a five-rep max to work with, simply take your best set of five and add between two percent and six percent to the bar weight. Generally, it's two percent for women and six percent for intermediate or skilled male athletes. Don’t ask me why, but females seem to be able to perform more reps with a higher percentage of their one-rep max.
  2. After the first attempt takes place, the coach and lifter discuss his next attempt using the opener as their primary influence. Goals and PRs are the secondary influence. A conservative, traditional, aggressive, or exploratory attempt may be chosen for his second lift. Please see the "Attempt Selection Template 1.0" below for more detail on what constitutes each of the above jump types.
  3. The same process will be carried out for selecting the third attempt. The finality of the last lift makes choosing the right number for the last squat, bench, or deadlift a unique process. This is where the coach and lifter must absolutely be on the same page to avoid any emotional fallout. The third attempt is where relationships and trust are built and broken. Naturally, a coach will want to be more conservative to cover his ass while a lifter will want to go for the big lift.

Considerations for single-ply lifting

Squat suits:

With single-ply equipment becoming more rigid and supportive, special adjustments may be necessary to assure a lifter’s success. A squat suit can be mastered in a way that still allows for an opener to be taken between 90 to 93 percent. If it's being worn very tight, an argument can be made that an opener in the 88 to 89 percent range may be too light. With that said, most of the time, a squat opener should still fall in the prescribed range. If the suit is being worn tight enough to truly necessitate an opener at 95 percent or above, a lifter and/or coach should be open to the prospect of having a rough time on the platform. That isn't to say that it isn’t optimal for building one’s total. It simply means that the gear may cause a level of inconsistency in one’s lifting, resulting in a high risk/reward environment. Such an environment generally yields big lifts or no lifts at all.

Bench shirts:

The bench shirt is more commonly an inhibitor of proper downstreaming for three reasons.

  1. A bench shirt can be worn in many fashions. How it is seated on a lifter, to a very exacting degree, changes its characteristics.
  2. Often, a chest plate’s “tightness” isn't directly correlated with its tightness in other regions. A shirt that fits properly around the arms and shoulders may be entirely too tight in the chest for a lifter to make repeatable strokes.
  3. Most commonly, a shirt being worn very tightly requires a minimum bar weight to actually use. If this bar weight closely approaches the lifter’s maximal strength, the window for making a successful lift becomes very small. It’s a phenomenon that causes more bombs in powerlifting than any other circumstance.

A very tightly worn bench shirt is a good coach’s worst nightmare. It’s important to know when a shirt is causing inconsistent lifts and to make sure that the lifter is comfortable taking on the risk associated with it. The two most common compensations for this occurrence are opening raw or opening in a less restrictive bench shirt. Both are great ways to manage risk, but a short flight or crowded warm-up area may make removing and/or properly seating a bench shirt difficult.

In conclusion

The downstream method isn't perfect and requires an experienced lifter and/or coach to aid in making good, appropriate attempt selections based on the information at hand. Gym lifts are a great place to start, but anyone who has stepped foot on a platform knows how much a meet environment can change things negatively or positively. Good practice in training, both in and out of the gym, will lessen the environmental factors. However, being ready to adjust and adapt throughout the day is crucial to building one’s full power total. A 685-pound lift isn't 700 pounds, but it’s certainly not 655 pounds either.


Attempt Selection Table 1.0 Manual

Note to reader: This table is very basic and isn't intended to provide any groundbreaking information to the powerlifting community. Instead, it’s designed to provide a guideline following basic logic and percentage-based attempt selection. This manual is supplementary material on how to adjust selections based on lifter variables.

Vertical columns:

  • Column 1: The uncolored column lists max attempts and corresponding ranges. A lifter will rarely fall on the ideal number (the first number outside the parentheses). For the sake of discussion, all lifters will fall directly on the mean (average) of each range. Estimated maxes that fall far from the middle of a range on the cusp will be discussed later.
  • Colum 2: The second pillar, labeled “Conservative” and filled with yellow, provides attempt jumps that will have an athlete end at or less than his previous estimated max. Because the numbers in the “Conservative” column are marked as ≤, it is at the coach’s and lifter’s discretion as to how conservative they truly want to be. With weaker athletes and light females, a “conservative” jump can only be so small and limits attempt selection to 2.5 kgs or 5 pounds.
  • Column 3: The “Traditional” pillar, filled with orange, should be the most widely used column by athletes. Assuming two jumps are selected from the “Traditional” category, a final attempt will be roughly 103 percent.
  • Column 4: The “Aggressive” column, filled with red, is used when a lifter is expecting a max above 103 percent. Two jumps taken from the “Aggressive” column will yield a max around 107–108 percent. For many beginners or lifters who have gained a considerable amount of body weight, this may be the best way to choose attempts.
  • Column 5: The “Exploratory” column is designed to give athletes and coaches an option to make a very large jump after making a mistake when evaluating a lifter’s estimated max and opener. The best time to use this type of jump is from the first to second attempt. Often, a truly warranted “exploratory” jump from first to second attempts may call for another for the third attempt. Use this category with caution, as jumps this large present certain shocks to the athlete and may pinch him for his final attempt.

Mixing and matching

Often, two jumps may not be taken from the same category. A lifter may take an “aggressive" jump from his first to second attempts and decide, based on how the second attempt feels, to choose a “traditional” jump for his final attempt. There isn't anything wrong with this, as it opens the door for a big PR while keeping an opportunity to solidify a more modest one. Naturally, if an athlete follows an aggressive jump with a conservative one, he may have made a bad judgment after the opener. A lower risk approach to achieving a similar result would have been to take two traditional jumps.

I fall at or near a cusp: It’s OK. Many lifters do. Athletes who fall at the bottom of a range may want to:

  • Stay in the prescribed range and give a greater consideration to taking an “aggressive” first jump. After the second attempt, you can reevaluate.
  • Drop to the range below and choose a more “conservative” strategy.

If you fall at the top end of a range, you may want to:

  • Consider choosing a “conservative” attempt selection.
  • Jump to the next range and look more closely at the “aggressive” column.

This is fairly straight forward, I know. That’s the idea.