A Case for Sanity and Powerlifting, Part 2

TAGS: fundamental strategies, attempts, Dustin Starer, powerlifting meet, PR

Choose Your Poison

There are three fundamental strategies any reasonable athlete or coach can use to choose one’s attempts. As in life, all have their strengths, weaknesses, and unique merits to consider when choosing which is most appropriate for you.

Strategy 1: Classic percentage selection

This strategy utilizes a previously achieved one-rep max in each discipline to determine the appropriate first, second, and third attempts. Shown in Table 1, each attempt has a range of percentages to choose from. While this strategy seems very recipe-like, it provides a basic outline and foundation that can be applied to the other two fundamental strategies. The ranges in each attempt leave more seasoned powerlifters the ability to adjust to circumstance.

Table 1
Attempt Percentage of One Rep Max
First 88–93
Second 94–98
Third 99–102+

Strengths: This is a great way to outline basic attempt selection to absolute beginners. Anyone can pick this up and use it to some extent. Highly technically-minded athletes and novice lifters may find this strategy most attractive due to its simplicity and complete independence from recognizing how much a lifter “has left” or what an appropriate jump may be in kilograms given one’s one-rep max. It’s a fairly black and white system despite the ranges, making it a suitable option when you don't have a coach or handler to watch your attempts and give you unbiased feedback. This chart also provides an avenue for highly emotional athletes to avoid making mental errors in attempt selection.

Weaknesses: Hands down, the biggest issue with this strategy is its reliance on an accurate one-rep max in each lift. Without up-to-date maxes, the figure above loses its application for beginners almost instantly. More often than not, a lifter who strictly follows this chart with an inaccurate max (whether he knows it or not) will either miss his third attempt or leave a ton of poundage out there.

Equally important, a strict percentage-based approach doesn’t compliment heavily circumstantial lifting well. Supportive equipment, changes in body weight, and an always complicated competition environment may present difficulty applying this strategy. For example, if you can’t get down in or touch anything less than 97 percent of your max, you may not want to use a basic percentage-based strategy for attempt selection. Sometimes our training cycles don't go well and a different strategy, like just making a stinking lift, is more appropriate.

Wrap up: If you don’t know what you’re doing and don’t have any help from someone who does, make sure you take a heavy single (don’t fail) in each discipline four to six weeks before your competition. Having an accurate idea of what you’re capable of doing will allow you to confidently use this strategy without much risk of missing your mark by a large margin.

Strategy 2: Upstream selection

Pick your ending attempt before you start your meet and choose the first and second attempts as stepping stones to get there. If you think that sounds a little crazy, you’re either completely reasonable or a communist RAWWW pansy who’s afraid to take risks. It depends on who you ask. All kidding aside, it’s as simple as that. You can use the percentage-based strategy in unison with upstreaming to choose your first two stepping stones. Simply put your ending attempt for the meet in as your one-rep max and pick your first two attempts using Table 1.

Strengths: The upstream strategy is most appropriate when you care only about milestones. This system may yield huge PRs and epic meets.

Weaknesses: If the strengths of upstream attempt selection appear minimal, you’re right. In fact, the only reason I mention it is because it happens to be one of the most popular means of choosing attempts in the powerlifting community. Determining why or what makes this strategy so popular is beyond the scope of this article but could probably be determined through the study of male behavior and group mentality.

Using upstream attempt selection often disregards lifter condition, risk management, and building a higher total, which, after all, is the goal of powerlifting. Sure, hitting that big 500-pound squat for the first time will boost your total considerably, but if you miss it, you’ll have left forty big ones out there, which you aren't going to make up in the other two lifts. You’re going to get passed by someone just as strong as you who decided to take 475 pounds for his third instead of 500 pounds. Maybe you were good for 480 or 490 pounds, but you won’t know unless you load it on the bar at some point.

Wrap up: If you can’t tell, I believe that the upstream attempt selection isn't a suitable strategy for powerlifters to achieve long-term, sustainable gains in their totals. On the other hand, the only way to make an attempt at 500 pounds, 600 pounds, or whatever is to put it on the bar. No guts, no glory, right?

Strategy 3: Downstream selection

Downstream selection puts a great emphasis on your opening lift in each discipline. Using this strategy, an athlete and his coach put the majority of their mental capital into their start, not end. How aggressive a lifter may or may not be during his subsequent lifts will depend solely on the opener. Second and third attempts are chosen based on how the preceding lifts looked or felt. If a lifter smokes his opener, a relatively aggressive jump may be taken for the second attempt. If it was a bit harder than anticipated, a smaller increase may be taken for the next lift. The entire third part of this article series will go into this method with great detail.

Strengths: The downstream method doesn't limit or hinder any particular goal from being reached, assuming that an appropriate opener is selected. Downstreaming leaves the door open for moderate adjustments caused by circumstantial changes or miscalculations. Basing attempt selection on the prior lift puts huge accountability on each attempt. This can help emotional lifters stay focused on incremental progress, not the big picture.

Weaknesses: Downstreaming can be limiting if you don’t choose the right opener. Opening too low may require large or non-traditional jumps between attempts to get near a lifter’s potential. This strategy counts on an athlete or coach with at least an intermediate level of experience to be present for effective use. Choosing attempts based on the prior lift is naturally dependent on some level of estimating based on a mixture of real time feedback and/or past experience.

Wrap up: A lifter who gets stronger over time will eventually hit total PRs. How often that takes place is completely up to the lifter and how he chooses his attempts. I believe that momentum built off previous experience hitting clutch third attempts can be a large factor in whether or not lifters make their milestone lifts when the time is appropriate.

All attempt selection strategies are based on at least one of the three mentioned above. Each strategy has strengths, weaknesses, and unique merit from which to consider when picking the best option for you. Ultimately, no matter what strategy a lifter picks, nothing is more important than preparedness of the body and mind. Know the rules, know the meet, know your capabilities, and know your gear (if applicable).

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