First Time Powerlifter's Guide To The Platform

One of the primary roles of a powerlifting coach is educating their lifters before the competition.  We sometimes overlook how little novice lifters know.  Routine logistics and procedures are likely foreign to first-timers. Preparing them ahead of time can help reduce their anxiety and stress while increasing the probability of an optimal performance.

Preparation begins several weeks out from an event when a lifter chooses their division, weight class, and remits (electronically or mail) the entry form.  Powerlifting is a product of the total amount lifted in three disciplines.  Competitors are grouped by gender, age, and bodyweight.  Novices ought to lift at their current bodyweight and not attempt to drop weight classes.  Weight manipulation (cutting weight) is a science requiring trial and error before it’s perfected.  Novices already have enough to focus on.  Making weight should not be on that list as it can impair performance.

Lifters should track their weight before going to bed and immediately upon waking (after going to the bathroom) each day during competition week.  Tracking these changes equips them with the information needed to help them wake up just under the allowable limit of the weight class they choose.  It may also be advisable to monitor their weight every few hours the day before weigh-ins.

It’s also a good idea to check the scale’s accuracy.  Many competition scales are more expensive, higher-quality scales.  The best way to check accuracy of a regular bathroom scale would be to bring it to a gym that has calibrated disks. If weighing a 25kg plate shows it’s off by .2 it must not be assumed the scale is simply off by .2. The .2 will multiply as additional weight is added to the scale. Lifters are allowed to move up or down a weight class at local meets. However, if you realize that making weight is unrealistic, notify the meet director ahead of time.  Lifters are often organized in advance according to their gender, age, and weight class in groups called “flights.” Flight size depends upon the number of lifters in each weight classes and the federation’s rules. Informing the meet director on game day is a nuisance creating additional work.  It’s also problematic as meet directors order awards based on the entries.


It’s the lifter’s responsibility to review the rulebook before the competition. The meet director may help answer any questions including allowed equipment/uniform.  Allowable equipment is outlined in the rulebook and often varies between organizations. Make sure your lifting costume meets the specifications and create a list to help pack your gear bag.  Footwear for each of the three disciplines, singlet, t-shirt, shin-length/knee-high socks for deadlift and proper underwear (legless brief style “tighty-whities” for men and legless brief, thong or bikini style for women) are all part of the uniform.  These items plus your belt, wrist wraps, and knee sleeves will need to be inspected at the equipment check before the competition.

Eve of the Contest

Make a list and double-check your gym bag the night before the meet.  Lifters should arrive to the meet wearing whatever they would typically wear for training. Depending on the temperature outside, this might be gym shorts and a t-shirt or tank top and sweatpants along with a long sleeve shirt or sweatshirt.  The temperature inside the venue is beyond your control. Oftentimes meets are held in air-conditioned hotel ballrooms or recreation centers. For that reason, it’s important to always pack a long-sleeve shirt and pants even if it’s 90 degrees outside. Wearing a singlet under sweats and peeling off layers as the warm-ups progress is typical.

I’m often asked what food to pack on meet day.  Dietary habits are personal preference but keep in mind that carbohydrates fuel the body. Fast digesting foods that cause little GI stress are best. Stick to foods you like and ones that are tolerated well by your digestive system.

At weigh-ins, you’ll also need a government issued identification (driver license/passport/state or military issued ID) along with a current membership card from the organization hosting the meet. Bring a hard copy of your game plan because you’ll submit your opening attempts (kg) in each discipline along with your rack heights (more on this later) for the squat and bench press. 

It’s always wise to plan ahead.  Ask the meet director if the warm-up area will feature kilograms (kg) or pounds so you can plan accordingly. If you’re not familiar with kilograms, print a color-coded loading chart. You’ll also want to find out if the host federation uses different bars for each discipline.   Having hard copies of your game plan and loading chart are critical since your cell phone isn’t foolproof.  A dead battery or lack of cell service can create issues you won’t likely recover from.  

Check out USA Powerlifting Coaching Chairman Matt Gary’s articles on attempt selection and game plan strategy.

Morning of Weigh-in

Check your weight upon waking. If you’re comfortably under the class limit, you may consume a light meal. If you’re close to the upper limit, it’s probably best to wait until after weigh-ins to eat or drink.

For same day weigh-ins, arrive at least 30-minutes before they start. Lifters must first check-in with photo ID and membership card in order to receive their lifter card.  I often recommend my lifters arrive earlier especially if it’s a two-session meet and they’re in the PM session.  In USA Powerlifting, weigh-ins last 90-minutes. If a lifter arrives late and misses his or her weigh-in session, they will not be allowed to weigh-in. If you don’t weigh-in, you cannot compete. Some contests use randomly assigned “lot numbers” to determine weigh-in order. If a lifter arrives up after his or her lot number is called, they have to wait until the last person weighs-in before they can.  Even in organizations using a 24-hour weigh-in like the USPA, it’s still smart to arrive early to avoid a long line.

Lifters have the option to weigh-in wearing socks and underwear or nude. USPA lifters now also have the option of weighing-in wearing their singlet. Once a lifter’s weight is recorded, they submit opening attempts (kg) in each discipline and rack heights for the squat and bench. Do not assume all combo racks (even Eleiko and ER) are alike. You should wear your competition shoes when checking your rack heights. Lifters are required to initial their lifter card for verification.  If possible, lifters should also step onto the competition platform to inspect the surface along with establishing a focal point in the room for the squat. Most lifters train on a rack they’re familiar with sometimes facing a wall or mirror.  Establishing a focal point in a new atmosphere is vital. Furthermore, the platform’s surface may be different than what the lifter is accustomed to. Overhead lighting could also be a distraction for lifters on the bench. Therefore, it’s key to get as familiar as possible with the platform area before the competitions begins.


 Novice lifters should review the federation’s rulebook before arriving at the competition.  They’d also be wise to attend the rules briefing before lifting begins.

Proper timing of warm-ups is crucial.  Warm-up too early and the lifter is left with a long time between their last single and first attempt. Muscles can tighten and central nervous system activation begins to decrease. The opening weight can feel heavy since little was done during a long period of time. The opposite is equally problematic.  If you warm-up too late, you may find yourself in a rush. Rushing through warm-ups may cause additional fatigue especially if you’re not used to training that way.   If you have to rush too much, you may have to skip a warm-up set. Skipping the last warm-up forces the lifter to take a larger progression to their opening attempt. Large jumps in the 90+% range may shock the nervous system and set the lifter up for a very shaky start.  The worst-case scenario may cause a missed opener.

In most organizations, the number of lifters per flight cannot exceed fifteen. Once the bar is loaded, lifters have one-minute to begin his or her lift or get a signal/command from the referee (depending upon the organization). Not every lifter takes a full minute. The spotters and loaders work quickly adjusting the weight and rack heights for each attempt.  An efficient platform crew can handle a round of 15 lifters in roughly 15-minutes or less.  In my experience, a well-run meet takes about 12-minutes per round with the deadlifts moving fastest.

Make sure the competition is starting on time.  Warm-ups are individual.  However, it’s usually advisable that lifters in the first flight (group) should begin warming up 30-45 minutes before their scheduled start time perhaps even longer if they prefer some sort of dynamic warm-up, foam rolling, or stretching.

Time management is critical. A coach can be a huge benefit to help manage time. A computer program usually determines the lifting order and, if you’re fortunate, it will be displayed on projectors or monitors in the warm-up area and behind the platform. The monitors display the lifting order along with successful and unsuccessful attempts of each lifter in the flight.  These statistics are shown in real-time.

It’s crucial to take your last warm-up with ample time to recover and possibly use the bathroom before your flight begins. Most organizations allow you to change an opener (typically 3-5 minutes) before the start of the flight.  If your warm-ups don’t go as planned, it’s wise to lower your opening attempt.

Lifters cannot go “down’” if an attempt is missed. No changes are permitted in the second and third attempts with the exception of the third deadlift, which may be changed twice. During single-lift (BP or DL-only) competitions the third attempt may be changed twice.  After each attempt, lifters have one-minute to submit their next attempt in kilograms.  If the attempt isn’t submitted within one-minute, the next attempt will be raised 2.5kg but missed attempts remain unchanged. Kilo conversion charts are often at the scorers’ table for referencing your next attempt. Lifters competing without the assistance of a coach or handler should have their game plan memorized.

After each lifter in the flight takes their attempt, the computer program goes back to the top of the lifting order. As mentioned earlier, lifters will have 10-15 minutes between attempts. This is time to calm nerves and visualize a successful next attempt. It’s also time to watch video, make necessary adjustments for the following attempt, and use the bathroom if necessary.

After each event, it may take up to 15-minutes to prepare the platform for the next event. During this time, the platform crew and referees will often take a short break before resuming the competition.

A lift-off is optional during the bench press and individual to each lifter. Aside from USA Powerlifting, all American federations allow lifters to use their own personal lift-off person. This is typically his or her coach, training partner, or friend and is someone the lifter is familiar with. Although USA Powerlifting does not allow a personal lift-off person, they do provide a one for the entire flight/meet.

When using the provided person it’s important for the lifter to engage in brief but thorough dialogue before lying down on the bench to take their attempt. If after the lift is completed a change needs to be made in the way the lift-off was provided, now is a good time to communicate that. On the other hand, if the lift-off was ideal a “thank you” or “that was perfect” can go a long way. Lifters should not assume the lift-off person would remember their preference.  Kindly remind them before each attempt. 



 Lifters competing in USA Powerlifting or any other drug-tested organization are subject to drug testing. USA Powerlifting tests 10% of all lifters in each contest.  The USPA follows suit in their tested divisions.  The best lifters or record breakers are often the ones tested. Drug testing is done by urinalysis and lifters are called to the scorer’s table immediately following their last deadlift attempt.  Failure to report for drug testing is considered a failure. Athletes must be familiar with the banned substance list and cross-reference any medications that they may be on that may be found on the list. Some medications may be permissible via a Therapeutic Use Exception (TUE).  Documentation from their doctor is required in advance. TUEs are not granted for hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Lifters that have used HRT or other performance enhancing drugs/steroids in the past most drug-tested organizations require that you have been off those substances for a period of three years.

An awards ceremony takes place after the contest.  This typically includes individual awards in each weight class and/or division along with the “Best Lifter” award, which is typically determined by “Wilks Score.” The Wilks Score uses a coefficient to compare strength levels at varying bodyweights. 

Following the awards, it’s customary for many lifters to take photos with their coaches, team, or family.  Once the contest is over, the lifter is now part of the powerlifting community. The powerlifting community is supportive and most competitors have similar goals. The people met during this journey establish friendships that often last a lifetime.  

The next few days or weeks following a contest is time to reflect on what went well and what didn’t go so well along with establishing changes that need to take place.  This will also be a time to formulate new goals along with a plan of action geared towards the lifter’s next contest. I find three to four meets per year to be optimal for most lifters. A good friend and coach I admire once said, “Strength is a skill and becoming proficient at a skill takes copious amount of practice.” Competing is also a skill. The more you compete, the more likely you are to be a better competitor. 


USPA Rulebook
USPA Event Calendar

USA Powerlifting Rulebook
USA Powerlifting Event Calendar