Figure Athlete To Powerlifter: My First Powerlifting Meet

Earlier this year, I signed up for my first powerlifting meet. Here's how I trained to put on 10 pounds of muscle, an inch on my quads, and hundreds of pounds on the bar.

"Did you get your rack height?" asked Cara Westin, owner of FNStrong and meet coordinator for the Southern Powerlifting Federation. She was sorting a stack of registration forms, "Go get your rack height before you come to the registration table."

Setting the bench and rack height are paramount to lifting in the meet. Everything must run on schedule, and having these heights will ensure a good set up when it's time to lift. Not only do the meet assistants have to load and unload the bar, they also have to change the rack heights for each lifter. Knowing the adjustments before each lifter steps up to the bar saves a huge amount of time and makes the meet run much smoother.

I hoped that Cara would go easy on me since it was my first meet, but I know she wanted me to feel like a competitor. I wandered over to the monolift, a squat rack specially designed so the lifter doesn't have to walk backward or forward to perform the lift. I was familiar with the monolift, but I hadn't regularly used one in my own gym. Setting the pins? I was clueless. Jim McDonald, Super Training TV's video producer, helped me figure it out and then instructed me on how to set my bench height.

The room was filled with what looked like descendants of Goliath: Chad Wesley Smith, Brandon Lilly, Eric Lillibridge. Among these high-caliber powerlifters, I must have looked like a ballerina. I shuffled back over to the registration table to weigh in and receive instructions for the following day. In less than 12 hours, I would step to the platform for my first powerlifting meet.

From Figure to Powerlifting

I tossed my plastic heels in 2011 after placing fourth in a natural figure pro qualifier. The burnout factor played a huge role in my decision, but I also realized that the most rewarding part of competing for me happened in the gym, not on the stage. After my final figure show, I still felt the urge for a new challenge. I wasn't sure where to channel this energy, and I dabbled a bit in sprinting again. But competitive sprinting takes an exceptional amount of dedication and coaching, and I didn't have either at the time. So, I resigned myself to focusing on building my fitness career.

"I had always maintained decent strength since I began weightlifting, but I never focused on getting insanely strong in the three big lifts: barbell squat, bench press, and deadlift."

My complacency didn't last long. Earlier this year, I scratched that ambitious itch again and signed up for my first powerlifting meet. I had always maintained decent strength since I began weightlifting, but I never focused on getting insanely strong in the three big lifts: barbell squat, bench press, and deadlift. I suffered a few minor setbacks with low back pain, but overall my training was seamless.

Preparing for the Meet

Nine weeks from my meet date, I hired Jordan Syatt of Syatt Fitness to coach me to the platform. Although he lives in Boston and I'm on the left coast, I felt confident enough in my lifts to manage an online program. Syatt assessed my form, my musculature, and evaluated my application before he built my program. In addition to hiring Syatt, I also worked with Cara Westin—the aforementioned meet coordinator—to help improve my technique. Working with these two coaches provided the right guidance so I could be as prepared as possible.

Syatt programmed an adaptation of Westside Conjugate, which is a training methodology created by the legendary Louie Simmons to increase an individual's performance in the powerlifts. My workouts were structured with two max effort and two dynamic effort days. My week looked like this:

Monday: Max Effort Lower
Tuesday: Off
Wednesday: Max Effort Upper
Thursday: Off
Friday: Dynamic Effort Lower
Saturday: Dynamic Effort Upper

My max effort days were set up to produce the greatest strength gains, while dynamic effort days helped me build speed. On max effort days, I lifted as heavy as I could using quality form for a given number of sets and reps. On dynamic effort days, I used smaller percentages of my max effort lifts and worked on lifting this weight as fast as possible with quality form.

As my meet date neared, my workouts grew longer. Sometimes they took up to two hours. Heavy training requires a great deal of rest between sets. If you're going as heavy as possible with great technical form, you can't do well if you only rest 30 seconds between lifts. Rush the process and technique breaks down rapidly.

There is always a delicate balance between moving up in weight and maintaining form. In order to grow stronger, breaking form is inevitable, but breaking form shouldn't become a habit. If you begin pushing yourself to go heavier with questionable form each time you step up to the bar, you've created a recipe for disaster.

I trained like this for eight weeks and added 500 calories to my daily intake. I couldn't have asked for better results: My quads grew an inch and my overall physique was more athletic. My starting weight was 131 and I weighed in at 139.5 the day before the meet. I came in looking and feeling better than ever.

My Meet Results

Both Syatt and Westin told me to make hitting all nine lifts my goal for the meet. I wanted to use my best possible technical form and wasn't too concerned about hitting big numbers.

My meet attempts

First attempt: 175 lbs
Second attempt: 192.5 lbs
Third attempt: 215 lbs (missed)

First attempt: 95 lbs
Second attempt: 105 lbs
Third attempt: 115 lbs (missed)

First attempt: 225 lbs
Second attempt: 245 lbs
Third attempt: 260 lbs

I knew exactly what went wrong with my two missed attempts, which means I know exactly what to work on before my next meet. My squat miss was out of my hands because they mixed up my attempt load with another competitor's. My attempt was set at 203 pounds, which I could have nailed, but I wound up trying to go for 215. I got a little eager with my bench and jumped 10 pounds instead of five.

My deadlift is my best lift and I could have easily lifted 295 that day. But the deadlift is also the lift that aggravated my back earlier in my training and even the week prior. I didn't want to walk away injured in the name of hitting a personal record (PR).

Syatt told me that I was going to walk away feeling like I left a lot of weight on the platform, and that it wouldn't matter. The first meet isn't about breaking records, it's about meeting a goal. Besides, each of my lifts would be a "meet PR" anyway, considering it was my first meet.

Putting the Pieces Together

The last time I competed in 2011, I focused on my physique without giving much thought to strength. Sure, I felt strong in the gym, but my overarching goal was stepping onto that stage looking my best. This go-round, I didn't give a second thought to how I looked. I focused solely on gaining strength and using excellent technique. I stepped onto the powerlifting platform looking better than I had on show day when I was competing in figure.

"Building a strength base and a foundation of quality muscle with powerlifting will help you add more muscle mass so you can sculpt a better physique."

I believe that anyone with aesthetic goals can greatly benefit from powerlifting. Building a strength base and a foundation of quality muscle with powerlifting will help you add more muscle mass so you can sculpt a better physique. Today's powerlifter doesn't just focus on the squat, deadlift, and bench press. A good powerlifting program also incorporates assistance work to build muscle. More muscle mass usually means better aesthetics and also more strength in your "big three."

Even if you never plan to step on the stage or lift on the platform, your program should be based on the squat, deadlift, and bench press for strength and accessory or isolation work for muscle-building and aesthetics. You won't be disappointed!

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