Coaching Primer

by Alex Galant & Larry Maile, 2000 (revised by Matt Gary, 2013)

This article is intended to educate powerlifting coaches who plan to coach at the national or international level. These strategies have been developed through our experience of over 40 IPF World Championships between us and are directly applicable to coaching individuals and teams at national championships, and to a lesser degree, to state and local level meets. While the smaller level meets may not use IPF rules, they still involve preparing the lifter or lifters for the individual lifts, managing numbers, and determining strategy to maximize each participant’s performance.

Before the meet

imperative that coaches remain in regular contact with their lifters before the meet. This process begins immediately after a lifter accepts the offer to lift on their respective team. In this day and age of electronic communication where anyone can connect via cell phone, email, text message, and various social media outlets, there is no excuse for not being able to monitor your athletes. Video analysis is a useful tool to make sure your lifters are performing well in their training and meeting the standards of competition criteria.

The most important piece of knowledge before you get to the meet is summed up in the statement, “How did your training for this meet go?” When coach and lifter remain in contact during the training cycle, it answers this question thereby eliminating confusion and increasing the probability of success on meet day. We each use training protocol where lifters log important information such as repetitions (volume) on the competition lifts, weight used (intensity), and bodyweight when the lifts were performed. For equipped lifters, it’s also important to know what level of gear you were using – loose, tight, or competition fit. Most lifters follow some form of periodization whereby they decrease repetitions as weight increases. It’s vital to be aware of how much you increase with decreasing reps so we can generally gauge what your strength curve is doing, or put more simply, how fast you are gaining strength. Comparing this with your body weight gives us some idea of how much strength you lose as you lose bodyweight. Some lifters are fortunate, as they tend to retain a higher level of strength with weight loss. Others have a predictable, and often linear decrease in strength with every pound lost.

When you arrive at the meet, have your lifters check their weight on the meet scale ASAP. Closely monitor your lifter’s weight in the day(s) leading up to the competition so nutritional adjustments can be made. Depending upon bodyweight, the average lifter can lose between one and three pounds overnight. Most lifters who are over weight are advised to stop drinking water no later than 12 hours prior to their weigh-in.

The Technical Meeting

All international meets include a Technical Meeting (TM) typically held the day prior to competition. The TM is where each coach/country officially declares which lifters are present. Changes in lifting schedule are also discussed. All team head coaches are required to attend the meeting. You are encouraged to arrive early so you can receive any necessary paperwork. If for some reason a country’s coach or representative isn’t present for the meeting, you must assume that the nominated lifters will still arrive and compete.

Pay close attention during the TM and take notes on any changes, as you will have to communicate this with your team. The most important changes to note are weigh-in times or transportation related issues.

National meets generally do not include a technical meeting but the same information regarding lifters, timetable, etc., is available from the meet director.

How to handle nominations numbers

Teams are required in advance to submit nominated totals for each lifter on their team. At IPF meets, the numbers submitted are the lifter’s best at national or international competition in the past year. However, they are not always checked for accuracy. Consequently, many coaches submit their lifters’ all-time best lifts. Occasionally this is done for impact and is consistent with their coach’s strategy. Others submit numbers they wished they had done or projections of how they’d like to perform in the competition. Oppositely, some submit lifts that are lower than they are capable of to “lull the competition to sleep.” At some competitions, meet directors will post the nominations online in advance. This offers an estimate of the total number of lifters in each class. Reassure your lifters that the numbers are not generally indicative of this competition and do not reflect how the lifters will actually perform. The nominations do not always hold true to form and in highly contested classes, decided by only a few kilos, it’s often the lifter who makes the most attempts who wins. It is best to focus on what you do know and what your lifters are capable of.

Team Meeting(s)

Ideally, team meeting(s) should happen after all the team members have arrived and before the lifting starts. The afternoon after the TM is usually a good time. This is when you assign assistant coaches and handlers to each lifter, get commitments from team members about availability to help with warm-ups, wrapping lifters, working the scoring table, etc.

The team meeting is also a good time to give an overview of the competition, offer any words of encouragement, and clearly define acceptable behavior. The veterans usually have good input and their comments will go a long way toward making the new lifters feel comfortable.

Coaches should meet with each lifter individually and/or in small groups based on their lifting day/flights, and go over all their lifts planned for this competition. For those new to this level of competition, we recommend lower openers than they performed at the meet qualifying them for this championship. Even a seasoned competitor is a rookie when they are at their first national or world championships. A five to ten percent decrease should allow them to get a comfortable opener. A comfortable opener builds confidence and increases the likelihood of more successful attempts. Discuss possible second and third attempts as well as high and low options.

After each lift at the competition, the coach and lifter should huddle-up for a moment to discuss how the lift felt and looked. As the lifter’s next attempt must be submitted within 60-seconds, time is of the essence. Based on that brief interaction and the game planning beforehand, an agreement can be made on the next attempt. The head coach has the final say on all attempts and it’s their responsibility to submit each attempt to the scorer’s table.

Other key pieces of information are how long it typically takes to warm-up including putting on suits and bench shirts. It’s also important to know how much rest each lifter prefers after their last warm-up before their opener.

For most lifters coming to an IPF style meet, with the exception of the squat, they will not have sufficient time to take all the warm-ups they are used to. For those using very tight gear, the time left for warming-up decreases. At some meets, they may have not much more than 15-20 minutes between squat and bench, and bench and deadlift to change gear and warm up. Accordingly, coaches should decide beforehand which warm-ups may be eliminated if necessary.

Weigh-in & Equipment Check

Weigh-in and equipment check occur two hours before lifting is scheduled to start. At some competitions, there may be early or continuous equipment check. If available, lifters should try to have their gear checked before the weigh-in starts. There are several reasons for this. Perhaps the most important is that if a lifter opts to check gear and his or her name is called to weigh in, they will be passed over if they are not present. Lifters who do not come when called into the weigh-in room must go to the end of the line. If it is a large class, that may be an hour or more, leaving little time for rest, rehydration, and warm-up. Furthermore, participating in an early equipment check helps to reduce stress and eliminate the need for last minute rushing.

As a coach, you must remind the lifters that they must present their passport during both equipment check and weigh-in. In the United States, proof of identity may be via driver’s license or birth certificate, or, if lucky, the person weighing you in may know you. Don’t count on it, and at international competition, you must have your passport even if they do know you. Lifters must have available every article they intend to wear on the platform. This may include undergarments, although all referees do not check them. Following the equipment check, the items, which haven’t been checked, should be taken out of the lifter’s gear bag. If any personal equipment, which hasn’t been approved, is used on the platform, the lift will not be counted and the lifter may be disqualified from the competition.

Coaches should go to the weigh-in early, to determine the order of weighing in. The order of weigh-ins is predetermined and randomly assigned by Lot number. This is another reason to arrive early, as your lifter might be first in line. This is a good time to assess the lifter’s level of confidence or nervousness and gives you a chance to intervene, either to calm them or assure them that you both understand their lifting plan.

The lifter or coach will be asked to submit opening attempts. Make sure these are the ones you have agreed upon. You will also be required to sign the attempts and body weight as a means of verification. The officials should give you the attempt cards at this time. Fill out each attempt card with the lifter’s name, weight class in kilograms, and country. This will make life easier for the coach and eliminate the need to complete each card after each attempt. In this case, the only remaining information is the attempt being submitted and the coach’s signature.

After the Weigh-in

As soon as the lifter completes weigh-in and equipment check, have him or her go to the warm-up area to rest and rehydrate (if necessary). Lifters prone to nervousness will probably want to walk around. They may be called to set squat rack and bench rack heights. This, and trips to the restroom are the only pacing they should do.

Most of the lifters we have worked with have some particular food/fluid regimen they follow. It is generally agreed that potassium, sodium, and easily digestible carbohydrates are most helpful in preparing the lifter to perform. Heavy foods and those high in protein or fat tend not to be digested completely and may detract from the lifter’s performance. Overeating may prove irritating to the stomach if the lifter has been restricting food and/or fluids prior to weigh-in. The key is to eat foods that are familiar and tasty.

Shortly after the close of the weigh-in for a given class and prior to warm-ups, a “start list” should be made available to coaches from the scorer’s table. The start list will include all declared openers for that weight class and the lifting order. At this time, the final determination on flights and which lifters are in them, are made public. Pay close attention to the amount of time before your flight starts.

Warm-ups

The head coach or someone you trust should watch the lifters’ warm-ups. If the lifter is struggling, discuss lowering openers. A missed opener decreases the possibility that later attempts will be made and robs the lifter of confidence. Make sure your lifter completes his or her opener easily. We don’t recommend lying to a lifter if he or she is not getting down, pausing long enough, or locking out. Some lifters may insist that they always warm-up with poor form. Unless they are someone you know well and is a seasoned competitor, make sure they warm-up in proper form. While we don’t recommend making adjustments to technique this late, if the lifter is unable to perform correctly, do whatever is necessary. Be especially careful of brand new suits/bench shirts. They often keep the lifter from lifting properly.

Always keep track of the time until the competition. If you have to change an opener, you must do it three minutes prior to the start of the flight. Once the flight has begun, you may not change the opener. So, pay attention. Nothing is more heartbreaking than having a lifter take an attempt that neither you nor the lifter believes he or she can get.

How much is too much warming-up?

Most lifters tend to use too much energy preparing to lift thus leaving an insufficient amount for performing. National and international competitions are very intense affairs, and when following IPF rules, may proceed very quickly. If your lifter is in a small class, he or she may only have a total of two hours from the first squat to final deadlift. This commonly happens to those in the lighter and heavier weight classes. Excessive warming-up can make this like a two-hour aerobic workout. Most powerlifters have not developed that level of conditioning. As a result, we recommend warm-ups that are sufficient to prepare the nervous system for heavier weight, dial-in the equipment, prevent injury, and no more. Three or fewer reps are preferable on warm-up sets. Depending upon the strength of your lifter, no more than five total sets are usually necessary and it’s advisable to stop well short of the opening attempt. Again, the focus is on preparing the body to lift the opening weight, rather than mimicking a gym workout.

Your Meet Staff

One of the most important people on your coaching staff is the person who keeps track of the overall lifting and monitors the scorer’s table. This person has several important tasks including watching the lifter cards or scoreboard so you know when the lifter is up; observing any changes in the order; and, monitoring any changes to final deadlift attempts (and the final bench press attempts of in a bench press only meet). Communication is vital so you and your staff are on the same page regarding the order of lifters. “Three out” may either mean the lifter is up third, or that there are three in front of him. Be clear what your signals mean before the competition. Your table person may also keep running totals for lifters who are close in ability to the one(s) you are coaching. This is less important during the squat and bench, but vital for strategic positioning in the deadlift. This person must have an eye for detail and be able to keep track of multiple lifters. A calculator should always be kept on hand to minimize any mathematical errors.

Another key person is the handler. In equipped competitions, the handler functions as your lifter’s “hands-on” person responsible for preparing the lifter’s gear just prior to stepping on the platform. You must communicate with the handler about when to start wrapping and when the lifter is going to be up. Generally, there is too much noise and confusion in the backstage area for the handler to hear the announcer, so you will be responsible for making sure they have enough information to have the lifter ready on time.

Missed Attempts

We believe that if a lifter misses an attempt, the same weight should be taken over. In national and international competition, every kilo toward the total makes a difference. Going up when an attempt is unsuccessful increases the possibility that the lifter will miss it, even if the prior attempt looks easy. You must keep in mind that if the lifter misses his or her opener, and goes up and misses the next attempt, the chances of making a third attempt to stay in the meet decreases significantly. In IPF style competition, very few lifters are able to make a third attempt after missing the first two. Energy level decreases through the attempts when things are not going right, and greater concentration is necessary to make adjustments to technique with succeeding attempts.

There are very few cases, if any, that would warrant an increase after an unsuccessful attempt. Such rare cases might occur if a minor technical infraction occurred such as missing a start command or taking an extra step while completing a squat or lowering the bar prematurely in the deadlift. Even then, the smart play is to repeat the attempt and safely get into the competition.

More Attempts Are Better

It is a truism that lifters who make more successful attempts do better. Consider this when advising lifters about attempts. Be aware of the lifter’s energy level. It may be better to make a smaller jump to allow completed attempts and more weight toward to the total, than to make bigger jumps and miss the attempt. A missed attempt is always harder, both physically and mentally, than a successful one.

One factor that impacts this is the lifter’s state of mind. Many lifters, especially those used to coaching themselves, will worry over their placing and what their competitors are doing. In IPF style competition, this is usually counterproductive. Under no circumstances should a lifter try to go to the table to “see where he or she is.” It is physically exhausting and more often than not, the information gained will not be an accurate reflection of the intangibles of the competition, such as how the other lifters “look,” what they have been capable of in the past, who goes before whom, and what weight changes are upcoming on the bar. Most lifters will do better focusing on their performance, and not others’. Each time your lifter makes an attempt; it puts pressure on other lifters to make theirs. Focus on the controllable and don’t worry about everyone else’s performance.

Working With Difficult Lifters

The aforementioned suggestions work with most lifters. Unfortunately, you will encounter some competitors who do not accept your coaching advice. We strongly believe that you can’t coach the uncoachable. Some lifters need to fail at their own strategy to begin to accept yours. Also unfortunately, these same individuals will probably be the one’s to blame you for poor performance. While it is not usually appropriate to argue with them about what happened, neither is it appropriate for you to accept abuse. Affirmation and positive reinforcement is preferable to negative comments. Straightforward feedback about your view of what happened should suffice. After that, leave it alone. Also keep in mind you might be coaching them again next year.

The 60-second Rule

There are three primary instances when time is important to you as a coach. The first is the 60-second time allowance to begin the lift after the bar has been called “ready” or “bar is loaded.” That means the lifter must get the “squat” signal in the squat, the “start” signal in the bench press, and make a genuine effort to lift the bar in the deadlift. The lifter should be ready to approach the platform as soon as his or her name is called. If they are not, and accept the bar with little time left, they will not have time to make adjustments, or to replace the bar if it is not positioned correctly.

The second time-related rule that occasionally causes lifters difficulty is the allowance of 30-seconds to leave the platform. Long delays can result in disqualification, but are really most problematic for you as you try to get their next attempt in. Under no circumstances should the lifter remain on the platform to question or argue with the referees over a call. This is grounds for immediate disqualification. If you see a situation like this developing, call the lifter back to you. You may not go on the platform to get the lifter, however, unless an injury has occurred and the meet is suspended.

The final situation in which time is important to you is in getting the lifter’s next attempt in within 60-seconds of the completion of the last lift. The attempt card must be turned in to the scorer’s table within this period or the next attempt if forfeited. If a lift is forfeited because the attempt was not submitted in time, the 60-second period starts for the succeeding lift immediately. Many lifters have lost both their second and third attempts by not getting the second attempt in on time.

Lastly, when you get to third attempts in the deadlift, you will want to consider adjusting the lifter’s final attempt to affect his or her placing in the competition. Keep in mind that you will probably not have adequate time to figure strategy prior submitting the third attempt. Rather than risk losing the attempt, it is far better to submit the attempt you have previously agreed on. You will still have two changes of the final attempt to maneuver for position.

Strategy

While it would be desirable to keep the placement of all lifters in mind at all times, this is often not realistic. In a large competition, and especially those in which many competitors are evenly matched, there may be many more lifters vying for medals in each lift than you can adequately keep track of. Keep in mind that while individual medals are nice, it is overall placing that most helps the team and the lifter. As coaches, you should be aware of your competitors’ abilities. Nowadays there are numerous ways to research that information online. Lifting databases are available and reviewing meet results will give you an idea of your rivals’ capabilities. Both of us enter a meet with some prior knowledge of the lifters from other countries that our competitors will be facing. Other than periodic checks to see if they are performing as we expected, we don’t follow them closely. We definitely do not pick attempts in the squat and bench press based on what others are doing. Rather, we try to maximize our competitor’s performance. After the bench press, we check sub-totals and deadlift openers. The real strategy, however, comes after the second deadlifts have been completed. You may make adjustments to the third deadlift two times, and should do so based on what the other lifters have submitted. This is where your table person is priceless. He or she should keep running totals based on deadlift attempts submitted, so that you know what attempt to select for your lifter. At the same time, you must gauge the condition of your lifter so that you know what they are capable of doing. Both of us ask lifters how much they can do it they have to. We will go up to that weight, if necessary, to allow the lifter to place as high as he or she can.

Protests and Coaching Demeanor

Never lose your composure. Sometimes calls go your way and sometimes they don’t. If you perceive there has been an egregious error in judgment on the part of the referee(s) (i.e. as in a depth call in the squat), an incorrect interpretation of the rules, mistakes by the scorers’ table, loading the bar, or on the part of the spotter/loaders then a protest may be justified. All protests must be addressed to the jury and should be done in a respectful manner. At international competitions, the jury will likely be comprised of foreign officials. It is always better to approach the jury table with a spirit of humility and respect than with anger and disdain. Regardless of the jury’s decision and the final outcome, accept it with grace.

Feedback on the nature of an infraction is most easily obtained from observing the referee’s paddles. The USAPL and IPF Technical Rulebooks explain what each paddle (or color-coded card) signifies. You should familiarize yourself with each designation. Do not approach the referee for an explanation. While this may be acceptable in domestic competition, especially those where a jury is not available, it is not tolerated under IPF rules.

Finally, USAPL coaches should always act professionally. Like or not, our peers are always observing us. It is our job to behave appropriately and courteously to all officials, coaches, and other lifters. Failure to do so may get you ejected from the meet. If you refuse to leave, the whole team may be withdrawn. While this rarely happens, the rules allow it. Always stay in control.

Summary

Competing and coaching in powerlifting doesn’t need to be as complicated as some make it out to be. Learn from our collective experience. Lifters make lifts and it’s their responsibility to execute. It is our job as coaches to educate our lifters and put them in the best possible position to succeed. Implementing the concepts contained in this article will increase the probability of individual and team success.

Coaching powerlifters is a wonderful endeavor. It is an honor and privilege to work with USAPL lifters at home and abroad. Coaching internationally in the IPF and NAPF affords you the opportunity to visit foreign countries, experience different cultures, meet new people, and learn about our sport from others who have also had success.

Display honor, integrity, and respect at all times. Coach with humility. No coach knows everything. Be willing to learn from your fellow coaches and competitors. You might learn something valuable that can be used to your advantage. Powerlifting is an amazing endeavor and coaching can be an immensely rewarding journey if you allow it to be.