How Often Should I Compete?

by Larry Maile, 2000

There are probably as many opinions as to how often a lifter should compete as there are lifters. Some try to hit three or four meets each year, and some more often. Others try to compete not more than twice, and for some, maybe only one time each year. A related question is, “How close together should my meets be?” Again, there is a great deal of variability in opinions about how soon after one meet that lifters will compete again. There are a number of myths that surround both of these issues. Examining what lifters are actually doing may dispel some of these.

More is better at least at first

Despite some common misconceptions, powerlifting is a technical sport, at least at the level that accomplished athletes compete. No one who has watched or participated in more than a few meets believes that “anyone could go out there and do this.” What quickly become clear is that the athlete who is technically more precise is often the one who wins or places well. The difference between a missed lift versus one that is completed successfully, even among national champions may only be a few fractions of an inch out of the groove, or the failure to look up at the right time during the lift. In order to be successful, a lifter must practice the movements used in competition, but more importantly, must do them under competition conditions. The feedback from most coaches questioned for this article says that a new lifter should compete three to four times his or her first year. This allows the lifter to check his or her performance in a meet, make changes, and check it again under meet conditions before too much time has passed. Coaches’ opinions varied as to whether a lifter should start competing immediately after they start training or if they should wait for some period of time. The arguments for starting immediately stressed the need to begin learning “meet skills” early. The counter argument is that the lifter needs to “build a base” before starting to compete. With the lifters I’ve worked with, I try to have them begin to compete within the first six months, but may not have them enter more than two competitions per year. That is partly due to the low number of competitions we have here, but also due to our focus on technique at all times.

After the first year

After the first year of competition, it is assumed that the lifter has mastered the form required to perform the lifts without injury or bombing out. Most coaches suggested a maximum of three meets per year after the first year. Should the competitor be a national level athlete, that would allow one national championship and a world meet, plus one other meet or demonstration if the lifter felt capable and interested. If the lifter does not compete internationally, a Nationals and a state or local level “tune-up” meet would be possible. My lifters stick to this formula unless: 1) they are working on a particular lift, i.e. focusing on improving their bench press or deadlift, or 2) they compete in a single lift nationals (and possibly worlds) in addition to three lift nationals. In either of these situations, they “coast” on the lifts not being focused on. Specifically, they might train squat and deadlift at 50% for easy sets of 8 to 10 while cycling for a bench meet. This allows significantly more rest each week, and only one heavy day.

In the Off-Season

Every coach I’ve spoken to has stressed the need for lifters to develop sufficient conditioning between meets to allow the lifter to start (and hopefully, end) each succeeding cycle at a higher weight. Most lifters do higher reps during the off-season. Many do a routine that is similar in structure to their competition cycles, for example, two squat days per week, one deadlift day, two upper body days. Some, however, change their routine entirely, shifting to a routine that is similar in structure to a heavy bodybuilding routine. Some lifters allow their weight to increase, i.e. “bulking up,” while some try to lower their percentage of body fat during this time as it is not as important to maintain peak strength.

Most lifters take some time off following a meet. The great Hideaki Inaba of Japan reported that he doesn’t train with weights for three months after the world championships. Other lifters train year round, with no time off. Your injuries may make a vacation from some movements mandatory, but you can probably do some exercises to maintain conditioning. My lifters tend to return to the gym the week following the meet, and begin at 30 – 50%, with some cardiovascular work added. They usually remain at this level, or use slightly heavier weights for several weeks. This allows time for nagging injuries to heal, but doesn’t result in a complete loss of strength or conditioning.

How close together?

In December last year, Brad Gillingham lifted in the Battle of the Giants (“The Last Big IPF Meet of the Millennium”) in Sweden, held two weeks after the Men’s World Championships. Brad was drug tested at both meets, and passed, of course. Most of the competitors lifted in both meets. They all totaled near, or above, the totals they achieved at Worlds. This appears to go against the common myths that powerlifters can’t compete well at meets held close together. Brad increased his total at the second meet. How come?

First, Brad trained to peak for the first meet, rather than trying to distribute a peak over the two meets, or to focus on the second meet. Following the first meet, he did light training lifts, rather than trying to handle heavy weight immediately after completing Worlds. This was partly due to his rigorous travel schedule to attend these meets, and the exhaustion related to having done maximal efforts in lifts at Worlds. What he did do was continue to work his lifts, but maximized recovery between meets.

Another factor Brad mentioned was the venue and competition conditions in Sweden. Conditions were excellent for increasing motivation to do well. The venue was large and packed with spectators, the platform was ideal, the media was present, and lighting and staging presented each lifter well. Despite possibly feeling tired, lifters were able to “give it their all” during the second meet. Brad’s analysis of his performance was that he wasn’t as strong, but was as rested as he could have been under the conditions, and psyched for big lifts. It obviously worked. Brad totaled 2,248 in Italy, and 2,254 in Sweden.

I’ve worked with lifters who have routinely lifted twice within three months.

Some of the periods between meets have been as short as three weeks. Observations of these lifters and conversations with other National level competitors suggest:

  • Lifters can perform fairly consistently in meets up to three weeks, but must maximize rest between the meets. Heavy training between tends to be counterproductive.
  • After about three and one half weeks, strength starts to fall off, whether you are resting, or doing light or heavy training.
  • If the lifter starts a conservative cycle, with moderate lifts immediately after the first meet, working up to heavy weights, they can peak adequately within about six to seven weeks.
  • Injuries and overtraining during the cycle for the first meet make the time needed to recover and re-peak longer. If they are severe, it may not be possible to recapture the momentum gained during the first cycle.
  • When the second meet is 10 – 12 weeks away from the first meet, doing 10 – 12 weeks of heavy training does not result in significantly increased strength. At best, the lifter regains about the same strength level he or she had at the first meet.
  • Psyching factors always affect performance, whether at the first meet or the second. A lifter is more likely to be able to “psych up” or be motivated if rested.
  • After about 12 weeks, the meets are not really related. That is, even if the lifter does long cycles, i.e. 16 – 20 weeks, they are really starting over when the meets are that far apart. Of course, it is possible to lose strength for any meet (even a second meet) by overtraining.
  • Finally, it is not possible to string more than two meets together and continue to gain strength after the first year or so of lifting. (Remember that this may not include interspersing single lift meets with full meets).