the joy of strength training


December 16th, 2008 at 10:24 pm

First powerlifting meet

I did my first powerlifting competition last weekend. It was great fun and I thought I would share my experiences with you. Perhaps it will encourage some of you to enter competitions too, if anything has been holding you back. It would also be interesting to hear from anyone else who competes in powerlifting.

The competition was held by the British Drug-Free Powerlifting Association. There are a number of powerlifting federations in the UK. I got involved with this one because the guy who runs my local gym is a divisional rep for the BDFPA and organises many of the competitions for this region. Last weekend’s meet was such an event, a regional qualifier for the south west of England.

On the day there was a powerlifting competition, which consists of the three events of squat, bench press and deadlift, and also a single lift competition for the squat. All events were ‘unequipped’, meaning that no supportive gear can be worn other than belts (of the regulation thickness) and wrist wraps. Knees wraps are not allowed.

My aims

I was not expecting to have any competition in my weight class as there are so few female powerlifters around. So my aim was not so much to win my class – although if there had been another competitor I would certainly have wanted to beat them – but to lift enough to qualify for the BDFPA nationals and get as many PBs (personal bests) in my lifts as I could. I also wanted to have fun and enjoy my first event!

Before the meet

Recovery, rules and regulations, opening lifts, making weight

I stopped lifting just over a week before the competition in order to be fresh for the day. You will not lose any strength in a week but your body will have a chance to rest and recover from the hard training that you have done in the lead up to the event.

In the week before the meet, I re-read the rules for the federation regarding performance of the lifts, clothing and equipment, and decided on my opening lifts. You need to inform the organisers of your opening lifts at the time that you weigh in. I was advised to choose a weight that I could do for at least two reps in the gym. In fact I was a little more conservative than even that. Since it was my first competition and I didn’t know how I would be affected by nerves, competition rules or my wellbeing on the day, I wanted to make sure that I could at least get some lifts on the board. Your second lift cannot be lower than your opening lift, so you need to be sure that you can make it otherwise you will not score for that event (in fact this happened to one competitor on the day).

I was concerned that I wouldn’t make weight for the class I wished to compete in. The last 2-3 days before the event I was very careful what I ate and on the morning of the event I didn’t eat or drink anything until after the weigh in (which fortunately was quite early in the day). I made my weight with 0.2 kg to spare!

Because it was such a close run thing, I was mentally prepared to lift in the next weight class up if necessary and I had also checked the qualifying totals for that class.

The people

I turned up on my own, not really knowing what to expect. But right from the beginning the atmosphere was friendly and welcoming. Plenty of people chatted to me and helped me out, answered questions, gave support and encouragement and were generally quite lovely. Throughout a long day in a cold school gym, both lifters and their supporters applauded every single lift and cheered every single lifter.

I think that any aspiring lifter would have felt comfortable in that atmosphere. The fact that you turn up and lift is enough for people to get behind you. It really doesn’t matter how much is on the bar; if you are out there making an effort everyone supports you.

It is interesting how the reality of a meet can dismiss the preconceptions that people may have about powerlifters: big, mean, unapproachable, elitist types who grunt and yell and won’t speak to you unless you can bench 400 lbs.

Well, although there is occasionally some grunting and yelling, they are certainly not mean and unapproachable – quite the opposite. And they are not all that big either. Most of the male lifters at this meet were between 75kg and 90kg. There were quite a few ‘in shape’ guys who weren’t carrying much extra body fat and would not have looked out of place in a bodybuilding contest. I myself, while having no pretensions to bodybuilding or physique contests, am quite happy being a size 10 (that’s UK size 10, ladies!) with no particular desire to bulk up. You really don’t have to be big to enjoy powerlifting.

There were only two of us female lifters in the competition and the other lady was in a different weight class from me so we weren’t really competing against each other. It’s a pity there wasn’t more competition but at national level there are some really strong girls in my weight class so I am looking forward to pitting myself against them.

The process

It’s a long day and even though the organisers moved things on at a decent pace, it still takes a while to get through everybody’s lifts. One of the hardest things to manage is the length of the session and the time between events. I did my first lift around 11am and my final lift around 5pm. Plenty of food, hot coffee and staying warm helps. The nervous energy and excitement surrounding a competition also keeps you going.

It is advisable to make sure you are absolutely certain of the rules for each lift and if not, to ask a referee. I was relieved not to make any technical errors in my lifts but I saw plenty of other people get the rules wrong and therefore get a ‘no lift’. Common errors were: lifting or moving the feet during the bench press, ‘hitching’ the bar during the deadlift and not going low enough in the squat.

The lifts

I was privately very curious as to how I would perform in a competition setting. Different people have different experiences; some say that they always do their best lifts in competition, others find that they under-perform and don’t quite get as much as they do in the gym. I have heard people say that a competition can sometimes be worth an extra 10-20kg on the bar due to the adrenalin and the support of the crowd.

I was largely pleased with my performance and it is true that audience support really makes a difference. I got PBs in the squat (by 7.5kg) and the deadlift (by 5kg). The increases were not enormous but several people commented that they thought I had more in me and perhaps they were right. I find it hard to judge just how far I can push it. For example, my third deadlift attempt was a PB and immediately afterwards I felt completely drained. I put myself down for a fourth lift without really thinking that I would get it (legs were like jelly) but I managed to get a PB again. The crowd really helped with this one!

One consequence of having a modest opening lift is that it is harder to really push the poundage on your second and third attempts. Too big a jump in weight between attempts can backfire. I had this dilemma with my deadlift. I decided to reduce my opening lift from 110kg to 95kg just before the deadlift event started because I only needed 90kg to get my qualifying total. I was carrying an injury and feeling a bit fatigued so it seemed like a sensible option. However with a much lower opener, I needed to take big jumps in weight to get into the PB zone. I ended up with a fourth lift of 125kg, which was a PB by 5kg. But if I had started at 110kg, my third attempt would probably have been at 130kg. Who knows, I might have got it…

Being able to judge these issues of course comes with experience. Generally speaking I am happy to be slightly conservative but come away with a respectable result. If my overriding aim had been to get the highest deadlift possible I would have pushed it, but as my aim was to qualify for the next competition, I chose to make sure of that first.

My bench press was somewhat disappointing but since I was carrying an injury (from rock climbing, as it happens, not powerlifting) this was not entirely unexpected. I managed to get my opening lift so at least I had a score for that event. Ironically the impact of my injury was less physical than psychological: knowing that I was carrying an injury, I did not feel confident about the lift and was not as aggressive as I could have been in its execution. There is a great psychological element to powerlifting. You’ve only got one chance to get it right and that weight can seem very intimidating.

I was chuffed, though, that several people commented on how good my technique was, especially in the squat. I am sure that some of the compliments were generous as it was my first competition, but enough people mentioned it to convince me that there’s an element of truth in it! Although I have been lifting for around three years, I have only been lifting in a powerlifting style for a few months. Some techniques, such as my bench press technique I have only adopted in the last few weeks. So it is encouraging to get good feedback.


I am sure you are all curious to know what I lifted. You want to see if you are stronger than me, don’t you! Well, the following table shows all the lifts I attempted on the platform.

63kg female open unequipped

Attempts Squat Bench press Deadlift
1st 80 kg 50kg 95 kg
2nd 90 kg 57.5 kg Fail 110 kg
3rd 95 kg (pb) 57.5 kg Fail 122.5 kg (pb)
4th 97.5 kg (pb) n/a 125 kg (pb)

My powerlifting total was: 267.5 kg (4th attempts don’t count, if anyone’s doing the maths).

Adding together all my attempts in each event, I lifted a total of 980kg on the platform that day (not including warm up lifts). That is 2,156 lbs or 154 stone.

My warm ups totalled a further 1,530kg. So altogether I lifted 2,510kg which is 5,522 lbs or 395 stone.

Although he didn’t have the figures to hand, the presiding official reckons I broke the south west divisional records in squat and deadlift for my weight class.

Not bad for a Sunday afternoon.


The meet lived up to my expectations and I met all my aims so it was a successful day. It has fired me up to continue lifting and competing. It was also great to see so many powerlifters in one place.

I have written before about the difficulties of finding other people who train in the same way and of having the support of a peer group when lifting. I often feel like the weird one in the gym so it was great to be one of the gang for a change.

I found this one of the most sociable sporting events I have taken part in. There is a lot of hanging around, which perhaps makes people more disposed to fall into conversation in order to pass the time. You also get to know the other lifters in your flight as you all warm up together. Your fellow lifters will support you so there’s no need to bring your own cheerleaders. All in all, it’s a great way to put all that training to good use!

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  • 1

    Congratulations on going through with the meet.
    And on the PBs!

    lelak on December 16th, 2008
  • 2

    Awesome! And inspiring 🙂

    Michael on December 17th, 2008
  • 3

    Congratulations! Awesome numbers.
    I’ve been subscribed to your feed for about a month now. I usually have a tough time convincing my women friends that they can lift weights – now I just send them a link to your blog.
    Keep writing!

    sarvamitran on December 17th, 2008
  • 4

    well done, sounds like you enjoyed it!

    Littleredhead on December 17th, 2008
  • 5

    That sounds great! Good luck training for the national event 🙂

    LOLfitness on December 17th, 2008
  • 6

    Nice one Sally.

    Scott on December 17th, 2008
  • 7

    Thanks all for your comments! It is great to have feedback.

    gubernatrix on December 17th, 2008
  • 8

    Thanks for sharing this! We really learn the most from others, I think. I can’t believe that only two women showed up! I think that makes it hard, in that when you go to the national level, then you get hit with some very elite lifers…similar in women’s cycling, where you get a mix of abilities at the State level, then watch out when you move up! There is a lot of techinical stuff that I’m just beginning to learn. You definitely out-lift me, and I love having some goals to work towards! I’m pretty sure you out lifted a lot of men! Would you mind explaining a bit what you meant by ‘hitching the bar’ in the deadlift? Thanks!

    zoey on December 17th, 2008
  • 9

    Superb effort for the first meet, and a very enjoyable write up. Bravo!
    According to your standards you are beyond very good towards excellent. With a pair of legs like yours, I believe that the two heavy lifts will increase beyond the excellent, if you persist. I also believe, judging from your photos, that you already have the strength for the deadlift, but you would need a little longer hands! Seriously! Have you considered lifting with the trap bar which addresses this problem?

    Demetre on December 17th, 2008
  • 10

    Awesome ! I have to practice more, your deadlift number is close to mine :))))
    Congratulation, now, just work even harder 🙂


    Petr R. on December 17th, 2008
  • 11

    @ zoey: thanks hon! ‘Hitching’ the bar is literally if you try to hitch it up your thighs inch by inch. It’s not allowed because it involves re-bending your knees and using the thighs to support the bar, rather than smoothly lifting and locking out at the top.

    @ Demetre: cheers – yes I feel that there is definitely more to come in my lifts! I had not considered longer hands – why is that important?

    @ Petr: thank you!

    gubernatrix on December 17th, 2008
  • 12

    Congratulations! Kudos for raising the bar for your local meet. The only way to make women’s powerlifting more competitive is to get out and raise the standards. I just hope that women in powerlifting will get more public recognition as the sport becomes more competitive.

    Bonnie on December 18th, 2008
  • 13

    The longer hands help at two points:
    1.When you start the deadlift (two platforms under the discs could make the lift easier). There I do not see a problem for you thanks to the pistols!
    2. When the bar passes by the knees. Then if you have long femurs and relatively shorter hands your torso can not be perpendicular enough. This second obstacle could be tackled through the trap bar, by which you do not use a straight bar, but a diamond shaped bar with you in the center.
    Then you can lift heavier weights without jeopardising your lower back, and with a natural grip with hands at your sides.
    I use it all the time. It makes deadlifts a sublime experience!

    Demetre on December 18th, 2008
  • 14

    Awesome and congrats!

    When is your next meet? As being a fellow strength and conditioning coach I would love to see the program you are using for your training. Feel free to check out my site also maybe I have some good pointers, also did an audio interview with AJ Roberts about training about a month back. That guy is STRONG and now hes over at West Side Barbell Club so can not wait to see this next year, and more on your stuff as well.

    Again congrats!

    Matt Holmes on December 18th, 2008
  • 15

    @ Bonnie: cheers! I was certainly a bit disappointed that there were only two of us female competitors at this meet but there were plenty of women in the audience supporting their men. I wonder if perhaps I made any of them think, ‘maybe I should get up there and lift too’? I’d like to think so!

    @ Demetre: I don’t have access to a trap bar at the moment but perhaps I could try suitcase deadlifts in the meantime? That would give me that neutral hand position at my sides.

    @ Matt: thank you. My next comp is in late January (deadlift only). After that I will be changing my programme but I am still thinking about what to include.

    gubernatrix on December 20th, 2008
  • 16

    Of course. Then you have the usual arguments between barbells and dumbells (loading, handling, independant movement). I see your appetite for competition undiminished!

    Demetre on December 20th, 2008
  • 17

    A little searching around suggests that trap bar deadlifts are a bit closer to squats (in terms of back and leg angles) than they are to deadlifts.

    That’s not to say they’re completely useless, but if you use them to avoid difficulties with conventional deadlifts all you’re doing is neglecting to train up your weak points.

    And, no, they’re not going to make your hands longer.

    Having said all that, congrats on the lifts – you’re bloody strong. 🙂

    Oliver on December 22nd, 2008
  • 18

    Merry Christmas Guber!

    Thanks for all your articles this year. I love em – I check your blog most days! Anyway, I hope next year is even better than the last.

    Stay strong 🙂

    TimE on December 24th, 2008
  • 19

    Great work Sal,

    Enjoyed the writeup, I’m printing off a copy to show Eddie (the old boy still hasn’t worked out the Internet).

    Next time you need to take a camera(wo)man along to take pics and vids.

    Take care and have a happy new year.

    Alex B on December 27th, 2008
  • 20

    Nice Job Gube!!! Now it’s time to learn the suits, shirts, wraps, etc…!

    Boris on December 28th, 2008
  • 21

    You rock. Those numbers are impressive.

    One day, I will look as good as you do in those black workout pants! 🙂 You look awesome.

    krissa on January 12th, 2009
  • 22

    @ TimE: Thanks Tim, I’m glad you like it! I need to get on the case this year but I’ve just started a new job so there has been a lack of posting…

    @ Alex: Glad you read it – give my regards to Eddie. I’m getting to know the powerlifting community down here in the south west – there are some nice people around!

    @ Boris: Cheers mate! Not sure where I stand on equipment at the moment but who knows where it will all lead.

    @ Krissa: Thanks so much, it’s always nice to be told you look good! Good luck with your lifting!

    gubernatrix on January 13th, 2009
  • 23

    This was fascinating, thank you!! I am keen to do some sort of competition to challenge myself and my weight lifting, and the “obvious” path that lots of other bloggers I’ve come across seem to talk about is figure competitions. This doesn’t really appeal to me. For some reason I had not thought of powerlifting! I love lifting a new PB!
    Well done to you for having the courage to give it a go.

    Lady G on February 13th, 2009
  • 24

    Cheers Lady G! I’ve found the powerlifting world here in the UK very friendly and approachable. I’m sure if you found a local club or just entered a regional competition everyone would be pleased to see you!

    gubernatrix on February 13th, 2009
  • 25

    Hello Sally.
    I work for Nike.
    An email to get in touch?

    antoine on February 16th, 2009
  • 26

    @ Antoine: I can be contacted at

    gubernatrix on February 16th, 2009
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  • 33

    Great write up. Entering my first comp in April so this made for a great read

    Welshguy84 on February 25th, 2012
  • 34

    Good luck Welshguy! Have you also checked out my current lead post, It’s about weightlifting but many of the points are relevant to powerlifting too.

    gubernatrix on February 25th, 2012
  • 35

    Hi there, this read has really helped me! I am also a female lifter and have my first powerlifting comp in two days time with bdfpa west midlands. It’s 3.45am right now I am so so nervous and cant sleep, but reading this has honestly helped so much! Thank you for writing about how your first comp went. Kaytee x

    Kaytee on May 9th, 2013
  • 36

    Lots of luck, hope you enjoy it!
    Come and tell us about it on the Women’s Strength Training Network on Facebook that I run. Lots of female lifters there to share your triumphs and tribulations!

    gubernatrix on May 9th, 2013
  • 37

    Thanks for posting this. I just started powerlifting and I’m considering competing next year. It was really helpful.

    Joanne on July 6th, 2013
  • 38

    Cheers, good luck Joanne!

    gubernatrix on July 6th, 2013


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