In part one of this series I discussed how to select the right meet for you as well as what to bring to the venue on the day. In part two, I will discuss picking the right weight class for you as well as having realistic and sensible goals if you are relatively new to the sport.
Picking the Right Weight Class For You
I). Intermediate and advanced lifters
I going to address this one first because I think it’s a little more straight forward (and most intermediate and advanced lifters are likely aware of this already). Greg Nuckols has written about this topic at length on his excellent website Strengtheory (click to read Greg’s article) article. Greg did such a great job of addressing this issue that I see no need to repeat what he’s already said. However if you’re pressed for time and just want the cliff notes, here’s the tl;dr:
- Unless you’re exceptionally tall (in which case it’s best to stay in the heaviest weight class available), then the best weight class for you is generally the highest weight class you can get into whilst still retaining a fairly healthy level of body fat (~10-20% for men, ~20-30% for women). So essentially the class where you can carry the most muscle whilst still maintaining a relatively lean body composition.
- The fastest way to increase your relative strength is to drop some body fat, but this may impede your potential in the long run.
- If you happen to go up a weight class, in the short term your competitiveness may suffer but in the long run it will stand to you (once you don’t go nuts and start adding ridiculous amounts of body fat at an alarming rate).
II). Inexperienced Powerlifters
If you’re very new to the sport (less than 3 meets under your belt) then my philosophy on cutting weight is simple… don’t do it! Just show up well-rested and well-fed, weigh-in at whatever your natural weight is, hit all your lifts and if possible try and squeeze out a personal best or two. Bear in mind, you’re completely new to the competitive sport of powerlifting. You’ll be dealing with lifting in unfamiliar surroundings, with equipment you may or not be used to (most gyms won’t have competition style equipment), treading through a sea of white powder (between the chalk and the talcum powder it can get quite messy!), stepping up onto a platform with all eyes on you, announcers, judges who may be very formal (don’t take it personally, they’re obliged to maintain a certain level of professionalism so don’t be surprised if they seem very matter of fact). To me, that’s enough of a shock to the system. Don’t add weight cutting into the mix.
If you’ve to cut maybe 1-1.5% of your bodyweight to make a particular weight class and you can do it just by eating or drinking a little bit less the week of the meet then that’s different. But if you have to resort to cardio, extreme water cuts, severe carbohydrate or caloric restriction to make weight for your first meet, then don’t. You risk not making weight, adding huge amounts of unnecessary stress on yourself, severe dehydration which may lead to reduced alertness and increased perception of effort (Judelson et al. 2007a; Judelson et al. 2007b). But worst of all the most likely scenario is that your performance will suffer, in which case all your planning, preparation and expense becomes largely wasted (not entirely if you end up learning from the experience, but at the same time it’s still better to learn from other people’s mistakes than to have to make them yourself). Remember just because you can do something, doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Generally the only time I would recommend a weight cut is if the following criteria are satisfied:
- The lifter is quite advanced.
- By cutting down to a certain weight class they have a realistic chance of winning the class (or maybe placing top 3 in bigger meets) or perhaps going for some sort of record within the weight class.
- They can make weight with a drop of < 5% of their body mass.
- They have a sufficient time-frame to cut the necessary weight.
- The weight can be dropped without the use of severe measures (extreme water cuts, drastic caloric restriction, added cardio etc.).
- The lifter is aware of the potential for their performance to suffer.
If these criteria are satisfied then a weight cut may be sensible. However the last point is absolutely key! You need to bear in mind the potential for a reduction in performance on the day of the meet.
Picking Realistic (and Sensible) Goals For Your First Few Meets
“I just played my first football match, but I’m really disappointed I didn’t win player of the year” – No One Ever
The above quote is a little tongue-in-cheek however its purpose is to provide context for people who may perhaps:
- Hesitate about entering a powerlifting meet because they can’t win their class
- Be very hard on themselves for being below the standard of a particular lifter in their class
Unlike other sports, powerlifting has an incredibly low barrier to entry. Anyone can enter a meet. I’ve been at competitions where competitors lifted the empty bar or the bar plus the 2.5kg collars. And you know what, everyone clapped and cheered afterwards. No one laughed or said “what on earth are they doing here?”, and in general that sort of behaviour (making derogatory comments about someone else’s lifting) is frowned upon. They ought to be commended for having the courage to get up onto a platform, in a singlet and lift in front of a crowd. That’s one of the aspects that makes powerlifting such a special sport.
Another issue I see in relation to people choosing the wrong weight class for them is deliberately avoiding a weight class for fear of going up against a certain lifter (note: this isn’t the case at an advanced or elite level, if moving out of a weight class gives you a shot at a medal on the world stage for example then that’s a completely separate situation). If you’re trying to stay out of a particular weight class or avoiding competing because a particular lifter is so far ahead of you, you’re focusing on the wrong thing and this can end up being very self-sabotaging. Powerlifting is about you and what you are capable of. If you’re overly focused on what others are doing you’re not focused on what’s of greatest importance (i.e. you). You have absolutely no control over what others do in a meet, so worrying about it is likely a waste of your time. Focus your energy on your performance and being the best that you possibly can. There are a number of factors (over which you have no control) that can lead to someone being stronger than you are including:
- Length of time training productively and competing. If someone has been Powerlifting 6 years and you’re comparing yourself to them after 1 year of competing, is that really a fair comparison?
- Athletic/physical background (those who are more physical and or athletic in their younger days tend to excel more in powerlifting compared to those who aren’t, although there can be exceptions).
- Bodily proportions (e.g. very short femurs can make squatting heavier loads more attainable).
- Susceptibility to injury. Generally speaking if you can stay relatively injury-free you’re more inclined to make progress than if you’re battling against injury the whole time and some people are more robust in this regard. If you’re injured and can’t train properly, you likely can’t make progress.
- Lifestyle factors. Whilst you may have to try fit in your training around a stressful work schedule, have a young family to cater for, or have overall generally high stress levels and very little time to train etc., the competitor you are chasing may not. Maybe they can sleep in most days of the week, have very few responsibilities in their life, have the freedom to train whenever they want or for as long as they want etc. These factors can influence how easily you can recover from training and therefore the amount of training volume and intensity you can tolerate.
Your focus should be on self-improvement, and if you happen to pick up some sort of an award in the process then great, if not but you improved on what you did previously, then you were successful.
Hopefully this sheds some light on some of the mistakes lifters make with regard to choosing a weight class. Bottom line is to focus on your own self-improvement and not on others. I hope that any people new to the sport or considering entering a meet will bear this information in mind.
That brings to an end part 2 of this series. In the next part I will be discussing:
- Part 3: What to expect on the day – weigh-ins, platform, judges, commands, warm-ups, attempt selection, etc.
About The Author
Arthur Lynch is a PhD candidate in muscle physiology at University of Limerick. As an athlete he is a lifetime raw, drug-free powerlifter, placing #9 at 2016 IPF World Championships in u-93kg class. His best lifts in competition are a 240 kg (529 lb) squat, 170 kg (375 lb) bench, 300 kg (661 lb) deadlift (all raw/unequipped) at 90 kg (198 lbs) bodweight.