Competitions, regardless of your preferred strength sport, are a great way to put your training and practice to the test. They are a way to show strengths and weaknesses with your approach to the sport, a way to have measurable progress in a controlled environment with judges watching you, and they’re a great way to motivate you to make necessary changes with your lifting style. On top of all of this, competing can be the #1 way to keep yourself dedicated to your training and keep you from getting lazy or falling off the wagon. If you work with me and I see that you are progressing fairly well, I may gently nudge you to consider competing, both for your sake and mine. However, competing is not for everyone, just like there is nothing that is for everyone, no matter what people may tell you. There are simply some folks that just don’t have what it takes to compete, and that’s perfectly fine.
“Am I ready to compete?” is one of the top 10 questions I get from clients, as well as random internet folk. You might be ready, you might not. I believe that being ready to compete boils down to three distinct factors, all of which I will discuss in this article: Your numbers, your technical proficiency, and your mental strength. Let’s check them out now.
“I’m not strong enough to compete” is the usual response I get from clients when I suggest competing. This answer is similar to “I’m too out of shape to go to the gym.” There is no “good enough to compete” range of numbers when it’s your first competition. The goal of the competition is not to set records, but to get some experience under your belt. However, when most people say this, they’re strictly talking about the embarrassment factor. No one wants to be last place, but someone has to be. That someone might be you, and how you respond to a showing of low numbers, whether you give up training or use your last place to light a fire under yourself and improve, is a good indicator of whether or not you should be competing. Below I have a list of what I call “buy-in” numbers for the various strength sports that can be considered generally acceptable weight to put up for your first competition. Of course, there are a hundred different factors to consider, so these are simply general guidelines across all the weight classes of the given strength sports:
Women: 150lb squat, 115lb bench, 200lb deadlift.
Men: 225lb squat, 185lb bench press, 300lb deadlift.
Women: 115lb clean & jerk, 100lb snatch.
Men: 155lb clean & jerk, 135lb snatch.
Women & Men: Being able to complete at least two of the five events at a show.
If you are capable of hitting these parameters, you are probably ready to compete when it comes to numbers, although there are other factors to consider that I will expand on below. My first-ever competition was a summer Strongman show where I barely finished two out of the five events for the day. Rather than give up, I competed four times after that in the same summer, trained hard during the winter and then went back to the same show to qualify for Nationals. How you process failure will have a bigger impact on your training and life than never failing. Now, let’s talk proficiency.
Hitting big lifts is awesome! But hitting big lifts in a way that will get your lift approved in your respective strength sport is even better. As there are a LOT (read: too many) Powerlifting federations, you’ll need to make sure you read the rules to understand how your lift gets passed, whether it’s due to squat depth, hands on the bar, or apparel for deadlifts. If you’re an Olympic lifter, you need to understand what pressing out is, making sure no other body part but your feet touch the platform, etc. If you compete in Strongman, you’ll need to understand things like not locking out overhead, getting the whole implement across the finish line, etc.
If you don’t spend any time on technical proficiency, there really is no point in competing, as you will be not only wasting your own time, but the time of other competitors, the judges at the competition, and the spectators at the competition. Don’t go the route of “hoping” things will simply fall together when competition day rolls around. If you never train bench with your butt on the bench, it won’t magically stay on the bench on competition day. if you never squat to depth, you won’t suddenly have the ability to hit proper depth with your “max” gym weight when it’s time to compete.
As a coach, what I look for on my client’s lifts is consistency. I’m anal about it, ask around. I want all reps to look the same, from warmup to max weight. If you can stay consistent with your technique, and you have the numbers listed above, it may be time to consider competing. What I’m looking for at your first competition is not necessarily PRs or even your gym maxes: it’s hitting all your list and getting no lifts invalidated. This will have a huge impact on your psyche throughout the competition. Which leads me to my final parameter: let’s talk mental strength.
At the risk of sounding overly cliche here: mental toughness is arguably the most important factor when it comes to competing. Hitting your lifts is all well and good, but how you mentally process a missed lift can make or break your competition. The most important thing to do when a lift is missed is to accept it and move on. You aren’t getting the lift back and you aren’t changing the judge’s mind. We have all had calls that we thought were bad, which simply makes the playing field equal. The judge’s word is final, and going up to everyone with your lift video and asking their thoughts simply takes time away from preparing for the next. Athletes who generally pout and throw temper tantrums in training are athletes that are nowhere near ready to compete. I have had a handful of athletes walk out of a competition after missing some of their lifts or events, which is embarrassing for everyone involved. If you are an athlete that can stay out of their own head when things are going south, you should be alright in a competition.
On top of this, mental toughness also means patience and trust. Too often I see athletes at their first competition doing dozens and dozens of reps, sometimes over their opener weight, to “build confidence.” To me, nothing about that looks like confidence. Instead, it looks like insecurity and under-preparation. Mental toughness means going in with a warmup plan and sticking to it. An opener should be a weight you can do in your sleep, and if ANY of your warmup reps are slow, your opener weight is too heavy. Picking proper openers will help you hit a successful third lift. Because no one cares what your opener is if you miss the last two lifts.
In closing, competing successfully can depend on a variety of factors, but the three I have outlined in this article are what I consider to be the most important when it comes to deciding whether or not to dive into your first competition. If you have any more question about competing, feel free to contact me at Brandon@liftbigeatbig.com
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