Article written by Josh Mac
There’s a red hot debate going on in forums and on social media as of late. Does merely lifting weights or training events make you a “powerlifter,” “strongman,” or “strength athlete” if you do not compete? It’s not so much a debate as it is both sides screaming their opinion at each other as butt-madness ensues. Emotions run high on both sides, but that’s a good thing. It shows that people are passionate and actually care about their training.
On the one side, you have those who believe that in order to be called a “powerlifter” for instance, that you must have competed in a powerlifting meet. The same goes for Strongman, Highland Games, arm wrestling, sumo wrestling, jello wrestling, and thumb wrestling. Those with this opinion are seen as exclusionary by some, even elitists by others.
On the other side, you have those who believe that if you perform the powerlifts, or train atlas stones that you met the name criteria. Some have said that they needn’t pay $100 to enter a meet to earn an arbitrary title, and that they could just as easily achieve a gym total all the same.
So who’s right?
Before casting your ballot, lets take a look at the differences between a gym total and a powerlifting meet total and why they may be different from each other for you.
Generally, Gym totals can be calculated one of two different ways: aggregate totals and mock meet totals.
Aggregate totals are the sum of your best (heaviest) of your gym lifts in the squat, bench press and deadlift of all time. The lifts need not be done in the same week or month or even year, it is simply adding the best of your lifts together for a total.
Mock meet totals are the total of the best of each powerlift performed in the same day. Mock meets are meant to mimic the stress of performing 9 max effort lifts plus warm ups all in one day. These more closely resemble the feel and stress of a powerlifting meet than an aggregate total and may be a more accurate indication as to how your actual competition total may look.
These are both great tools for those who compete and those who don’t. After a training cycle, a good gym total performed by working up to maximal weight helps you establish your progress and the weight to base the following training cycle on. But if you’re doing mock meets in lieu of competing in a powerlifting meet, here are the things that your mock meet may be missing and the reason why you might perform differently at a competition:
Before you even get to touch a weight, you’ve got to have yours figured out first. Powerlifting and strongman have weight classes. Most novice lifters don’t have to fret, often times a lifter may already know what weight class they’ll be in. But for the seasoned lifter, “making weight” to compete in a lower weight class is an all-out suck fest. Water and sodium manipulation, skipping a meal, taking a laxative, squeezing those last few droplets out of your bladder and climbing onto the scale naked and dehydrated are sometimes what it takes just to get into your desired weight class. Once you’ve weighed in, you’re in the meet. Eat up!
At a powerlifting meet, warming up can be challenging. Often times, there are too many lifters and too few pieces of equipment. In addition to the amount of lifters, the diversity of strength levels can complicate the matter too. Even with multiple monolifts, benches, and deadlift bars, guys may literally line up belly to back and wait their turn to warm up.
If there’s any sense of organization, the lifters themselves will start with one plate and make plate or quarter jumps after everyone has lifted at least once. If you need someone to operate the monolift or to give you a hand off on bench, expect to have to do it in return for other lifters even though you’d rather be lifting again. Occasionally weight may have to be stripped down for a late arrival or someone a little weaker, but generally speaking your warm ups won’t be done in your own time, rather in the time of the group. It’s not like your gym at home, deal with it.
Pressure of being on the clock
Powerlifting meets can run long, I mean 12+ hours. But that doesn’t mean that you’re just sitting around the entire time. When the flights are posted, you’ll know which flight you’re in and the order in which you will be called to lift. The order is determined by the amount of weight that you’ve chosen to attempt relative to the other lifters in your flight. So as the flight of lifters are called ahead of you, you have the pressure of timing your warm up. If you warm up too early, and risk cooling down before you’re called. Warm up too late and you may be rushed into your first attempt before you’re fully recovered and ready.
Between attempts, you may have to tell the scoring table what your next attempt will be, then catch your breath before you’re 3rdout again. Some flights move fast, so you may be called to perform your PR attempt before you’ve even slowed your breathing or rewrapped your knees as good as you’d like. In a PL meet, you lift when called, not when you’re ready. So be ready to lift accordingly.
The confusion of organized chaos
PL meets are loud. The music is loud, the crowd is loud and the announcer is loud (hopefully.) You have no control of the volume. The music may be too loud to hear the judges commands, causing you to get red lit on the lift. The chaotic environment can be distracting. If you have a handler (someone to be your eyes and ears) then these distractions can be minimized. Even with a handler though, the order of lifters can become confusing and you may need to rush if you weren’t paying close attention. Keeping your focus on your next attempt can be very difficult while you’re out of your element and keeping track of the lifters in your flight.
Being out of your comfort zone
If you’ve been training on the same equipment at your gym all cycle, you may be blindsided when you get to the meet and everything feels different. The bars, the monolift or squat stands, the bench, and the plates can all throw you off from what you’re used to. A thicker and longer squat bar feels much different than a gym bar. For instance, a 65# Iron Wolfe squat bar with 3 plates is 335, even though your eyes see 315. Being unfamiliar with different equipment can affect you mentally before you even get to the platform. 100# York plates feel different on a deadlift than a load of 45’s from your gym. A competition bench may be a different height than your gym’s bench, totally altering your leg drive. All of these factors can come into play during a PL meet that wouldn’t necessarily be an issue at our home gym.
If you hadn’t thought ahead and planned to eat and stay hydrated, then you may have a miserable time at a PL meet. Long meets have you expending a lot of energy just keeping yourself primed and ready to perform your best all day. Food and liquids are an absolute must between lifts. If you haven’t waited long enough between squatting and benching to eat a meatball sub sandwich and a half a gallon of pedialyte at YOUR gym, then you’re severely missing out.
At large meets, you may be crammed into a venue with a lot of big people. Most of the time not only are you sharing the warm up equipment with other lifters, but also the bathrooms and food and water if those last two are even being provided. Space can be hard to come by. Finding a spot to sit to wrap your knees can be a challenge. So can finding a spot to leave your gym bag and cooler if you were smart enough to bring one. Need some space to foam roll your IT bands? Good luck, better hit the parking lot! You may be constantly making your way through a crowd made up of people watching the lifters on the platform and people waiting in line to warm up. Don’t be surprised if by the time you make it from one end of the venue to the other if you forgot why you went over there in the first place.
The pressure to perform
Most powerlifting platforms are treated like a stage, so it’s not unusual to have 50, 60 or 100 sets of eyes upon you during your attempt. If you’re used to staring at a wall or a mirror, being the absolute center of attention may be a strange new feeling. The only 3 sets of eyes that matter in the crowd are the one set in front of you and the two sets on the sides, the judges. At a PL meet, your lift will be held to a set of rules and judged by three federation officials. The pressure to perform a heavy lift with your best form can be much different at a PL meet than in your gym. Back home, your squat may have been a little high, but you might count it anyway. At a PL meet, you’ll know exactly where your lifts are when those three judges pick your apart and either pass or fail it. Want to know if your squat is BS? Sign up for a meet.
Now, all of that said I won’t tell a person who hasn’t competed that they aren’t a powerlifter. It’s not up to me to bestow or deny the title to anyone. But in the same sense, it shouldn’t be a title that someone gives themselves arbitrarily either. Ask yourself this: “Did I perform when called upon to do so, or did I rest until I thought I could make the lift?” “Did testing my maxes today make me a powerlifter, or did it simply show me my maxes in ideal conditions?” “Did I step out of my comfort zone with nothing but the confidence in myself and my training, or was it business as usual?”
To those who perform the powerlifts or train strongman, I urge you to sign up for your first competition. It will be the greatest thing for your training in the future. Not only will it give you further reason to work hard toward a goal, but it may keep you accountable and help you change form that may have gotten sloppy during training.
So what’s the answer?
If you’re tired of people saying that you’re not a powerlifter because you’ve never competed, the answer is simple. Shut them up by signing your name on the dotted line!
“The red bearded bastard”
Occupation: Locomotive Engineer
Class: 275-308 Raw
About: Full time railroad and family man, part time lifting nomad. I train out of Raleigh Barbell under coach Jackson Williams. I’ve competed in the APA and IPA, as well as a non-sanctioned charity push/pull called the RAW POWER BLAST in Johnston County, NC.