I fell in love with competitive powerlifting at the age of 49. I had trained with a group at my gym but had no idea what it was like to compete. Despite having to quickly learn about gear and Wilks and commands, I had a blast! Although I was hooked and began to train with powerlifting in mind, I didn’t compete again until fall of 2018. And when I say compete, I mean compete. I did 3 competitions between September and December. While this is not great advice for everyone, it was great for me because it gave me the opportunity to stay focused on specific goals and to gain a lot of experience. Here’s a breakdown of each competition:
MAY, 2016 USAPL
I was very green at this one. Our gym did a group powerlifting camp which culminated in a real powerlifting meet. Our gym owner entered everyone into the Open division because it cost extra to enter into master’s. Since I was in the 84+ category, I knew I had no chance of winning against the incredibly strong 20-somethings, so I had the luxury of going for PRs and not worrying about anything else.
Things I learned:
- The commands are very important. Thankfully, I was in the third flight, so I learned from others’ unfortunate experiences.
- Bodyweight matters. I was at the very bottom of the 84+ class, but I figured that since I was in the heaviest weight class, I was competing weight-for-weight with much bigger and stronger women. I didn’t know the advantage of being as light as possible, so I didn’t do anything at all to weigh less for weigh-in. Nor did I remove any of my clothing- including my shoes. (The weigh-in person suggested that I did, but I responded that it really didn’t matter since I was in the heaviest weight class.)
- Always enter the master’s division if you are a masters. I would have gotten a medal at my first meet.
- Google your name periodically. A year after the meet, I googled my name and just happened upon the USAPL website. I went to my profile and lo and behold- I had briefly been a state record holder. Apparently someone had lifted heavier than me before that meet, but their information hadn’t been recorded, so I showed up as a record setter for the bench press in the M1B 84+ class.
September, 2018 USAPL
This was everything for me. I trained diligently and had my eye on the prize: the state deadlift record for my weight/age. Back in the summer, I had participated in a non-sanctioned fundraising deadlift meet during which it turns out I matched the current state record. I picked up 135 kg (297 lbs) like it was nothing. I knew that I could add at least 2.5 kg to cinch the record. All I needed to do was to make at least one of each lift and to pick up 137.5 kg on the deadlift. I did it, and got not only a legit record but also 1st place for my age/weight. My goal, though, was to get a PR in each lift in addition to reaching the goal I set at the start of the year to deadlift 300 lbs.
Things I learned:
- Anxiety can be a blessing. There was a lot of adrenaline pumping through me the whole time. It peaked during time for the deadlift. I can barely remember my moments on the platform- just before and after. I remember my hear rate racing like crazy as I heard my name announced as being “on deck.”
- It’s a good idea to enter the open in addition to the master’s category. I would have come out with two first-place medals if I had entered the open division too. Overkill, maybe. But still would have been cool.
- Having a handler/coach at the meet is a good idea. I didn’t have one for this or for the prior meet. Because I had recently completed a powerlifting coaching seminar and observed others who had coaches and handlers, I realized the value of having someone do some of the worrying for you. On my own, I had to watch to make sure that my bars weren’t misloaded, decide on my next lifts, watch my status on the scoreboard, etc. Thankfully, the powerlifting community is pretty awesome, so another coach (Lis Smash) was kind enough to chalk my butt for me before I got on the platform to bench.
- Did I mention that the powerlifting community is pretty awesome? There were some familiar faces from a prior training camp and the coaching class that I took. I became friends with the friends of these friends and have broadened my network.
November, 2018 USAPL
This was a much larger meet than the one in September but comparable to my first one. There were two platforms lifting at the same time. Because I had trained so hard for the September meet and accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish this year, my goals for this meet were to make at least one of each lift and to break my deadlifting record. Because I hadn’t trained or eaten properly for this meet, I kept debating about not doing it. Not only was I not in prime physical condition, but this meet required road travel and an overnight stay. It seemed like excess time and expense. The only reason I signed up for it was because it was posted before the September meet. I got my deadlift record at 140 kg (308 lbs) but sucked on all the other lifts- missing my PR attempt on squat and my most recent successful attempt on the bench. The deadlift was heavy, but as soon as I got it to my shin, I knew I could lift even more.
Things I learned:
- Not all meets give award based on age/weight divisions. I was the only one in my age + weight division and was 2nd in my weight division, but I didn’t get any hardware because it was based on the top 5 of all masters- regardless of age range or weight. I don’t know if this was in the fine print when I registered, but I’m #salty to this day. Had I signed up for the Open division, I would have gotten a 2nd-place medal for my weight class. I did win a Yeti coffee cup in a raffle. I know it’s worth more than a medal from a money standpoint, but after the September meet, I’ve grown to love having my photo taken on the winners’ platform.
- Sign up for the Open division even if you are a Masters.
- It’s ok to fail at a lift. When there’s nothing to lose, you might as well go for it, and see what happens. Yes, my failed lifts are evident to everyone with internet access. The bottom line though, is that I stepped outside my comfort zone, took a risk, and have photos of me looking badass.
- Bring a lawn chair. There’s little seating behind the platform, and typically the spectator seating consists of folding chairs. I was jealous of the people sitting in their comfier lawn chairs between lifts.
- We all have biases, and if that bias is for good, it’s ok to indulge. The only reason I showed up for this meet despite my lack of training was because it was run by a black woman. I’m old school. If a black person and/or woman is doing something that not a lot of black people and/or women have had the opportunity to do, you support him/her. I signed up before knowing who was running it, so my money could have gone to anyone. I’m just saying that supporting a minority woman was the push to get me to stick to it.
- I compete for several reasons: the love of the platform, discovering how strong I am, showing off how strong I am, and being around kindred spirits. All my life I’ve been the awkward oddball. When I take in the powerlifting crowd, I realize that I’m not an oddball- I’ve just been in the wrong circles. I loooove how colorful and intense everyone is. I feel at home. I feel like a normal human. And that’s worth all the hardware in the world. (Although it’s harder to share on social media.)
- The powerlifting community is awesome. Since I was competing solo with no coach or handler, the wonderful people of Roswell Barbell took me in and gave me pointers on my lifts, assisted me with my warmups and provided emotional support. I hadn’t hired them. I didn’t know them. Yet they treated me as one of their own.
December, 2018 USPA
Easy peasy. For whatever reason, very few women over the age of 40 even attempt to lift an empty bar at a USPA meet. Several masters friends and I had an easy task: Make at least one lift- regardless of weight- in each lift and score 4 state records. By now, I had not done any peak strength training because this was about 4 weeks from my prior meet. I had two extremely important goals for this meet:
- Get the f@ck out of the 90+ kg class. Why? Because in USPA the top weight class is called “Super Heavyweight.” I’m all for body positivity and embracing the bulk that comes with strength, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to have my record certificate classify my as a Super Heavyweight woman. Nope. I’d rather have no accolades. (That’s actually a lie. I love accolades.) Anyway, with the help of a coaches from StrongerU and MPowered Fitness, I reached my goal of being in the 90kg class with a couple of pounds to spare. (That needs to be a separate blog post!)
- Set some records in every single lifts by just making the lift. I reached this goal even though I missed my last squat for depth. I PR’d only in the deadlift (142.5 kg which in USPA translates to 314.2 lbs), but I’m not complaining. It was heavy but came up nice and easy. I have at least another 2.5 kg without a serious grind.
Things I learned:
- Don’t just read the dimension requirements for gear. Read the brand names. I learned during equipment check that I couldn’t wear my Rehband knee sleeves because even thought they were the right dimensions, they used to be but are no longer an approved vendor. So, I squatted without knee sleeves. It’s totally my fault for not reading everything. To my credit, several experienced coaches didn’t know about this change either.
- Early check in rocks! I checked in the morning before at about 89 kg without stripping all the way down). That allowed me to do an intermittent fast the night before (I stopped eating and drinking at 4 pm.) and rehydrate and refuel for the meet. I was right at 90 kg the morning of the meet.
- When you are attempting a state record, you must announce it before you lift and get inspected by judges after the lift.
- None-tested meets are different from tested meets. I don’t know everyone’s stories, but I’ll just say there were some BIG, STRONG me at that meet. There are big, strong men at every powerlifting meet, but some of these were capital letter BIG AND STRONG.
- Even with a different organization running the meet, the powerlifting community was awesome. By now, there were numerous familiar faces and friends. I was adopted by Marietta Barbell where I attend periodically for powerlifting prep even though I wasn’t officially a team member. Most of them were meeting me for the first time, but it didn’t matter. I was a family member to them.
It’s not fair or accurate to compare 3 experiences with USAPL to 1 experience with USPA, but here are some initial impressions:
Winner: USAPL– simply because I’m familiar with their allowances and the accept the Rehbands that I already own. I am 100% going to buy some USPA-complaint knee sleeves because I will definitely lift with USPA again.
Winner: USPA. The commands are the same for both, but USPA has more allowances. While I’ve never, ever felt the need to lift my head off the bench to bench press, it’s nice to know that I can. Same thing for my heels. I was trained with a flat foot stance, and that’s all I know, but it’s comforting to know that my heel can be lifted as long as my foot doesn’t move around. Although I don’t have the body positivity vibe that allows me to feel comfortable in a singlet, it’s nice to know that USPA doesn’t require a t-shirt under it for the deadlift. Again, not an allowance that I will be using, but it’s nice to know that it’s there in case I reach my body composition goals.
MEET PERFORMANCE TRACKING
Winner: USAPL. USAPL tends to have monitors that are easier to access to keep track of performance and placing. This is important if your attempt selections are based on jockeying for a specific ranking and you don’t have a handler. There’s always been a monitor behind the platform where lifters can see where they are in line and in regards to placing. This was not present at the USPA meet. There was just one large monitor to the right of the platform. I had to listen very closely to see when I was on deck vs in the hole.
Winner: USPA. I found that USPA was very quick with updating the results and the records. At the time of this writing, I’m still waiting for my record from early November to post with USAPL whereas my USPA records have already posted. With USAPL, I had to submit the record information online after the fact while USPA had it from the meet. When you love accolades as much as I do this is significant.
Both USAPL and USPA make powerlifting rewarding and fun. There’s no need to choose between the two. Try both, and see for yourself. And remember, if a 51-year old, last-place athlete with multiple chronic conditions can do it, you can too. The only lift that might be a challenge for someone with limited mobility would be the back squat since it requires squatting below parallel. As for the bench press and deadlift, many of you can do these. It doesn’t have to be THE best; it just has to be YOUR best. And who knows? You just might set or break some records or win a medal. Even if you don’t, everyone looks slightly crazy but a lot of badass when they have their picture taken on the platform. Trust me.