Julie and I competed in our first regular powerlifting competition on March 17, 2019. I say regular because the normal lineup of lifts that you perform in powerlifting is the back squat, bench press, and the deadlift. The very first competition that we entered back in October 2018 was an unusual one, where you substitute the overhead press for the bench press.
We entered that October competition just 2 weeks beforehand and had no plans of doing it. There are a group of friends at our gym that were all doing it, so we entered last minute. In fact, we had a quick trip to Iceland planned that we abandoned as it fell on that same weekend. This first competition was a fun and positive experience and it left me motivated to continue my strength training and enter a regular powerlifting competition.
Our coach, Natasha Barnes, was planning on competing next at this event in March 2019, so I set my sights on that and put my head down and worked hard on a training block from November until mid-March. That block went pretty well, except that when the stress got really high from training and I wasn’t able to manage the rest of the life balance well enough (work schedule, lack of sleep, etc.), things tipped over and I had some back sensitization to work through for a few weeks.
I need to also mention that back in late Summer 2018, I finally got onto a nutrition program. The company I was referred to is Renaissance Periodization and they are well-known experts at helping athletes with nutrition and sports programming. They have excellent literature and templates available for helping you to meet your goals, whatever they happen to be. I chose the option of 1-on-1 coaching instead of following a stock template as my time and attention-span is limited and I wanted to make it easier for myself. They have over a dozen Nutrition PhD staff members and one was assigned to me.
What I learned during this time is that the research shows that the best way to accomplish your goals, whether it’s to gain or lose weight, is to follow cycles of “massing”, maintaining weight, and “cutting”. I’ve heard of terms like “bulking” and “cutting” before and didn’t know much about them at all. At best, I thought they were gimmicks or people that are serious athletes and doing “extreme” things. That was my honest impression and there was a lot for me to learn.
My nutrition coach felt that I would be best served by going through a bulking phase and we did that leading up to the October competition, when it became clear that I was ready for a cut. At this point, I was right at 200 lbs, which I’ve only ever hit once before during my early college days when I was pretty inactive and not exactly eating well.
Especially given my goal of competing in March, the cut started in earnest and I did that phase all the way until the March event. In fact, the weight class that I decided would be most appropriate for me in the event was the 182 lb one. This mean that my cut would need to shed 18 lbs, which seemed a lot and a little hard to believe. I pick my coaches carefully and in turn trust them completely, so I stuck with it and followed the program closely.
I learned quite a bit during the cut in terms of calorie deficits, what it can do for you, and especially combined with consistency and time. Patience is a virtue and doing things in an evidence-based and scientific way doesn’t have maybe the dramatic results of wonder diets. But, it’s safe and especially for an athlete that cares about optimal body composition, it produces worthwhile results.
I’ve also since learned that you can’t lose fat without losing some lean body tissue and you can’t gain lean body mass without gaining some fat. This is why you want science and evidence-based research backing your nutrition plan so that you gain/lose weight most efficiently in terms of the optimal body composition you want to achieve. I’m still learning, but it seems from the reading that I’ve done that significant positive health outcomes are well correlated to lean body mass. I’m not sure why that surprised me, but it did. It’s one of those concepts that makes sense to me, but I didn’t know the correlations were so compelling.
I did pretty well on my cut, but I suppose I didn’t do great. Because, at the end, I wound up in the week leading up to the March competition with still 9 lbs to lose. That seems like a lot, but my nutrition coach had no concerns and had a special “water cut” protocol that he would put me on on the days leading up to the weigh-in for the competition to get me to where I need to go. Now, to be fair, I learned firsthand that the less you need to drop at this late point, the more comfortable things will be.
In that last week, the first couple of days I meticulously followed the nutrition plan from my coach and the weight dropped naturally a bit. By Wednesday, however, the water drop needed to start to get me to the finish line. That protocol dictates how much you drink, when, and avoiding salt completely at the end. The result was me showing up on Saturday and weighing in comfortably under the upper-limit of my 182 lb weight class. In fact, I believe I was just under 180 lbs.
Julie, Natasha, and some of our other female friends competed on Saturday. I was carefully hydrating and putting a lot of calories back into my body during the day, while I watched the ladies competing. I felt pretty good, but was a little tired.
Sunday was my day and I got ready with a little bit of nerves and we headed back to the venue and got prepared for the 8am meet briefing for the athletes and then time to get ready to warm-up. My coach, Natasha, completely instrumented the whole day and told me exactly when to start warming up, when to get ready at the platform to do my lift, and other advice throughout the day.
I found out during my first competition in October that interesting things happen to you when you’re competing like this throughout the day. Training sessions at the gym aren’t short, especially some of the longer ones with lots of volume take 3+ hours. At a meet, however, you’re pretty much in for a full day that is about twice as along as that or more. The fact, that you’re generating extreme hype with adrenaline flowing through your body to do your lifts and getting those strong muscle contractions and then stopping and then repeating 2 more times later in the day, is hard. It makes you feel run-down, tired, and it’s what makes competing not for everyone.
My warm-ups went decent; I didn’t feel weak and also didn’t feel like it was going to be an amazing day. I took a look at the California State Records for my weight class (182 lbs) and age range (45-49) and noticed that both the back squat and deadlift records were within my reach. In fact, even my opening attempt (you get 3 attempts at each lift and the highest weight is counted for your total score) for both the back squat and the deadlift were new records. You need to let the officials know this in advance as it needs to be noted by them, announced to the audience, and there’s also an additional check of your gear after the lift to make sure you’re in compliance (no cheating taking place).
I went for my first back squat at an opening weight of about 397 lbs / 180 kg and got it successfully with 2 white lights and 1 red light. There are 3 judges that observe each lift and have a button to record whether they felt the lift was according to the federation rules or not. I spoke to the judge on my right and she advised that she felt my knees as I finished my squat were a bit “soft” and needed to be locked more fully. Thankfully, 2 white lights out of 3 is good enough for a successful lift. That is a new California state record and I got check by one of the officials. Fun stuff. The lift itself didn’t feel great and was pretty heavy, but I was hoping to continue to warm up and get stronger.
The second squat, however, didn’t go well. Even though these lifts seem so simple (what could be simpler than simply squatting down and standing back up, right?), its taken me (literally) years to get things well understood and refined. At lesser weights and on the lower end of your strength demonstration, you can get away with a whole lot of nonesense and sloppy form. When you are at the edge of your capabilities, however, the margins for error become razor thin.
That’s what happened on my 2nd squat. I was attempting 413 lbs / 187.5 kg and I got too far forward and the weight just buried me. I shook my head for an assist from the spottters and they helped me raise the weight. It was obvious that I made an error and I didn’t want to expend too much energy or hurt myself in trying to recover and make the lift.
This shook me. I already hit a top weight of 411 lbs / 187 kg in October in my first competition ever. And, then I proceeded to work hard for several months after that. So, now, I’m going to fail on a lesser weight? I had plans to go to 430 lbs and now what? This is also early in the morning, when I don’t train. I train at night because of my work schedule, typically 7-10 pm. So, here I am and I just cut 20 lbs, trying to recruit all of my might in the morning, and I just failed a squat that I shouldn’t have failed.
I had to pick myself up and not entertain the negativity. This is just the start of the day and you can’t allow things to fall apart and think this way. I focused hard. I recognized the error and put a mantra into my head and repeated it a hundred times; “chest up .. bar path”. In other words, don’t collapse forward, you know how to do this, take the right position, and make sure you have an optimal clean bar path of straight-down and straight-up.
The setup wasn’t great as I walk onto the platform for my 3rd back squat attempt. The athlete before me struggles on his lift, fails it, blood comes out of nose and drips on the platform, and he gets 3 red lights. Brilliant, this is how I’m walking onto the platform! Even better, I have to wait now so they can wipe away his blood and clean the platform a bit. It doesn’t matter, I need to get this and I’m going to do it well.
I didn’t increase the weight for the 3rd attempt and I kept it as the same weight that I failed on the 2nd attempt; 413 lbs / 187.5 kg. I get up there, do my routine to get ready, and I have a little silly half-smile on my face because I’m hyped. Here we go. I get under the weight, following my mantra, and got it! I did get 1 red light, but it’s good enough with 2 white lights. I don’t know why I got the 1 red light, maybe I didn’t squat to a low enough depth according to one judge. I didn’t care, I pumped my fist and was so incredibly psyched to have gotten through that situation. I got gear checked again and got another CA state record, breaking the one I set maybe 10 minutes ago. Back squats are now done, yes!
The bench press has been my weakest lift. There are standards that are published based on actual performance by athletes. The standards are based on what’s actually happening out there by athletes by weight and age. So, my saying that the bench press is my weakest lift isn’t negative talk, it just is. No records are being broken here. I’ve been an active person most of my life, but most of that activity has been more lower body-oriented (running, jumping, etc.). I haven’t done what most guys do with weights, which is develop their upper bodies and especially do bench pressing.
So, this is a growth area for me and I was really glad to get the back squat out of the way and have 2 records set. I was significantly disappointed that I didn’t achieve any great numbers on my squat, but for now, I was happy and relieved. Back squat is hard and scary as it is, especially to do it first thing in the morning. Now, bench press, you are just lying down and what could be more fun? I successfully got my first lift at 248 lbs / 112.5 kg and it was fine. I didn’t feel powerful, so we went for a modest 253 lbs / 115 kg for the 2nd lift and it also came up, but this time with a wobbly left arm.
The final lift we went with an even 120kg or 264 lbs and it was obviously ambitious given what happened on the 2nd lift. But, I also was hoping to be hitting higher numbers today and went with it perhaps due to ego and wishful thinking versus reality. I tried hard during the lift to get it up, but it wouldn’t go and I failed it. The bench has work to be done in future training blocks, that’s obvious. No worries, on we go to the deadlift!
Again, back to standards, I have a pretty decent back squat. But, my deadlift is where I shine the brightest. It’s time to work hard again, but this is my event and the last lift of the day. My warm-ups go pretty well and I’m feeling pretty solid. Things go well until my final warm-up at 445 lbs / 202 kg. I did what I tend to do and my weakness in this lift, which is to hurry it. The evidence shows that muscle contraction, especially as you age, takes some time to activate and you will get more out of it as you continue the contraction. So, while it feels good for show or psychologically to rip the weight off the ground, that’s not going to happen at heavier weights for you and it’s also a good way to injure yourself.
This final warm-up is not a trivial weight and I rushed it. After getting it off the ground a couple of inches, I stopped and put it back down. It didn’t feel right and I didn’t like it. I looked over to my coach with some big eyes as in “oh shit, that’s not a confidence builder, I’m about to get on the platform for my opener and I just screwed up my warm-up!”. She immediately calmed me down and told me to take a minute and slow down. I walked away for a minute, came back, and (to some relief) got the 445 up and finished my final warm-up.
We timed everything perfectly all day. Not this time. We’re not sure exactly what happened, but I was nowhere near the platform for my lift when we hear my name being repeatedly called over the speaker system. Oh no! I walk quickly to the platform and my 60 second time allotment is now under 40 seconds as I’m walking to the barbell waiting for me on the ground. Natasha tells me to be calm and that there’s plenty of time. I go to the weight, do my routine methodically and with no delay, and lift the weight up with good form. Boom, that’s a confidence builder and also a new CA state record at 474 lbs / 215 kg.
We decided on the next lift weight of 496 lbs / 225 kg and I’m now pumped, super confident, and walk up to it and it also comes up pretty easily for another new record. So, now, it seems like every time this “Shawn” guy comes up to the platform it’s a new California State Record attempt. The crowd started getting into it and I get “come on, Shawn!” from random people. I don’t like a lot of attention, but I enjoy the overall mood of everyone having fun with the events unfolding. While I don’t like spotlights on me, it was fun to create some stir and have everyone enjoy themselves.
We decide the final lift will be 507 lbs / 230 kg. I walk up to the weight, spend a little more time getting ready, but I’m still feeling confident. However, I get impatient and I do a bit of that ripping the weight off the ground thing and can immediately tell that I let my back not stay in the ideal place. Nothing unsafe since I’m super engaged and tight, so the weight comes off the ground relatively quick and without any drama. In fact, the official checking my gear afterward jokes; “that was easier than your 2nd one!”. True, but I should’ve stayed down there and did it the right way. I regret that decision quite a bit later.
But, right now, it’s time to feel happy and proud of myself of not only successfully finishing my first powerlifting meet, but to also come back from adversity and the beginning of some mental panic to pull it altogether and have a solid day. There are high-fives, a medal for 1st place in my age group (I would’ve also got 2nd place in the Open for my weight class, but I didn’t actually sign up for the Open!), and great support from my group of folks. It was a great day and even though I wanted to do better and had some higher numbers in mind for each lift, I was pretty happy.
I walked away from this first meet with some significant disappointment for the reasons mentioned above and was actually pretty emotional about it for a few days afterward. I had to digest and come to terms with what I did well and what I need to do better going forward. This also showed me that I liked competing, I liked training blocks, and even though this was all for health and quality-of-life & longevity outcomes, there’s definitely an element here above-and-beyond all that in competing that I enjoy.
This realization has manifested itself now in being registered for the United States Powerlifting Association National Championships in Columbus, OH at the end of June, where I’ll compete again in the 182 lb / 82.5 kg weight class. I don’t expect to distinguish myself in any significant way at the Nationals, since I’m only a couple of years into my powerlifting evolution. So, it’ll serve as a honor to have been able to qualify and compete at the Nationals and, importantly, to gain further competition experience, better understand my abilities, and how to harness them on the platform.
This will culminate in our another great honor, which is competing at the International Powerlifting League’s Drug-Tested World Championships at the end of October 2019 in Limerick, Ireland. Julie, Natasha, and I will all be competing there together. This is a great motivating factor in all of my training this year to be able to have some excellent lifts in that competition.
Finally, here’s a video that I put together a week of the March event, after I had some time to work through the disappointment, collect my thoughts, and let myself fully relish that day.