In the last weekend in June, I traveled to Columbus, Ohio to compete in the 2019 United States Powerlifting Association’s National Championships. I competed in my first USPA powerlifting competition in March 2019 and documented my experience in this post. That experience was a very positive one and I did fairly well. But, as you can imagine, I learned a lot as a newcomer about myself and competing in the sport. Part of what made it a positive experience was that I was able to set multiple California State records. While my strength journey is really just that and about gaining strength, it’s undeniably fun when some distinctions like that also come along with your efforts.
What also happened at that first competition was that my total score, which is simply the highest successful weight of each of the 3 lifts that you perform, was high enough to qualify me to be able to enter this year’s national championships. That being the case, this was an opportunity I couldn’t ignore. I registered for the competition and started work on a new training block immediately after the March meet until arriving at Nationals at the end of June.
This training block went well. I stayed mostly healthy except for a few weeks where I had back sensitivity when life got hectic and I wasn’t able to take care of myself with enough sleep and managing the stress. That is a separate journey that I will have to write about in a future article as it has been one of tremendous and surprising learning of how our bodies and (especially) minds work. I’ll leave that for another time, but it’s important to mention that your development is only as good as balancing the two-sided story of both how hard you work (tear down) as well as how well you allow for the conditions for your body to recover (rebuild).
I arrived in Columbus on Thursday night and was staying immediately across the street from the Greater Columbus Convention Center, an impressively large and modern facility that is also home to “The Arnold”. That is a multi-sport sports convention that has been held for many years and named for one of the titans of bodybuilding and strength sports, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The hotel staff was great and, given that I was on a “water drop” protocol to lose enough weight to make the cut for my weight class, they brought a weight scale upon request to my room. I was pretty anxious about staying on target to successfully weigh in on Friday morning and the scale was going to give me that added assurance that everything was on track. I compete in the 82.5 kg (181.9 lb) weight class, which means that this is the upper end of the weight you can have to still be within this class.
Since there is so much water trapped in our bodies, we use that fact to wring it out in the days leading up to the competition so that we arrive with as much lean body mass and don’t sacrifice any of our hard-won muscle tissues to make weight. Instead, since water is easily dropped and regained, we pull that lever instead. This is my 2nd competition and my second time doing a water drop. It’s not exactly a fun process and especially traveling across the country by air and restricting water (and salt, since it leads to fluid retention) isn’t comfortable.
That night, I had a very difficult time going to sleep, being comfortable in bed, anxious about the weigh in, and about performing at nationals, especially being so inexperienced. I worked really hard to stay calm, not think negative thoughts, and focus on one step at a time. That first step is the weigh-in and I’ve done everything right to be successful. I used some music, meditation, and other tricks to stay calm, composed, and let myself eventually drift to sleep and get as much rest as possible. It took a long time and I forced myself to not look at my watch and instead just lay there until I would undoubtedly fall asleep. Which, of course, I did. Small victories.
Friday morning, I gathered up all of my competition clothing and equipment (which have to be checked for compliance to the regulations) and headed across the street to the venue. I arrive a bit early and wait with the others until they’re ready to begin the process for the Saturday athletes. Across the hallway, they’re also getting ready to begin Day 2 of the 4-day competition with the last of the ladies and the lightest weight class men competing on Friday.
As I looked around at my fellow competitors, I see how big and muscle-bound everyone looks and felt out of place. I thought to myself that they must be looking at this older guy that is fairly puny and wondering “is here really a competitor at Nationals?”. I tell myself to shut up and not think negative thoughts. You worked hard, you deserve to be here, and get out of your head. I relaxed and settled into the situation, registered, got my gear checked, got my rack heights & measurements on the equipment we will use tomorrow, and did the weigh in. Just like for the March competition, I weighed in actually below 180 pounds (179.4 lbs). So, I easily made the weigh-in and was nowhere near the 181.9 lb limit. Alright, first step is successful and now my job is to relax, eat, and drink the rest of the day!
I walk over to the actual ballroom that is hosting the competition and spend a few hours watching my coach (Natasha) and friends compete. It’s nice to just now be focused on relaxing, putting calories back into my body to prepare for tomorrow, and re-hydrating my body. It’s also good to soak in the atmosphere of the venue and mentally prepare for being part of it and competing on the platform. Once the competition was over in the afternoon, I headed back to my hotel room. I did my final prep of gathering my competing clothes and equipment, got my fuel prepared for the day (mainly a liquid protein/carbohydrate blend) and with some solid food backup of nuts, energy bars, and jerky. Then, it was time for dinner and to relax.
I ordered room service for dinner and I had to carefully consider what to order. I had to balance my ravenous need for fueling up versus eating too much or the wrong stuff and not doing myself any favors that night and especially for the competition in the morning. I ended up choosing a Caesar salad along with a cheeseburger, fries, and rounded it out with some sparkling water. It was a smart choice, except for the fact that it all of it was so tasty that I started quickly sampling everything as soon as it was delivered before I even sat down.
Thankfully, I controlled myself and didn’t eat too fast or much. I cut the burger in half in advance knowing that it probably wasn’t wise to eat the whole thing quickly (or at all), given that I’ve hadn’t had any substantial meals for several days. This was all good decision-making in that, shortly after, I felt a huge weight in my stomach and wasn’t feeling great. I took it easy for a while and continued to hydrate with sparkling and normal water and things improved. That night, it was a bit more of the same in terms of keeping the mind relaxed and not hyper focused on the competition. No need to ruminate on lifting technique, what if’s, and stuff like that. The work had already been put in, trust your training, trust the program, your job now is to relax and rest. The evening went well and I get an uneventful night of sleep. In the morning, I walked across the street to the venue. Here we go, the Nationals!
The event got off to a chaotic start for us in the warm-up area. Everyone is waiting to be able to begin warming up and looking for the the final roster and flow of competition with the flights for each lift. The officials mentioned that some people haven’t shown up and they have to rework the roster and flights and it was going to take an additional 15 minutes to figure it all out. They finally printed out new flights and start taping them to the walls of the warm-up area and explained the changes and how things will flow. There is some confusion about what we’re hearing but there are also assurances that “don’t worry, you’ll have the time you need to warm-up”.
We time my warm-ups for the squat accordingly and get started with 5 reps of the empty bar at around 45 lbs, then 5 x 135, 5 x 225, a triple at 275, a double at 315, and then coming up next is my final warm-up of a single at 365 lbs. It’s all feeling decent with the combination of training, diet, and adrenaline all making me output what I got. Nothing superhuman is happening here (you can always hope, right?), but I’m happy that there are no weird issues and I’m not feeling particularly weak or anything. What happens next isn’t so fun. All of a sudden, Natasha looks at me and mentioned that I’m being called to the platform! I’m still minutes out from even thinking about getting on the platform and still have a final warm-up to do, what do you mean I have to go lift right now? We walk over to the competitor area confused and with a growing sense of alarm. I try not to panic, but clearly annoyed that I have to now go lift about 400 lbs after only done 315 warm ups. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s clearly not something that I ever do in training. And, obviously, not how you want to set the tone for a day of competing that has barely started.
I rushed to the platform and I didn’t dare even look at the clock. I was sure my one minute allotment was probably seconds from timing out and disqualifying my attempt. I walked up to the bar, steadied myself, drew a breath, held it in, picked up the bar on my back, walked out, did the squat successfully, and rack it. It went pretty well, even with around a 85 lb jump and jumbled warm-up, I’m OK with it. I look at the scoring and, confusingly, I see 3 red lights — a failed lift. Bewildered, I ask the side judge what was wrong with the attempt (thinking that I must’ve timed out), he looks at me plainly and says I didn’t follow the commands. DUH! I was so focused on not timing out that I completely had the commands you must follow leave my brain. Once you rack the weight on your back and you walk out, the center judge will wait for you to be stabilized and will then give you the “squat!” command. You can then squat and once you’re able to come backup, you need to lock out your knees. Again, once the center judge is satisfied that you’re stable, you’ll get the “rack!” command. Even though I’m new to competing, I don’t have trouble with commands. In this case, it completely left my brain because of my focus on completing my lift in the allotted time.
I was pretty disgusted after this start to the day. I left the platform and let the scoring table know about my next attempt weight, where I simply added 5 kg. The plan was to set a new California State record at my 2nd attempt at 190 kg / 419 lb. Instead, I’m now doing a squat at 185 kg / 408 lb, which doesn’t do anything except help my confidence and continue my “warm-up”. The 2nd squat is successful, but I have some further aggravation as the center judge scolds me afterward that “Shawn. Don’t enter the platform until I call you”. The reality is that there was confusion again on my 2nd entrance into the platform. It wasn’t clear if they were ready or not for me and the side judge told me to enter the platform. Arrgh! Anyway, I tell the scoring table that my 3rd and final attempt will be at 190 kg to set a new CA State record. That final squat goes well, I’m tight, confident, and I felt that I got it done well. I look up and see 2 red lights from the judges — a failed lift. I was so disappointed for not setting a new record, but also because things seem to be going not very well for me today.
Well, it’s time to wipe the slate clean and move on to bench press. The first lift experience was annoying, but I was happy that I got at least one lift on the board and a 400+ lb squat on the books. It’s not great, but I also never thought I’d fail 2 of 3 squats in a meet, either! The transition to bench press didn’t take very long and I’m back in the warm-up area to starting pressing fairly soon after the squats are all done. Obviously, I’m a little sensitized now to timing and being late for stuff, so my ears are perked for how things are going and making sure I get all of my warm-ups done.
The warm-ups didn’t go that well, actually. Bench press is a very precise movement and perhaps especially more so for me. I have a routine to get my setup right and to especially make sure that I’m executing the press with as much of my body as possible versus using focusing on the arms and shoulders. In fact, I had a breakthrough just in the past couple of months of where I feel only now I actually know what I’m doing with this lift. So, it could’ve been that I’m just rushing things and not really executing well. The time to move to the competitor staging area came and we headed over to get ready for the platform. As I went out on the platform for my first lift, the side judge gets my attention “sir, sir…”. I got the feeling he didn’t like something he saw. I put out my arms and showed him my wrist straps, which are federation approved and were checked at gear check upon registration yesterday. That wasn’t the issue, though. I forgot to actually fully wear my singlet and my t-shirt was exposed and my singlet was done around my waist. Both he and Natasha told me to relax and I have time, just fix it and get back on the platform, which I did. Jeez, another error to start my bench presses now?
The first attempt was at 115 kg / 253.5 lb and it went fine. It wasn’t as as solid as I would like but it worked. The 2nd press at 120 kg / 264.6 lb would be a new meet personal record (PR) for me. I’ve done 265 lbs several times in the gym during training, but I’ve near done that much at a meet. The weight comes off of my chest in a hurry, but I hit a wall and can’t lock it out and extend fully. The judge (rightly) calls it as I lost height while I struggled and the spotters grab the weight and it’s over.
I was surprised that the weight came off my chest so fast and easy. Natasha told me that I didn’t press back enough and that’s why the progress stopped as I was pressing too straight up and not back. I put this into my head and prepared for a repeat of the same weight for my 3rd and final attempt. This time, I slowed down and used more of my time allotment, got fully ready, and thought about the right way to execute this press. The press went well and I locked out the weight after a small grind. I was satisfied as this new meet PR is a good weight. It’s not spectacular as I would’ve loved to demonstrate something that I should be able to do right now in the 270’s, but we’ll leave that for another day. It’s interesting to note that I got one red light on this press. The center judge felt like I “jumped” his “press!” command, while the two side judges didn’t think so. I was in no hurry and I distinctly pressed the bar off my chest only when I heard his command. Because I did it so fast, I think he misinterpreted this as my pressing before commanded. Strict, strict judging day for me today along with some silly errors.
We’re now down to the final lift of the day, the deadlift. Guys being guys, the bench press portion of the day took forever to complete. Literally, there was a multi-hour wait for all of the various bench press iterations of the event to complete and for the deadlift to start. I’ve seen in my limited competitive experience in powerlifting that it takes a toll on you to get amped up several times in a day to work hard in each lift. Even though I was closer to a nap at that point then to go all out on the deadlift and finish strong, it was time to rev the machine back up even faster and harder and do just that.
My warm-ups went well and there was a growing fire that I was building inside as I went through my established routing — 5 at 135 lb, 5 at 225 lb, a triple at 315, a double at 365, my first single at 405, and my final single at 445 lbs. My opener was at 215 kg / 474 lb and went well, coming up off the ground easy. The game is on! My 2nd attempt was at 232.5 kg / 512.6 lb and will be a new CA State record. That’s a pretty good jump from my 1st to 2nd attempt in weight, but I was ready to go and it came off the ground well and I finished it off with no problem. New state record was now set and it’s also was a PR as the my previous best was 507 lb achieved at the March meet.
It was now time to try a serious weight. I wanted to demonstrate a heavy deadlift for many months. This final attempt would be at 240 kg / 529 lb. I was ready to go and do this thing and walked up to the bar, did my routine, and without hesitation started the lift. It came up with some respectable effort, but the speed of how it comes off the ground, and how it finally gets locked off makes it clear that this was not close to my max ability. I didn’t intend any reaction, but I spontaneously felt proud of the lift and as I was put the weight back down, I removed my hands to pump my fists. My hands came off the bar a split-second before the weight hit the platform. This, according to the rules, is a disqualification. I looked up and there were 2 red lights — a failed lift. Bummer. I was still thrilled to have performed the way I did and I was satisfied with the day’s results.
This is it, the day is through and I successfully competed and put up some good numbers for all 3 lifts. It was a great experience and I got what I wanted out of this competition to get further experience under my belt and prepare myself for the World Championships that I’m most focused on this year. We decided to stick around a bit to see how the final results shaped up and if I was able to get any distinctions. It took the officials a little while to tally the scores of the day and see how it all maps out in terms of who wins what.
They started announcing the list of winners of the various competition categories, weight classes, and age ranges. There were a good handful of masters in my age bracket that I noticed in the roster. But, I didn’t know how we all did relative to each other. Well, that got answered when I heard my name called to go up and receive the award for 1st place for the Masters 44-49 year old bracket! It was cool to go up there and take my 1st place podium spot and get my medal from the official. We shook hands and I apologized for my mistakes on the platform during the day. He was kind and said don’t worry about it and it’s all good and that i did a great job. I mentioned all of this is still new to me and this was only my second meet, so I’m still absorbing it all. He was surprised to hear that and repeated “this is only your second meet — you’re good!”.
I walked back to the side wall of the room, where Natasha and I were standing and applauding the winners, slightly embarrassed but also super happy with honor of placing. We stuck around to catch some more of the festivities, when after a few minutes, my name was called for another distinction! This time, it was for 2nd place in the deadlift-only category of the competition. There are a couple of additional contests-within-a-contest that go on in competitions like this. The typical entry is called “full power”, where you enter to participate in all three lifts; the back squat, bench press, and the deadlift. You also have the option often to enter a bench press-only category and a deadlift-only category. This is for people that are particularly strong in certain areas and may actually be relatively weak enough that they’re not competitive in other areas. It could also just mean that they’re particularly strong and want to just distinguish themselves in this side competition.
I entered the deadlift-only competition because it’s a particularly strong lift for me and I actually perform it at the “Elite” level now. This isn’t just a subjective thing. There are actual standards of performance that the federation observes over time and they show the distribution of powerlifters. The categories start at Class IV and go up from there to Class III, Class II, Class I, and then Master, Elite, and International Elite. The lower classes (Class III and IV) are those lifters that have a 1-3 years of strength training and lifting experience and represent about 30% of competitive powerlifters. The upper classes (Class I and II) are comprised of those that have 3-4+ years of serious lifting experience and represent about 60% of serious powerlifters.
It is estimated that 10% of serious powerlifters will reach the Master category. This is not to be confused with the age brackets known as “Masters”. The Master category are those with 6+ years of serious powerlifting training and would perform well at local competitions and may think about competing nationally. These lifters would generally be considered in the Top 50 of powerlifters in the country.
The final categories are Elite and International Elite. It’s estimated that about 1% of competitive powerlifters will reach this classification and they represent the Top 10 of the country or the top in the world for the International Elite classification. They typically have 10+ years of serious powerlifting experience The USPA standards are published and show numbers in these categories per age, weight, and each lift, as well as a total score. (If interested in this topic, this article does a good job of discussing these standards and what they mean).
Oh, one final thing I won’t get into discussing in this article, but I’ll expand on in a future article if there is interest, is that this competition was a Non-Tested Nationals. The USPA Federation has both drug-tested and non-tested events and championships. That means that no drug testing is performed on the athletes competing. You will find that the standards are lower in the tested events, in that lower weights are achieved by the competitors. At these non-tested events is where you have the highest performance and numbers that are achieved.
That background out of the way, my deadlift is in the Elite classification and my strongest with both my squat and bench press trailing in Class I territory. Overall, my total is just about a Master total right now. This is why I entered the deadlift-only category in this competition and it paid off for me as I won 2nd place! What was even more fun was the 1st place winner was very nice to me and it turned out that his dad was one of the people that congratulated me earlier in the day. The dad was my age and I think they both got a kick out of the fact that this “old dude” placed 2nd right next to the son who placed 1st. Fun times.
I’ve really enjoyed competing in powerlifting this year. And, while I had errors and mishaps during this meet, that’s exactly what the experience was for and I was able to pick myself up and push through to what needed to be done. That was partly a physical thing but mostly a mental skill and toughness opportunity to leverage. So, I was grateful to be able to compete at the 2019 USPA National Championships and get the experiences I needed to make myself better and a tougher competitor. Ending up to actually place and get medals for a couple of categories was icing on the cake. I’m not sure if it’s fully sunk in yet, but it feels amazing to be the 2019 USPA Masters 44-49 National Champion.