by Rijker Cox, Supreme Strength Coach | March 16, 2022
When preparing for a meet, a well thought out attempt plan can go a long way. Attempt selection is in my opinion an often overlooked aspect of competing in powerlifting, and there is more to it than meets the eye. If you routinely find yourself or your lifters having underwhelming performances it is time to reassess your plan of attack. Also, if you want to optimize every aspect of your meet day coaching game, this blog will help you do so and with it I hope to leave no stone unturned in the topic of attempt selection.
Going nine for nine is a term that gets tossed around frequently in the powerlifting community. It is seen as a cornerstone of having a good meet to make all attempts. But what really goes into making a successful powerlifting meet performance? It starts with goal-setting.
Some of the many goals one can have during a powerlifting competition are:
- Making all attempts
- Finishing on the podium
- Winning a weight class
- Setting a PR on individual lifts
- Setting a total PR
- Setting a national/international single lift record
- Setting a national/international total record
- Qualifying for a competition (through a qualifying total)
- Winning best lifter (through formula)
- Enjoying the meet
While the goal is always to get the most out of your attempts by going 9 for 9, there can be a multitude of goals one has for a single competition. To achieve any of these goals we need to prepare by setting up a solid attempt plan.
Writing an attempt plan
Predicting top end strength can be a tough task. Some lifters simply perform better than others in competition as opposed to during training. In the majority of cases, the opposite is true. Due to various factors such as judging, nerves, time of day, inexperience and differences in training equipment and setting, lifting at the competition might be harder than at the gym. However, that is not to say that most people won’t be able to hit PRs: they can and most should!
To make an estimation of where our one rep max strength ("1rm") is on a certain lift we can use the RTS RPE chart as seen below. A single with 200 KG at an RPE of 8 gives us an estimated max of 217 KG (200/0.922). A third attempt in the vicinity of 215 to 220 KG could therefore be a realistic target.
This chart works best the lower the reps are and the higher the RPE. Keep in mind that these are estimates of your 1rm and they are most applicable to a training 1rm. What one can successfully lift in competition might differ drastically due to a plethora of factors as mentioned above. It is thus best to be somewhat conservative, and even better to take into consideration historical trends you have observed with previous competitions.
So now that we have an indication of what our top end strength might be we can think about our openers. A rule of thumb you often hear about the opener is that you should be able to do 3 reps with it. I find this to be rather vague and have found that it can lead to opening too high. If a lifter bases this “weight you can do for a triple” on an RPE 8 single he has done in training, you will always have to be just as strong as you were during training for this opener to move well.
When we plan out our attempts we want to think in terms of ranges. Legendary gameday coach Matt Gary gives some general guidelines of where to place your attempts and I have found that these can work as a good rule of thumb, especially if you are new to powerlifting coaching. Matt recommends an opener of around 90-92% of your max or planned third. For the second attempt, which he describes as “the stepping stone”, he advises a weight of around 95-97% of your planned third. Your second attempt is indeed a stepping stone to put up a solid third attempt, IF your goal is to build a total, which in most cases it should be. From my experience it is hard to go wrong with these guidelines as long as you have realistic expectations for top end strength.
Working with ranges, similar to as Matt does, is strongly advised. Especially for your second and third attempts. This can make the choice as a coach that much easier. If an attempt moves phenomenally we can pick the upper end of the range, if it moves slow we can always be conservative and pick the lower end. This will ultimately help you best build the total you want to achieve.
I have found that for many stronger and more experienced lifters, it can be a wise decision to take larger jumps between attempts. This is simply a better strategy from an energy conservation standpoint. If the lifter in question is experienced and knows how to execute, the risk of this strategy is minimal while the reward is great. Taking larger jumps will leave you less gassed for the final attempt, which is ultimately the most important attempt.
Finally, I strongly advise against taking uneven jumps after the second attempt. This only concerns making a larger jump from second to third attempt than was taken from opener to second attempt. This is a particularly dumb move for several reasons. Firstly, it can throw the lifter off as they might not expect a certain weight to feel as heavy as it does after the first (smaller jump). Secondly, if the lifter goes on to miss the third attempt (which is now more likely) they will be leaving a lot of KG’s on the table.
Below I provide an example of a lifter looking to squat in the vicinity of 220 KG, bench 140 KG and deadlift around 260 KG.
During warmups we want to be as efficient as possible by not wasting energy by doing too many reps. At the same time we do not want to deviate too much from what we are used to in training. For the lifter attempting to squat 220 KG on their third, warmups could look something like this:
Bar x 7 reps
70 KG x 5 reps
120 KG x 3 reps
150 KG x 2 reps
170 KG x1 rep
185 KG x1 rep
For the last two singles it is wise to give the lifter commands as to get ready for what they are about to do on the platform. Be sure to start your warmups on time to keep yourself in a comfortable position. By the same token we do not want to be finished too early. I have seen people having to rush warmups too often but have also seen people finish all their warmups for the wrong flight more than once! The bottom line: be prepared and manage your time well.
Applying the plan
A good preparation is half the battle, but your plan is worth little if you are unable to execute it. Firstly, it is important to note that as a coach you should be paying close attention to when the flights start and when it is your lifters turn to go out for their attempts. If warmups are not moving right and you need to change openers, be aware that you have until 5 minutes before the flight starts to change the attempt.
Regardless of the goals one has, the best strategy in most cases is building a total. After the opener you want to evaluate critically so the correct jump to the second can be made. Look at the bar speed and check in with the lifter to get their perspective. Remember: you have one minute to decide, so don’t be afraid to use that minute! I often even show the lifters the video of their attempt to help them decide. That is not to say that this is a good strategy for every lifter, but more so to say that you have more time than you think to pick the next attempt.
Making adjustments on the day
Things don’t always go according to plan. If an athlete misses their opener you want them to be retaking that weight 99% of the time. Especially if it is a depth issue, don’t just assume this will fix itself while going up in weight at the same time. If it is a simple fix such as a jumped command, it can be justifiable to go up, but only if the lifter is experienced.
If the weights are moving slow, don’t blindly stick to a plan. Make adjustments based on your best intuition and the feedback you are getting from the lifter. Don’t be afraid to only go up 2.5 KG if that is what is most suitable. On the other hand, if things are going better than expected and the lifter is confident, stay on the higher end of your range and perhaps go for an even bigger third than expected.
Attempt selection per lift
With squat, even more so than the other lifts, I believe it is very important to have your lifter make every attempt. Doing so will build confidence and positive momentum throughout the meet. It can sometimes even be a smart decision to sandbag squats just a little to conserve energy for the rest of the meet. Keeping 2.5 KG in the tank on squats could end up giving you 5 KG more on deadlift, if it saves you from grinding on the third.
Bench is the lift where we can perhaps get away with slightly smaller jumps. Seeing as the lift is less taxing and the range of motion is shorter we will have less of a recovery demand between attempts. However, relatively speaking, the jumps shouldn’t be that much smaller as attempts near 100% will still remain fatiguing to at least some degree.
For lightweight female lifters and lifters that bench below 70 KG in general, I strongly advise against taking 5 KG jumps. Do not be afraid of 2.5 KG jumps. These will 99% of the time be the right move. Also, do not feel bad about missing your third as sometimes a 2.5 KG jump is simply too much. Think of a lifter benching 50 KG: a 2.5 KG jump is the equivalent of a 10 KG jump for a lifter benching 200 KG!
For deadlifts I have a strong preference for opening on the lower end of the range. With deadlift we really want to be emptying the tank on the third so give yourself room to do so. If you are in a competitive class and want to go for a win or podium placing, the fun often really starts on the third attempt. Here we can make changes and some tactical considerations can come into play.
As a coach calculating the required total and keeping a close eye on the competition is incredibly important. You want to be pulling exactly what is needed for the win and you will only find out what this number is by looking at your competitors. And it doesn’t stop at checking the scoreboard, actually observing the attempts of the competition is necessary. Look at the bar speed and pay attention to the jumps they are making. Your third attempt needs to be the perfect pick.
Deadlifts are unique in that it is the only lift where we can make changes on the third attempt. After we hand in our attempt choice for our third we are able to change it twice. This can result in some real mind games if the final pull will be deciding the win. It can be a valid strategy to enter an unrealistic third attempt, just remember, if someone else actually pulls that weight before you do, you are no longer allowed to go down. Be on time with making a change! Also keep in mind, if both lifters have the same weight, lot number will dictate the order: the lower lot number goes first. This means that if you have a higher lot number and you want to decide your final attempt after the other competitor has lifted, you will have to select a heavier attempt than them. You can then adjust down after if necessary, since you have a higher lot number. This will not work the other way around, as the lot number dictates that the lower number with the same weight goes first.
Being the strongest deadlifter gives a huge advantage in that you can be the closer. You know exactly what is needed for the win and all it comes down to is executing. If you can win on bodyweight that’s great! Just keep in mind that if the bodyweight AND total is the exact same for each lifter, the win will be decided by who registers the winning total first. Yikes!
- The role of bodyweight
Weight cuts can influence strength. I believe this is known to most powerlifters but it often remains underestimated. The best advice I can give here is to be extra conservative with your attempts after having to cut to make weight. The greater the cut, the more conservative one should be perhaps. A more experienced lifter will have a better idea of what a cut does to their strength levels. Maybe you are one of those lucky lifters who is barely affected even after a large cut by way of water and sodium manipulation. However, if it is your first go around, it can’t hurt to open a bit lighter than you would have otherwise.
- Changing openers
A rather devious tactic to selecting openers is to enter lower openers than you are actually planning to open with. You can change your openers at the latest 5 minutes before your flight starts. This tactic can potentially throw off your competitors especially if you are in the underdog position. Now they all of the sudden have to worry about you!
- Skipping second attempts
An unorthodox method I have seen used with deadlifts is skipping the second attempt altogether. If the goal is pulling a massive third and flights are short this can give just the right amount of recovery to pull through. This is definitely not recommended for the majority of lifters but it can be an interesting tactic, especially for lifters that are gassed when they get to the last pull.
- Records and chips
Setting a record is the only time when you are allowed to go up with less than 2.5 KG between attempts. These “chips” can be very valuable, because think of it this way, 0.5 KG now carries the same significance as 2.5 KG. This chip can make all the difference when it comes to placing. I have coached athletes to a win by taking a chip more than once, so be sure to check what the records are if your athlete is in a position to go for a record attempt.
- Securing the win on the second pull
If the lifter has the opportunity to lock in a win on their second pull, by making their total close to unattainable for the competition, it sometimes can be worth doing so. This has two advantages. Firstly, the win will not have to depend on the last pull where any technical or execution related slip up can cost you the win. Secondly, it allows the lifter to pull something exciting on their last attempt without having to worry about a potential loss. This same strategy can also be applied when going for a qualifying total. In an ideal situation you would have your lifter secure a qualification on their first or second deadlift if possible.
- Scouting the competition
If the competition is very close for a given weight class and you want to go for a win it can, as a coach, be important to check up on the other competitors. In this day and age where people post everything on instagram, it is not hard to get an insight into what your competition is doing. Look at their meet history, training numbers and try to get a ballpark estimate of where they might end up. It’s usually not recommended to share too much of this information with the lifter as it can throw somebody off confidence wise. Also, do not worry too much if someone looks to be getting really strong and is starting to create an unbridgeable gap. Training numbers do not always say too much about meet day performance. It is your job to make sure your athlete makes all attempts and to be ready to grab the opportunity when the competition slips up.
One of the most memorable battles in powerlifting I have got to witness was at the 2018 Junior European Championships, where Luke Richardson & Pavlo Nakonechnyy battled it out for the win. Pavlo was 100% the stronger lifter on the day, unsurprising given the 40 KG of bodyweight he had on Luke. Luke however, made all his attempts up till deadlifts and quite possibly left some kilos in the tank on squat and bench. On the third attempt the British coaching staff made one of the boldest calls I have seen. They simply matched Pavlo’s total on Luke’s last pull, allowing him to win on bodyweight if Pavlo, the stronger deadlifter, did not manage to pull his third. This meant that Pavlo only had to pull 1 KG more than his previous attempt, which was already a European record. Given the bar speed and ease of the second attempt that seemed all but guaranteed. However, the British coaches were aware of Pavlo’s grip issues and made the call based on some incredible foresight. Pavlo locked out his third, held it at the top, and just as the down command came, it started to slip. Luke Richardson took the win.
All the factors and “what if’s” mentioned in this blog might make coaching a powerlifting competition seem more complicated than it really is. Listen to your intuition, critically look at the bar speed and communicate well with your athletes. And remember, your goals are more in reach than you think. As Matt Gary says, it is not always the strongest lifter that wins. Putting up big numbers in the gym means little if you can’t make it happen on the day. Proper attempt selection will allow you to get the most out of your competition. Build the total, conserve your energy and finish strong.
- Matt Gary, A powerlifters guide to attempt selection:
- Luke Richardson vs Pavlo Nakonechnyy