Starting a High School Powerlifting Team, Pt. 2

by Chris Dertz

Competition

Review:

In Part I, I outlined a general plan for promoting, recruiting, and organizing a high school powerlifting team. In Part II, we will talk about competing in a meet.

Finding a Meet

Not all of the kids on our team here at Eastland High School compete. Some of them are perfectly content with coming into the weight room and training the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift. And that’s fine. We don’t require that the kids on our team compete in meets. But competing should be the goal, at least for some of the kids. So, how should you go about finding meets for kids?

For coaches here in Illinois, there are a couple great options. The first place you should start is the IHSPLA (Illinois High School Powerlifting Association). The IHSPLA hosts several meets in the spring including a state meet in May. There are several advantages to joining the IHSPLA:

  • Low cost for participation. The IHSPLA charges a nominal fee for each participant. 
  • Weigh-in the day of the meet. This is a pretty big deal. Many federations require weigh-ins the day before the meet. That means extra trips and possibly the added cost of staying in a hotel room. That is not an issue with IHSPLA meets.
  • Caring people who love helping kids achieve great things run the organization. Jim Davis, Alex Nadolna, and John Beerbower are terrific resources for high school coaches who are looking for powerlifting opportunities for their students.

The APF (American Powerlifting Federation) is another powerlifting organization that has a significant presence in Illinois, especially in the Chicago southwest suburbs. The APF is the American affiliate of the WPC (World Powerlifting Congress). Local, national, and world competitions are sponsored by the WPC. The WPC and the APF have parallel federations called the AAPF (Amateur American Powerlifting Federation) and the AWPC (Amateur World Powerlifting Congress) in which competitors are drug tested. The “headquarters” for the APF here in Illinois is 2XL Strength and Fitness in Lombard, Illinois. Owners Eric Stone and Howard Penrose also serve as APF administrators and officials and host several meets a year in their facility.

For those not in Illinois, there are literally dozens of powerlifting federations throughout the country. It’s not hard to find a meet for your kids. If you are looking to have your kids compete in a federation like the APF, there are some considerations.

First, competing in a federation does have some costs. Lifters will need to become a member of the federation and then pay a registration fee for the meet. For APF meets, it’s about $100 to register for a meet in one division or federation. That price increases if a lifter wants their lifts applied to additional divisions or federations. For example, a lifter might want their lifts applied to both the APF and the AAPF for the purposes of breaking records. Also, some lifters want to compete in different divisions. For example, a lifter might want to compete in both the Open (which is always the most competitive division) and a Teen division (which is for lifters between 13 and 19 years old). There is usually a $50 “crossover” fee for lifters who want to compete in more than one division or federation. Second, some federations, the APF included, require a weigh-in the day before the competition. Depending on how far the meet is from your location, that may require spending a night in a hotel and feeding kids. These are some things you will want to think about before deciding to compete in a meet hosted by a powerlifting federation.

There are also a lot of advantages to lifting in a meet hosted by a federation. To begin with, equipment used will usually be of high quality. Lifters will use specialized powerlifting bars and calibrated weights. Next, the judging will be consistent. Most powerlifting federations have a training program for judges. And the judges themselves have competed in a minimum number of meets. Finally, most powerlifting federations keep extensive lists of state, national, and even world records. It is highly likely that if you take kids to a meet, at least some of them are going to come home with a nice trophy or medal or even break a state or national record.

The last thing you will want to decide is whether the kids will compete Raw or Classic Raw. I wouldn’t even think about competing equipped at this point. Equipped lifting is, for all practical purposes, a completely different sport that is unnecessarily complicated for the vast majority of high school powerlifters. “Raw” means that the only equipment allowed for competition is a weightlifting belt and wrist wraps. Classic Raw means that wraps or knee sleeves can be used on the squat. My recommendation would be to keep things simple and have your lifters compete Raw.

What About Equipment and the Lifting Uniform?

Equipment considerations for raw lifting are minimal. These are the required items:

  • Singlet: Powerlifting singlets are available but they are expensive and unnecessary. Most teen lifters simply wear a wrestling singlet. They are easy to find online and available in many different colors, patterns, and styles.
  • Knee-high socks: These are needed for deadlift because the bar often comes in contact with the shins. Once again, there are actual “deadlift socks” that can be purchased but these aren’t necessary. As long as the socks reach the base of the knee, that is good enough. I would suggest dark socks. Deadlifters often scrape their shins on the bar and dark socks hide blood stains better than light-colored socks. Don’t fear scars. They build character and give you a cool story to tell later.
  • T-shirt: a t-shirt must be worn for the squat and the bench press because the bar comes in contact with the skin. The t-shirt can be sleeveless (but not a tank top) and not be made of compression material. Avoid t-shirts made of moisture-wicking material as they tend to be slippery. A cotton t-shirt will grip the barbell best on the squat, especially after breaking a sweat.
  • Shoes: For most kids, a clean, serviceable pair of shoes that are used in PE class are fine for powerlifting competition. I would recommend wearing shoes that have a uniform, flat sole with a solid heel. Chuck Taylors are popular among powerlifters for this reason.

These items are optional:

  • Powerlifting belt – Most federations allow all lifters to wear a belt provided that the thickness is no more than 13mm and the overall width is no more than 4”. Also, the belts cannot have extra padding. The belts can have a single or double prong buckle or even a lever to tighten. Some federations only allow powerlifting belts from certain companies so make sure that the belt your lifters use is approved for competition. Companies like Pioneer make an excellent, custom-made belt.
  • Wrist wraps – These give extra support to the wrists during heavy bench press attempts. Again, ensure that wrist wraps used by your lifters meet the federation’s standards. Also, keep in mind that if the wrist wraps have a thumb loop, the loop cannot be around the thumb during the lift attempt.
  • Knee sleeves or knee wraps – For Classic Raw competition, sleeves and wraps provide compression and usually result in slightly higher squats than what can be achieved in raw lifting. I would not recommend knee sleeves or wraps for beginning lifters. Again, make sure that the sleeves or wraps, if used, are approved for use by the federation in which your kids are competing. Also, if you are going to have kids use knee wraps, make sure you know how to use them.  

Okay. We found a Meet and Registered Kids. Now What?

To start with, it is crucial that you and the athletes who will be competing in the meet know the rules. I have attended almost 20 meets since 2016 and I have seen many lifters miss lifts simply because they didn’t know the rules or didn’t pay attention during the rules meeting. As stated in Part 1, the lifts done in a powerlifting meet are not like the lifts done in a gym. Each lift is performed with a series of commands issued by the head official. It is imperative that you know these commands and that you practice them in the weight room with the kids!

Along the same lines as knowing the lift commands, make sure you understand the judging standards for each lift. Squat depth is often an issue for many first-time competitors. Every federation has an objective standard for judging legal squat depth. For the deadlift, ensure that you know what the terms “hitching” and “ramping” mean and that those techniques are not being used by your kids. The competition bench press is the lift that will require the most practice as it is not the touch-and-go technique that is usually used in high school weight rooms. Know the standards and make sure you emphasize them in training. 

Regarding programming, I would not change too much for a meet. As stated in Part I of this series, I’m a big fan of using 5 sets of 5 reps and 8 sets of 3 reps with powerlifters on the competition lifts. As long as the kids are setting new 3 or 5 rep PRs each week, that means they are getting stronger. Don’t mess with a good thing! What I do recommend for an upcoming meet is to increase the intensity on the competition lifts while decreasing the volume on accessory movements. 3-4 weeks out from the meet, start programming heavy singles so the kids get practice with the judge’s lifting commands. Give the kids the week before the meet off and encourage rest. There is very little a powerlifter can do in the weight room a week before a meet to improve their performance. On the other hand, there is a lot a powerlifter can do in the weight room a week before a meet to wreck their performance!  

As you prepare for the meet, you will want to establish realistic opening attempts for the kids. It is painful to watch someone who has trained hard for a meet and met the financial obligations to compete bomb out because they chose opening attempts that were just too heavy. The opener should be EASY! A good rule of thumb is that the opening attempt should be a weight that the lifter can do for 3-5 reps with a minimal warmup. Keep in mind that once lifting has started, attempts can’t be changed and the weight can’t be lowered. If a lifter opens with a 125kg squat but can’t get it, they cannot lower the weight to 115kg for the 2nd attempt. They will have to attempt at least 125kg on the 2nd attempt. It follows that a lifter who misses the opening squat attempt has dug themselves into a deep hole. The goal for all of your lifters is to get a total. That means at least one successful squat, bench press, and deadlift attempt. There is absolutely no excuse for missing an opener!

To help you at the meet, you will want to plan out the warmups, openers, and predicted second and third attempts for each of your lifters. Also, it is your responsibility to know if your kids have the opportunity to break records. For example, here’s the sheet I used for our kids who competed at the APF Raw Power Challenge Meet in December of 2020. Have a plan for how you are going to manage warmups. Most powerlifting meets use a system in which all the competing lifters are divided into “flights” (groups) of 10-15 lifters. Those lifters will complete all 3 attempts of a lift before the lifting moves to the next flight. Once all flights have completed the lift, the competition will move on to the next lift. Pay attention to where your kids are in the order. Most meets will have the flight order displayed. It’s a good idea to have a “meet rehearsal” to give the kids an idea what it will be like. There should be no surprises at the meet and the kids should know what to expect. For example, the person giving the kids a hand-off for the bench press in training is the same person who should be giving them a hand-off at the meet.

Communicate to your lifters that after each attempt, they will need to report to the scorer’s table to give their next attempt. When giving 2nd and 3rd attempts to the head table, inform the meet officials if the attempt is for a record. They will usually announce before the attempt that the lifter is going for a record to get the crowd fired up. 

This last thing is not necessary but it is something I like to have our kids do because it shows respect to the meet officials and to the sport. After the final attempt for each lift, I instruct our lifters to go to each of the three officials and give them a handshake (or fistbump due to Covid) and say thank you. The officials are usually older and they appreciate when kids take the time to thank them and to show their appreciation.  

What Else?

My wife, Bonnie, attends all our meets. She is our team photographer and videographer. After meets, she shares the pictures and videos she takes with lifters and parents. The kids really enjoy the pictures and having videos of their lifts. This is a great way to celebrate these achievements. Also, I will write up a “meet report” and submit it to local media along with some of Bonnie’s pictures. We have been very fortunate to have a positive response from many local newspapers, online media, and even local television stations in featuring and promoting our kids. 

After the meet, it’s time to toast the kids! It’s going to be a long day and there will be both disappointments and celebrations. When the meet is over, take some time to recognize both!


Kaylee, Paul, Alanya, and Eli celebrate at Portillo’s after the APF Summer Bash meet in Lombard in 2019

I hope this article helps you. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at cdertz@eastland308.com.