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Going to a Meet: What You Can Learn from My Mistakes

by Carl Raghavan, SSC | December 11, 2019

prep area of a meet

If you train using the Starting Strength method – or, frankly, if you’re into lifting barbells at all – you should sign up for a meet. It’s a great way to support the community and spend time with people who are passionate about training. After all, that’s what a meet is: a celebration of hard-earned strength and the work we’ve all done, training our asses off three or four days a week at the gym. Some people think meets are solely for elite lifters. Not true. They’re not even about trying to win, necessarily. I’ve come last more often than I’ve placed in the top three at mine, but I’ve still loved every single one of them, because the person I’m really competing with is myself. 

If my personal best happens to be better than my competitors’ on the day, then that’s an added bonus, but it’s not why I sign up. A meet sharpens your focus and galvanizes your sense of purpose. It reminds you why you wanted to get stronger in the first place. It tests your training and gives you something concrete to aim for. Funny thing: the moment you pay your fees for the meet, you instinctively prioritize training. You want to do your best on the day, so you prepare accordingly. No fluff, no bullshit. You do exactly what needs to be done. That said, even with the most thorough preparation, things won’t always go your way. I’ve learned this from experience, most recently at the 2019 SSCAC meet in Wichita Falls, where I was … partially successful. Let me walk you through my mistakes – maybe you can learn from them, even if I don’t! 

The Squat: My Mistakes

Unfortunately, I knew instantly from squatting my opener at 225kg/495lb that it was going to be a tough squat day. It should have been a breeze, as I did 7 reps at 220kg during my last cycle, but … no. My second attempt was worse. I felt the barbell roll up onto my traps and I had to grind much longer than I should have. Afterwards I walked up to the judges’ table, wondering what the heck I was going to pick for my last attempt. Rip was staring at me wide-eyed, right into my blank, confused soul. He was holding up four fingers. “What?” I said. “Go up 4kg,” he told me. Deflated, I said I wanted to hit 260, but Rip just answered, “It’s not there.” “I did 250kg last year,” I replied grudgingly. Rip’s final words were, “Go to 252kg and stay in your hips,” and so I did – and I ground the hell out of that boy. I knew I had the rep, and the cheering crowd helped too. But staying in my hips? Not so much. 

My Tips

The squat is the first lift, so you’re always going to be nervous. That’s completely natural; in fact, it’s actually quite a thrill. Use that feeling. Take your nerves and turn them to your advantage. Picking your opener is tricky, because it’s not always easy to predict how you’ll feel under the bar, so you should choose a number you’re pretty sure you can do for a triple. After the first attempt, your nerves will be steadier and you’ll have more information to go on. Here’s where you need to be honest with yourself. How are you really feeling today? When I’m planning my attempts weeks beforehand, I usually envision that my second will be close to my current best single and my third will be a PR. But this is just a forecast. Flexibility is key, and if you’re not sure what you’re capable of, always err on the side of caution. Out of the three lifts, it’s always better to leave a little in the tank on the squat. Go into each attempt believing you can do it, of course. Push hard through the grind and don’t give up. But afterwards be honest with yourself about the feedback your body is giving you – and when in doubt, take the judges’ advice. 

The Press: My Mistakes

When you have a big press, your double layback doesn’t really kick in until 90 to 95% of your max is on the bar. So if you start with two easy presses then suddenly slam into a huge layback on your third attempt, then chances are the jarring shift in technique will throw you off. You won’t hit the right groove, and you’ll miss the lift.

This was exactly the mistake I made last year: my first two attempts were heavy, but not heavy enough to get into the grind, so I didn’t need my double layback. This screwed up my all-important final rep. This time round, I had a bee in my bonnet, as we say in London (… or maybe that’s just what I say). I had practiced. I had learned. My ritual was on point, so 125kg flew up like I was going for a set of fahve.

My Tips

The biggest error people make on the press is choosing an opener that’s way too light, like I did last year. If your third attempt is a true 1RM, it will move very differently to something you can do for a triple or even a double. It sounds counterintuitive, and this isn’t what I’d advise for the other lifts, but here you’ve got to start heavy. Eight to twelve weeks prior to the meet, I’d also recommend doing three heavy singles once a week, which will get you used to pressing heavy. These are on top of your regular training routine, and ideally you should do them when you’re fresh. 

The Deadlift: My Mistakes

By the time deadlifts came around, my central nervous system was fried. I was so pumped and full of adrenaline that my hands were shaking for my first attempt. It doesn’t help that the deadlift has always been my Achilles heel. I’m not progressing at the rate I would like, which is frustrating, and I’ve been chasing 600lbs for longer than I should. Anthropometry isn’t on my side, but it’s also a question of technique. To the untrained eye, it looks like I’m having lockout problems. The real issue, however, is in coming off the floor. I’ve developed the bad habit of dropping my hips and leading with my chest out of the pull, which negatively affects my lockout, because by the time I reach that point my shoulders are way behind the bar. 

(Sidebar: nine times out of ten, the place to fix most lockout issues is much earlier. Counterintuitive but true. If you’re having lockout trouble, try playing around with your position at the start of the lift.)

My Tips

Doing a few heavy singles three to four weeks out from a meet is crucial, much as with the press. Practice using chalk, the appropriate grip (hook or mixed), with or without a belt, in Olympic shoes or flats. Bear in mind, however, that while heavy deadlifts are recovery-intensive they’re also fun, so you can easily get carried away and end up doing too many. Be careful. It’s a tightrope-walk: you don’t want to exhaust yourself, but you do need to get comfortable with the grind. Heavy deadlifts have a habit of taking all day to lock out, or so it feels. Be prepared to hold onto the bar and pull with all your might. Pretend you’re lifting Mjölnir off the ground.

The tightrope-walk principle holds more generally, too: bottom line, you need to be adequately recovered and uninjured prior to a meet. Simple in theory, not so simple in practice. Remember, you want to enjoy the day. You want to go for PRs, and not merely what’s “good enough”. If you’re fresh and well-recovered, you might find you can pull something amazing out of the bag. But you also have to be realistic, and willing to adjust on the fly if necessary. You can never be sure until the moment you pick up the bar what’s possible – and what isn’t.

Personally, I was surprised by how great my press felt, not least because last year it was definitely the most fragile of the three movements. Still, I was far less nervous this time round. I knew what to expect and had learned from my mistakes. I was happy enough to get 125kg. Reaching 130 and winning the Tommy Suggs Prize – I’ve already got the certificate framed – was just the icing on the cake.

So what were my numbers? How did my actual lifts compare to what I’d planned? Let me break it down.

Squat:

  • 1st: 225kg. Felt ropey.
  • 2nd: 245kg. Felt awful.
  • 3rd: 252kg. A lifetime PR! I wanted 260kg, but knew it wasn’t there that day. This one was a real grind.

Press:

  • 1st: 120kg. Flew up!
  • 2nd: 125kg. I was proper chuffed, as we Brits say.
  • 3rd: 130kg. Tied a gym PR. I hadn’t actually planned to make a third attempt, so this was a pleasant surprise! 

Deadlift:

  • 1st: 245kg. Felt slow and heavy. Made me want to take a nap.
  • 2nd (and final): 255kg. Tied a gym PR. To be honest, I barely made 255kg and had no mental energy left for a third attempt. I was happy to close my second and call it a day.

Total = 637kg

Overall, I performed much better than last year. I added 2kg to my squat, 12kg to my press, and 10kg to my deadlift. Not bad for someone who crawled into bed at 4:30 a.m. the night before. But I still have plenty more to learn. If I had to distill all of the above into a few key take-home points, it would be these:

Squat: Pick an opener you can confidently do for a triple and go from there. Don’t overshoot.

Press: Make sure you practice heavy singles.

Deadlift: Do a few heavy singles with chalk and your bare hands, but not too many. And don’t drop the bar!

Meets aren’t just for the super-strong, and they’re not some kind of terrifying, Hunger-Games-style ordeal. In my experience they’re full of warm, supportive people who genuinely want to see you do your best. There’s no better way to challenge yourself and your training, and there’s no better feeling than achieving an unexpected PR in front of a cheering crowd. So grab that bar, lay out your program, and sign up for a meet. You will surprise yourself.


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