Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Things I Learned from My First Strengthlifting Meet

by Carl Raghavan, SSC | September 06, 2018

carl raghavan competition deadlift

We had a Strength Meet at this year's Starting Strength Coaches Association Convention. It was so much fun, and a real honor to lift with my Starting Strength comrades. This competition was only for coaches, and since there are fewer than 130 of us worldwide I always relish the chance to ask questions, hang out, and learn from any coach I speak to. I usually only get to see these ladies and gentlemen once a year at the SSCA Conference, as I’m the only coach in the UK and one of just a handful in Europe.

I always love to crack jokes and have fun at a meet. If you were there, you’ll have witnessed my antics – that’s how I like to be on meet day, and usually most of the time anyway, whether I’m at Bethnal Green in London making funny faces on the bench press or Wichita Falls, Texas, twerking before an overhead press. To me, competing is an extension of all the hard work I’ve done in the gym that year, or sometimes over the past several years of training, so I feel like it’s best to celebrate the day and have as much fun as possible, doing my best to make smart attempts and go 9 for 9. All the work is done: the only thing left is to pick attempts wisely and aim for some PRs, usually on my third attempts. Competing can be nerve-racking, so it’s best to stay happy and loose and only get fired up just before you step onto the platform and lift.

The event itself is unlike any other barbell sport meet, as are the rules. The referees do not participate or interact with the lifter on the platform, although this is required at weightlifting and powerlifting meets, where the judges tell the lifter when to lift or put the barbell down. The squat and the bench press in powerlifting have two commands: when to start, and when to rack the bar. The three referees at this meet are there to quietly observe, and judge whether they deem the lift to be a good attempt – the lifter is responsible for following the rules of the lift correctly.

The meet comprises three lifts: the squat, the press, and the deadlift. The closest comparison to this event is a powerlifting meet, the two biggest differences being that a powerlifter bench presses, and is allowed to sumo deadlift. Sorry, sumo fans – not at this meet. Like a powerlifting meet, strengthlifting uses the rounds system. You have three attempts at your squat, three at the press, and three at the deadlift. Your best attempt at each is added to calculate your total, just as at a powerlifting meet. 

The squat and deadlift elements felt very similar to those of a powerlifting meet, but without all the stupid, unnecessary commands. My first attempts were a little strange – in your head you’re thinking, “Am I holding the bar at the top long enough to show I’ve controlled it?” Other than that, the squat and deadlift felt great – more fun than at a traditional powerlifting meet.

carl raghavan competition press

The press was a bit of a shock, as I’ve never pressed heavy – especially a PR press – in front of a crowd or with a head judge looking straight at me. When bench pressing you’re looking at the ceiling, so I’ve never had to bench with a crowd in my field of vision either, which would also be weird as fuck. When you’re training the press at the gym, you’re usually staring at a wall in close proximity to your face. Very rarely do you have a rack where people can walk in front of you, and if that’s the case then lifters are generally polite enough not to cross your field of vision (most of the time). So to have fifty people watching you in complete silence as you attempt a lifetime PR was a little off-putting, to say the least. I tried to use a point at the back of the room, but alas, the 125 kg press was not meant to happen until three days later, at a workout in WFAC. If I do another meet, I’ll definitely practice heavy singles while focusing on a point further away.

Another cool rule: there’s a weigh-out, not a weigh-in. After your last deadlift attempt, you’re escorted to the scale; your bodyweight recorded then and there determines the weight class you’re in. This means there’s no cheating the system with 24- or 48-hour weigh-ins. Even at some 2-hour weigh-in competitions, bigger lifters who don’t start their first attempts until midday will weigh in at eight or nine in the morning before piling back on the pounds they dropped so they can lift in the weight class below their training weight. It gives them a competitive edge, but it goes against the whole reason we have weight classes.

I had some lockout issues with my second-attempt deadlift that looked like a grip problem. I had no problem with my first-attempt deadlift at 230 kg, but on my second attempt – 245 kg – the bar was peeling out of my hands. This has never happened to me on a deadlift, ever. I lifted 250 kg in November 2017 at Bethnal Green in London, and that wasn’t a max that day. You can see me do it on Instagram, @beautifulstrengthgym. Problem was, I’d totally forgotten that my clammy, sticky, sweaty quads were out on show – my knee sleeves were off, and I had a lot of skin bare between my socks and my singlet – and they were pulling the bar out of my hands (no talcum powder is allowed). Both Matt Reynolds and Mark Rippetoe wisely advised me to redo my second attempt, so I yanked my singlet all the way down to the top of my patella and dragged my socks up to the very top of my tibial tuberosity. Of course, 245 kg then went up fine. No problem. I’m guessing my deadlift is currently around 255 –260 kg; I just didn’t have enough attempts that day to show it off.

The most unexpected part? I won my weight category – 110 kg – weighing 109.1 kg. I’ve done enough meets to know it’s rare to win your first. In thirteen years of being a personal trainer and coach, I’ve done four powerlifting meets and one in-house weightlifting meet. So I know the deal. I’m not usually the strongest person, but I guess I got lucky that day – or probably the stronger guys just stayed home. In any case, I’d love to do another one. It was amazing, and a very smooth and efficient event. I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in general strength training, and even to lifters with a more niche focus on weightlifting, powerlifting, or strongman competitions, as well as your average Joes.

I would like to also take a moment to thank Josh Wells SSC, a veteran meet coach who was my handler at this meet. I already had my attempts set before the meet and I usual pick good attempts. The meet flow of the day was a little different than what I’m used to. The flow of the meet was very efficient, so I needed someone to tell me when to warm up and what jumps I should take. Josh also gave me a lot of confidence before stepping on the platform, which was great when you're feeling a little nervous. I’ve known and loved Josh for quite sometime (in a bro-mantic way) and knew I could trust him for helpful cues and coaching. He’s been lifting at WFAC since he was 14 years old, and has competed at the national level. He’s a few years older now, so Josh knows how meets run. I think Josh enjoyed the meet more than me, and that says a lot about his passion to coach and watch us SSCs hit PR lifts.

Next time, however, I’ll definitely practice some presses while looking at a point further away – and I’ll never forget to pull my singlet up when deadlifting again.

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