The first attempt (things I’ve been learning while teaching)

Sometimes I really feel stupid to give advice on how to improve something – say, your deadlift – when everybody, plus myself, has already written extensively on it. How many different ways are there to tell someone they need to keep spine neutrality during the deadlift? Or that you need to avoid early/ asynchronous hip elevation?

Apparently, infinite! Yes, no matter how you phrase it differently, someone will find it illuminating.

The trick is, I found, to look for the obvious.

Recently, the athletes at my group asked me to write about competitive planning. I had some things I knew were not obvious at all: I saw so many people bomb out because of them that, well, they’re probably not obvious.

Dedicating time to list the things that should be covered was quite interesting. I discovered things that aren’t so popular in strength coach writing.

Today I’m sharing the “first attempt” subject, how I approached it and how it was digested by my audience.

Who hasn’t shared the disappointment of some lifter who bombs out after three failed attempts at some lift? And by fail, I mean concentric failure: lack of strength. I did – you did. I did as an observer, as a referee, as an organizer – you name it.

I frequently approach the victim to offer some comfort and I developed a short survey: 1. When did you last max out? 2. How did you decide on your first attempt?

We’ll talk about maxing out before the meet and the disastrous effect it may have on performance. Today, we concentrate on the second. Ten out of ten bombed out lifters say they were absolutely sure they could perform that first attempt because they had done it before repeatedly at the gym.

Got it.

“How did you warm up for the round?”

“Oh”, they will say, “just a couple of light lifts because the first attempt was so easy”.


You don’t know the first attempt you decided a week or ten days earlier is “easy”. It can be. If you allow time enough to recover and supercompensate, you might even develop the ability of knowing exactly which is the best “easy” attempt to make it the first. However, maximum strength, about which our game is, isn’t so predictable. You really don’t know if that day you are a little or a lot weaker than expected, or a little or a lot stronger.

Therefore, you must test it at the warm-up. That doesn’t mean you will do a workout at the warm-up area. You must,  however, feel pretty confident that  “x” lbs  heavier than your last warm-up weight is still easy and 100% safe. “X” is whatever: “x” will be one thing for a lightweight female and another for a heavy male; for an experienced X an inexperienced lifter. It doesn’t matter: you must test it.

This is why we have a rule according to which you may change your first attempt a few minutes before the beginning of the round. You weigh in and give your numbers but you must keep in mind that they must be tested and can be changed.

This is especially true for those who travel long and far to lift. I’ve seen a superb lifter from Romania bomb out at the squat, for example. He may not have agreed with the local food, the jet lag may have screwed up his sleep, a number of things may have happened.

Surprisingly, few people knew about all this. They had no idea warm-up at the competition could and should be used for that purpose.

So, respect the weight, respect the “mysteries of maximum strength” and accept powerlifting is a difficult and exciting game for exactly these reasons. Be smart.

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