“I get so nervous for my first squat attempt that it just destroys my whole meet.”
I heard this from a competitor while I was at USAPL Raw Nationals recently and I have heard it before. The goal of this post is to provide you with a way of approaching that first attempt so it sets the tone for the rest of meet in a good way, not a negative way. To do that simply follow these 8 tips.
First, it is imperative that you pick a reasonable weight for your first attempt (and that you have a decent idea of your real 1RM). The old powerlifting adage that you should open with something you can triple is flat out wrong. Most lifters can triple about 92% of their 1RM – that is much too heavy for an opener. If you open too high, you have nowhere to go – no room to make progress. In addition the weight is likely to feel heavy which ruins your confidence for your next attempts. Worse still, you were nervous about how heavy it is and you cut the depth and now you have a missed opener and you either have to repeat the lift, wasting energy and an attempt, or you go up for your next attempt, increasing your risk of bombing out – the cardinal sin of a competitive powerlifter.
Instead you should open with a weight you can easily hit for 5 reps, maybe even up to 8 reps. For most lifters opening with 87.5% of their planned third attempt is the way to go. I would frown upon opening with more than 90% of your third attempt, and you want to open with at least 80% of your third attempt.
It is extremely important that you regularly perform this lift in the gym up to competition standards – full squat depth, long pause on the bench, no hitch on the deadlift. You should have lifted this weight (your opener) many times in your training up to the meet. Film those sets and watch them over and over. Watch how you destroyed the weight, how you were knocking out reps with that weight. That is what will give you confidence. Don’t watch yourself lift your all-time best over and over again. Often that is a brutal set, the form may be off, it may have been a real grinder. You may even be wondering how you got that rep or worse you may be thinking you are not sure that you can do that again. Don’t do that. Instead watch yourself performing perfectly, dominating the weight, and think about how easy that weight was and how you can definitely lift more than that.
Practice receiving the commands on the lift. Say them to yourself or better yet have a training partner/coach call them out. I like all work sets in the last 3 weeks to receive the commands especially for newer lifters. It makes it automatic to follow the commands when you actually hit the platform.
Squat to depth. The squat is rough because there is no clear “you got it” feeling. On the bench you know if you touch your chest and you know if you lock the bar out. On deads there is that locked out feeling you get when you are standing up. But on squats you just don’t always know if you went low enough. If you do a full ATG squat obviously it is deep enough but it is so much harder that it is likely a competitive disadvantage to do that. The bottom line is every rep in training needs to be good. Find a ruthless coach/partner who will judge you strictly (not your gym buddy who doesn’t have the heart to tell you your last set wasn’t up to par or the random gym dude who thinks a ¾ squat is deep enough because it is way lower than he goes). When you film yourself film from the side and set the camera on the bench at hip height. Don’t accept reps that are close. It is better to be strict in the gym and pleased with your results than lax in the gym and sad at the meet. You do not want to be one of those lifters at a meet that walks around saying, “Yeah I bombed out but I squatted XYZ in the gym.” Nobody gives a shit what you did in the gym, do it on the platform and make it official or it doesn’t count.
Meditate and see yourself hitting the lift over and over again. Find a quiet spot and visualize. The more detail, the more realism you can add, the better. When you get to a meet try to find where the lifting is taking place, what platform you’ll be on, what the racks are like. See yourself doing. Start the visualization about a minute out from the lift. Go through your mindset, what are you thinking? Visualize approaching the bar, gripping it – feel it, setting your feet, getting under the bar. See the judge with his arm raised up. Get the bar on your back. Settle in to your groove. Lift off explosively. Let the weight settle. Walk it back powerfully, under control, just like you always do. Hit your marks. Let it settle again. Lock the knees. Pull the bar down on your back, tighten your core. Nod to the judge. Get the command. Wait a second. Get your air. Get focused, laser like attention. Drop back and down like you always do. Knees out, spread the floor. Find the hole and explode back and up. Core tight, elbows down, chest up, knees out. Silently scream out the one or two cues you need to focus on. Lock the knees at the top, hold the weight. Wait for the command. Take the step forward. Stay controlled and get ready to do it again, even better next time.
Most powerlifters are control freaks. We like to do things our way and we like our routines. I have my squat shirt, and my squat shorts, and my squat shoes. I like my squat bar, in my favorite squat rack, at the same time every day, every week. But a funny thing happens. In a meet most of that is different. It isn’t your bar, it isn’t your rack, it is probably a different day of the week, at a different time of the day. You are not with your friends or the gym regulars and you didn’t sleep in your bed or even eat the food you always eat. If you can’t handle change, it sucks to experience it when it matters the most. To that end I would suggest sometimes intentionally changing things up. You may have your favorite bar but the meet bar may suck (it shouldn’t happen but it does), so grab a crappy bar at the gym and get your sets in. In a meet you change bars from warm-up to the competition attempts, try that at a gym. Go to a different gym and hit your squat opener, on a new rack, with new people. It is a good experience. Then all the newness at the meet won’t throw you off. I am not saying every session must be different, but sometimes force yourself to change. Make yourself feel a little uncomfortable and you’ll grow as an athlete because of it.
Challenge yourself. Most athletes are competitive at some level. For some is very obvious, for others it is deeper. But that competitiveness is not bad, certainly not in this environment. Imagine someone walked up to you said “I don’t think you can squat that” and they are talking about your opener. Wouldn’t you be insulted? I would. Take it personal. Because if you don’t get your opener then you can’t say you could have done it, because you didn’t. Could’ve, would’ve, should’ve – words of losers. If you don’t squat that weight then at least man up and say “I can’t squat that weight – yet.” But you aren’t going to say that because you can squat it. If you open up with 85-90% of your 1RM you better damn well be able to squat it successfully in three attempts, and hopefully you destroy it on the first attempt. Shove that lift down their throat. Not only can I squat that weight, but I can squat significantly more. Then load the bar up and give them 2 more impressive attempts. Make them regret ever doubting you. Don’t bet against me or you’ll lose.
Finally accept the fact that you will be nervous. You will always be nervous for that first lift. I was nervous on my very first attempt ever, I was nervous on my last squat ever (although I didn’t know it would be my last competitive squat), to be honest I was a little nervous the one time I took a token squat of 145 lbs. There are 2 reasons why people get nervous. The first is because they have to do something they are not prepared for. If somebody took me and dropped me in Afghanistan tomorrow and I had to fight terrorists, I would be nervous because I am not prepared for that. I am not former military and I don’t have that type of training. I like to think that I could adapt to that environment over time but who knows for sure, I have never done that. And without a doubt I’d be nervous as you know what in the first firefight.
The second reason you are nervous is because you care about the outcome. When you want a certain outcome you get nervous about the results. If you care about what you are doing (and not too many people compete in powerlifting but don’t care at all about it) you will be nervous. It is the just the way it is. The only way to get rid of this is to stop caring about it, and that is no victory.
A well-trained athlete should have no reason to feel unprepared or that they are somehow heading into the unknown. You know the lifts, you know the standards expected, you get the pick the weight you are going to do. You should be prepared. If you aren’t then live and learn and don’t let that happen to you again. If you didn’t train very hard for this meet then fix that and train hard for the next one. Everyone has that little voice that says you could always have done more. If that is you than think logically, look back over your training journals, count your training sessions. Add up your reps above 70%, 80%, 90%, watch your vids. All of that should give you confidence that you are indeed prepared, you did train hard, and you are more capable of handling this lift.
You’ll be nervous. Every powerlifter I talk to is at least a little bit nervous before their opening squat. Ironically, they often think the “other guy” isn’t or shouldn’t be nervous. Newbies just getting started think “oh, if I was so-and-so and I was going to squat this huge amount of weight, I would not be nervous. That guy is so good, he’ll crush it.” And the super experienced guys think “oh, if I was a newbie and just starting out I would not need to be nervous, nothing is riding on this.” Well, they are both wrong. Each lifter is going to be nervous because each lifter is pushing themselves to their own limits, be those limits ordinary or extra-ordinary. And when we push ourselves to the limit and when we care about the outcome, we get nervous. Just accept it. That nervousness doesn’t have to cripple you or paralyze you. It is your body’s way of trying to prepare you. That nervousness, when kept in check, will turn on new muscle fibers and motor units, will release adrenaline, will give you extra strength and extra energy you didn’t know you previously had. Be appreciative that it is there to help you but don’t be surprised that it shows up.
In summary, make sure you do all/most of the following to ensure that nerves don’t get the best of you:
- Pick a reasonable attempt (85-90% of your goal third attempt most of the time)
- Be familiar with and train to competition standards on all lifts
- Practice the commands in training
- Echoing point 2 – squat to depth
- Use visualization and see yourself being successful
- Periodically get out of your comfort zone in training
- Challenge yourself and take a miss as a personal affront to your training and your strength
- Accept that you will be somewhat nervous and that is okay and expected
If you can implement these tips your first attempt should go reasonably well and that should in turn set a tone for the rest of the meet. The good news is that most lifters find that after their first attempt the nerves tend to dissipate and, much like that first hit in football, now it is just time to go lift. But energy is a limited resource. If you waste too much of it stressing about the first attempt, or wondering what if, or what might, or am I, you may find yourself clinging to a 5 out of 9 performance instead of smashing through to a 9 for 9 one.