Last weekend was the USPA Camp Pendleton Open in Oceanside, CA. Even though we live within an hour of 20 million people, it is shockingly rare how often big meets are held within driving distance of our gym. Given the close proximity and exposure this event had gotten (they had to expand to two days when the first filled up so fast), committing to it was a no brainer. We had been chomping at the bit to jump into our first powerlifting meet. I have 10 years and 20+ contests of strongman behind me, but couldn't actually claim the title of 'powerlifter' until I got my ass in a sanctioned meet. And lifting really heavy weight in front of a lot of people had been the focus of Evan's training for the last several years.
After deciding to jump in, we kicked around different ideas of what we wanted to get out of it. Learning experience was a given no matter what, but as a first meet, how seriously did we want to take it? We thought of going balls out for the 3 weeks before the event in hopes of squeezing out enough strength for an elite total. We thought about making a drastic weight cut in order to amp up our competitive edge. We thought about saying 'fuck it' and stuffing our fat faces through the holidays, coming in bloated and relaxed into whatever weight class the candied yams dictated. Ultimately, we did a combination of everything.
Evan has a huge goddamn bench, somewhere just shy of 500lbs. Initially, he wanted the bench record for open 308's in a full raw meet, which is 507. As he got closer to the meet, he realized a 480ish touch and go wasn't going to translate into a 507 paused, so he decided to forego the raw division and switch to classic raw. However, the big 325lb moosie understood that moving down to 308 from super heavy in classic raw would allow him to hit a class 1 total, something that would clinch an invite to nationals in Vegas later in the year. The goal was clear. Show up, hit some PR's, and go home with a bigger fish to fry.
My goals were just to have fun and not miss any lifts. I didn't have a lot of confidence in anything except for my bench press, as my squat hadn't come back since my broken leg over summer and my back was still giving me shit every time I tried a deadlift over 500lbs. I was walking around at 235lbs when I filled out the entry form in November, somewhat light for me as a result of no squatting or pulling for 4 months. I decided to commit to the 220's, a relatively easy cut if done properly, and smash on the little guys. But I didn't do it properly. Thanksgiving came, then my birthday, then Christmas, and 12lbs later I was hitting PRs at a fluffy 247lbs. Tuesday before the meet I cut out carbs, sodium, and limited my food intake to 3 normal meals per day (normal for the average person, so small). I started a water loading protocol that starts with 2 gallons per day and tapers it down until the day before weigh ins when no water is consumed. Tuesday afternoon I was 255lbs, Friday night I was 241lbs.
Evan started his protocol late Wednesday and was already down to 315 Friday morning. He had a few more lbs to sweat out before bed and I was his designated emotional support. I figured that if I was into the high 230s Friday night, 4 or 5 hours in the sauna would get me within spitting distance of 220. I knew it was doable, but the stakes weren't high enough for me to suffer through that nonsense in my irritable, pastry depleted state. An hour into our male bonding time in the sauna of LA Fitness, I was a pissed off 238 and vowed that I was never going to cut weight again. Evan, on the other hand, was magically 8lbs lighter in the same period of time. We went home feeling like dry walking heartbeats and tried to sleep in spite of our nerves and dry mouth.
Why. The. Fuck. Are we doing this.
The next day we left Redlands around 7am. Weigh ins were at Camp Pendleton at 9am, and we knew that the earlier we got there, the faster we could eat. Being 3lbs under meant that I could afford to drink a Red Bull. The day was going great. We drove through the guard post at 8:15, told the gentleman we were looking for Area 21 gym, and were promptly directed to 'go straight for 15 minutes'. 20 minutes later we were at the Area 14 gym at the oppposite end of the base and were redirected back to where we came from by a gas station attendant. The Red Bull had worn off at this point and I was getting cranky. Fast forward past a few road rage induced near-misses and we were back where we came from, 10 minutes late to weigh ins, and now at the back of the list. One referee was weighing in athletes, verifying their first attempts, and checking their gear. With 20 lifters in front of us and an average time of 5-8 minutes per lifter, cranky no longer described me.
Finally we were weighed in and had the rest of the day to undo the damage of cutting during the last 5. Having limited experience in cutting weight, we were both interested in the phenomenon of supercompensation, that is when your body retains more water and glycogen than usual after a prolonged depleted state. We were on a mission: eat all the food in Oceanside. It started at IHOP, a magical place where the pancakes are chocolate and the average entree is 9 bucks. I ordered:
country fried steak and eggs with hashbrowns
chocolate chip pancakes with boysenberry syrup
side of biscuits and gravy
raspberry cream cheese stuffed crepes
bananas fosters brioche french toast
a chocolate milk
and a mountain dew
Evan got the same. $112 later, we had one to-go box with 2 pieces of french toast and half a biscuit. 2 hours later was Senior Grubby's for a carne asada torta. Then Baskin Robbins for chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream on top of jamocha almond fudge. This is where things got interesting. The surge of carbs/calories sent is into a delerious spiral; we bagan laughing like our mexican food was cooked in pot butter. The euphoria was indescribable, and probably the highlight of the trip. Then Applebee's for wonton tacos, mozzarella sticks, chicken strips and fries, and chocolate cake for desert. We literally left Applebee's and drove straight to McDonalds for chicken McNuggets and apple pies. As I finished off the last nugget and struggled to get through my first pie, our host informed me that I could put it in the fridge because it will still be good in the morning. In my ashamed fat kid voice, I murmured, 'No. I want it now.'
Still waiting for our crepes.....
The next morning, I woke up looking like I used a hive of bees as a pillow. My face was so puffy I could barely open my eyes. I struggled to bend over far enough to get my pants on or tie my shoes. Supercompensation was in full effect. All of the previous day's binge was in my muscle bellies and skin, making it feel like a belt had been surgically implanted under my abs, cinched all the way the fuck down. That moment is when I got a little excited, looked into the mirror, and said, "let's rock".
We got to the meet right at 9am for rules and proceded to warm up. There were two platforms, each with 3 flights of lifters. Evan was blue platform flight A and I was red platform flight C. This made it a little easier for us to support each other without worrying about missing our window before our attempts. We started with squats. Evans warmups before his working sets are usually 2 sets of 5 and a ham sandwich. Mine incorporate 10 minutes of foam rolling, stretching, lacrosse balls, hip bands, and no less than 10 separate sets slowly ascending towards my working weight. Meets are a great example of where minimalism really pays off. A crowded marine gym with some yellow tape separating our 4 bars from the rest of the population was all 80+ lifters had to warmup with. We didn't have the luxury of a painstakingly slow grind to our top sets. We each threw on our gear, hit 4 or 5 light sets, and waited for our first attempts to be called.
I mentioned Evan's sick bench press. He has years of bro-training behind him compounded with a setup that is extremely technical and dialed in. High arch, elbows tucked, low bar placement, slight heave on the way up. Think somewhere between Dan Green and Brian Siders. His squat on the other hand is still a work in progress. He hit his first 505 within a month of the meet, and an ez pz 515 about a week after. The week of the deload, he hit a triple with 455 that looked like it was setting off a set of 10. Being in a phase where his lift is still growing weekly, picking attempts was difficult. To counter nerves and potential red lights from missed commands, he started at 462. Joke. then 496. Smoke show. Then.... fuck it. 529. It moved quick with no stick point, but 2 refs called him on depth. The mental victory of having moved (with ease) more weight than he ever had before countered the bad news of a no-rep. 600lbs is coming soon. You heard it here first, folks.
I set my squat opener at 540, which I felt would appropriately set me up to get close to my white whale, the big 600lbs. Oh, how long I have chased her. I had serious reservations with this immediately before I was up as I began to turn into a typical pre contest nutcase. Warmups were good, not great. Squatting in the wide open can be disorienting. My back isn't 100%. My leg isn't 100%. What if I mind fuck myself and miss it. I should've started lighter. blah blah blah. I was defeated before I went on stage. I decided to calm the fuck down, bury my opener, and if it felt like shit, shut it down. After all, I was here to have fun and learn some things, not set a world record. As I was called up, I was calm as a hindu cow. I got set, walked it out, and waited for the unusually long lift commands. I made a point to stare straight at the floor, wich felt weird at first, but was the only way I could think to keep from getting disoriented. Moving from a mirror to an open crowd can throw you the fuck off, something I learned from overhead pressing in strongman. I destroyed my opener. Now, I was a little more happy to be alive. I called for 567, an all time PR by 2lbs. Nailed it. 600 was too big of a jump, but 589 felt about right. This was still a milestone at 6 45lb plates per side in the gym and 25lbs more than I ever had attempted, even before my leg surgery when I was actually strong. I wrapped while I was 'in the hole', pulled out the nose torque while 'on deck', and huffed the shit out of it as they called my name. I went Super Sayan 3 and demolished one of the easiest squats I have ever done. Now I was in gamer mode.
Being the more technical of the lifts, which means more opportunity for error, we were glad to have the squat out of the way. Benching and deadlifting were more fun, since you could get slapped on the back (or in the face), yell and scream, and not worry about falling the fuck over. Evan absolutely destroyed it, starting with a joke 407, and finishing with a jokier 468. He had a paused 485 in him that day and there is no doubt in my mind he will smash the 507 raw record in nationals. I decided to take my grip and elbows out and soften my arch. Less techincal but much more stable, and I knew that if the scar tissue in my pecs held up, I could move with more speed after the pause. I went 385, 407, and 424 for a lifetime PR. I felt like I was on fire.
At this point, there was nothing that could knock us down. We had hit our important lifts, talked to a bunch of guys that live right around the corner from us, and overall felt like we had gotten our money's worth out of the experience. Evan secured his Class 1 total with an opening pull of 584 and put the cherry on top with a PR of 622. He gave 633 hell, but it wasn't meant to be that day. Historically, my pull has been 70-80 lbs in front of my squat. I knew with my 589 squat, I was good for something in the mid-600s, but my biggest pull since ankle surgery was a shaky 545 2 weeks before the meet. I opened with 565, light enough to be a sure thing, but heavy enough to still make me fucking nervous. Evan came around with an ammonia capsule for each attempt and reassured me of impending dominance. Opener, easy. Too easy. And pain free. 589 next. Not easy, but free of any sticking or stalling. Then the 606. My first 600+ pull in over a year. Not going to lie, I was scared. The bar was loaded, they called my name, I popped the capsule, and took my deadlift game over 9000. I've watched this lift on video 20 times and still can't believe how smooth it went up. The meet was over and I secured a Master class total in my first meet while destroying mental barriers that had hindered my training for months. We both got gold medals for our efforts along with an invite to nationals in Vegas. I can assure you, big things are about to come.
Some of the things I took away from this experience:
Make sure your lifts are beyond reproach. Some of the refs admitted that a few older gentleman were especially greedy with their white lights. It's good for there to be a high standard in the sport, but the goal is to see who can lift the most, not who has the prettiest lift. Evan got 1 red on his bench opener because a 70 year old man said he saw a bit of daylight under his butt. Evan doesn't lift his butt with 500lbs on a slingshot, let alone 407 as an opener. This just reinforces the fact that judging is subjective, so take every measure to make sure there is no question about it. Work depth, work the commands, work the lockout.
Talk to the judges. Even the ones that were a pain in the ass with their nit picky calls were still willing to explain to us exactly why they made that call. Don't let it be a secret why your lift didn't get passed. Ask questions and learn.
Get comfortable with quick warmups. I'm a finnicky lifter when it comes to warmups. I like to baby my back and my IT band, my 2 problem areas, and it takes me 20 minutes to get 'warm'. I found out during the meet that I didn't feel that different after getting 4 quick sets in and hitting my opener. Ideal? No. But no meet has ideal conditions. Get used to it and it will save you heartache.
Don't cut weight if you don't have to. Powerlifting, like most strength sports, is recreational. Chances are you are not world class or at least won't be for a very long time. Unless you have a genuine opportunity to set a record or take your game to the top, the payoff for cutting just isn't there. I made life hard on myself by cutting 5 days out when I could have easily shed the 6lbs I needed all at once in the sauna without depleting myself for a week. Add to that the fact that the winner of the 220s would have destroyed me, and it doesn't make sense to put yourself through that unnecessarily.
Have fun with it. Sometimes you are on point, sometimes you aren't. I learned this through many shitty strongman events over the years, but powerlifting reinforces it. Every meet there is some Dbag who takes himself way too seriously. He throws a tantrum when his lifts get red-lighted or if (god-forbid) one of the helpers makes a mistake. Don't be that guy. You and your circumstances won't always be perfect, so don't let it ruin your day when this inevitably happens.