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Powerlifting: Learning and Lifting

Image courtesy of Fatboy Strong Photography


We Are Chester writer Josie Penfold has just competed in The Novice and Equipped Powerlifting Competition, her third competitive competition. Josie shares the story of first failure, and then success as she learnt how mental strength can overcome internal doubt.

Saturday, 11th November, saw The Novice and Equipped Powerlifting Competition take place at the Hirst Welfare Centre, Ashington. This was my third competitive competition for the Yorkshire and North East Powerlifting Federation (YNEPF). Now, for most people, a ‘third’ competition might suggest that this person is still quite  unexperienced when it comes to taking a stand on the platform and therefore the title ‘Novice’ would seem appropriate. However, for me, as the overly competitive, overly ambitious person I can be, I decided that this competition would be full of complete newbies and that I would waltz in there lift my weights, stand on the podium with a medal and gain the qualifying weight totals to compete nationally quite easily. I had, of course, been lifting for just under a year, so I was pretty much a pro, right? Reality check. First of all, for many of the competitors it was their first competition, but they were far from ‘newbies’. They had trained extremely hard for this competition and it really showed, their lifts were extremely impressive. I was about to undergo a huge learning curve both competitively and mentally. Luckily, the lessons I had to learn didn’t come with detrimental consequences and the end result wasn’t too bad.

For anyone who doesn’t know, powerlifting consists of three lifts: squat, bench press, and deadlift. In a competition, you are divided into categories based on your weight and sex and are then allowed three attempts at each lift. You must be successful in at least one of your three attempts at each lift; that is, you must be successful in at least one squat, bench press and deadlift in order to gain a competition ‘total’. Therefore, your first attempt of each lift should be ‘easy’, a weight you can do several times without a struggle to ensure you get your numbers on the board. Pretty straight forward, well you’d think anyway.

Failing wasn’t an Option

The day before the competition I felt sick with nerves. I couldn’t eat much because I needed to ‘make weight’, which means, as I was in the 63kg weight class I had to weigh in 63kg or less, so little food and drink the day before was essential. But that wasn’t the only thing bothering me. I had built up the idea of my success to such a degree in my head that the idea of not achieving it wasn’t an option. I had pre-written my Instagram post, decided how I would announce the news to family and friends and thought about the best angle for the photo on the podium….one can dream. Failing wasn’t an option now. I had told myself I could win and now anything else wasn’t good enough. No pressure…

Waking up at 6am, I showered and glammed myself up (after all, you need to look good for the videos and photos!) and got to the centre for the 8am weigh in. And that’s when the first part of my plan came crashing down. I weighed in at 61.2kg, so I made weight easily. However, whilst the women were weighing me, they reinstated the knowledge I  supposedly should have already known which was that I couldn’t win anything in this competition because it was a novice comp, and it wasn’t my first competition. I was told that I could break records and my final total would still count towards any qualifiers I required, but I could not win. The podium dream was destroyed, the photo of me holding my trophy and smiling graciously crumbled and suddenly there became no point in all the hours I had invested into training. I left the room and went over to my boyfriend who expressed disappointment but said it didn’t matter and that I just needed to go out and lift, get my qualifying total and let that show the hard work that I had dedicated to this competition over the last three months.  So I decided there and then, that I would go out smash some personal bests and even if I couldn’t ‘win’ officially, I might still grab the winning total for my weight class.

No Lift

At the back of the centre, there is a small gym used for warming up. So off I went, squats were first and my opening squat was 100kg. I started the warm up and went up to 95kg with ease – the idea is you go just under your opener in the warm up and save the actual weight for the platform. Content with my warm up, I went out and prepared myself to lift. In the past, my body has been filled with anxious energy as I awaited my turn, but this time I didn’t feel anything. The nerves that pushed me to succeed had left me and I couldn’t think why. I saw the running order and I was second from last, which meant I was opening with the second heaviest weight. But what if that’s too heavy? Maybe I should have opened at 95kg…I started to doubt myself, massively. 100kg was my previous personal best, but that was three months ago and the training I had undergone had made 100kg easily lifted repeated times. But still, was it too heavy…? It was my turn to lift. I went out on the platform, not feeling how I normally feel. I lifted the weight onto my back and it hit the sides of the rack. It was heavy. Very heavy. Heavier than I ever remember it being. Just get it over and done with, I thought. I squatted down quickly. Too quickly. And then pushed to rise, but on the way up I lost my balance and stumbled forward. My feet left the floor and the spotters helped me get it up. No lift. I had failed my opener – something that shouldn’t ever really happen, because as I said, it’s a weight you are supposed to do with ease.


Image courtesy of Fatboy Strong Photography

Shocked, confused I went to the side and reassessed the situation. My boyfriend told me it was too quick, and that knocking the rack might have thrown me. It’s a learning curve, get focused and go again. I watched some of the other girls and the depth of their squat seemed to me, the unqualified referee that I am, to not be as deep as they ‘should’ be. So what’s my next move? My second attempt squat came at the same weight of 100kg because I didn’t want to risk adding to the weight until I had the opener in the bag. I stepped onto the platform, a lot calmer and slower than last time, but still not focused. My head was thinking about the first squat and I still lacked the nervous energy. My squat wasn’t deep enough, and as a result I failed the lift. Again. That was it, I thought. It was over. Everything I had trained for, the long hours in the gym, the dedication and determination to say no to ‘bad’ food and drinks and eat a restricted diet was all a waste of time. When everyone asked how I did at the competition, I’d have to tell them I didn’t finish it, I failed. All of this was rushing through my head as my boyfriend tried to console me and told me I had one more chance to do it on my final lift and that I had done this before.

Fighting Spirit

And then my fighting spirit came back. There was no way I was giving up now. I had trained, and trained hard for three months for this competition. I had sacrificed nights out, sleep and certain food for this. I had squatted this before, and I would do it again. And I had done it on this very platform in May, in May when I wasn’t close to as strong as I was now. I wasn’t leaving without my numbers on the board and without my qualifying total for nationals, or at least a good shot at trying to get it. So I went out. I respected the weight in front of me and was patient with the squat. And finally, I was rewarded with three white lights that certified it as a success. Numbers were on the board, but unfortunately, there was no personal best. And now the pressure was on for my bench press and deadlift  as I needed to gain a 300kg total to qualify for nationals.

For the bench press warm up, I practised my opener. My confidence was shaken and I needed to know I could do it on the day. Both in practise and on the platform, 57.5kg went up easily. My next attempt was safe, with a 2.5kg jump to 60kg and after a second success, I decided to go 65kg for my final bench press. This was a competition best, but it wasn’t a personal best. I think had the squats not gone so horribly wrong, I might have attempted 62.5kg on the second lift and 67.5kg on the third. For the deadlift warm up, I did the same in terms of practising my opener. I lifted 120kg in the gym and then went onto the platform and pulled it easily. My second attempt was 130kg, my previous personal best which was hard but manageable. Then it was decision time. As it stood, my total was 295kg. I needed 5kg more to qualify for nationals. But my heart had been set on pulling 140kg deadlift. It had been my new year’s resolution; at the end of the year I would be able to deadlift 140kg and in my preparation for the comp I had imagined that being my final lift. And after the squat fiasco, and then playing it safe with bench press, I needed to get at least one personal best on the day (though, 135kg would have been a personal best – this is where the overambitious self comes into play…!). I took the risk, I chose to lift 140kg for my third attempt because if I didn’t attempt it, I’d always kick myself for not trying – though if I failed it and didn’t make my qualifying total, I’d be annoyed for not playing it safe…so I couldn’t really win. Luckily, I did it. I was focused and had enough nerves to push me. I knew it would be hard, but I knew I could do it. All the doubt, the negativity from before left me and I was filled with ecstasy! I smashed a deadlift personal best AND I had qualified for nationals!



Image courtesy of Fatboy Strong Photography

Be the Best You

My total was the second highest in my weight class although, as I said, I couldn’t win anything. But it didn’t matter. I finally remembered the purpose of all my training and hard work. It was so I could qualify for nationals after just missing the total in my last competition, and beat my own personal bests. After all, that’s the reason we should compete, to better ourselves not to beat others. The ‘silverware’ would have been a little cherry on top, but it wasn’t what I was there for. And as I said, the people who lifted were incredible, both on and off the platform which seems to be a trend with powerlifters – some of the best people I know! I’ve learnt to try not to overthink everything too much. I don’t ever want to go into a competition pre-empting the outcome or my competitors, all I can do is set goals based on my own ability and believe in myself. I think self-doubt was my main downfall. A huge well done to everyone who competed at the Novice and Equipped, it was a pleasure to share the platform with you. For anyone who needs a little motivation, have confidence in your abilities, and don’t overthink it – be the best you. Your mind can make or break you, let it be your number one fan.

I am hoping to compete again early next year, and I’ll be sure to keep you all updated with how that goes…for now it’s back to the gym I go…!

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