Powerlifting Choosing Your Attempts

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Choosing your attempts

Do you know how to excel in Powerlifting? Do you know how to plan for the day of a meet? Do you know the right strategies to obtaining the greatest total you can?

Do you know how to choose your attempts?

rocky uspa deadlift

Let me teach you…

Recently I was able to attend a small charity powerlifting meet held at the gym I regularly go to. At this meet there were some strong lifters, as well as those just testing their strength for fun. It was a great meet and everyone had a lot of fun, but I noticed that very few of the lifters knew how to choose their attempts. They would complete one lift and then take suggestions from anyone around as to what they should attempt next. Very few of them had a plan. That confusion I observed from most of these lifters inspired me to write this article, so that I can help those of you considering competing in a strength sport like powerlifting. I want to begin by stating that this article is only going to discuss the attempt selection for powerlifting and not go into much detail about the training required to perform most optimally at a powerlifting meet. We will discuss the training leading up to a competition in another article. Let’s begin…

“Powerlifting is a sport in which the goal is to become as strong as possible in your chosen division for all three lifts.”

What is Powerlifting?

First, what is powerlifting? Powerlifting is a sport in which the goal is to become as strong as possible in your chosen division for all three lifts. In powerlifting there are three lifts performed with three attempts each in which the heaviest completed lift for each is added to your accumulative total for that day. The three lifts are; squat, bench press, and deadlift. 

“…you cannot win a powerlifting competition just by simply being strong.”

Goal of Powerlifting:

The goal in powerlifting is to obtain the highest total [weight lifted] that you can. You cannot be weak in any of the three lifts. You must be at least proficient in all three lifts so that you can have the greatest chance of obtaining a competitive total against other lifters in your category. With that being said, you cannot win a powerlifting competition just by simply being strong. You must have a strategy that makes you stronger than other competitors.

“You must have a strategy that makes you stronger than other competitors.”

Goal of the Lifter:

Though winning is nice, the goal of any lifter should be to lift the most weight they can on the competition day. To lift the most weight, and get the highest score you can, you must complete each lift. Beginners should always aim to go 9 for 9, or completing all 3 attempts in each of the 3 lifts. This will help beginners stay conservative in their attempt selection and give the highest chance for obtaining a high total. More advanced lifters should also aim to go 9 for 9, but getting at least 6 for 9 is more reasonable. This is because as an advanced competitor you are going to be in hard competition, whether that is against others or yourself. So advanced lifters need to aim high on their third attempts and push their limitations. These are the lifts that will define the elite from the competitive. Your strength levels will determine how much you can lift on that given day, but your attempt selection is crucial in obtaining the highest total. Remember, once you have chosen your attempt, you cannot go back down in weight, so you must stay smart. If you do an attempt that is easy, yet jump too high on the next attempt and cannot do that weight, there will be pounds/kilos left on the platform that could have been added to your total. So your strategy should be to stay reasonable on your first two attempts before going for absolute maximums on your final attempt.

“Your strength levels will determine how much you can lift on that given day, but your attempt selection is crucial in obtaining the highest total.”

Maximum versus Projected Maximum:

Before we get into the percentages of each attempt, let’s go over the differences between a maximum and a projected maximum. The difference between a maximum or personal record (PR) and a projected maximum is simple. A maximum you have done before. A projected maximum is your best estimation of the most you can do based on training and your experiences. For a maximum to count though, it must be performed under the same rules and regulations as the competition you will be in. For example, you may have a standard bench press PR of 300lbs but in competition you must pause on your chest. This pause can take away from your maximal bench press because it has longer time under tension and you must press from a static position. With this in mind it is a better estimate for you to use your pause bench press PR while keeping your hips down and following all the rules of competition as your maximum. Also, you should practice the competition style lift often in your training, so that you build strength with that technique. It is still important to overload with a standard bench press technique, but always be practicing your sport as if you are in competition as well. The projected maximum should only be used by advanced lifters with years of experience and multiple competitions under their belt. Advanced lifters know their limitations and are much better at estimating their gains from their training they have done over the course of multiple years. Beginners and moderately experienced lifters should not use this because their gains may still be somewhat inconsistent and they may over project their abilities which can lead to missed lifts in competition. Another thing to consider is that just because you lifted a particular weight one day in the gym while you were feeling good, that does not mean you will be able to reach that same weight on competition day. The goal should always be to hit new PR’s during competition, but there are numerous variables that can effect whether it is a good or bad day for any of the particular lifts you are doing. Overall, when selecting weight attempts, just be honest with yourself and think reasonably towards your abilities. It is better to estimate too low and surprise yourself in competition rather than aim too high and miss lifts, possibly losing you the competition.

“…just because you lifted a particular weight one day in the gym while you were feeling good, that does not mean you will be able to reach that same weight on competition day.”

First Attempts:

Attempt selection is similar yet different in comparison of beginner versus elite lifters. The first attempt will vary greatly depending upon your powerlifting competition experience, but every lifter should always choose a weight that they have a high probability of completing for each attempt. For beginners, the first attempt should be a weight that they can do for 2-3 reps, even on a bad day. This is about 90-95% of their 1 rep maximum. For elite lifters, or those with experience, the first attempt should be something that they know they can do, and is less than the weight they came to do that day. Consider this a final warm up lift before the second attempt weight.

Second Attempts:

The next lift should be something that beginners feel they can do after their first attempt, depending upon how it went. If it was easy, take a reasonably large jump, while if it was hard take a small jump. This will be around a 3-7% jump to reach 95-100% of your maximum. For more experienced lifters, the second attempt should be the minimum the lifter would be happy with attaining that day, and is around or over 100% of their projected maximum. This is the weight simply must be done in the mind of the lifter and is normally the last completed lift during a previous meet.


Third Attempts:

The third attempt, if applicable, is then dependent upon your second attempt. No matter how the second attempt went the next weight chosen should be something that the beginner lifter knows that they can do. This will be between 100-105%, and possibly more. Just make sure that the jump to the third attempt is less than the jump taken between the first and second attempts. This will help you avoid missing your third attempt, as your body is more likely able to handle a smaller weight jump. By taking a bigger jump up in weight compared to your third attempt you risk overstressing your body with too great of a stimulus that it may not be prepared for. Decrease your jumps from each warm up and attempt will better prepare your body for the weight to come. For elite lifters, this should be just around or above what the lifter believes is the absolute maximum that lifter can do. Often this is 100-110%. This is the all out lift that makes champions. Go out and surprise yourself.


In the sport of powerlifting you must have a strong and competitive mindset to succeed. You must believe in yourself more than anyone else. You must have full confidence in every attempt that you do. If there is any doubt in your mind then you have already failed the lift. It takes extreme focus and determination to push your body to the limit as you move with perfect form. Knowing this, it is difficult for a competitor to select their attempts while in competition. You may know best what your body is capable of, but you must stay confident in your abilities. This is often detrimental for lifters that choose their attempts because they often overshoot their abilities while being confident. So it is recommended that you have someone choose your attempts for you. This can be anyone. They do not have to know your abilities or even what powerlifting is about. They simply must know your goals for the day and have a plan set in place that you have already given to them prior. The day all depends on each lift as it is completed but if you give them some options to choose from or consult with them between lifts it will allow you to stay more focused on the lift rather than the weight. Just never go into a competition alone.

“You must believe in yourself more than anyone else.”

In summary, powerlifting is a great sport for anyone that wants to get stronger and test their abilities. Powerlifting will make you better at any sport you may already do as it takes focus, hard work, dedication, self confidence and a very strong mindset to compete in. I recommend everyone that strength trains compete at least once, because it will force you to have good technique and give you a goal to strive towards in your strength journey. Just remember to make a plan for choosing your attempts and never go in it alone. Always have some support and make some friends at every meet. It will all help you grow as a person and may motivate you to continue your growth. So make a plan, stay focused, and execute it with perfection. You are now more informed and better prepared to estimate your best weights at your next meet. Go dominate and keep getting stronger my friends.

Strength to you, 

The stronger Coach- Ryan Mathias, CPT

Owner and Creator


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