Planning your openers: Navigating awesomeness under pressure
What it's all about
Your opening attempt is key to a successful meet. This lift is about working out nerves, getting used to the judge’s calls, taking in the crowd, and, most importantly, getting a number on the board. The last thing you need to worry about is whether or not you have a chance of actually making the lift.
In other words, this is NOT the time to attempt a PR. Not even the most experienced lifters go for a max on the first attempt (there may be exceptions for deadlift, but we won’t worry about that). You should hit that lift and walk off the platform feeling like a million bucks, craving the next attempt so you can smash it.
Picking the magic number
As you become more experienced, you will develop a style and approach to selecting that all important first attempt number. Here are a few suggestions to get you started: you could use your recent 3RM as your opener, or if you have a recent 1RM, 85-87% of that is a good bet. If you don’t know either, then choose the heaviest weight you’ve hit for more than 2 or 3 reps, but less than 5. The bottom line is you need something heavy on the bar so you are primed for more, but not so heavy that it’s a real grind. Remember, you’ve got two more attempts to push the weight, so don’t blow your wad here.
...And then there's the rest of the meet
Now that you’ve stalked off the stage feeling kiss-my-ass awesome, it’s time to pick a weight for number 2. This is where things get interesting. For absolute beginners, keep it simple and conservative. Generally that’s going to mean a 10 or 15 lb jump (or 2.5-10 lbs for bench). Same goes for the last attempt. This meet is mostly about getting one under your belt, so who cares if you undershoot and don't hit an absolute max.
If you’ve done this a couple times, you’re ready to push it a little. You’ve got to think about how you’re feeling today. If you’re feeling solid, then you might try to hit an old PR on the second attempt and save the unkown for your 3rd. But maybe it’s been a while since you maxed, you’ve gotten a lot stronger, and you’re feeling pretty fired up. In that case, perhaps you sneak past your old PR on the 2nd attempt, and then try to do it again on your 3rd.
Another aspect for more experienced lifters to consider is what you want to get out of this particular meet. Be strategic about when to push a lift and when to save room for the next. For example, if you’ve been training squat and deadlift really well, then you might be conservative on your bench so as to save some juice for the end of the meet. If deadlift is your game, then be especially mindful on your squat, as a big effort there could really gas you for the rest of the day. A caveat to this advice is that sometimes a lift surprises you and feels better than you expect; don’t be afraid to go with it.
Remember that it isn't your squat, bench or deadlift that wins a place, it's the total of the best of each one. Choose purposefully, and aim to get 9 out of 9 lifts - this might mean that you sacrifice going for a risky PR in order to insure you lock down your highest Total possible.
Finally, there will always be someone who wants to give you advice. Pay attention to someone you trust. A coach is a good idea, or a lifter who has quite a bit of experience. If you are a novice, then their opinion is probably something to listen to, even if they suggest you go for more weight than you think you can move. If you are more experienced, you should have a good sense of your capacity. Ultimately, however, the decision is up to you. Like anything, the more meets you do, the better you are at understanding how you perform in that setting.
RULE #1. Don't do anything weird like eat a tray of jalapeno poppers the night before.
RULE #2. Do not do anything physically challenging for at least 3 days prior. Try to taper your activity level down over the 6 or so days before.
RULE #3. Do recover actively. Very light squatting, pushups, mobility, walking, etc. are all great ideas.
RULE #4. Do practice the commands prior to the meet. Hopefully you’ve already gotten some practice in, but if not, do it now!
RULE #5. Try to get good sleep for several nights before the meet.Eat solid amounts of protein and starchy carbs the night before and day of. Sure, you can put some fat in there, but prioritize the other two. (This will be variable based on your normal eating habits.)
RULE #6. Bring snacks! Meets are long: you should have some quick digesting protein and carbs that you are accustomed to eating. Shakes, fruit, lunch meat, candy, pb&j, whatever floats your boat. But don’t fail because you’ve run out of gas!
RULE #7. In the words of, well, most powerlifters: Plan to be awesome.