How To Pick Attempts For Powerlifting (A Foolproof Guide)

You have nine attempts in a powerlifting meet to achieve the highest total possible. These nine attempts are broken into three attempts each for squat, bench press, and deadlift. With these limited number of attempts, you might wonder how to best select your numbers to be successful.

So how should you pick attempts for powerlifting? The general rule of thumb is to select an opening attempt that you can do for 3 reps (90-92% of your 1RM). Your second attempt should be heavy enough to give you an evaluation of what your max capacity is (96-98% of your 1RM). Your third attempt should be your max capacity (101-103% of your 1RM).

The goal is to build your numbers so that you’re going for a personal best on your 3rd attempt. However, the framework I suggested above is only a general plan. There are a lot more factors to consider if you want to be successful, which I’ll explain in more detail below.

Here’s what we’ll cover today:

Before getting started…

If you want a complete understanding of how to compete in powerlifting, then check out my online video course The First Time Powerlifter.

The course promises to eliminate mistakes at your first competition, help you make more attempts, and allow you to achieve your personal best lifts.

I’ve been the Head Coach For Team Canada Powerlifting through 8 World Championships, and this course is everything I know about preparing athletes to feel confident in their abilities to perform at their first competition.

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7 Attempt Selection Principles For Powerlifting

In order to properly select your attempts for powerlifting, you need to have an understanding of how your attempts fit within the overall picture. Let’s cover some of these basics now so that we’re all on the same page.

1. The training environment is different than the competition environment

Many powerlifters are shocked that they go to their first competition and aren’t able to lift the same numbers that they did in training.

This is because the training environment is manufactured to be exactly how you want it, whereas the competition environment is much more dynamic and out-of-your-own control.

In training, you get to pick the time of day you lift, the equipment you use, the people you lift with, how much time you take between sets, the music you listen to before you lift, etc.

In competition, many of these variables aren’t able to be managed in the same way as the training environment. In addition, you’ll be judged by three referees to ensure your lifts are following the movement standards. You’ll also need to deal with all of the emotions and anxiety that come with competing.

As such, if it’s your first competition, a good goal would be to simply do the same numbers as you’ve done in training. Don’t expect to do more. However, if you do more, consider it a bonus.

This is one of the reasons why I advocate for all powerlifters to do a mock powerlifting meet before competing.

2. Attempts should be based on training evidence

Many times I speak with new powerlifters who tell me that they want to lift “X” numbers in competition.

I ask them what training evidence do they have to know whether they’re on track for these numbers. Unfortunately, they either haven’t analyzed their training evidence sufficiently or are simply selecting numbers based on what they ‘want to do’ versus what their training evidence suggests.

But, what is “training evidence”?

Training evidence are the lifts you do in training at a high percentage of your 1 rep max. These are usually the lifts above 90% that are completed within 2-6 weeks of the competition.

It’s important that when analyzing training evidence that you only look at the most recent training cycle, and not what you did 3-4 months ago. The best indication of how you’re going to perform is by using a recent training context (read my article on How To Taper For Powerlifting).

In addition, you want to try to have multiple exposures above 90% in order to develop an average for how those lifts look and feel.

For example, perhaps you squatted 180kg 10 times in training in the last 6 weeks before the competition. One of those times might look and feel absolutely amazing. One of those times might look and feel like garbage. The other 8 times you attempt 180kg in training is somewhere in between those two extremes.

When planning your attempts for a competition you don’t want to use your absolute best or worst day as training evidence. You want to get rid of those outliers and use the average. This will be a more realistic assessment of what you might be able to lift on any given day.

The key lesson here is don’t just select your numbers arbitrarily based on what you ‘want to do’. Make sure you honestly reflect on the lifts you’ve done leading up to competition, and take an average assessment of your strength.

Want to get advice on programming, technique, or competing? Speak with one of our coaches.

3. Use every attempt as an evaluation for what to do on your next attempt

choosing your attempts for a powerlifting meet

Now that you’ve put together your game day plan based on your training evidence, you want to make sure that this plan is open to adaptation based on how you’re performing in the competition.

Successful attempt selection involves continuously evaluating your performance in the context of the meet, rather than relying on pre-existing numbers that were done several weeks before in training.

I always coach my athletes to view every attempt as an evaluation for how they’re going to perform on the next. So going to the next number is contingent on whether the previous attempt suggests that it’s the right decision.

This process starts with the warm-ups.

For example, did the last warm-up give us the right feedback to know whether we’re on track for our planned opener? Did the opener give us the right feedback to know whether we’re on track for our planned second? Did the second give us the right feedback to know whether we’re on track for our planned third?

Based on these evaluations, we can then move the numbers up or down based on our original plan.

4. Strength will change if you have lost weight

As we know, powerlifting is a sport that uses weight classes.

So if you’ve had to cut a significant amount of weight leading up to competition, then you must expect that you’re going to lose some levels of strength.

The strength loss will be greater the closer you cut weight to competition, i.e. if you’re cutting the night before versus a slow and steady cut over several weeks.

In addition, from my experience, a cut of 5% of body weight or less typically doesn’t impact strength too much. However, the more you cut above 5% of body weight, the more you will feel the effects of the cut from a strength perspective.

I’ve seen far too many new powerlifters think they can hold their strength through a weight cut. They don’t adjust their planned numbers, and their opening attempts usually look like third attempts, which puts them in a bad position to build momentum throughout the day.

5. Make Every Attempt Possible

I analyzed the attempt selection from the 2016 IPF World Classic Powerlifting Championships and found that winners made 8.46 attempts on average out of 9, whereas the average lifter made 6.66 attempts out of 9.

What does this suggest?

Winners make more attempts than everyone else. Therefore, one of your primary goals when competing in powerlifting should be to make every attempt.

This is called going “9-for-9”. In other words, your 3rd attempt should be something maximal where no more weight could be added. By doing this, you will extract as many kilos from the competition platform as possible, which will allow you to build your best powerlifting total.

In order to go 9-for-9, you need to always take what I call the 100% shots. So after your 2nd attempts, you need to ask yourself what number you’d be able to do 10 times out of 10 without a doubt of uncertainty.

Based on your assessment of your second attempt, if you’re only 75% confident in what you originally had planned for your 3rd attempt, then you should always opt to move your numbers down.

For example, let’s say your 2nd attempt was 150kg, and it moved slower than expected. Your planned 3rd was 160kg, and you know it’s not the 100% shot anymore. Therefore, you reduce the 3rd attempt to 157.5kg and end up making it.

Now picture if you took 160kg and missed it. You would have only been credited with 150kgs, which would have left 7.5kg on the competition platform unrealized (the difference between your 2nd attempt and a modified third attempt).

6. If you miss, 99% of the time you should repeat

At some point, you will miss a lift in competition.

There are two reasons why you miss attempts and in both circumstances, you should consider repeating the same number for the next attempt.

This is especially the case if you miss your opener since you need to be credited with at least one lift per movement in order to continue in the competition.

Missing a lift based on technique

If you miss a lift based on technique it’s because you didn’t follow one of the movement standards that is required.

Many people think that because they didn’t miss the lift based on strength that they should go up in weight. However, what these lifters don’t realize is how hard it is to ‘put together’ the movement standards on the competition platform when they haven’t practiced them enough in training.

For example, let’s assume you miss a squat because you didn’t squat deep enough.

It’s easy to say that you’ll just ‘go deeper’ on the next attempt. However, what you take for granted is that a deeper squat will be harder because of the additional range of motion.

Additionally, even though you’re committed to squatting deeper, there is always the risk that you just simply don’t go deeper on the next attempt.

Taking a squat to proper depth requires you to have the motor control skills necessary to know where your hips are in space. If you don’t squat to depth regularly in training, you don’t magically acquire these motor control skills when competing.

Read more about the movement standard for squat, bench press, and deadlift.

Missing a lift based on strength

If you miss a lift based on strength it means that you just can’t lock the weigh-out.

If you miss a lift based on strength on your third attempt, then it’s not the end of the world. You lose a few kilos from the competition platform, and simply move on to the next event.

However, if you miss a lift based on strength on either your opener or 2nd attempt, then there is no option but to repeat the same number. Anyone who goes up in weight based on these circumstances is lifting with too much ego and has failed to adapt their original plan.

The last thing you want to do is miss an opening attempt, go up in weight, and then miss your 2nd and 3rd attempts. This would result in disqualification.

When should you go up after missing?

I mentioned that 99% of the time you should repeat the same number after missing.

But what about the 1% of the time where you should go up?

If you’re considering going up, it’s because you are an experienced powerlifter, someone who has 10+ competitions under their belt, and know how to correct movement standards in the heat of competition.

7. Making your third attempt is critical

You always want to strive to make your third attempt.

This might seem like straightforward advice, but there are some lifters who want to ‘go out fighting’.

Meaning, they would rather put an attempt on the bar and miss in order to say that they attempted it, rather than putting on something lighter and making it. This often occurs when lifters have their mind set on setting a new personal best and then fail to modify the plan when they know based on the second attempts that a personal best is not the 100% shot.

There are four reasons why making your third attempt is critical:

It adds to your powerlifting total

Powerlifters are ranked based on their powerlifting total, not an individual lift. Therefore, making your 3rd attempts will help you build your powerlifting total, even if the 3rd attempt for an individual lift is lower than expected.

It builds momentum throughout the day

When you make your 3rd attempt, you leave the platform smiling and ready to take on the next event. When you miss your 3rd attempt, you leave the platform dragging your feet and it’s hard to shake the feelings of disappointment.

It saves energy for future lifts

If you fail your 3rd attempt, your nervous system takes a bit hit. This will impact your levels of strength for future lifts. Therefore, making your 3rd attempt will help you save energy for your other max attempts.

It makes you better than your competition

Data taken from the 2016 IPF Classic World Championships shows that 50% of all 3rd attempts are missed (squat 46%, bench press 53%, deadlift 55%). This means if you can make your 3rd attempt your already 50% better than your competition.

After reading this article, you should check out my complete guides on:

How To Select Your Opening Attempt In Powerlifting

The general rule of thumb is to select an opener that you can do for 3 reps. This is typically around 90%, but it could be somewhere slightly lower or higher depending on the athlete.

The load should feel light and move with decent bar speed. There should be no slowing down or noticeable sticking point.

The goal of the opener is simply to get in the game, show the judges that you know how to lift to the movement standards, and get an evaluation for the 2nd attempt.

The opener should be practiced several times in training before leading up to the competition. I instruct my athletes to take their openers somewhere between 6-9 days before the competition so they know how it should look and feel.

To know whether you’re on track for your planned opener, you need to assess your last warm-up. Based on your last warm-up, ask yourself whether the opener is too heavy, too light, or bang on. I rarely move an opener up, but moving it down or leaving it the same is fairly common.

In order to change your opener in the competition, you must perform your last warm-up before the change deadline, which is 3-minutes from the start of the event. No matter the circumstance, I always get my athletes to do their last warm-up before this deadline so we have the option to modify the opener if needed.

Because the last warm-up is an important lift for determining the opener, I like to get my athletes a bit fired up for this lift. I want them to treat their last warm-up like an opener in order to set the tone for the day.

How To Select Your Second Attempt In Powerlifting

selecting attempts for a powerlifting meet

The 2nd attempt is the most important attempt of the day.

This is because throughout our entire training cycle we’ve been training to lift as much weight as possible on the 3rd attempt. However, it’s the 2nd attempt that determines the exact number we go to on the 3rd.

If the 2nd attempt moves slow, then I’m reducing the planned 3rd.

If the 2nd attempt moves fast, then I’m either going to our planned 3rd or moving it up.

As I mentioned previously, I’m not using training numbers at this point to select my 3rd attempt. I’m using the feedback from the 2nd to modify the game-day plan accordingly.

Therefore, the 2nd needs to be heavy enough where we get a good evaluation of what we’re capable of doing on the 3rds. However, it can’t be too heavy where we’re potentially wasting energy that would otherwise be used for our 3rd attempt.

For example, if the second is too heavy, we get a good evaluation of what to do on our 3rds, but we likely waste a bit of energy. If the 2nd is too light, we save energy, but we don’t get a good evaluation of what to do on our 3rds.

You can see how the 2nd attempt is a critical number. It will vary from person to person, but it’s going to be somewhere between 96-98% of your 1 rep max.

If you want to learn about How Long Are Powerlifting Meets then be sure to read my other article breaking down meet day timing.

How To Select Your Third Attempt In Powerlifting

Your third attempt should be the 100% shot.

As discussed previously, this is the number that you know 10 times out of 10 that you will make without any doubt. You need to leave ego out of your decision-making process, and leave behind what you ‘want to do’.

At this point, you are not looking to training evidence to determine this number, you are only looking at the evidence from the 2nd attempt to make your decision.

If your 2nd attempt moved as it should, then you’re on track for your planned 3rd. If it moved slower, then you should decrease your planned 3rd attempt. If it moved quicker, then you can consider taking advantage of a “good day” and increase your planned 3rd attempt.

For most people, the 3rd attempt will be somewhere between 101-101% of your 1 rep max.

Attempt Selection Rules For Powerlifting

There are a few basic rules that you need to know when selecting attempts for powerlifting:

  • Your attempts must be submitted in kilos not pounds
  • You can only submit your attempts in 2.5kg increments. However, if you’re going for a record you can submit attempts in 0.5kg increments
  • You’ll provide your opening attempt in the weigh-in room
  • If you want to change your opener you can do so within 3-minutes to the start of the event.
  • You’ll provide your 2nd and 3rd attempts to the score-table after you perform your opener and 2nd attempts respectively
  • You have 60-seconds to submit your attempts after you finish your lift
  • If you fail to get your attempt into the score-table within 60-seconds, your next attempt will automatically be bumped up 2.5kg (if the previous attempt was made), or remain the same (if the previous attempt was missed).
  • Your attempts cannot be lowered below the previous attempt
  • Once you submit your attempt, you cannot change it (with the exception of your 3rd deadlift)
  • Once you submit your 3rd deadlift attempt, you can change it up to two more times. It must not be lower than your 2nd deadlift attempt.

Final Thoughts

This guide talked about the importance of making as many attempts as possible and ensuring you’re continuously adapting your game day plan by evaluating your previous attempts. The best lifters in the world prioritize building their powerlifting total over any individual attempt. They also have the ability to leave their ego out of the decision-making process and decrease their planned attempts if necessary.

If you’re just starting to powerlift, check out my Starting To Powerlift page for all my articles related to competing in powerlifting.