An Interview With All-Time Great Coach Matt Gary • Stronger by Science

Note: This interview was published in the June 2023 edition of MASS Research Review. If you want more content like this, subscribe to MASS.

Watch the full interview above, or download the audio-only version here.

Maximizing powerlifting performance isn’t just about being strong – it also requires performing effectively on meet day. One of the most important aspects of gameday success is the coach and lifter’s attempt selection strategy. Which weight should you open with? Do you go for broke on your second attempt or save that for your third attempt? How do strategies change with experience level and the goal of hitting a personal record versus winning an international meet? 

Matt Gary, who has coached on various national and international powerlifting teams over the past 25+ years, was kind enough to sit down with Eric Helms and Mike Zourdos to provide his world-class knowledge on the topic. Matt is recognized as one of the world’s foremost experts in powerlifting attempt selection, and his influence on the topic has been felt worldwide for many years. Recently, Matt’s theories and personal statistical analyses of powerlifting meets have found support in the scientific literature. In this interview, he shares how his experiences in the trenches and his own data collection informed his gameday coaching tactics.

Interview transcript

Mike (00:00:01):

Hi, everyone. Welcome to the first ever interview cover story in volume seven, issue six of MASS for June 2023. Today, Eric Helms and I, my fellow MASS reviewer, are here with Matt Gary. Matt, how’s it going?

Matt (00:00:15):

Outstanding. Thank you so much for having me.

Mike (00:00:18):

We’ll hear more from Matt in just a moment, but it is just such a pleasure to have him here. The reason that Matt is here today is because we’re gonna focus this cover story on attempt selection in powerlifting. Also in this issue, Dr. Helms reviewed a paper titled ‘Analysis of Competition Performance Leading to Success at the International Powerlifting Federation World Championships between 2013 and 2019.’ Now, this paper, as the title suggests, analyzes data looking at what factors were related in terms of attempt selection to winning competitions at IPF Raw Worlds to maybe not placing so well. Now, Matt Gary is here because he’s somebody that I admire a great deal. He taught me almost everything I know about powerlifting, and he is the world’s foremost expert, in my opinion, on attempt selection in powerlifting.

A lot of what he has been saying was looked at in this scientific publication. Matt has been saying this ever since I met him about 15 years ago, and I’m sure well before that. So it was a pleasure to see it come out. As soon as Eric and I saw this paper, we said, “We gotta get Matt in MASS.” Then to think, hey, we gotta make it the cover story. This is not something that people should miss. Now that this paper has come out, and for Matt to be able to not only talk about some of the data, but talk about his experience, what he does in the trenches, and what he’s learned over the years. 

For those who aren’t familiar, can you give us a background on yourself, your experience in powerlifting and strength and conditioning, the facilities you’ve worked in and owned, and how many lifters you’ve coached over the years?

Matt (00:02:08):

Thank you both again for having me. It’s quite an honor to be featured and to collaborate with you guys on this topic that I’m so passionate about. So I really appreciate it. I’ll try to keep the introduction specific to powerlifting so that I don’t over talk. I was first introduced to the sport of powerlifting in 1982. I was only 10 years old at the time and our new football coach came from the ADFPA, which stands for American Drug-Free Powerlifting Association, which was USA Powerlifting before USA Powerlifting became a thing. 

My football coach, he said, look, I’ve got something that can help you become bigger and stronger, and that’s gonna translate to your performance on the football field. As a 10 year old, I’m like, “Hey, man, you had me at bigger and stronger.” I wanted to be a better football player, but I figured, hey, if I could become bigger and stronger, that would be a win. So I squatted with him for the very first time on the very first day, the next morning I woke up and could literally not get outta bed. And that’s not exaggerating. I had never experienced in my entire life muscle soreness like that in my legs, and it was not something that he warned me about. So I was appalled. I literally had thought that I had done something wrong and was really scared into quitting and saying, “you know what? I’m never gonna do this again. I don’t wanna do this again.” For whatever reason, he didn’t tell me that muscle soreness kind of comes with the territory, so to speak, especially in your first application of such an endeavor. 

So if we kind of fast forward through high school, I went to Baylor University in Texas and I walked on the football team there and eventually earned a partial scholarship. But my strength and conditioning coach there turned me onto the squat, bench, and deadlift as a means of getting stronger and improving sports performance. So I ultimately ended up transferring back from Baylor University to the University of Maryland, killing two birds with one stone, which was getting out of Waco, Texas, and then getting back to the University of Maryland where I could then study kinesiology.

So I started studying kinesiology and ultimately got my degree from the University of Maryland in kinesiology, graduating in 1994. In and around that time I was training at the University of Maryland training like a powerlifter doing squats, bench, and deadlifts, and learned about a facility that was only about two miles away from the university called Maryland Athletic Club. That was where legendary Kirk Karwoski and my future wife Suzanne “Sioux-z” Hartwig-Gary were training at the time. And lo and behold, I had no idea that this powerlifting mecca was literally in my backyard. So I started training there and continued to train like a powerlifter and now with other powerlifters. I started competing in 1995. So that was kind of my first exposure to an actual gym where people trained like powerlifters and I immersed myself that way, in training alongside these legendary lifters.

Then I didn’t get my first exposure to international level competition until 2003. But that’s kind of my background in terms of powerlifting. I’ve done some strength and conditioning, obviously I’ve interned at the University of Maryland. I also interned with the Washington Redskins Strength and Conditioning staff back in 2007. And I was the strength and conditioning coach in 1995 at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, which is a nationally renowned private school that is nationally contending in football and basketball every single year. And I had the great privilege and honor of working with them and being their strength and conditioning coach, but that should hopefully kind of tie a ribbon around some of my background and how I got into the sport.

Mike (00:06:22):

Yeah, it’s interesting to hear all that. You mentioned DeMatha, which is very famous, especially for the basketball program. But you know a lot of these places, and I do too, Matt because we went to the same high school, is that correct? 

Matt:

Yes, sir. Bullis.

Mike: Yeah. We went to the Bullis School and I met you in 2009, I believe. We spoke on the phone a year or two before that, you probably don’t remember. I was actually the strength and conditioning coach at Bullis, and I called you; I asked somebody at Rockville Fitness about barbells. I was looking to get one for the gym and they said, “I don’t know, but you gotta call Matt Gary.” And I didn’t know you at the time when I called you up. You gave me some recommendations. But I met you in 2009. It was one of my favorite days of powerlifting ever, I came back for the USAPL Maryland States. I was living in Tallahassee, Florida, and there was a blizzard in Maryland and the meet was canceled, but you had a blizzard meet for those that could make it.

And I made it out to the gym. That was a phenomenal day. That video I think exists on YouTube. And at that time you started talking about attempt selection. I remember you asking me what I was gonna open with in the meet and I had some numbers and you were watching me lift, and I could just see the look on your face. Like, “this guy, he doesn’t get it yet, this guy doesn’t get it.” That was a very enlightening day for me. Then I went home and later that day, or within a few weeks, I read your article, which I still read and reference and send to people to this day, which was written in 2009 on the Maryland Powerlifting website. That article was on attempt selection, like the paper that Eric reviewed in this issue of MASS, which, if you haven’t read that article yet, I would go check out the written text.

It’s amazing all these years later that you nailed it in that 2009 article. You were right on the money with what the scientific data now show, and this is a long time ago. So can you just give us your general overarching theory on attempt selection and how you came about these thoughts? Was it through just theory? Was it through practice and competing or coaching? But what’s your overall theory on attempt selection that you wrote about in this article? Then how was the way that you kind of came about these theories?

Matt (00:09:08):

We’ll start with the overarching theory. I mean, you have to understand what is the goal of the competition. So in a powerlifting competition, the goal is to achieve your biggest or heaviest total possible and the best way to do that is by making as many lifts as possible because powerlifters are afforded nine total attempts, and that’s only three per discipline. It stands to reason that the probability of building a larger total increases with the number of successful lifts. That’s how it works out. So if you can step away from strength for just a moment, and kind of equate kilos lifted to points scored, then the lifter with the most points at the end of the day is the winner. So the overarching theory or goal of attempt selection is to set your lifter up to increase the probability of his or her success.

You do that by making more lifts. So making nine out of nine is better than eight out of nine and is better than seven. I came to that realization just through coaching and through serving as an assistant coach. I said my first exposure to international competition was 2003 at the IPF Open Worlds in Chicago. That was the equipped Worlds at the time, I was dating my now wife, Sioux-z Hartwig-Gary. She asked me to come along with her and I traveled to the World Championships and I became her personal handler that day, and literally just went into the warm up room and realized, “holy smokes, I’m completely out of my element here.” Let me obviously defer to the national team head coach, which at the time was Dr. Larry Maile, who is also the USA Powerlifting President. He would ultimately become my mentor and my teacher. So I served that day as a handler, and then I wound up helping the rest of that week, and that was my first exposure to international competition. 

Ultimately every time that Sioux-z would make a team, Larry would then invite me back as his assistant. So I immersed myself as an assistant coach on five national teams from 2003 to 2008 until I received my first head coaching position for the NAPF team in 2008. So those five years were really formative in shaping my perspective on game day coaching and strategic attempt selection because I’m shadowing my mentor the entire time, Larry, as he coached.

Then my thinking shifted from seeing competition as a test day, as this strength exhibition, as a max out day, to understanding how to build a total and win even when our lifter wasn’t the strongest. I thought that it was a foregone conclusion that the strongest lifters would just always win, and that the weaker opponents had no chance. So I experienced this paradigm shift and was fascinated at how a weaker lifter could somehow, through strategic attempt selection, beat somebody who was clearly stronger. So that was literally and figuratively the moment when it became clear to me that powerlifting was truly a game, a sport with strategy and no longer just an exhibition of lifters showcasing feats of strength. So that was around the time that I began to do this deep dive into gathering data, into looking at the statistics from powerlifting competitions and through the years, to date, I’ve looked at over 17,000 individual performances from 112 competitions starting in 2000. That’s about the time that the data is reliable and verifiable. When you go back before 2000, the results are kind of sketchy and you get these incomplete meet results. So since 2000, and I’ve looked at the past 22 years, up through 2022, that’s about the time that I stopped collecting the data. So 112 competitions over 22 years. But I found that the world champs at IPF World Championships were averaging 7.4 successful attempts out of nine. So that’s about an 82% success rate. So the best of the best are averaging about seven and a half attempts out of nine.

So they’re making at least one third attempt, you know, per discipline, pouring into their total. That’s kind of how I came to that realization that it’s truly a sport with strategy. Nowadays, I mean, that’s never been more true, right? Because the talent pool is rising, it’s getting deeper and deeper. So you’re not gonna get these one-off lifters. I mean, you still will see them occasionally, but it’s become more rare, that one can go into a competition and win on four or five attempts. I mean, you’ve gotta use all the bullets in your gun and make eight or nine lifts if you want a chance of being on top of the podium at the end of the day.

Eric (00:14:21):

Well said, Matt. I think that’s a really great intro that aligns exactly with what the findings of the paper that I reviewed in this issue of MASS also reported. I think now with that background on who you are, how you came to these conclusions, your overarching theory and the actual data collection that you’ve done, which by the way, isn’t too dissimilar to what has actually been done in the peer-reviewed literature. We can actually get into the specifics. Before we do, I just want to say that my coaching philosophy before I met you and Mike in the same place in 2013 in Australia, when I first became aware of who you were and then started paying a lot of attention to things you had to say from that point on because I was so impressed, it fundamentally changed how I do platform coaching.

I had the privilege and opportunity to see that in person as an assistant to you with Bryce at two different World Championships. From that point on, I wouldn’t even say I became a better platform coach. Rather I got the opportunity to be a good platform coach because I actually had a pathway that made sense. So all credit due there. Now to get into the specifics, let’s start with the first thing that a lifter has to do, and that’s their opener. So what would you suggest that a lifter use as their opener or what’s the underlying recommendation based upon, and when does it differ? I would imagine, you know, if someone is cutting weight and they have to squat first, it might be a little different than their bench press. So talk to me about the nuances of first attempt selection and what you generally advise someone put on the bar for their first attempt.

Matt (00:15:58):

When I started looking at the statistics, I wanted to tie in some real world numbers, so I started looking at the data and trying to find out where people who are successful with their third attempts are opening relative to their third attempt and relative to their max, if I know what their max is. So what the data reveal is that an opener, typically it’s gonna be somewhere between 90 to 92% of 1RM. I find that is our sweet spot, or the number that I kind of like to use is right in the middle, about 91% for most people. You know that’s gonna be somewhere around your best triple. So it’s whatever you can do for three reps to competition standard.

So that’s a good place, particularly for a novice to start if they don’t know or have never tested a true 1RM, is take whatever you can get as your best triple to competition standard. That usually translates to a safe place to open, regardless of discipline. As you become more experienced, higher level, really elite level lifters, you could probably use their best double and that might translate to a safe place. But of course, by then they probably have tested their maxes so many times and know where their true 1RM is. So once again, kind of that sweet spot is right around circa 91%. What we have found is there’s not a whole lot of variability between disciplines other than maybe in the bench press. You could probably open just a touch heavier in the bench press because the jumps tend to be a little bit lower.

There’s less absolute load on the bar typically, unless you’re talking about some of these elite-level one-off bench specialists. So then you might open as high as 92%. To your point, Eric, sometimes lifters would be wise to perhaps open just a little bit lighter in the squat or at the lower end of that range because first of all, it’s the first lift of the day and there’s usually some anxiety and some built-in stress associated with the fact that this is the first lift of the day, and so the nerves are kind of kicking in. With the deadlift, the rationale might be, “Hey, this is the final event. Let me take just a pinch off the first one to preserve energy for that all important third that I’m gonna need.” But typically speaking, other than that, most of the openers, again, tend to kind of hover right around 91%. That seems to be a nice jumping off point that gets you into the meet safely. It’s something that you can hit to competition standard, it’s “heavy,” you know, because it’s above 90%, but it’s not a weight that anybody should really have fear of missing, particularly if they can perform that for two to three good quality reps to competition standard.

Mike (00:18:55):

Hey, Matt, what would you say to somebody that said to you, “Hey okay, my best triple though, but that’s a little bit light. I can do that for three. Why am I doing that for one? I’m gonna go a little bit more.” What’s your response to them, in terms of “I’m gonna go 9.5 RPE, maybe a 9, I could maybe do one more, but that’s a little bit light.”

Matt (00:19:29):

So I try to talk them off the ledge and tell them that as we add load, as we increase intensity to the bar, there is less wiggle room, there’s less margin of error. You need to dot every ‘I’ and cross every ‘T’ so to speak, as we do this. So the goal of the first one is not to win the competition, it’s to literally just put points on the board to get into the competition to guarantee, I’ve hit my first one, now I can secure a total, versus when you miss an opening attempt, now your back is against the wall. Now you’re adding this unnecessary stress upon yourself. Look, momentum in powerlifting competition is gonna build positively or it’s gonna build negatively. So as our good friend and colleague Mike Tuchscherer always likes to say is, “let’s build momentum.” And so you wanna build positive momentum, that’s what an opener does. So I would try to talk the lifter off of the ledge and say, “look, man, we’re just trying to get you in the meet and build some forward progress.” It creates a good jumping off point to get to the second attempt.

Mike (00:20:35):

I think that’s a phenomenal way to look at it and something that I didn’t really think too much of. We’ve joked about it before, “why don’t I just open with my PR? I have three chances at it, right?” The thing I think people need to keep in mind with this is if you go a little bit heavier, the chances of you missing it increase the chances of you getting a little nervous. If you’re not feeling great that day, all of a sudden, 95% is a lot closer to 100%. If you miss that, that’s a lot of fatigue from missing a lift. It’s a lot different than a snatch. If you miss it, there isn’t that essential component to it. You might get it on the next one, but if you miss that, especially due to strength, you’re gonna be in rough shape. Then, like Matt said, you bomb out of the meet if you missed that one. So it’s not really about getting the most, it’s a stepping stone really to put yourself in the best position to lift the most when you can later on. As you said, not all the strongest individuals win the competition, and if they make that mistake and you hit your opener, you could slide right in there and win something. So with that said, even though the opener shouldn’t be a problem, let’s say somebody misses it. Maybe they miss it for strength, maybe they miss it because they miss a command, whatever it might be. If that happens and they miss an opener, what would you recommend? Does that affect how your strategy is after that? Or do you still move on ahead?

Matt (00:22:08):

So let’s start by laying just one simple ground rule. If your lifter misses the opener on strength, we’re obviously gonna repeat that attempt, right? I can’t think of any scenario where if an opener was missed on strength, why you would want to therefore increase the attempt, that doesn’t make any sense. So we can kind of get that outta the way. Now the answer to the remainder of your question is situationally based. It’s gonna be based on the lifter’s experience. It’s gonna be based on their goals and objectives for the day, and naturally based upon the level of competition. So to your point, if a novice misses their opening attempt, particularly if it’s a first time novice, if this is their very first competition, I would say the vast majority of the time we are going to repeat the attempt unless it’s something that they absolutely blew out of the water, and then they missed it on something silly like a rack command.

They were just over anxious, you know, like an opening squat. They just destroyed the squat. They were plenty deep, they went to competition standard, they did all the right things, but then they rushed into the rack or something of that nature. I would just back up just a bit and say– and I don’t say this to sound self-righteous or holier than thou – but that’s also incumbent upon the coach to practice these commands in competition with the lifter, right? One of the biggest compliments that our lifters get, who are novices that we work with, is that we’ll have people come out of the audience and look at them and realize that this was their first time. They’ll compliment us by saying, “Your lifters look like the most polished lifters and the most seasoned veteran lifters here on the day, because they obeyed all of the commands.”

They had crisp and clean walkouts, and they executed to standard. So there’s some groundwork that the coaches need to do before the competition. But having said that, like our discussion before we got on air today, you know, humans are fallible. We get nervous, we make mistakes. So in those particular situations where they miss on something like a rack command, then we might go ahead and move up to the second attempt. Or if we’re a little bit uncertain, maybe when we kind of go halfway between the opener and the second attempt and go somewhere in there with an experienced level lifter, it really does depend upon their objective and the level of the competition and also their opponents. What I mean by that is if you have an experienced level lifter, or you have, say an intermediate level lifter who might be competing for the sake of hitting a qualifying total that day, they’re not necessarily concerned with where they’re placing, they simply want to procure a total, to qualify them to go to, like a nationals or something, then maybe we might repeat the opener, take it again, or just have a small increase.

But I’d like to give an example. At this past World Championships in 2022, in the 93 kg class we had Chance Mitchell competing for the United States of America and Chance missed his opening squat on a technicality. I believe it had something to do with his hands not being entirely secured around the bar or something to that effect. So he had to replace the bar, and then he wound up missing his opener. So he was stuck in a weight class where there were literally four or five lifters, any of which could have won that day. It was just gonna come down to who made the most attempts and who was there kind of at the end, where if Chance repeated that attempt, he was essentially already just forfeiting because by that point, he was gonna potentially lose between 15 to 17.5 kg, which would be commensurate with the jumps that he would normally take based upon his strength level.

So he and his coach, Arian Khamesi, wisely had already discussed this in prior game planning, and they went ahead and went up to their second attempt anyway, because the strength was there. It moved really well. He just got called on some weird kind of one-off technicality. So in those situations, at a very, very high level where if you basically repeat your opener, you might as well be saying I have no chance of placing now, or I have no chance of first place. When your objective matter of factly is to win and you have the opportunity to win based on the data, based on your strength level, then in that case you just go ahead. Of course, he’s a more seasoned lifter as well, while that was his first World Championships, it was not his first rodeo in terms of high level competition. So at those particular instances, you can give the benefit of the doubt to the lifter and say, “Hey, I know you’re not gonna make that same mistake twice. We feel comfortable about moving up with you.” So those are kind of some situational scenarios where one might stay with the opener with a first time novice, or something like that. Or in the situation of an experienced lifter, go up.

Eric (00:26:50):

And Chance went on to become world champion partially because of that decision. So it was probably the right call, I would say the so-called proof is in the pudding. So I think that’s really helpful. Now we’re on the board, we’re building that positive momentum. We’ve gotten the jitters out, especially on the squat, maybe a counter for the fact that we had to cut weight and our strength was temporarily down while we’re re-hydrating. Second attempt time comes up. So what would you suggest for the second attempt? Then on top of that, are there times where the planned second needs to be adjusted based upon the first, or are these both sort of just set in stone? What are we looking at here and does it change based upon which discipline we’re in, squat, bench or deadlift?

Matt (00:27:36):

Yeah, so that’s a great question. So once again, let’s go back to the data first. What did the data say and the data reveal? The second attempt is typically gonna be somewhere between 95% to 97% 1RM. Again, like we said, our sweet spot for the opener was about 91%. My personal sweet spot, and what I’ve found anecdotally and over years of experience works best is right around 96%, or 96.5% for that second attempt. I think what we have to understand as coaches and as competitors, but mainly as coaches, is that every single attempt is essentially a diagnostic tool and a data point where the coach observes the lift in real-time and then objectively, unemotionally determines what does my lifter have left in the tank based on that data point, based on what I just saw?

So, while 96.5% is our sweet spot, that comes with the understanding that we may go a little bit lighter if the opener doesn’t move as planned or it felt heavier, it was sluggish, or there was a technical abnormality that we experienced, or we might aim for the top end of that range around 97% if the opener absolutely flies and it’s faster than we anticipated. However, I don’t recommend going any heavier than 97% of 1RM on a second attempt, because oftentimes what that will do is, it’s not a risk of missing, it’s more that it’ll deplete energy for the all-important third attempt. So if you go heavier on the second attempt outside of that range, you’re just oftentimes using up too much gas in the tank. Situations can vary based upon the level of the meet.

So for instance, let’s say we’re at a high level meet and you have someone competing at a World Championships where there are opportunities for individual event medals. It’s just not the overall medal. So occasionally you may have a lifter that has really no chance at the end of the day of hitting a podium placing but they’re really good in one of the particular events, be it the squat or let’s say even the deadlift of any of the events they’re particularly good at. And so then you’re strategically – not necessarily adhering so rigidly to these percentages – as you are at that time interpreting the score sheet, playing the game in terms of potentially matching somebody’s attempt or strategically positioning the lifter so that they can achieve that goal of potentially getting an individual event medal.

So that’s where you need to remain flexible and not so rigid, but just be willing to interpret what’s going on in competition. I’m sure we’ll get into this later in our discussions, but that’s where you start to strategically use lot number and world record chips and other things to your advantage. Then of course, in the deadlift where it is the last event, your second and third attempts could change based upon what the rest of the field is doing. You know, if you’re pretty far ahead, then maybe you’re not adhering to percentages, you’re just trying to protect or preserve a lead, kind of pad your total to stay ahead. If you’ve got ground to make up in the deadlift and you’ve got somebody who’s a prestigious deadlifter, then maybe you’re slightly more aggressive and you go a little bit bigger. So those are kind of some examples about that second attempt and how it might change accordingly.

Mike (00:31:11):

Matt, before we move on, and I wanna talk about the third attempt in a moment, but something that you said is something that we were gonna touch on. I think this is a great opportunity to do so because it’s gonna come into play also kind of on the third attempt, and especially when we talk about the deadlift as well on the third attempt. So can you talk a little bit more about what you mean by “lot number” for those listening and how you can use that to your advantage and strategically be aware of what your lot number is?

Matt (00:31:41):

Sure. So as powerlifting coaches, it is matter of factly our job to put our powerlifter, our athlete, in the best position to succeed. So at the beginning of the day, you are trying to leverage whatever you can to stack the deck. I use cards as an example, to stack the deck in your favor. So when your lifter gets weighed in, clearly you’re looking at a bunch of things. You’re not just looking at the amount of weight that you’re lifting, but you’re looking at what was their lot number? The lot number determines the order in which you weigh in. More importantly, it determines the order of lifting when two people take the same attempt. So if Eric and I are competing against each other and we both call for 200 kg in the squat, if Eric has the higher lot number, that means I have to go first.

He would have the advantage of seeing my attempt before he has to take his, where that becomes all important is in the deadlift when at the end of the day, if two lifters are taking the same deadlift attempt, as a coach and as a lifter, you would get to see me go first. So then you might know how to strategically base your attempts based off of my performance. So having that lot number advantage is something that becomes really, really valuable. You pretty much always want to have a higher lot number. The only advantage of having the lower lot number is if you’ve cut a tremendous amount of weight and you’re really anxious to get weighed in and start that rehydrating and refueling process. Also if you’re a weaker deadlifter, because at the end of the day, the lot number is really not gonna matter to you anyway.

It doesn’t matter that you have the best lot number if you can’t out-pull your opposition. So in those particular one-off scenarios, the lot number might not mean anything to you, but in all other situations, it’s better to have a higher lot number so that you can see what your competition is doing. So that’s just one of the ace cards that you can have up your sleeve, the higher lot number. Another ace card would be, of course, being the strongest powerlifter in the room. I mean, if you’re just the strongest lifter in the room and you play your cards right, since we’re using that analogy, you’re gonna be tough to beat. So if you have the highest ceiling, it’s hard to trump that ceiling.

Another ace card would be, being the strongest deadlifter because the deadlift is the last event, and you get to go last. So we talked about being the strongest powerlifter overall, the strongest deadlifter, having the higher lot number, and clearly having a lower body weight is an advantage because if two lifters are competing in the same weight class and have the same total, then the lighter lifter wins. So if the lighter lifter is going at the end of the day, they might know, “Hey, all I need to do is tie this person on total, and by virtue of me being the lighter lifter, that increases my placing. So I can go for the win in that way.” Then, of course, the last final ace card, but since we’ve already used the four aces in the deck, let’s call it a joker card, would be having the opportunity to go for a record.

So the typical increase in a powerlifting competition or the minimal increase is 2.5 kg, which is 5.5 lbs for those of you who prefer pounds. That is the absolute minimum increase. However, if you’re attempting a record, a national, international or world record, then you’re allowed to go up by 0.5 kg, which is 1.1 lbs. So we refer to that as having a chip advantage. The reason we call it chips is because these are the smaller disks that the weightlifting manufacturers’ manufacture that go on the bar. So we use the expression ‘chips on the bar.’ So when they call for chips on the bar, you’re allowed to go up by a smaller increment. So these are five different things that you are trying to leverage and stack the deck in your favor that you’d like to play. So if you have any of those cards to your advantage, you want to try to play each and every one of them as often as you can.

Mike (00:35:53):

So you talked about second attempts, and then I was gonna ask you about third attempts, and it was perfect that we got to talk about lot numbers right there. But in that last answer to get to the third attempt question, you mentioned setting a record, you mentioned winning, and you talked about PRs. So when we go to third attempts from a second attempt, is it just all about, “Hey, what do I have left? What is the absolute most I can lift today?” Is that always what you’re going after in your third attempt? Or do those other things, the PR, the setting a record, and the winning, do they play into strategically how you’re going to select a third attempt? And how would you go about it in each of those situations?

Matt (00:36:36):

I think that’s best answered by determining the level of the competition, the experience level of your lifter, and their objectives. So when you can answer those questions beforehand, that then gives you the keys to the kingdom in determining what those answers might be. So if you’re working with novices or even intermediate level lifters who are competing at the local level at a state championships, let’s say even provincial championships, if they’re competing in Canada or whatever their local competition may be, look at the PB or the PR, the personal record as we call it in America or the PB, internationally is the personal best. That is the foundational thing that we’re going after, right? Every single one of us wants to do something that we’ve never done before. So going for that lifetime PR or PB is what we all crave so much.

We want to lift things that we’ve never done before. So at these competitions where the stakes don’t necessarily matter, and there’s no real benefit or loss if you lose, then yeah, the PB or the personal record becomes the goal. And so you’re aiming to do something that you’ve never done before. So you are then kind of just observing, “Hey, what do I have left in the tank based on my second attempt?” So we don’t really assign percentages to third attempts. Like I said, it’s situationally based. So if the second attempt moves well and it feels good and the lifter is confident, then heck yeah, let’s load it up and go for that incremental PB, that next 2.5 kg increment above their current PR. Alternatively, if the second attempt was tough, if it was hard or if it was sluggish, if it didn’t move well, if there was a decrement in performance or you didn’t uphold the standard of competition and you got a red light or something like that, then you’re basically picking based on the second attempt to potentially tie your PB or PR.

So again, it’s not really assigning percentages, it’s just asking, “Hey, what do I have left in the tank?” Now when we’re talking about lifters who are competing at national championships or world championships, or these competitions that are based on formulas, or there’s money involved, there are prizes, there are consequences of winning and losing. Then, you know, we’re really looking at putting our lifter in the best position to succeed. So yeah, if a PB is on the table that kind of lines up with what our goals are and everybody’s feeling confident, then yeah, there’s a good opportunity there that we’re gonna put a PB on the bar and go for it. But you know, like we talked about earlier, you might tend to be a little bit more conservative in the squat and the bench press, understanding that those are the first two events and there’s still more to come, there are more events left because the logic in the squat might be, “Hey, we’re trying to build the total here.”

Most powerlifters, unless you’re one of these one-off bench specialists, most powerlifters are building their total through their third squat and their third deadlift. Those are gonna be the heaviest attempts of the meet. So in the squat, because it’s the first event, it might be a little bit more advantageous to go for the number that you know you can get versus the one you want, right? Because it’ll serve to build the total and also save that precious energy, particularly in the form of lower back fatigue for the third deadlift. In the bench press, because the loads tend to be absolutely less, it’s more about holding serve, building the total, and “let’s not unnecessarily lose kilos.” However, sometimes with lighter, smaller, weaker lifters, sometimes the risk of getting the extra two and a half kilos on a third bench is worth potentially losing five kilos, and sometimes it’s not.

So those kind of have to be weighed on the scale, so to speak, and taken into consideration with the coach. Then of course, the third attempt at the deadlift, particularly at high level competitions, nationals and higher, is all about positioning and potentially winning. So I use the expression all the time, “There’s only one day out of the year when you can become a champion, and today is that day at a national or world championship. You can hit a PR or a PB 364 other days out of the year.” So today is the day that we’re setting you up for success and setting you up for positioning and becoming a champion. So if it means taking less than you wanted or less than a PB, but we know that it’s gonna secure your placing, securing the ‘W’ so to speak, or will move you up a place or put you on the podium, then it’s all strategically about positioning your lifter to do that.

Eric (00:41:26):

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I think sometimes lifters don’t think about that, and that’s why it’s so valuable to have a coach that understands: “I’ve got 10 more in me, coach!” “But, you only need five to be a world champion.” “Well, what if I go seven and a half?” “Well, if you miss, you’re a silver medalist, so let’s just think about what’s at stake here and let’s think about this probabilistically rather than emotionally.” That is a challenge to do when you’re a lifter, which is why it’s so good to have rapport with a coach and have someone who has a little more objectivity in that moment. So that makes a ton of sense. One minor follow up question that kind of applies to potentially any second or third attempt, is would you ever have a lifter scratch an attempt, to simply not come out for an attempt? Is there ever a reason to do that in your mind?

Matt (00:42:15):

So if I give you a one word answer, the answer is “rarely”, but let’s expand upon that. Lifters only get nine opportunities to build the total or score points as we’ve said. So scratching an attempt means we are essentially forfeiting approximately 11% of our scoring opportunities, right? So I would not intentionally want to forfeit 11% of my opportunities to score points. However, when the second attempt, particularly in the squat, looks like a limit lift for whatever reason, an RPE 10-type lift, and you know, based upon your lifter’s previous performances, he or she just doesn’t have anything left in the tank or they misgrooved it and they’re not likely to come back and get it on their third, then yeah, it might be wise to scratch the third attempt where “discretion is the better part of valor” as they say.

So we scratch that third to preserve and save energy because we’ve probably gotten all of the kilos we can get out of that lifter anyway. Occasionally, one caveat to that might become flight size when you get stuck in a smaller flight and you’ve got a bigger, stronger lifter and the second attempt is really, really tough and you know, wow, man, there’s a quick turnaround here. We’re in a really small flight, you’re not gonna get your full rest period. It’s gonna come back to you pretty quickly. That might be another scenario. As I said, rarely are we gonna forfeit or scratch a third attempt, but those might be some of the scenarios that I would consider. Then it’s about knowing your lifter and having a conversation with them quickly, but also kind of building that into the game plan beforehand. So it’s incumbent upon the lifter and coach to have these strategy game planning calls beforehand, particularly for these higher level competitions so that we’re all on the same page and that we have the plays called so that we can call the play in the moment objectively, unemotionally during a time when the adrenaline is pumping. And we’re on a clock, when we have 60 seconds to get our next attempt in. 

Mike (00:44:30):

Matt, for those that aren’t as familiar with powerlifting meets, what exactly do you mean by flight? Then can you talk about the size of the flight and how or if that may or may not affect your attempt selection strategy?

Matt (00:44:55):

The term ‘flight’ is just synonymous with a group. It just means a group or a collection of lifters. So meet directors and competition promoters will organize these groups, these flights as they call them, based on gender, based on weight class, and sometimes based on age for its juniors, sub juniors, masters level lifters and so forth. They will collect you in these groups. So the minimum amount of lifters that you are allowed to have, and this is most federations, and I think for the purposes of our discussion here, IPF level competition and IPF affiliates, the minimum amount of lifters you can have in one group or flight is six, the maximum is 14. So in the rare case that you have fewer than six lifters in a flight, they build in what they call compensatory time to make it as though you had six lifters.

So let’s say the three of us are competing in the same flight, and it’s Eric, Mike, and Matt. They would set the clock for an additional three minutes to make it as if there were six lifters. Because you can typically assume each lifter has one minute once they call ‘bar is loaded’ to get their start command in the squat or the bench or to make a bona fide attempt in the deadlift. So typically an attempt takes one minute per attempt, per lifter. So the maximum amount of lifters, as I said in a single flight, is 14. So small flights naturally with fewer lifters tend to move quickly. That might mandate a more conservative approach from coach and lifter, particularly if you’re coaching larger, heavier, stronger lifters who create more of an oxygen debt, if you will, after each attempt, they use up more energy, they’re breathing more heavily, they can’t recover as quickly as a lighter lifter.

Typically lighter females can recover very quickly after maximum effort, they’re ready to go again. Whereas bigger, heavier lifters are gonna take longer to recover. So a smaller flight might mandate a more conservative approach. Also, if we’re talking about equipped powerlifting, where you’re using squat suits, bench suits, knee wraps and so on, that might mandate a more conservative approach as well if you’re in a smaller flight because you’re having to accommodate getting your lifter ready with all of that equipment, wrapping their knees, pulling the straps up, these sorts of things which induce additional fatigue on your lifter during the day. I think most people would like to be in a flight with about 10 to 12 lifters. That seems to be a good pace for most lifters for most weight classes, because things do typically move a little bit faster than a minute per lifter.

But it’s nice to have like an eight to 10 minute break between maximal exertions. So to your point, Mike, you have 60 seconds to submit your attempt after coming off the platform. So again, during that one minute timeframe, you need to huddle up with your coach, have the game plan installed beforehand so that you know what you’re looking at and you’ve got a range of numbers that you’re gonna hit. So that discussion can be succinct, it needs to be objective from the position of the coach, unemotional, just based on the data point that the lifter has given you. Then obviously you’re gonna get some feedback from the lifter in terms of how it felt. Then together you arrive at a number, but all that has to be done within the 60 second time frame so that you can submit your next attempt. Because if you don’t get your attempt in on time, if you had a successful attempt, they’re gonna take you up the absolute minimum, which is 2.5kg. If you’ve missed the attempt for whatever reason and you don’t submit it within 60 seconds, you are going to be forced to repeat that attempt.

Eric (00:48:56):

Yep. That’s all really valuable information. One thing I want to rewind us back to just a little bit, is that a lot of the things we’re discussing here are predicated on knowledge we have from training or from prior meets. So I guess the question I have is: how can a coach or an athlete, if they’re self coached, intentionally use their training in a way to inform or even determine their planned attempts on game day? Does that mean they need to go through 1RM testing phases in their training? Should they be practicing their openers? Are we estimating 1RM from training? What do you recommend as far as using training as an informational tool to inform competition day attempt selection?

Matt (00:49:39):

Yeah, so as powerlifting has become more popular, there have become more diverse approaches. So it really doesn’t matter how the lifter has gotten strong and reached that level of preparedness. So regardless of your method or preferred style, it is imperative for that game day coach to review the lifter’s heaviest training as a key first step to installing that competition game plan. So with that in mind, there are satisfactory methods of determining attempts from the training data, and then there are better methods in my opinion. So some coaches feel that an estimated 1RM serves as this reliable proxy for game day performance. I, matter of factly, do not share that sentiment. I think that estimated 1RM is an estimate or it’s a best guess of a lifter’s abilities on a specific training day, but they’re not even guaranteed that day.

They’re not guaranteed tomorrow, three weeks from now or at the competition. They’re really not a predictive measurement at all. They are moments in time that allow us to compare to other training days. So, you know, estimated 1RM can be calculated from the rating of perceived exertion. It can also be calculated based on various rep calculators. So calculating your estimated 1RM from RPE, it can be flawed because of the variability of the subjective rating used by the lifter. You know, he or she may have inaccurately assessed their performance. And females can often do more reps at a higher percentage of their 1RM which tends to disrupt the estimations. So with all of that sort of thing said, and sometimes the rep calculators aren’t as accurate either, these higher rep sets become really misleading in terms of a lifter’s 1RM capability.

So this is where specificity comes into play. Specificity is important because, you know, what do we do on game day? Well, we do one rep maxes, or we do a single, that is our set, if you will. So I prefer using bar speed video feedback and the coach’s eye on singles that are 90% and above that are also performed to competition standard, obviously, and then at or near competition body weight. It also matters in the discussion of the bench press and the deadlift: were those lifts performed after a significant squat? Because if you tell me “I had a bench press PB today in training”, I’m gonna say “That was fantastic, but first question, did you squat first? Okay, and second question, were you at body weight?” Because if you didn’t squat first, then really it’s an irrelevant data point unless you’re competing at a bench press only competition where you bench first, because in a real competition, you’re gonna have to squat first and you’re gonna accumulate just this systemic or structural fatigue from holding a heavy bar across your back.

So that is going to fatigue your shoulders for the bench and of course, your lower back for the deadlift. But also to answer your question, Eric, yes, openers should and can, and probably ought to be practiced to instill training confidence and also to create reliability through verifiability. If you can verify, yes, my lifter is executing these singles circa 90% to 92%, and this is to competition standard and they’re at or near competition body weight, then this serves as a reliable place for us to open on game day. That’s gonna bring confidence to your lifter. So yeah, you’ll see many powerlifters do this during their taper week or just before their taper week at the start of their taper. They might be going through their openers in each discipline, which serves to test as they get closer to the competition body weight. Are these verifiable? Are they reliable? Are we in top form?

Mike (00:53:47):

You know, one thing before I have the next question for you is, you said that if somebody has a bench press PB, you would ask them if they had squatted first. I think, you know, you would never need to ask me if I squatted first. You also know that I haven’t set a bench PR in 14 years. One thing I remember, and I have a lot of anecdotes that I remember from training when Supreme Sports Performance and Training was in Rockville, Maryland. It was somewhere that I looked forward to coming back to once or twice a year. And it was very important to me to come back and train there and get to spend time with you and Sioux-z. And I was warming up and Sioux-z was watching me warm up and she said, “You know, Mike, you only have so much gas in the tank.” And I altered my warmup strategies after that day of talking with her and having her critique what I was doing. So, can you talk a little bit about how you would warm up for your opener, but not only how you warm up for it, as so much of what we talked about today is related to what you mentioned earlier about maybe opening with the triple because things are different on the competition day than they are in the gym. Well, when you have to warm up at a competition, it’s not just you, there are two warmup racks maybe and however many lifters. So how would you warm up ideally? Then are there situations where based upon what’s going on in the warmup room, where you might have to alter your warmup, or you don’t have enough time to get to a rack. How might you strategically change things to make sure you’re ready, even if you can’t get in everything you want to in the warmup room?

Matt (00:55:29):

There’s a lot to unpack there. I think it starts with understanding that, you know, what are these key components of the purpose of warming up? Why do we warm up? Why don’t we just walk out on the platform and throw our heaviest weight on the bar? We want to prepare the body for the impending loads and for what is to come. So, you know, these key components, if you will, of a typical warmup are gonna be some type of general warmup to increase your heart rate and core temperature. You might be doing some mobility drills to increase range of motion and increase blood flow to the muscle. That might mean you’re doing some dynamic stretching to lengthen the muscles and improve function and so forth.

You might have them implement some muscle activation to kind of prime some of the stabilizing muscles that have a role in supporting the prime movers. Then of course, ultimately, there’s gonna be a barbell warmup to prime the nervous system for these heavier weights. But I think what’s really key and important here is understanding that on game day, it’s a warmup for essentially lifting a maximum or testing your strength level. It’s not the warmup for a workout, you know, it’s not the warmup for a 5×5 or 10 triples, or eight doubles or whatever it is. It’s a warmup for you taking three ascending singles, in theory. You want to preserve as much energy and save as much gas in the tank as possible. While that might look slightly different based upon lifter preference and lifter feel and lifter strength level, typically, most warmups at a powerlifting meet are gonna be three reps or fewer, frankly.

I mean, you might take the bar for a set of 8-10 just to kind of loosen up and stretch, and your first set might be three to five reps, but after that, you’re probably looking at predominantly doubles, singles, maybe a triple here and there, kind of pyramiding up, if you will, to where you’re doing singles at the end to prepare your body, your mind, your musculature and your connective tissue for these impending loads. So what I have found anecdotally speaking is that most of the time, if we’re gonna have a lifter open, like I said, circa 91%, then we kind of look at where do they prefer taking their last warmup? What is an appropriate load jump for them from the last warmup to the opener? Once we can determine that number, we then count backward to the bar as opposed to just winging it and saying, “Well, we’re gonna start with the bar, just add reds each time.” That might work for Ray Williams or Jesus Olivares who are squatting a grand, but that’s not gonna work for most people.

So you typically find out “Where is the last warmup?” I have anecdotally found in my 28 years in the sport that for the squat and the deadlift, that typically falls right around 83% of maximum as a really good place to be. If you’re opening right around that 91% range, that seems to be an appropriate jump. For the bench press, it’s a little bit higher. The last warmup typically tends to be about 85%-ish, give or take, don’t get lost too much in the numbers. But, once you find that last warmup, you then count back to the bar making sure that your jumps are incrementally sound, that you’re not taking a small jump followed by a bigger one. They’re either the same incrementally or they’re getting slightly smaller as you approach your opener. So those are some rules of thumb in terms of warming up.

Then to get to the point, Mike, in terms of, you know, realizing that you’re not the only one at the beach. You have to share a warmup room, share a rack with other lifters. You know, when you’re at national championships or elite level international championships, there are going to be these combo, lever adjustable racks in the back at these higher level competitions. But when you attend a local competition, you may not have any racks like that. You might be warming up out of a cage or off of a CrossFit rig or something like that, where the heights are not adjustable. So my recommendation first of all is, as a coach, is to be assertive and understand that you are an advocate for your lifter. And so if you’re in a warmup room where there’s limited space, you need to matter-of-factly advocate for your lifter and try to pair up with lifters of similar strengths and similar heights. It just makes sense. Similar rack heights in the squat and in the bench press, the deadlift, it doesn’t matter as much. You just wanna try to warm up with somebody who’s around the same strength so you’re not changing from an 800lbs last warmup to a 200lbs last warmup. I mean, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, so try to strategically pair up with people like that. A general recommendation would be to start early. If you have a lot of warmups, start your warmup early, you can always slow down, but you’re not gonna be able to speed up without increasing anxiety and inducing additional fatigue on your lifter.

Fatigue can be created from anxiety and from worry from them thinking, “Hey, I’m not gonna get all my warmups in.” So if you start early, then you should have enough time. All that is to say, look, if you have a lifter that’s opening around 150kg (that’s 330lbs) in the squat and they have listed nine warmups, you’re gonna have to probably shave off some of those warmups. Lifters at that strength level, I can’t really think of anybody who’s gonna need nine warmups to get to their opener, you need to strategically shave off a few of those warmups and have that warmup make more sense. Again, that all comes with the understanding that in competition, you’re now on the clock. You’re on somebody else’s schedule. This isn’t a workout where you can take two and a half hours to warm up and get to your top weights. You’re sharing racks and you’re on borrowed time, so to speak. So those are some considerations that should all be taken into consideration and discussion when formulating a warmup strategy.

Eric (01:01:53):

Matt, you’ve specifically talked about how things can be quite different at high level meets sometimes for the better, sometimes for, I wouldn’t say the worse, but certainly for a higher pressure situation. Some of the things we talked about earlier, chip advantage and lot number; let’s dive into these a little deeper and talk about these lesser known factors that are present in the rules that often never rear their head at local competitions because people can’t set national or international records, and can’t use them in a strategic way. The ability to take a 0.5kg or any increment less than 2.5kg or an increment between 2.5kg provides potential advantages in certain circumstances. Also the fact that the deadlift is unique and you can change that attempt multiple times. Can you talk us through how these variables and their interaction can sometimes make a difference at higher level competitions, to try to help the listener understand if they’re ever in that situation where they’re gonna be coached internationally, if they’re just that strong where they should be aware of this type of thing?

Matt (01:03:03):

Sure. I think the best way to kind of go through that is maybe give you a couple of examples,  and we can elaborate on some of those. So I’ll give you an example that comes from a high level competition. It was the 2017 IPF Classic Worlds in Belarus. My wife Sioux-z was competing in the 52kg weight class. At the time she was a world-class squatter, certainly a world-class powerlifter. But we understood based on the day that was before us, that Sioux-z was not going to be in the running for a podium spot. She was in all likelihood gonna place probably fourth or fifth in a very competitive class. So, for us, it was all about securing an individual event medal for her, taking back the squat world record and getting the gold medal in the squat.

Those were our objectives. Then beyond that, of course, per usual, going nine for nine, representing yourself well. And look, if one of these other lifters slips up or trips up or only makes six or seven lifts, that maybe Sioux-z can sneak in and grab a podium spot, but the game within a game became our approach, her trying to procure the gold medal in the squat. So at the time we had another prestigious squatter in the weight class, Liz Craven from Australia. So Sioux-z had been trading this world record back and forth with Liz for a couple of years, and they finally got to clash, you know, the clash of the squat, and the titans, so to speak, at Worlds where they came together. So this is where lot number advantage and body weight becomes really critical.

All three of these things were at play, body weight, lot number advantage, and then having chips to your advantage as well. Sioux-z was lighter than Liz, and we also had the lot number advantage. We knew that Sioux-z had the potential to see what Liz did. And then for her second attempt, and then the third one, we might be able to go after her. So anyway, as it unfolded while Sioux-z did have the lot number advantage (the higher lot number), Sioux-z actually opened 2.5kg lighter than Liz. So Sioux-z opened at 142.5kg, while Liz opened at 145kg. So Sioux-z had to go first because she’s lifting the lighter weight, and, in powerlifting, it goes from the lightest lift up to the heaviest, and then the round starts over.

So Sioux-z went out first. They both secured their first attempts and hit them very well. They both called for 150kg on the second attempt. So what that means was Sioux-z took a 7.5kg jump from 142.5kg to 150 kg, while Liz only took a 5kg jump. But what that meant, and was important for us, was the order would then change because Liz had the lower lot number. She was then forced to take 150kg before Sioux-z. So we had the advantage of seeing how Liz’s second attempt looked. Then also more importantly, once she came off, after making her second attempt, which looked great, she came off the platform and we had the opportunity to see what she put in for her third attempt. That’s where the strategy really came in. So both ladies made the 150kg attempt.

Like I said, Liz went first. Liz then submitted 156kg, which is a weird number. She held the world record at the time at 155.5kg. So she submitted 156kg for her third attempt. So strategically, because we had the lot number advantage, because we were going to go second, I intentionally called for the same attempt. You say to yourself, “Well, why do you call for the same attempt if it’s a world record?” Here’s the reason, because by rule in competition, and this is what a lot of readers may not know, is that you can’t have two people holding the same world record on an individual lift. So I went ahead and strategically called for 156kg, therefore matching Liz, because by rule, if Liz makes the 156kg, our attempt automatically gets chipped up an additional 0.5 to 156.5kg. If Liz misses the 156kg, then we stay at 156kg and there’s no reason for us to overexert ourselves and take more than is necessary.

So I called for 156kg, Liz went out and hit the 156kg, breaking her own world record. So momentarily, she’s holding this world record, the new world record, and momentarily gold medal position in the squat while they automatically chip Sioux-z’s attempt up to 156.5kg, and Sioux-z went out and hit the 156.5kg and took the world record back. So by that point, it was mission accomplished. We got a gold medal in the squat, we got Sioux-z’s world record back, and that was the start of a fantastic competition for her. Sioux-z went on to go nine for nine. She actually placed right where we thought she would place, which was fifth place, but she had an outstanding day. You know, of course a world record in the squat, it was just mission accomplished. So that’s really it, you know, an example of where all three of those factors came into play. If we didn’t have lot number advantage and so forth, then we would not have been afforded that opportunity to see what Liz did.

But again, by rule, you automatically get chipped up to that higher weight. So that’s kind of one of these examples where all three of those situations come into play. Later that week, also in Belarus 2017, we had two 93kg lifters. We had LS McClain and Dave Ricks lifting in the 93kg class. Rather than go on this 30-minute explanation of what happened, I was coaching LS McClain, my wife Sioux-z was coaching Dave Ricks. Out of integrity and fairness to the competitors, when you have two lifters that have the opportunity to place, you matter of factly, need to split them and have different coaches, because you can’t play chess against yourself, it wouldn’t be fair for me to coach both Dave and LS. So we intentionally switch the coaching duties or split the coaching duties, I should say.

While we did warm up together as a unit, as part of Team USA in the back, I was coaching LS, Sioux-z was coaching Dave Ricks. So anyway, LS is kind of known as this subtotal lifter, he’s good in the squat and good at benching and not bad in the deadlift, but not as good as some of his other competitors. And we knew that we were gonna be deadlifting before some of his other competitors. You have to really kind of stack the deck in your favor by building the biggest total possible at subtotal. So, as it turned out, LS was actually in eighth place after squats, but we regained some ground because as you know, LS is a world-class bencher. He did wind up hitting three benches. So we moved into second place after the bench press. After the opening deadlifts, we dropped back down to third, after second deadlifts we were in fourth place.

Then I’m confronted with this conundrum, where I have LS capable of deadlifting more. But, I have to ensure at that point – because we are in fourth place going into the third deadlift, we do not have body weight advantage, we do not have lot number advantage, and we do not have any chip opportunities because deadlift is not his best event. So we can’t go for a world record. So as a coach, I have to put a number on the bar that I know that LS can make. It’s a high probability make to build our total and force our competitors out of their comfort zone and force them to make their attempts. But, if we miss our third attempt, then we’re in fourth place. We can do no better than fourth place. If we make our thirds, we then put pressure on our competitors.

As fate would have it, we went up and LS was not happy with the number that we took. I put on a number that I knew that he could make and his feelings, quite frankly, didn’t really mean too much to me at the time. Me ensuring a podium placing at that point in time was the objective, because he was in fourth place. Anyway, as the story unfolded, and as fate would have it, LS wound up winning that competition because he made his deadlift, and his other competitors overestimated their abilities. I was keen to watch them and watch their second attempts and knew that they were unlikely to make their thirds. So, I had to intentionally put a number on the bar that I knew LS could make to force our competitors out of their comfort zone.

And it did. I said, “Look, this guy’s anger for me is soon gonna fade once he’s standing on top of that podium and they’re playing the national anthem.” So that was a good example of not having any of these kinds of advantages really in our favor and just strategically selecting attempts to engineer victory, if you will. Then one of the last examples before I talk too long, would be the 2019 USA Powerlifting Nationals with your lifter Eric, Bryce Lewis, and going in a situation against Ashton Rouska, where matter of factly on paper, when you just look at the sum of their PBs, Ashton’s the strongest guy in the room. And so you then have to leverage these things to your advantage. So we knew at the time what we could leverage to our advantage, because Bryce didn’t really have any chip opportunities at any one of the individual events.

And he was the heavier lifter because Ashton came in lighter. At the time, the only advantage that we had was lot number and through strategic attempt selection, we kind of outfoxed and out-maneuvered them where we made our second deadlift. Then I intentionally forced our opposition, forced Ashton to take a lift that he did not need. He had to take more than he needed to win. As it played out, Ashton wound up missing his third attempt, and Bryce was the champion. I know that’s kind of a glossed over way of looking at it, but without going into lift-by-lift every single detail, we leveraged lot number to our advantage and used that to force our opposition to pull after us and to take more weight than they needed.

So those are kind of three examples where you have these advantages that you can use to your favor. You know, where at lower level competitions, that’s not the objective. The objective at these lower level competitions, as we said, is gaining valuable experience, becoming a better competitor, hitting the personal best, because there’s really no loss or decrement, if you will, for missing a PB. Whereas at a World Championships like you said earlier, Eric, if you miss a PB or a shot at the PB, well that might mean that you drop off the podium or that you drop placing or instead of the gold medal, you’re now silver. So these are scenarios where it’s important to try to leverage every advantage that you can into your favor.

Mike (01:14:43):

You know, Matt, I am absolutely loving these examples and you just can’t get this from the scientific literature. You can get the relationship between how many lifts were made and placing, but to be an effective coach, it does also matter how you got there. And the strategy that you’re discussing is how in these situations for Sioux-z versus Liz and for LS and for Bryce, it matters how you got there. This is why I think it’s so important that we’re including this here in MASS. It is to get this insight to everybody. I wrote down a couple things here. 

To use a golf analogy – as an aside, one of my favorite sports days of the year is Sunday at the Masters. If you’re watching, they’ll say “So-and-so is in the clubhouse at eight under.” That individual might not be leading, somebody else might be nine under, but they have three holes to play. Anything can happen in those three holes. What you talked about for LS is you wanted to put something on the bar that was a high probability make for his deadlift. It’s not his lift. You didn’t have any of the advantages. But your best chance was to get him in the clubhouse and put that number on the board. Other people had to see it. They knew they had to hit their lifts. Similar thing with Bryce, although Bryce went last in his third, on his second what he took and the fact that he was going last, his competitor had to take something more than he really needed because that lift was on the board for him. So I think there’s a lot to be said for ‘being in the clubhouse’ with something on the board like that. 

I have one other question for you, but first I don’t know if that analogy makes sense to you and how you’re referring to things? Or, if you have any other examples or anything else to add to that? But, that’s one of the things I took from some of those examples.

Matt (01:16:56):

Yeah, what you said, Mike, it’s a great example. When you’re in a position like LS was in, you want to force your competitor to go out on the platform and win the competition because if you miss your lift, then you’ve already lost. So that’s where it is truly about just building the total, about putting on the bar a high probability make. It might be less than the lifter wanted, it might be less than their all time best, less than a PB, but so be it. It strategically positions them and forces your opposition. You know, this isn’t football, there’s no offense [and] defense, we’re not calling plays. You’re strategically adjusting to my formation or the play that you think I’m gonna call. It’s me putting pressure on you.

The way that I put pressure on you is by making my attempt, by having my lifter make their lift. So that you then have to go. I don’t care if you only have to go up by 2.5kg and that’s 10kg under your PB, you still have to walk out on that platform. You could trip on the rug, the bar could be covered in baby powder or something, or you could mis-grip the bar. Or for these ultra wide sumo deadlifters where there’s such a such a small margin for error, they’re literally and figuratively walking that tightrope of performance and they could miss. So you want to force your competitor to make their attempt to beat you, otherwise you’re essentially handing them the game. 

This all comes with the understanding from the data that I’ve looked at that reveals that 43.5% of lifters miss their third squat, 49% of lifters miss their third bench press, and 50% – half the lifters – miss their last deadlift. So right there, just painting with broad strokes, almost half of the competitors miss their third attempts. 24% of lifters miss both their third squat and their third deadlift. As we said, those are the two attempts that affect the total the most. So if you just focus on building a total, even if the thirds are lighter than what you’d hoped for, you’re still probably outperforming half of the field. So those are statistics that are worth taking to heart and understanding that you can win the game even when you are not matter-of-factly the strongest person in the room because powerlifting determines who is the best powerlifter, not who is the strongest.

Mike (01:19:34):

That’s a great way to look at it. The 16-0 Patriots and 73-1 Warriors, neither one of them won the championship. They were the best teams, but they didn’t win the championship.

Matt (01:19:44):

That’s right.

Eric (01:19:45):

Well said. As someone who has the privilege of working with some relatively high level powerlifters, I’ve greatly appreciated your expertise. You mentioned how you worked with one of my lifters, and, for those not super familiar with modern powerlifting, a lot of the most prominent, well-known, most experienced programming coaches don’t happen to live in the same city as a lifter [who needs a coach], because it’s a new sport. A common thing is to work with someone online, you meet via video, they do your programming, they might do your nutrition, but it might be a challenge for that person to be there on game day. Especially if they moved to New Zealand and the lifter is in the U.S., to give a personal example.

I’ve had the great pleasure and privilege of a shared coaching relationship with you for Bryce Lewis, where when he’s competing at nationals, since 2015 or 2016, either you or Sioux-z, but SSPT has been there to coach him. So I would love it if you could just talk a little bit about how you’ve shifted towards specializing on game day coaching: what you do at SSPT, [and] how that’s something that’s available to a lot of people who are in the same position as myself. And then also [tell] those who aren’t in a position to hire you as a game day coach where they can learn more, as I know you have a recently released book on this topic.

Matt (01:21:25):

Yes. Just to discuss what it is that we do briefly, who we are and our passion for game day coaching. I kind of use the analogy that powerlifting is our game and our business is personal bests. So our mission is helping lifters become the strongest version of themselves, both on and off the platform. What that means for us on a day-to-day basis in person is we have a physical facility here in Bozeman, Montana, called SSPT, which again is short for Supreme Sports Performance and Training. It’s a private facility where we do one-on-one coaching with powerlifters and, of course, the general population as well, using the powerlifts to get them closer to their goals. But our passion, what gets our motor running more than anything else, is game day coaching for powerlifting.

That is absolutely what lights our fire and what turns us on more than anything else. And so to your point, Eric, we’ve been blessed and just extremely grateful to work with lifters of all levels from first time novices who are competing at their very first local competition all the way up to elite level lifters like Bryce Lewis and Mike Tuchscherer at the World Games, which only happens every four years. And of course everything in between. We’ve done that in both formats, raw and equipped, and that is what we absolutely love to do. We’ve cultivated that passion through years of coaching on national teams and of course, doing this on an individual basis. So, it’s been an honor to collaborate with you, and like you said, we have this shared collaborative coaching experience where you’re the guy with the recipe and you’re cooking up the meal, and then we’re kind of serving the meal, if you will, on game day, where we have to strategically get the most out of [the athlete].

Every lifter that we coach on game day is, like you said, strategically, we have to watch their training, we have to collaborate with their programming coach, should they have one. And then we get on these calls and we collaboratively install these game plans, working our way through each and every scenario that we think might pop up. And of course, there’s gonna be more scenarios at these higher level competitions where the talent pool is deeper, where the stakes are higher, where there are more opportunities for success, where maybe you can’t win the competition, but you can procure an individual event medal or something like that. So we have these strategy calls with lifters and people also hire us just to do strategy calls where maybe we can’t be there on game day, but maybe they just want our expertise in terms of collaborating with their coach.

Maybe they just want a third set of eyes, if you will, to kind of collaborate. So we’ve been blessed to have those opportunities as well. Then more recently, what I decided to do, Eric, to piggyback off of what you mentioned was I decided to take these 28 years of experience that I have and just package it up and put it into written form. So I decided to do that in an ebook format. Obviously I owe a lot of that success to you because as you know, I picked your brain on a number of consultation calls and quite frankly, you led me to my editor and my formatter. So God bless you for that, man, because I literally could not have done that without you, and that’s just keeping it real, I’m keeping it 100. You were extremely influential and instrumental in that process, and I’m forever grateful. 

So I was able to create this ebook, which was the culmination of my cumulative 28 years in the sport. So I wanted to make it, the advantage that I have is scarcity in the marketplace. While there’s a lot of text and information out there on training systems, on training approaches, on nutritional perspective and so forth, there was virtually nothing in the marketplace that I was aware of in written or electronic format that you could go back and refer to. There were videos put out, but nothing in a tangible book form on game day coaching for powerlifting. So I decided to put that together. Fortunately, I think what I’ve done, through the help of others such as yourself, Jason Tremblay, Mike Tuchscherer, and Kedric Kwan of course, who helped me with the making weight chapter and so forth, consulting with these other experts in the field, because literally and figuratively throughout my tenure in the sport, I’ve been standing on the shoulders of giants in so many scenarios and situations. I’ve been able to put together what I feel is a really comprehensive text that dives into attempt selection strategy, but also into having a coaching philosophy and understanding the psychology that goes into dealing with lifters and understanding that we’re not coaching robots, we’re coaching humans.

Humans are emotional and they’re fallible and they have wins and they have losses, and they have other stresses in their life. So I tried to create this text that I thought covered just every imaginable touchstone point within the sport of powerlifting, but specifically to game day coaching. I understand that powerlifting is a niche sport, and then I’m a niche within that niche. So, I tried to create what I thought was the most comprehensive text that kind of covered all of the bases. So every imaginable thing that you might think about from warming up to making weight, to attempt selection and strategy in terms of how to formulate your game plan, how to put a warmup plan together, how to pick your attempts, and everything in between.

I tried to include that in one comprehensive text, and I think I’ve done that pretty well. I’m excited, actually, next week to release an updated version that is gonna be free to everybody who’s already purchased a copy. They’re gonna get an updated version that is going to include four additional case studies. I think anytime you put together an instructional or how-to manual specifically for a sport, it is impossible to think of every single scenario that you’re gonna encounter. So you write this book and then you go to a competition and you’re like, “Ugh, I have a scenario now that’s staring me right in my face that I forgot to include. Let me include that.” Then I realized, oh, but I’ve got the Arnold and I’ve got Sheffield that’s coming up, so let me wait until the Arnold happens, let me wait until Sheffield. So my revisions were born out of those experiences. So I’ve added about six pages of additional content to the book with four additional case studies and added additional layers of context to, again, what we started with at the beginning of today’s discussion, this overarching theme of building your biggest total possible through nine attempts and strategic attempt selection and just positioning your lifter to succeed and become the best version themselves, certainly off the platform, but of course, in the context of powerlifting on the platform as well.

Mike (01:29:07):

Matt, a couple things. One, you said you’ve stood on the shoulders of giants. I think we’ve all stood on your shoulders. 

Matt (01:29:21):

Thank you for saying that.

Mike (01:29:22):

Well, I mean, it’s difficult for me to get up that high, but you know, you have impacted so many people and this is all very, very sincere. We’re familiar [with you] and we were starting in powerlifting at a certain time. But for those that are just getting into powerlifting now, Matt, they may not know your name. And one of the things I’ve always admired about you is you weren’t out for people to know your name. You were out to do the right things and to work hard and then to make people’s lives better.

For those who may have a coach now, your coach is probably somewhere in the lineage of Matt Gary, and anybody that I’ve coached or that Eric has coached has been influenced by you, and many of those people have gone on to coach other people, and that tree extends very far these days. I think it’s important to know that if you’re hearing about attempt selection or these things – you know I still use your and Sioux-z’s squat setup video to send to so many people when they’re trying to learn to walk out. These teachings extend to so many. So although you said you’ve stood on the shoulders of giants, I think so many of us have benefited and been impacted by you. So this next question is very sincere. We are not affiliates and would get nothing from this in any way, but where can people get your book?

Matt (01:31:09):

So probably the easiest way to find the Game Day Coaching Manual would be one of two places. You can find it on our website, which is supremesportspt.com. If you go under resources there, you’re gonna be able to find it under the ebook, the Game Day Coaching Manual, or if you prefer on social media, you can just go to Instagram. You can find me @MLGary72, and the link is just in my bio. So you just click on that and that will direct you right to the page. And thank you again for your kind words, Mike. I think I’d be remiss if I said that wasn’t one of my intentions for writing the book, my primary intention was to lift up the powerlifting community. I understood that there was scarcity in the marketplace, as I said.

So let’s put something out there that everybody can benefit from, lifters of all levels and all goals, all objectives, regardless of competition. And of course, their coaches. So just use it as an instructional tool to put out there, to lift up the community. Obviously to leave something behind in terms of legacy. I have never had delusions of this becoming a New York Times Bestseller. I mean, that’s not what’s gonna happen with this book. Like I said, it’s a niche within a niche. So having said that, I’m not allergic to money. It’s nice to be able to make something from your efforts and from something that I’ve poured so much time and effort into. But more importantly, it is an instructional manual but it talks a lot about life and it talks about a lot about how to conduct yourself, I think, in a way that is morally upright and serves the community well. So if for no other reason that it helps you in that way, if just to become a better human being, then mission accomplished.

Eric (01:32:58):

Love it. Thank you, Matt. And just as a final note, we’ve covered a lot of ground but you are the expert here. Is there anything that you feel we have not covered in the realm of game day coaching that you want to make clear to our subscribers? 

Matt (01:33:15):

I think we’ve covered most of it, Eric. I mean, we really did touch upon a lot of things. I think at the most rudimentary level what you have to understand as a coach is that it is your job to put your athlete first regardless of the endeavor. You could be a chess coach, you could be a golf coach, a powerlifting coach, gymnastics, it does not matter. It is to move your athlete and to put them in the best position to succeed, in the best position for them to achieve their goals – not your goals, their goals. So as you perpetuate down that road, you learn more, more about human beings, more about the human condition. It’s about putting them in their best position to succeed, and that’s gonna look different for different people.

But at the end of the day, and it is cliché, but if you’ve done that, if you’ve checked those boxes and you’ve put them in their best position to succeed, then you’ve matter of factly done your job. It is incumbent upon them, in this context, for the lifter to go out and execute because unfortunately, once they step onto the platform, that’s where your hands are no longer on the bar. You can’t make the lift for them. But it is our job to do that. So I think if you’ve done that, then you’ve fulfilled your primary role and objective as a coach and put them in their best position to succeed. You’ve done all you can and hopefully they can thank you for that. 

Mike (01:34:54):

Well, with that, Matt, thank you for doing this. We are absolutely honored to not only have you in MASS, but to have you be the very first interview cover story. Thank you for what you’ve done for each of us here and just what you’ve done as a broader support for the powerlifting community and for so many people that are out there today. I know a lot of people watching or reading this have probably been impacted by you – and I would be really remiss to not say, by you and Sioux-z, for what both of you have done. So we’re honored to have you. Thank you, sir.

Matt (01:35:30):

Thank you again. The feeling is entirely mutual. I love and respect you guys and what you’re doing to lift up the community on your end as well. So thank you again very much.

Mike (01:35:40):

Thanks, Matt. Yeah, much appreciated.

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