Upholding the Standard – Part 1

There’s a definite line representing winning and losing. Accordingly, one’s performance is either above the line (winning performance) or below the line (losing performance). As Coach Tomlin advocates for the standard, he characterizes performances as being above or below that line.

MikeTomlinSince 1969 the Pittsburgh Steelers have had three head coaches. This is fewer than any other team in the NFL during that timeframe. The Steelers pride themselves on consistency and stability. These two constants led them to their current coach, Mike Tomlin.

Players are expected to act and perform according to the Steeler way: aggressive, disciplined, and hard-nosed. These attributes are first instilled in the front office via the Rooney family and trickle down through the remainder of the organization. No matter the perceived importance of the player or position in which he plays, the standard remains the same. When a player goes down to injury or otherwise, the next one steps into the role. The standard remains constant and the replacement player is expected to perform at the same level as the starter. Sometimes these are big shoes to fill. For example, all world and Hall of Fame bound strong safety Troy Polamalu is incomparable. Troy possesses a unique skill set that has never really been seen before. His blend of agility, size, speed, and strength are unparalleled. His style of play includes a reckless abandon and disregard for his body. While his play most often lends itself to superhuman feats, it also makes him susceptible to injury. When Polamalu gets hurt, the second-string strong safety is expected to fill the position until Troy is well enough to return. All the while, the Steelers’ organization and specifically coach Tomlin expect the same level of performance. As “the standard is the standard” maxim is proclaimed with such regularity, the players buy into it and really believe that when their number is called, they too will assume their new role without the team suffering any decrements in performance.

Coaches in any arena are constantly evaluating individuals and teams by their performances. There’s a definite line representing winning and losing. Accordingly, one’s performance is either above the line (winning performance) or below the line (losing performance). As Coach Tomlin advocates for the standard, he characterizes performances as being above or below that line. In all sports, occasionally a winning performance will be below the established standard. The opposite may also be true, especially in team sports, where a losing performance may come because certain members of the team performed poorly while others may have excelled.

In powerlifting, lifters receive nine attempts (three per discipline) to complete their total. The standard level of expectation and performance is six successful attempts. Period. Under no circumstances, short of injury, should a lifter ever make fewer than six attempts. As a result, it’s easy to determine whether a powerlifter’s performance is above or below the line.

Attempt selection is crucial in powerlifting. Powerlifters train hard and compete to determine the strongest person in each weight class. Unfortunately, many coaches and lifters pick an inappropriate attempt, which significantly hampers performance. As outlined in “A Powerlifter’s Guide to Attempt Selection,” (Gary, 2009) there’s a surefire, scientifically based method that may be applied to selecting appropriate attempts.

A lifter’s first attempt (also known as the “opener”) serves to get them into the competition, increase confidence, build momentum, and allows them to take a reasonable second attempt. In essence, the opener is your last warm-up. A foolproof way of determining the first attempt is to use a weight that represents approximately 90-92% (91% on average) of your maximum. Usually, this intensity is a weight you could hit for a triple or at the very least a strong double. The second attempt serves as a stepping-stone and total-building attempt. It should be a weight that helps bridge the gap between a safe opening attempt and hopefully a personal record (PR) attempt on the third. Like the opener, the second attempt should also be a virtual lock. The appropriate intensity for a second attempt is approximately 95-97% (96.5% on average) maximum. When a successful second attempt is achieved, without any significant issues, a PR attempt is warranted on the third. Obviously, this attempt would represent anything over 100% of one’s personal best.

This method ensures a high probability of successful attempts thus increasing a lifter’s total. I’ve used this approach hundreds of times with first-time novices to elite world champions. The success rate is exceptionally high and lifters almost always achieve more than six attempts including some PRs.

Famed Westsider and EliteFTS founder, Dave Tate, espouses a very different approach. In one of Dave’s recent articles entitled, “Why Goals Suck!” he mentions the following: “I’ve always been taught to break my PR by five pounds on my second attempt (in a powerlifting meet you get three attempts), and go for broke on my third.” Upon reading this, I said to myself, “It’s no wonder he rarely made many attempts.” Not only is that a perfect recipe for making fewer lifts, it lends itself to stagnant progress, frustration, and smaller totals. It’s a loser’s approach that goes hand in hand with the mentality of, “If I miss my PR on my second attempt, at least I have a shot at it on my third.” I’ve got news for you. That almost never works. When was the last time you heard of anyone from the EliteFTS, Westside, or any other multi-ply stable for that matter, going 9/9 in a powerlifting competition? Now before you say, “But anyone can go 9/9,” consider going 9/9 while hitting PRs. Is that still considered sandbagging? Making all nine attempts in a powerlifting competition is easy when you’re not pushing yourself to the limit. Anyone can enter a powerlifting competition, lift well under their physical abilities, and walk away with a perfect 9/9 day. On the other hand, it’s extremely difficult to make every attempt when achieving PRs. That’s precisely why the standard is six successful attempts out of nine.

No matter how strong or skilled you are you’re not going to make every third attempt especially when reaching for a PR. Fatigue, mental collapse, breakdowns in form, and misapplied technique are all causes for missed lifts. At times, powerlifting is unpredictable. Therefore, it is imperative that we control our environment as much as possible. Don’t waste time worrying about things beyond your control like climate, the size of the warm-up room, number of lifters in your flight, your competitors, or the judges for your session. Focus on your training in preparation for the competition, dialing-in your equipment, making weight comfortably, attempt selection, and effort. These variables are up to you alone. There are very few sufficient excuses for not controlling the controllable. Rushing through your warm-ups because you weren’t paying attention to the flight schedules is your problem. You should know better than to spend all your time socializing after weigh-ins. Missing an opening bench press attempt because you couldn’t sufficiently touch your chest, in your bench shirt, is your fault. You should have practiced more, learned the groove of your shirt, and memorized the adjustments your handler has to make. Getting buried by your first squat attempt is your predicament. Don’t blame the judges for making you go so deep. They didn’t submit your opener nor were they responsible for you failing to consider the changes your body would undergo by cutting weight.

Six successful attempts out of nine represents a 66.6% success rate. In most schools that would earn you a D on the grading scale from A to F. In powerlifting, six attempts is a satisfactory performance. It’s a solid average or what we like to call an “on-the-line” performance in SSPT-speak. Fewer than six successful attempts is a “below-the-line” performance where beyond six attempts is above the line. Our grading scale makes it easy to measure individual performances.

Consistently making fewer than six attempts is poor lifting no matter how strong you are. Winning your weight class on four attempts doesn’t make you a good lifter. It only means you’re stronger than your competition. Good lifters consistently make most of their attempts. We should all make a high percentage of attempts. Novices should focus primarily on acquiring skill in the competitive lifts via high volume training, gaining valuable platform experience, and constant improvement as reflected by hitting PRs. Intermediate and advanced lifters may possibly add winning to that list. Those competing at the elite level, both nationally and internationally, should aim to place and win if possible. That being said, PRs are the ultimate measure of success. How much fun is winning without making many attempts or hitting any personal bests? Ask any elite champion about a performance where they failed to achieve a personal best or made fewer than six attempts and I guarantee you’ll find a dejected lifter. That being said, following the aforementioned scientific strategy of attempt selection ensures a high probability of more successful attempts. Missing lifts sucks and it’s no fun. More successful attempts are always better. It’s fun making lifts and having fun makes people happy. Competition should be enjoyable. When competing is no longer satisfying, you either need to rethink your approach or find a different avocation.

In 2010, the great Sioux-z Hartwig-Gary competed four times – twice raw and twice equipped. She made 35 of 36 attempts including 7 PRs and 2 Masters World Records. That’s an extraordinary 97.2% success rate. Furthermore, her feats of strength were performed at the highest levels of our sport nationally and internationally with her lone miss coming on her final PR deadlift attempt in Potchefstroom, South Africa.


Circumstances can be individual. No matter the result, own your performance and take responsibility for your actions. We all have different standards that we live by. Maintain yours and do the very best you can. That’s all anyone can ever expect.

About Matthew Gary 18 Articles
Matt Gary is 43 years old and has been a competitive, drug-free powerlifter for 20 years. His educational background includes a BS in Kinesiological Science from the University of Maryland. In 1995, he was recognized as a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) via the National Strength & Conditioning Association. Matt, along with his wife Suzanne “Sioux-z” Hartwig-Gary, own and operate Supreme Sports Performance & Training (SSPT). SSPT is Maryland’s premier strength and conditioning facility catering to powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, strongman competitors, and anyone who is serious about strength training. Matt’s clients include high school and collegiate athletes, powerlifters from novice to elite, and the general population. Matt is an active member of the USAPL where he serves as the Chairman of the Coaching Committee, a member of the Raw Committee, national referee, and coach. His coaching resume includes: USAPL Coach of the Year – 2012 Head Coach USA Women’s Open (equipped) National Team 2010 – 2012 IPF World Championships Head Coach USA Men’s Team 2009 IWGA World Games Head Coach Atlantic & Midwest Regions, Quest Invitational – 2008 – 2010 Arnold Sports Festival Head Coach USA Men’s Team 2008 NAPF North American Regionals Assistant Coach USA Men’s & Women’s Teams 2012 – 2014 IPF Classics (raw) Powerlifting World Championships Assistant Coach USA Men’s Open (equipped) National Team 2005 – 2008, 2010 IPF World Championships Assistant Coach USA Men’s & Women’s Teams 2009 IPF Masters World Championships Assistant Coach USA Women’s Team 2009 IWGA World Games Assistant Coach USA Women’s Team 2008 NAPF North American Regionals Assistant Coach USA Women’s Open (equipped) National Team 2003, 2005 – 2008 IPF World Championships Personal coach for more than 50 powerlifters from novice to elite Matt (pictured on right with a 600-lbs raw deadlift) has competed in three different weight divisions, from 198 to 242, and currently competes in the 231-pound (105kg) weight class. He is a 4-time Maryland state champion and won the 2004 USAPL American Open Powerlifting Championships. Matt’s articles focus on various aspects of strength training and powerlifting. Comments, discussion, and questions about these articles or any other strength endeavor are always welcome and may be sent to MLGary72@gmail.com For additional information about SSPT, please visit http://www.supremesportspt.com or follow their videos at http://www.youtube.com/user/SupremeSportsPT