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Powerlifting Competition Tips: Benching & Referees

Updated: Apr 12, 2023

It's time to chat about competitive bench press.




These are the 3 commands you will be primed and ready to hear during the lie down between squats and deadlifts at a powerlifting competition.

A lot can happen between these 3 words.

Many people plan their competition bench press by how their training is going and struggle to adapt when things aren't in their favour.

We're going to chat about a couple of things that may change how you attack competition bench pressing and help you tactically build the biggest total you can.

If you are a competitive powerlifter or budding powerlifting coach this article is for you.

What Is The Hand-Out Like?

Can you choose someone to hand you the bar? Or is it a competition regular you know, or an unknown quantity?

How good is the person at handing people the bar during barbell bench pressing?

If your favorite spotter can hand the bar to you on comp day, you have a huge home advantage. You can be handed the bar like in training. Unfortunately, that's rarely the case.

If it's a competition regular, you may have a good idea of what to expect from them and have a good chance of being fine.

If it's an unknown person, some data gathering will be needed.

If the person handing it out is heavy-handed, when it comes to your lift you can ask for a side handout where a spotter on each side lifts the bar out, taking the center spotter out of the picture, but I would only do this if you've practiced it in training.

You could opt for a self-handout if that is your thing. No one touches the bar but you with a self hand-out. Again, this must be well practiced in training for the best results.

If I see that the person handing the bar out isn't doing it well, I will mention it to an official to switch them out or have a word with them. If you chat with them don't be angry, they are trying to help and probably giving up their day to help, some people are just bad at it.

If I see the handout consistently isn't good and the officials aren't doing anything about it I will change to plan B which means making smaller weight jumps from attempt to attempt.

Training For A Bad Handout

If you don't want to risk changing how the bar is handed to you, you might want to practice benching at 80-95% 1rm with a bad, heavy, or somehow sub-optimal handout.

I'll purposely hand my clients a bar badly when we are a few weeks away from competition to make sure they can pull it together and hit decent weights when it's handed to them badly.

I won't always tell them when it's about to happen aside from telling them about the idea when we enter the pre-competition phase, with ranges from 6-16 weeks out depending on the needs of the client.

Far away from competition, it's an unnecessary risk we can do without. Plus I'd rather not give my clients PTSD due to worrying about me throwing a bar at them randomly all year.

If you know when a bar is handed to you wrongly, you can still perform well, you will be more confident as the competition approaches.

On competition day, if the handout is a problem, I'll remind my lifters of how prepared we made them in training and this often helps them get back in the zone and smash whatever plan we decide to go with.

Speed Of The Commands

Competing powerlifters normally have a plan regarding where they want to end up on their 3rd attempt and will bullishly pursue that plan regardless of what happens on the day.

This is why many powerlifters lose kg's from their total.

You have to read the day. You have to watch what the referees do.

Watch how the referees are behaving in your flight. If they are holding you at the top and on your chest for ages, instantly lower your expectations for your 2nd and 3rd lifts.

My client Izzie Coomber returned to the platform recently and was on for a lifetime bench PB of 62-65kg but the refs were taking ages with every command, so I instantly changed to the conservative plan where we finished with a 60kg bench, which she has done in training numerous times.

I'm convinced this added at least 5kg to our total and that amount or less can decide titles.

My advice for all powerlifters and powerlifting coaches is to formulate at least 3 plans. A conservative plan for slow commands, a good day plan for when the lift is moving well and everything else looks ok, and a stretch plan for if the refs are making quick calls and all the warm-ups are flying.

If anything changes you can switch plans at any time. But don't be one of those people who doesn't react to how the day is going.

You have to be tactical to build the biggest total.

Training For Slow Commands

You can prepare extremely well for long pauses in competition by using long pauses in training.

My favorite variation is 5-count pause bench and 3-count pause bench variations. If you keep these in your plan for as long as you can, you are prepared for the most common problem in competition raw benching, getting caught out by longer referee calls than you were expecting.

By pausing for 5 seconds on your chest, you are pausing for longer than you will have to in competition. Anything less than a 5-second pause will start to feel like a bonus, and you will be thoroughly acquainted with how it feels to grind out long, paused reps.


If you are the first person to bench in your flight, you can only react for your second and third attempts. You should open with something easy, you should of practiced the commands and warmed up vaguely sensibly, and as long as you're well practiced at pausing on your chest, your opener should be fine.

From your lift, you'll have a decent amount of data to make a tactical call on your 2nd attempt. By the 3rd lift, you'll know exactly how the spotters, loaders, and referees are behaving and you can make your most informed attempt selection.

When programming long paused bench presses into sessions, it's wise to keep these lower reps, as the technique is immensely fast to fatigue in this movement.

You're putting your shoulders through an immense amount of stress when you pause on your chest for so long so make sure you start with at least 2 weeks of lighter/introductory long pause work before you let the RPE creep up. This will allow for neurological adaptations to take place, making the movement familiar before you have to grind out reps.

Concluding Thoughts

To give your bench the best chance of success on competition day you should prepare for dodgy hand-outs by using dodgy handies in training or practicing using a side hand-off or even using a self-handout.

People should use long-pause bench variations in their training unless it is injuring them or otherwise causing more issues than benefits so they are ready for referees to take their sweet-ass time to give the 3 commands.

Lifters or coaches should formulate a number of plans to make sure they aren't embarrassed or disappointed by missed lifts that were only taken on because the lifter or the coach didn't react to the situation accordingly. Choose attempts based on the referee's behavior and the quality of the hand-out rather than solely how it has been moving in the gym or because of what the ego has convinced someone they should lift without accurately considering what they can lift.

We all want to make all our lifts on competition day. I hope this article helps you do that.

By Chris Kershaw

The HeavyMetal Strength Coach

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