Just as there is in all things, there is much debate over attempt selection for powerlifting meets. Every strategy has its pros and cons and unfortunately this is yet another thing you will have to discover for yourself in order to truly maximize your unique potential. I can, however, guide you on a discussion of the two main strategies as well as share my personal strategy so that you can develop or refine your own.
One thing about the meet selection debate is pretty universal, and that is the weight you should use for your opener. The general consensus across most attempt selection strategies is to open with a weight you could do for a 3 rep max. I, and many others, have had good success with this. A single with your 3 rep max weight results in an opener that is *nearly* fail proof (*catastrophic form failure, injury, not listening to commands, and or not being honest about your true 3 rep max weight can all derail this attempt*). Done correctly, it is highly unlikely that strength ends up the issue with your opener at this weight. Translated to percentages this is roughly 92% of your current max (assuming you know what your current max is… but isn’t that what you are at the meet to find out). I like to find this weight for myself utilizing RPE training in the weeks leading up to the meet. I find that this is the most accurate way for me. One thing I would note about this strategy for your opener is that if you are very new to powerlifting or just new to competing you may want to consider an even lighter weight for squat (4 or 5 rep max weight). I find the first squat of the day to be the most intimidating of all the lifts. Starting lighter until you are more experienced allows you to calm the nerves and build confidence to begin the day.
Onward and Upward! That is the goal at least. The first of the two strategies I want to discuss I will call the Aggression Method. This is the school of thought that you are at the meet to set PRs for yourself, lift big weights, and just generally get after it. This entails large jumps in weight between attempts (and sometimes even heavier openers to start with) with the goal of getting a shot at a new PR, a fed record, or a particular stretch number. Often these jumps are determined in the moment based upon the feel of the previous lift. The reward from employing this method can be excellent, but so can the disappointment. This approach is a very all or nothing strategy. The biggest pro to this approach is that, if successful, you will leave the meet with the numbers you wanted. Alternatively, the biggest con is that you will leave the meet with numbers much lower than what you were actually capable of, and placing much lower than you belong. As powerlifters, most of us have that extreme competitiveness, drive, and aggression that makes the Aggression Method an attractive option and one that speaks to many of our innate characteristics that draw us participate in the sport.
The second strategy I refer to as the Analysis Method. This strategy is much less instinctual and much more thoughtful. I don’t mean that as a knock to the Aggression Method (actually the thoughtful part of the Analysis Method can lead to “analysis paralysis”) but rather as a characterization of the prime approach taken to choose attempts. The Analysis Method involves applying the same approach that is generally accepted for choosing an opener to all your attempts. The focus of this method is on completing more lifts and placing as high as possible. The weight jumps chosen are smaller and (usually) consistent between attempts. They are also typically predetermined (unless something feels very off or very good in the moment). The pro to this approach is that you often leave the meet with more successful attempts and a predictable total. The con to this is that without risk, there cannot be reward and you may leave without PRs and with weight left on the platform despite a successful meet in terms of lift completion. This strategy can also run counter to the competitive and aggressive spirit of many powerlifting competitors.
The method I have developed for myself over the course of many powerlifting competitions is a version of the Analysis Method. The reason this approach is successful for me is because of my susceptibility to emotion during competition. Some people thrive off of drumming up rage or feed off the anxiety of competition and excel. I am not one of those people. For me, angry lifting leads to technical mistakes and the anxiety of competition can sap the self-confidence needed to make a successful attempt. Whichever type of person you are, it is ok to be that way. Play to your strengths and reduce the effect of your weaknesses. I accomplished this for myself by developing a strict approach to my attempt selection through analysis that begins weeks in advance of my meet (as I write this I am 5 weeks out from a meet and started thinking about attempts a week ago). Below is an outline of my process:
Beginning several weeks in advance of a meet, I start to track what weights are around my current 3RM. For me and my RPE training methodology this means that I take note of singles at an 8 RPE, doubles at a 9 RPE, and triples at any RPE. As the meet gets closer and I have gathered lots of reference points from my training I will identify a trend that I confirm as I peak in the last weeks of my training. This 3 RM that I have identified in each lift is my opener. From there I add 5% of my estimated max per attempt (Ex. For a 600 pound squat max I would add 30 pounds to my opening weight for my 2nd attempt and then 30 more pounds to that for my final attempt). I allow for minor adjustments in my final attempt number based upon feel, however, once the opener and second attempt have been determined I do not permit myself to adjust those during the meet.
With these thoughts about attempt selection in mind, I recommend that you experiment for yourself and find what works best for you individually.