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Weight Class 101

Getting ready to compete can be an overwhelming experience. You finally work up the courage to do it, pull up the registration page… and then stare blankly at all the categories you have to select from: weight class, division, experience level, equipment. What does all this stuff mean?

Don’t worry – we are here to help!

What even is a weight class?

In strength-based sports, it’s common to see competitors separated into various weight classes and divisions. These separations are meant to “level the playing field” so to speak; so people of a similar size, age, and gender are compared in a more “apples to apples” way. For example, it means that a 140lb woman isn’t competing against a 275lb man. Divisions are typically based on age and gender. Weight classes are based on bodyweight on the day of competition.

Age Divisions

With regard to age, you’re most likely to see the following:

  • Teen: usually anyone under 18 years of age. Some sports have “juniors” which stretches into the early 20s. And most sports and federations have minimum ages as well. 
  • Masters: usually anyone over 40 years of age. The exact age varies by sport, federation, and competition. For example, you might see only one Masters category at a local competition, but at the national/international level it’s usually separated by multiple bands (like 40-49, 50-59, and 60+) and/or by weight as well as age.
  • Open: everyone that doesn’t fall into one of the above categories

It’s worth noting that anyone can compete in an Open category, but age categories are restricted to that age bracket only. For example, a 45-year-old lifter can compete in Open or Masters, but a 30-year-old lifter can only compete in Open.

In some sports – like powerlifting – you can compete across divisions in the same competition. For example, a 50-year-old woman who’s super strong might want to compete simultaneously in Open and in Masters to either set records in those classes or qualify for Nationals/Worlds. Doing this does not require any additional lifts, but it does usually require an additional entry fee. However, this stuff is pretty advanced, so if you’re just starting out I wouldn’t waste the money on it. Just compete in the available division that is most accurate for your current age and weight. (Note that in strongman you cannot compete across divisions at the same event.)

Gender Divisions

In terms of gender, most strength sports are separated into male and female divisions. These divisions typically have different weight classes associated with them (women’s classes are usually lighter than men’s). Some federations/sports have instituted policies incorporating transgender and non-binary athletes. This has been done with widely varying levels of care, data, and success (and is a post for another time).

Weight Classes

Weight classes are based on the athlete’s bodyweight the day of competition. Some sports/federations (like strongman) allow weigh-ins up to 24 hours before the competition starts. Some sports (like weightlifting and some powerlifting federations) are restricted to 2 hours before the competition starts.

Weight classes vary by sport and federation. Also, some are in pounds (lbs) and some are in kilograms (kg). For simplicity, we’ll talk only about Strongman Corporation classes, which are in pounds and contested as follows:

  • Women: u125, u140, u165, u180, open
  • Men: u175, u200, u231, u265, open

The “u” means “under.” So at weigh-ins, the athlete will need to step on a scale and weigh under the weight of their division. For example, a u231 man will need to weigh in at 231.8lbs or less at the time of weigh-ins. (This accounts for 0.4lbs of rounding, and 0.4lbs of underwear because you’re not allowed to weigh in naked.)

In strongman, weight classes are still often referred to as “lightweight” (LW), “middleweight” (MW), “heavyweight” (HW), or “super heavyweight” (SHW). This is often accompanied by a number. For example, “MW200” is the same as men’s u200. This is simply a different way of noting the weight class and is a carryover term from how classes used to be identified.

Novice vs. Open

This one seems pretty straightforward, but we get a ton of questions about Novice vs Open classes.

Novice is obviously for beginners. But who is a “beginner”? First-time competitors are always welcome to compete in Novice. People who have competed a few times but not placed (1st-3rd) are also welcome to compete in Novice. Or if you look at the Open weights and literally can’t do them, you can stay in Novice.

The only time you are expressly definitely not allowed to compete in Novice is if you won a Novice division (with more than just 2 people in it), and you can actively compete at the weights listed in Open.

In strongman, use your best judgment. Look at the weights for each division, and think about the experience you want to get from competing. If you can already lift all the Novice weights and it won’t be very hard, or if it seems like you’re going to blow people away, maybe don’t do Novice. But if the Novice weights will still be pretty challenging for you, then stick with Novice! If you look at the Open weights and they look doable – not necessarily right now today, but at competition time – go for it! It is okay to zero an event! It happens, and that shouldn’t prevent you from signing up for Open. But if you’re going to zero 2 or more events, maybe Novice is a better fit for you.

Some people do one Novice competition to get their feet wet, and then move up to Open. Some people skip right to Open and don’t do Novice at all. And some people stay in Novice forever. (A great example of this is a smaller Masters athlete who can’t keep up with the Open weights but still wants to compete. Masters classes are not always offered, but Novice is offered at 95% of competitions, so that’s often a better fit.)

This is ultimately a judgment call on your part. Personally, I prefer to be challenged and have something to work toward, even if it means coming in last. So if I think I can get myself to competition weights in a challenging class or competition, I’ll go for it!

Thoughts On Cutting Weight

This is another question we get a lot, and it can be a tricky one. If you’re not familiar with the concept of a “weight cut,” basically it means specifically losing weight (either temporarily or “permanently”) to drop from one weight class to another. This is because you can (theoretically) be more competitive at a lighter weight. In strongman, it also means the weights are lighter.

The goal in cutting weight is to maintain strength but compete against smaller people, and – in the case of strongman – potentially use lighter weights in competition. This is extremely common in high-level competitive sports, and it certainly bleeds into powerlifting and strongman.

Though it’s effective when done properly, cutting weight is also super risky! It’s not good for overall health and wellness, it’s incredibly difficult to maintain strength or build strength in a calorie deficit, and cutting water weight in the days leading up to competition can be super dangerous. It also doesn’t contribute in a physically or mentally healthy way to your relationship with exercise, food, and the gym.

So for those reasons, we definitely do NOT recommend cutting weight at minimum for your first  competition, but ideally not at all. When you’re starting out, focus on getting stronger, building good habits, learning technique, and learning how to compete. The added physical and emotional stress of a weight cut will not serve you.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. For example, if a male athlete wants to lift in the u200 class and weighs 205-210lbs a couple months out, that is an amount of weight that can be managed safely and probably without detriment to training or health. And – even in this circumstance – we still do not recommend it for anyone competing in the Novice class.

What Weight Class and Division Should You Choose?

Here’s the best way to decide:

  • Age Division: select the one that matches your age on competition day if available
  • Gender Division: select the division that most closely aligns with your gender (note that this is not always possible in a binary competitive structure and is dependent on the rules of the individual federation)
  • Novice/Open: If it’s your first competition, you’ve never placed in a Novice division, or you literally can’t lift the Open weights, sign up for Novice. If you placed 1st in a Novice division with 3 or more people or you are capable of lifting the weights in the Open division, sign up for Open. When in doubt ask your coach or contact the promoter for guidance.
  • Weight Class: Choose the weight that you can comfortably be under on competition day (strict emphasis on comfortably). As a general rule, don’t cut weight as a Novice. It’s never worth it. And if you need help, ask your coach or contact the promoter for guidance.

I know it seems like a lot! But once you settle into your sport, it’ll make more sense. And you can always reach out to the team at Power Plant for help or advice! If you want to chat with a coach – for free! – just click this link, click the “free intro” button on this page, or shoot an email with “weight class help” in the subject line to [email protected].

Remember the most important thing is to be safe and have fun! Now go do the damn thing.

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