Being a Referee is Hard!

Yesterday I had the pleasure of refereeing a casual local meet called the GetStrength In-House (bit funny – it’s actually no longer a purely in-house meet, its just called that), and afterwards I realised that it was an aspect of the sport that many people never see. Most of the (especially highly ranked referees) are old men who no longer compete, and sometimes it can look like they’re being a bit cruel of unusual with their interpretations of the rules. I thought it might be beneficial if I wrote up a bit of a meet report from the point of view of a referee.


I didn’t have to do weigh-ins yesterday, but I’ve done it before. I’ve only ever run weigh-ins for novice meets, so a lot of the athletes I deal with here have never competed before; they might not know the rules, might not know what’s expected in the weigh-in, and might not have their openers ready to go. My experience has always been trying to guide these inexperienced lifters with no coaches to making good decisions as far as their openers, knowing about pausing their bench, depth on squats and so on. I never want to give out red lights!  I’m sure this is easier for higher level meets, when everyone knows what to expect. Apparently some pretty weird things can happen during weigh-ins (one of New Zealand’s National referees once told me that at Nationals a few years back she was doing the women’s weigh-ins for a particular weight class, and someone flounced into the room, stripped down to their birthday suit and then stood on their head in the corner until the referee had caught up with the required paperwork. I’ve since learned that this was apparently an old bodybuilding method of loosing weight), but I’ve mostly just seen a lot of either excited, nervous people in their underwear.


This is the hardest thing to referee, I think. The rules are pretty explicit about what makes a squat. I’ve put the important points here (emphasis my own.)

The lifter shall face the front of the platform. The bar shall be held horizontally across the shoulders, hands and fingers gripping the bar. The hands may be positioned anywhere on the bar inside and or in contact with the inner collars. …when the lifter is motionless, erect (slight deviation is allowable) with knees locked the Chief Referee will give the signal to begin the lift. Upon receiving the Chief Referee’s signal the lifter must bend the knees and lower the body until the top surface of the legs at the hip joint is lower than the top of the knees. Only one decent attempt is allowed. The lifter must recover at will to an upright position with the knees locked. Double bouncing at the bottom of the squat attempt or any downward movement is not permitted. When the lifter is motionless (in the apparent final position) the Chief Referee will give the signal to rack the bar.

The parts I’ve bolded I am going to address more closely. Firstly, the hotly contended depth. I cannot count the times I have heard people say referees are being strict on depth, or that they always squat to depth in training so why can’t they hit it today.


These diagrams are taken from the USAPL (American IPF affiliate) website, explaining squat depth. Diagrams A and B represent what would technically be “perfect depth” – the hip crease is perfectly in line with the top surface of the knee. If the red line illustrating that weren’t in place, there could be some arguments as to if that were proper depth of not. In real life, referees have to decide if that is depth in the space of about a second, with no replays, no discussion, and no superimposed red lines. Not that its an excuse, but referees are also human. At big meets, this could very well be the 300th squat they’ve seen in two days, and mistakes happen. Add in factors like lighting, people having really thick thighs or fat rolls hiding their hip crease, loose knee sleeves… Diagrams C and D show a “deep” squat, however given the reasons mentioned above, this would be more convincing to a tired and under-caffeinated referee. There are some context dependent decisions here too. In novice competitions I tend to give the benefit of the doubt – if I am borderline as to if it were high or not, I tend to give it. If I were supervising a record attempt, you’re going to need to make it convincing.

The other point I highlighted was the start/end position. “Slight deviation is allowed.” What does that mean? I’ve heard 15 degrees floating around before, but as you can see the rules leave it quite open to interpretation. What I look for is that your start and end position are the same. If you end with your hips more locked than you started, or vice-versa, then you probably weren’t locked to begin with (or aren’t locked now). There is also mention of knees needing to be locked, this tends not be as big of a deal, but if you have really big quads or if your knee sleeves are quite loose that can be hard to tell as well.

Recommendations – make convincing depth in training, make convincing depth in competition. Sell your starting position and lockout with hard hip extensions.

Bench Press

Bench is a little easier. The things I tend to look for are butt coming off the bench and feet staying flat on the floor.

Ass coming off the bench is something I’ve seen a lot of lifters be red-lighted for (though none yesterday, which was nice 🙂 )I don’t have any real recommendations on how to sell your ass staying down, just practice it! If you’re in a novice comp an are wearing shorts instead of a soft suit it can be hard for the referees to tell, but don’t sell yourself short. When you get into a soft suit,it’s much easier to tell.

Feet staying flat is another one of those ones where there is a lot of subjectivity. A lot of people lift in chucks for example, which don’t have very flat soles anyway, so what’s the lifter moving their foot and what’s just the shoe sucking for bench press? In borderline cases I tend to look for changes in foot position – if there’s a small gap along the edge I’ll give it to you, but if that gap gets larger or smaller through the movement then your foot was off the floor at some point in the movement. I did have two people come and explain to me that the soles of their shows were bent yesterday and showed me the shoe. Having seen the shoe up close I can see what is the shoe sucking, but from 4 metres away, I don’t know that.

The other thing that came up was “soft” arms at the start of the movement. Your elbows must be locked or you simply won’t be given a start command.

The other thing that you might like to know is that the time for your pause is going to simply be as long as it takes for you to prove you have the bar under control. If the bar is wobbling around, or if you dive-bombed it into your chest, you’re going to have a longer wait before your press command. A controlled descent where the bar is held stable and level will get an almost instant press command.


Deadlifts tend to be the easiest to referee, but there are still some points worth mentioning.

You’re only allowed one attempt at a pull. People who yank on the bar while they’re setting up can sometimes be red lighted as the yank could be thought of as a pull. A good rule of thumb is that if the bar comes off the ground it is considered your attempt, but I tend to only count it as an attempt if you’re in a good-ish position to pull. Because there is a little subjectivity there, its better if you just don’t do it!

Lockout – you must stand erect with your shoulders back. If your shoulders are rolled inwards, that isn’t a lock out and you won’t get the lift. I really recommend that you sell your lockout. Drive your hips in, pull your shoulders back. There’s nothing worse than failing a lift because you didn’t sell the finishing position, and as a referee its quite hard to red light someone for a lift they completed, just because they didn’t draw their shoulders back.

I red lighted some really good lifts yesterday in the deadlifts for things like hitching and weak/absent lockouts. It’s hard to give some a red light when you know the lifter is going to bomb if you do, or that you’re going to ruin their day, especially when they’re a friend. Fortunately, this wasn’t a qualifying event, and one of the lifters I red lighted actually thanked me for being honest and fair. It doesn’t make it any more fun, for either the ref or the lifter though.


It was hot, you don’t get to move around much. You need to concentrate pretty hard for most of the day, and if you mess up then it can ruin someones day (or for qualifying events it can ruin much more than just their day.) Don’t get me wrong, I like refereeing. I like being able to give back to the sport, and I love having front row seats for every lift, but just bear in mind the next time you’re getting annoyed with a ref that they’re human, and in very human circumstances too. (Side note that fits here: one red light could be human error. Two likely means you fucked up.)

Wrapping Up

So that’s pretty much what I’m looking for, lift by lift. The only other point that I’d like to mention is that even in a small meet, we see a lot of lifts (20 lifters x 3 lifts x 3 attempts = 180 lifts.) They all start to blur together after not very long, so if you want to talk specifically about why you were red lighted, you need to ask right away. That’s fine, and referees rarely mind, but if you ask 20 minutes later I probably won’t even remember what light I gave you, let alone why. If you can bring a video 20 minutes later that helps, but if its not from the same angle as I was on, then I can’t see the same things and it might not help much.

So, there’s my unusual meet report for the weekend – from the referees perspective! Hope you enjoyed and maybe even learnt something. Good luck for all your training!

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