My Powerlifting Philosophy
I’ve posted before about my philosophy relating to strength and conditioning in general (find that post here), however my training philosophy towards my main sport (that I personally compete in) is slightly different and has a little more depth. It still contains my standard ‘ICES’ principles of:
I – Intensity
C – Consistency
E – Efficiency
S – Simplicity
Programmes should be individualised
I compete as a raw (unequipped) lifter in drug-free federations in the UK, and previously in the USA. The vast majority of programmes available on the internet are written by, or aimed at, geared/equipped lifters (i.e. those who compete using bench shirts, squat/deadlift suit, and knee wraps [note: not knee sleeves]).
Additionally a lot of lifters use performance enhancing drugs (i.e. testosterone/steroids) and can therefore recover quicker and experience faster gains in lean mass and strength than your average ‘clean/natural’ lifter – obviously this affects the frequency and volume associated with the programme.
Because of this I’ve found most ‘cookie cutter’ or popular powerlifting-specific programmes to be ineffective for me as a lifter. A few have caused me to feel burnt out, and provoked tendinopathies/other over-use type injuries. Most have yielded sub-optimal results (when compared to individualised programmes I’ve written for myself) – although it’s important to bear in mind that almost any programme done consistently will get results of some kind albeit not always the most favourable ones.
I’ve had decent results with less ‘powerlifting-specific’ programmes like ‘5,3,1’, starting strength, and 5×5, but I’ve never felt fully in-control when following someone else’s programme. After a number of years following these sorts of programmes (including programmes intended for equipped lifters) I’ve started to understand what works for me – such as exercises I find effective, how long it takes me to recover from sessions/certain exercises, volume vs intensity prescription, and so on.
Train a competition lift every session
‘Practice how you play‘ – every training session I do will incorporate one of the three competition lifts (squat/bench/deadlift) in the same stance/style/set up that I’d use in competition. Each lift is a skill and therefore it’s important to develop and train these skills.
I will typically structure sessions in the following way:
- Warm up (self-myofascial release, mobility, activation, low load lifting complex, warm up sets)
- Main lift – competition style
- Assistance exercise/s for main lift (1 or 2 usually) – should have some dynamic correspondence to the main lift (see table 1 below)
- Accessory exercises for region/musculature associated with main lift (1 or 2 usually) – develop weaker areas, promote hypertrophy, increase blood flow
- Trunk/core/abs (whatever you want to call it) (1 exercise usually)
|Dynamic Correspondence Table|
|Dynamic correspondence quality||Definition of quality|
|Amplitude and direction of movement||Related to the direction and range of movement of a particular segment in the given skill.|
|Accentuated region of force production||The range of movement (or joint angle) where maximal torque is developed.|
|The dynamics of effort||The intensity of the training modality should either match or exceed that found in the sporting movement.|
|Regime of muscular work||Determining the type, speed, and nature of movement e.g. cyclical, static, explosive etc.|
|The rate and time of force development||Particularly important in regards to highly dynamic, time constrained skills.Key kinetic qualities include rate of force development, impulse and power.|
Intensity is key
I’m intensity-driven in my programming, meaning that I’ll work with low repetitions and high(er) load (85%+ for main lift). If I’m in a higher volume phase, that volume will come from a greater number of sets.
I’m a big advocate of using supra-maximal lifts, particularly approaching competition. These generally include partials (1/4 squats, board presses, rack pulls), squat walk outs/stand ups, bench holds, tops, pin presses, and isometrics. I believe that, even if there’s no clear/proven physiological effect, there is a psychological benefit to shifting high loads and getting a ‘feel’ for the weight. It develops essential confidence underneath a heavy bar.
Bands and chains definitely have their place, although I think lifters need to earn the right to use them. Get strong first then add the toys into the mix.
Other training modalities
It’s not all just lifting heavy stuff. I still incorporate plyometrics at varying times throughout a training cycle. I use barbell complexes, prowler sprints, crawls, hill sprints, and modified strongman exercises as conditioning work. The better my conditioning/work capacity, the harder I can train and faster I can recover between sets/exercises/sessions.
Minimal Effective Dose
The minimal effective dose is the minimum amount of stimulus required to elicit a desired adaptive response. Being as efficient and economical in training sessions means shorter sessions, faster recovery, higher quality sessions, and less chance of injury/non-functional over-reaching.
‘You don’t need to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut‘
It’s essential to determine how much of a dose is required and how varied must that dose be. This will depend on the training age of the lifter – a beginner will need a much smaller dose than an advanced lifter. The dose response curve states that, if too much of a dose is given there will be no additional positive effect past the point of maximal effectiveness, if too little a dose is give there will be a sub-optimal adaptation/no adaptation.
In practical terms I believe intensity and effort are key, you’re not going to get an adaptive response without a suitably intense stimulus. I use a relatively small exercise selection (number of exercises) per session and keep things as simple as possible until the lifter needs more complexity/variability. This is reflected in my session design where I will include 4-6 exercises, 4-8 sets per exercise, <6 reps per set, and an average intensity of 85%1RM (particularly for the main lift).
It helps to keep Pareto’s Law in mind – 80% of your results will come from 20% of what you put in. Determine what that 20% is and then eliminate the rest. I often begin by imagining I’ve got just 10 minutes with the lifter/athlete and try to work out what my priorities would be in this time period – i.e. if the lifters squat was weak, is is really worth doing anything other than squatting. I then add on more time – what if I had 20 minutes, or 30, or an hour.
Functional over-reaching, the period of time before non-functional over-reaching and over-training, is a beneficial aspect to any programme. It is an effective stimulus for more experienced lifters to ‘kick start’ strength adaptations, particularly after a plateau (see this research article). Programming over-reach weeks at appropriate times (i.e. not right before competition) is highly beneficial provided adequate recovery is provided afterwards and that training variables are altered intelligently.
Developing physical literacy is important, therefore I use a relatively wide selection of exercises for the assistance and accessory parts of the training session. However I maintain a narrow ‘menu’ of exercises for the main lift.
I strongly believe in not missing (bailing/failing) lifts in training sessions. I think that this eventually has psychological effect on the lifter and could potentially lead to choking, freezing and missing repetitions/lifts in a competitive environment and thus loss of the competition. Build confidence and learn not to be scared of the weight. Ideally I like lifters to go 9/9 in competitions/mock competitions, especially those who aren’t yet ‘competitive’, however if they miss their 3rd attempts in these situations then I feel that is acceptable – I will require an explanation of why they failed i.e. was it a technical error, did you over-estimate your 1RM, how has the build up to the competition been, what do you think your level of arousal was like, etc. etc.
Speed work/dynamic effort
Despite the popularity of speed work/dynamic effort work in a number of programmes and training systems, I’m not a big believer in this having tried it for an extended period of time and experienced very little benefit.
Although I’m sure it has worked for some lifters, I think speed work is ineffective because:
- It probably doesn’t improve your movement pattern in the competition lifts – your lifting technique changes (sometimes subtly, someones very visibly) under varying loads. So performing extra volume at 50/60/70% 1RM won’t necessary stimulate improvements at 85%1RM+.
- Force output during speed work is poor – you will never produce as much force by ‘trying’ to accelerate a light load than you would by actually lifting a heavy/maximal load that REQUIRES high force output. Granted the intent to accelerate a light load produces more force than not trying to accelerate it.
- The rationale of improving rate of force development to prevent failure due to metabolic fatigue (depletion of ATP-CP stores) is faulty – ATP-CP stores will last for around 10 seconds at maximal intensity, it’s unlikely you’ll grind out a lift for more than 10 seconds
Benefits do exist for speed work, it may be useful due to increased training frequency (promote hypertrophy and some degree of technical improvement), may be useful for untrained, lesser trained, or chronically beat up lifters (less stress), and it may be easier to recover from than maximal effort sessions. However the repetition method will also carry these benefits.
For me the clearest benefit is that it can ‘trick’ lifters into a deload/light session, particularly if they constantly train with extreme volume/loads therefore allowing recovery.
I do incorporate speed work into my warm up sets – although realistically no matter what the load there should always be an intent to accelerate maximally.
Mastery based attitude
I believe in lifters developing a mastery based attitude/mind set. By this I mean that I want them to strive for technique expertise and develop themselves as lifters. They need to realise that when going to competitions, particularly as a new lifter, the aim should be to set a new PR on the platform, not to try and beat everyone. Comparing yourself to more experienced lifters will result in disappointment or a lack of desire to ever compete (there’s always going to someone stronger than you).
I believe in promoting high (optimal) levels of arousal in competition or selected training sessions. I don’t think that trying to hit competition levels of arousal in training is effective (i.e. using loud music, pre-workout/caffeine supplementation, ammonia inhalants, slapping yourself, high expectations of performance, desire for an audience etc.) as excessive frequency of this will fatigue your CNS, have a psychological impact (feel the need to always achieve this state of mind – it’s almost addictive), and impair motor control.
High arousal in competition is useful as it can allow your to lift more (research has shown a 10% increase in load lifted in competition for weightlifters compared to in training, and other researchers has demonstrated that it can enhance force production in the bench press).
I encourage highest levels of arousal on the final lifts. Warm ups and other attempts are planned (loads) so that there are minimal other mental processes required. Along with the above (caffeine, ammonia, music) I believe in imagery/mental rehearsal of successful lifts to further boost arousal and confidence.
Auto-regulation of training
The principle of auto-regulation features in all my sessions. I still base my programming off of percentages as a guideline, however I allow myself to deviate from these if I feel drained/beat up or a lack of drive. Generally I’ll decrease the intensity (%1RM by 5-10%) and try to maintain the same volume prescription.
I like having this freedom as percentage based training assumes that a lifters 1RM is the same from session to session, which doesn’t account for all the confounding recovery variables of sleep, nutrition, optimal periodisation, and psychological stress. Going into a session with the knowledge that I CAN adapt the session if needed prevents me from placing unrealistic expectations upon myself – I’m still getting a training adaptation, and if I can’t squat 200kg/440lbs as a 5RM today, but 180kg/396lb feels like my 5RM…well it’s still my 5RM for that day and will give me a stimulus.