“Powerlifting Training Principles Explained”
By Jack Reape
This is an article by Jack Reape which gives a thorough and insightful explanation of Training Theory and its application in the sport.
This article is focused on how to build training cycles in general, and powerlifting cycles in particular. It also presents many techniques for the general fitness trainer to apply, building on basic planning concepts that should lead any athlete to more efficient and productive workouts. Training is as much art as science1, and so there is a great deal of room for subjective analysis of everything an athlete perceives and performs. Almost any training philosophy can be seen to be foolish or ingenious by two different people.
If we want to take a methodical approach we must start in a place where training science was taken seriously, and that leads us to the old Eastern Bloc Nations. Most Western training research is done on untrained subjects and is useless unless you are trying to sell some new useless supplement or training program.
Most Eastern Bloc research was done on athletes training in very controlled environments and with access to supplementation and support most of us can never even dream about. Yet those same Eastern Bloc athletes cycled everything and logged every lift. They never just went in and went by "feel". They never did 4 weeks of 8s, 4 weeks of 5s, and 4 weeks of doubles. While there are some very obvious exceptions to this idea, doing more than 6 reps on any of the powerlifts is a waste of training effort. You gain nothing you will be able to use at a meet 6-8 weeks later from sets of 8 or higher reps! 5x5 with a higher weight is much more useful than 3 sets of 8 with a lower weight!
No matter what training philosophy you follow, you must have a plan that includes some down cycles and waves of volume and intensity. We cannot instinctively control our peaks, but by controlling our lows via planned rest/back-off weeks, we enable and can control our peaks most optimally2.You must be ready adjust and deviate from your plan if something is amiss. There is no 100% foolproof method to guarantee a PR, but by condensing and explaining a great deal of performance science, this article will maximize your probability of a PR on the day you need it.
Basic Training Theory At any given time, an athlete has a definite level of strength, General Physical Preparedness (GPP, meaning work capacity), Sporting Form (technique), and Recovery Ability (RA, sometimes called Adaptation Reserves)3. When performing a workout or series of workouts, an athlete causes a response from the body, in the form of adaptation, to each training stimulus4. To oversimplify, a workout or series of workouts makes you stronger until your recovery ability is exceeded. If we were like Milo, we could go in every training day and just lift a little heavier and get bigger and stronger and richer and funnier and more attractive to the opposite sex (no offense meant to alternative lifestyle readers!) and that would be that.
Unfortunately, it does not work that way. We simply run out of Recovery Ability eventually and have an inevitable drop in strength, GPP, and Form, amongst other things. Since we cannot go forward constantly, we must pull back a bit and start over, much like a pebble in a slingshott4. In order to be propelled forward, we must be ready to be pulled back a bit. This is the first key idea to grasp and a cornerstone of how to build a successful cycle.
Definitions of Cycles and Cycling We absolutely cannot know with 100% confidence what our momentary level of strength, GPP, Form, and RA is at any one time. Even with an army of scientists, cutting edge instruments, and minimal outside distractions, we just cannot make the correct training adjustments to maximize our training day to day instinctively on our own when our training is not planned out. The Eastern Bloc athletes of the past had all these things and they still relied on planned training cycles. Breaking up your cycles into arbitrary blocs is clearly an application of Communist theory.5 However wrong these political ideas of Communism were and are, they in fact work fairly well in planning our cycles. Accordingly we will break up our training plan into three rough divisions, Macrocycles, Mesocycles, and Microcycles:
- Macrocycles generally are the training plans for a full year, but can be a little longer or shorter. All the competitions you have on your mental radar screen should be in this plan.
- Microcycles are 4-6 weeks blocks of training. Multiple mesocycles make up a Macrocycle.
- Minicycles are essentially 1-2 week blocks of training that make up a Mesocycle.
The second key idea of this article is the mesocycle must be limited to 4-6 weeks in length,6 with eight weeks as an absolute maximum.7 If we plan on a cycle using concentrated loading (volume and intensity that never allows our RA to catch up over the mesocycle8) three weeks of hard training must be followed by a back-off week in week four of the mesocycle, setting us up for the next mesocycle.
In practice, these three weeks of going hard followed by a back-off week is the safest and most predictable, as very few people can subjectively or objectively tell if they are getting behind the recovery curve.9 Some research has shown that in a three-workout cycle, the body is at maximum adaptation after the first workout, and adaptation lessens a great deal between workout two and three. When I read this I did not consider this very important until I reviewed my training logs and saw an almost 100% correlation to this theory in my own workouts. If I go up 30 pounds from workout 1 to 2, for example, almost without fail I can only count on half the improvement, 15lbs, from workout 2 to 3. Fourth workouts almost always were drop offs!
Some of these peaks and valleys are due to neural efficiency, but why waste a workout failing when you can back off and start back up again? We may or may not be able to adapt as we push our training beyond three weeks, but we know for sure if we back off we will be able to start moving forward again after the back-off. It is indicated in some Eastern research that after multiple concentrated loading mesocycles it can take more than one back-off week to recover, an idea we will revisit later on.10 If we use distributed loading (lesser loads that allow us to recover completely week-to-week inside the mesocycle11) we can sometimes extend our consecutive weeks of hard training to up to five weeks, but by the sixth week we again need to back off for a week.
It is very hard and takes great discipline to hold back volume and intensity enough so you are fully recovering for five consecutive weeks! The easiest way to do a back-off week is to just drop your volume to 30-50% of your highest week, and reduce to about 60-80% of the intensity performed in your heaviest week.12 Add in some active rest days made up of hiking, swimming, volleyball, or biking.13 The goal is to move some blood around and mentally refresh yourself, and not challenge yourself in a new sport or incur injury. You are not Tiger Woods!
Intensity and Volume There are two variable stimuli that make up our training Load and make us stronger with higher GPP: Intensity and Volume.
Intensity is simply the percent of our 1 Rep Max (1RM) we are using in an exercise or more precisely all the exercises we do in that cycle. Intensity variations have a stronger effect on the athlete than volume. Intensity is the most important variable in training cycles!14
Volume can be expressed either in Number of barbell Lifts (NBL) or pounds lifted (reps times sets times weight used). Volume is not quite as important as intensity but is critical over the entire macrocycle to build explosive strength and to strengthen and enhance the ligaments.15 Western Periodization schemes generally have an athlete dropping from multiple sets of 8 to a couple sets of 2, and accepted "Bodybuilding" protocols have the athlete going from heavy sets of 5-10 reps to endless sets of higher reps and lighter weights. Without good drugs and/or great genetics this will stop working very quickly, and it will probably stop working eventually no matter what you do. Quite simply, Volume must not drop more than 15-30% over the series of mesocycles, and must not linearly increase along the series of mesocycles.16 Intensity must increase over the mesocycles.
The third key idea of this article is that within a three-to-five week training block we do not need to maintain or linearly increase the volume and intensity!17 "Waves" are better! For example, lets consider a four-week mesocycle. We will rate relative intensity and volume on a scale of 1-4 over the four weeks, 1 being the easiest week and 4 being the hardest. Right from the beginning we will plan on week 4 being the back-off week, so initially our scheme will look like this:
Let's ramp up the Intensity linearly in this cycle, so we now have:
We do not think we can ramp up the intensity without giving up some volume, so let's wave the volume a bit:
So what we have planned is a first week where we may hit an average intensity of 70% and a NBL of 100. During week 2 we have the highest volume week planned and the second highest intensity. So we may plan to do 170 NBL at 80%. Week 3 is highest intensity but less volume than week 3, but more than week 1. So we may do 150 NBL at 88% intensity week 3. The back-off week we can do 50-70 lifts (50% of the lowest week to 50% of the highest week) at an Intensity of 56-65% (range of .8 X the lowest week to .8 X the highest week).
These numbers are mainly used for example and you will have to access a training program (PTP, Sheiko, Westside, Korte, etc) to build your specific workout. You must also decide whether to keep all 3 Powerlifts on the same waves, and whether to count your accessory work in the volume. I prefer to count every lift that mimics the three Powerlifts in full or partial range of motion, along with any good mornings I do that week. So for example I would count board presses but not straight bar extensions.
You can count what you want or what works for you. It is your workout! I have found a hard/easy rotation week to week on lat work, abs, and triceps assistance to be helpful. You will also have to keep good records of your training to find the cycles that work best for you. I prefer to use the volume/intensity cycle of 2431/2341 presented above, but Sheiko, for example, lays out intensity waves of 1432 for all three lifts, with volume waves of 4231 for the bench press and the deadlift and 1342 for the squat. Standard Westside five-week box-squatting cycles are Volume 55443 and Intensity 12345. Westside Circa max are Volume 22233 and Intensity 34512, the last two weeks being taper weeks. I would call
standard Westside cycles distributed loading and Circa Max concentrated loading. You must pursue some of this on your own but most importantly experiment and keep records on what works best for you, than apply it to your future cycles!
Dealing with Setbacks. Let's say you get injured, a family member is sick, or a real life problem disrupts your workout plan. Just as an extra day's rest can make a huge difference in your workouts, a week off can solve the problem even better. Take a day or week off, and adjust the rest of the mesocycle. Never train through a planned back-off week to catch up. You must keep yourself on track to peak at the end of the cycle on meet day, so adjust within the mesocycle you are in, and stay with your bigger plan. Believe it or not, very few workouts are absolutely critical by themselves. Maintain perspective!
Tapering During our taper weeks we are really concerned with letting our bodies supercompensate.18 Supercompensation is the body recovering to new highs in GPP, speed strength, and absolute strength as we rest and recuperate. This is a great time to work on speed strength that may have been lost due to heavy training loads.19 The length of the taper can be as long as the concentrated loading cycle, up to three weeks depending on the individual.20 Generally, the larger and more accomplished a lifter, the longer the taper required.
A longer taper is also necessary if we have completed several concentrated loading cycles. Since 3-4 weeks of concentrated loading is the norm before the back-off week, 1-2 weeks of taper is normally sufficient after 2-3 mesocycles of loading, but 3-4 weeks may be required. The first taper week you will train your normal schedule but volume and intensity are dropped a great deal. The second week we can use the "three day cycle"21 before a Saturday meet. The workout Monday should consist of squats and benches. Deadlifts should be completed two weeks out. Take Tuesday and Wednesday off completely. Thursday do your meet warmup and your first two ramp-up sets you would do without any gear. Take a sauna or whirlpool.22 Mentally plan your meet attempts, what you will eat and your strategy. Friday, mentally review everything and do a walk-through of your warmup and ramp up sets. Doing it in the meet facility is best. Recall my discussion of the body being at maximum adaptation between workout 1 and 2. Adaptation is less than half between workout 2 and 3. Just like I have used the 3 week up, 1 week back model to build mesocycles, I like to use the 3 steps up model to peak at the end of the second taper week.
Plan your lifts then lift your plan. If you have ever followed such a schedule you can literally feel your body getting stronger hour by hour by the second week, and your body is tingling it wants to compete so badly. You will feel like a coiled spring and very mentally and physically confident. The last key idea of this article is you want to be fully recovered when you lift in a competition.
Putting it Together Let's consider how to build a cycle for a meet 13 weeks away. You do not have any conflicts with holidays, family or work schedule, you have been getting to the gym regularly, and you are not injured and you have fairly good technique. (Life is very easy in theory!) We can put together three 4-week concentrated loading mesocycles and add an extra week of taper before the meet. The week of taper is a good idea as after multiple concentrated loading cycles we need at least 7-10 days to recover. In addition, we get a strong delayed training effect as our body supercompensates during a taper, which permits tremendous, meet performance--the pebble really flies out of this slingshot! We can put together two 6-week distributed mesocycles and add either a notional back off week at the beginning of the cycle or add an extra taper week at the end, or just save that back-off week to interject into a 6 week mesocycle when work, family, or injury pops up. These distributed loading mesocycles might look like this for example:
Essentially two 3-week microcycles put together, but with less volume than if we were using concentrated loading.
You must determine your sticking points or weaknesses, and find assistance exercises that target these areas and correct these weaknesses. For example, you and I may have the same problem, say deadlift lockout. I may need to do some heavy partial lockouts, where you may need to strengthen your hips or hamstrings via dumbbell swings or pull-throughs to address your problem. Only by keeping good records will you discover what improves your performance. You must also be ready to adapt when your sticking point changes and a new area or muscle must be targeted.
If we decide to choose the 3 mesocycles of 4 weeks duration with an extra taper week, we now will further refine the mesocycles. If we were planning on this meet as a precursor to some larger meets, we would need to consider this as we planned an entire macrocycle. For this set of mesocycles, we will consider the first two mesocycles prepatory in nature, and the third a competition cycle. The first mesocycle will be 3 weeks forward and a backoff week. We will address some technique issues and address some deadlift lockout problems and work on our arch in the bench press. We will use Sheiko's Intensity of 1423 and Volume of 4231. It is best to address form issues before we step up the Volume and Intensity, as heavy training load actually tend to hurt technique and speed strength.23 The second Mesocycle will be higher in volume than the first and somewhat higher in intensity, Volume 2431 and Intensity 2341. The competition mesocyle will look different as we have two taper weeks after we ramp up the Intensity and drop volume 15-30%. So it would look like this: Volume 35421 and Intensity 34521. The rise in Intensity and Drop in Volume is enhanced by attempting a very few 90%+ intensity lifts in competition gear for a single repetition in the last mesocycle before the tapering weeks. Meet technique and strength is greatly enhanced by this specific training technique.24 Let us look at the 3 mesocycles in the same format as we looked at the week minicycles:
Intensity 123 (Note: The Intensity of cycles 1 and 2 is very similar.)
Let's review the key points of the article:
- We must back off a bit in our training cycles to progress forward, and this allows us to control our peaks by first resting.
- Mesocycles must not exceed 4-6 weeks before we back off.
- We do not need to maintain or linearly increase the volume or intensity within our cycles week to week.
- It is better to be undertrained than overtrained when the meet arrives, but it is best to be in Supercompensation!
Conclusion As we get bigger and stronger and more successful at Powerlifting, we increase our Strength, GPP, and Recovery Ability. I have no idea which of these things is the Cart and which is the Horse. I do know to rise to higher levels of the sport we must plan our mesocycles and our macrocycles to gradually handle higher Intensity and Volume as we progress year to year, the volume only dropping as we get very close to the top of the sport.25 Maybe if Milo had a lot of Cows to choose from to lift, and once a month he would only lift the calves for a week, we might be able to believe his story and use it better in our training!