The Education of a Powerlifter, Part II
Miss Part I of Tate's tale? Check it out here.
It had been four months since Jonathan's first visit to Tom's gym. He was beginning to become part of the crew and was eager to get on the same program as the rest of the guys. His body was now much bigger and stronger than the first day he'd walked into the garage. He knew he was ready for the intense training he'd been watching over the past several months.
Over breakfast one Saturday, Tom reviewed how the program worked.
"How are we going to get you strong, kid?" Tom asked.
"I guess by following the program you're going to give me, right?" Jonathan said.
Tom explained that a set program isn't a bad thing, but to reach the higher levels Jonathan would have to learn how to come up with his own program. The number one secret all top lifters know is that the best program for them is the one they come up with, not the program someone hands to them on a piece of paper.
"You see, to be the best you have to also be the best at figuring out what works for you. You have to be able to find and fix your weaknesses while always keeping your eyes on the higher goal," Tom explained.
"But how do I know what my weak points are?" Jonathan said.
Tom laughed as he dug into his mountain of food. "Your weak point right now is you don't know how to discover your weak points! So tell me, where would you like to be five years from now?"
Jonathan thought for a moment and replied that he'd like to have his Elite status in the sport of powerlifting.
"Okay," Tom said, "At what weight class? What will your specific lifts have to be? Let's set some long range goals."
They put together a plan that would have Jonathan lifting in the 275-pound weight class (he was currently 245) with an 800 pound squat, 500 pound bench press, and 700 pound deadlift. Jonathan felt great that he finally had goals to shoot for, but he knew he had a very long way to go. Now, how to get there.
Tom explained that there would be two days per week for max effort work and two days per week for dynamic effort training. The template would look like this:
"The max effort days are intended to make you stronger," Tom said, "while the dynamic effort days are designed to make you faster. Thats it, nothing fancy. Strength plus speed equals new personal records."
Jonathan was then handed a series of articles titled The Eight Keys and was told to read them for the details. All he needed to know would be there.
Jonathan showed up to the gym on Monday fired up about the "Eight Keys" article and wanted to start with the chains and bands. Tom turned to Jonathan and asked one very simple question:
"Can you compute the gravitational force exerted on a mass of two pounds located five feet above the center of a circular disk with a radius of ten feet and mass of three pounds per unit of area?"
Jonathan looked at him like he'd lost his mind. "What does this have to do with training?" he thought. Tom went on to explain that you cant understand calculus without first understanding basic math. The same is true with strength training. No need for chains and bands until you get the basics down first.
"But don't I have to use chains and bands to get strong?" Jonathon asked.
"No," Tom replied, "You have to get strong to use chains and bands! Chains and bands aren't the program; they're only a function of the program. You first must understand the program. The first thing for you is to build a strong base of strength to the point where you can get on a platform and display it."
"Okay," said Jonathon. "I get it."
"Good. Now let's talk about the methods that'll make up your program in basic terms you'll understand."
To explain the dynamic effort method, Tom asked Jonathan to jump onto a small box. Jonathan did this with no problem. Next, Tom asked that he repeat the jump again but this time he had to jump in slow motion. It didn't take Jonathan long to learn this was impossible to do.
"That's right," Tom said. "You gotta have speed to generate force. The good news is this is a component that can be trained. This is what the dynamic effort method is for."
They moved on to what Tom called the max effort method. He set up a 50-inch box and asked Jonathan to jump onto it. Jonathan looked confused.
"I need to be faster to get up there," Jonathan said.
"No, for you to get way up there you'll have to get stronger. We can make you very fast but as long as your strength stays the same you'll only improve your current strength level. Let me explain it this way: you may be strong enough to jump to 21 but now are only fast enough for 18 inches. Speed will help you get to 21 but to go higher your strength will have to increase. This is where the max effort method comes in. See, there's a need for both speed and strength to be developed at the same time."
Jonathans max effort work consisted of the following movements:
Jonathans dynamic squat wave was set up in three-week cycles. He also used a box squat set at parallel for all sets:
On all the days where he felt good and the speed was on, Jonathan did a few extra sets after the first eight sets and added weight on each one. These were never taken to failure, but were heavy enough to get a good feel for where his strength base was. After the three weeks the cycle was repeated.
Jonathans dynamic bench wave was set on a flat cycle using 50% for eight sets of three reps. On all the days where he felt good and the speed was on, Jonathan did a few extra sets, same rules as above.
After some time, Jonathan began to understand the importance of speed and strength but needed to know more. He had to know what to do after the main exercise of the day. He remembered Tom telling him about the weaknesses several of the lifters had and what they were doing with their accessory work to overcome them.
The problem was, he had no idea what his weaknesses were and had no way to find out how to fix them. All he knew was that he was still much weaker than everyone else, so he figured everything was weak and he needed to do everything . He was totally lost.
Later that day they were all doing low box squats with the cambered bar. Jonathan was fired up for this as it would be the first time he was doing a max effort movement for a second rotation. His max effort movement was set up to rotate every three weeks and would later come down to every week like the rest of the guys.
The objective of his first week was to get used to the movement for sets of three reps. The second weeks objective was to set a one rep max while the third was a "balls to the wall" strain lift. He accomplished a 275 max during his first rotation with the cambered bar and was geared up to break this record. His warm-ups went well as he completed three reps with the bar and then 95, 135, 185, and 225 pounds. He then dropped to singles and completed the following sets with 245, 265 and then a record at 285 pounds!
He was jacked up about this and was ready to quit for the day when he heard the loud slam of a 45 plate on the bar. He was called to the bar and noticed three 45's on each side. The crew shouted, "You're up!"
Jonathan felt the adrenaline running through his veins and rage beginning to build up inside. As he approached the bar he heard the battle cries from the crew: "Get this bitch!", "You got it!", "Get ya some!", "Kill this mother!", "Get tight!" and "Come on, J!"
He lifted the bar out of the rack and felt the load bearing down. As he sat to the box the rage kept building. He paused for one second and began to stand up. He left the box fast and at the mid-point began to stall. "Up, Up, Up!" and "Head up!" is all he heard. He pushed with all he had and the bar kept moving. He felt the pressure building in his head. His back, legs, and torso felt incredibly strained, but he pushed on.
When he racked the bar he opened his eyes to see silver lights floating around. He first thought it was chalk in the air but then realized it looked more like glitter. Then he realized he was seeing stars for the first time in his life. He turned to Tom with bloodshot eyes and a huge grin on his face and said simply, "Holy cow."
"Welcome to the world of powerlifting," Tom said. "Today you became 'J.' and Jonathan is a thing of the past. From now on leave Jonathan at home and bring J. to the gym every workout. He's the one who'll take you where you want to go." Jonathan was no longer a guy who "worked out." He was a lifter.
After the max, J. was pretty messed up the rest of the day and could only manage to do some glute ham raises and ab work. He asked how he was supposed to do all the other work for the day. Tom told him he was done and that he had to learn to listen to his body.
"So what are my weak points?" J. asked.
Tom explained to J. that weak point training was a very advanced concept and that he just needed to focus on bringing up the basics for now. For the squat and deadlift these included training for the hamstrings, lower back, and abs. The bench press movements should target the triceps, delts, and lats.
"This may seem very simple, but just do the basics and your lifts will jump," Tom said. As time went on, Tom would teach him that the best way to find weak points was to look at where the lifts break down during max effort lifts. With The Eight Keys Part III and the crew's help, he'd be able to bring up these weak points and his lifts would go through the roof.
J. kept training and breaking records with the crew for the next two years. With newfound motivation and determination, he went back to school to become a strength coach. He could no longer train with the crew as the university of his choice was hours away from home, but he kept training and entering local powerlifting meets for the next five years while he earned his degree.
J. was then offered an assistant strength and conditioning coach position and over the next six years worked his way up to being the head S & C coach. The methods he learned from the crew have been the core of his training programs and the results were amazing. J. would call Tom from time to time for the first few years after he left, but then lost touch with him and the crew.
Tom, now retired from competition, has moved the gym from his garage to a small private training center. His center has been producing great lifters for the past eleven years. Toms main goal with all his lifters was to help them achieve their elite status, hoping they'd pass on what they'd learned to the next generation of lifters.
His crew was now gearing up for the Nationals. Tom remembered the last time the Nationals were in his hometown twelve years ago. This was one of the best competitive days of his life, the day he'd set the federation world record for the 275 class.
The Nationals were a great meet for Toms crew and, with no lifters in the last round, he found himself relaxing in the back row watching the deadlifts. The first round of guys took their opening attempts and the final lifter's opener was 100 pounds over the next guy. He didn't know the lifter's name but the guy was "jacked" and had perfect form.
The loud speaker crackled, "The next attempt will be for a new 275 pound class world record!"
The crowd stood and Tom could feel the adrenaline building up inside him. Sure, his record was at risk, but this was what people train their entire lives for. Through the chalk and dust emerged the "jacked" lifter. He had a look of determination and a thousand yard stare that only another powerlifter could understand. As he chalked his hands and made his way top to bar, Tom could hear the lifter's helpers shouting words of encouragement: "Back tight!", "Tight grip!", "Shoulders back!", "Get some!", and "Come on, J.!"
That last one hit Tom like a ton of bricks. He was taken back twelve years ago where he first met Jonathan at this very meet. Tom looked very close at the lifter as he approached the bar and realized that this was the same kid he'd helped bring into the sport so many years back. Now, the "kid" was here and going after his record. Tom jumped up onto his chair so he didn't miss a thing.
J. grabbed the bar and began to pull. Veins began popping out all over his frame. The weight rocked off the floor and began to stall right above his knees. The crowd was going nuts and everyone was now on their chairs. J. kept pulling with everything he had. This was exactly what he got into the sport for.
The barbell kept moving inch by inch until he stood at lockout with the huge load in his hands. "Down!" the head judge shouted. J. held the bar for a few extra seconds to savor the moment. He'd finally realized one of his longtime dreams!
Tom had to make his way back to the warm-up room to congratulate J. for the awesome lift. As he approached, Tom noticed a young novice lifter speaking with J.
"Sir, that was a great pull," said the kid. "I didn't do so well myself. This was my first meet and I really don't know what I'm doing yet."
J. looked the kid up and down and took out a piece of paper and handed it to him.
"My name's J. and this is my direct phone number. Give me a call anytime and I'll help you set up a program for your next meet."
The kid thanked him and walked away with a look of hope and excitement in his eyes. One of the other lifters looked at J. and said, "That was smart. Now that kid will be calling you everyday."
J. looked at the lifter. "I hope so. Someone took the time to help me once. It's what makes powerlifting such a great sport."
Tom heard the whole thing and recognized this for what it was: the greatest gift he's ever been given. J. had become a champion powerlifter and had learned more along the way than just how to bring up his weak points.
Tom made his way over. "You still pulling that sled around every day, J.?"
J. looked up and his mouth fell open. "Tom! It's great to see you, man, it's been a long time! I've been wanting to get in touch with you again for years to thank you for what all you did for me."
"It was no big deal," Tom said.
That's when J. told Tom the story of how he'd been at the end of his rope twelve years before, how he'd quit school and started sleeping all day and drinking and drugging all night.
"You took the time to help me out," J. said. "You gave me something to live for. Training is great, but I also have a great job and family now. You and the crew were a big influence on my life and I can only hope to repay you for this someday."
Tom looked at J. "You've already paid me back more than you'll ever know."
And that's how a real powerlifter gets educated.
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