Two of the hardest things about competing are sending in the entry fee for a competition and then not pulling out the last few weeks. Some of you don’t compete and are just training for self-actualization, self-esteem, and to be healthier and more whole in your daily interactions in the journey we call a life experience.
That is really wonderful, and makes superb small talk over a nice Pinot Noir, but the cold reality is unless you train for and compete in a powerlifting meet, an Olympic lifting meet, a bodybuilding competition, a strongman event, or just schedule a photo shoot with your thong on, you’re not going to reap the maximum benefits of your training.
You’re not going to fully learn about how your body works, and you’re not going to get the maximum carryover into your “life experience” from training that simply performing on somebody else’s time schedule brings. Building a training plan that produces maximum results requires a cyclic approach to a peak, using a taper, and then a mental and physical plan to enter the arena and to dominate both yourself and your competition.
Make no mistake, we’re all our own worst enemies when it comes to a stressful situation, and competition is stressful. Stress, however, is far superior to wondering about what could’ve been with a Pinot hangover. You can minimize and harness stress with the knowledge that you’re bringing your best to the arena of competition, and you’re going to deliver your best due to your mental and physical preparation.
The discipline and confidence you gain from this experience will make the next cycle more refined and your ability to handle stress and other problems will skyrocket. While the principles and ideas I’ll share are going to be mainly applied to powerlifting in this article, these principles are universal across all sports, allowing for more focus on skill, speed strength, strength endurance, VO2 max, etc., depending on the event and what it requires.
How we train boils down to either doing the most we can and still recover, or the least we can and still progress. The five variables we can manipulate to accomplish this are:
4. rest between sets
5. recuperative methods (1)
Let’s take a look at each.
Volume can be described as either the total number of barbell lifts (NBL) you do in a workout per exercise, or with this formula: reps x weight = total poundage. The total poundage method is misleading as it only tells poundage and has no indication of the intensity of the load. I like NBL for its simplicity. It’s what I’ll use as it saves a lot of number crunching.
Intensity is the percentage of our 1RM (rep max) and is the average of all your work sets. So as an example, if your workout is:
50% x 3, 60% x 3, 70% x 3, and 80% x 3 x 5
Then your average intensity is (50 x 3) + (60 x 3) + (70 x 3) + (80 x 15) = 1740/24 =72.5%
It’s easier if you just do the same warm-ups to your work sets every workout and not worry about averaging them in. If you do a fixed weight workout it’s a simple computation, and by just changing your reps each set (a la Poliquin) you have a very effective approach.
If you’re doing rack pulls, shirt benches with boards, or high box squats, compare them to your meet lift in full competition gear, not your PR for that pin, board or box to get a percent. This is pure overload training and you need to be aware of that. Not much more than 10-15% over your meet max is a good tradeoff between the benefits of overload and injury risk.
These lifts dramatically raise the intensity of your workout and must be limited and managed carefully. The key idea to apply to your planning is that you use percents as guidelines, but in the gym you’re going to use bar weight rounded off to easily loadable weights. There are no weights in any gym I know that say “45%.”
Sequence is the order in which we do exercises within a workout, week, or training block. You can use sequences of bench-squat-bench or squat-bench-squat to jack up your volume and intensity in a workout. The lift in the middle can be a hard workout or just an extra workout. I’ll discuss that more in depth later.
Rest Between Sets
Rest between sets isn’t just the rest between each set in a workout, but days off between workouts. In general, never sacrifice a good set to maintain a given rest period. When you’re in top training shape you can do 8 sets of 2 with 56% and choked blue bands with 60 seconds rest in the box squat. Otherwise, lengthen your rest periods and work on GPP (general physical preparedness) afterward.
Recuperative methods include all manner of enhancing recovery. For the most part, almost all weight training falls under doing the most we can do and still recover. The technical name for this is “concentrated loading.” It requires a back-off week after every 3-4 weeks training period. (2)
The other approach uses much less volume but still requires a back-off after every 5-8 week training block. (3) The technical name for this approach is “distributed loading”. It can yield some results, but its effectiveness quickly ends because of the rapid ability of the body to compensate to training. (4)
Trained, high level athletes can handle three of these training blocks in a row, separated by a back-off period of 7-10 days. (5) Our back-off weeks will consist of either following the 60% rule and doing about 60% of the volume we did in the previous week at about 60% intensity, or doing some higher rep dumbbell, barbell, band, sled pulling, or bodyweight workouts.
You can also just take the week off like the Metal Militia does. Do no assistance work on your back-off weeks, but some easy GPP work can be done. The point of the back-off weeks is to let the body catch up a bit, but it may test your stay-out-of-the-gym willpower. Do you want to be a gym rat or do you want to be the one to dominate? Think about it!
In my example we’ll be using three training blocks and a taper block, but you can taper after only 1-2 training blocks if time requires it. This can be endlessly studied and examined in chapters 5 and 6 of Supertraining.
Picking and Applying a Training Template
I’m not going to lay out a sequence of particular workouts for peaking, because this isn’t a specific workout article. You can select from many superb approaches including:
Dave Tate’s The Art of Program Design
Chad Waterbury’s Science of 10 x 3
Ian King’s Wave Loading Manifesto
Charles Poliquin’s Manipulating Reps for Gains in Size and Strength
Westside Barbell’s “Don’t Chase Your Tail” or “Importance of Volume” by Louie Simmons
The set, rep, rest and sequence template you choose or blend is up to you, but there are some important things to consider with respect to your workout time constraints, areas of weakness, level of (or lack of) overall fitness, and technique issues. You must pick a template that fits your life and training facility.
If you’re woefully out of shape, your GPP needs to be considered and addressed in picking a template. You don’t need to be able to run a 10k to train for powerlifting, but you do need to be able to make it through your workout and recover in time for the next one. If your technique is lacking or you’re just starting out in the sport of powerlifting, you probably want to pick a template where you practice the main lifts a great deal.
When you look at these templates, you need to evaluate them objectively in terms of number of barbell lifts, intensity, technique building, and rest periods required in the pursuit of big lifts on a certain day. If you were more bodybuilding focused, you’d focus more subjectively on how your program addresses your preferences and weak body parts. In both sports, as competition day approaches, the variables and how we manipulate them begins to change.
Now that you’ve picked a template, let’s lay out some basic guidelines to consider when planning a training cycle.
1) The volume and intensity aren’t going to increase together. In fact, they should be independently waving over the training blocks before the peaking and tapering phase. However, the intensity and volume will rise overall. Once we move into the peaking phase, the volume will drop 15-30%, but the intensity will ramp up a bit more.
2) Keep in mind that volume builds muscle mass and connective tissues in the joints, and that change in intensity has a much higher effect on training than change in volume. (7, 8)
3) Use the Bill Murray Ghostbusters rule when it comes to planning volume, intensity, and training guidelines: “It’s more of a guideline than a rule.”
In your planning, say you decide to do 8 sets of 2, or 10 sets of 3 with 65% of your max of 450 (.65 x 450 = 292.5). Don’t get caught up in worrying about whether to go up to 295 or down to 290. When in doubt, avoid using 2.5 pound plates! Use percents to plan and training results to adjust. Those 2.5 pound plates are for PRs, not for training!
4) As the military knows so well, no plan ever survives contact with the enemy. A plan is really just something to deviate from. I’ve had a training cycle planned for every meet I’ve ever lifted in, and not one of the almost 100 plans has been carried out to the letter due to school, work, injury, weather, etc.
Not only do you need to be able to adjust on the fly, you need to keep an excellent training log so you can evaluate what worked and didn’t work in the last cycle when planning or adjusting the next cycle.
5) All lifts don’t handle and recover from the same volume the same way. The bench press can handle more volume and can be trained much closer to the meet than the deadlift. The deadlift needs two full weeks of taper unless you’re very young and very small.
Your last squat workout is a little over a week out, but you can bench press up to five days before the meet. These workouts are very abbreviated, but not light. In studying Sheiko’s workouts, I’ve come up with an optimal ratio per training block of 5:4:3 for bench, squat and deadlift.
6) We’ll count as NBL all the main lifts, the lifts that mimic the main lifts, and any partials. For example, in the bench we’ll count bench press, board press, and floor presses. We may do some extensions or flyes, but they don’t count in NBL for the bench.
The board press
We’ll also not count anything under 50% intensity in our NBL. Some may argue here that they want to count every rep of everything they do, but this greatly complicates an already difficult exercise in training management. You ultimately have to decide for yourself on how you do everything, but a great deal of experience shows that counting and analyzing only the main lifts above 50% in NBL simplifies and focuses our attention on where it needs to be.
The floor press (with chains)
Assistance work is best handled after the main lifts in both planning and practice. The fixed volume/rising intensity approach works well here. Using the Bill Starr guideline of 25-50 reps of assistance for a body part, you can do pushdowns, board work for 3-5 reps, upper back work, reverse hyper, glute ham raise, Romanian deadlifts, etc. Pick one exercise of assistance per body part, prioritizing weaknesses first. Sometimes time and fatigue may dictate you drop some assistance.
There’s also the option of alternating hard assistance weeks, where you go a bit heavier and with more volume, with an easier week where you don’t push it as hard. One caveat: If you do good mornings, count them on their own as a separate NBL. Russian Olympic coaches had great respect for this exercise and if you do them either as Max Effort work or as assistance, you’ll quickly understand why you need to count them as a main exercise on their own. You’ll find they impact your squat and squat recovery more so than the deadlift.
7) As we move along our three training blocks, we’ll be getting stronger, but our short term recovery ability and our long term “current adaptation reserves” are going to be tapped more and more deeply as we progress. (9)
We can’t stop this process, but we can use more and more recuperative methods to enhance our recovery. We delay using these methods until after the first training block because enhancing recovery too early in the cycle can limit the body’s super-compensation ability. (10)
8) We use the taper to allow the process of super-compensation to enhance the specific abilities we’ve worked so hard on developing. Concentrated loading forces the body to extend its ability to adapt, but at the cost of speed strength, limit strength, and even technique. We have to address this with back off weeks and a taper.
9) Our goal is to constantly challenge our body and its adaptive ability by changing our training variables. We’re not looking to let our body maintain equilibrium with our training, but to “keep a definite level of imbalance between the body and the (training) environment at a given time,” to quote the late great Mel Siff. In other words, change is good in training, so plan a lot of it in from the start in all five training variables.
10) There’s a definite and specific place and time to miss reps and train to failure. The place is on the platform when my competitor is lifting, and the time is the training block of that same competitor.
Yes, I miss lifts once in a while, but I’m shocked and annoyed by it! If I’m out of gas on a max effort day, I stop doing singles and will do a “down set” or two, leaving something in the tank. Better to get two sets of 3 at 90% than one set of 4 or 5. If I’m struggling on a Sheiko Bench Marathon or 10 x 3 workout, I’ll take the rest time I need between sets to make sure I get the reps.
If you’re having a bad day, back your weights off that day. If you’re short of time, get your heavier sets of your main lifts in. Very few individual workouts really matter in your training cycle; it’s the totality of the training that delivers the PR.
After our initial training block, the need for enhanced recovery techniques becomes obvious. The most powerful recovery enhancer I know is the hydrotherapy bath, taken 6-9 hours after a workout. Talyshev (1977) showed this technique significantly enhanced both work capacity and recovery the day following the hydrotherapy. (11)
Other recovery enhancers are high rep (25 and above) isolation movements with bands or light weights. Triceps pushdowns, good mornings, and band leg curls all work well here.
Band leg curls
Massage, chiropractic, and A.R.T. work well, too. A few light squats after or during bench day and a few light benches after or during squat day help a great deal. Just 2-3 sets of 2-3 reps with less than about 50% works well. The kettlebell swing and sled dragging can be very therapeutic when done lighter, and are great GPP enhancers when done heavier.
A brisk walk, hike, or even walking on an incline treadmill will do wonders for your recovery without tapping into your strength. Of course, distance running will kill your lifts. When it comes to distance running, just say “Hell no!”
Like choosing a training template to follow, picking how and when to do assistance work has numerous options. A lot of misguided lifters focus on hypertrophy early in their training cycle and then move away from it as they peak. If you need more muscle mass, then you need it when you compete, as you need all aspects of strength when you take the platform.
A better approach is to use the GPP to SPP to GPP transition. (12) In your first training block, since we’re not focusing on recovery, our assistance work focus will be on building GPP via heavy sled dragging, truck pushing, sprints, incline treadmill, and high rep band work, along with some SPP (specific physical preparedness) such as lat work, straight bar extensions, glute ham raise, etc.
As we transition into our second training block, our assistance transitions fully to SPP, where we ramp up the volume and intensity on assistance work more focused on weaknesses. As we move to the peak and the taper blocks, our assistance work SPP will drop a bit and lighter forms of the GPP work we did in our first block will return to enhance recovery.
So, for an example, in our first training block we might do glute ham raises after squatting one squat day, and then sled pulling/truck pushing on squat day two. We’d also do a limited extra workout of kettlebell or dumbbell swings on the day following squat day two. In our second training block, we’d drop the GPP work and add in more SPP work like partial rack pulls and step-ups or reverse hypers, while continuing to push up the glute ham raises and extra workout kettlebell swings.
The reverse hyper
In our peaking and tapering block, we really want to enhance recovery and maximize super-compensation, so we drop about half of the SPP work of glute hams and reverse hypers, and add back in some lighter sled pulling to go along with the other recovery enhancers mentioned previously.
While there’s no “off-season” in powerlifting, an excellent time to focus on GPP is when you’re not in a meet cycle. The previously mentioned GPP work, combined with other strongman type lifts, can bring your GPP up to a level where SPP can be your main focus in the training cycle before the peaking phase begins. I’ve done out-of-meet cycle training with Jesse Kellum and his maniacal Krewe where we raced as teams of two pushing Dodge Ram trucks up hills three or four times each, then pulled a sled backwards, did farmers walks with heavy dumbbells, then flipped tires in the midday July heat.
I almost puked and was just glad to be done. Jesse handed me a Coke and told me to rest up and drink it before we squatted raw! I then worked up to a PR gearless, beltless, and very fast squat of 565. Moral of story: Lose your pre-conceived concepts of proper sequence in a workout and what GPP brings to your training.
Let’s Do It
We have a template and some guidelines; now it’s time to get out a calendar and get to work building this plan to dominate. Pick a meet, check the date, and make sure you determine whether you lift Saturday or Sunday. Count back 14 weeks and include the week before the meet when you’re finishing your taper. Check your calendar for obstacles like birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, vacations, etc. It’s possible to overcome these obstacles but it’s not always in your best interest.
If you have a few weeks before your training cycle starts, a simple and basic approach like 5 x 5 for a few weeks is well suited. However, the week before you start your cycle is an easy week, if not a back-off week.
Now take a legal pad and pencil and lay out your template applied to your training days. The possibilities are endless, but as you map it out, keep in mind you want to wave the volume and intensity independently. Also keep in mind that percents are guidelines, and a peaked max in full lifting gear in competition doesn’t always apply easily as a 1RM to training percents or to any raw work.
When comparing apples to oranges, remember to correct for taking the rind off the orange! For example, if you just squatted 600 in a meet in single ply gear and now want to start to box squat with 50%, 300 is too high! You box squat in a suit with straps down and a belt, but you’ll also have bands and chains loaded and you’re off your peak. Might want to start at 275!
If you’re doing the 10 x 3 program and just benched 400 in a shirt in your last meet, you know you want to be working with around 85% of your 1RM, but 85% of 400 is 340 and that won’t touch in your shirt, and you have no idea what your real raw 1RM is. Well, assume about 100 out of the shirt, as it doesn’t really matter because you weren’t going to start at 85%! So if your 1RM is 300 raw, 85% would be 255. I’d say start at 215, around 70%, just to be safe.
You have 14 weeks to train so you don’t need to be a gym star on week one! You don’t need to hit 10 x 3 the first week; do 8 x 3 the first training block, working up to 10 x 3 the second, then 7 x 3 the third block as you move into your better bench shirt, for example.
You need to decide on when to start using your gear. In the old days you could lift raw then throw it in at the end for a few workouts. Those days are long gone due to the evolution of gear and its affect on your groove. On the higher volume Sheiko and 10 x 3 programs you’ll probably need at least one size looser gear to train in so you can get lighter benches to touch and squats to white light range. The looser gear is also advocated by Westside for box squats and full range shirt benches.
A hypothetical cycle will look like this, representing volume and intensity on a scale of 1-5:
The taper isn’t a back-off week. In back-off weeks we’re letting our body recover via reduced volume and intensity, and very little assistance. Taper weeks are focused on allowing super-compensation to occur.
Gene Bell once told me that you can’t make yourself stronger in the last two weeks, but you can let yourself get stronger. Volume is down, but intensities in the 85-90% range can be used to hone the neuromuscular system. (13) During the taper, we also focus on checking and correcting any technique issues, work on improving speed lost in the heavy training blocks, and maintain only a slightly reduced level of assistance work. Week 11 would contain our last 95% plus work, and the last of any overloads, partials or walkouts. Week 12 is a back-off week, 60% rule or some reps above 7 with light weights.
Week 13 is a critical week. Our main lift volume will stay low, but some 2-3 sets of 1 to 3 reps in the 85-90% range in the squat and bench press are done here in full gear. Some speed work in the squat and deadlift also fit well here. Do your normal assistance work for triceps, lats, abs, and posterior chain. Week 14 is meet week, and I highly recommend the “Three Day Cycle” from Consistent Winning by Drs. D.D. Lobstein Ph.D. and R.D. Sandler D.P.M, adapted to powerlifting.
For a Saturday meet, on week 14 you’ll do a light bench press workout on Monday. This is a great time to use chains over bands for speed work as they’re easier on the body. Do some light and limited raw squats, and some lat work. Tuesday and Wednesday, don’t do a thing but relax, walk a bit, and stretch. These are two days to review your training and make your final meet plan.
You had goals at the outset of the cycle and laid out a plan to get there. If your training went well or not as planned, adjust accordingly. Get it right in your head because after Wednesday night you’re done thinking about it. Thursday you go to the gym and do your first two warm-up sets of bench and squat which will feel good.
Friday, you do your first three warm-up sets of bench and squat, preferably at the meet site. These will feel better than the day before. You’ll feel amazingly fresh physically, and your adrenaline will rise. You need to suppress this adrenaline rush by distracting yourself and by putting the meet forcibly out of your head. I strongly advise wearing regular clothes and not warm-ups until you weigh in or start to warm up the next day.
In all seriousness, stay in your happy place as long as possible on meet day. Some lifters like to stake out a corner and put on their game face early. I think you’re just burning adrenaline, literally and figuratively, by showing up too early. Relax, take a nap, say hi to friends, walk around, do some mobility work, but don’t stretch. When it’s time to warm up, you’ll be ready to go.
Nervousness is a direct byproduct of fear, but fear can be channeled into rage. Save your psyche for the platform, but let your rage build. This isn’t a good time to be around dates, spouses, or life partners. You need a trusted training partner who knows when to fire you up and when to reign you in. Whether you show it or not, you need to be at a full state of mental arousal at this point. However, don’t let your emotions get out of control in the squat as you still have a long day ahead of you.
The warm-ups you’ve done the past two days will feel even better, and the rehearsal of the past few days will pay off here. Everything in your universe now must focus you on how important it is to get that first squat in. You’ve planned your cycle and planned your meet, now lift your plan.
In most meets, 8 or 9 for 9 is going to do well, and 9 for 9 always yields PRs. Strategically, building the biggest subtotal possible is your goal. Open your deads easily, go get a PR on your second unless an easier second attempt locks in a place if you care about the meet, and then go big on your third deadlift.
To dominate isn’t always to win, but to dominate is about what you do compared to your plan, expectations, and ability. You’re the only one who really knows how you did, and a trophy without a PR will make this point very clear.
1) Supertraining pg 353
2) Supertraining pg 347
3) Supertraining pg 319/347
4) Supertraining pg 358
5) Supertraining pg 347
6) Supertraining pg 317
7) Supertraining pg 356
8) Supertraining pg 348
9) Supertraining pg 346
10) Supertraining pg 355
11) Supertraining pg 447,362
12) Supertraining pg315-314
13) Supertraining pg 362