I've come to the realization that not everybody is interested in entering powerlifting competitions, but they are interested in improving their training by using powerlifting concepts. So here are a few things I picked up in the powerlifting pits that you can use to reach whatever lifting goals you may have.
Russian Series/Bulgarian Segments
This is one of the most powerful tools I've ever seen. I use it myself weekly on my raw rep days but have also used it for max effort day. The Evil Empire called this concept "series." The Bulgarians called it "segments."
The Russians take powerlifting seriously!
A series is two or more sets done as a derivation of wave loading. Every set you just change the weight on the bar up and then down. Rest as much as you need to between sets, but you'll find the lighter set is easy to do very soon after the preceding heavy set. Also, the lighter set seems to prepare you for the heavier set more quickly than you'd believe.
You can keep the reps the same set to set or vary them. This isn't a pyramid or a reverse pyramid where the weight moves up every set or down every set. The great part about this approach is that you actually get stronger during the workout, plus it's easier mentally than 6-10 consecutive sets with the same weight and reps.
Frankly, I don't have the space to explain how the variation in reps and weight challenges the body's adaptation process, and this isn't a "why" article anyway, more of a "how" article. If you want the "why," two of the most important articles I've ever read are Ian King's Wave Loading Manifesto and Charles Poliquin's Manipulating Reps for Gains in Size and Strength.
As a guideline, your lighter set shouldn't get too far below 60-70% of your one rep max (1RM), and the heavier set shouldn't go too much above 85% of your 1RM. Reps need to stay fairly low, in the 3-7 range, but you don't push any heavy set close to failure.
When the heavier set gets notably harder (usually after about series 3), either stop or drop the weights a bit. The amazing thing is in the second series the heavy set will be easier than in the first series.
Examples: 275x3 / 325x3, 275x3 / 325x3, 275x3 / 325x3. But you could change the reps on the lighter set in the series, so the series becomes 275x5 / 325x3.
You could also move the weight up on the heavier set and vary the reps on the lighter set so your workout becomes 275x5 / 325x3, 275x4 / 335x3, 275x3 / 345x3. You get the idea!
Advantages of series:
1. Enhances volume in your workout.
2. Helps you refresh, rehearse, and reinforce your groove. The lighter sets will get faster and the heavier sets will get notably stronger for 2-3 series. If you get out to five series, you need to move the weights up next time.
3. Series makes doing 6-10 sets of a lift less boring. I really like 10 sets of 3-5, but my adult-onset ADD makes this approach very hard for me. I keep forgetting what set I'm on!
4. When a heavy set on a max effort day or even a meet attempt feels off, dropping to a lighter set for some "refresh and rehearse" can often make that heavy set or attempt go well on your next try. This powerlifting and Olympic lifting trick has applications even if done with barbell curls, weighted/un-weighted chins, or heavy flyes, if you're under 30.
The Russians have the best powerlifting coaching and technique in the world.
Sheiko's "Double Days"
Most lifters do a compound movement followed by an isolation movement or two as the backbone of their training. Boris Sheiko, the Russian powerlifting team coach and the instigator of more puking than a Crossfit convention, often designs his high volume powerlifting programs with two squat, bench press, or deadlift sessions sandwiched around another movement in the same lifting session.
So a lifter might go bench-squat-bench, which isn't bad, but the more ominous squat-bench-squat isn't so much fun. The lesson here is you could do the series approach mentioned above in the bench press and feel pretty much worn out, then follow it with a moderate squat workout, then go back and do another bench press workout, generally with a different rep scheme.
Suspend your reservations for a minute. Even somebody with a lower work capacity can have a surprisingly strong second workout of the same lift in the same training session. When you accommodate to this approach, you're handling a lot more volume at a surprisingly high intensity, sometimes very close to the intensity of the first workout that you did in that lift.
If you can't stomach doing this, then maybe the second time through you might do a derivation of the lift like decline, incline, or board press. I guarantee that you'll be stronger in the second lift after a moderate or even heavy exercise is done in the middle of the workout than if you just did the bench press and then went directly to the decline, incline, or board press.
For those of you who are mumbling about workouts only being 45-60 minutes in length to avoid Testosterone levels dropping, I say "You've done your reading!" But you can easily do 12-24 sets in an hour, so 8 sets of benches, 6 sets of squats, and 6 more sets of BP should work. If you go over 60 minutes, your wife, girlfriend, or life partner will just get a longer night's sleep that night.
My workouts run 60-120 minutes, and I never seem to feel the difference. On the other hand, I do notice a drop in Test levels after a lot of aerobic work, from lack of sleep, any exposure to the Lifetime channel, or from the Hope and Faith marathon.
Not helping my recovery
Just Think "ROM"
This is probably the most outrageous thing I'll write in this article. Ready? Here goes: If you're over thirty years old, you need to go for a full stretch on every rep like I need to ride out a level five hurricane.
The number 1 and 1a scary things I see in the gym daily are dumbbell bench presses and stiff legged deadlifts done to extreme ranges of motion (ROM). Why can't people carry over their partial squat motion to these lifts? Or maybe they should carry over their extra ROM in the dumbbell bench and SLDL for use in the squat?
Face it, there are reasons NFL running backs are done around 30 years of age. After 30, things just don't work or recover as well, and you might be slightly less mobile than you were at 18. So why do the full stretch thing when it's an invitation to a tear or pull?
If you want to expand your mobility, there are plenty of great products, like the DVD Magnificent Mobility by Mike Robertson and Eric Cressey. You can get all of the benefits and none of the risks by substituting the dumbbell floor press and the Romanian deadlift in for the two other lifts, which I'll now only refer to as "Faith" and "Hope."
The dumbbell floor press will give you all the pec stimulation you ever wanted when done paused or touch-and-go.
You'll learn to tuck your elbows quickly.
If you want more inner pec, you have to accept that muscle insertions are more a genetic issue, but you should have used more "Faith" back when you were 18. The same thing goes for the "Hope." When I see the fully rounded lower back of some mullet with his knees hyperextended, I want to scream like a dad chaperoning his daughter at a BackStreet Boys concert!
If working erectors is your goal, there are better ways than the "Hope." Back extensions or regular deadlifts are much better, and if you're after hams and glutes, Romanian deadlifts, wide stance good mornings, or glute ham raises work better!
Other lifts to apply this idea to include the reclining dumbbell curl, the pullover, the press behind the neck, and the skull crusher. Any lift that emphasizes the stretch position deserves caution. Just think ROM!
There is "Hope" for this exercise, at least for the girl in the red
Single Limb Work
Ethan Reeve, the strength and conditioning coach at Wake Forest, really clued me into the importance of single limb work. While many trendy coaches use unstable surfaces to build stability, Coach Reeve uses stable surfaces to simulate the non-BOSU ball surface in Groves Stadium. Then he puts the athlete in a position where he'll have to provide the stabilization to his body when, for example, he only has one appendage touching the ground.
But since I'm in the business of pursuing PRs and not PhDs, I wanted to know how that could help my total. Ethan showed me one of his favorite exercises, the single arm dumbbell press.
Practicing this lift revealed to me the great stabilization issues I had in my pressing motion and torso. (I never say the words "core" or "transverse abdominus." I took an oath, please respect it.) With both hands on the bar, my stronger side compensated for my weaknesses, robbing me of explosion and top-end strength.
For the lower body, the Bulgarian squat is a great weakness indicator for many athletes.
What you can do when you don't suck.
If there's a disparity in how many bodyweight reps you can do on each side, you've tapped into some real areas that need improvement. Test yourself either in bare feet or in just socks. You might be surprised at what you find!
I'm a 700+ squatter and I couldn't do five Bulgarian squats with my right leg! It turns out that I had zero stabilization and proprioception on that side from an injury over five years ago suffered at a rock concert with my kids.
Other exercises that can be great difference makers are the one legged squat (pistol) done free standing or to a box, one legged deadlifts, one arm dumbbell or kettlebell snatch, and one arm chins or one arm cable pulldowns for us mere mortals. These lifts can be a normal part of your assistance rotation, or done mainly as a back-off week mainstay and for higher reps. About 12-25 reps works great for single limb work. Bigger and stronger will be your reward!
Non-Traditional Arm Training
Most powerlifters don't know or care about whether they need more isometric work to bring up their brachialis, or even if lack of dynamic elbow flexion is limiting their biceps peak. By the time a powerlifter has squatted, benched in a shirt (hello brachialis!), deadlifted, and has done some upper back work, "buffet" comes before "biceps brachii," "brachialis," or "brachioradialis" in the powerlifter dictionary.
Too much direct biceps work is seen as an invitation to a biceps tear, plus it's looked down upon as embracing metrosexuality... not that there's anything wrong with that!
Then powerlifters discovered the benefits of strongman work. Strongman-type training is very demanding of grip, so direct grip work started showing up in powerlifting training. But a funny thing happened on the way to a better grip: it built up the pythons! Here are some movements that are great for the grip and for filling out that Tommy Bahama:
1. Baseball Curls
I learned this from Coach Julia Ladewski. Pick up a hex dumbbell by one end, fingers over one hexagonal end. Ten pound 'bells might be too much! Reverse curl the weight upward, then roll your wrist outward and lower the bell in the traditional palms-up curl grip. Repeat.
Just a great exercise, and it gets you down near the colored dumbbells! I recommend 2-3 sets with an occasional set to failure.
2. False Grip Hammer Curls
This is a normal hammer curl with a thumbless grip. Having to squeeze your fingers harder to hold the 'bell greatly changes the exercise. These are really hard to do with heavy dumbbells. Feel your way up, but 7-12 reps work great. The number of sets is driven by who's going to do somebody wrong on Lifetime that night. Bet on the husband.
3. Farmers Walks
Pick up a couple of heavy implements and try to cover a challenging distance while carrying them. A few times around the adductor/abductor machine or around my yard is my preference. (The neighbors don't take this all that well.) When you make it, add more weight. These are done 2-3 times a week religiously.
4. Christmas Carol Curls
Add some weight to an Olympic bar. (The EZ-curl bar will arouse suspicion!) Then hang some chains over it and conventionally curl away. These are very challenging in a unique way, plus it's another chance to drag and shake the chains around the gym groaning, "Ebenezer Scrooge! I am your partner Jacob Marley and I lift the chains I forged in life!"
The fitness bunnies are appalled, but grabbing a handful of chain and hammer curling, pressing, and shaking them during your rendition of the classics is a biceps and upper back difference maker!
5. Band Training for Tri's
The triceps makes up two-thirds of the upper arm mass, so a triceps movement needs to be thrown in here. Board pressing and heavy benching is plenty of direct triceps work, but if you like extensions, here are two great extension wrinkles to do when extensions are back in vogue.
Add a light band over the triceps pushdown pulley support, or put a heavier band behind your neck and do pushdowns with bands only. Done for high reps they really protect the elbow, but done for lower reps they challenge the last few inches of triceps lockout.
The other exercise is EZ-curl bar skull crushers done on the floor. If you use 35 or 45 pound plates, the size of the plates limits the suspicious looks you get from using the EZ-curl bar and the stretch position of the movement.
If you like doing extensions to the chin or lower, use your board-press board and do the extension to the board. Put the board under your shirt or use a mini-band around your torso to hold it in place. Heavy is good here, so reps are 5-8 and sets are up to you!
Hopefully, some of these powerlifting concepts can enhance your training. I appreciate all the people who've helped me along the road from local to state to national level competition. Somebody out there always has something you can learn and use. Constantly look for those somebodies!