Pendulum Training III – The Heavy Stuff

In this third installment of pendulum training, I'll discuss how to adapt this method to powerlifting. Just in case you've been living in a cave, the goal of powerlifting is to lift as much weight as possible in the back squat, bench press, and deadlift. The most important physical quality to possess in this sport is limit strength (maximum force production with no regard to time/speed), while strength-speed (the capacity to accelerate moderate external loads) is of secondary, but significant importance.

Muscle mass is also important to a powerlifter because with all other things being equal, muscle strength is proportional to its cross-sectional area (ultimately to its size). So, for the powerlifter, the three most important physical characteristics to develop are: limit strength, strength-speed, and hypertrophy.

We're going to use these as our pendulum's phases. However, since the ultimate goal is limit performance in the three competitive lifts, we'll not stray too far away from the specific demands of the sport. Hang on! Here we go!

The Basic Powerlifting Pendulum

Basic Powerlifting Pendulum

In the powerlifting pendulum we have three phases: a structural phase which allows the powerlifter to gain muscle mass while unloading the nervous system (it needs a break after maximal lifting) and regenerating the tendons, and two functional phases, both developing limit strength and strength-speed. Each phase lasts one week and the schedule is as follows:

Phases 1 and 5: Structural

As previously explained, the objective of these phases is to prepare the musculoskeletal system for the rigors of heavy lifting, to promote an increase in muscle mass, to unload the CNS after three weeks of heavy loading, and to help with joint regeneration.

While this phase shares some similarities to bodybuilding training, it's not the same thing. We're basically talking about sport-specific hypertrophy: we want to increase muscle mass in the key muscles involved in powerlifting performance. During this phase, the volume is relatively high. You're going to train four times per week:

Monday: Quad Dominant Training

A) Back squat isometric-dynamic contrast

We're going to do a regular powerlifting back squat with one exception: we'll include an isometric pause at the parallel (legal depth) position. This will not only help strengthen your quadriceps and gluteus, it'll improve your strength out of the hole. The length of the pause will vary with each rep:

B) Single-leg Bulgarian squat

This exercise is fairly simple: place the back leg on a bench and the front leg on the floor in front of you. Squat down by bending the front leg down to 90 degrees or slightly below.

This exercise will help strengthen the VMO, which will lead to greater knee stability when you squat (thus reducing wear and tear injuries to the knees). You're going to do this exercise at a slow eccentric (negative) tempo but with an explosive concentric (lifting) tempo. Go down in six seconds and up as fast as you can.

C) 2/1 Leg press

While the leg press certainly isn't the most important exercise in a powerlifter's arsenal, we can still use it to increase quadriceps strength. (Some powerlifters will argue that quad strength is secondary, but I find it especially important during the lowering portion of a squat.)

We're going to use a 2/1 technique that will allow us to place special emphasis on the eccentric force capacity of the leg extensors. The 2/1 technique consists of lifting the weight explosively using two legs, and lowering it under control with one leg. Alternate the "lowering leg" with each rep.

D) Abdominal work

Select two or three abdominal exercises (preferably weighted) and perform them for three sets of 12 each.

Tuesday: Upper Body Push Training

A) Bench press isometric-dynamic contrast

This is a regular bench press (I suggest a mid-grip) during which you're going to add an isometric pause when the bar is two inches from the chest on each rep. This will increase pectoral development, but more interesting to the powerlifter is that it'll increase strength at the sticking point and will improve latissimus dorsi action during the bench press. The length of the pause will vary on each rep:

B) Decline bench press

The decline bench press is a good tool for the powerlifter because, ideally, competition benching technique should duplicate the trunk angle found in the decline press. We don't want to use a large decline though, just enough to place the body in a favorable position. We're going to lower the bar in six seconds and lift it as fast as possible.

C) Lying dumbbell triceps extension, tempo contrast

We're going to use a tempo contrast on triceps work. I found it to be one of the fastest ways to hypertrophy a muscle. The tempo will vary from slow to fast every two reps:

D) Seated dumbbell shoulder press, tempo contrast

We're going to use tempo contrast once again:

Thursday: Hip Dominant Training

A) Deadlift isometric-dynamic contrast

For the deadlift we're also going to perform a pause during the movement, but you must select the angle yourself: place the isometric hold at your sticking point in the lift. Because of the stress involved on the lower back, the length of the pause will be shorter in the deadlift and will stay the same for all six reps. The length of the pause is two seconds and it's performed during the concentric (lifting) portion of the exercise.

Work sets: 5 x 6

Rest between sets: 180 seconds

B) Good Morning

For the good morning exercise we're going to use a super slow eccentric tempo; this will be very effective at increasing trunk stability during either a heavy squat or deadlift. We're going to bend down (keep the knees only slightly bent and push the hips back as you go down) in six seconds and back up (by whipping the hips forward) as fast as possible.

Work sets: 3 x 10

Rest between sets: 120 seconds

C) 2/1 Leg curl

I know this exercise is often frowned upon by powerlifters because it only trains the hamstrings in their knee flexion function, but still, it's an effective way to strengthen these muscles adequately. The structural week is the ideal time to include this exercise. We're going to use a 2/1 technique, lifting the load explosively with two legs and lowering it under control with one leg, alternating legs with each rep.

Work sets: 3 x 6 per leg

Rest between sets: 120 seconds

D) Abdominal work

Select two or three abdominal exercises (preferably weighted) and perform them for three sets of 12 each.

Saturday: Upper Body Pull Training

A) Seated rowing isometric-dynamic contrast

The upper back muscles are very important for the powerlifter. For one thing, these muscles are partially responsible for keeping the trunk in a proper lifting posture during a deadlift. But the upper back (especially the lats and rear deltoids) is key in the bench press, especially at the start of the pressing movement.

We're first going to use a seated row at the low pulley station. We'll hold a pause when the bar is against the sternum (use the same grip as if you were bench pressing). These pauses during back exercises are especially effective for powerlifters because that's how the upper back muscles operate during the powerlifting exercises (isometric). The length of the pause will vary with each rep:

B) Pullover machine

Honestly, this is one of my favorite upper back exercises. I find it especially effective when used at a slow eccentric tempo, which is what we're going to use here. You'll bring down the bar explosively and return it to the starting position in six seconds. Make sure you're setting the machine to maximize range of motion.

C) Weighted chins/lat pulldown to the front

Chins are a great exercise, but not everybody can do them (especially when we're talking about giant-sized powerlifters), so a lat pulldown can be used with much of the same success. We want to use a grip similar to our bench press grip; angle the torso a few degrees back and bring down the bar to the lower part of your chest (or even upper part of the abdominal). This will make this exercises a lot more effective for upper back development.

D) Bent over dumbbell raises (rear deltoid raises)

No mystery here! A simple rear-deltoid raise. By now your upper back is pretty much fried, so there's no need for special techniques. Just make sure the movement is controlled; don't use momentum to lift the dumbbells.

Phases 2 and 4: Functional Strength and Strength-Speed 1

This phase of the pendulum involves heavy, even maximal lifting, as well as some high-speed lifting. The ratio is about three to one in favor of maximal lifting. The objective of this phase is to maximize limit strength while developing some strength-speed too. We're once again training four times per week following the same schedule:

Monday: Quad Dominant Training

A) Powerlifting squat


B) Speed-squat (using a slightly narrower foot stance than your competition stance)


C) Leg press


D) Abdominal work

Tuesday: Upper Body Push Training

A) Bench press


B) Speed-bench (close grip)


C) Close-grip decline bench press

Thursday: Hip Dominant Training

A) Deadlift

Load: 90-95%

Reps: 3

Sets: 10

Rest between sets: 180 seconds


B) Power clean from blocks


C) Good Morning


D) Abdominal work

Again select two or three abdominal exercises (preferably weighted) and perform them for three sets of 12 each.

Saturday: Upper Body Pull Training

A) Barbell rowing


B) High-speed machine pullover


C) Lat pulldown to the lower chest

Phase 3: Functional Strength and Strength-Speed 2

This phase has a very low volume of work because phases two and four are high volume (for strength training at least). The intensity for the heavy lifting is increased but more emphasis is placed on explosive lifting. The ratio is now around three to one in favor of explosive lifting. The schedule is once again the same:

Monday: Quad Dominant Training

A) Powerlifting squat


B) Speed-squat (with a narrower stance than your competition stance)


C) Jump squat


D) Abdominal work

Tuesday: Upper Body Push Training

A) Bench press


B) Speed-bench (close grip)


C) Ballistic bench press (in Smith machine)


D) Triceps work

Thursday: Hip Dominant Training

A) Deadlift


B) Power clean from blocks


C) Speed-Romanian deadlift


D) Abdominal work

Saturday: Upper Body Pull Training

A) Barbell rowing


B) Seated rowing


C) Lat pulldown to the front


D) Bent over raises (rear deltoids)

Conclusion

This training program is designed to maximize performance in the squat, bench press and deadlift, and it's truly effective at that! You'll find there's less variation than during the bodybuilding pendulum because I believe that for maximal strength gains you must have an important motor learning effect. This requires frequent practice of the competition movements.

I know that for some powerlifters this program may seem unorthodox, but trust me, it will lead to fantastic strength gains! Try it and see!