Powerlifting is an amazing sport that is growing in popularity. Over the next decade the sport is primed for rapid growth. A big part of this has been the influence of the social media culture that has served as a platform to glamorize strength. For those of us that have been preaching it all along it is nice to enjoy the rise. As with most things it also has a downside. Social Media has also created the space for the “influencers” with no background becoming an online expert over night. Just because someone can squat 600 doesn’t mean they know how to help you squat. Social media also doesn’t show all the behind scene training that went on to build the strength. It only shows the highlight real and the end product of years of work.
I want to focus on a few things that addresses the approach and mindset it takes to train in the sport of powerlifting. There is a ton of misinformation on the interwebz. Training for powerlifting doesn’t have to do with going “beast mode” in training or lifting tons of plates every session. I wanted to start with most important thing first.
SET YOUR OWN GOALS, DON’T CHASE ANYONE ELSE’S
This is the most important advice I can give anyone wanting to get involved in Powerlifting. I can’t count the times I have asked a lifter when they are going to do their first meet, and they say “I want to wait till my numbers are respectable.” Nothing boils my blood more than to hear that. Sorry, but that is bullshit. If you wait for that, then you will never get on the platform. There are 140lb women deadlifting over 500lbs now. Sit with that for a second. If you wrap your head around that, nothing you do will be that impressive. Just sell those new SBD Knees sleeves and take up pickle ball if you are waiting to be “good enough”.
Along the same lines, if you have never competed in a meet and you are already looking up what records you can break you are chasing the wrong goal. If you can smash the record with a year of lifting under your belt that record isn’t that impressive, and someone is coming right behind you to beat it. Many federations have more weight/age classifications than there are lifters. Get into powerlifting because you want to be stronger than you were when you started and build yourself up. Too many lifters freak out about numbers, records, and what everyone else is lifting and ruin the experience of how awesome it is to put in the work to get stronger.
Build your Base First
I can’t stress enough the importance of having the requisite mobility before beginning to lift heavy. If you struggle to break parallel on a bodyweight squat there is some work that needs to be done before loading plates on your back. If loading the bar is the only way for you to break parallel you are setting yourself up for a nice injury history not a PR.
Patterning the lifts and practicing the fundamentals is where the magic happens. Mastering your set up, getting tight, and breathing are the best habits to build while starting out. I have had some really strong people show up to Tucson Strength and Tucson Barbell Club that don’t understand the fundamentals. Before we start setting PR’s these skills have to be mastered. It’s not sexy to post a video of an awesome set up with 135lbs on the bar, but the best lifters out there master these details. Each warm-up set isn’t just about warming up your muscles, its about practicing how you are going to lift that big weight. When Things get heavy you revert to your practice.
The Magic Happens at 75%
Most of us are attracted to the barbell sports because we want to lift heavy. The reality is most of the gains are found in lifting with some volume in the 70-80% range. So if you have a 300lb bench most of your lifting will be done between 210lb – 250lbs. Sure you will hit 270+ occasionally, but lose the idea of working to 300 often. The other thing to focus on is working with rep ranges that don’t push fatigue. Here is an example: 75% is your theoretical 10RM. A bulk of your work will be done with sets of 4-6reps with this weight. The mistake many beginners make is they take 75% and try and hit multiple sets of 8-10 until they fail or have the bro at the gym giving them finger spots screaming its all you BRO! This is a sure sign a novice lifter and someone that will be frustrated soon.
When Bar speed slows down, You are probably done
This goes along with the above point. If you want to get stronger you need to keep your nervous system fresh. Strength training and powerlifting isn’t necessarily about building massive muscle, it’s about creating force. Much of that force is created by a powerful nervous system. Your training methods are crucial in developing force. If you are constantly grinding out reps and failing on your big lifts you are setting yourself up for failure and injury. If you train to failure you will get what you train for. Training for strength is very different than training for muscle mass and bodybuilding. A smart lifter knows when the session is over. Your training plan can say 8 x 3, but if set 6 is slowing down and turning into a grinder sometimes the best bet is to call it a day. It’s cool to watching that monster on Instagram grinding out deadlifts with veins popping out of his head, but that monster isn’t you, and just because he is doing it doesn’t mean its right. Many beasts are strong in spite of their training not because of it.
Consistency is King, So is recovery
Most solid powerlifting programs run 4 times per week. If you follow the above principles of keeping the percentages/reps in the optimal range and the reps fast you will be able to train consistently for weeks with minimal need for a de-load. Many times I see lifters grinding out squats and deadlifts week after week and then they seem perplexed why they feel like shit in their training the next week. 40 training sessions with moderate intensity over 10 weeks will trump 20 beast mode session in the same time period. If you are chronically feeling exhausted and fatigued you are setting yourself up to be on injured reserved list or the -used to be a lifter- list. I remember following a lifter on social media a few years ago. For 3 weeks it post after post of a new max PR or a new rep PR. It was impressive weight and intense lifting. A couple weeks later it was a post with picture of torn pec. If you are going hard you need to recover and take more time off. When I’m programming for lifters Im always trying to make training sessions optimal for long term success. Strength is about incremental gains over a long period of time, not trying to create the hardest training sessions.
FOLLOW A PLAN
As the old saying goes, failing to plan is planning to fail. Get a program based on the principles above and follow it. If you can afford it hire a good coach that gets it, and if you hire a coach be coachable. If the program says hit 225lb for 5×5 that’s what it means. It doesn’t mean because you feel good today add 10lbs. If you are following a good program and have a good coach trust them, more than your emotions and ego. Not every session will be hard and crushing. Sure, there will be some heavy days and some days with volumes that will test your grit, but those should be sprinkled in over time. Get used to building a solid base. Enjoy each training session and embrace the process. Just today I was talking with a lifter that I have coached for a few years and he stumbled across his videos from a few years ago and said wow, that’s pretty cool to see how far I have come. It was nice to hear that. Over that time there has been times of frustration and feeling stagnant, but sticking to the principles pays its dues over time.
If you are interested in competing in a meet here is an article I wrote for StrongFirst a few years back.
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