Like shooting a basketball or hitting a baseball, powerlifting is a skill. This doesn’t seem to be popular concept among beginner powerlifters and even some coaches. Many traditional programs schedule the competition lifts only once per week. Think many top basketball players only shoot once per week?
Obviously, powerlifting has an added stress with extreme external loads that other skilled sports don’t, but that doesn’t negate the fact that practice is a major component of being a successful powerlifter.
Here are four pillars of success to any powerlifting program
1) Emphasis must be placed on the big three
Sure, there are numerous assistance exercises that will help bring up the main lifts, but none of them will match the actual lifts. As Chad Wesley Smith (American record-holder) would say “If you only had one exercise to get better at bench...it would be bench.” This means if you’re barbell benching for 3x5, but then doing 4x8 on incline press and 3x15 on floor press, you’re doing it wrong. The bulk of your work should always be the competition lifts.
Most lifters can do this by increasing their frequency. If the main goal is bringing up the big three, most trainees can build up to benching 3-4x per week, squatting 2-3x per week and deadlifting 1-2x per week. Now that may sound insane if you’re doing a typical routine like Westside or 5/3/1, but your body will adapt and the added practice and stimulus will lead to faster strength gains.
To break up the monotony, each training session or training block can have a specific purpose. For example, if you’re squatting 3x per week it may look like this:
Day 1- Squat (beltless) 4x8 - 3-4 min rest - Emphasis: hypertrophy
Day 2 - Squat 6x3 - 2 min rest - Emphasis: power, speed and density
Day 3 - Squat 3x3-5 - 4-5 min rest - Emphasis: strength
This way you’re building the skill, but also getting strong in a variety of rep ranges since muscle size and neural recruitment are both important in lifting maximal loads.
2) Specificity even with assistance work
The principle of specificity shouldn’t be thrown away when programming assistance work. The main assistance work should be closely related to a competition lift. For example, a leg extension doesn’t transfer to a 1RM back squat very well. Meanwhile, exercises like pause squats, high-bar squats, front squats and bulgarian split squats do and should be the second part of creating a program.
These exercises can be rotated or you can program them by the weak points in your lifts. Here are some examples:
Problem: falling forward in squat Fix: Front squat
Problem: deadlift speed off floor Fix: Deficit deadlifts
Problem: lockout of bench press Fix: Close-grip bench press
Problem: losing tightness in squat Fix: Pause squat
I could go on and on, but you get the point. After finishing the main lift(s) of the day. Pick 1-2 of the powerlift variations and train them hard.
3) Manipulate training volume
After the exercise selection is set, you need a long term plan. There are numerous types of periodization, which is just a fancy what of saying changes in training. The most important variable that needs to be changed is volume. Volume can be defined as (load x sets x reps) so if you squat 315 lbs. for 5 sets of 5 reps it would be 315 x 5 x 5 = 7,875 lbs. for that given exercise.
To find the weekly volume, you would simply add the volume of each training day. Note, you should track the powerlift variations in your total volume for that lift. Here’s an example.
Day 1 - Back Squat 4x10 w/225 = 9,000 lbs
Front Squat 2x5 2/185 = 1,850 lbs
Daily squat volume = 10,850 lbs
Day 2 - Back Squat 3x4 w/355 = 4,260 lbs
Pause Squat 2x3 w/275 = 1,650 lbs
Daily squat volume = 5,910 lbs
Weekly volume = 10,850 + 5,910 = 16,760 lbs
I hope you’re still here after those math problems. If you are, look at the trend between the higher reps and higher volume. Conversely, as the load gets heavier the total volume decreases. This makes sense intuitively, you can’t do 10 reps at 90% of your 1RM.
Why does this matter? We all know you can’t just walk in the gym and add 5-10 lbs on your 1RM every day. If we could then we’d all be squatting 1,000 lbs by now. By manipulating volume you can alternate higher volume phases where the emphasis is building and then a tapering period where volume drops and allows you to test. Build and test!
This is not easy, it takes time and usually a well versed coach to get you started, but when it’s mastered, it is a game changer for intermediate and advanced lifters.
4) Don’t screw it up
The last pillar is the easiest to follow, yet rarely is. Whether it’s prowler pushes until you puke or doing assistance work that causes unnecessary soreness, powerlifters often end up doing more harm than good with the “other stuff.”
Keep cardio minimal and certainly alactic. Don’t do exercises that will cause soreness and pain that will detract from your main work, for instance doing 10 sets of curls and now your biceps are too damn sore to get in a good position to squat.
While you don’t need to have bodybuilder like discipline with diet, you do need a solid nutrition plan. Lastly, don’t let sleep and mobility keep you from being your best. Get it in.
There’s the blueprint. It’s nothing fancy, it’s actually quite simple. The best way to get better and stronger at the squat, bench and deadlift is, wait for it, to squat, bench and deadlift. Once that’s covered assistance work, programming and the little things can help take you to that next level.