In the sport of powerlifting, the traditional powerlifting programming approach is to train the same frequencies of the same volumes of lifts with intensities that become redundant within a long-term period of planning.
Isn’t it time for another way?
A common view of this would be the typical setup that is popular among many Western lifters and would look something like this in the view of a micro-cycle (or in layman’s terms “week”).
Squat and “squat accessories” which usually include direct work for the musculature of the legs
Bench press and upper body accessories (usually all pressing muscles and upper back or lats)
Deadlift and “deadlift accessories” which usually includes direct work for the lower back, hamstrings, glutes, and possibly more upper back or lat work
Either another day including the bench press or other upper body work.
In the example above, little thought is given to why exactly these frequencies and sessions are performed other than it is what is considered the established norm and features a fairly balanced look at programming. After all, it has two “upper” days and two “lower” days in the eyes of the casual observer.
Furthermore, to progress this, many lifters simply will attempt to increase the intensity from week to week of these exercises while inversely lowering the volume or do the opposite and add volume to whatever the given intensity is.
The other option many have is either performing a group of movements that fit these designations for a finite period of time (usually 1-3 weeks) then rotate to start over again with a new menu of exercises but still following the same progression.
However, if we are to question popular training methodologies, we can possibly set up training cycles that lead to greater individual success.
The purpose of this article is to present considerations that may spark some critical thinking about how training can vary for the individual as well as how to emphasize different qualities as well as each competitive lift independently to achieve higher results.
Viewing Powerlifting Competitively
The first thing I want to get across is that any sport is considered a competition and the goal should be to achieve the results that allows one to be a competitor and not merely a participant.
With this in mind, I am going to step away from powerlifting for a moment and use an example from track and field. The reason I am doing this is because the sport features differing events that on the surface are similar just as powerlifting does. To examine this further, let’s narrow it down to the throws.
In track, the events of discus, shot put, javelin, and hammer all feature the requirement to throw an implement of varying resistance and with technical efficiency that is unique to each event in and of itself.
This is not unlike powerlifting, as each event involves lifting maximal weights, but the technical performance, as well as movement patterns, are not the same. Imagine if someone approached the avenue of throwing with the same regard and strived to be a jack of all trades at all of the events. It is easy to see that this most likely would not lead to the highest results.
However, in powerlifting, there is this notion to balance out the loading (i.e. technical practice as well as general and specialized strengthening) and to attempt to make all three competitive exercises improve at the same rate.
The problem here is that certain lifters will have a much easier time increasing one lift at a higher rate than others, or by increasing that lift other lifts may also increase at the same time (although this will be revisited later). Additionally, if one lift has much higher trainability due to individual characteristics, it would be much more advantageous to increase that lift to better the total which would be the deciding factor in a win vs. loss situation.
With this in mind, training with concentrated micro- or meso-cycles becomes an option that may make more sense. This could involve periods of greater loading for one of the competitive exercises based on individual response rates. To further examine this, certain characteristics of lifters will be examined.
Challenging the “Upper” and “Lower” Belief System
Contrary to popular belief, the powerlifts should not be designated simply by the thought process that they stress the musculature of the upper or lower body.
The reason for this is that each lift represents a specific closed skill that has a motor pattern with varying degrees of upper and lower body involvement. None of them purely consist of inclusion or exclusion of the upper body or lower body and the muscles commonly associated with them.
Additionally, each lift needs to be examined as a competitive event that needs to be practiced and perfected. Furthermore, it needs to be understood that the movements can frequently be trained as long as an intelligent system of loading is used.
This is evidenced in the following post about high-frequency training: 3 Reasons High-Frequency Training Is Objectively Better.
As stated, strength is a skill, and the more it is practiced in that fashion, the more likely it is to improve.
Why Concentration Instead of Distribution?
Some may be wondering what makes concentrating loading better than simply distributing loading evenly throughout a given period of time.
The biggest reason to this would be the whole purpose of concentrated loading which is to establish first a drop in performance then allow a period of decreased loading and super compensation.
Basically, this involves hitting one of the three competitive exercises with a higher volume, frequency, and/or intensity during one period then backing off for a given period to allow an increase to be realized. By focusing on a specific skill with concentration, a greater adaptation may be reached in a shorter amount of time or to a greater extent than what would be available through distributed loading.
All of this is outlined by Verkhoshansky in the Special Strength Training Manual for Coaches, specifically between pages 131 – 135. To summarize what is said, delayed training effects will be realized upon the cessation or reduction of the concentrated stimulus.
So to bring this back to a real life example, if you perform a high volume or frequency of lifts for one of the competitive exercises, you will go through a period of reduced strength in that movement. This is temporary granted you reduce the workload for this lift. After the reduction, there should be a greater training effect that comes about leading to an enhanced ability in that movement.
Everyone I have tried this with has noticed that after a period of concentration on one of the lifts, they feel slightly weaker. However, after the reduction in volume everyone has noticed an enhanced ability to perform more volume at higher intensities. This has solidified my belief that this is a better way when it comes to powerlifting programming… for SOME athletes (I will get into this later).
Concentrated Micro-cycles Within a Meso-cycle
A while back, I wrote an article on EliteFTS that examined this approach. What this involves is emphasizing each competitive lift with higher frequency, volume, and/or intensity for a given period within each block.
The example used in that article utilized a 21-day meso-cycle (aka block) with three 7-day micro-cycles (aka weeks) inside of it. Each 7-day period focused on a higher volume of loading for one of the three competitive exercises with retention loads for the other two movements.
This looked something like this:
Week 1: Squat emphasis
- Frequencies – 6 total sessions/week
- Squat – 5 sessions/week
- Bench – 4 sessions/week
- Deadlift – 1 session/week
Week 2: Deadlift emphasis
- Frequencies – 6 total sessions/week
- Squat – 3 sessions/week
- Bench – 3 sessions/week
- Deadlift – 3 sessions/week
Week 3: Bench emphasis
- Frequencies – 6 total sessions/week
- Squat – 4 sessions/week
- Bench – 6 sessions/week
- Deadlift – 2 sessions/week
In a general sense, the volume was regulated by increased frequencies, but intensity remained anywhere between 75 – 90% for most working sets and varied depending on the emphasis of the entire block. During the deadlift emphasis week,
During the deadlift emphasis week, intensity was high for the squat but volume was very low (each session had one single at 90% of training max only). Something to consider here is these frequencies were geared toward my strengths, as I have higher trainability in the squat, and my deadlift increases as my squat does as well, so even on a week of “emphasis” for the deadlift I still elected to squat in three sessions. Additionally, I have abandoned true bench “emphasis” weeks as I now prefer to keep that particular lift constant on a 3-4 session per week basis.
A high-frequency approach isn’t necessary to include concentrated periods as this can be accomplished through loading in a session as opposed amount of sessions in a week.
For example, even if a lifter was to train all three lifts twice a week only, more volume and/or intensity could be designated for one particular lift out of the three. This could rotate through all three lifts accordingly.
Concentrated Meso-cycles Within a Macro-cycle
This concept is a little more difficult to apply but would need to be looked at with a greater period of time in mind. Most people would probably be able to see this in practice best with one of the following examples.
First, let’s examine a lifter who has a very substandard lift and wishes to bring that lift up. This may work best in the example of a lifter with a good bench press and deadlift, but a substandard squat.
This lifter then decides to run the infamous Smolov routine to increase his squat. This would represent a period of extreme concentration on the squat but would be done with little to no loading of the deadlift (at least as most internet folklore advises when using this method).
This would be something that is done temporarily but to actually apply this effectively some type of long-term planning would be needed to be examined, as in making the realized increases fit into a larger competitive picture.
This same principal could be applied if a lifter is attempting to break some kind of record or milestone. In this same case, a concentration of loading toward a certain competitive event may be performed in order to reach these goals while placing other lifts in a mode of retention or lesser loading.
Who Does This Apply To?
In a section above, I noted that this is better for SOME athletes and not all. Why I noted this is because this is a more advanced training method that revolves around the ability to induce fatigue and retain qualities that were worked on during a concentration period.
With this in mind, I would not recommend this for novice lifters. This is probably geared toward those who fall on the higher end of an intermediate spectrum and definitely for the advanced lifter.
The reasoning behind this is as follows:
- Novice lifters are trying to learn all of the lifts. They should be focusing on a complete development at this point.
- Novice lifters do not necessarily have a lift that is going to really drive their total. This ties in with point 1. I know some will bring up an example of a novice lifter that benches what he squats and deadlifts, but this is more the case of him being awful at the other two lifts and not necessarily good at the bench press (or any other example).
- Novice lifters do not possess the ability to retain training qualities like their more advanced counterparts. Because of this, a more complex/parallel or distributed approach works better because they have more qualities they need to train.
The idea here is to provide a different view in powerlifting programming on how to designate loading as opposed to all lifts being trained with the same frequency on a continuous basis. Additionally, it is important to address lifts as skills that need to be practiced to varying degrees which are dependent on the individual.
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