Powerlifting Programming I: Specificity, Overload, Fatigue Management, Individual Differences

Most of the currently popular theories about why training works revolve around Hans Seyle’s theory of the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). According to the GAS, training works because of the process known as the stress-recovery-adaptation response.

In essence, an outside “stress” is applied in a given dose to the body. Now, these stresses are toxic and, in high enough doses, potentially lethal. Consider a sun tan. When unadapted, pale skin is exposed to sun light, it actually accrues damage (“stress”). Once removed from the stress, the body not only repairs this damage (“recovery”), but the physiological structure is actually improved to prevent further damage from a similar stressor (“adaptation”). GAS is nothing more than one of our primary evolutionary advantages at work.

In terms of training, the dots are easy to connect. Going to the gym and lifting heavy weights causes microtears in muscle fibers, elicits various hormonal responses, and sets off a variety of other metabolic signals that all communicate to the body that “stress” has occurred and the resulting damage now needs to be repaired. Through eating, sleeping, and taking time off from the gym, we can “recover” from this “stress”. Our reward for completing this entire process is further “adaptation”; we get stronger.

Principle #1: Specificity

Now, it is critical to keep in mind that the GAS only works in our favor for powerlifting if we actually train like a powerlifter. If you’re engaging in a routine that doesn’t call for frequent squatting, benching, and deadlifting, the program might not be specific enough to maximize adaptation. Likewise, if you’re not lifting heavy very frequently, your training may not be specific enough to maximize adaptation.

Specificity in training is a topic unto itself and full coverage of this principle is beyond the scope of this article. However, it is absolutely imperative that you realize that, if you want to be a better powerlifter, you should train on a program that is explicitly designed to increase powerlifting performance. Yes, you should actually use a powerlifting program and NOT a “strength” program. They are two different things.

The body adapts only to the stresses it is exposed to. If you expose your body to high reps, to lots of cardio, to lots of machine work instead of squatting, benching, and deadlifting, you shouldn’t expect optimal results for powerlifting.

Principle #2: Overload

The GAS can only continue to work in our favor if we continue to expose our body to adequate doses of stress. Once the body has adapted to a given dose, you’ll experience diminishing returns from continually applying that same dose. For example, we’ve all seen the guy who comes in and benches the exact same weights for the exact same reps every single week. Not coincidentally, beyond a certain point, this guy never gets any stronger.

Remember, the entire point of the GAS is to prevent the body from undergoing damage from a similar “stressor” the next time it is exposed. At a certain point, your body is going to be fully adapted to using a certain amount of weight, a certain amount of reps, or a certain amount of sets. Eventually, you have to go beyond what you’ve done before; you have to “overload” your body.

For continued progress in powerlifting, throughout your entire training career, you will constantly have to lift more weight and do more overall sets and reps in order to provide the body with a dose of stress that is high enough to elicit the stress-recovery-adaptation response

Principle #3: Fatigue Management

As in anything, in powerlifting you either “use it” or you “lose it”. If you cease to train, you’ll begin to slowly lose your hard won adaptations. If you don’t practice a certain lift, your skill will deteriorate in that lift.

This fact becomes highly important when considering overall fatigue management. The larger the dose of stress relative to the athlete’s recovery capacity, the longer the recovery process takes. If you mismanage your deadlift workload for example, you may take so long to recover between bouts of stress that you actually begin to detrain while waiting for your next pulling session. Stress must be accumulated properly in order to maximize recovery and prevent any unnecessary detraining.

In other words, timing is critical. Once you’ve completed that stress-adaptation-recovery response, you want to hit your body with the next dose of stress before it has time to start going backwards again. Likewise, you need to ensure that your programming isn’t overwhelming the stress-adaptation-recovery response and not allowing for adaptation to occur at all. Don’t be fooled by extremists: both undertraining and overtraining are very real.

Principle #4: Individual Differences

One of the single most ignored aspects of powerlifting programming is the law of individual differences. The law of individual differences simply states that, due to a countless myriad of factors, every individual will respond to a given training stimulus slightly differently. Now, this doesn’t mean that benching is going to turn one guy into Arnold and another guy into a string bean; it just means that the precise level of stress, the exact adaptations, and the imposed recovery demands, among other things, are going to differ from individual to individual. Your gains won’t be my gains.

Everybody needs a slightly different amount of volume to progress. Everybody can handle slightly different overall workloads. Everybody has slightly different biomechanics which play a part in movement selection. Frankly, I’m very adamant about the fact that training is not optimal if it is not individualized.

Now, most popular programs ignore this fact because most popular programs are written for the masses. These “Pop” programs are designed to be used as cookie cutter templates that you can mindlessly follow. If they were properly individualized to each trainee, they probably couldn’t be easily mass marketed. You wouldn’t have a program; you would have a system.

How To Pick Your Weight Class

For those who don’t know, Powerlifting is a weight class sport. A weight class sport is one in which competitors are divided up into different divisions depending on how much they weigh. You cannot compete in any class where you are above the maximum weight and, likewise, you cannot compete in any class where you do not make the minimum weight. Whatever weight class you fall “inside of”, is the weight class where you must compete.

Weight Classes for Powerlifting

Weight classes ensure that everyone has a fair shot to win if they play their cards right. You cannot use height as an excuse.

How to pick your weight class

Now, this obviously leads one to ask, “Well, how should I go about determining the weight class that is best for me”? Good question.

I think the idea that one “chooses” their weight class is misleading if not outright false. The weight class that one should compete in is the weight class where the amount of muscle on their frame is maximized relative to the limit of that weight class. Put simply, you want to carry as much muscle as is possible while still making weight. That means you need to be relatively lean in order to maximize and optimize your competitiveness in powerlifting.

10 Essential Tips to Prepare for Your First Powerlifting Meet

Over the past year my focus in gym training has shifted from hypertrophy training to the sport of powerlifting. Why?

I wanted a competitive outlet in my life. I was an athlete growing up and really missed having that in my life. I felt like I was just training for the training sake.

Powerlifting really brought a new meaning to the words “train with purpose.” You can set many PRs in the gym, but the game changes once you step on that platform. Training for powerlifting beat the exerciser out of me and helped me find what I have been missing.

Here are a few things I would like to pass along for those thinking about competing in their first powerlifting meet.

1. Don’t Cut Weight

Cutting weight is the biggest novice mistake I see when people are training for their first meet. There is enough going on with training and peaking for a meet. As you peak, the loads generally increase, and even though volume of training goes down, your body will be ready for the meet to be done and over with the closer to the meet you are.

Adding the stress of eating less and or water cutting has no benefit. You start to focus more on your body weight rather than the weight you lift. If you choose to cut weight, be prepared. As your body weight goes down, your risk of lifting less goes up, especially on the bench press.

2. Don’t Wait Until You Are “More Competitive”

I hear this from people all the time: “I want to wait until I can squat X or Total X before I register for my first meet.”  The funny thing is, if they wait that long, the meet may never come. This is all about you vs you and no one else.

The part of powerlifting that is the most fun is setting your own goals and beating your own personal records. If it is your first meet, it is all a personal record. Waiting to be competitive is just an excuse. The truth is no one cares what you lift — they are all focused on hitting their own personal records, not chasing yours. In other words, you aren’t as important as you think you are — just show up and lift. You will find a great and supportive community at most meets that will cheer you on.

3. Set Realistic Goals

Setting realistic goals is crucial and it often takes a coach or trusted and experienced training partner to help with this. If you have only benched 50kg and you set your eight-week peaking cycle to hit 100kg at your meet, you will have a harsh lesson to learn. If you are newer you will see bigger gains, but I would recommend keeping jumps to 5%. If you are a 150kg squatter a 10% jump would be a squat of 165kg. Lifters with smaller numbers may be able to get away with the 10% jump easier.

4. Peak Smart, Don’t Miss Lifts

A five- to eight-week gradual peaking program is sufficient for most lifters. Just make sure to taper volume as you get closer to the meet. Doing lots of assistance work and extra volume doesn’t have any place in your final two to three weeks of training. Also, it is crucial that you do not miss lifts leading up to the meet.

Stay away from grindy and ugly looking reps on the peaking cycle. Nothing is worse than grinding out a weight that is less than your opener before the meet. It will get in your head, which is never a good thing. How does this happen? Doing too much volume and training too much, overestimating your percentages, setting unrealistic goals, or pushing too hard too soon.

If you know you are having an awful day and your warm-ups are slow and not getting better, sometimes it is better to lift the next day and be fresh. Less really is more in peaking. For those who normally exercise themselves into an oblivion this may be a challenge, since your workouts will be short and include only one or two lifts.

5. Practice Commands

Nothing is worse than hitting your all-time PR and turning around to see you were red-lighted because you didn’t wait for the judge to give you the rack command. Each lift has a set of commands you must follow. Your bench press must be paused, so it is best to practice this for a considerable amount of time. Benching 150 at the gym for one rep is different than waiting for a judge to tell you when to press.

6. Be Conservative and Plan Ahead

It makes me cringe to see someone walk up to their opening lift and grind it out as if their life depended on it. This should only happen on your final attempt.  Even worse, is when they miss an opener.

Keep in mind, if you miss the opener you can’t go back down in weight. You have two more attempts to make it, but you pretty much know at this point it is going to be a long flight of lifts. Most coaches will recommend to open with 88-92% of your goal, or in other words, open with a weight you can hit for three or four reps.

Feeling confident with your opener is important and sets you up for more success. Many times at weigh-in you will be asked for your openers, so you should know them for about a week leading up to the meet. You don’t want to be scrambling and putting down any number. Also, have your second and third attempts written out so you have a plan. Plans can change, but it is always good to have one.

Most powerlifting federations will have a conversion chart, but be prepared to put your numbers down in kilos. You may find your attempts may be a few pounds off of what you expect, because the units don’t convert perfectly. Most federations will have their kilogram charts available online with the expected jumps in weight. This is also where having a coach or handler helps a lot.

7. Know the Federation’s Rules

Each federation has its own set of rules and they can vary. It is important to know this ahead of time so you can train appropriately. Some allow only the toes to come in contact with the ground on the bench press, and others require the entire foot to be in contact with the ground at all times. Some allow Velcro belts, others have requirements on belt width. There are lots of little things you should familiarize yourself with prior to the meet – and the sooner the better.

8. Get a Handler

Having someone to help you is important. There is a lot going on during the meet. There are different flights of lifters and knowing when to warm up is important. If you warm up too soon, you run the risk of being cold by the time you’re up to lift. Warm up too late and you are rushing right before you want to hit some big lifts.

Depending on the number of people in my flight, I start my warm up sets while the flight in front of me is starting their second attempts. Having a handler will help you keep an eye on all of that, let you know when your attempt is coming up, as well as telling the scoring table what your next attempts are. Your job should be to lift and then sit back down until you are told to lift again.

9. Bring Snacks and Don’t Get Too Excited

Be prepared for a long day. Many times meets can run over eight hours. Poorly run meets can run twelve or more hours. You could be finished with your squat attempts at 11am and not bench press till 1 or 2pm.

It is important to stay hydrated and nourished throughout your day. Sometimes you can get a meal in, but I am not big on eating meals during the competition.

Having caffeine throughout the day isn’t a bad idea for some lifters, but beware of the designer pre-workouts that amp you up. Remember, this is a long day. The higher up these pre-workouts bring you, the farther they will bring you crashing down. If a powerlifting meet was a one-hour event that would be one thing, but if you are crashing on pre-workouts after your squat and you need another fix, you are going to have a miserable day. By the time you get to your deadlift you are going to be wiped out.

Another reason I discourage taking these — especially early in the competition — is that they amp you up, when you should already be amped up just by being there. One of the keys to having a good meet — and not just a good lift — is to manage your energy. If you start screaming your head off after hitting a big squat and jump up and down like you won the World Championships you will have wasted key energy you needed for your remaining two lifts and numerous attempts ahead.

I wish you the best in your journey in strength and hope to see you on the platform soon!

From GB Swimmer to Bench Press Championships. 1 Year on.

In the late 90’s and early 2000’s I represented Team GB in Swimming whilst holding numerous club, regional and national records. Further to this, I was British Junior Record holder in the 100m Backstroke, as well as gaining 7th place at a European Juniors event. After a brief spell away from the sport in the mid 2000’s, I competed at the World Masters games in 2010, securing gold in the 50m and 100m Backstroke in the 24-29 age group; setting competition best performance times in the process.

The Daily Grind

Having always led an active lifestyle and moving to the Alfreton area, I became a member of Alfreton Leisure Centre in 2007. Whilst I had always fully utilised the amazing facilities that Alfreton Leisure Centre has to offer including swimming, classes and court sports, I started to concentrate on a body building style of weight training with the aim of increasing muscular endurance and strength. Over the years, the fitness instructors and personal trainers here have always been very supportive, actively encouraging its members in different training methods and styles.

In late Summer 2018, and I began to get the desire to compete again. Whilst I still missed the swimming environment, I wanted to try something new. It was after watching a documentary of Eddie Hall that I looked into strength competitions. This is when I found Powerlifting. Powerlifting traditionally consists of 3 main lifts: the squat, the bench press and the dead lift. However, there are competitions within the British Powerlifting calendar that focus on the individual lifts. This was where my focus would lie.

In October 2018, I competed in the East Midlands Bench Press competition in Milton Keynes. Whilst only my first competition, I met the qualifying standard to compete at both the British and English powerlifting championships in 2019. I had, once again, found an activity and sport in which I could challenge within a competitive environment. Alfreton Leisure Centre continued to provide the resources that I needed to alter my training requirements.

Commonwealth Powerlifting Championships in St. Johns

During 2019, I competed at two national events which resulted in podium places. This, amazingly, led to my selection to represent England at the Commonwealth Powerlifting Championships in St. Johns, Newfoundland, Canada. I couldn’t turn this opportunity down. At the competition, not only did I gain a personal best weight, but amazingly I won gold! To represent my country in a second sport was something that I aspired towards – it was a long-term goal but didn’t think it would happen within 12 months.

I have many aspirations and goals for the future within the sport of Powerlifting, as I continue to make progress on my personal best weights, whilst also aspiring for selection to Team GB.

I am also currently studying to become a Level 2 Fitness Instructor, moving on to the British Powerlifting Level 1 Powerlifting certifications before the year is out. Alfreton Leisure Centre has always supported my journey and given me the equipment, knowledgeable staff and encouragement to do so.

Happy lifting!