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.