TNT - A Simplified Approach to Powerlifting

June 4, 2002 12:42 PM

I do not claim to be an expert on Powerlifting by any means. I am not a Ph.D., or a "qualified" coach, and have never had any formal training in Physiology, Kiniesiology, or even had a class in Anatomy. All my formal training has been done with a book or magazine in my hand, a healthy dose of skepticism on my mind, and then OP checked by my minions in the gym. Well, actually just by me and the few people I train with. What I am about to discuss is not original, it is the Locus of Training theories of people like Fred Hatfield, Louie Simmons, Mel Siff-Supertraining, R.A. Roman, Comrade Pavel, Brian Wadie, the late Dawn Sharon, Bill Starr, Mike Mentzer, Gary Frank, and many jumbled together conversations with many people, many articles digested, and some things rejected.

I am a moderately successful lifetime drug free powerlifter. I have good genetics for the Squat, OK genetics for the Bench Press, and poor genetics for the Deadlift. I like to compete and have been competing for over 25 years, starting as a 132 in an Olympic lifting meet and having lifted through every class up to 242. Each of the following subjects could generate a volume on their own. This is a brief overview of the three most important factors in Powerlifting training, in my opinion.

Tension- Simply put, muscular tension is the key to everything, not failure and not fatigue or "the pump". You must put your muscles in situations where they must develop significant tension. There is some debate of how to measure or calibrate this concept of tension, but I think the best way is to use the Maximum lift one is capable of performing. This is referred to as the "1RM"-your 1 rep max. It is best to note what type of gear you are or are not using when you completed this lift. You are set up to fail if you base your training on a full gear squat, and then try to build a training cycle in which you will not be using all that gear. You must use weights between 40-120%(Siff) to effectively train, and in practice about 66%(Siff) is the bottom amount that is really useful. 90% and above weights (we can generally do 1-3 reps with these) yield the best strength gains but burn out the CNS rather quickly, 3 workouts of the same exercise above 90% is the CNS limit in my actual experience and that agrees with everything I have read. We can get almost the same strength gain from going a little lighter, working in the 4-6 rep range, and we will even gain a little muscle hypertrophy and no CNS burnout (Siff). Always try to move the weight concentrically as fast as possible(Hatfield/Simmons). There are many methods to increase tension; isometrics, overload eccentrics, bands, chains, hyperirradiation, plyometrics, and partials. They will all work in moderation, but you must keep hammering away at those 70-89% weights, do an occasional single or two with 90-95%, and every once in a while throw in a partial range of motion exercise at 100-120%. This is particularly effective for the Bench Press and Deadlift lockout. Adding chains and/or heavy rubber bands to the bar is an ingenious method to add more tension as the joint angles and leverages improve through the range of motion. Tension is King! It is the only thing your muscles can perceive.

Number of Barbell Lifts-I used to be enthralled at "The Barbarians" and Dorian Yates and their balls to the wall training style. Getting those hard fought last couple reps were the key to getting bigger and stronger I believed. WRONG! Intensity is not a grimace and a backwards baseball cap, it is a mathematical formula! That Mathematical formula is based on all the reps you do above about 40-50% of 1RM in a time period, say a month, and what the percent of your 1RM was your average rep. Lets say you benched 330 in your last meet in a shirt. Your best in training raw is 295. Your first month of training you bench once a week and do the following workouts: 205x8x2, 215x8x2, 225x8x2, and 230 x7, 6. Your volume is equal to (205x16)+(215x16)+(225x16)+(230x13)=13,310 lbs. 13310lbs/61 lifts=218.2 lbs. 218.2 lbs/295 lbs=74% average intensity. This is rather high average intensity. You will get stronger doing this workout, if you can do it! 8 reps are fine for bodybuilding or building strength endurance, but not best for getting stronger! You would have done better if you had gotten 3 sets of 5 or 5 sets of 3(15 reps) vice the 7 and the 6(13 reps) on week 4. Doing 15 reps in the workout with 78% is better than doing 13 reps with 78%, regardless of how many sets you do. You would be doing even better benching twice a week, and eventually even more times per week. You should ballpark attempt to keep the average intensity between 65 and 75% in each macro cycle. In order to get stronger as you progress further and further and cycle after cycle, you will have to do more Barbell lifts in both the preparatory and competitive cycles, while keeping that intensity in the proper range. You will have to do more sets of each exercise, keeping the reps a rep or two away from failure The competitive cycle should have about 15-30% less barbell lifts than the preparatory cycle, but a few more lifts in the 80-95% range and with the loss of most of the reps in the sub 70% range. American Powerlifting Periodization workouts generally have you starting out with multiple sets of 8 or more reps than dropping through the cycle to a big double for a set or two and training each lift once a week. This will only work if you are a beginner (everything will work when you start out!), genetic freak and/or you are on the best drugs available. There a many permutations and combinations of workout schemes you can try! -3x3, 5x5, 54321, 32123, 8x3,the list is endless, but your recovery ability is not! A key idea here is you do not have to work to failure. A great guideline is to do 5-6 reps with a weight you can do 10-12 reps with as your core sets. (Roman/Pavel)
PercentReps per SetOptimal TotalRange
70 and below3-62418-30

Prilepin's table is based on his study of more than 1000 Olympic, National, and European Olympic weightlifting Champions. This gives an idea of how to structure individual workouts. Training is as much Art as it is Science so these are guidelines. Damn good guidelines! Remember, what matters is the Number of Barbell Lifts with a particular percent of your 1RM in a given training workout, week, or month! How many total reps to do in a month is an area I am currently working on. RA Roman, a Soviet Weightlifting coach, claims an Olympic lifter can should do 1250-2100 lifts in a month in the prep cycle and 900-1500 in the competition cycle, based on your level of qualification. They are training for two lifts and we are training for three, so I do not think these numbers are inaccurate. For me that would mean 2100 lifts spread out over the 16 workouts I do in a month. Doing 5 sets of 5 in 5 exercises gets me to 125 lifts. Honestly that is a little more than I do now but I am working on it. I might need to increase my work capacity. I just got an insight that I will put to work! With the exception of some recovery enhancement work, rehabilitation, or prehabilitation, there is little need for a powerlifter to do more than 6 reps. It is better to do more reps via more sets of lower reps than a few all out sets of higher reps. Working to failure teaches failure! You do need to practice some singles to learn to do what you will need to do in a meet, doing one perfect rep. You do not get mentally fired up for a training lift, however! 90-95% will work just fine, just do it and put it back in the rack. I have never squatted more than 655 in training. 705 is my current meet max. 50-60 pounds has been a consistent amount for me to expect above a training single, even if the training single was hard. If you have to prove every lift to yourself in the gym, you have a head problem and this article will not help you!

Technique-After many years in the sport, I am still continually amazed at how seemingly minor technique issues can make the difference between success and failure. This could get very long and involved, but I will simplify and hit the most important things. Gear. If you use it-not interested in debating gear use-learn what it does to your groove and work that groove. For instance a squat suit will push you forward in the squat and keep your hips high in the DL. A bench shirt requires you to lower the bar to your sternum or below, not your nipple line. Do not discover this in a meet! Powerlifting gear helps at the bottom of the lift, but it does not help you at lockout. If you use gear, you MUST attack your absolute strength for lockout or you will not get the maximum out of the gear.

Shortest distance. You want the bar to move on the shortest line possible, a straight line. This is not a huge coaching point in the squat, but in the Bench and Dead you must learn an efficient bar path. In the BP do not push back over your face, push straight up like you were doing a decline BP. Keep your elbows as tight to your body as possible. Learn to use your lats; they are critical for stability if you use a shirt. In the DL pull the bar straight up to your knees and then back toward you at lockout. You will get an almost vertical bar path. If the bar gets forward on you, you now must pull it back into you before you can pull it up. In my opinion, lockout strength is not in the traps, it is in the hips and grips. Nobody gets stuck unable to do a shrug; they get stuck with hips flexed and knees bent.

Arch. You must keep your body tight in all lifts and your back arched in the Squat and BP. Arching also involves strong abs and rhomboids. Heavy ab work and targeted upper back work is the key to staying tight. I will not comment on an arch in the DL, as my short arms do not allow me to arch in the DL.

Shin Angle. In the SQ/DL, you want to keep your shins as vertical as possible, and never let your knees get forward of your toes. The sheering force could be career ending! Keep your weight on your heels as much as possible. Even in the BP, keep your shins vertical as you setup to bench. When you drive with your legs and your knees are forward of your toes you will get a vertical force at your hips and your butt will rise off the bench. If your shins are vertical or greater you can drive with your legs and the force will be horizontal at your hips and stabilize you.

Lift Differences. Each of the three powerlifts ends with a display of absolute strength. However, each lift requires a different type of starting strength. The Squat requires you to lower the weight then rise back up. No pause is required so it is optimal to employ the stretch reflex to blow out of the bottom. The Bench Press requires us to lower and pause the bar motionless at the chest. No way to maximize the stretch reflex here! A different type of starting strength than the Squat! The deadlift is the strangest as there is no eccentric portion of the lift, just a concentric start from dead stop. In the squat and bench press we should practice starting exactly the way we will compete, pausing in the Bench and reversing quickly out of the bottom in the squat. In addition it is good to practice the other way, i.e. doing pause squats and fast touch and go benches. In the Deadlift, in my opinion and experience, doing singles is optimal. The first rep is a different experience in the deadlift. If you don't agree, take a loaded barbell off the rack in your deadlift technique, and do a deadlift after lowering it like you do in the squat or bench. You can do more than your meet single. This is actually an excellent training technique to increase tension!

In conclusion I realize I might have raised questions and not given enough answers. These are the high points of the training concepts I use today, and what I wish I knew 25 years ago. I have not covered nutrition, rest, assistance work, balancing life's priorities, risk, tactics and strategy, correcting weaknesses, or tapering. I do not know how to apply this to bodyweight only training or to another sport. This is strictly about getting meet strong. As fun as a meet can be, the true beauty of the sport for me is devising ways to push my body to succeed. Every workout is a step towards walking onto that platform. Enjoy the trip!

Jack Reape, AKA powerlifter54, is a Graduate with Merit of the US Naval Academy with a BS in Operations Analysis. He serves in the US Navy and competes locally and nationally when time permits. He is a multi time State, Region, and US Military National Champion.