When I was younger I heard something that to this day has made the biggest impact on my life, and that was to have a purpose. At the time it was applied mostly to sports and training. When you're a teenage kid you don't have much of a life other than school and sports. I didn't really understand the full meaning of that until I was out of college and had to deal with being an adult.
Having a purpose in life not only as a lifter, but also in every facet of your life, is key. Webster defines purpose as the reason why something is done or used. What is the purpose for what you are doing; not only what you are doing but more importantly HOW are you doing it? What is the quality of your effort?
When you're passionate about something it is very easy to be motivated because it is something you love and care about. You want to know more about it. In 2008, when I started competing in powerlifting, I fell in love with the sport immediately and was "bitten by the iron bug." But I always come back to that question . . . "What is the purpose?"
I see a lot of novice and intermediate lifters hitting plateaus and getting stuck spinning their wheels. Instead of asking why or what is the purpose of my programming and training, or why is what I'm doing not working, they will search for something else. They will try a new program, the better program.
Or their "goal" is very vague. "I just need to work on getting stronger." A vague goal will lead to a vaguer result. A specific goal produces a specific result. This is where purpose/education and constant evaluation comes into play.
Powerlifting is just like any other sport. If you're a football coach and the opposing offense is crushing your team you better go in at halftime and make adjustments to figure out a way to stop them or it's going to be a long night. It's an evaluation process - what are they doing? There has to be a purpose for what you are doing or plan to do. The same goes for powerlifting. If you are spinning your wheels, not making progress or you think it should be better, then evaluate what you are doing.
Why are you doing 5x3, 5x5, 8x3, 6x4? What percentages are you using? How does Prilepen's chart of Mell Siff's more updated version apply? This is where average powerlifters turn into good and great powerlifters, by evaluating their program and successes and failures.
This involves the critical thinking process, not just program hopping from one template to the next. There is always an answer, there is always a "method to the madness." This is where I made many of my strength gains and successes, learning and understanding why I'm doing what I'm doing and also what works best for me. We've all heard the phrase "you have to find what works best for you." While that is true, for novice and intermediate lifters that doesn't mean a whole lot because they don't know how to evaluate what they're doing.
Finding the purpose is one of the most important aspects of being successful in anything that you do. This is especially true in powerlifting. Ask any great powerlifter why he is training the way he is, or why he is doing a particular exercise, rep scheme, or percentage and he will tell you exactly why and what he expects it will do for him. Have a purpose as a lifter in your training and if you define those goals and purposes you will see your lifts and PRs take off!
When I first started powerlifting in 2008 I was competing in bench only and was using a very linear progressive bench template I found from Ryan Kennelly. I had one designated day of bench where I followed percentages and built up from volume to intensity over 8 weeks, but the rest of my schedule was what I was doing previous to 2008, which was a basic bodybuilding program.
I was naturally somewhat strong, and at 157 lbs. in my first meet ever in North Carolina competing in the USAPL I benched 275. I won in my weight class, set some state records and felt pretty good. I thought this was fun, I love lifting and can be good at it. I continued with the way I was doing things, and competed in March 2009 and benched 282 at 159. That summer I competed in my last bench only meet and was looking to bench 300, but I missed two attempts at 300 and only made 275 at 163. I decided something needed to change so I started researching powerlifting programs and found Louie Simmons and the Westside Barbell template.
Like most lifters, I got it. It made sense! I read Louie's articles and bought his earlier videos. I set up my basic template and began to train Westside. I did not pretend I was as strong, experienced or conditioned as the lifters at Westside, and I had dialed back some of the work. I did not do any sort of near max work, and my routine consisted of rotating different maximal effort lifts and incorporating speed work twice a week. I was seeing good progress and trained this way for 3 years. I went from 1175@181 to 1625@198.
I remember carrying my box into commercial gyms and hooking dumbbells up with bands to squat and bench! Being young and just starting to get into strength training, I made good progress and then decided to modify the Westside template because I was getting beat up and my pecs were really giving me issues. Floor press hurt along with speed bench with bands. I have to say that Louie is a great coach, because I emailed him a few times and he took time to answer my emails and helped me out with how to adapt some of the training to raw lifting.
I noticed that I could box squat 404 with double green bands on each side at 190 bodyweight, but when I took the bands off and did a free squat I wasn't getting much carryover. I began to think what was the purpose? Why were my pecs killing me?
I videotaped my form and critiqued it as much as possible, but what I found was the fast eccentric portion of the lift, especially for bench, really strained the pecs. Over the course of 3 years I had 4-5 pec strains and I'll admit that I was not doing the GPP or "extra" workouts that Westside does. That was a contributing factor to some of my injuries and pec issues. My bench and squat were stalling and I just wasn't getting a lot of carryover.
I began to look at some of the top raw lifters in the world and how they were training, looking for consistent correlations between all their programs, specifically exercises or rep schemes. Some things I noticed were:
1) There was not a lot of variance between types of bars.
2) There wasn't much box squatting.
3) There were much longer strength phases of 3-5s for sets at particular percentages.
Why were they doing this? Why was this so different from Westside? As I mentioned earlier, I think most people do not realize the amount of GPP, conditioning and extra workouts Westside incorporates into their volume work. Most people see the template, see how to rotate max lifts and incorporate the speed work and that's it. That will quickly put a ceiling on your potential.
One thing I learned was that work capacity was a huge component for seeing consistent progress. Work capacity was your ceiling. If you could increase your work capacity you were also increasing your potential of strength. I began to look into the basic 5/3/1 template and Jim Wendler's program. Working in a particular range of percents/rep and what is optimal in the 3-5 rep range did wonders for me at this point. My lifts started to shoot through the roof because my work capacity of handling more reps went up and my ceiling of strength started to increase. I did this template for about 2.5 years and went from 1625@198 to 1800@220. I made my own adjustments in terms of the percents and prescribed sets.
What I changed was in getting ready for a meet I would not do the usual three prescribed working sets but instead only do one all out rep max for that particular rep scheme. Preparing for a meet I would put on 5-10 lbs. each month and each cycle, really working on a maximal effort rep max. After the meet I would back off and do the prescribed three working sets.
One thing I started to notice was adaptation. I found the rotation of 5/3/1 was starting to come too quickly. I was seeing better results staying in a particular rep range for a longer period of time. This is where I started to look at quality of reps and not just only getting them done. I was noticing I was grinding a 5 rep max PR but failing a single rep max PR. Why? Wasn't I becoming stronger? I was hitting 5 and 3 rep max PRs and grinders but when competing it was not translating to a meet PR. The speed of the weight was not increasing, it was not feeling lighter. One (single) rep is power and power is not defined by a number but the rate at which work is done. The correlation between speed, strength, and force development is not just making the muscle stronger but also getting the muscle to fire quicker to develop force and power.
I started researching CAT (compensatory acceleration training). Fred Hatfield had made this popular in the early 1980s by simply producing force through the entire range of motion in a particular rep range and completing an optimal amount of reps, sets and volume while also incorporating maximal force to the bar. It was similar to Westside and the dynamic method but without an accommodating resistance (bands and chains). One the the greatest raw squatters, Sam Byrd, also used this by working on his conditioning and work capacity with volume, but also increasing power and force development with the CAT principle of applying maximal force to a sub max weight. It has become VITAL and extremely important for my training.
In the past four months I have been using Paul Carter's Base Building template and found that I was doing very similar training, i.e. staying in a certain rep range or "phase" for a bit longer to increase work capacity but also feeling the weight getting faster and lighter and the moving up from there. I made some changes of my own to the template in terms of sets and reps but I give credit where credit is due and it is a very solid program that I like.
For my percent work or rep ranges where I am hitting 60-75%, my sets and reps are all done with the CAT principle with focus on form and force development. Anything at 80% and greater I'm doing pause reps and using a belt for the lifts. I'm also doing a little more volume work to not only increase work capacity but also muscular development to correct imbalances. I've found this to be crucial for injury prevention because as powerlifters we need to be muscular to be a well balanced athlete. Imbalances can be created and wreak havoc on lift progression. I have recently suffered a compression fracture in my t-9 vertebra and while it's a mild compression, there's not a whole lot to do other than give it time to heal. Preventing this issue from happening again will involve incorporating more smaller exercises to help balance out my muscular development and strength.
Everyone hears "work on your weaknesses". Look at that as a muscular development issue as well, not just from an exercise weakness standpoint.
Think of powerlifting like any other sport. In track and field not everyone is a sprinter and not everyone is a long distance runner; therefore training is much different for each sport. I was a long jumper and sprinter in college and I have always been a quick explosive athlete. I find that CAT helps me a lot and has great transfer and keeps me at a high rate of force development. ave the volume to increase my work capacity and to raise my ceiling of strength. A good balance of both help me constantly make progress. For someone who is not as quick or explosive or responds to that style of training, more volume and work is going to be more beneficial to you.
You have to go through a little trial and error to find that sweet spot for yourself.