A Gym Rat’s Guide to the One-Rep Max

1repmaxthumbShow me a person who doesn’t want to be strong and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t get off the couch very often. The ability to move heavy objects and perform physically demanding tasks is just plain cool. When you’re strong, you don’t have to walk around thumping your chest like an idiot, people will stand up and take notice.

Since most of us don’t go around lifting cars or chopping down trees with our bare hands, the easiest place for us to demonstrate strength is in the weight room. Gyms become our stage where we act out our physical abilities.

And the greatest act of all is the one-rep max.

Once reserved for powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, and dumbbass kids who wanted to show off for their friends, now trainees from all backgrounds can benefit from knowing their 1RM. Athletes and gym rats alike can test their 1RM and then program their training accordingly to meet specific goals.

But why is it important? How do we test it? Most importantly, what the hell do we do with that knowledge?

The One-Rep Max (1RM)

Just what the heck is it?

The 1RM measures the amount of force your muscles can produce in a singular maximal effort. Some folks are better suited physically for the 1RM than others. This typically has to do with genetics because every body has a certain blend of muscle fiber types, unique bone lengths, and muscle attachments. Those having a preponderance of Type II (fast-twitch) muscle fibers, shorter limbs, and lower muscle attachments are better prepared to lift heavy weights.

If you’re not blessed with any of those attributes, the hurdles on your track to strength gains may be a little higher. However, there is good news: anyone can become stronger by putting forth consistent effort.

Why do I need to know my 1RM?

The 1RM is vital for continued success in the gym because it’s real and concrete. It’s not hypothetical or assumed. Once you know your 1RM, you’ll have a better idea of where you stack up against your peers. Your 1RM lets you know exactly where you stand at any specific moment in time. With your known 1RM, you can set goals, chart a course of action, and test yourself again in hopes of setting a new personal record (PR). After all, the PR is what we’re all aiming for.

So, we’re gonna do curls, right?

Nope. Big, compound, free-weight barbell movements are the ones we want to test. We’re talking about the squat, bench press, deadlift, power clean, overhead press, and all of the variations thereof. In other words, you might also want to test your 1RM in the front squat, box squat, board press, or rack deadlift, but don’t bother testing your 1RM in dumbbell exercises or movements like step-ups, lunges, 1-arm dumbbell rows, or triceps extensions because you’ll most likely hurt yourself (and look stupid in the process).

Who should test for a 1RM?

Novice trainees with fewer than two years of training experience should not test their 1RMs; these folks need to focus on learning proper exercise form and developing their technique according to their individual body structures. Additionally, if you’re new to the iron game, you’ve got plenty of time to improve and your newbie gains will come so fast that your maxes will change every week.

Intermediate lifters with more than two years of training under their belts can begin thinking about testing their 1RM. Advanced lifters should already know their maxes (if you don’t, just what the heck are you waiting for?!)

Your current state of preparedness will let you know if you’re ready to test a 1RM or not. In other words, if you’ve taken a break from training or have spent most of your time handling weights in the 8–15 reps range, you’re not prepared. If you typically train big compound lifts in the 5-8 rep range, then you’re getting closer.

The Psychology of the 1RM

When you hit a heavy single, it’s a different ballgame. Not only is your mental state different, but the way you approach this event physically will be different as well. Imagine yourself getting under a bar loaded with 135 pounds and having to squat it 10 times. You’re probably saying to yourself, “Well, this is just a warm-up set, so let me bang these out and work up to my heavier sets.”

Now imagine loading the same bar with 500 pounds and see what’s running through your mind!

Heavy singles require a unique mental approach in that they require increased attention, mental focus, intensity, and muscle recruitment. When you approach a max lift, you’d better be incredibly focused. If not, you’re setting yourself up for some big hurt.

Visualization before a max lift helps focus the mind on the task at hand. Repeating positive mental cues like “hips back, knees out, and chest up” can breed confidence. Music is a great motivator. This is the time to crank up the iPod with your favorite training song and get pissed off.

(Side note: My good friend and former training partner, six-time IPF World Powerlifting Champion “Captain” Kirk Karwoksi, used to listen to AC/DC’s Back in Black while remembering the douchebag who cut him off in traffic earlier that day. By the time he approached a max attempt, he was like a caged animal. His rage-induced frenzy transformed him into a ticking time bomb just waiting to explode into the bar.)

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Raw Powerlifter Ryan Celli understands the mindset required for hitting a heavy single

(Photo courtesy of Celli’s Fitness Center)

Training for the Max Attempt

If you’ve never tested your 1RM, or if it’s been a while since you’ve trained heavy, set aside at least a month to begin working up to heavy singles. Start hitting sets of five for a week or two, then drop to three reps for two weeks, then hit some singles the last two weeks. This doesn’t mean you’ll go to failure on each set. If your normal bench workout has been 225 pounds for 3 sets of 10 reps, then it’s time to start adding weight. In your next workout, try something like this:

[sets x reps]
•Bar x 10
•135 x 8
•185 x 4
•225 x 2
•235 x 5
•245 x 5
•255 x 5

This approach will start bringing your body (and more importantly, your central nervous system or CNS) up to speed for heavy singles. Maybe your next session can include more triples, such as:
•Bar x 10
•135 x 8
•185 x 4
•235 x 3
•250 x 3
•260 x 3
•270 x 3

The key on your warm-up sets is to prepare your body, CNS, and mind for the heavier weights. Don’t bother with more than five reps per set unless it’s an early warm-up set. Performing lots of reps on your warm-up sets will only fatigue you and take away from your heavier work sets. Remember that you’re training for “Go!” and not just for show.

A third week might follow this progression:
•Bar x 10
•135 x 8
•185 x 4
•235 x 3
•255 x 3
•265 x 3
•275 x 3

And a fourth week might look like this:
•Bar x 10
•135 x 8
•185 x 4
•235 x 2
•255 x 2
•275 x 2
•285 x 1
•295 x 1

Don’t be afraid to use the little plates when working your way up. If all you ever add is large plates, your progress will stall. It doesn’t make you any less of a badass to use the 10s, 5s, and 2.5s. At our training facility we’ve got .25kg plates for those times when all that’s needed is one more pound for a huge lift. Trust me, sometimes a few pounds is all you’ve got, and it’s better to increase by that couple of pounds and keep making progress than to always jump big and miss.

Time to Test!

After a couple of weeks of heavy singles, it’s time to test your 1RM. Get a good night’s sleep the night before, make sure you’re well fed, and remove as much stress from your life as possible. When you get to the gym, warm up for a few minutes, do some dynamic mobility movements relevant to the lift you’re testing, put your mind in the right place, and get after it.

If you’re testing your squat or bench press, make sure you have competent spotters. Warm up just enough to prepare your body for your heavier attempts.

Here’s a progression based on the previous examples:
•Bar x 10
•135 x 5
•185 x 3
•225 x 2
•255 x 1
•280 x 1
•Test!

After you make your initial attempt, assess how you feel and increase accordingly. Be true to yourself. If possible, take video of your max lifts. Not only can video highlight breakdowns in form, but sometimes can show that perception and reality are two totally different things. Any weight over 90 percent of your max is likely to feel heavy. However, sometimes you’ll watch the video and realize that your bar speed was lightning fast. If your initial testing weight feels good, add 5-10 pounds. Keep going until one of three things happens: you miss a weight, you grind it out and realize there’s nothing left in the tank, or your form becomes so much of a train wreck that continuing presents a health risk.

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A competent spotter is a MUST for testing your 1 Rep Max

After the 1RM Test

Once you have your 1RM, take a moment to bask in the glory of your efforts. After you come back down to earth, grab a calendar, put pen to paper, and plan your next training cycle. The first step is setting realistic goals.

If you just squatted 475 pounds for the first time, it’s very tempting to set a goal of 500-pounds as the next “big” number. However, you’ll want to consider the timeframe for when you plan to achieve that goal. If you only give yourself four weeks, don’t expect a 25-pound increase. You’d be better off settling for 480 pounds or perhaps a little more.

I’m not suggesting that you always sandbag your efforts. I just know that small, incremental, and steady progress is superior over the long haul. When you’re feeling energetic and strong on a test day, then ride the wave and push yourself to the limit because you never know when that wave will come around again. Otherwise, be happy with achieving the next five pounds. A PR is a PR no matter how large or small.

Periodizing Your 1RM

Some form of periodization usually works best when training to improve your 1RM. Resist the urge to retest your lifts the following week. Unless you have some heavenly revelation from above, your lifts won’t improve that quickly. Trust me, you’ll want to devote at least a good 8-12 weeks to hard training before you test again.

In fact, many seasoned, competitive powerlifters only compete two to three times a year. Take a page from that book and pick two to three dates per year when you plan to reassess your 1RMs. Once you select your dates, count back to the current date. Now you have the number of weeks you have to work with.

Mapping out an annual training plan is indicative of a trainee who is transitioning into a different stage of his or her lifting career. Intermediate and advanced trainees are wise to create a roadmap toward a goal. A training plan serves as a blueprint or an outline but is not a contract. It gives you the flexibility to adjust on the fly and make changes when necessary.

A Few Resources to Check Out

The best way to improve your 1RM is to train with percentages of your max because they provide the ability to train within specific intensity ranges. You don’t have to look very far on the internet to find that there are a myriad of templates to choose from. You can choose something as basic and linear as Bill Starr’s classic 5 x 5 system, Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 Method, Westside, Boris Sheiko’s system, the Bulgarian system, or use one of my personal favorites, Prilepin’s Table.

Regardless of which path you head down, recognize that strength is a journey and not a destination. You can always add one more pound to the bar. The 1RM affords you the opportunity to approach your training in a more calculated and focused manner with a real target in your sights: your new PR!

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Posted in Matt Gary Articles

Training Specificity for Powerlifters

RoadMapToPRNavigating the tortuous road to athletic achievement requires a comprehensive roadmap. Motivated trainees are constantly searching for the latest protocol that will transport their performance to the next level. They will scour the Internet for the most recent training methodology. Athletes will dive into the pool of printed media including articles, journals, periodicals, and texts in an effort to find the missing link that will take them from novice to elite. Some will even travel cross-country to attend seminars, taught by experts, in their respective endeavor. These options require one to use much of their disposable time. In an age where time is such a rare and precious commodity, trainees often waste their time by looking in the wrong places for answers to the physical achievement riddle.

When you aren’t reaching your goals, there are not an infinite number of places to look for the answer. For athletes, the answer usually falls into one of the following general categories: nutrition, recovery, or training. Within each of those categories lie many subcategories. For example, within the nutritional category there are pre-training meals, post-training meals, supplementation, fluid intake, as well as health-related issues such as allergies and diabetes. If we’re examining recovery, we need to consider rest between training sessions, time between competitions, sleep patterns, attention to injuries, prehabilitative modalities, and the list goes on. Within the training arena there are many variables such as exercise selection, intensity, rest periods, technical ability, proper planning, and volume. Within each of those variables lies even more division. All of these ‘places’ to look for your answer can become both confusing and frustrating. Sometimes it feels like we’re looking for a needle in a haystack.

With so many areas to examine, some people overanalyze every aspect of their lives while others stop looking altogether. I’ve certainly been guilty of overanalyzing my own training. Sometimes breaking down every aspect of your pursuit is the answer. Other times the answer might be right in front of you. My best advice is to first scrutinize an area that most forget to consider. Start at square one. Square one is technique. Technique is the foundation of any athletic endeavor. It doesn’t matter if you’re teeing off in a golf tournament, serving a tennis ball, shooting a free throw, squatting 500-pounds, or hurling a javelin – your technique is the single most important aspect of your journey. The good news is that technical mastery is something you have complete control over. While it’s true that some athletes have amazing success with poor technique, they are the exception rather than the rule. You can have all the ability in the world but if you fail to hone your skills, eventually it will show.

Form and technique are terms often used interchangeably. In reality, they mean different things. Form refers to an accepted procedure or set of steps to perform a skill. In the powerlifting squat, it’s common knowledge to break at the hips first, sit back with an arched torso, descend, open your groin by pushing your knees outward, hold your chest up, and keep your abdominals tight by pushing them out. These are some of the key points to remember while descending into a full squat. Regardless of your respective sport, these steps should be followed when performing a power squat. Technique, on the other hand, refers to one’s own approach to those procedures. In other words, it’s your own “artistic stamp” on the performance of a skill. Again, using squatting as an example, we see wide-stance squatters like Eric Kupperstein (immediately below) and then lifters that employ a narrower stance like Kirk Karwoski (below Eric’s photo). Both men have the ability to squat ponderous poundage yet they go about it quite differently. They have crafted their technique during years of training (practice) via thousands of reps and each lifter has created a process that works best for them.

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Eric Kupperstein and Captain Kirk Karwoski both get the job done. They just go about it differently.

Genetics play a huge role in technique. You are not likely to see tall powerlifters squatting with an extremely narrow stance. Typically they’ll squat with a wider stance. Technique can vary based upon gender, genetics, and sometimes you’ll see regional differences as well. Many women use a sumo deadlift stance as it suits their wider hip structure. Many elite Asian lifters will deadlift using ultra-wide sumo stances. Their Russian and Ukrainian counterparts use a more narrow sumo technique.

The best way to perfect your technique and achieve skill mastery is to practice like you play. Appropriate practice methods and specific training are prerequisites for optimizing performance. Optimal results are best achieved through repetitious practice of the necessary skills involved in performing your task. For the competitive powerlifter, this means creating a set-up and execution process for each lift that can be repeated.

Westside Barbell’s Louie Simmons has done a lot for the sport of powerlifting. He has helped revolutionize training methods and the way people examine their training. His contributions to the sport and willingness to help others are laudable. I’ve spoken to Louie a few times, over the phone, and met him in person in York, PA back in 1998. He was generally affable as we spent most of our conversation discussing training.

Louie has developed a near-perfect training system for geared lifters competing in multi-ply powerlifting federations. Multi-ply federations have different standards of performance for their lifts. While the rules of performance are written the same in their rulebooks, their actions speak louder than their words. Having attended more than my share of multi-ply meets, I have witnessed firsthand the dissimilar standards. This isn’t an attack on those federations. It’s reality. While I vehemently disagree with what they allow and deem acceptable, I’m not using this particular medium of expression to mount a personal attack. Lifters have a choice of where they want to compete and I choose to compete in USA Powerlifting. Almost all of the lifters I coach and consult with also compete in USA Powerlifting or the IPF. Accordingly, most of my teaching is directed at powerlifters competing in similar organizations. That being said, I’m interested in explaining why the methods that Louie has popularized aren’t entirely applicable for raw and/or single-ply lifters competing in the AAU, USA Powerlifting, IPF, 100% Raw, and similar federations.

While strength can be expressed in a myriad of ways, it basically boils down to dynamic strength (speed strength / power), maximal strength (max effort / 1RM), and muscular endurance (repetition method). Westside weaves these three methods into a weekly plan where each method is featured on a different day and special exercises are rotated frequently. While the methods themselves aren’t new, his process of employing special exercises is innovative. Westsiders and their disciples use special exercises such as box squatting, board pressing, floor pressing, Zercher squats, and special deadlifts to develop and peak their strength. Couple these movements with changes in grip width or stance and you have hundreds of variations. You can then take those variations and add bands and/or chains to accommodate resistance and manipulate one’s strength curve. Now you have hundreds more. Different specialty barbells can be used with those exercise modifications. The safety squat bar, cambered bar, trap-bar, and Swiss bar are just a few that come to mind. Now those hundreds of exercises soon mutate into thousands. The Westside system is the epitome of variety. It’s a smorgasbord of training modalities. And while many of these thousands of exercises are useful in strength development, powerlifters should not use them at the exclusion of the competition-style squat, bench press, and deadlift.

Special exercises should be used to address your specific weak points and spend more time under tension in your weakest area. While it’s true that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, if the chain is constructed of poor materials (technique) then it’s going to be weak from the outset. Why bother using fancy bricks, imported wood, tile roof, and platinum fortified nails to build your house if your foundation is poured on sand? Developing, enhancing, and honing one’s technique is a lifelong process. Repetitious technique practice is like pouring a solid foundation of concrete. Executing your technique should become deliberate and so habitual that you almost become robotic. In theory, one should be able to set-up a big squat with their eyes closed. The same is true for nearly any physical skill.

The best way to improve at shooting free throws is to practice shooting free throws. While shooting a jump shot or three-pointer look somewhat similar to a free throw, they’re simply not the same. Would a world-class violinist practice on the bass guitar? While the two are both string instruments, they are quite different. The same can be said for box squatting and squatting. I’ve never seen a box squatting competition, so why make it your staple movement? Box squatting may have a place as an assistance move to correct very specific breakdowns in technique, improve hip mobility, strengthen the hip flexors and posterior chain, and to teach lifters to sit back and stay tight throughout the lift. However, it should never take the place of competition-style squatting through a full range of motion (ROM). Board presses follow the same logic. They resemble a bench press but aren’t the same. Many lifters become world-class board-pressers and then bomb at meets because they’ve never done a full ROM bench press in training. That’s foolish. Again, board presses are a wise choice for increasing one’s lockout abilities but not at the expense of developing proper bench press technique through a complete ROM.

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These tools should never replace the competitive lifts

Spending more time under tension and overloading specific points in one’s ROM via the use of bands and/or chains may be an effective method of bringing up a weak point. However, these modalities stress your central nervous system (CNS) in unique ways and change your technique. Performing a deadlift with chains is not the same as a competition-style deadlift. Accordingly, if your CNS gets used to the motor patterns created by the addition of chains, then the motor pathways of the regular deadlift will be left unattended. As powerlifting is one of the best examples of a “practice-like-you-play” endeavor, I would make competition-style deadlifts the staple movement and use bands or chains as assistance work. Too often, we fall in love with the flavor of the week or the exercise of the month and lose sight of what got us there in the first place. I have always espoused that the Westside system is a more appropriate training method for a non-powerlifting, strength/power athlete than it is for a powerlifter. Most football players want to be bigger, stronger, and faster. Westside will get you there as fast as any system. But what does nearly every champion athlete do when they’re in a slump? They return to the basics and fundamentals. Without mastering the squat, bench press, and deadlift – a powerlifter is nothing. If you want to become a better squatter, you must squat. If you want to improve your bench press, then bench press. And if you want to hit PRs in your deadlift, practice deadlifting.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat and there’s certainly more than one way to get strong. If there were only one way to get strong, we’d all be doing it. Nevertheless, there are smarter ways to train for the raw and single-ply powerlifter. After a dynamic and movement-specific warm-up, most training sessions should begin by performing at least one of the competition movements (squat – bench press – deadlift). Some Russian powerlifting coaches, namely Boris Sheiko, espouse the performance of the main lifts and little else. Sheiko’s templates are traditionally developed for masters of sport. While this method affords the lifter maximum skill acquisition in the competitive lifts, it does little to address individual weaknesses, which may lead to breakdowns in technique. Technical flaws occasionally exist due to a lagging muscle group. Other times, technical issues are simply the result of poor execution like not squeezing your hips at the top of a deadlift.

While Sheiko would have you believe that practicing the squat, bench press, and deadlift ad nauseam is the answer, Westsiders would advise the use of special exercises nearly to the exclusion of the main lifts. Frankly, I don’t think either path is the right one for most lifters. I’ve used similar Sheiko-like periodization templates on myself and with my lifters. Currently, we use Prilepin’s Table, almost exclusively, for regulating volume in the squat and bench press. Additionally, we augment the core lifts with a variety of assistance exercises most often resembling the main lift. Ultimately, we meet somewhere in the middle and I think this is the answer for most.

The bulk of a powerlifter’s training should be devoted to the three competitive power lifts. The key to developing expert technique, according to your body structure, is to build your training volume via the number of sets performed not the number of reps. Performing multiple sets of low repetitions provides maximum skill acquisition through increased practice. For example, the training volume for 10 sets of 3 reps is 30 total reps. Similarly, the training volume for 3 sets of 10 reps is also 30 total reps. However, in the first example, the powerlifter gets 10 opportunities (sets) [the Russians refer to them as “approaches”] to practice their technique. The second example only offers three chances. Three sets of ten reps are more appropriate for a bodybuilder pursuing muscle hypertrophy.

Assistance exercises should be specific to the power lifts in two ways – the muscles utilized and your own weaknesses. Assistance moves should be carefully selected to suit your needs, not those of your training partner(s). If you’re weak during the lockout portion of the bench press and your training partner is slow off the chest, you may want to add some lockout work in the rack or with boards. Your training partner may opt for extra-long pauses at the chest.
Above all else, examine your technique first. If possible, videotape your lifts so you can go back and watch how your body moves under a load. Take videos while training at different intensities. Your technique shouldn’t break while lifting 50% of your max. But when you’re above 90%, there’s a chance things can change for the worse. We pour the bulk of our training foundation using weights in the 80-89% intensity range. Our goal is to become highly proficient with moderately heavy weights so we don’t overtrain the CNS yet still train intensely enough to elicit strength gains. The volume of work performed in this range translates directly to enhanced technique with heavier lifts in the gym and on the platform.

While there are many variables beyond a powerlifter’s grasp, there are a few that you have direct control over. You have entire command over your own training. That’s a huge amount of responsibility. Be wise with your time and practice exactly as you play. In the immortal words of a famed Russian powerlifting coach, “If you want to squat more, you must squat more.” Sometimes the simplest approach is the correct one. Strength is a skill and skills are perfected through plenty of practice. Master your technique in the competitive lifts and watch your total increase.

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A Powerlifter’s Guide to Attempt Selection

Selecting appropriate attempts, at powerlifting competitions, is a lost art. Too often, lifters fail to reap the rewards of a long training cycle because they select poor attempts.

“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” – Henry Russell Sanders, UCLA head football coach, 1956.  This famous quote epitomizes the competitive spirit that permeates sports in our society. While this attitude is entirely appropriate in many sports arenas, it doesn’t make much sense in powerlifting. Powerlifting measures physical strength and while competitors typically compete in weight classes against others, their primary goal should be to exceed their previous efforts. Unless you’re competing at the highest levels, winning should be of secondary importance. Accordingly, Grantland Rice’s famous quote, “ . . .it’s not that you won or lost, but how you played the game,” would be more germane to a powerlifter’s quest.

Some might argue that this is a losing mentality. If it’s a loser’s mentality, then I’d like to hear from all the lifters who often win but rarely hit personal records (PRs). I doubt they’re very content with their performance. Success in powerlifting is measured by PRs. The key to hitting PRs is making attempts. Awards, championships, and titles are all nice but they’re rather meaningless if you’re not improving. I have always maintained that I would rather place last, while hitting PRs, than win a competition on a bad day.

I regularly peruse meet results, from every level of competition, and I’m astonished by how many attempts are unsuccessful. I’m aware how difficult it is to push our physical limits beyond what normal folks find plausible. That being said, powerlifters of all levels should make the majority of the lifts they attempt. I am not impressed by the lifters who attempt the heaviest poundage. Instead I’m inspired by those that are actually successful in breaking new boundaries by setting PRs and making most of their attempts. Opening with 750 pounds in the bench press and missing it three times is not nearly as remarkable as the lifter who opens with 452 pounds and after three successful attempts finishes with 496 pounds. That’s the difference between good lifting and bad lifting. Just because you possess prodigious strength doesn’t mean you’re automatically a good lifter. Good lifters make most of their attempts. Some of the strongest people I know are horrible lifters. On the other hand, lifters with much less strength are sometimes the best lifters. Being known as a great attempter is not a title one should strive for. The name of the game in powerlifting is making lifts and hitting PRs. Period.

Selecting appropriate attempts, at powerlifting competitions, is a lost art. Too often, lifters fail to reap the rewards of a long training cycle because they select poor attempts. Powerlifting isn’t like golf. In golf, you can shoot a bad round, then go out the following day and get the sour taste out of your mouth by shooting a low score. In powerlifting, it takes months to prepare for one day. And once that day arrives, you only have nine chances to harvest the fruits of your labor. After that moment, it’s back to the drawing board where we have to analyze what worked, what didn’t, and hopefully we’re able to formulate a successful plan for our next competition. Do not make the mistake of missing an opportunity to display your strength and enhance your total by making poor attempt selections.

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Brad Gillingham and Sioux-z Hartwig-Gary are two prime examples of lifters who make wise attempt selections.

Selecting appropriate attempts accomplishes three goals. It enables you to progress from one attempt to the next without shocking the body and central nervous system (CNS). It affords you the opportunity to build a respectable total and creates the potential to achieve a PR.

The only attempts that matter are the ones you make. Nobody cares about your opening attempt. That’s worth repeating. Nobody cares about your opening attempt. I grow tired of hearing and reading about lifters who open with outlandish numbers. Opening too heavy does little more than initially impress the audience. So, if impressing audiences is your primary objective, then stop reading now and I wish you the best of luck. For those of you that don’t want to look like an inexperienced fool, follow me and I’ll illuminate a smarter path to hoisting your heaviest weights.

Prior to your competition, prepare an outline of tentative attempts. Have light, medium, and heavy options for your second and third attempts. If your warm-ups don’t go as planned, lower your opener. It’s better to get in the meet and take a slightly larger jump to your second attempt than it is to bomb out completely because you were so fixated on a particular opener.

1st Attempt – “The Opener”

The first attempt (opener) is the most important attempt of the three because it’s first. Your first squat is like making that first hit in a football game. It sets the tone for the entire competition. If your opener is too heavy, doesn’t go as planned, or you simply miss it, the odds are much greater that you will miss your second attempt. In fact, if we compiled statistics on lifters who miss their openers, I’d bet the farm that most of them also miss their second attempt. This is especially true when the opening attempt is too heavy.

Unless you’re a freak like Eddy Coan, you won’t be winning any competitions with your openers. If you open too heavy, not only won’t you win, but you’ll rarely have the opportunity to make it to your heavier attempts. Your best bet is to check your ego at the door, open lighter, and build some confidence. The key to building a nice total is making lifts. The more attempts you make, the more likely you are to achieve a personal best.

The primary purpose of your opener is to get you in the meet. Three failed attempts, in any one discipline, results in a “bomb out” and that represents the worst scenario for a powerlifter. Secondly, the first attempt sets you up for a successful second attempt. An easy opener also has a snowball effect and will build tremendous confidence going into your second.

The best way to select an appropriate opening attempt is to treat it like your last warm-up set. If you do this, you will rarely miss it and often be heading into your second attempt, on a positive note, with confidence. In the mid-1990s, when I trained at Maryland Athletic Club alongside powerlifting legends Kirk Karwoski and Sioux-z Hartwig, the rule was: open with your best triple. Whatever weight you could successfully hit for three solid reps was a safe opening attempt. For first-timers, we periodically subtracted 20 pounds from that number. More experienced lifters could open with their best double but that still wasn’t as surefire as your best triple.

While there are no steadfast rules for selecting opening attempts, now we typically plan in terms of percentages. With respect to attempt selection, I coach all my lifters the same way. Your opener should usually be between 90-92% of your one-rep max (competition PR). Tod Miller, the powerlifting coach at Plainwell High School in Michigan, insists that all his lifters open between 85-88% of their best. While I think this is a little on the light side, I can’t argue with his results. I have never seen one of his lifters miss an opener due to a lack of strength. Personally, I’ve never opened heavier than 93% of my best. People often forget that anything above 90% is considered heavy and when lifting heavy loads, there is much less room for error. Your technique needs to be sound enough to maintain the integrity of your form throughout the lift. Once you get above that 92-93% range, you’re skating on thin ice.

As an example, if we use a lifter with a 523-pound (237.5kg) personal best squat, we’re looking at an opener between 470-480 pounds (approximately 90-92% of max). Assuming training went well, then I would have him open at 474 pounds (215kg). Most lifters with a 523-pound max can likely triple or at least double 474 pounds, possibly more. This confirms the “best triple” rule. In essence, the opener should be easy enough that you can make the lift on your worst day or if something goes wrong.

The best laid plans often go awry on meet day. You can’t control the timing of flights, the general flow of the competition, the strictness of the judging, loading errors, etc. Consequently, the opener should be something you can hit even when the world around you is imploding. Case and point, in 2006 when I squatted my all-time PR of 584 pounds (265kg), I was wrapped too long before my opening attempt. It wasn’t my handler’s fault. Unfortunately, there were no 25kg plates and the spotter-loaders had to switch from the 20kg plates to 50kg plates. Fifty kilogram plates are huge and cumbersome. Consequently, the weight change took longer than anticipated and I was standing in my wraps for an extra minute prior to my attempt. My experience prevailed and I remained calm – closing my eyes and visualizing a perfect lift. Fortunately my 529-pound opening attempt was light enough and I smoked it. If you do the math, 529 pounds works out to 91.3% of 579 (my previous PR). Not only did I walk off the platform ready for a strong second attempt but I was supremely confident knowing that I just crushed 91% of my max under poor conditions.

Lifters using supportive equipment need to be even more careful selecting their openers. They are confronted with the issue of opening light enough to get in the meet and build confidence versus selecting weights heavy enough to allow them to achieve proper depth in the squat or touch their chest in the bench press. The modern day bench shirts change the rules of training. However, they should not change how you approach your opening attempt. Even if it means opening in a looser shirt and then switching into a tighter one, there’s no excuse to not touch your chest with an opener. How much weight it takes to touch your chest, the groove of your shirt, etc., should all be determined beforehand in training. Do not leave this to chance on meet day. You must account for last-minute bodyweight changes and the way your gear will fit. The same goes for your squat suit and knee wraps. There is no excuse for not being able to achieve proper depth with your opening attempt. The opener should be as automatic as any attempt you’ll ever take. This is crucial in the deadlift where as the day wears on, your energy reserves become depleted. Therefore, it’s a good idea to make your opening deadlift attempt one of the easiest lifts of the day. We’ll often open right around 90% and sometimes even a pinch lighter to ensure that we stay alive and register a total. If you’ve set a record in either the squat or bench press, it’s always a smart idea to open light in the deadlift to make sure your record counts.

In the event that you miss your opener – repeat it. That’s right, take it again. One of the most common mistakes in attempt selection is increasing the weight after a missed attempt. The instances in which this should be done are extremely rare. It’s one thing if you beat a “rack” command or take an extra step because the weight was so easy. Even then, I’m an advocate of repeating the opening attempt. The probability of making a successful second attempt after a failed first attempt is very slim. Some coaches increase their lifters’ second attempts if they weren’t able to get deep enough or touch their chest in the bench press. Again I implore you to get those issues resolved prior to competition. Unless I’m dealing with an advanced lifter with many years of competition experience, I would never advocate increasing the weight after a failed attempt. I especially wouldn’t allow it if the lifter missed the attempt as the result of a strength issue. What on earth makes you think you’ll magically have enough strength, on the second attempt, to lift more weight than you missed on the first one?

A missed opener immediately puts you in a deficit below what you had planned and hurts your psyche. A positive attitude means everything in the world of physical achievement and powerlifting is no different. A missed opener puts you behind the eightball and places unnecessary stress on yourself. Now there’s increased pressure to go out and make the second attempt. That pressure increases with every missed attempt.

Over the past few years, I have watched a local competitor bomb out of six competitions. That’s right. He’s made zero of 18 bench press attempts. But he’s the king of the warm-up room. He struts around at only 165 pounds bodyweight and benches nearly 450 pounds off of boards. Wonderful. Then he goes out on the platform and either can’t touch his chest with his opener or gets stapled. With each attempt, you can see his energy draining and his attitude fade. I have always wanted to say something to him but he knows more than me. After all, he board presses in the mid-400s in the warm-up room. Is this guy strong? Maybe. I guess we’ll never truly know until he makes an attempt. Is he a good lifter? Absolutely not. Missing lots of attempts, regardless of how much weight is on the bar, is not good lifting. Do not be the fool who falls into the trap of opening the heaviest. The last attempt you make is the one that counts toward your total.

If you always remember to treat your opener like it’s your last warm-up, you’ll make it with room to spare and point yourself in the right direction on the road to success. Then once you have crushed your opening attempt, you can rest easily that you’re in the meet. Now you’re feeling confident and ready for a solid second attempt that will hopefully set you up nicely for a shot at hitting a PR on your third.

2nd Attempt – “The Stepping Stone”

The second attempt serves as a stepping stone or launch pad to your third attempt. In the event that you miss your third attempt, a solid second attempt also builds your total.

“I’m going for a PR on my second attempt because if I don’t get it, I’ll have another shot at it on my third.”

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a lifter utter those words, I’d be chillin’ on a beach somewhere rather than running my own training center. Going for a PR on your second attempt, with even the suggestion that you might miss it, is a loser’s mentality. The likelihood of hitting a PR on your third attempt after you’ve already missed it on your second is as close to zero as it gets. It almost never happens. Do not venture down the path of stooges. I used to apply the same illogical methods to my madness. I would open too heavy and then jump to a PR attempt on my second. Then I started wondering why I was only making an average of four to five attempts per meet. It soon became glaringly obvious that my body and CNS weren’t ready for the shock of a big second attempt. It wasn’t until I began using my second attempt as a “stepping stone” to my third attempt that I resumed hitting PRs.

Again, while there’s no fixed rule for second attempts, it’s still a good idea to think in terms of percentages. Subsequently, the second attempt is typically somewhere between 95-97% and no higher than 98% of your max. If we refer back to our 523-pound squatter who opened with 474 (90.6%), an appropriate second attempt would be 507 pounds or 96.9% of his max. That would represent a 33-pound (15kg) jump from the opener to the second attempt. This is both safe and very effective. Taking anything larger than a 33-pound increase would likely be too much of a shock to the CNS. While the lifter may in fact be strong enough to lift more weight, the body needs to gradually acclimate to the heavier weights especially when you’re operating at near-maximum intensities.

Always make weight increases incrementally smaller. In other words, if you take a 33-pound (15kg) increase from your opening attempt to your second, do not take a larger increase of 44 pounds (20kg) from your second to your third. The rare instance when this would be applicable is if you’re trying to catch a competitor in the deadlift.

Heavier and stronger lifters will be able to make larger jumps from their opening attempts to their second attempts. It’s nothing for Wade Hooper to jump 44-55 pounds (20-25kg) from his opening squat to his second attempt. As Wade is an accomplished pro and an 800-plus pound squatter, that’s entirely appropriate. However, if we take a closer look, a 20-25kg jump for Wade still represents about a 5% increase from opening to second attempts. Until you’re squatting or deadlifting 750 pounds or more, I’d encourage you to limit your jumps to no more than 38 pounds (17.5kg) between first and second attempts. Fifteen kilos is usually a befitting increase in the squat and/or deadlift for lifters with maxes between 500-750 pounds. For many females and lighter lifters, 22 pounds (10kg) and sometimes 27 pounds (12.5kg) is often a perfect jump from an opener to a second attempt. Weight increases in the bench press are obviously smaller as most of us lift less weight. However, when you run the numbers, you’ll find the percentages are essentially the same. A 300-pound bench presser would be wise to open between 270-275 pounds and take 285-290 on a second attempt. That would set them up nicely for a PR on a third attempt of 303-308 pounds.

A solid second attempt prepares your CNS for a heavier third attempt, builds confidence, and adds to your total. Aiming for a PR on the second attempt is risky business and should only be done by very experienced lifters who recognize that they don’t have enough energy left for a big third attempt. In that rare case, expert lifters will occasionally pass on their second attempt thereby saving energy for a big third. Tony Harris, one of the world’s supreme deadlifters, is known for this strategy. He often opens light, surveys his competition, and saves himself for a big third deadlift. Tony is a cagey veteran who trusts his gut instinct. He always knows exactly how much he has left in the tank. For the rest of us mere mortals, be wise and take a solid second attempt that puts you in a nice position for a PR on your final attempt.

2008_2009_Arnolds

In 2008 and 2009, the teams that made the most attempts have won at the Arnold Sports Festival.

3rd Attempt – “Hit a PR! or Add to Your Total”

The third and final attempt is your last chance to add to your total. It’s also the right time to go for a PR.

Assuming your second attempt was solid and you’re confident, then go for the PR! This is the moment we all train for. This is what powerlifting is all about – the next five pounds. All we can ever ask for is an opportunity. Lock n’ load and take your best shot. This is your chance to do something you’ve never done before. Seize the moment and ride the wave because you never know when it might come back again.

Selecting an appropriate third attempt is simple. If you are going for a PR, choose the next five-pound (2.5kg) increment. This is one case where you’re no longer working with percentages. I have never understood why so many people want to take a large weight increase to a huge PR when lifting five pounds more is progress. Taking a shot at a huge PR (more than 10 pounds heavier than your previous best) is occasionally acceptable. If you’ve moved up a weight class, come back from a long layoff or injury, added a new piece of gear, or improved your training methodology, then going for a big PR may be justifiable. Other than that, just be happy with five pounds. This is especially true for intermediate and experienced lifters. We rake and scrape for every pound we can get. Huge gains are common for the novice but once you’ve been around the block a few times, gains come more slowly. Walking away from competitions with four PRs is an anomaly for experienced lifters.

If your second attempt felt heavy or was more difficult than you anticipated, take what’s there – not what you want. Your training could have been on point and your body could be primed for a PR but if your second attempt took seven seconds to complete, there’s a good chance a PR just won’t go. Do not be so stubborn that you lose precious pounds and the chance to build your total. If you’re in a battle with another competitor, take smart attempts to stay ahead, keep pace, or gain ground. At the highest levels of competition, where winning is the primary goal, think in terms of making lifts first. Establishing PRs should be of secondary importance or saved for smaller competitions where you’re already ahead of the pack. Personal best totals are often achieved even when you don’t set PRs in every discipline.

Exceedingly heavy second attempts are also dangerous as they can fatigue you to the extent of missing your third. Not only can a taxing second attempt hurt your chances at making your third, it can also hamper you in the next two events. The next time you’re at a competition, look for lifters that either grind out their second squat attempt and/or completely miss their third. Chances are they’ll only make two deadlifts. Your CNS may not be ready to accommodate 99% of your max on a second attempt. If we look at our lifter who opened with 474 pounds in the squat, imagine if he jumped to 518 pounds (99%). While this is five pounds under a personal best and he may indeed be able to lift 518 pounds, he could run the risk of it taking too much out of him for his third. Some might argue that the difference between 518 pounds and 507 is only 11 pounds (5kg) but when you look in terms of percentages it’s a difference of 2.1% and when you’re operating at intensities above 90%, that’s a substantial amount. I would much rather take my chances with 507 on a second which wouldn’t fatigue me quite as much and put me in a nice position for a PR on the third attempt.

Always play your game and not someone else’s. Do not try to out lift someone whom you know is stronger than you. If your best bench press is 300 pounds and your competitor presses 400, you won’t catch them. Lift within your own capabilities and survey your competition after your opening deadlift. The deadlift is where you can make your move. Lastly, focus your efforts on surpassing your meet PRs. If you’re constantly trying to improve upon gym PRs, your progress in competitions will decline. Ultimately, you will be remembered for what you did on the platform not what you lifted in the gym.

Conclusion

My years of experience assisting and coaching alongside USA Powerlifting President Dr. Larry Maile at the IPF World Championships has been invaluable. I have witnessed firsthand the perils of poor attempt selection. One can learn a tremendous amount simply by remaining silent and watching the best at their craft. When the stakes are high and the difference between snatching gold and finishing fourth is often decided on bodyweight or fewer than 10 kilos, every single attempt is precious. At national and particularly at the world championships, it’s not always the strongest lifter who wins but rather the lifter that makes the most attempts. Being consistent and building your total via eight or nine successful attempts is superb lifting. Don’t get me wrong, anyone can routinely make eight or nine lifts if they’re not pushing themselves or being overly conservative. Oppositely, it takes thought and precision to make that many attempts while forging past previous boundaries.

Lifters who routinely finish competitions with fewer than six successful attempts need to rethink their approach. That’s not good lifting. Good lifters usually make at least six of nine attempts. Setting a PR isn’t always in the cards. All things are never equal and some days are better than others. When you step on the lifting platform, there are many factors you cannot control. However, the weight on the bar is always your decision. Choose wisely.

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Periodization and the Annual Training Plan – Part One

goalSerious and quantifiable improvement, in any quest, necessitates specific goals and objectives with imposed deadlines. If you merely want to get stronger this year, then visit your local gym and start working out. But, if you wanted to squat 500 pounds by June 1, then clearly defined and methodical training is essential.

In part one of this article series, I will give a brief historical account of Periodization then define how it applies to training methodology. I will elaborate on the importance of implementing a defined and time-segmented plan into your arsenal. I will also introduce the annual training plan including the different phases that comprise the year. Characteristics of each phase as well as the phase’s time components will be discussed. Lastly, I’ll present some figures illustrating the Periodization of an annual plan.

It has been said, “If you fail to plan, you may as well plan to fail.” Achieving precise goals requires appropriate planning. Proper planning requires a systematic approach of mapping out methods and strategies at suitable time intervals to ensure task completion. In the realm of athletics and sports, planning is germane to preparing for competition and helping athletes achieve high levels of training and performance. Without blueprints or roadmap directing you toward a goal, the probability of successful achievement is dubious. Your plans should not be so rigid and inflexible to the extent of compromising the integrity of the mission. Coaches and athletes need to be able to discern when to back off and when to push one’s limits. The annual plan simply serves as an outline to direct and focus your efforts.

In organized team sports, coaches and trainers are responsible for scheduling training. Athletes must then rely on the coaching expertise of the staff. In sports contested by one person like boxing, golfing, powerlifting, skiing, tennis, track and field, and weightlifting, the coach can confer with the athlete and together they can determine applicable schedules. Sometimes in these sports, especially at the novice to intermediate levels, the athlete coaches themselves and is responsible for the training format. This is when athletes will occasionally utilize an aimless and random approach. One of my training partners has recently had success with an arbitrary approach. He is the exception to the rule. When many of today’s competitions are decided by hundredths of a second, a few pounds, one half inch, or one point, I prefer leaving my fate in the hands of science rather than chance.

All planning begins with a specific objective (what?) and a deadline (when?). Certain sports require different and sometimes unique training objectives. All sports require multilateral physical development, sport specific physical development, technical mastery, psychological preparation, injury prevention, and overall theoretical knowledge. Most sports are contested during a specific season or part of the year. Consequently, organizing the annual training plan into a specific time frame is crucial. Minimalism is the best approach when considering training objectives. Only focus on the objectives related to the sport’s specific tasks. High jumpers need not place cardiorespiratory endurance at the forefront of their efforts. Moreover, a marathoner will never be summoned to clean and jerk their bodyweight. Athletes and coaches alike, mistakenly waste valuable time and energy on acquiring irrelevant skills.

The best method of planning goal-oriented training is via Periodization. “The foundations of modern training organization and Periodization were laid in the Soviet Union at about the time of the Russian revolution.” In 1917, Kotov wrote Olympic Sport which detailed the division of training into specific stages. (1) Modern day strength experts, Rippetoe and Kilgore, note that in 1933 Mark Berry exercised weekly Periodization with bodybuilders and weightlifters. In the 1950s, Hungarian sports scientist Lazlo Nadori created a periodized model for his athletes. Famed Russian weightlifting coach, Leonid Matveyev established his thoughts on Periodization in the 1960s and eventually, in 1971, he published them. Yuri Verkoshansky created his own methodology of conjugated loading. As Matveyev’s adversary, Verkoshanksy publicly stated that the idea of Periodization was garbage. Upon further review of his Special Strength Training: A Practical Manual for Coaches, one can deduce that his thoughts on training were also divided into different stages. Dr. Dietrich Harre, an East German sports scientist, edited Principles of Sports Training in 1982 which is an integration of both Nadori and Matveyev. Tudor O. Bompa, PhD was trained in an East German system and his texts prove to be restated modifications of Harre’s thoughts. (2) In 1963, Bompa was credited with developing the theory of “Periodization of strength” in Romania. Bompa helped the Eastern Bloc countries rise to dominance in the athletic world and has since used his system to train 11 Olympic and world championship medalists and elite athletes. As Bompa states, “Planning is the art of using science to structure a training program.” (3)

Suitably, it can be said that Russia and the Eastern Bloc countries have contributed mightily to the training methods employed by most of today’s athletes and coaches. While the theory of Periodization has only been around for nearly one hundred years, the training concept of Periodization is not a new discovery. Flavius Philostratus (170-245AD), a Greek philosopher and sports enthusiast, documented the use of a simple form of Periodization employed by Greek Olympians. It is also well known that civilizations have been systematically training for military endeavors for thousands of years. “The roots of Periodization can be found in the term ‘period’ as in period of time.” In the area of sports training, Periodization means dividing the yearly training plan into smaller, more manageable training phases. (4)

Once the training objectives and deadlines have been established, it’s time to design the annual plan. Periodization of an annual training plan is marked by three distinct phases: preseason or preparatory, in-season or competitive, and the off-season which is also known as the transitional phase.

The competition calendar dictates formulation of the annual training plan. After a major competition or at the beginning of the calendar year, the athlete or coach marks the dates of competition in the following year. Once those dates are established, training commences with the preparatory phase.

Preparatory Phase: (Preseason)

The preparatory phase is, in many instances, the most important training phase. This is where you build your foundation. Architects and engineers recognize the importance of building a solid base before erecting structures of significant magnitude. They begin by pouring tons of concrete which is then reinforced with steel rods and iron beams. Athletes must follow suit by pouring the bulk of their training volume into this initial phase. Just like tons of concrete, a high training volume is mandatory for adaptation to the imposed stimuli. If inadequacies in training volume exist during this phase, there will be definite, negative, and noticeable consequences during the competitive period.

The three primary objectives of the preparatory phase are as follows:

  1. acquiring and improving general physical training capacity {this is where an athlete’s General Physical Preparedness (GPP) is prioritized
  2. improving the biomotor abilities required by the sport (agility, balance, coordination, endurance, flexibility, mobility, power, speed, strength, etc.)
  3. skill mastery – developing, improving, and perfecting technique

gpp

GPP Tools: attitude needed, work ethic not included

The preparatory phase usually lasts between three and six months depending upon the nature of the sport. Certain team sports might employ shorter preparatory phases but not less than two to three months. “For individual sports, it should be one to two times as long as the competitive phase.” (5) Furthermore, the athlete’s age and sports classification must be considered. The length of the training phase and load characteristics will depend upon the level of the trainee. For simplification, Bompa then divides the preparatory phase into two subphases – general and specific preparation.

The principal objective of the general preparatory subphase is establishing a high level of physical conditioning to promote further training. General physical preparedness (GPP) is emphasized through general exercises as well as those unique to the sport. General exercises need not exactly mimic sport performance unless the sport dictates that rule. Sports like powerlifting and weightlifting are exception to that rule as their training is focused on the exact same tasks that are required during competition. If you take a few months off from squatting or power cleans, don’t expect your technique to look pristine when you resume training. Other sports like basketball, football, hockey, volleyball, and wrestling can take a more generic approach of simply conditioning its athletes to a high level without sacrificing sport technique. In sports like running, rowing, and swimming, where endurance is a necessity, aerobic endurance should be the primary objective of the general preparatory phase. Oppositely, general strength and overall work capacity should be the focus of strength related sports such as gymnastics, football, weightlifting, and wrestling.

The second subphase of the preparatory period is the specific preparatory subphase. Though the training objectives are similar to those of the general subphase, the training becomes more specific and represents a transitional shift toward the competitive season. Training volume is still high but the majority of that volume should be devoted to specific exercises and movements directly related to the sport patterns. At the conclusion of the specific preparatory subphase, training volume is progressively reduced thereby allowing an increase in training intensity. Skill mastery is the focal point of this subphase. Therefore, when the intensity rises, the athlete does not suffer decrements in performance and overall technique.

Competitive Phase: (In-season or Season)

The competitive phase, for most sports, is the actual competitive season. General physical preparation was the basis of the preparatory period and remains the basis of performance.

The primary training objectives of the competitive phase are as follows:

  • perfecting technique to enable performance at the highest level
  • extended improvement of biomotor abilities
  • maintaining GPP

The competitive phase may last as long as four to six months depending on the sport. Team sports require a much longer competitive season than that of a powerlifter, whose competitive phase may be as short as five weeks. Team sports remain focused on skill perfection as they are asked to perform more regularly. Additionally, tactical maneuvers and strategical planning are commonplace during this phase. Conditioning and GPP must be maintained rather than increased. Maintaining GPP decreases the risk of injury to the athlete. Athletes that lose their conditioning level are at an elevated risk of reduced performance and injury. Training volume must be closely monitored so athletes and teams do not suffer lost performance as a result of high volume at heightened intensities. Peaking at just the right moment can be the difference between winning championships and losing seasons. Likewise, the competitive season may be divided into two subphases for organizational means. The precompetitive subphase could feature exhibitions or unofficial competitions that are used for the purpose of a skills evaluation. The main competition subphase would then be applied intently to maximizing one’s potential and facilitating exceptional performance at the main competitions. When multiple competitions are on the schedule, they should be ranked according to importance. Lighter competitions would ideally flow into progressively more challenging tests.

Training intensity should be increased continually until approximately two to three weeks prior to competition. Then the intensity needs to progressively drop in a deload fashion (brief unloading phase) to ensure adequate physical and mental restoration before competing. By tapering training volume and intensity, fatigue and stress can hopefully be eliminated. It is absolutely imperative that the central nervous system (CNS) has sufficient time to recover prior to competition. Systemic fatigue can destroy performance. Allowing the athlete to replenish energy reserves creates the best scenario for optimum performance.

Transitional Phase: (Off-season or Active rest)

Immediately following competitions, long periods of preparation, and hard work, athletes require rest and recovery. Athletes may have high levels of physiological and psychological fatigue. Muscle soreness and fatigue may vanish in a few days but CNS fatigue can remain much longer.

The three principal objectives of the transitional phase are as follows:

  • CNS restoration
  • Analyzing the past training programs and their results
  • Mapping the ensuing annual plan

Bompa believes that the transitional phase is often wrongly named the off-season as the term off-season implies the cessation of all activities and total rest. Sudden interruption of training and passive rest can lead to detraining. Detraining causes the erosion of most gains from the previous training periods. Additionally, completely suspending all activity can lead to other problems including but not limited to headaches, exhaustion, tension, mood disturbances, insomnia, loss of appetite, poor digestion, decreased testosterone levels, diminished motor recruitment patterns which lead to loss of skill, decreases endurance capacity, lost speed, reduction in flexibility, and lowered strength. (6) Many coaches have likened this to mountain climbing. Once you have finished trying to reach the peak, why would you want to walk back down the mountain and start the climb all over again? As a result, Bompa encourages athletes to participate in a transitional phase featuring a time of active rest. Active rest should begin immediately following competition. Training volume and intensity should be gradually reduced. Exercises and different activities should be emphasized over competition tasks. Athletes that compete in water should engage in land activities. On the other hand, swimming can be tremendously therapeutic to athletes like boxers, weightlifters, and wrestlers that compete and train indoors. The only case where total passive rest is admissible is in times of injury. Injuries should be dealt with immediately so the athlete may resume some level of activity as soon as possible. The transitional phase should typically last between three and four weeks but no longer than five weeks. Proper planning of the transitional phase can help ensure that the athlete can begin the new training cycle at a higher level than the preceding year.

Figure 1 below illustrates the Periodization of the annual plan.

period_Fig1
Notice that each training phase is divided into macrocycles. A macrocycle typically represents a period of three to six weeks. One of the easiest ways to schedule an annual plan is to form macrocycles that equate to actual months of the year. Therefore a macrocycle would last four weeks and become very manageable. A microcycle is a smaller unit of time, usually represented by the weekly training program or one week. One individual training session or workout would denote the only cycle or unit of time smaller than the microcycle.

Figures 2 and 3 below represent periodized training plans utilizing a bi-cycle (double peak) and a tri-cycle (triple peak).

period_Fig2

period_Fig3

The more times an athlete is required to peak throughout the year, the more stress an athlete is likely to incur. Consequently, competitions should be prioritized to ensure continued peak performance at the most important times.

Now that Periodization has been defined and the characteristics of the annual plan have been explained, part two of this article series will focus on the three different Periodization groups and their advantages and disadvantages. I will offer preferences and suggestions based upon my own personal powerlifting journey. Part three of the article series will introduce the findings of Alexander Sergeyevitch Prilepin and how they apply to all strength trainees, then deal with specific training volume, suitable intensities, as well as time management and organization. Upon completion of the series, my hope is that athletes and more specifically powerlifters will ultimately be equipped with the necessary knowledge to create a periodized annual plan of their own.

 

References

1. CyberSport Quarterly, Gideon Ariel, November 1996.

2. Practical Programming for Strength Training, Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore, PhD, 2006, pp. 206-207.

3. Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training, Fourth Edition, Tudor O. Bompa, PhD, 1999, p. 150.

4. “Primer on Periodization” Tudor O. Bompa, PhD, June 2004.

5. Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training, Fourth Edition, Tudor O. Bompa, PhD, 1999, p. 216

6. Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training, Fourth Edition, Tudor O. Bompa, PhD, 1999, pp. 224-225

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Discipline and Regret

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed,..” Theodore Roosevelt

speroTIn 1983, my sixth grade geography teacher was Spero Tshontikidis (pictured left). In addition to teaching, Mr. Tshontikidis was a competitive powerlifter in the ADFPA. He brought powerlifting to our school and convinced the principal to allow him to start a powerlifting team. The first day he mentioned it to the class I thought powerlifting sounded cool and decided to give it a try. After all, what eleven-year-old boy doesn’t want to grow up to be big and strong? Spero taught us how to squat on the first day of powerlifting practice. I had never touched a weight let alone squat. I remember my hips and hamstrings were so tight that I had to put my heels on a 2″ x 4″ in order to hit proper depth. I did three sets of ten reps with 95 pounds. On the way home I noticed my legs getting a little sore but I thought nothing of it. The next morning I woke up and tried to get out of bed. I took one step and fell flat on my face. My legs were so unbelievably sore that I thought I seriously injured myself. I had never experienced such excruciating muscle soreness. I convinced my mother to let me stay home that day. The following day I crawled back to school and told Mr. Tshontikidis that I didn’t want to be on the powerlifting team and I would never squat again. He tried to change my mind. I didn’t budge. Spero would later coach me on the junior varsity football team where I blossomed into the team MVP as a freshman. Meanwhile, he continued to encourage me to lift weights.

Though our school had a powerlifting team, strength training was never emphasized for the athletic teams. Occasionally after practice some of us ventured into the weight room. We were clueless. Typically, without a proper warm-up, we would test our manhood on the bench press – each of us trying to outperform the other. We never considered squatting or deadlifting. Then after a few sets of bench presses, we would usually grab some dumbbells and do some curls. We reckoned, “What could possibly be more important than working your chest and biceps?” All we cared about was making our T-shirt muscles look bigger. We were all young and ignorant about proper strength training. We lacked a focus. More important, we lacked discipline because we were not consistent. Contemplating my youth, my shortage of focus and self-discipline was a colossal mistake. The lack of strength training, at an early age, is one of my biggest regrets.

When I graduated high school in 1990, I began training with purpose. I wanted to get bigger and stronger for college football but didn’t know how to proceed. I asked around and finally met my uncle’s personal trainer. At the time, Victor Furnells was a competitive bodybuilder. All I knew was that he was big and strong. I trusted him and followed his advice. He soon became my mentor. He always told me that the two greatest pains in life are discipline and regret. At the time, I didn’t understand those concepts. Most 17-year-olds lack discipline, especially when it pertains to training. Likewise, most high school kids have few, if any, regrets in life. He regularly admonished me about the peril of not taking strength training seriously. He said it was unrealistic to expect continued progress if I wasn’t disciplined enough to remain consistent with my training. He reminded me that if I lacked self-discipline, I would regret it later. Reflecting upon my youth, it all makes sense now. As the famous 1972 hit song by Johnny Nash goes, I can see clearly now, the rain is gone.

Webster’s college dictionary has eleven definitions of the word discipline.

discipline

For the sake of this discussion, I prefer to use the meaning of discipline as: the rigor or training effect of experience or adversity. Regret means to feel sorrow or remorse for an act, disappointment, or fault.

Experiencing life without ever exercising self-discipline ought to be a crime. Obdurate behavior comes back to haunt you and remind you of where you could have improved. Most people resist challenges and want things to be painless. Exercising self-discipline is an arduous task. Undisciplined people are usually devoid of self-respect and respect for others.

If you last a lifetime without regret, consider it a miracle. Discipline hurts. However, exhibiting discipline during worthy pursuits is only temporarily painful. The pain only lasts amid your journey toward the objective. Once you have achieved your goal, the pain is obsolete. While the pain from self-discipline is transient, the agony from regret is perpetually hurtful. Remaining remorseful for a wrongful act or sometimes for the lack of action, gashes you like a knife wound. Once you think you have vanquished your regret and your laceration heals, you look down at the scar only to be reminded of a missed opportunity.

Success in athletics, achieving supreme fitness, and staying healthy all requires self-discipline. Remaining disciplined necessitates steadfast persistence. In the arena of achievement, you either stand unwavering in your quest or falter and succumb to the pain of self-control. Discipline connotes repetitive behavior. Moreover, it routinely obligates one to either deprive themselves and/or go the extra mile. Being on time for work every morning, preparing your meals in advance, double checking your homework assignments, staying after practice to work on your skills, keeping meticulous financial records, spending adequate quality time with loved ones, sticking to your diet, not missing workouts, going to bed at a reasonable hour, reading your bible every day, and keeping your word are all prime examples of exceptional discipline. To me, discipline is doing what you’re supposed to do even when you aren’t up to the task. Though not a fan of competitive bodybuilding, I appreciate and respect the discipline that is required when dieting for competition. In organized team sports, anyone can stay after practice when the coach releases you early and you have spare time. The real indication of discipline is staying late after practice when you’ve just played your best game. Anyone can succeed during the good times when the obstacles are few. The true measure of a man’s character is where things go badly, the odds are against you, and your back is against the wall. This is when you find out what you’re really made of.

It has been said that life is a journey not a destination. Fixate on and appreciate the process rather than the outcome. I played football at many levels – from boys’ club as a youngster, through high school, my freshman year in college, and one year of semi-pro. Of the time I spent playing and practicing, traveling to games, and watching game film on our next opponent, it was the camaraderie I shared with my teammates on the practice field and in the locker room that I enjoyed the most. Even today as I compete in powerlifting, as much as I relish the competitions, I prefer training hard in the gym. The countless hours centered on the singular goal of becoming as strongly as possible, make it all worthwhile.

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My favorite inspirational quote is by Theodore Roosevelt.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

This quote has coached me to live life with fervor and to harbor few regrets. I don’t want to be the one always saying, “I wish I had done this or I should have done that”. Accordingly, I try my best to work relentlessly regardless of my goal. Then, at the end of the day, I can sleep well knowing that I did all I could. The best time to tell someone you love them is right now. Do not waste another moment. Procrastination is the badge of fools. Cherish your family and friends because one day they’ll be gone. Speak with sincerity. Chicanery leads to nothing but discordance. Those that matter can tell the difference. The time to start eating better and cleaning up your diet is today. If you want to feel and look better, why wait until tomorrow? Do it now. Stop missing workouts. Your training partners depend on you as much as you depend on them. Consistency is paramount to accomplishment. Travel more. See the world. God created the most awesome planet for us to explore and enjoy. Do not wait until you’re too old to travel. Compete! Always measure yourself first, then evaluate yourself against others. The only degree of improvement that matters is the one you make. Be disciplined. Once the goal is attained, the pain of sticking to the plan subsides. Pain disappears, satisfaction arrives, and contentment washes away the possibility of regret. Aim even higher the next time. Our minds limit us more than our bodies. Believe in yourself.

Roosevelt added, “With self-discipline most anything is possible”. For the past thirteen years, powerlifting and the pursuit of strength have been at the forefront of my physical endeavors. I have had my share of injuries and possess a high tolerance for pain. However, it is nice to differentiate between good pain and bad pain. Instilling self-discipline begets good pain that ultimately transforms to fruitfulness if you endure. Missed opportunities engender regret. Regret evokes bad pain. Last year I trained tirelessly for the USA Powerlifting American Open Powerlifting Championships in Scranton, Pennsylvania. My training went well but I was definitely not at my strongest. On Sunday, December 2, 2007, while warming-up in the squat, I tore the Vastus Lateralis muscle in my right leg. The pain was immense and my leg still hurts to this day. Nevertheless, I am content tolerating the physical pain because I cannot imagine the mental anguish I would feel had I chose not to compete.

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The Pull-up

If the squat is the king of all exercises, then the pull-up should be acknowledged with the same royalty. Simply stated, the pull-up is the squat for the upper body. 

The squat is the unrivaled king of all strength training exercises. It is unparalleled in its overall effectiveness at taxing the entire body. The ankle, hip, and knee joints are all in motion thus ensuring that nearly every major leg muscle is utilized. Additionally, one’s hips, entire back, shoulders, and abdominals are also stressed. The squat is the cornerstone movement of any strength and conditioning program. If you were only allowed to perform one exercise, the squat would be the best choice as it strengthens nearly everything. An argument can also be made for the deadlift or the clean and jerk. However, the squat works more muscles than the deadlift and the clean and jerk is so highly technical that skill proficiency is not easily attained. Conversely, most people can learn to squat.

If the squat is the king of all exercises, then the pull-up should be acknowledged with the same royalty. Simply stated, the pull-up is the squat for the upper body. The pull-up is an upper body compound pulling exercise where the body is suspended by straightened, fully extended arms, then pulled up until the elbows are bent and the head is higher than the hands or bar from which you are pulling. The pull-up is characterized by hand position. An overhand (pronated) grip is used during the pull-up whereas an underhand (supinated) grip denotes the similar chin-up. The exercise primarily targets the Latissimus Dorsi muscle group in the back along with many other assisting muscles. These assisting muscles include the Brachialis, Brachioradialis, Biceps Brachii, Teres Minor, Teres Major, Deltoids, Infraspinatus, Rhomboids, Levator Scapulae, Trapezius, and Pectoralis Minor. Even the Triceps Brachii act as a dynamic stabilizer during the pull-up. The more muscles a movement utilizes, the more benefit the body receives. Accordingly, compound exercises give you a bigger bang for your buck.

There are numerous types of pull-ups. Most differentiations occur with regard to hand placement. (See Photo 1 below)

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The standard pull-up is performed with both hands placed in an overhand grip. As previously stated, the chin-up is performed with an underhand palms facing up grip. Additional variations include the over/under grip like that which is used while deadlifting. One hand is placed over the bar and the opposite hand is placed under the bar. Some power racks have bars that allow your palms to face each other. This is known as a parallel or neutral grip. I recommend this grip for anyone that may have lingering shoulder issues. The super strong may even perform a one arm pull-up. This provides you with six different grip variations. Grip width is another way of varying the movement. Normally, your hands should be placed just slightly wider than shoulder width. Performing pull-ups with an ultra-wide grip is asking for trouble. It places additional stress on the shoulder and is not recommended. Anyone that knows anything about shoulder anatomy knows that all pressing or pulling motions should be performed in front of the body rather than behind the head. Behind the head motions can cause shoulder impingement syndrome and lead to other more debilitating injuries. Pull-ups performed with too narrow a grip will inhibit movement performance and make it more difficult to perform a full range repetition.

Pull-ups are characterized as a bodyweight exercise meaning that one uses only their own bodyweight as resistance for the movement. This ensures that the weight being lifted is always the same. Bodyweight exercises are the ideal choice for those interested in fitness and strength but do not have access to strength training equipment. Special equipment is rarely needed other than a bar to pull from. However, like the squat, deadlift, and overhead press, the pull-up is too valuable an exercise to avoid even in the absence of equipment. In July 2007, during a two week missions trip in Africa, I knew I could not afford to skip pull-ups. Consequently, I performed them while hanging from tree branches. Twelve-time national champion Sioux-z Hartwig-Gary feels similarly and celebrated the new year by performing pull-ups from a pipe on the upper deck of a cruise ship.

People who weigh less should, in theory, be able to do more pull-ups than people who weigh more or are overweight. My best friend tips the scales at nearly 240 pounds and does nothing but complain and give excuses as to why he can’t do many pull-ups. I’ve heard it all, “I’m too heavy. I’m too big. My legs are bigger than yours.” No sir, you just suck at pull-ups. Most of the time people will avoid what doesn’t come naturally or things they’re not proficient at. Stop making excuses and just do them. Like other strength training exercises, performing pull-ups is a skill. Skill mastery is best acquired through frequent practice. Do not allow your initial lack of skill and strength to dissuade you from doing them. If you’re new to pull-ups, perform them more frequently with just your bodyweight. Three times per week is not out of the question.

Many novices are not yet strong enough to lift their entire bodyweight through the full range of motion that a pull-up requires. This leaves them with three options. The first option maintains the integrity of a free weight movement. Jump Stretch bands may be used by hanging a band over a bar and looping the band around your body. The stretched rubber band will then act by giving you a vertical “push” effect helping to propel you upward. (See Photo 2 below)

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The second option requires the use of a special machine. I detest machines for a multitude of reasons but mainly for the fact that they provide little neurological benefit. However, the Cybex Assisted Dip/Chin is one of the very few machines that I would actually endorse. This machine enables you to stand on a step that supports part of your bodyweight and assists you by pushing you upwards. (See Photos 3 and 4 below)

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When you become stronger you need less assistance from the machine. Some of you may recall the original version of this machine known as the Gravitron made by Stairmaster.

A third option is inverted rows.  Others have their partner assist them by holding their legs or spotting them at the waist. I do not recommend this method as the spotter usually ends up doing more work than the trainee. I also recommend avoiding lat pulldown machines. Contrary to popular belief, lat pulldowns will not improve your ability to do pull-ups. I abhor the lat pulldown machine. How many times have you seen some clown hop down on a lat pulldown machine and with all the momentum they can muster, swing and cheat their way to ten reps with 250 pounds? These are the same fools that can’t even do one proper pull-up. Pull-ups will make you brute strong. Period. Stick to bodyweight exercises and free weight movements with barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, or other strength implements. This will always have a greater strength transfer to real world activities, sports, and PRs on the platform.

Another type of pull-up is an explosive version known as the Kipping Pull-up. To perform the Kipping Pull-up, you develop momentum in the horizontal plane and then transfer it to the vertical plane. In other words if you simply try to do pull-ups faster, eventually the swinging movement will occur. Speaking strictly from a fitness perspective, such as the CrossFit methodology, capacities for both work and power increase due to more work being done in less time. This translates to greater intensity. Greater intensity means better fitness. There is also an integration of upper and lower extremities working as a whole that is a gateway athletically to many other hip/upper body coordinations. This movement correlates immensely to other powerful movements like the power clean and the snatch.

Although pull-ups help the deadlift and bench press more, they act as an assistance movement for all three powerlifts. Implementing pull-ups into your weekly training plan will provide innumerable benefits. The strength built from pull-ups directly translates to increased pulling strength for the deadlift. Increased development in the Trapezius will help create a larger shelf for the bar to sit on while squatting. Moreover, the increased upper back strength helps during the eccentric phase of the bench press by affording greater control of the barbell. Pull-ups will also help prevent shoulder injuries via a more balanced muscular development.

Pull-ups may be performed as an assistance exercise on deadlift or bench press days. I prefer to do pull-ups on deadlift day and then perform some other type of free weight rowing movement on bench press days. Powerlifters don’t need to do high reps in the pull-up. This makes it easier to master the movement and add it into your arsenal. First you’ll want to test yourself to see if you’re currently strong enough to do a properly executed pull-up. Find a pull-up bar or the top of a power rack, jump up, and go for it. Start from a dead hang with arms fully extended and then pull yourself up until your chin is all the way above your hands and the bar from which you are pulling. Then lower yourself under control and return to the fully extended position. This constitutes one repetition. Perform as many reps as you can and this should give you a good idea of your current state of pull-up preparedness. If you’re not strong enough to perform a single rep, then use the rubber band method or the aforementioned assisted dip/chin machine. Another method of acclimating to pull-ups is the negative-only repetition method. Stand on a chair or box, jump up and remain in the top position of the pull-up for as long as possible. Squeeze the bar as tightly as possible, tighten your biceps and back muscles and try not to let go of the bar. Fight it for as long as you can and slowly lower yourself to the fully extended position. This allows you to perform the eccentric phase of the movement. We can all lower more weight than we can lift so this method proves useful when trying to build up to a perfect rep. A few sets of negative only pull-ups will leave you exhausted. Perform them after your assisted reps.

For trainees that are already strong enough to perform pull-ups, you’re ahead of the curve. I recommend performing a minimum of three sets and keeping the reps near five. Personally, I prefer five sets of five reps. Once I can achieve five by five with my bodyweight, I start adding weight. (See Photos 5 and 6 below)

weightedPullups

I prefer using a weight vest as it’s safer and feels more like true bodyweight. Dip and chin belts can be useful but require more set-up and can leave your groin exposed. Keep adding weight until five sets of five is no longer attainable. Then switch to six sets of four reps. I’ve even done eight sets of three reps. This maintains a consistent training volume while allowing you to train even heavier. Avoid using lifting straps to perform pull-ups especially if your grip is weak. Pull-ups place a tremendous demand upon the hands and will enhance your grip and finger strength. I rarely train to failure with pull-ups unless I’m testing for max reps. My PR for max reps is 17 reps at a bodyweight of 195 pounds. As I had never attempted a one rep max (1RM) in the pull-up, I decided to do a little experiment and see what I could do. On September 26, 2007, at a bodyweight of 223 pounds, I performed one full range repetition (from a dead hang using an overhand grip) with 95 pounds added via weight vests and a dip/chin belt. That equates to a 318-pound pull-up. Since then, as a further experiment, I’ve used Prilepin’s table to manipulate my pull-up training volume. Though Prilepin’s findings were based upon Olympic lifters performing barbell moves, I’ve had positive results employing the table to my pull-up training. The multiple sets at lower reps (usually three to six) has strengthened my back immensely. What makes Prilepin’s table so valuable is the reinforcement of the virtue that it is always better for powerlifters to build their training volume via the number of sets performed rather than the number of reps. This is especially true in the competitive lifts as it affords more practice and skill mastery.

Do not be the athlete or lifter that neglects training their back. Just because you can’t look into a mirror and immediately see your back doesn’t mean to avoid training it. Many folks want to spend all their time looking in the mirror and working on aesthetics. Far too many people neglect training the back side of their bodies. This is a huge mistake. For athletes and powerlifters, your body is like a high performance vehicle. The front side of your body is just the hood ornament and the paint job. It may look nice but it doesn’t really do much. Your posterior musculature is your engine. It’s the horsepower that drives the car. Pull-ups are one way to generate that horsepower.

Form without function is useless. Make sure you’ve got something under your hood or you just might get run over.

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Rage Against the Machines

Gaining strength requires hard work and takes time. Novices can make strength gains and hit personal bests in every workout. More experienced trainees cannot make similar gains. Just because training with machines may save time, do not be the fool that strolls down that path. Machines make good coat racks. They’re also useful for drying wet laundry and suit adjustments.

Technology is a beautiful thing. I used to work part-time as a DJ and I remember hauling around hundreds of records and thousands of CDs. Transporting all the equipment and the music felt like powerlifting. The invention of the MP3 player has changed all that. What an amazing little machine. A tiny little device, approximately the size of a wallet or a small cell phone, is now capable of storing thousands of songs. You can have your entire music collection at your fingertips in a completely portable component. Just like Coca-Cola, the Apple company seemingly has a stronghold on the market with its own MP3 version known as the iPod. They’re everywhere. I own one and wonder how I ever lived without it. I love music and having my immensely eclectic library with me at all times is pure nirvana. It’s truly changed my life proving that I too have succumbed to the pressures of our microwave society. We all want things instantaneously. The school of sloth has taught us to be impatient.

The fact that technology has permeated nearly every facet of our lives, has taught us to become discontent when things don’t go our way. This dissatisfaction with our daily existence teaches us to change things as quickly as possible. You don’t like your car? Get a new one. You don’t like your job anymore? Quit and find a new one. Your house isn’t big enough? Buy a new one. You don’t get along with your spouse? Get divorced and find a new one. You hate the way your body looks? No problem, buy a new one. This type of thinking breeds laziness. Then laziness acts like a virus and spreads into every fiber of your being. Rather than searching for a plausible resolution, we look for the next quick fix.

Despite my occasional failure to resist the temptations of immediacy, I’m still old fashioned. I’m definitely old school when it comes to strength. Although I’d like to be instantly stronger and hit personal records at every competition, I enjoy traveling down the tortuous road of strength acquisition. I appreciate the journey and the struggle. Anything worth having in life isn’t easily achieved. If acquiring maximal strength beyond the normal limits was easy, everyone would do it. But, it’s not. This is one of the many reasons powerlifting isn’t a mainstream sport. It’s difficult. Strength training isn’t easy. It’s often uncomfortable. It makes you sore and requires recovery. If you’re not careful, you can and probably will get injured. So if you want easy, go play cards or lay on a beach somewhere. I won’t begrudge you for that. For those of you that are still with me, I will illuminate a way to improved performance.

There is no easy way out when it comes to getting stronger. Gaining strength requires hard work and takes time. Novices can make strength gains and hit personal bests in every workout. More experienced trainees cannot make similar gains. Just because training with machines may save time, do not be the fool that strolls down that path. Machines make good coat racks. They’re also useful for drying wet laundry and suit adjustments. (See figure 1 below).

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If you want to get stronger and change your body in the most time efficient manner, stick with free weights. I’ve heard it all; machines utilize the peak contraction principle, isolate muscles, they’re safer, and you can train faster. The only value that machines really present is for those working with or around an injury or for persons with extreme physical limitations or disabilities. Even then, their value is limited. Machines don’t provide nearly the benefits of free weights, specifically because they fail to stimulate the central nervous system in the same manner. Accuracy, balance, coordination, flexibility, power, and speed are all lost when you use a machine. Most machines involve pulleys or levers. Archimedes, the ancient Greek mathematician and engineer, is credited with inventing the pulley. However, it’s also documented that a version of the pulley was used, thousands of years prior to his invention, by the Egyptians when they were building the pyramids. Why did they use the pulley? They used it to make lifting heavy objects easier. Pulleys allow loads to be distributed over a greater area and create a mechanical advantage. This sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Lift more weight with less effort. Isn’t that what we all want? Yes, but don’t believe the hype. It’s not that simple.

Powerlifting is one of the best examples of a “practice like you play” sport. On the lifting platform we squat, bench press, and deadlift with a barbell. Accordingly, we should train the same way. Squatting on a machine is far less beneficial to squatting with free weights. Check your ego at the door. I’ve seen hundreds of people load the leg press with plates galore. Ask them to step under a loaded bar and they crumble. The same is true for bench pressing. Just because you can use four 45-pound plates on each side of the Hammer Strength Bench Press machine doesn’t mean you can bench press the same amount with a barbell. Machine prowess never equates to free weight strength. Anyone can lay down on a machine and look graceful because there’s little proprioception taking place. Kinesthetic awareness is gained when training with free weights and without mirrors. The visual feedback that a mirror provides will always override any other type of feedback the body is providing. Accordingly, all strength training movements should be performed facing away from mirrors. Athletes don’t compete on a machine nor do they compete with mirrors. Sports are contested in open space. This is all the more reason to spend time lifting free weights.

Machines have few applications and offer limited value. Machines may be used to work with or around an injury. This is particularly true when an athlete does not have use of a limb. In that case, they can use the opposite limb and receive some benefit. Occasionally, I’ll use the lat pulldown machine for standing abdominal work. A low cable system can be valuable for pull throughs. Even then, I often grab a kettlebell and get similar results with high-rep swings. Cybex manufactures an Assisted Dip/Chin machine for those that are not yet strong enough to perform dips and pull-ups with their own bodyweight. This is especially useful for new trainees. Sometimes I’ll use Jump Stretch bands as a replacement which affords us more of a free weight feel. The Reverse Hyper is wonderful. Though I’ve never used one, Louie Simmons swears by the Belt Squat machine. I suppose I’ll take his word for it. Other than that, there aren’t many machines that I would choose before grabbing a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell. I still consider the Glute Ham Raise and 45-Degree Back Raise as free weight movements as your body is anchored and you lift it through space without the aid of a lever or pulley.

High Intensity Training (HIT) advises the use of lots of machines. HIT programs are almost entirely based on single-set to failure, circuit training that revolves around machines. This is a mistake. No balance, coordination, or stability can be developed. Just about any moron can look at a machine and figure out how to use it. This doesn’t make that person an expert. Teaching the finer points of squatting, deadlifting, or the clean and jerk requires knowledge and skill. The ability to communicate effectively with your trainees is part of what makes someone a better coach. Most HIT coaches I know post their workouts on the wall and hope their athletes get it right. HIT proponents also advise that explosive weight training is unsafe. This is false, especially when more injuries occur on the playing field than in the weight room. Strength training with free weights more adequately prepares an athlete for the rigors of competition and actually decreases the risk of injury. The principles of HIT suggest that exercise should be intense, brief, and infrequent. Personally, I don’t know anyone successful, in any venture, that performs the fundamental principles of their pursuit infrequently. Our bodies do, in fact, need to recover from strength training sessions. However, the mere suggestion of training infrequently connotes laziness. Flopping down on a machine is easy. Pick up a free weight, challenge yourself, and watch your results increase exponentially.

There is absolutely no replacement for squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, overhead presses, and bench pressing. These five mandatory moves should be included in every trainee’s strength and conditioning program. These staple exercises should be performed with free weights. In lieu of machine rows, give bent-over barbell rows or dumbbell rows a shot. Military presses or push presses with kettlebells are great for shoulder strength. Instead of strolling down easy street and performing prone leg curls, try Romanian deadlifts or good mornings on for size. Strength training with free weights can help one acquire nine of the ten physical skills associated with genuine fitness including accuracy, balance, coordination, cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, power, speed, stamina, and of course strength. Moreover, this type of training recruits more muscle fibers, avails greater central nervous system stimulation, provides a greater transfer of strength, and creates a more functional parallel to both athletic and everyday moves.

Today’s gyms and training facilities are full of unnecessary items. Gyms are what society perceives they should be like . . . attractive, comfortable, and welcoming. How do those qualities equate to an atmosphere of physical achievement? I fail to see the connection. Gyms should be entirely uncomfortable, unpleasant and unwelcoming. Instead of appearing like a lounge, a support network of like-minded individuals should be present. An individual will push harder and risk more in the company of trustworthy peers. Instead of mirrors there should be motivational thoughts, inspirational quotes, record boards, and photos of those that have come before us and paved the highway of physical achievement. Since when is the achievement of anything truly valuable supposed to be easy? Worthy pursuits aren’t easy. When you enter into a training facility, you should be desperate to achieve your goal and willing to lay it on the line. I like to see desperation and fear in someone’s eyes because then I know they actually “have to” and “need to” achieve their goal. It doesn’t matter whether your pursuit is to lose bodyfat, squat 750 pounds, get closer to God, hasten your 40 time, become a better parent, be more honorable, jump higher, read better, love stronger, devote more, last longer, or rehabilitate an injury . . . no matter what the goal . . . you should be desperate to achieve it or quite frankly, it’s not worth your efforts.

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A Powerlifter’s Guide to Making Weight

weightscaleThe reality of competing in powerlifting is,that at some point in time, we all have to make weight. Making weight can make or break your lifting performance. For optimal performance a lifter should be at the very top of their respective weight division. If you compete at the lower end of a weight class, you are usually at a disadvantage compared to your heavier competitors.

As a twelve-year veteran of powerlifting, I have had to make weight in all but two of my competitions. Making weight usually means that you’re on the borderline of one weight class’s limits and on the lower end of the heavier class. If this is the case, it pays to drop the last few extra pounds and fit into the lighter weight class where your total will likely be more competitive. For those that are in the middle of a certain weight class (i.e., a 260-pound male who is in between the 242 and 275 weight classes), making weight really does not apply to you. These folks can simply lift at their current body weight and eventually grow into a full 275 pounds. Most of us find ourselves in the previous situation where we have trained at a slightly heavier body weight during our training cycle to hopefully take advantage of some added strength. In the last few weeks we then have to lose a few pounds to fit into our weight class. The question remains, how do we lose those last few pounds and not lose any strength?

If there was only one way to make weight, we would all be doing it. Conversely, there are right ways to make weight and there are wrong ways to go about it. Before I explain how to make weight easily, without adversely affecting your performance, I’ll share with you the wrong way.

At 25 years old, with two years of competitive experience under my belt, I thought I knew all there was to know about making weight. I followed the practice of losing weight gradually over the course of the training cycle so I wouldn’t be in shock when the competition came around and I had additional weight to lose. On July 1, 1997, I was competing in my first national powerlifting championship at the USPF Seniors in Philadelphia, PA. I was planning on lifting in the 198-pound (90kg) class. I had been training at a body weight of about 205 pounds and was making good strength gains. I started losing the weight early and when I left for Philadelphia the day before the meet I was 198 pounds right on the nose. Perfect. Or so I thought. When I arrived at the meet site, I checked in and immediately found the meet scale so I could check my weight. I was scheduled to weigh in the next morning. I undressed, hopped on the scale, and much to my dismay it read 202 pounds. I thought to myself, this can’t be right. I weighed 198 right before I left and didn’t eat or drink anything on the drive up from Maryland. I got off the scale and got back on and sure enough, 202 was the number. I panicked. I was four pounds over with less than a day to lose it.

To make a long story short, until weigh-ins, I didn’t eat anything except lettuce. I sipped distilled water. I took not one, but two enemas. I’ll spare you the details and won’t even explain how that went. Use your imagination and I’m sure you can come up with some gruesome yet hilarious images in your mind. And to top it all off, I sat in a sauna off and on for approximately two hours the next morning. Correction – I did pushups and jumping jacks in the sauna. What can I say? I was grasping at straws. I finally made weight and I don’t even need to tell you how I performed. Simply stated, I had the single worst athletic performance of my life. I went 4/9 and had the rare opportunity to experience full body cramps where my training partners were literally standing on me trying to keep me from curling into the fetal position. It goes without saying that this is an example of making weight the wrong way.

I learned many valuable lessons that weekend and decided it was time to educate myself on the basic physiology of making weight for competitions. I knew there had to be an easier, safer, and more effective way to lose a few pounds without suffering decrements in performance. I began to learn basic hydration principles and came to understand the importance and influence of sufficient water in the body. I spoke with more experienced lifters, I read everything I could get my hands on, and even experimented with different methods on myself.

Today I have developed an easy-to-understand and effective system of making weight without adversely affecting performance. I have used this protocol with myself, as well as many local, state, national, and elite level lifters. When followed correctly, it works like a charm. Frankly, it’s not rocket science and I’m certainly no genius. All you need is a basic understanding of some nutritional and physiology principles. Take that knowledge and couple it with some self-discipline and you have a very safe and effective way of making weight without having to kill yourself like I did. If you don’t learn from your own mistakes, at least take the time to learn from mine.

Before beginning the discussion of making weight, one must recognize and understand appropriate times for weight loss. Unless a young athlete is clinically obese, it is never appropriate for them to lose weight. Famed Russian powerlifting coach Boris Sheiko admonishes that weight loss for young athletes has negative effects on one’s overall health including disturbances in the activity of the endocrine glands and the cardiovascular system. This translates to impaired physical development in athletes, who are not finished growing, as well as the intrusion of poor performance and results. Dave Tate of EliteFTS takes it a step further to explain that, the last thing a beginner needs to worry about is making a weight class. They need to focus on getting stronger. I agree wholeheartedly. If you’re a novice, just lift – focus on your technique and getting stronger. Then hit some PRs.

Alas, there are two sides to every coin. Those that need to concern themselves with making weight are fully grown and experienced lifters. Even then, unless you plan on totaling elite, breaking a record, or competing at the highest levels, what’s the point of losing weight?

Another consideration is understanding the difference between – when it’s appropriate to lose the extra weight and when it’s time to move up into the higher weight class. A good rule of thumb to use is if you’re continually having to lose more than 5% of your weight class limit, it might be time to move up to the next weight class. For example, if a female lifter who is desirous of lifting in the 165-pound class is often having to lose more than 8 pounds (165 x .05 = 8), perhaps your body is telling you it’s time to move up to the 181-pound class. Sometimes this is not necessarily the case as a lifter really just needs to clean up their nutritional plan and lose some excess body fat. The fact is, that over time, powerlifting makes us all bigger, thicker, and more muscular. It is extremely rare to see a lifter compete in the same weight class for their entire career. By the same token, maturing into a heavier weight category often takes time. As your body weight increases your leverages change. Increased body weight is usually favorable in both the squat and the bench press. However, the added weight often inhibits or slows progress in the deadlift. Leaner competitors that carry a low body fat percentage will find it more difficult to keep making weight. I used to train with an elite 114-pound lifter who was extremely lean. His body fat was so low that when he did cut weight for competition he lost muscle. This severely hampered his performance and he eventually moved up to the 123s where he is happier and stronger.

Additional articles, featuring varying methods on making weight, have recently been presented. Many advocate losing the weight as fast as possible and then putting it back on in the same fashion. This makes sense if you have a weigh-in that is 24-48 hours in advance. Some powerlifting federations allow early weigh-ins like these. With an early weigh-in, the most popular school of thought is to train at a heavier body weight and then lose the excess weight as fast as possible often employing drastic means like diuretics, dehydration, fasting, hot baths, and sauna. This ensures that the body is at the lower body weight for as short a time as possible. Immediately after weighing in, the buffet begins. Rehydration and massive eating resume in an effort to put back the weight back on as quickly as possible. If you can make it all the way back to your original weight, you’re usually going to be in good shape. This method may be sufficient for early weigh-ins but for the sake of this discussion we will focus on making weight for the two-hour weigh-in.

Understanding your body’s response to water is the most critical aspect of making weight. The human body acts like a sponge. If you only consume small amounts of water, it’s like taking a few drops of water and pouring it into a small sponge. What happens? The sponge absorbs the water and holds onto it. The opposite is true when you drink large amounts of water. Now imagine taking that same small sponge and pouring a gallon of water into it. What happens now? The sponge first absorbs the water then it overflows and pushes out the excess. Your body functions much the same way. This is where people make horrible mistakes with making weight. Most lifters think they need to stop drinking early. On the surface this seems like a practical solution but the process is flawed. When you cease water intake, your body responds by saying, Whoa! I’m not getting enough fluids so I better hold onto whatever little bit I’m getting. That’s what makes you feel bloated. When you’re bloated, you’re actually dehydrated from a lack of fluid intake. Conversely, when you’re fully hydrated you feel normal, leaner, and not as puffy and swollen because now there’s a constant flow of fluid intake followed by excretion.

Most lifters make the mistake of stopping their water intake way too soon. I can’t count how many times I’ve gone to national and world championships only to see elite lifters walking around like zombies because they’ve stopped drinking water. Science tells us that dehydration symptoms become noticeable after a mere 2% of one’s normal water volume has been lost. (1) Thirst, decreased urine volume, urine that is darker than usual, fatigue, headache, dry mouth, dizziness, loss of appetite, and hypotension (decreased blood pressure) are all classic symptoms of mild dehydration. Most important, athletes (powerlifters), can suffer a loss in performance up to 30% and experience flushing, low endurance, cramping, rapid heart rates, elevated body temperature, and the rapid onset of fatigue. (1) Additional water loss such as sweating causes these symptoms to become more severe. Obviously there are no advantages to being dehydrated.

It is rare for a powerlifter to heed the recommendations of a bodybuilder. Nevertheless this is one of those infrequent times when powerlifters should learn from bodybuilders. When a bodybuilder steps on stage, they are at their leanest and most vascular. What the casual onlooker doesn’t realize, is that while they might look like the epitome of a human anatomy chart, they are actually in their most depleted state. They are malnourished (in a caloric deficit), often dehydrated, small, and at their weakest. It is commonplace for bodybuilders to cramp while posing. While this transient state of exhaustion may be the perfect recipe for displaying muscular proportion, it is the worst possible scenario for optimal physical performance. Accordingly, powerlifters (and all strength athletes) should be at their biggest, most hydrated, and completely nourished state when they step onto the lifting platform. Nobody cares if your posterior deltoid is in proportion to the development of your latissimus dorsi. The only thing your competitor is concerned with is how much weight you lift.

Making weight usually comes down to understanding body water and managing your water intake. A large portion of the human body is water. Blood is 83% water. Lean muscle tissue contains about 75% water. Body fat contains 25% water and bone is roughly 22% water. In males approximately 55% of the body’s mass is water. In women the value is about 51% due to a higher proportion of body fat. (2) I mention these statistics to illustrate how abundant and important water is to the human body. Simply stated, water is the single most important nutrient in the body. It helps regulate nearly every bodily function from digestion to brain function to maintaining healthy skin. Death due to dehydration can occur in three days (or less in hot weather) and no one normally lives more than five to six days without water. To further illustrate how vital water is, we need not look any further than a former political and spiritual leader of India, Mahatma Gandhi. On several occasions Gandhi led nonviolent protests that included fasting. He once went twenty-four consecutive days without food. However, these prolonged demonstrations would not have lasted without water.

Most research states that healthy males should consume approximately three liters of water daily and females should consume 2.2 liters daily. I’ve always strived for more than a gallon daily and there=s really no research behind that. It’s just what works for me. With every nutritionist I’ve spoken to, the same sentiments have resonated repeatedly. The more water you drink, the better off you’ll be, the better you’ll feel, and the better you’ll perform. That’s enough incentive for me. The effort it would take, to drink the amount of water required, to induce death by water intoxication and hyponatremia (electrolyte disturbance) is monumental. Most deaths from water intoxication occur as a result of complications from other medical conditions, water drinking contests, and long bouts of intensive exercise in extreme heat during which time electrolytes are not properly replenished.

The first step to making weight without impairing performance is to begin charting your weight in the evenings immediately prior to bedtime. Record the number, go to sleep, wake up, urinate if you have to, get weighed again, and record the new number. Do this for one week and average the amount of weight you lose overnight. This is how much play you’ll have come meet time. Always use the same scale. That way even if it’s wrong, it’s consistently wrong and you still know how much weight you’ve lost or gained. After you establish your overnight weight loss, continue to weigh on Saturday mornings only. Body weight can fluctuate from day to day. Think of it in this light, but one gallon of water weighs eight pounds. So hypothetically speaking, if you drank one gallon of water, did not urinate nor lose water by sweating, and then stepped on a scale, you would be eight pounds heavy. Sodium rich foods can cause tremendous water retention so don’t worry yourself with daily fluctuations. I also recommend Saturday morning because most of us compete on Saturday and you want to try to create the exact same situation as you’ll experience on contest day. Furthermore, if you get weighed with underwear on, wear them every time. Do not get weighed in jeans one Saturday and without clothing the next. You’ll never be able to establish any kind of accurate account of your weight.

If you have approximately 5% of your body weight to lose, start early. When you begin to plan for your next competition look at the calendar and consider how many weeks of training you’ll need to adequately prepare. By beginning the weight loss process early, it will be more gradual and less of a shock to the system than last-minute weight loss which can wreak havoc on your body and create all of the aforementioned negative symptoms that adversely affect your performance. Gradual weight loss rarely affects strength in a negative way whereas abrupt weight loss is almost always accompanied by strength loss. Another advantage to gradual weight loss over the course of the training cycle (one pound per week is best) is you will know exactly how your gear will fit on meet day. If you’re heavy early on and procrastinate until meet week to begin losing the extra weight, your gear can often feel loose at the meet. There is nothing worse than starting warm-ups for the squat and pulling your squat suit on to find that it fits like a pair of baggy jeans. As I usually compete in either the 220 (100kg) or 242 (110kg) weight class, I prefer to start losing weight early on in the training cycle so when meet week arrives I’m within three to four pounds of my weight class limit. If that’s the case, I can eat lots of clean calories the last week to fuel my body for optimal performance.

We should all be drinking at least one gallon of water daily. This is even more important during our training cycle because of the exertion on the body. And if you sweat a lot like I do, you need to replace what’s lost. Most of the literature on water intake advises us to count food, juices, sodas, teas, coffee, and other beverages toward our total daily water intake. I prefer to only count the actual water that I drink. Some beverages contain caffeine which has a very mild diuretic affect. Not to mention, who has the time to add all that up? I’d like to meet the person who knows how much water is in my steak, sweet potatoes, and broccoli. I have no clue nor the inclination to waste my time calculating water content in food. That way, at day’s end, I know that I actually drank a gallon of plain water.

There are very specific nutritional guidelines to follow during meet week. Avoid breads, crackers, any products made with dough or flour, and dairy products like cottage cheese, yogurt, and cheese. While some whole wheat, flax, and grain breads are a good source of complex carbohydrates, flour makes your body retain water. Dairy products create the same effect. Water retention and bloat is not something you want until after weigh-ins. Your carbohydrates should come predominantly from oatmeal, sweet potatoes, and truckloads of fibrous vegetables. Asparagus, broccoli, leafy greens, and spinach will all help keep things moving. Avoid white potatoes, rice, and pasta during the last week. Protein should come from whey protein powder, egg whites, chicken, lean turkey, lean beef like flank steak or round, and white fish. Include fats like almonds, walnuts, olive oil, and fish oils. You can still eat a lot of calories to fuel your body. They just have to be clean.

On the Monday of meet week, increase your daily water intake from one to two gallons. Be absolutely sure you get two gallons down every day of meet week. This will ensure adequate hydration and additional fluid excretion. Urination will increase as will overnight weight loss.

If you are flying to your competition, this adds another variable to the equation. Flying and the subsequent changes in air pressure and altitude have a dehydrating effect on the body. It makes your body retain more water than usual. This is why lifters who cut out their water pre-flight have so much trouble making weight after landing. They arrive and because they haven=t had any water, their bodies immediately start to hold onto everything. This makes weight loss extremely difficult, especially on overseas flights. It can take up to 24 hours for your body to acclimate to having flown for more than five hours. My wife has this system down to a science. She drinks like a fish pre-flight and during the flight as well. On our last two overseas flights to the IPF World Championships, I think she spent more time in the plane’s lavatory than she did in her seat. When she wasn’t drinking or going to the bathroom, she was tracking down a stewardess for more water. This year I decided I’ve had enough with being disturbed by her frequent bathrooms breaks so I went online to Best Buy Catheter Supply and bought the newest model. Now my only concerns are how we’re going to get it through security and where to put the drainage bag. All kidding aside, she drinks nonstop and I mean nonstop. However, when we land, she’s barely bloated, hydrated, and closer to making weight.

If you’re not flying to your competition, the process is a little easier. Continue drinking two gallons of water daily. A good rule is to keep drinking until approximately 12 hours prior to weigh-ins. For example, if you weigh-in at 8:00AM on Saturday morning, cease water intake at 8:00PM on Friday evening. If you shut your water off at 8:00PM, you=ll still have a couple of hours to urinate and lose some more fluid before bedtime. Immediately after the cessation of water intake, eat one whole lemon. Lemons have nearly innumerable functions and increasing urination is one of them.

The morning of the competition . . . wake up, go to the bathroom, and if you’re already on location, as in a hotel, then immediately check your weight on the meet scale. Hopefully you’ll be right on or slightly under. If you’re one pound under then you can eat one pound of food and still be safe. Do not drink before weigh-ins. Water is heavy. Two cups (16 ounces) of water weigh one pound. You would rather fuel your body with calories then add weight with water. If you absolutely need to, just take small sips of water to hold you over until weigh-ins. Invest in a small food scale. They’re not expensive and then you can place your food directly onto the scale to see how much you’re eating. For those that have to drive to the competition, if you’re on weight or under you can eat accordingly.

Immediately after weigh-ins, start drinking water again. Drink at least 16 ounces of water immediately. Then eat some high energy foods. Focus on quality carbohydrates like oatmeal, apples, apple sauce, or bananas on meet day. Include foods that you enjoy as they are easier to get down if you’re nervous. I love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on wheat bread. They taste delicious and they’re jam packed with calories including carbohydrates and fats for energy. Avoid sugar-filled and high glycemic carbohydrates like grapes, watermelon, candy, and fruit juices. This will spike insulin levels and lead to a crash. You want carbohydrates that will provide sustained energy. You can eat a candy bar when you get ready to deadlift if your energy levels have dipped and you need a quick boost. There’s no need to concern yourself with protein on meet day. It takes too long to digest and can slow you down. Lastly, it’s important not to change too much on contest day. If you’re not used to eating pancakes with syrup, then don’t all of the sudden eat a short stack before you lift. This could potentially wreak havoc on your stomach. Eat foods that are familiar. After eating your first post weigh-n meal, drink another 16 ounces of water. Then you can introduce sports drinks like Gatorade, Cytomax, or even Pedialyte. There has been research supporting how ingesting a lot of sodium and potassium via sports drinks, immediately after being depleted, can be dangerous. The good news is that if you follow these simple steps of proper hydration and sufficient caloric intake you won’t be dehydrated nor depleted of electrolytes. In fact, you’ll likely be exactly where you want to be. So, in this situation, the sports drinks aren’t dangerous.

You can also eat salty foods like plain salt, potato chips, drink a V-8, or canned chicken noodle soups. All of these are ultra high in sodium and will be absorbed quickly so your body will begin to retain more water and then your gear might even fit a little tighter.

Overall, the plan is fairly simple once you have an understanding of basic physiology and your body’s response to food and water. Lifters make the process out to be more than it is. If for some reason you get in a bind the last week and have difficulty losing those last few pounds, you can use a mild, over-the-counter diuretic like Absolute Nutrition’s Watershed or Eclipse Shrinkwrap Definition. They are potassium sparing and don’t contain stimulants. As some powerlifting federations prohibit the use of diuretics, always consult your federation’s drug testing policy. The key ingredient in your diuretic is Uva Ursi. Uva Ursi comes from the leaves of an evergreen shrub and is used to treat common urological issues like urinary tract infections, bladder inflammation, and kidney stones thereby having a diuretic effect. Dandelion root is another herb with similar effects. Vitamin B-6 and green tea help too.
Under no circumstances should you ever use a sauna, rubber suit, purposely dehydrate, take an enema, or turn to other drastic measures. These are foolish last resorts as they will surely claim almost all your strength.

Making weight does not have to be an arduous task and when done correctly you can preserve the strength you trained so hard to acquire. Eat well, drink a lot of water, and make weight the easy way. Then have fun and hit some PRs.


 

References

  1. Bean, Anita. The Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition, 2006.
  2. Hansen, John and Koeppen, Bruce. Netters Atlas of Human Physiology, 2002.
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Powerlifting Toward Wellness

Current statistics report approximately 70% of all deaths in the United States are caused by cardiovascular disease and cancer. A sustained wellness program of compound exercises, combined with appropriate eating habits, can help prevent death from these causes.

liftingmedicine2Exercise selection is the foundation of any strength training program. One question I’m frequently asked is, “What exercises do you recommend?” My stock reply is, “Choose a compound movement that targets the muscle groups you want to improve.” A compound movement involves two or more joints in motion simultaneously. Four lower body multi joint exercises are squats, deadlifts, lunges, and step ups. Each exercise requires the use of the hip and knee joints and to a lesser degree, the ankle joint. Consequently, the hips, lower back, abdominals, quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves are all utilized. To work the same muscle groups, with single joint movements, more than eight individual exercises would be needed. Three upper body multi-joint exercises are overhead presses, pull-ups, and bench presses. Employing free weights to perform multi joint exercises also recruits stabilizing muscles that are often neglected, like adductors [inner thighs/groin] and abductors [outer thighs/hips]. Full body compound movements also strengthen the entire skeletal system by increasing bone density. As a result, when compound exercises are performed correctly with free weights, one can be safe and efficient.

Exercise safety is germane to the individual and therefore critical to reaching fitness and wellness goals. Attempting a max clean and jerk is considered safe to a seasoned Olympic weightlifter. A similar exertion would be hazardous to the typical golfer. If injury occurs because one executes exercises incorrectly, does not warm up sufficiently, or does not devote appropriate rest periods between sets and training sessions, becoming fit can be a long and tortuous road. Exercise safety, combined with brief, consistent and efficient strength training programs, provides the highest results.

Powerlifting involves the performance of the squat, bench press, and deadlift. These compound exercises define a lifter’s total body strength. Competitive powerlifting is not for everyone. By advocating the inclusion of these compound movements in your routine, you are not being called into the competitive arena. However, you will enhance your physique via increases in lean body mass, increased metabolism, and decreases in body fat percentage. Your health will also benefit from improved circulation, a more restful sleep, and prevention of chronic lower back pain. Women get extra benefits from the regular use of multi joint movements such as a reduced risk of osteoporosis and osteoarthritis.

Current statistics report approximately 70% of all deaths in the United States are caused by cardiovascular disease and cancer. A sustained wellness program of compound exercises, combined with appropriate eating habits, can help prevent death from these causes.

My female clients often say: “I want to look like I train but I don’t want to bulk up.” The male athletes in my practice want more muscle and increased strength. The best approach is to pick a compound movement using barbells, dumbbells, or kettlebells that focuses on the areas you want to improve. If it’s improvement in body composition that you desire, compound exercises like the squat, deadlift, pull-up, and overhead press elicit a profound neuroendocrine response. They change you hormonally and neurologically. The minds behind the CrossFit methodology say it best, “Curls, lateral raises, leg extensions, leg curls, flyes and other bodybuilding movements have no place in a serious strength and conditioning program primarily because they have a blunted neuroendocrine response. A distinctive feature of these relatively worthless movements is that they have no functional analog in everyday life and they work only one joint at a time. Compare this to the deadlift, clean, squat, and jerk which are functional and multi-joint movements.” (1)

Machines make good coat racks. If you want to get stronger and change your body in the most time efficient manner, stick with free weights. I’ve heard it all; machines utilize the peak contraction principle, isolate muscles, they’re safer, and you can train faster. The only value that machines really present is for those working with or around an injury or for persons with extreme physical limitations or disabilities. Even then, their value is limited. Machines don’t provide nearly the benefits of free weights, specifically because they fail to stimulate the central nervous system in the same manner. Accuracy, balance, coordination, flexibility, power, and speed are all lost when you use a machine. Most machines involve pulleys or levers. The pulley was invented by the Egyptians when they were building the pyramids. Why did they invent the pulley? To make things easier. If you want easy, go lay on the beach somewhere and work on your tan.

Most gyms and training facilities have mirrors seemingly everywhere. Mirrors are the enemy. They’re only useful when you want to see how your new bench shirt or squat suit looks, otherwise avoid them. I never have anyone perform an exercise in front of a mirror. It’s imperative that we all learn kinesthetic awareness and understand how and where our bodies move through space. The visual feedback that the mirror provides will always override any other type of feedback the body is providing. Accordingly, all movements are performed facing away from mirrors.

A full body routine would include squats, bench presses, pull-ups, military presses, and deadlifts. If your lower back and hamstrings are weak, do Romanian deadlifts, arched back good mornings, and squatting pull throughs. If you want to build your shoulders, utilize military presses, upright rows, and push presses. Every multi joint movement for the upper body works the arms, so the biceps and triceps benefit as well.

In today’s fast paced society, exercise safety and efficiency have been sacrificed on the altar of speed. It’s the exercise selection that counts. Pick an exercise that targets your particular weakness. Use the exercise until it becomes ineffective and then choose a new one for that area. This concept of rotating exercises is known as the conjugate method. The variety keeps you interested and different exercises build new types of strength. Don’t get caught up in doing an exercise that is popular or familiar if it does little for you.

Three of my clients have been instantly successful using compound movements in their strength training programs. Sylvia Ramos performs squats with the safety squat bar, pull-ups, and lunges to build strength for cycling events and marathons. Consequently, she has significantly decreased her times. Catherine Meloy could not lift a suitcase overhead into an airline compartment and now does forty pound military presses with ease. Tim Gill does deadlifts off a 2″ plate. On February 24 of this year, at the USA Powerlifting Navy Open, he made a 457-pound personal record deadlift, proof that he does well in selecting his exercises. Choose wisely and good luck.

References

(1) The CrossFit Journal, p. 7, October 2002.

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Top 10 Mistakes Novice Lifters Make

mistakesNovice lifters make numerous mistakes that impair their overall performance. Fortunately most, if not all, of these mistakes are both avoidable and reparable.

My wife and I are both active members of USA Powerlifting as competitors, coaches, and national referees. Sioux-z was also recently voted to serve on the USA Powerlifting Women’s Committee, which is designed to promote, protect, and serve the interests of women’s powerlifting. Together we have 27 years of competitive powerlifting experience under our belts. With experience comes wisdom.

Experience and wisdom are far more precious than strength. In powerlifting, experience and wisdom often translate to smarter training, fewer injuries, bigger lifts, and a better overall competitive experience. Contrary to popular belief, USA Powerlifting and most other powerlifting federations are built upon the membership and success of their local, grass roots lifters. The elite level lifters are rare and precious commodities. Consequently, it is vitally important for novice lifters to be successful in their first few outings. A positive first experience will encourage lifters to stay active in their organization and continue to compete for years to come. Unfortunately many lifters have a terrible first competition experience and walk away from powerlifting disappointed, discouraged, and left wondering what went wrong. Missed attempts and bad experiences often dissuade competitors from competing again.

This begs the question, “What actually did go wrong at their first meet?” The short answer is: plenty. Novice lifters make numerous mistakes that impair their overall performance. Fortunately most, if not all, of these mistakes are both avoidable and reparable.

Sioux-z and I attend as many local powerlifting competitions as possible. We genuinely enjoy coaching, competing, spotting/loading, refereeing, or merely sitting back and watching. This past weekend was no different as we attended the USA Powerlifting Navy Open Powerlifting Championships at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. We coached two novice lifters in their second contest. They both performed extremely well. One lifter made all of his attempts and established four new personal records (PR) while our second lifter went 7/9 with one new PR. Without overstating the obvious, they both had an excellent experience and will be back for more. That’s what it’s all about . . . competing, having fun, and setting PRs.

When we left the competition, Sioux-z and I were both satisfied that our lifters had done well because they were well prepared. We helped them prepare for the rigors of the meet by explaining the rules, working on form and technique in the gym, proper training, employing a sensible nutritional plan, and having realistic goals and expectations. On the other hand, we noticed numerous lifters that had horrible experiences. Most of these pitfalls were avoidable and left us wondering what we could do to help. In these situations I like to pick up the pen and start writing, or in this case . . . start typing.

Here’s a list of the top 10 mistakes novice lifters make. I’ve also included suggestions or solutions for how to rectify these mistakes and prevent them from happening again.

1. Going into your first competition blindly.

This is the root of most of a novice powerlifter’s problems. Most people only think they know what powerlifting is. I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked, “Is that what they do in the Olympics?” Even more fail to realize that a competition squat must be taken to proper depth (crease of the hip joint below the top of the knee), that a competition bench press must be paused (held motionless on the chest), and that a deadlift must be lifted to a fully erect position (knees locked, shoulders back, hips through). Consequently, the rules of performance for the competitive lifts are often misunderstood completely. Additionally, novices don’t know what to wear and what constitutes proper lifting attire. I’ve actually seen lifters bend over for their deadlift wearing gloves and using lifting straps. People fail to realize what the Round System is and how it’s used to organize a meet. Ultimately, most people are completely ignorant about the sport of powerlifting.

Suggestions: Attend and observe a powerlifting competition before entering one.

This is probably one of the most valuable experiences a prospective powerlifter can ever have. Watching a competition will answer many of the aforementioned questions which will help turn that ignorance into knowledge and understanding. You will be able to witness firsthand the rules of performance, the proper lifting attire, the execution of the lifts, and the overall flow of the contest. Spectators have the opportunity to see successful attempts and failed attempts. You’ll also have a better understanding of how strong the lifters in your weight class are, compared to you. Furthermore, all lifters have unique lifting techniques, from squat stances to grip width in the bench press and foot placement in the deadlift. Having the opportunity to view these techniques and idiosyncracies up close is extremely valuable.

It’s sensible to approach one of the competitors at the conclusion of the competition to ask for advice and information. Most powerlifters are friendly and don’t mind being asked for advice and/or opinions. It would also be advisable to speak with a referee to further understand the rules of competition. Many referees are competitive powerlifters themselves and have a more than adequate knowledge of the rules. Perhaps you saw a few lifts that you thought were successful and the judges thought otherwise. This would be a perfect opportunity to inquire as to why a certain lifter was not credited with an attempt. Clarification of the rules will help dispel any misconception, myth, or rumor that you may have heard. At the end of the day you may even discover that powerlifting just isn’t your cup of tea. If that’s the case, all you’ve spent is a few hours of your time acquiring knowledge of another sport. Overall, attending a powerlifting competition before actually competing in one is a fantastic idea and the first step toward a positive first experience.

2. Not having any advice and/or assistance from a knowledgeable coach or lifter.

Most novices compete in their first powerlifting competition without seeking the advice or knowledge of a coach or seasoned lifter. This mistake is similar to not attending a competition and creates a multitude of problems. Most of the problems arise in the area of technique and proper training. Just because someone is a good “gym lifter” doesn’t make them a strong powerlifter. In fact, most “gym lifters” perform the competitive lifts incorrectly. Far too many people have been humbled in competition when they actually have to squat rather than simply unlock their knees or they are actually required to pause in the bench press rather than bouncing the bar off their chest. Again, ignorance becomes the common theme.

Suggestions: Find a knowledgeable strength coach or experienced powerlifter.

Begin by asking questions. Be certain of those you’re questioning and learn to analyze information critically. Analyze what you hear, read, and witness. Don’t accept something just because someone said it. If you’re getting your training advice from a 92-pound pencil-neck clown who’s in the corner of your gym flexing and doing lateral raises with elastic bands, chances are your information source is tainted. That doesn’t mean you have to seek out the biggest dude in the gym either. Just make certain you inquire in the right places. Moreover, just because something is printed on a piece of paper doesn’t mean it’s the gospel. This doesn’t mean you have to refute every single nugget of information that passes through your brain, just filter it.

Perhaps there’s a strength coach at a local college or university that’s willing to answer your questions. There may be a competitive powerlifter in your gym or area that will allow you to either train with them or watch them train. Have them observe your lifts so they may check your form and technique. This is some of the best feedback a lifter can ever receive. I always have more experienced lifters watch my technique and check for flaws or weaknesses. Sometimes you’re doing something that you don’t even realize. Show them your training routine and allow them to review it for you. Accept constructive criticism and embrace the notion that this is a new pursuit and there will be some adjustments that need to be made.

If you’re unable to locate someone knowledgeable, use the internet. The internet is a wonderful tool for accessing information on just about anything and powerlifting is no different. There are a multitude of websites dedicated to powerlifting and strength training. You’ll certainly find valuable information that you can immediately employ into your program. Many of these websites have free newsletters. Sign up for a few. Some of them are packed with good information. The internet also has various sites with photos and/or video clips of powerlifting. Finally, I recommend opening up a book and reading. Wisdom, in any field, is power. There are many books and journals on powerlifting training that are worth looking into.

3. Using powerlifting equipment (squat/deadlift suits, knee wraps, bench shirts) too soon.

Supportive powerlifting equipment such as squat/deadlift suits, knee wraps, and bench shirts do two things. They help protect the lifter from injury and they act as an ergogenic aid in that they allow you to lift more weight. This is an enticing proposition. It’s one that many are not able to resist. People automatically take an economic principle like “more disposable income is better” and apply it to powerlifting as in “lifting more weight is better.” Lifting more weight is every powerlifter’s goal. However, it should not be done at the expense of learning proper form, technique, and becoming stronger overall without those aids.

Many novice lifters see experienced and elite lifters utilizing supportive equipment and think that they should use it as well. They spend a lot of money on the apparel and then don’t understand how to properly maximize its benefits. I’ve been competing for twelve years and I’m still trying to figure out some of the new bench shirts.

Squatting, bench pressing, and deadlifting are all skills. Our central nervous system (CNS) has to adapt and utilize the proper neurological pathways so that we are able to learn the movement patterns in order to coordinate the movements necessary to efficiently squat, bench press, and deadlift. Mastering these skills takes a lot of time and practice. Skill mastery rarely comes in one session. It’s something developed with years of practice and training. Many elite lifters are still mastering technique years after they began formal training. Technique and skill mastery also evolves as we become bigger and stronger. Your movements and technique can easily change in an effort to accommodate added or lost body weight. Once you begin adding weight to the bar, your CNS fires differently. Mastering proper lifting technique according to your body type and genetics is an arduous task. Accordingly, adding supportive powerlifting apparel changes those skills. In other words, once you’ve mastered the skills required to squat properly and then you implement a squat suit and knee wraps, you have to learn a new skill all over again.

Suggestions: Learn proper technique, skill mastery, and build a strong foundation before adding supportive equipment.

The raw (without the aid of supportive equipment) vs. equipped debate will rage on forever. However, one principle of powerlifting is absolutely irrefutable. Novice lifters should learn proper form and technique first. Any knowledgeable or seasoned powerlifter will advise a novice to begin without the aid of supportive equipment so they may learn proper form and build a strong foundation. Powerlifting apparel can add artificial and immediate strength. But if you add supportive equipment too soon, disaster awaits either in the form of bombing out of a competition or worse yet, a serious injury. It’s imperative that beginners strengthen their core, connective tissues, bones, and muscles before attempting excessively heavy weights with the aid of equipment.

Strength gains come quickly for the novice. Plateaus, overtraining, injury, and boredom aren’t typical issues for those new to training. Consequently, there’s really no valid reason for adding equipment in the beginning. Set your ego aside and get stronger without it. It’s beneficial to encounter some training plateaus and then be able to troubleshoot your weaknesses. Finding solutions to stagnation is extremely rewarding. If you use powerlifting equipment too soon, you’ll never properly understand how to address those weaknesses and flaws in your technique. I strongly recommend training without supportive equipment for at least three years before adding supportive apparel. (A case can be made for using a belt as it acts more as a stabilizing and protective agent rather than an aid in lifting more.) Just think of how strong you’ll be once you’ve built a solid and strong foundation. Then, and only then, should you consider implementing these aids into your training.

4. Not practicing the verbal commands in training.

There are verbal commands that must be followed for each lift.

Two verbal commands must be followed in the squat. At the beginning of the squat, the lifter removes the bar from the racks and steps back with it. Once the lifter has demonstrated control of the bar, the head referee will give a verbal command of “Squat” along with a downward motion of the arm. Upon completion of the lift, once the lifter has again demonstrated control of the bar, the head referee will again give a verbal command of “Rack” along with a backward motion of the arm.

In the bench press, the chief referee gives three verbal commands. After the lifter removes the bar from the bench uprights and demonstrates control of the bar, the chief referee will give a verbal command of “Start” coupled with a downward motion of the arm. After receiving the signal the lifter must lower the bar to the chest, hold it motionless on the chest, after which the chief referee will give the audible command of “Press.” Once the lifter has pressed the bar and returned it to arm’s length, the head referee will give the third and final verbal command of “Rack” along with a backward motion of the arm.

The deadlift has only one verbal command. Upon completion of the deadlift, the head referee will give the audible command of “Down” and the downward motion of the arm.

Many novice lifters either don’t know the verbal commands or don’t wait for them. This leads to missed attempts when many times the lift has already been completed with satisfactory form. Missing an attempt due to the failure to follow the verbal commands is absolutely inexcusable and should never happen.

Suggestions: Practice the verbal commands in training prior to the competition.

The remedy is self-explanatory. Have your coach, training partner, or a friend say the commands in training. This doesn’t have to be done every single rep of every single workout. I recommend practicing this simple drill, for each lift, during the last three workouts prior to the competition.

5. Adding and/or changing a piece of supportive equipment (gear) the day of the meet.

Powerlifting is one of the best examples of a “practice like you play” kind of sport.

It is imperative that we train just as we plan to compete. Our lifting costume in training should be identical to what we wear on meet day. If you wear a certain type of shoe to squat in while training, you should wear the same shoe during the competition. Changing equipment of any kind can drastically change your technique. At the Navy Open, one of the competitors heard that he could squat more weight with knee wraps. Having never used them in training he decided to use them at the meet. This was a big mistake. He then proceeded to miss both his opener and second squat attempts for insufficient depth. Finally my wife went over and agreed to call his depth on his third attempt, thus avoiding a bomb-out. Another lifter switched to a squat shoe the day of the meet. The squat shoes had an elevated heel that he wasn’t used to and they threw him forward in the squat. Needless to say, this was one of the contributing factors to him not registering a successful squat. Adding a pair of squat shoes to the arsenal may be an excellent idea, but not on meet day. You are better off waiting until the next training cycle to use them. I’ve seen other lifters wear a bench shirt on meet day that is tighter than the ones they used in training. With the new technology of the bench press shirts, they now go on easier but fit tighter and require more weight to touch the chest. More lifters bomb out of a competition in the bench press than any other lift. Failure to practice with the shirt you plan on wearing on meet day is a major cause for failed attempts and poor performance.

Suggestions: Practice like you compete. Wear the exact same apparel in training that you will wear on meet day.

It doesn’t matter what piece of equipment it is, you need to wear it in training before the meet. If you plan on using a belt in competition, you need to wear it in training. The notion that you’re strong enough to lift a certain weight and then adding a piece of equipment on meet day will make you even stronger sounds valid in theory but often fails in practice. Powerlifting apparel affects your form and technique. Experienced lifters usually train and practice in their supportive equipment for many weeks prior to a contest. This helps to ensure there are no surprises on meet day. The only surprise a novice powerlifter should welcome is their new found strength gains as a result of initially training raw.

6. Wearing the wrong shoes.

Novice lifters often wear tennis or running shoes to compete in. I mean why not, right? You probably already own a few pairs. Why invest extra money in something as trivial as footwear? Running shoes have soft cushion-type soles. While these soles are ideal for comfort, running, and walking, they are certainly not ideal for lifting heavy weights. When you place a bar on your back to squat, gravity immediately starts working against you by pulling the weight down. Additionally, as you begin to sit back and squat down the weight is then pushing you downward toward the floor. In order to ascend in the squat, you must transfer energy through your hips, back, and legs, then through your feet and into the floor. When you do this with running shoes, the cushion soles are severely compressed. This gives you a “squishy” surface to push against rather than a solid and flat surface. This often causes lifters to struggle with their initial set-up in the squat. It also causes lifters to fall forward in the squat often creating a position that’s difficult to recover from. Furthermore, if your feet tend to pronate (turn inwards) the running shoes will likely exacerbate this condition by forcing you feet to roll inwards. The same is true if your feet tend to supinate (roll outwards). Neither of these situations is particularly desirable. Imagine running in sand. Running in sand is much harder than running on concrete because the energy transferred through your feet is dispersed through the sand. When you run on the concrete, the hard surface practically pushes back. Running shoes rarely impair performance during the bench press. However, they are definitely not favorable during the deadlift. Again your main goal when you initiate the deadlift is to drive your feet through the floor. If you have running shoes on your feet will drive into the unstable surface of the cushioned sole. This will inhibit your transfer of energy through your feet into the floor. The bottom line is that soft soled shoes cause decrements in lifting performance.

Suggestions: Purchase and train in a shoe with a flat and ultra-hard sole.

There are many manufacturers of squat shoes. Adidas, Crain, Inzer, Metal, and Safe all manufacture quality squat shoes. Talk to some more experienced powerlifters and see what they like. Get some different opinions before you make the purchase. All squat shoes have extremely hard soles while some even have a raised heel. This can be preferable especially if you have limited ankle and hip mobility preventing you from achieving sufficient depth. Squat shoes are expensive. However, this will likely be a one time investment. I seriously doubt any of you will wear them on a date, to work, or on a job interview. You’ll only wear them for training and competitions. Most squat shoes are extremely durable and will likely last you your entire powerlifting career. If anything, you may have to get them resurfaced.

I do not recommend wearing squat shoes for the deadlift. For deadlifting you want a super-flat and thinly soled shoe. Many lifters wear wrestling shoes. Some federations even allow ballet slippers. These are both ideal as they are flat and the thin sole shortens the distance you have to pull the bar.

If you don’t have the money to invest in a pair of squat shoes for squatting or wrestling shoes for deadlifting, there are still other less expensive options. The old school Chuck Taylor basketball shoe is rather popular and works well because of the hard and flat sole. Many lifters wear these for both squatting and deadlifting. Indoor soccer shoes and also a good choice as they are extremely flat. Some of the older styles of basketball shoes would be appropriate for squatting.

The powerlifting platform is not a place to be concerned with fashion. Your primary footwear focus should be on function and performance. Choose your shoes wisely. Your feet will thank you and your lifts will increase immediately.

7. Not attending the rules briefing prior to the competition.

Many novice lifters show up at the meet and assume they understand all the rules of performance. If I had a nickel for every lifter that failed to wait for the “Rack” command in the squat or failed to pause their bench press, I’d be on the cover of Forbes Magazine. Rules briefings do just that, they announce and brief the competitors of the rules of lifting performance. Proper lifting attire is also addressed. All local and state meets should have a rules briefing. (National and world championships do not have rules briefings because the lifters are already seasoned enough to know and understand all the rules.)

Suggestions: Attend and actually listen at the rules briefing.

As easy and simple as this sounds, I’ve seen countless lifters fail to attend the rules briefing only to go on and miss their opening attempts. If the competition doesn’t have a rules briefing prior to the start of the meet, ask one of the referees to review the rules. Most referees will gladly go over the rules. This is a time to listen and ask questions for clarification. Missing attempts due to ignorance of the rules is unacceptable.

8. Not understanding the timing and flow of the competition.

Many people that are new to powerlifting don’t understand the organization and flow of a competition. This starts immediately after getting weighed. Novices often don’t pay attention to when their flight starts or where they are within their flight. This is vitally important for your warm-up and mental preparation. At the Navy Open, I recall a lifter not paying any attention to when he was supposed to bench press. He didn’t realize that his flight had started and all of the sudden his name was called informing him that he was “in the wings” (fourth lifter out). Without warming-up properly he frantically put on his bench shirt and attempted a 396 pounds opening bench press attempt. I don’t need to tell you that he got crushed. He went on to miss all three bench press attempts and bomb out of the competition. Another common mistake is having your knees wrapped too long. Tight knee wraps will eventually begin to cut off your circulation to your calves and feet. One lifter was wrapped for nearly ten minutes prior to his attempt. He later told me that by the time he approached the bar he could not even feel his feet. This is obviously not a good scenario for making a successful squat attempt. Understanding the timing of the competition will put your nerves at ease and enable to have adequate time to warm-up. Not knowing your place in your flight often comes with disastrous consequences.

Suggestions: Pay attention, listen, and look for your flight number and place within your flight.

Immediately after the weigh-ins close you should find the meet director and inquire as to the flight order. They will likely have the order of lifting and can inform you of your flight number and place within the flight. The attempts are organized incrementally from lightest to heaviest. Therefore if you know you have a light opening attempt in the squat, you can begin warming up sooner. Be sure to check your place within the flight for benching and deadlifting as it’s often not the same. Many meet directors will either announce the lifting order and/or have it posted on the wall or on a huge screen if the meet site is equipped with one.

Once the bar is loaded and the lifter’s name is called, the lifter has one minute to receive their start signal in both the squat and the bench press. They have one minute to make a determined effort to raise the bar in the deadlift. A good rule for estimating approximate timing is to look at how many lifters there are in a given flight or how many lifters are ahead of you. You can assume approximately one minute per lifter. If there are ten lifters in the flight ahead of yours you can assume they will be finished lifting in approximately 30 minutes (10 lifters x 3 attempts per lifter = 30 minutes). This formula is usually accurate. Squatting typically takes more time than bench pressing and deadlifting as lifters are often wrapping knees, etc. If you are the eighth person in a flight of ten, you can assume you’ll have seven minutes before it’s time for your first attempt. Once you’ve completed your attempt you will have approximately nine minutes between all subsequent attempts.

Know how long it takes you to warm-up for each individual lift. If in training it usually takes you 30 minutes before you hit your heaviest sets then you can allow for 30 minutes to warm-up at the meet. You may want to allocate more time as you will likely be warming up with the rest of the lifters in your flight and sharing a squat rack or bench press. Allow extra time to get fitted into your lifting attire. Tight suits and bench press shirts take more time to put on than a singlet. There’s nothing worse than realizing that your flight starts in ten minutes and you haven’t put on your squat suit yet. The energy used in quickly pulling on your suit can tire you rapidly. When coaching my lifters I always inform them, “Start warming up a little earlier than usual because you can always slow down your warm-ups but you can’t speed up.” Hastening your warm-up schedule creates fatigue and nervousness. As the day progresses, you’ll need fewer warm-ups because your body will already be primed from the previous attempts.

Proper warm-up and timing are crucial for success on the platform. If you understand the proper timing, you put yourself in a much better position for success on the platform.

Warming-up and proper timing are all aided by having a coach or handler assist you at the competition. A competent handler can make or break your day. Ideally they should be at your beck and call. The only thing a lifter should have to focus on is lifting the weight on the bar. A good coach handles his or her lifters by first helping them in the warm-up room. They load the bar for all warm-up sets and manage the timing. Keeping your lifter informed of the timing is crucial. A word to the wise, if you don’t have a coach or training partner that’s willing to assist you on meet day and you have to ask a friend or family member, make sure they have at least a casual interest in powerlifting. If your best friend hates lifting weights and would rather be playing ping-pong, you’re better off on your own. Do not invite them to assist you. Some folks with the best intentions can ruin your plans. You have trained too hard and too long for a friend to throw a wrench in your program.

9. Rushing your set-up.

Many novice lifters run to the bar and have it out of the rack before you can blink. This puts the lifter in an unfavorable position. It also creates a dangerous situation for both the lifter and the spotters. Lifting heavy weights requires precision and focus. Approaching the bar and taking control of the weight too quickly can make the attempt much harder because you’ve now placed additional forces on the bar that weren’t there before. Gravity is difficult enough to overcome, let alone added “whip” or motion on the bar. I’ve seen novice lifters rush their set-up in the squat so much that they not only forget to wait for the initial “Squat” command but they also stumble backwards out of the rack from the extra momentum the weight has generated.

Setting-up too quickly doesn’t allow you to squeeze the bar and build the necessary tension. Squeezing the bar as tightly as possible creates more tension on the bar and allows your body to recruit more muscle fibers to perform the work. This is Powerlifting 101. Slow down, set your grip, and squeeze the bar!

Running up to the bench and just flopping down onto the bench doesn’t work either. If you’re not set up properly on the bench, you won’t be able to take advantage of leg drive and you’ll likely be in a poor pressing position. When you lay on the bench to press, your body is like a table. The stronger the foundation (legs) and surface (buttocks, back/shoulders, and head) are the more likely you are to be in a favorable pressing position.

Many inexperienced lifters will also run up to bar for the deadlift, bend over, and just yank on it as hard as they can. Often they will grab the bar in the wrong place or be off-center as they initiate the pull. The deadlift is an example of a concentric only (upwards/lifting) muscle contraction. The weight is actually lifted first before it’s lowered. Consequently, your starting position is most crucial in the deadlift. If your start position is hampered because you rushed your set-up, there’s an excellent chance you’ll miss your attempt.

Suggestions: Slow down and take your time setting up for each lift.

Perfect practice helps to ensure perfect performance. It all starts in the gym. Practice a slower and more deliberate set-up for each lift. Treat every single set the same way. Treat 135 pounds with as much respect as 500 pounds. If your set-up is the same with the lighter weights, you’ll be more conditioned to execute a proper set-up with heavier weights. Make sure you’ve set your grip where you want. Upon breaking the bar from the rack in the squat, stop and allow the weights to settle. The mores plates that are on the bar, the more “whip” the bar is likely to have because the center of gravity has changed by virtue of the fact that more weight is located further away from your body. If you step back too quickly with a heavy squat attempt, the bar will shake and sometimes it’s impossible to fully recover. Moreover, taking a more deliberate and methodical approach to setting-up your weights requires far less energy. Your ideal set-up expends as little energy as possible and puts your body in the most favorable position to execute the lift with proper form.

Practicing in the gym allows you time to focus on proper breathing techniques as well. Breathing properly and understanding how to temporarily fill your abdomen and chest cavity with air, allows you to tighten your core. Your trunk and torso are your support system. They’re like the column of a building. The tighter and more solid the column, the more weight your body can lift and support. It’s that simple.

Slow down, be more methodical, put your body in a more favorable lifting position, and enjoy the ride.

10. Opening too heavy.

This mistake is listed last but it’s certainly not the least important. Many lifters, especially novices, select an opening attempt that is too heavy. You don’t win with your opening attempts unless you’re Ed Coan. Opening up too heavy requires too much energy and leaves less room for improvement on subsequent attempts.

Your opening attempt in each lift, particularly the squat because it’s the very first lift of the day, is the most important lift of all three attempts. Your opener is like the first pitch in a baseball game, the first hit in a football game, or your first shot in basketball. It sets the tone for the rest of the day. More important, your opening attempt not only gets you into the meet and builds confidence but it serves as a stepping stone for the next attempt. Missing your opener only creates uncertainty, stress, and immediately puts you in a hole.

I could write an entire article on selecting attempts alone. I won’t discuss attempt selection in detail as that’s not the scope of this article but suffice it to say, selecting appropriate attempts is one of the most important decisions of your entire training cycle.

Suggestions: Select a reasonable opening attempt that helps build confidence and allows you to make the next progression to your second attempt.

Leave your ego at home. Nobody cares what you open with. The only attempts that count are the ones you make. Your openers only count toward your total if it’s the only attempt you make. Otherwise, it serves as a prelude to your other attempts. The opening attempt merely helps build your total by allowing you to make the next progression. People only remember what you finished with anyway.

Open light! That doesn’t mean that your opening squat is 250 pounds if your personal best is 500 pounds. Light or reasonable is different for everyone. Generally speaking, you want your opening attempt to be a weight that you are supremely confident of lifting on your absolute worst day under the worst possible conditions. A good rule for most lifters is to open with approximately 90% of your personal best or your best triple in training. Whatever weight you can lift for three reps is usually a very safe weight to open with. Weights may vary with the bench press as the technology of the newer shirts make it harder to get weights to touch the chest. Accordingly, you may need to open slightly heavier in the bench press. In any event, always err on the side of caution. More experienced lifters can get away with opening heavier. They are more accustomed to the rigors of the sport and have a better understanding of their bodies and their capabilities. Even under the best circumstances, I personally have never opened with anything higher than 92% of my personal best.

There were 45 lifters at the 2007 USA Powerlifting Navy Open. That translates to 135 first attempts. Of the 135 first attempts there were 35 missed attempts or nearly 26% failures. Of those 35 missed attempts, seven lifters bombed out of the competition and did not register a total. Approximately 15% of the competitors failed to complete the meet. That’s 15% too many. Bombing out of competition sucks . . . plain and simple. Most lifters will do it at least once over their powerlifting career. Many will do it in their very first meet. This leads to many lifters not ever coming back to compete again. You’re only allowed to bomb once. In my opinion, once it happens it is never, under any circumstances, acceptable for it to happen again. You learn from it, put it behind you, and make sure it is never repeated.

In conclusion, nothing ever goes as planned at a powerlifting meet. Trust me on that one. At most powerlifting meets you’ll encounter at least one thing that you failed to plan for in training. You have to be able to adapt on the fly and roll with the punches. Always think positively and make the best of a foreign situation.

As a novice, minimizing your mistakes usually equates to maximizing your results on the platform. It all starts with proper practice in training. I can guarantee that if you employ some of the suggestions and recommendations that I’ve listed, you’ll minimize these novice mistakes. The best thing to take from this article is to recognize that every mistake listed is entirely avoidable. When you can avoid mistakes, there’s an excellent chance that you’ll have tremendous success in your first few meets.

Powerlifting is a tough sport for tough people. I doubt that it will ever make into the mainstream consciousness of our society. Quite frankly, I prefer it that way. Therefore we need our novice lifters to have success, stick around for a while, and partake in the fraternity of iron that we know and love.

May all of your lifts feel light and all your lights be white.

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