When trying to find the absolute best mindset to compete in most powerlifters will tend to lean towards sheer rage - regardless of whether this is best for them or not. Some will go to a solemn place, others will get themselves amused beforehand. Regardless of which way they choose to go their destination should be one where they have little to no intrusive thought, no over thinking and no reliance on sheer brute strength. They should get to a position where that mindset is based upon pure instinct. Or based upon...ultra instinct.
Now I won’t go into a full diatribe about Dragon Ball, or its sequels Z,Super and GT (yes, it counts) but I will link you to my previous Dragon Ball-meets-sports-science article where I compared a Zenkai boost to peaking and, more importantly here, I explain what Dragon Ball is. *
However, what is important to know is that in Super, canonically the furthest into the story, Goku gets to a tournament where his team includes none other than his first proper teacher - Master Roshi. Throughout this tournament Goku gets absolutely destroyed by a foe he can’t get anywhere near called Jiren.
In the manga there is a great scene where Goku is trying to rely on just being stronger or transforming (again) to try to overcome Jiren. Until Roshi basically just tells him to fight better and rely on his techniques. Roshi, who at this point is nowhere near the level of Goku, then manage to show a small understanding of ‘Ultra Instinct’ and manages to go toe-to-toe with Jiren for a short time and, thus, inspires Goku.*1
Following this Goku realises that if he focuses less on being stronger or going harder and just hones in on his technique then he will move better, fight better and, perform better technically which results in him achieving the use of ‘Ultra Instinct.’
The idea of switching off and just doing the movement has its base in sports psychology, martial arts and philosophies from various parts of the world, such as Japan where it would be ‘Mushin,’ or China where it would be something akin to ‘Daoism.’
What is the real life Ultra Instinct?
It’s not so much a thing as it is a state of mind. In Dragon Ball, the aim is to switch off their brain from over complicating things and letting their highly trained, highly skilled bodies react by themselves. They know how to fight, so just fight - don’t think about it first, just fight. This sounds really simple but after years of deliberate practice it can be hard to just trust yourself, it can be hard to just turn your brain off.
In the Western world, the most common name for this state would be the ‘flow state,’ whereas in the Eastern areas of philosophy, namely Japan, it would be ‘Mushin,’ which means ‘empty mind,’ or ‘mind without mind.’ I like the idea of ‘empty mind,’ best as this succinctly describes the state you want to be in in order to allow yourself to just do what you need to do.
As ever, a bridge between the Eastern and Western philosophies, particularly when it comes to fighting, is Bruce Lee. He suggested that one should -
Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. Be water, my friend."
So, what is Mushin and what does it mean to you, the powerlifter? It is the idea of freeing the mind of fear, of ego, of anger and, of random thoughts. This basically means removing all distractions other than the technique you need - which, as we’ll get on to later, comes through practice, practice and more practice.
The practice of this state of Mushin must be practiced alongside the technique - however, for beginners the technique must take precedence. *2
‘Flow State’ is the scientific name to the philosophical ‘Mushin.’ You could also refer to it as being ‘in the zone.’ You may find that when you are in this zone that time flies due to your lack of distraction to other events which you would usually use to measure time.
Now this state of mind isn’t recommended for the beginner - not because it is inherently extreme but rather - because for it to work best you need to be at a relatively high skill level in your chosen sport. Here I will focus on powerlifting as that's my main area of expertise.
If you’re at your competition and about to hit your first squat you want to be able to just get under the bar and do your thing. You don’t want to be distracting yourself with concerns about whether or not your left foot is in line with your right foot or whether you’ve left the stove on at home. You want to routinely set yourself up in an efficient, practiced manner and just do.
But how do we get to this stage you might ask?
The answer won’t surprise you; it’s practice. Deliberate practice is the main thing you need in order to become an expert. Dr Ericsson claimed in 1990 that for you to become an expert in your chosen field you will need to clock up 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.*3
There are a few things to consider about that previous paragraph. Firstly, it has to be deliberate practice and not just going through the motions (eg, practicing to be an F1 driver compared to driving around town every day). Secondly, it doesn’t always apply to sport - some people have an innate talent - however, most people will still improve with consistent, deliberate practice. Thirdly, it’s an organic pursuit. You don’t necessarily get to a point and become an expert and unlock all of these skills, you will get better as you go and can apply various principles (including ‘ultra instinct’ to your performances).
Going back to the powerlifting example, if you do get to a competition then it is highly likely that you have trained towards it. Practicing the skills and increasing your strength and having gone through some kind of competition strategy. In this time you will have learned how to do the lifts to the technical standards, but also applied some time to learning how it works best for you.
It is very easy to get to a good standard and then stay there. This idea is called the ‘ok plateau,’ and I won’t go too much into it here but I’ll leave a note below.
In my experience, I try to get my lifters to set up in a similar manner each time so that they don’t need to overthink it, they don’t need to worry if this minute thing is right or not - it just is. Specific, deliberate practice on this mindset is very important, and the constant practicing of the squat, bench press and deadlift set up will encourage you to find what works.
Personally, I can not get ready in an angry or overly hyped way as it distracts me more than the extra bit of aggression is worth. I like to be in a happy, almost humorous state of mind to just switch off when I need to. Other people might need aggression, but as stated above, it can lead to more distractions.
Ultra Instinct vs Getting Hyped.
Ultra Instinct, the flow state (or Mushin), should be focused upon the set up for the lift through to the lift itself as this is the time where the technique is most important.
Personally, I think too many people go straight for the “get angry,” approach and as a result of this they don’t try other styles to get into this zone. If you use the wrong style of psyching up you will likely find that you’re leaving kilos on the platform and not performing as well as you potentially could.
A potential problem with preparations that require a lot of emotional energy, whether that be anger, rage or sadness,etc is that the more you get used to it the less effective it can be. Which means that if you get yourself angry and hyped up for near enough every lift, or every workout, when you get to a competition it won’t work anywhere near as well due to the law of diminishing returns. This constant drawing on emotions will burn you out mentally, emotionally and physically very quickly too - this is one reason why I tend to lean more towards a controlled, calm approach.
To apply this to your powerlifting, or any performance based event you will need to deliberately practice it. If you’ve practiced to a point where you are technically proficient in the squat, for example, then you can now practice getting into this mindset.
You might find that you need to tap into some anger, maybe some laughter, maybe even some serenity. Find what works and get really good at channeling it.
Also, make mistakes and don’t be afraid to do so. Making mistakes is how we get better at things, you should make a mistake and then think “well, I won’t do that again.” Try various ways and if they don’t work “take a deep breath, grit your teeth, and then examine...the mistake as ruthlessly and as dispassionately as you can.” After you have made loads of mistakes you will then be left with a few ways of doing things well, eventually you’ll whittle these down to something that works particularly well. *4
It is easy for me to write that you should just keep trying until you find what works but a lot of people will not be able to quieten their distracting thoughts that are spinning around their head while trying to prepare for a lift. This is where a good degree of mindfulness and meditation can come in handy. This will teach you to shut off some of these more anxious thoughts and let you just be, without having to think about it.
For me, it wasn’t until my 3rd full competition that I started to realise what type of motivation worked best for me, so from then on the idea of relaxing and enjoying the moment is what I started focusing on for getting my head into it from then on.
Some people might find that singing to themselves turns off that part of the brain that second guesses you. Others might find certain music, along with mindful meditation, gets them into that Ultra Instinct state.
You can see an example of the singing application via one of my favourite tv shows here.
Alcohol also helps to shut that function of the brain off - hence people making so many bad decisions under the influence - however, it is only at the initial stages of intoxication that this happens and I definitely would not suggest either training under the influence or matching the amount you drink to the amount you train.
Your hair and eyes won’t turn an interesting silver colour but you will exude calmness while performing perfect technique (or as perfect as your technique work has gotten you to) when lifting on the platform.
Getting to this point takes a lot of deliberate practice, practice in the technical aspects of lifting and practice in controlling your mind, your anxieties and your ego. Keep practicing, keep trying different ways and make mistakes but learn from them.
All the Dragon Ball mangas, obviously.
Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed.
Bounce by Matthew Syed.
Intuition Pumps by Daniel C Dennett.
* http://dannyleeonline.co.uk/blog/ascend-your-level-with-a-real-life-zenkai - nerd out here.
*1 - In the anime, it takes Goku to be hit with his own deflected spirit bomb to discover ultra instinct.
*2 - https://shotokantimes.com/2019/09/03/what-is-mushin-and-how-to-achieve-it/
*3 - I have written a little more extensively on becoming an expert, and a little on Mushin, in the past - you can find it here - https://propanefitness.com/how-to-become-an-expert-guest-post-by-danny-lee/
*4 - Daniel C. Dennett - Intuition Pumps - And Other Tools For Thinking. While on this topic, also check out Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed.
The weekend of the 10th to the 12th of May was a busy one. With lifting from the Friday to the Sunday we had a handful of clients compete at their frist British and each and every one of them did myself, and themselves proud.
British Champion - Dennis O'Shea. -140kg Raw.
Dennis went into this competition just looking to improve on the last one. He managed a 5kg squat PB and a 2.5kg deadlift PB - this was more than enough to secure him that Gold Medal and an invite to the World Championship.
Squat - 170kg
Bench - 132.5kg
Deadlift - 252.5kg
Second Place in Britain - Sarah Jayne Riley. - 90kg Raw.
Sarah's training had gone fairly well going into this one and it showed on the day. With a 12.5kg total PB she managed a 7.5kg PB on squat and a 5kg bench PB (giving her the biggest bench of all the girls in the Daniel Lee Fitness group, for now...).
Squat - 100kg
Bench Press - 75kg
Deadlift - 135kg
Total - 310kg
Third place in Britain - Chanel Hanes. - 67.5kg Raw.
With a bit of a shaky day Chanel still managed to secure a Bronze medal in a tough class.
She managed -
Squat - 107.5kg
Bench Press - 62.5kg
Deadlift - 132.5kg
With a more settled build up to the next competition there will definitely be some big PBs in store for her!
Piotr Zietal - -82.5kg Classic Raw.
With an aim of just improving on March's lifts Piotr managed a comfortable 15kg total PB at his first British Championships. Watch out this year for him to return with wraps!
Squat - 170kg
Bench press - 110kg
Deadlift - 205kg
Total - 485kg
All of these guys will be competing again later this year - watch out for them. They're already making massive improvements.
Trawling through fitness Instagram profiles is hard work. Especially when what you find is either erroneous or just mistaken. This is especially prevalent in the deadlift assistance movements known as the Romanian Deadlift and the Stiff Legged Deadlift, which, by the way, are definitely different movements.
I write this as these are quite often referred to as the same movements – which leads to difficult when coaching them or including them in online plans for clients.
The Romanian Deadlift – What it is and What it does.
The Romanian Deadlift (the RDL) is a fantastic assistance movement for the regular deadlift. It will look very similar to the downward portion of a good, old conventional deadlift.
It is great for the posterior chain – mainly the glutes, back and hamstrings – and it is also hell on your grip as you have to hold it for pretty much the whole movement.
Now, to do it –
The Stiff Legged Deadlift.
This is occasionally known as the Straight-legged Deadlift also, but I don’t like this as it encourages some people to completely lock their knees which loads the hamstrings up for too much in an unstable position.
This assistance exercise gets the same muscles as the RDL by and large. However, it is a bit more difficult for those without good mobility. If your mobility is lacking then you will find it hard to get into the starting position without your back suffering.
How to do it –
What are the Differences?
They affect very similar muscles and are a great way to increase deadlift volume without using all of the weight you would on regular deadlifts. They also stimulate more muscle growth and more utilisation of the hamstrings – this makes them particularly good for lifters lacking in that area.
However, as mentioned above, SLDLs are harder to achieve a proper starting position if the lifter has poor mobility and they definitely need to be seen as separate to regular conventional deadlifts or the strength will suffer.
There’s no real reason why a lifter who can deadlift would not be able to do a RDL as it is basically just the correct way to descend with a deadlift.
If you’re still unsure on the difference – here’s another video for you all.
Guest Post by Sophie Thomas.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that people who haven’t watched - or, perhaps more unfathomably, dislike - classical Simpsons episodes, are a class of people not knowing.
As for myself? I consider it a moral duty to uphold the shining, golden medallions of entertainment, set forth by seasons 1-13.
Hell, it’s even had an influence in how I train myself, and how I cue clients into movement. And I’m about to tell you how.
In The Simpsons episode King-Size Homer, our favourite, bumbling cartoon protagonist Homer embarks upon a ‘bulk cycle’ of sorts - but instead of having aesthetic goals, his main objective is becoming too physically resigned to partake in the Nuclear Power Plant’s exercise regime for its employees.
Soon after, Homer starts living the entrepreneurial dream, and works from home.
Of course, the life of a lackadaisical, button-pressing safety inspector can be tiring - so Homer instils a little help from his newfound buddy, a drinking bird, to press “Y” on his keyboard to keep things ticking over for a while.
Of course, this doesn’t go to plan - but what does run smoothly is the bird’s flawless attention to detail in the way it hip hinges.
IT’S HIP TO BE AWARE
When coaching a movement pattern like the hip hinge - which can appear alien to sedentary clients, at first glance - it’s important to give them a form of visual feedback so they have a vague idea as to what the hell is going on with their body.
That’s not to say the drinking bird is the perfect analogy for performing a hip hinge or Romanian deadlift - you still want the weight driving through your feet, rather than pushing the centre of gravity over your toes or out right in front of you. Nevertheless, the image hits a nice little trifecta of cues which many people find troublesome to perform correctly.
Hips drawing back? Tick.
Nice, flat back? Tick.
Avoiding too much movement going into the knees? Tick, tick, tick.
To hinge (the movement pattern - not the dating app ) is an undeniably important part of muscular development, sports specific training, and preventing imbalances or injury.
For starters, newbies or office workers are liable to suffer from tighter hip flexors, weaker glute muscles, and dominant quads from longer hours sitting. Invariably, this can throw the body off kilter - with anterior pelvic tilt, often leading to lower back pain. Strengthening the hip hinging muscles of the posterior chain (glute muscles, hamstrings, etc.) can restore balance to the lower body and help prevent pain and injury from occurring, making it a fundamental part of your programming.
But what for the well-trained? To a bodybuilder looking for bigger quads, the movement seems facile and blasé; a powerlifter may express scepticism at anything other than bench, squat, or deadlift. In reality, the hinge can help any kind of athlete - especially if their sport prioritises quad use over hamstring involvement.
IF YOU’RE A BIRD, THEN I’M A BIRD. AND I’LL PROBABLY HIP HINGE BETTER.
As mentioned - the drinking bird isn’t the panacea for your hip hingeing woes. But it might help you connect the dots and see what part of your body needs to move where; seeing if your knees are going too far forward, or if the movement is too back dominant. Plus, whoever thinks that a drinking bird isn’t plain, ol’ gosh-darned adorable, is somebody you do not need in your life from the get-go.
SUCCESS HINGES UPON CONSISTENCY - AND, POTENTIALLY, A LITTLE EXTRA HELP.
Homer loved that little drinking bird of his - but, no doubt if he tried employing the hinge movement pattern to his everyday training, he may not have much success.
At his weight, there are conditions at play here - mobility issues, movement restrictions - and yes, perhaps even confidence.
Sometimes, as coaches we are limited in the resources we can give our clients - or even when training ourselves. Sure, external cues are great at facilitating a learning environment for somebody; but sometimes there are variables out of our control, and we must come to accept this - Marcus Aurelius style.
If there’s something greater at play than simply needed a drinking bird for hinge inspiration, it’s a wise move for us to refer out - to physiotherapists, doctors, or even counsellors - rather than draw all of our knowledge from a beloved 90’s cartoon. Oh, and science and physics and shit like that.
Author - Sophie Thomas
It’s more than just gains. Throughout a full powerlifting plan you will go through various blocks (hypertrophy, intensity, strength, peaking, etc) and the level and intensity of fatigue you feel at each point will differ massively. As well as this, there is the idea of why you should do what the plan says, what to expect from assistance and auxiliary movements and rest and recovery.
Whether you’re a coach or someone starting out on a powerlifting plan for the first time, its always a good idea to have a rudimentary understanding of the principles behind programming. Mainly, volume, intensity and frequency. These three largely intertwine, especially as you go along, and they also weave into fatigue and the effect that that can have on your training.
Volume is a decisive factor in your training, particularly in relation to improving strength and size. Volume incorporates -
While volume is the quantitative variable, intensity is the qualitative one. The more work that you do within a single session, then the more intense it becomes. The intensity depends on the load, speed of performance and variation of rest between sets/reps. A factor often overlooked about intensity is the psychological effect it can have on a person.
In the case of strength gains intensity would depend mainly upon the load utilised in a workout. For example reps at 80% would be a lot more intense than singles at 70%.
Relationship between Volume and Intensity.
As the volume increases in a workout the intensity should decrease, and vice versa. Whichever variable you’re focusing on will have a different effect upon your body's adaptation. Finding the optimal balance of both is a tricky task – a point we will come back to later.
The main thing is to organise your volume into a reasonable schedule. As you get more advanced you will need more and more volume. Frequency becomes more important here as you can organise the extra volume in such a way for you to recover.
If you get to a point in your training where you are recovering fine but not progressing then you have plateaued. The way around this is generally to add more volume (you would reduce volume if you were plateaued and not recovering) and in order to do this you might need to add another day of training.
You should always be training so that you have recovered adequately for the next session, week of training. If you aren’t recovering properly then it is likely that you are doing too much volume, or resting too little. On the other hand, you won’t be feeling 100% refreshed, especially if you are quite far into a training block.
So, basically the more advanced you are the more days you will be training. Beginners may progress with a full body plan performed twice a week, whereas a more advanced lifter might have an upper/lower split or even different body parts on different days. A common mistake with beginners is that they try to run before they can walk.
Let’s say you have a competition in 12 weeks time. How do you organise it? Each block normally lasts about 4 weeks. For the sake of the 12 week example, we’ll have each block as 3 weeks of work followed by a 1 week deload.
Nearly every programme will start with a hypertrophy cycle. This is for a number of reasons, mainly to build some muscle beforehand.
An aside on muscle size, a bigger muscle isn’t necessarily stronger but it has more potential for strength. If you’re struggling to get stronger, try getting bigger then get stronger.
Another reason is that hypertrophy is normally high reps and high sets which means more goes at each movement, which means more practice. Don’t forget that each exercise is a skill that needs to be perfected.
The more keen eyed amongst you will notice that the hypertrophy phase will coincide nicely with the volume phase I mentioned earlier. Your body will reach a point where the volume has been accumulated and needs to be dropped with the intensity needing to be raised. It is here that the next block comes in. After a deload, of course.
By this point of your training you should have mastered the general movement patterns of the squat, bench press and deadlift, as well as the assistance work added. Depending upon how sensitive you are to hypertrophy (this is dependent upon a number of factors) you should have added on at least a little bit of muscle in this time. You will have at least a few lovely rep PBs to throw up on your social media.
Its through this stage where the intensity of lifting weights will take over from the sheer volume of them. Towards the end of your volume/hypertrophy cycle you should have gone through a slight reduction of volume and a gradual increase of intensity anyway, but now these changes will be accelerated.
This block is basically a stepping stone to the next block, but that does not mean it can be ignored. Without including this part your body will struggle to adapt to the shift from high reps/low weights to the technical master required for low reps/high weight.
This is it. This is when you really ramp up those weights and get into competition mode. It’s at this point where you take your proficiency at each exercise, the new found muscle and, the raw strength you have created in the previous blocks and really fine tune it into a biomechanical masterpiece worthy of PBs on the powerlifting platform.
This point is basically just a continuation of lowering the volume and increasing the intensity. However, the focus now is purely powerlifting specific. It isn’t unheard of for there to be next to no assistance or auxiliary work at this point, as all of your effort is aimed towards getting those 9 lifts you do on the platform as perfect and as heavy as possible.
This isn’t necessarily just a week off. I mentioned earlier how volume/intensity/frequency all coincide and result in fatigue. By this point that fatigue should have reached a head and you should feel absolutely knackered. You may even have aches and pains. At this point you will go through a drastic reduction in volume/intensity and frequency.
The idea behind this is that your body has gone through a long phase of recovering you from such a battered state that it is used to recovering you by this much. So if you were to suddenly reduce this amount of fatigue your body will over recover and you will, in theory, recover to a position of about 105% rather than 100%.
Fatigue is important to understand. Beyond the bit mentioned above about manipulating it in order to over-recover (or super-compensate) you will also need to realise that it is a totally normal part of a training block, particularly just before either a taper or a deload.
It’s at this point that you might suffer some of the nastier physical side effects of training. You might find that the volume and intensity builds up so much that you might succumb to various physical, or mental, symptoms. These can include –
Once you start feeling one or more of these symptoms, monitor them to be sure its from training and not other life factors but then talk to your coach or check your programme for the nearest deload.
The fatigue needs to be carefully manipulated in order to achieve the right amount of fatigue at the right time. Which is why following the weights, or RPE levels, is important, which we will come to next.
Why you’re doing the Weights You’re Told to Do.
As a coach, this is one of those points that is most frustrating when it comes to powerlifters. Powerlifting will always be about shifting the most weight possible, there is no getting around that. However, it is a bout shifting the most weight possible when on the platform. This last bit is crucial to remember.
If your coach or plan has you working up to a single -whether it be an RPE 8 or 9, a last warm up, an opener or a second attempt – they will have considered all of the factors mentioned earlier here. If you’ve read this properly you will see how important it is to manipulate the factors of volume and intensity in order to have the lifter fatigue the right amount at the right time.
So if you do your single that looks like an opener, your coach knows you can recover from it and finish that workout and the next ones in that week. If you decide to go for a new 1RM and fatigue yourself to the point where the rest of the session or the rest of the week is sub-par, then you have damaged up to a quarter of your training block just for an ego boost.
Trust your coach or your plan, do what your told and you will hit big PBs consistently where it matters, that is, on the platform.
Assistance and Auxiliary Movements.
These are the ones you probably just leave out when no one’s looking. We’re all on to you for doing it, don’t worry.
However, they do have their place. More so if you have a coach, your plan will have exercises in there to improve certain aspects of your movement. You might be doing front squats because your quads give in on a regular squat. You might be doing flyes because your chest lacks the necessary mass to improve. The reasons for these are varied but again, they all have their place. It is very rare for a coach or plan to have an exercise in there if its not needed.
As a corollary to this, just adding exercises in willy-nilly could have a detrimental effect on your training and your overall programme.
This is the main thing you should expect from a powerlifting programme. Otherwise, what is the point in doing one?
Obviously, during the time you’ll learn how to do them to a technical standard as well. You may also find that your general movement is better, as is your posture. Your general health and outlook on life may also improve, particularly if you’re new to exercise in general.
So, yes, the main thing to expect is gains. Physically, mentally, emotionally and in terms of your total. However, you should also fully expect to go through some pain in terms of muscle and joints, as well as mental stress.