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.
Normally, when I write I do it from the position of “Fitness expert who can string some words together,” and I haven’t really done so from the position of “Writer.” For once, I’m going to do the latter here.
At multiple points throughout my career I have been employed by websites to write - they give me x money and I write y words. The last year or so I took some time off and decided that if I were to write it would be about things I find interesting.
After all, if I don’t enjoy my writing, why would you?
This is actually where the idea for Strength Prose came from. I wanted to write about strength and fitness from a position I knew well, and give that opportunity to other writers. I feel that the passion and knowledge flow through the words and off the page in a far better way like this.
So, writing sounds like something you want to get better at? Well, here are some tips that I’ve found extremely helpful.
Write How You Speak.
This can be quite awkward for some people. What if you swear a lot? What if you say “erm,” and “uhm,” a lot. Both are fine, obviously don’t write the hesitating “err,”s but swearing is okay if it suits your audience.
The best way to understand something is to imagine teaching it to someone else and, I’m assuming if you are writing you are an expert or able to explain your chosen subject. Take how you would teach it and write it like that.
If you talk using a lot of alliteration, this is fine.If this means you write in short, succinct sentences then that’s fine, or if you are someone who is very verbose and like to fully express your vernacular, then by all means write as you would speak, verbatim.
See what I did there?
Write How You Speak pt II - Just dial it up to 11.
When you’re talking to someone in person it would be very rude of them to just get up mid-sentence and leave. I know it does happen, but it’s rare as people are simply too polite. However, when reading something you can very easily just close the page and move on, if it’s not grabbing you then why should you waste time on it?
This is why you want to take the best elements of your talking/teaching style and raise it by 10%, it makes you more interesting and more engaging.
I briefly explained my positioning above, although that was more as a benefit for those of you who don’t know me. The majority of the people reading this will know me and my background. They’ll already be aware of why I’m qualified to say what I’m saying.
This is almost like a ‘needing experience to get work’ kind of issue but if you ensure you are very good at something then people will listen, you just need to find a way to show how good you are and writing can offer you even more positioning. Not everyone can do it and even fewer are any good.
Have Something to Say.
This one sounds quite obvious, but if you’re committing to focusing on your writing then you need ideas. It can be hard to generate good ideas as it could just lead to you writing in an almost Kanye/Trump stream of consciousness style of Twitter. Which is fine for some light entertainment but no one really takes it seriously.
It’s similar to selling, if you can think of a solution to a problem then those people with the problem will come find you. Solve some problems for people and you’ll have plenty of content.
Make it Actionable.
Most importantly you should give people something that they can go “hey, I can really use this new knowledge now.”
Whether it be fitness, how to write or anything you’re good at helping people with you should lay out easy to follow steps for the reader to easily apply to their life immediately.
To sum up, writing can be hard but having some skill in it can help you in terms of explaining, selling and sometimes just venting. It really helps your content stand out in an age where anyone can take a nice filtered picture.
A lot of people wonder how long their workouts should be. Personally, when it comes to training I have never really set an allotted amount of time to my training. I go in with a plan and it takes as long as it takes. However, this plan has a set amount of volume and intensity which I need to hit in order to make my required progress. A set training plan is a fantastic way to train, it not only ensures further progression for me, but also ensures that I do not overdo it in the gym. A good plan factors in rest and recovery as well as the required volume and intensity to encourage progressive overload. Training harder and for longer is not necessarily better, training and recovering smartly is key to progress.
There are still various pockets of the world (often the internet) that would insist that overtraining does not exist and that it is either under recovering or under eating. However, all of these things should be managed in a good plan. Sufficient training, recovery and diet will always lead to greater gains than pure blood and guts hard work.
Now, if you are into any sort of competitive sport or events you may be familiar with the idea of over training. This is where your plan will accumulate the volume of your exercise and workouts to the point of near overtraining. The reason for this is to elicit the ‘compensation’ effect.
When your body becomes used to a particular amount of training volume it begins to recover to that amount. If some of this volume is removed then, for a short time, your body will still recover by the same amount as before. Meaning that if the body is used to being broken down to 70% and then recovering up to 100%, you could all of a sudden train so that you are only dropping to 75% and your body will still recover by the previous 30%, putting you, for a short time, at roughly 105%. This, however, will only last for a short time as your body yearns for homeostasis and will then start to recover to your regular 100%.
This is why ‘over reaching’ is utilised in sports such as powerlifting. The athlete will be trained to a point close to over training in order to take advantage of the compensation effect. Meaning that, if planned correctly, a powerlifter could turn up on meet day at something resembling 105%.
There are obvious issues with this, as it is difficult to monitor a person or athlete to a point where they are just hovering over the point of over training. Rest and recovery need to be perfect. This state of optimal awesomeness can only be maintained for around 7-10 days and it should be quickly followed by a phase of rest and then back into training.
In this state you would be functioning as close to perfectly as possible, your functional capacities, mental arousal, as well as your neuro-muscular coordination would be perfect. Training to reach a level where you can fully accommodate all of your functions and movements sounds very inviting, but it makes sense to aim for this state after increasing these capacities as greatly as you can over a span of training. In other words, before attempting to reach this stage of training you should possess a good foundation of training, i.e – a high level of physical preparation, as well as all the biomotor abilities required for your particular area. The higher your level of training before embarking on this, the higher your effectiveness will be in this training state.
Periodisation is where you put yourself, or your athlete/clients, through a variety of training phases geared towards reaching the goal of compensation. The different training phases involve an increasing and decreasing of both the volume and intensity. As the volume in your routine goes up, the intensity should go down, and vice versa.
Volume is the amount of work done throughout a workout or programme, it covers –
-the time or duration of a workout
-the loads used or distance covered
- the repetitions of an exercise performed.
Intensity is the difficulty of the work, it is the qualitative aspect of a routine as opposed to the quantitative volume. A high intensity workout might involve lifting weights of 85% or more of your one repetition maximum or practising a particularly advanced and difficult skill.
The way in which you would periodise your own routine depends upon your goals and sport. I am from a powerlifting background so for someone like myself it is likely to follow a high volume phase at first, including some heavy work. This might only be heavy singles or doubles. Throughout this initial phase the volume is likely to slowly increase until a point just below overtraining. At this point I would take a deload week where I still train the movements but the volume is drastically cut down, and the intensity is kept moderate. Following this would be a strength phase, which would focus more upon the heavy weights and less upon the volume in the previous phase. This would be done in line with a competition phase, where I would likely take the week before the competition easy. By this point I will have acquired the essential training benefits, such as the improved functional capacities and neuro muscular coordination, and they would be difficult to improve further in a week’s time. So this energy would be saved for competition day.
As you can see from the above over reaching is where you integrate a gradual increase of training and training volume in a controlled manner so as to result in a fantastic competitive edge over a short period of time. Overtraining would imply that a similar increase in your workload will occur but in a manner that is uncontrolled or unplanned. Without a sufficient recovery phase or a planned deload, an increase in training will lead to, at best, a slower rate of improvement and, at worst, a higher chance of an injury being incurred.
When it comes to training, an athlete or gym goer will suffer from acute fatigue, and hopefully avoid chronic fatigue. Acute fatigue is simply tiredness incurred from that workout which can be recovered with sleep, rest or diet. Chronic fatigue, however, is where a person stays in the overreaching phase for too long. I’ve highlighted the benefits of going into a planned overreached phase but if you do it by accident or for too long you will suffer. Entering into a phase of chronic fatigue will be the result, and the continuation of, accumulated stress and will affect you both mentally and physically.
The symptoms of overtraining include –
Over training can come from any kind of training, whether it be strength training, cardiovascular training or technique training. Regardless of what it is it can put stress on both your mind and body and both of these need looking after.
A large portion of this has focused upon the idea of a general training phase leading to overtraining but similar effects can happen in a shorter period. For example, training past the point of tiredness in one session will lead to your movement patterns being sloppy which in turn negatively correlates to skill acquisition as well as increasing your change of an injury occurring.
To Sum Up –
Work smart, work hard but also rest smart and rest hard. Without planned rest, or even the occasional spontaneous rest, you will not progress in your fitness journey. Rest is vital to avoiding physical and mental pitfalls. If you find yourself constantly feeling ill, sore or even depressed then maybe you need to re-evaluate your training, take a step back or a day/week off and then come back to it recharged.
Overreaching can be utilised to reap great rewards via compensation. Overtraining, however, should be avoided for your overall health.
Periodisation – Tudor O. Bompa
When it comes to the world of S&C coaching, we are incredibly fortunate to have such tremendous access to all of the latest science, research and information, which can help both trainer and client alike. Currently, no stone is being left unturned for those in the know, on a mission to educate the general population on lifting and its benefits; gone are the days of ladies fearing the ‘bulk’, and now, the demand for evidence-based fitness has never been higher. Scam-laden companies, promoting magical potions and adhering to wacky claims of detoxes and body transformation shakes, are finally being called out by leading figures in the industry in a way that was never being done before. In short, the industry is changing – for the better, with a focus on ethics, science, and helping people to become the best versions of themselves.
As someone in the industry who prides themselves on being science-based, examining the evidence, and changing my mind whenever the facts present a contrary idea, this is music to my ears. Education equals empowerment; and when armed with the latter, I truly believe that people become confident enough to form their own destiny, both inside and outside of the gym. From my experience, both with myself and with my clients, it’s not only physical strength which is gained from consistent training and discipline in one’s routine – it’s mental fortitude, too.
The subject of mental health and mindset can sometimes be overlooked in favour of marble-slab abs or rounded gluteal muscles, but it is something so pivotal in one’s fitness journey – both in its application, and its endpoint.
In the same way that you wouldn’t start building a house on sand (Biblical reference unintended) without a solid foundation to support its bricks, there’s no feasibility in trying to get fitter, change your physique, or improve your health for the long-term, without the appropriate mindset and mental attitude.
At the epicenter of every fitness routine lies the potential for human folly; to shirk responsibility, get lazy, eschew discipline, and allow negativity to cloud one’s thoughts. All of these can get in the way of our fitness goals in one way or another – be it through changing eating habits, reducing activity levels, or in general, blurring the focus of the initial long-term goal. It is no coincidence that athletes continuously have counseling or life-coaching to supplement (man, I really am rocking the puns in this article) their hard training; the concept of visualization, manifestation, and self-belief are incredibly powerful tools in the context of pushing yourself past physical limits and imagining the victory of an ever-coveted medal place.
Taking a quick scan at your standard coaching program, you’ll see the hard science is all there: the periodised lifts over weeks and months, tailored perfectly to fit the client’s lifestyle and needs; an immaculately-calculated macro spread, explaining the intricate details of carbohydrate timing and the importance of protein; and an array of well-researched literature all compiled into easy-to-understand summaries for your average fitness newbie. While at first glance this may seem like the best thing since sliced bread (full of delicious, delivishly mischievous gluten, as luck would have it), there is one aspect missing – one aspect, that, if not supplemented with the hard science, could mean that all this coach’s hard work and detail put into this program goes to waste.
Mindset and mental wellbeing of a client are two huge factors when it comes to training, as mentioned previously. Not only does it entail how an individual will see the plan and their fitness journey, but it will – hopefully – mark the beginning of a new mental transformation in the way that they see themselves; that is, transcendent of physical vanities. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that exercise in of itself, independent of holistic factors, has been shown to correlate to alleviated symptoms of depression, in some mild cases even proving to be as effective as some forms of medication. And for many people, this improvement in their lifestyle transcends that of their original aesthetic goals.
The mindset of sticking to an actual routine is also cumbersome to so many who have been conditioned to society to ‘accept what will be will be’ in their lives, and thus being encouraged by a good coach to change their attitude and outlook to life is something that will prove invaluable to the – not only in the perspective of their program, but also in relation to the way they live their lives, personally and professionally. When the going gets rough, the client can’t just refer to their weekly lifting schedule and think ‘all is well’ – they require a holistic, quasi-therapeutic approach. So many habits, for instance, whether they are diet or fitness based, are borne from psychological tendencies, emotional ties and associations in the brain, which can help or hinder us with our goals.
A good coach should know all of this, and seek to help either tighten those knots in the good habits, so they stay firmly in place – or seek to loosen those ties, and replace them with new neural connections for each new habit; something more life-affirming and positive for the individual.
Indeed, the mindset of an individual before embarking upon a new routine is of the utmost importance, and sets the tone for their attitude not only to their fitness routine, but also to their entire life in general. For instance, a person who tends to be interested in physical self-improvement and setting their own fitness goals also tends to be attracted to certain schools of thought surrounding mental and emotional self-development and life coaching a la Tony Robbins, (or Gary Vaynerchuk from a business perspective) or even fields like Eastern philosophy for the more obscure approaches. This in turn will mean that instead of binge-watching Netflix for hours on end, an individual who falls into this category will tend to be more productive, have a better attitude towards life in general, and see working hard as a means to a greater, more satisfying reward rather than the instantaneous gratification one gets from less stimulating activities.
This same principal can be applied towards leading a fit lifestyle; the better the mindset, the less likely an individual will veer towards this ‘instant gratification’ of short term pleasure and happiness, i.e. bingeing on junk food or sitting on the sofa watching the TV for hours on end.
Beyond the scope of self-development and life coaching comes the more serious topic of mental health as a whole. It is firmly my belief not only from my own experience, but something that is also indicated by various studies, that fitness can help an individual improve their mental health vastly – and not just give them a nice set of abs.
This necessity for an examination of our mental wellbeing has never been more urgent. In Europe, it is estimated that around 83 million individuals suffer from a mental health issue of some sort.
Couple that with busy, modern day stress and inactivity, this new rise in mental health issues can only end in disaster if left unchecked. Some studies have even signaled, for instance, the correlation between increased physical exercise and reduced symptoms in depression. Surely, if we are to be good coaches and inspire our clients to be healthy, it cannot just be on the basis of physical health alone? Indeed, if we are to be the figureheads for leading a good example to live a healthy life, the mind cannot be left untouched; it forms part of our entire centre of wellbeing, in addition to our body fat percentage.
It might not be the most thrilling of topics to talk about, but it is an important one – and one that the fitness industry seems to be neglecting as of late.
Sophie is a personal trainer, nutrition coach, blogger, and model from London, basing her coaching and fitness philosophy on both science-based methods and holistic, self-empowerment approaches. It is her belief that the body and mind form as one; in other words, you cannot neglect one or the other and expect to live a fully fit and healthy life. She works as a new trainer at Dan Roberts Ltd and is learning from highly-respected London-based professionals to ensure she prides herself on being a well-respected, knowledgeable trainer with integrity, and can help her clients be the best version of themselves.
New Ebook.The above is a screenshot of the cover of a short ebook I have written and made available over at my Facebook. It's only short, 8 pages or so I think. I wanted to offer a quick explanation for things like -
Please give it a read, maybe give me a review too?
P.S - It's free.