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.