Why you should learn programming fundamentals

One of the best things you can do as a Powerlifter to further yourself in the sport is to learn more about the fundamentals of training programs. While this might seem daunting at first, particularly if you are new to the sport and have only utilized pre-defined programs, it really is not that hard to build a cursory understanding of how good programs work. There’s really never been a better time to develop your base of knowledge.

When you don’t understand how a program works you’re a slave to the program. This might be good for whoever wrote/sold you the program but it’s not good for your long-term development as an athlete. What happens when the program starts working really well? You have no idea why it’s working as so you can’t learn lessens for the future. It’s more or less magic. What happens when it stops working? You have no idea how to modify it on the fly.

When you understand how programs work you can evaluate a new program before you begin rather than just throwing caution to the wind and hoping it works. Most of the top athletes in the sport program for themselves. If they don’t then you can bet they have a hand in developing their program alongside their coach.

If you’re looking to learn more I suggest checking out either Juggernaut Training Systems or Reactive Training Systems for further learning. RTS Classroom taught me a lot about programming fundamentals and JTS has a lot of great articles and ebooks on the subject in addition to great youtube videos. There’s also a lot of great info on Greg Nuckol’s site StrengTheory. I’ve also got some info on this site as well.

Listen, read up, and absorb all of this information and you’ll be a better Powerlifter for it.

Powerlifters can learn from Bodybuilders

Some of us in the Powerlifting community are guilty of compartmentalizing a bit too much and acting as if our sport is so far removed from the likes of Bodybuilding that there’s no overlap. I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself. I’ve spent periods of time eschewing rows and isolation work because I felt it detracted from my Powerlifting specific programming.

A lot of top Powerlifters do indeed do Bodybuilding style training in addition to the sport specific work. Though, there are some that speak out against it or talk down its carry over to Powerlifting. I know that some of them did much more of it earlier in their career and I have to wonder if that sort of work did indeed contribute much to their meteoric rise in the Powerlifting community but now that they’ve built the base, they don’t need it as much anymore.

It’s probably best that beginners and early intermediates put an emphasis on bodybuilding work so that they can build that initial musculature. Of course, they should practice the competition lifts. But at that stage the practice can stay light and progress at an easy pace. I think the Bodybuilding work can also help with motivation as it will help to provide the more visual gains which can be very motivating to newcomers to the sport.

The fitness community used to be a lot less compartmentalized. Powerlifters and Bodybuilders used to train a lot more like each other. From reading accounts of those that trained at popular gyms in days past it seemed like lifters were willing to try anything to put pounds on their total or inches on their biceps. Maybe it’s just me being nostalgic for a different time but I feel like we’ve lost something from that era.

I think Bodybuilding training can provide a lot of advantages vs. typical Powerlifting training. It’s typically less psychologically taxing, less physically fatiguing. It has a built-in reward mechanism: the pump. It will help you build muscle which can then be utilized by the competition movements. Sure, it’s not specific at all but it has its well defined role in Powerlifting training.

If I could offer some homework: pay more attention to what the bodybuilders do. Pick up a copy of Arnold’s Bodybuilding encyclopedia. Continue performing the competition lifts and their close variants, always. But afterwards throw in a couple sets of arms, back, chest. Hop on the leg extension and leg curl machines. You’ll probably find it does more good than harm.

 

Muscular vs. Positional Weakness

While thinking about weaknesses I’ve come to understand that you can categorize a weakness as either muscular or positional. This categorization will determine how you can work on that weak point.

Muscular weaknesses arise when a muscle or group of muscles is proportionally underdeveloped vs. the rest of your musculature. For example, you may have neglected upper back work and therefore it’s difficult for you to keep your chest up during squats. The prescription for this type of weakness is fairly straightforward. Direct hypertrophy work will bring up the weak area quickly. You can also use certain movements which place a focus on the area, for example, front squats for the upper back.

Positional weaknesses are not so straightforward. We’re all weak off the chest in the Bench, the hole in the Squat, and off the floor or at lockout in the deadlift (depending upon your setup). In the Bench, you have to accelerate the bar from a dead stop (at least during a competition). Strength off the chest is going to limit your Bench no matter how hard you work the musculature. Keep increasing the weight and at some point you will be unable to generate enough force to accelerate the bar to lockout. There’s not much you can do to fix this kind of weakness. You can practice the movement in the weak range of motion, pause squats/bench, etc. This will get you more comfortable in the ROM. But increase the weight enough and you’ll still fail.

Targeting a positional weakness is still useful. It will still train the general movement which is never wasted work. It will make you feel more comfortable in the disadvantaged ROM. It is also a great way to make the movement harder which will in turn make the competition movement stronger. It just won’t have as large of an impact as fixing a muscular weakness will.

Fixing a Weakness Can Expose Another

I recently decided to utilize Front Squats as a max effort movement for a cycle. I’ve utilized them for supplemental/hypertrophy work in the past but never max effort. When I got to heavier weights my upper back became the limiting factor, no surprise there.

What was surprising, however, was that my upper back became extremely painful to the point where I couldn’t hold the bar on my shoulders because it hurt so bad, rather than simply not having the strength. Not sure if it was cramping or what but I’ve never encountered that pain before.

I took this to mean that my upper back is weak, really weak. Whether that is the case remains to be seen. I decided to work on my upper back by hammering it hard, fairly common advice for the scenario. I programmed upper back work in addition to normal movements on every workout each week.

I’ve utilized this programming change for several weeks now. Recently a curious thing happened. When unracking on Bench, I suddenly could barely clear the J hooks. I hadn’t moved the hook height, what gives? I took this to mean that, in the past, my upper back was too weak to hold my shoulders back when unracking, causing them to move forward. Now that my back is stronger I can better restrict shoulder movement.

Another side effect became apparent, my Bench strength went down. I also noted that my chest felt like it received much more stimulation. I believe that I had been utilizing much more shoulders in my Bench. Once they were effectively pulled back by my upper back muscles my chest was brought into the picture. This seems to have exposed another weakness which was less apparent: my chest.

Unless you’re overall quite strong, it’s likely that you have more than one weakness. And it’s likely you’ll begin to find more after fixing them.

Fads and factions in the Powerlifting Community

Source
Source

I wanted to take a moment to rant against a trend I’ve observed in the Powerlifting Community, that is, criticizing the various trends that arise in training styles over the years. The diatribe goes something like this “_____ is just a fad. It might work for a while but then it’ll stop and they’ll have to find something else. They’d be better of switching to a more sustainable form of programming”.

It’s a common saying that aspects of others that irk you are really just reflections upon yourself. I think this certainly holds true for this topic. I used to be one of these naysayers. Sustainability is the only way. If you’re a program hopper you’re just short-changing yourself. I no longer believe this to be necessarily true.

If there’s one thing common amongst elite powerlifters it’s that they’ve tried everything. Seriously, I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t tried Smolov or Sheiko or Westside or hasn’t iterated through many different training styles. I’m starting to think that this is actually necessary to become a well rounded Powerlifter.

Why is this the case? Because to succeed you need to find what works for you. We’ve all heard this commandment before. I would, however, posit that it has less to do with how the style of training approaches volume and intensity, the exercise selection and the fatigue management. I think it is much more mundane, much simpler. It’s all about your enjoyment and buy-in.

Elite level lifters have been in the game long enough that they’ve iterated through any number of training styles and found the one that they enjoy, the one that resonates with their personality, their lifestyle. They’ve found a sustainable program. To say that they should have used this same training style all along could very well be hindsight bias.

Let’s have some understanding for the program hoppers and the training fads. This is all part of their journey.

The Problem with Percentage-based Programs

percentvsrpe

The majority of training programs you’ll find online will use percentages do dictate the level of intensity for a given set or workout. This is understandable, percentages are easy to understand, easy to implement, and work real nice in an Excel spreadsheet. But when rubber meets the road sometimes what’s on the spreadsheet doesn’t have the desired effect. Lets explore why this is true, some alternatives to percentages, and also a way to combine various intensity prescriptions.

The Training Effect

When a program gives a prescribed percentage along with sets and reps the intent is to develop a training effect. The coach is mixing a certain level of volume and intensity to fit within the overall context of the program. The percentage is not the end goal, just a tool used to produce the required effect. The closer these tools can get the trainee to the effect, the better. Percentages can be very accurate given how close their current level of strength matches the maxes used to calculate the weights. However, they can just as easily miss the mark.

This is why percentage-based programs can have wildly different effects for individuals (given similar levels of volume adaptation). The maxes two individuals use can differ quite a bit in their accuracy. Of course, the most accurate will be frequent max testing but that’s not always possible. One individual might use a very conservative max and the program might end up being too easy. The next person might use too high of a max and suddenly the program is grueling and too much fatigue is developed.

Autoregulation

Another drawback to percentages is the lack of an autoregulatory framework. Percentages don’t take into the day-to-day fluctuations of us carbon-based lifeforms. More specifically our “max” is fluctuating and while on some days might echo the number used to generate the program, other days it can be off significantly. Without any autoregulation a lifter can do too much on a bad day and do too little on a good day. Autoregulation helps us get to that “just right” amount of work. The goldilocks zone.

Autoregulation is something all top athletes do in some form or another. Perhaps they have a coach who will regulate the training load and intensity based on their past experience and their observation of the athlete they are training. Or if not coached the athlete will have a well of experience to draw upon when designing a program such that they know what they should be able to accomplish at certain points throughout the cycle. In addition to planning, the athlete can adjust the load and volume on any given day depending upon their performance on that day. This is why you’ll rarely find a high-level individual plugging maxes into a spreadsheet and just “doing the program”.

The Alternative

I’ve talked a lot about RPE around here. It should be fairly obvious that I think it’s a really useful tool. Using RPE we take into account the day-to-day strength fluctuations and know when to drop weight or go heavier. While it is mostly subjective it’s based on in-training performance rather than how you’re “feeling” emotionally on a given day. You can even use more objective means to enhance the accuracy of your RPEs, such as video or tendo units.

Another advantage of RPE is that it can be added on top of an existing program. With a little fannegling you can be doing 5/3/1 with RPEs rather than percentages and take what’s there rather than sticking to straight percentages. There are a few examples of traditional percentage-based programs that have been translated to use RPE. Mike Tuchscherer’s got a few. Bryce Lewis has a 5/3/1 example. And of course I wrote an Autoregulated Texas Method.

Drawbacks of RPE

RPE is not without potential drawbacks. The first and most apparent is that it takes time to be accustomed to rating your sets immediately after you complete them. This could be strange especially if you’re used to just performing the set without thinking about it. Rank novices also will have a hard time with RPE. They’re so completely new to the movements that they really won’t have any breadth of experience to draw upon.

Another drawback, less obvious to an athlete but maybe more apparent to a coach, is that predictability is lower using a fully autoregulated program. Weight and volume could potentially be changing on the fly. Of course, that’s the whole point of autoregulation, and one could make the point that’s gonna happen anyway. There are some lifters, Coan comes to mind, who will literally plan out every topset up to a meet. Letting RPE always dictate their topsets probably wouldn’t jive with their style of planning.

Best of Both Worlds?

So there are drawbacks to both RPE and percentages… what do? Just remember that they are both tools, not the end all be all. There’s a reason we have both hammers and screwdrivers. There are cases in which percentages are better suited and the same is true for RPE.

Can we combine the two? I think it’s quite possible to blend the two in programming. Here’s how I’d probably do it:

Lift Percentage RPE Reps Sets
Squat 80 8 5 3
Bench 85 8 3 6

…etc. Okay so obviously nothing groundbreaking here. If the individual is unfamiliar with RPE they can simply use the prescribed percentage along with the sets and reps and just get the work done. As they start to become more accurate with RPE they can start using it as a guide rather than just using the percentage. For example, they can work up to the percentage and depending upon how the RPE is working out they can subtract 5% or even add 5% depending upon the day. Eventually they can just let the RPE determine the weight rather than the percentage.

The RPE can also be used to modulate the volume done. If they go from an @8 to an @9 before the number of sets reached, they can subtract 5% and keep going until they hit the number of sets. Another way to autoregulate the number of sets would be to use the RTS TRAC system. It will assess the individual’s adaptability and make on-the-fly volume recommendations such as adding or dropping a number of sets from the programming prescribed. You could also use fatigue percents. In which case it helps to have a trusty RPE chart handy to figure out how the RPE will need to progress to achieve the percentage of fatigue required.

Personally I’ve been using a similar approach for my sets-across type work. I’ll go into the session with a “target number of sets”, similar to having a target topset when working up to a heavy sets. I still following the RPE but a little less rigidly than before. I like the predictability when it comes to volume. You have an idea of what you’ll be hitting coming out of the session. This is simply what’s working for me now, at this point in time.

In short, RPE and Percentages both have their uses. You shouldn’t think in terms of which one is better, which one is more optimal. You should ask, which one is the right tool for the job.

Autoregulating the Texas Method Part 4: Periodization and Final Thoughts

This is the last article in a series on Autoregulating the Texas Method.
Click Here for Part 1: The Basics
Click Here for Part 2: Fatigue Management
Click Here for Part 3: Template and Exercise Selection

The author and his deadlift face
The author and his deadlift face

 

Series Finale

My series on Autoregulating the Texas Method is far and above the most popular set of posts on this blog. Altogether the previous three posts have received almost 2000 unique views in 2014. For this small blog that’s saying a lot. So I wanted to thank you all for spreading these blog posts around the internet. At the end of the last post I said that in this final entry I will give some final thoughts on the program and also provide a downloadable PDF with an example of the program. I’ve finally got off my bum and finished this series. What follows is my final thoughts on Autoregulating the Texas Method. At the bottom of this article you’ll find a link to sign up for the forceXdist mailing list. We’ll then send you downloadable PDF which contains an updated copy of the entire Autoregulating the Texas Method series as well as an example template and program.

Periodization

Personally I think one of the best modifications to the Texas Method is to periodize the intensity day. I’m certainly not the first person to suggest periodizing the Texas Method. Justin Lascek uses a form of it in his ebooks. Chad Wesley Smith has also developed a form using it. In my opinion, programmed drops in volume and increases in intensity will be better than dropping reps when you fail to achieve the desired amount. This is because you will generally accrue more fatigue when going to failure. If you program it instead you’re less likely to run yourself into the ground with fatigue.

Here’s an example Intensity day setup. Let’s say we’re programming an 8 week cycle:

Week 1 & 2

x5 @9, 5% fatigue

Week 3 & 4

x4 @9, 5% fatigue

Week 5 & 6

x3 @9, 5% fatigue

Week 7 & 8

x2 @9, 5% fatigue

For this example we’re gradually increasing the intensity over the course of 8 weeks. Every two weeks the reps are dropped by one which will have the effect of increasing the intensity. The trainee should be trying for reps PRs every friday. 9 RPE is a guideline but if the individuals goes higher with the RPE it’s probably okay. We’re just not looking for gut-busting grinds for the most part. Why not start with higher reps and then go down to singles? If we start at fives the trainee will probably lift a good deal heavier than the volume day and we really want the focus to be on heavier weight on this day. We don’t move to singles in this example because the understanding is that the trainee would then have a test week where they’d taper and then have a mock meet at the end of the week. It’s conceivable that you could also treat Week 9 as a normal training week and then do singles @9 or @10 on Friday as a sort of test. You’d probably expect results to be slightly lower in that case than if the trainee had tapered.

The Texas Method in Context

I want to take the time now to discuss the Texas Method within the context of the trainees overall development. I do feel the TM is a fairly good program for an intermediate trainee as it allows for weekly PRs immediately coming off of a novice program (where one is generally hitting a PR every day). This will help to keep them motivated and also give them an understanding of a more delayed PR-type scenario. I also think it’s good in that it’s generally an individual’s first introduction to higher intensity, higher RPE style lifts which is certainly important for the intermediate trainee.

At some point, pushing PRs every week will not work and it’s time to move to a more sustainable style of training. The TM template we developed here is not a bad layout for an individual pushing past intermediate but there will be several modifications required. The first change is for the weekly fatigue distribution. Rather than accruing a bunch of fatigue on Monday we’ll rather spread the fatigue throughout the week, so that each day is set at 5% fatigue. The effect is separating the idea that Monday is driving Friday’s progress. That’s true to an extent but the truth is they work in tandem.

Another big change is to spread the intensity and volume slots throughout the week. Because we lump the volume and intensity work all on the same days it can take a long time to get through all of that work the day of. Here’s an example of this sort of template:

Monday Wednesday Friday
Intensity Squat Intensity Bench Intensity Deadlift
Volume Bench Volume Squat Developer Bench
Volume Deadlift Shoulders/Triceps Developer Squat

With the spreading of fatigue the volume slots should be a lot more manageable time-wise. Eventually, though, it might take too much time to get through the work required. This may be a good time to shift towards a 4 day a week template. With a 4 day a week template the trainee will have less time in the gym, initially, and allow for the addition of new slots to increase volume when necessary to continue progressing. This is an example of what a four day template might look like:

Monday Tuesday Thursday Friday
Intensity Squat Intensity Bench Intensity Deadlift Volume Squat
Volume Bench Developer Squat Shoulders/Triceps Developer Bench
Volume Deadlift

As you can see we didn’t change any of the slots, only added a day and shifted the existing slots around. The first three days should be shorter sessions with Friday (or maybe Saturday) as a longer session to maintain and develop conditioning. At this point this is a sustainable template that a trainee can “grow” into.

Conclusion

This concludes our series on Autoregulating the Texas Method. The intent was to give you all of the tools to build your own customized autoregulated version of the Texas Method, rather than just handing you a program to run. If you click the link below you can sign-up for the forceXdist mailing list. By signing up you’ll receive notifications on new articles and offerings from this blog. You’ll also receive a link to a downloadable PDF containing the full Autoregulating the Texas Method series as well as example program setups that you can use when designing your own versions. If you’ve enjoyed the series please take a moment to like our Facebook Page. We always appreciate when readers share our articles!

Click here to sign-up for the mailing list and receive your free PDF

The Deadlift is NOT a back exercise… unless you pull rounded

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The neutrality of your spine during a deadlift has big ramifications when it comes to your weak points, the force curve, and the utilization of muscle groups during the movement. In my opinion, the differences are large enough such that their rounded and flat deadlifts almost constitute two separate exercises. In this post we’ll talk about both separately, how they differ, and what that means for you as an athlete. I’ll say it before, and I’ll say it again: I do not advocate for either style. It’s up to you to decide what is best for you.

What I’m smoking

This might be a bit controversial and perhaps even rustle some jimmies. When I’m speaking in terms of associating musculature with a movement, I’m associating the prime movers with that movement. For instance, you could make a case that the Squat is primarily a leg and hip movement. Obviously these are compound movements and utilize a lot of musculature but again, I’m speaking of the prime movers and muscles that go through a range of motion during the movement.

Speaking in this context then, the flat-backed deadlift only works the back isometrically and is a much more hip-dominant movement. Conversely, if you pull with a rounded style, Spinal extension is part of the movement. You are literally working the Erector Spinae through a range of motion and must do so to finish the pull. This should mean that the back musculature of a rounded puller is much more developed than a flat puller. It’s not that pulling flat won’t develop the back but in my opinion it’s not to the same extent as rounded pulling.

Flat-backed Analysis

To illustrate the difference between the two, I’ve picked two extremely impressive examples of these two styles. While these two are on the more extreme ends of the spectrum, obviously some individuals will fall a bit more in the middle. Let’s watch Mike Tuchscherer as he pulls almost 800 pounds with a neutral back angle. I’ve chosen a side angle for maximum benefit (starts at 57 seconds in):

You can see that as he breaks the floor his hip angle is very acute due to his back angle. He’s slow off of the floor but quickly begins to accelerate. Once the bar passes his knees all he needs to do is extend his hips to lockout. Locking out requires no spinal extension because his back is already neutral.

Round-backed Analysis

To illustrate a round-backed style check out Eric Lilliebridge’s 900 pound pull (starts at 19 seconds in):

Due to his rounded back his hip angle is a lot more open as the bar breaks the ground meaning his hips end up closer to the bar earlier in the pull. Because of this, the bar breaks the ground with a lot more speed. Once the bar passes the knee the lift is finished with mostly spinal extension. Eric has built enough strength in his low-back that he can extend his spine even while holding 900 pounds.

How do you pull?

As you can see, the amount of spinal neutrality has a lot of bearing on the mechanics of your deadlift. It’s important to understand where you fall on the spectrum. I recommend you video your deadlift worksets from the side across several sets and compare to the two videos above. If you find that you are rounded but you’d prefer to pull flat check out my guide to transition to pulling flat.

How to adapt your programming to fit your style

I mentioned that there are some ramifications for your programming depending upon your style of pulling. If you pull with a neutral spine then the lift will probably be a lot more hip-dominant for you. To develop the muscles used in your style you should work on the hip extensors. Hip thrusts and hamstring dominant deadlifts, such as RDLs and SLDLs could be useful. Your weak point will be when breaking the weight off of the floor. Paused deadlifts (an inch from the floor) and deficit deadlifts could be useful in working on your weak point.

If you pull with a rounded back I think working on the musculature of the low-back could be of use to you. Specifically, Round-Back Extensions should imitate the lockout of your deadlift. You may also find Round-Back versions of hamstring dominant deadlifts useful. Your weak point will be the lockout and so you should emphasize this position. If you train Rack Pulls as a way to build the lockout you should be careful to imitate the same level of rounding that you usually encounter near lockout. Many tend to use a more neutral spine position when doing Rack Pulls vs their off the floor deadlift. If you want to be specific to your competitive pulling style you’ll need to ensure you’re not accidentally pulling flat. Pausing just below the knee can also be useful.

Own your style

If you find that you do pull rounded and don’t feel the need to re-work your deadlift then I encourage you to fully embrace this form of the deadlift. If someone asks you why you do it, explain to them your reasoning and don’t make excuses for why you pull this way. Use this information to adapt your programming to your style of movement, or inform your coach why you think certain exercises might be a better fit. Own your deadlift.

That last paragraph might sound accusatory or make it seem that I’m on the side of flat-backed deadlifting. I’m really not. I’ve just seen too many claim that their back is flat (or that it’s only their thoracic rounding) when it’s pretty plain to see there’s rounding in the lumbar as well. I think we should keep the younger lifters in mind and be truthful when speaking of the pros and cons of both styles.

I would be very much open to any comments on the matter.

What I would do differently as a novice

Novice Chad, 4 years and 40 pounds ago...
Novice Chad, 4 years and 40 pounds ago…

I thought it would be an interesting thought experiment to think about what I would do as a novice if I had the chance to do it over. What follows is the official forceXdist Novice Program (TM). It’s superior to Starting Strength, StrongLifts, Ice Cream Fitness 5×5, etc. /sarcasm lol no. As I said, just a thought experiment.

The main difference this time around would be that I know that I’d want to eventually compete in Powerlifting. This changes a lot. A lot of novice programs are very general. But this makes sense. Most people use them to just put on muscle and general strength. Most individuals don’t start a novice program with the intent to transition into Powerlifting. For this experiment we will plan with that thought in mind. This is also probably what I would do were I to train someone from the ground up.

The Squat

A lot of novice programs have the trainee squatting 3 times a week. Why? Most explanations include hand-wavy justifications about growth hormones or some such. I think a twice a week frequency is perfectly fine for beginners. This will be an adequate frequency to get practice with the lift and to allow for some room to “grow” into a higher frequency.

I personally wish I had started out at two times a week or at least the same frequency as the deadlift. By beginning with a 3 times frequency (and thereby a higher volume) with the squat any reduction in frequency means a decrease in volume and most likely a drop in strength. I think it’s better to leave room to grow into the volume.

The Bench Press

Most novice programs rotate the Bench Press and the Press frequency every week. We can just Bench 3 times a week. This will ensure we’re getting a lot more practice than we would if we were rotating. We don’t need to worry about Pressing or any other sort of assistance work yet as the Bench will be plenty of stimulus for now.

Another important change I’d make would be to start out pausing all Bench work. Most trainees start out doing touch and go bench and then have to retroactively learn the pause for competition. I think it’d be a good idea to start pausing from the get-go and then add in variations from there.

The Deadlift

There’s a pretty significant decision when it comes to the deadlift. Should the trainee focus on the conventional or sumo deadlift? I think a good way to figure this out is just to try both and see which one responds the best. Once there arises a clear winner we can drop the other variation and focus on the stronger one which will become the competition form.

Since we’re going to be utilizing both forms of the deadlift there will be a second movement pattern to learn. In the best case scenario the trainee following this program would have a good coach to oversee their use of the two movements and attempt to decide which their body type is suited for. We’ll start with a twice a week frequency and rotate both of the movement styles.

The Template

Monday
Squat
Paused Bench

Wednesday
Conventional Deadlift (rotate with Sumo)
Paused Bench

Friday
Squat
Paused Bench
Sumo Deadlift (rotate with Conventional)

So this is what the template looks like. The exercise selection is vanilla on purpose. The trainee is learning the movement pattern. Friday, they’ll practice all three movements which will improve their conditioning. Monday and Wednesday only have two movements which also makes the program a bit more schedule friendly. This will probably help with compliance and motivation.

Rep and Set Scheme

What rep/set scheme should we use? 5×5, 3×5? 8×3? All of them! I think Greg Nuckols is right on the money with this article where he suggests that a beginner program incorporates periodization. I think the traditional drop X pounds and work back up is unnecessary and often doesn’t work. You’ve built up a lot of fatigue, dissipate some and continue to get stronger!

RPE

I think trying to utilize RPE in a novice program is not going to work very well. If you’re a coach observing a novice in real time, you can use the concept of RPE, along with the trainee’s bar speed to get a feel for how close the trainee is to failure. But it’s unlikely that the trainee will be able to utilize it functionally.

One thing the trainee can do is practice calling the RPE post set. They should include the RPE along with the rest of their workloads in their trainee log. Their coach can help by comparing their bar speed correlated RPE with the trainee’s subjective RPE and inform them how accurate they may or may not have been.

Conclusion

It’s always fun to say “what if”. This is my attempt at going back and imagining what I’d do with the knowledge I possess now.

Movements, not Muscles

Abstractions are all around us. They remove a lot of details and make something complex more simple. The computer you’re using to read this article is built on a tower of abstractions. I have written in the past about how RPE is a form of abstraction. Another useful abstraction that I picked up under the tutelage of Mike Tuchscherer is thinking about building strength in terms of movement patterns versus the muscles utilized.

Benefits of Abstraction

A good abstraction is one that eliminates the need for a lot of details. A lot of people in Powerlifting think in terms of making the muscles stronger. At first glance this makes sense. The muscles are doing the work. If we get them stronger our lifts should go up! The issue is that the movements involved in Powerlifting are multi-joint, multi-muscle movements. If we think in terms of the muscles then we have to build each major group up, hopefully in the right ratios, and then integrate them and transfer the strength to the competition movement.

However, if we think in terms of movements then we can utilize the movement itself to build the muscle. This has can be very beneficial as we don’t have to worry about the ratio of muscular strength or transference to the competition lift. For example, most lifters are weak off the chest in the Bench Press. We could say “oh, we have weak pecs” and do lots of dumbbell flies and dumbbell press to build up our pecs. But then we end up leaving the triceps out of the chain. If we think in terms of movements we’ll do long paused bench press and pin press to build up our bottom end strength. We don’t need to worry as much about muscular ratios and transference. It’s very specific to the competition movement.

Practical Recommendations

If you know where you’re weak (determining weakness is another post in and of itself) then it’s fairly simple to adapt your programming to target the weakness. You will pick exercises and rep ranges that allow you to spend more time in the weak range of motion. Paused and Pin variations for strength at the bottom ROM; chains, bands, and blocks for the top end. You can also pause at different points along the ROM. Another way is to do a lot of sets in the 4-6 rep range around a 9-10 RPE which will have you grinding through those weaker ranges of motion.

Baby and Bathwater

We’d be remiss if we took the abstraction too far and eliminated all muscle work. One must be wary of anyone who claims to have all of the answers. The movement-based abstraction is very useful, yes, but it’s not the end all be all in training ideologies. Your focus should be on the competition movement. After that, including ROM specific movements is probably a pretty good exercise selection strategy. Past that it couldn’t hurt to throw in more musculature-centric work. Specificity should still be respected here and it would be best to select exercises that are still close to the competition lift.

Next time you’re designing a program try thinking about the movements first and see how that might change things.