Programming/Constructing Practice in Powerlifting

Written by: Kevin Cann

In any sport, when the coach drafts up a plan for practice, that plan usually includes drills to work on specific skills as well as specific strategies to execute during games.  Powerlifting containing lifts that are typically used to enhance strength in athletes tends to have a different viewpoint in constructing a practice.

Training is practice in powerlifting.  This is just like any other sport.  The lifter needs to work on developing certain skills and strategies to best execute come competition time.  These skills and strategies include developing strength in important areas as well as the technical execution of the lift.

In terms of developing skills powerlifting is a pretty unique sport.  It comes with a very stable environment.  I think this makes many underestimate the skill involved in the sport.  The liter cannot see the bar on their back.  They need to rely on proprioceptive feedback to keep the bar over their center of gravity and execute the lift.  The heavier it gets, the more difficult it is to stabilize this weight.

This is one reason why variation is so important.  It strengthens that proprioceptive communication between the muscles and the brain.  It also works on developing strength in weak areas.  This information is part of that communication as well.  The bodybuilding movements for weaker muscle groups can be viewed from this same perspective as well.

Sheiko had said to me once about that accessory work that it won’t work if you do not do it while also doing the bigger movements.  If just making the weaker muscle stronger made the lift stronger this would not be the case.  We could just do the accessories and increase our total.

The stronger muscle now needs to be worked in to more coordinated movement patterns.  If the muscle did indeed get stronger, that information should update the system.  If we then put the lifter into a variation that targets that area more during the lift, we can begin to incorporate it more into the competition lift strategy. Over time we see the lifter begin to choose a strategy of better technique.

It is not as clean as it sounds.  The system is very noisy, and every individual brings their own noise to it.  This individual difference is in amplitude as well as preferred coordination strategies.  Learning and developing skills later in life is definitely a challenge as well.  So how do we construct a practice to develop these skills in a wide population?

You can’t just do the comp lifts over and over.  Mindless repetition does not lead to high levels of performance in the majority of the people that partake in it.  You will develop a skill that is “good enough” but not great.  Good enough may be all the person cares about and that is fine.  However, to develop high level skill the athlete needs to be constantly pushed outside of their comfort zone.  This doesn’t just mean more and more volume either.  This means creating a practice environment that constantly challenges the lifter to pay attention in different ways.

In setting things up we need to understand the purpose of each part of training.  The max effort work is our sport specific training.  Due to the law of accommodation and the recovery cost of maxing out comp lifts, this is where we perform heavy singles of the lifts, but with some variation.

We can change bars, stance/grip width, or even the applied force by using bands and chains.  Specificity and generality lie upon a spectrum.  The exercise selection needs to be specific to the goal that is being targeted in the training block.

In earlier phases of training we need less sport specific work.  The total max effort lifts are lowest in this phase and gradually increase as a competition draws near.  In the competition phase the amount of max effort lifts doubles and becomes the primary focus.

Then we have our strength exercises.  These are compound exercises that target weaker/important joint angles.  Examples would include goodmornings and close grip bench press.  These are usually executed with higher RPEs between 3 and 6 reps.

We have percentage work with the lifts for technical efficiency.  These typically have a lower RPE and utilize much more subtle variation than we might get on a max effort lift.  That is not always true far out from a competition, but generally speaking.  We then have accessory work for GPP and to further develop weaker muscle groups.  

The job of the coach is to organize training in a way that targets the need of the lifters.  The sport specific work I leave pretty standard within a program.  However, the focus on the strength and technique portions can change quite a bit.

Don’t get me wrong, the strength and technique portions of practice should complement each other nicely, but some lifters need more of one than the other.  The attention span of the lifter needs to be taken into consideration here as well.  We want quality practice where the lifter is focused and in the moment.  It is not about just checking some box to get it done.

The more quality practice and the more focused the practice can be to the needs of the lifter, the better the results.  I have learned that many lifters do not possess the ability to perform the necessary work to actually achieve elite levels of success.  The coach needs to manage the work appropriately by switching the focus around so they can develop those qualities.

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