Written by Chad Wesley Smith
Cover Photo by 9for9 Media
One of the most common questions I receive in regards to powerlifting, is “How do you train with 600-800 pounds and then squat mid-900s in a meet?” This idea of training submaximally and achieving excellence on the platform is one of the things in my lifting that I’m most proud of and something I think that I do better than almost anyone else.
For example, the following is a look at my training PRs from my last three meet training cycles and the results of the subsequent meets.
As you can see, there is about a 7.5% average increase in my total from training to competition, a carryover which I think can be attributed to a host of physical and psychological factors.
Here are some key principles you can apply to your meet preparation that will ensure you put your PRs where they matter – on the platform – rather than leaving them in the gym.
Check this out if you’re getting ready for your 1st meet:
Working Backward from Your Meet Goals and Sticking to Your Plan
When I write programs in articles or for ebooks, I use percentages; when I train myself for a meet, I choose goals for a meet and work backward from the meet, choosing weights that I know I need to set me up for the subsequent weights. I definitely think that this type of intuitive training is superior to RPE or percentage based programming, but it also isn’t something that everyone can do. It is a learned skill that can only come from training and taking ownership of what you are doing and why you are doing it. Because I’m choosing set weight and rep targets for the entire training cycle, there are some times when the weights feel very heavy and other times when they feel very light. In this situation, I almost always just stick to the plan. If you move the weights up on a day when things feel light, you increase the likelihood of having a day soon when the weights feel heavy. The only time I will make adjustments to this is early in the training plan, and these changes will then reverberate throughout the rest of the plan. Chasing PRs on strong days in the gym may give you temporary satisfaction and get you some more Instagram likes, but you have to consider it within the context of your entire training plan and think about how it is affecting your meet preparation. There are times when I’ll go for big lifts in the gym, and as Brandon Lilly would say, “cook while the pan is hot,” but for the most part I’m just sticking to my plan.
I know the lifts I need to hit in the gym in order to make the numbers I want in the meet, and they are much lower than you’d think. In fact, they are usually lower than even my openers; a well-designed plan coupled with a strong mental approach to competition will have you far exceeding your gym numbers at meets. It can be challenging to put aside your ego and work for the greater good, but if you’re a competitor, then your goal needs to be the highest meet total, not the most social media buzz.
This set of 690 pounds for 9 reps is a great example of sticking to the plan. I clearly had more reps in me, but 9 was the plan and that’s what I did.
Move Your Training from Higher Volume/Lower Intensity/Less Specific to Lower Volume/Higher Intensity/More Specific Over the Course of a Training Cycle
This is a foundational periodization idea, and if you aren’t doing it in your training, you’re making a mistake. Creating a large pool of volume early in the training cycle gives you something to take away from and facilitates more recovery as you progress to heavier weights. If you are training only singles on each lift once per week throughout a training cycle, where do you expect the peaking effect to come from? My training progresses from 5-6 sessions per week (three squat workouts) for moderate to high reps in minimal equipment, to 4-5 sessions per week (two squat workouts) for low to moderate reps in light equipment, to 3-4 sessions per week (one squat workout) in competition equipment over the course of a meet training cycle. Weights keep getting heavier as equipment increases, frequency decreases, and reps decrease. Single reps in my competition equipment (belt, knee wraps, wrist wraps) of the competition lift are the most specific exercises I can do. This also means that over the course of the training cycle, less energy can be given to supplementary movements so that more can be dedicated to the competitive exercises. This means that you shouldn’t be trying to front squat a PR when you’re three weeks out from a meet; that is something to be reserved for the off-season or very early in your meet preparation. This doesn’t mean that you can do exercise variations leading up to a meet – you can and should – but just remember that their role is to compliment the competitive lift, not detract from the energy you have to train it.
Making Your Training Lifts and Making Them Look Easy
Making lifts – not attempting and missing them – builds your strength and builds your confidence. Strategically selecting training weights that you can make – and make with confidence – is an important part of building momentum into a meet. Doing a weight, crushing it, racking it, and telling yourself that you could have done 10 more pounds or 2 more reps is a great feeling. It is also much more productive to your training than having weights that are true 10 RPEs or missing weights. Of course, there can be value in grinding through a true max effort, but those shouldn’t be the norm in your training. True maximal lifts are more demanding on the body and nervous system. Making the weights look easy also means approaching the bar with a calm confidence rather than an uncontrolled rage. Getting extremely psyched up for training lifts shouldn’t happen, except for the rarest occasions. Very few people can go to that adrenaline level and maintain the necessary focus on their technique. When you get to a meet, if you’re a real competitor, adrenaline will be there and your performance will be heightened. Training in this heightened state will further fatigue your CNS and will dampen the effect of your anxious energy/adrenaline in a meet setting. It’s also critical to practice the lifts to competition standards; don’t let yourself or your training partners slide with high squats, touch and go benches, and unlocked deadlifts. Those will come back to haunt you when it counts. Lift to a higher standard in training so that you can leave no doubt during competition about the quality of your lifts.
Calm yourself down in training, focus on the task at hand – not on putting on a show so people on YouTube think you’re really hardcore and badass. For me, part of this means avoiding listening to “pump-up” music while I train or using stimulants during training. Often I lift in silence, usually just to whatever is on in the gym (I train on my own in the corner of a CrossFit gym), sometimes to music that I normally listen to (not tough guy music, sorry), and occasionally something to help me get fired up. People will often comment, “man, if you had a better song on, you would have lifted 20 more pounds.” No. The answer is no. Music doesn’t lift any weights, and if you’re reliant on that, it will eventually not be there and you’ll fail. As far as the stimulants (caffeine, pre-workouts) go, I used to adhere to this much more strictly; in fact, I’d never even had a cup of coffee before November 2013. Now I do drink coffee, and sometimes before a big session will add an extra espresso shot or two, but this is VERY RARE. However, I make sure to cut coffee for a few weeks before competition to re-sensitize myself to the effects of caffeine. Then on meet day, I will take in 1,000mg+ of caffeine. Doing this will heighten my senses even more at my meet and help improve meet day performance more than someone who is reliant upon stimulants for every session.
Don’t Try New Stuff Right Before A Meet
Whether it’s diet changes, training changes, or routine changes, people love to panic in the days leading up to a meet and try new stuff. DO NOT DO THIS. Trust your plan. Introducing unknowns to your training at this point is an amateur panic move. Eat the foods you know your body handles well, sleep on your regular schedule, and use your regular supplements. The risk of trying to find some meet-week magic bullet far outweighs the reward. One of the most important pieces of advice I can share with you is to control what you can control and don’t worry about what you can’t. I hit my best total ever 5,000 miles away from home, on a 19-hour time difference, and on the biggest stage of my lifting career. While in Australia, I ate very similarly to how I do in California. I went to sleep and woke up the same times. I warmed up the same and stuck to my meet-day routine. I didn’t let distractions that were beyond my control affect my mentality or cause me pointless stress. If you think you have to have this certain song on to lift well or this kind of bar or whatever it is that you can’t guarantee will be happening at the meet, what are you gonna do when it’s not there?! Control what you can control, don’t worry about what you can’t. During the week of the meet, you don’t want to be inactive and just lie around all the time. You can actually still lift at a fairly high intensity, just focus on speed and quality of movement while keeping volume very low. My week prior to GPA Worlds was the following:
Tuesday: Squat – up to 250/280/310kg x1, Bench – up to 160/175/190kg x1, Deadlift – up to 140kg x3x1
Thursday: Squat – empty bar and 60kg for several sets of 5-10 reps; I was just feeling very tight on this day and didn’t have my squat shoes because I didn’t know we were going to the gym at that time. Bench – empty bar and 60kg for several sets of 5-10 reps, 100kg for 3×1. Deadlift – 140kgx3x1.
Friday: Warmup in room with pushups and bodyweight squats, plus some stretching.
Saturday: Same as Friday.
After this last meet I had, several people commented to me in person and via social media that they “never knew I was that strong.” In some ways, I take that as a compliment because it means that I’m not necessarily posting PRs for 12 weeks during a meet training cycle. Rather, I am saving them all for one day when it actually counts. The process of exceeding your training lifts in competition isn’t complex, but it does take great planning, discipline, and mental fortitude. I’d encourage you to read Dr. Mike Israetel’s excellent article Peaking for Powerlifting for a better understanding of how to structure your training leading into a meet. Focus on quality in the gym and building your lifts rather than testing them – save that for the platform. Take control of your mindset and emotions in training and during competition and your performance will increase. Good luck, trust your plan, and stay the course.
Here is a recap of my 1050kg/2314# raw with wraps total from GPA Worlds with some commentary about my attempt selection and reflections on my own performance: