Periodization for Powerlifting – The Definitive Guide

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We talk about periodization, and various aspects of periodization, as if they’re mutually exclusive. Most people who have spent a lot of time in the coaching game or who know more about formal periodization theory know this is nonsense, but it doesn’t seem like those folks have been able to explain these concepts in a way that most people can understand. That’s what we (Dr. Israetel is writing Part 2) hope to accomplish here: a straightforward, down-to-earth explanation of what periodization actually is, and how to tie together a lot of elements that people usually take to be entirely disparate concepts.

Here’s the most basic definition of periodization: It’s how you organize training.

The “period” in periodization refers to exposing the body to periods of different stressors, and more or less total stress, over the course of a training plan.

So really all periodization refers to is organizing training, and making decisions about when and what types of stress you place on the body.

With that in mind, let’s actually look at how you can go about organizing training.

(This article was originally published here:  There is only one type of periodization: Part 1)


It’s organized within a single training session itself, from microcycle to microcycle, from mesocycle to mesocycle, and from macrocycle to macrocycle.

Organization of the training session itself is outside the scope of this article, but it’s concerned with things like “if I’m doing heavy squats and high intensity sprints in the same session, which should I do first?” The typical answer would probably be squats, since squatting heavy in a highly fatigued state probably isn’t too smart, and since sprinting first would decrease subsequent squat performance more than squatting would decrease subsequent sprint performance.

MICROCYCLE is usually synonymous with a training week. It has a slightly broader definition, but just to keep things simple, we’ll just think of a microcycle as a single week of training.

MESOCYCLE is a group of consecutive training weeks that are focused on training the same skill or physical quality. They usually range from 2-8 weeks long, but for the sake of simplicity, we’ll illustrate using month-long mesocycles.

MACROCYCLES are the broader training plan. This could be 12 to 16 weeks of training to prepare for a powerlifting meet, the offseason training plan for team sports, year-long plans for athletes who focus their efforts on a single big national or world meet, or even 4-year quadrennial plan for an Olympic athlete. Just for illustrative purposes, we’ll use a 16 week training plan for a powerlifting meet.

Now that the boring terminology is out of the way, let’s delve into the stuff you’re really interested in: why people get so confused about periodization.


    1. Undulation: changing the training volume and/or intensity to expose the body to different stressors
    2. Linearity: Progressing a training stress or fitness characteristic in a linear fashion. This is roughly equivalent to “progressive overload” for single or multiple factors.
  1. Conjugation: Regularly changing training stressors with the purpose of training different physical characteristics (like maximal strength and explosiveness, for example) simultaneously. For this article, we’ll be addressing this primarily as “change in exercises” because the other ways to accomplish conjugation are already encompassed in the concept of undulation.

When people talk about these notions, they usually speak as if they’re mutually exclusive.

“Westide is Conjugate Periodization!”

“Such-and-such powerlifter uses Daily Undulating Periodization!”

“Beginner or intermediate lifters should use a Linear Periodization program!”

It sounds like these are disparate concepts, when really almost all training plans weave all of these elements together to reach the desired end. They can do this because, as we touched on initially, training is organized on different time scales.

The easiest way to wrap our heads around these concepts is by use of a few examples.

Disclaimer: there are other, more advanced areas of program design, but understanding these three concepts is enough for most people, most of the time, and they’re the three that are most commonly misunderstood. Talking about the rest would be well beyond the scope of a single article. That’s why there are entire books about periodization.


Let’s say someone sets up a plan utilizing “Daily Undulating Periodization:” changing weight, sets, and reps for their major movements on each training days during a week. They may squat 3 times in a week, and set up their training week like this:

Monday: Squat 75% 5×6

Wednesday: Squat 80% 3×4

Friday: Squat 85% 4×2

But that’s just one week of training. What do they do in their next week of training? Maybe they try to add 5 pounds on each training day. Maybe they do one more set per day, or one more rep per set. That’s a linear increase in intensity or volume. And assuming they don’t ONLY squat in their workout, but also do some accessory exercises, if they swap out accessories every month or two to address new weaknesses or to change the stressors they’re exposing their body too, that’s a conjugate element.

So that training plan wouldn’t just be a “Daily Undulating Periodization” plan. Rather, it would be a periodized training plan utilizing undulation day to day, linearity week to week, and conjugation month to month.

If they wanted to accomplish the changes in volume and intensity day to day by altering exercises (maybe front squats one day, high bar squats one day, and low bar squats on another), then both conjugation and undulation would be taking place day to day.

Or maybe when training for a meet, their first two months involve high bar squats, their third month involves low bar squats, and their fourth month peaking for the meet involves low bar squats with wraps. There would be conjugation and a linear increase in specificity month to month.


Let’s say someone set up a basic, old-school “Linear Periodization” plan, increasing intensity and decreasing volume week to week leading up to a meet. They bench, squat, and deadlift twice per week, with a traditional “heavy day, light day” setup. They stick with the competition variants of the lifts for the entire training cycle for maximized training specificity, but after the meet they transition into a period of doing more exercise variants like front squats, deadlifts with the opposite stance, and close grip bench presses to bring up any weaknesses that may have developed from several months of highly specific training.

In this example, increase in intensity and decrease in volume are both linear.

Conjugation doesn’t take place within the meet prep macrocycle, but it does macrocycle to macrocycle.

Undulation occurs within the training week between heavy and light days.

So it’s not ONLY “linear periodization.” It’s a periodized training plan with undulation session to session, linear changes in volume and load on a weekly scale, and conjugation macrocycle to macrocycle.


Let’s say someone is utilizing the Westside Barbell Conjugate Periodization plan. They change their max effort movement every 1-3 weeks, and alternate 3 week blocks for speed work, using straight weight for 3 weeks, chains for 3 weeks, and bands for 3 weeks. As per Westside recommendations, they do a lot of accessory work to bring up weaknesses, trying to increase weight and volume over time.

The conjugate element is obvious: switching out max effort movements regularly.

Each 3 week block of speed work employs linearity, either by increasing the bar week over the 3 week wave, or by increasing the chain weight or band tension. Additionally, increasing weight and volume for accessory exercises is a linear element.

Undulation takes place within the week (between max effort and dynamic effort days), and from week to week as different bars are used for max effort workouts that allow for more or less loading.

As you can see, none of these training plans are exclusively “linear periodization” or “undulating periodization” or “conjugate periodization.” So, just for the sake of argument, what would a plan with just one element look like?


No changes in exercise ever. Any change from one session to the next must be some form of progressive overload. More weight on the bar, more reps, more sets, etc. However, once you gain some ground, you can’t ever go back. You did 25 total reps on the squat with 80% this week. Either you need to do more weight with the same number of reps, or you need to do more reps with the same weight. The next week, you have to either add more weight or reps again. If you add weight but decrease reps (with the intention of ever doing more reps again), that’s undulation. If you increase reps while decreasing weight (with the intention of ever using more weight again), that’s also some minor undulation.

A purely linear plan would probably be very boring, while also getting into a real of totally unmanageable volume and/or intensity very quickly for anyone who’s not a complete beginner.


Exercises change all the time, and that’s about it. If you come back to the same exercise again, you have to do the same weight, sets, and reps again. If there’s no linear element to it, on any time scale, there’s no way to progress. Using the broader definition of conjugation to include undulating elements as well, you’re still no better off without also employing some sort of linearity.


Weights, reps, and sets can change day to day and week to week, but there can be no changes in exercises, and the overall average volume and intensity has to remain the same.

As you can see, none of these plans are very good. A purely linear plan can work for a short period of time, but is clearly not a viable long-term approach. And without any linear elements, pure conjugate or undulating plans wouldn’t get you anywhere. Proper organization of training blends all of these elements together, on different time scales, to achieve the desired results. That is periodization. Not linear periodization, not conjugate periodization, not undulating periodization. JUST periodization.

The real question isn’t “what kind of periodization is best?” It’s, “what are the most effective ways to weave these elements together to accomplish my goals?”


The time scale linearity takes place on is relative to the experience of the lifter, factors in their life that influence their ability to recover from hard training, and the distance from their genetic potential. But the quick and dirty answer is “as fast as possible.”

For someone who’s brand new, that may mean linear increases in weight on the bar or training volume, every training session, for quite some period of time.

For someone who’s been in the game for a few years, it may be possible to increase weight or training volume week to week (microcycle) for each discrete workout (i.e. doing more this Monday than you did last Monday), while employing more undulation or conjugation within the training week itself (i.e. doing something different this Wednesday than you did this Monday).

For someone who’s more experienced yet, it could mean every month (mesocycle). Your workouts this month may correspond with workouts last month (i.e. doing more this Monday than you did on Monday 4 weeks ago), with more undulating or conjugate elements within that month. Or it could mean linear organization on two different time scales – maybe increasing volume week to week over the course of a month, and repeating the process with heavier weights on the next month.

For someone who’s nearing their potential, or for someone whose progress has slowed down due to life circumstances interfering with recovery from workouts, actualized improvements in strength may only occur at the end of a longer macrocycle, with other linear, undulating, and conjugate elements integrated into that macrocycle, eventually leading to the desired linear strength increases macrocycle to macrocycle.


The question of undulation isn’t one of “if,” but rather “to what degree, and on what time scale?”

There aren’t tidy answers to these questions, because we honestly don’t know.

In general, if you train a lift more than once per week, it seems wise to undulate training within the training week. If you did sets of 5 with 80% today, you’d probably be better served by doing something other than sets of 5 with 80% if you do the same lift later in the week.

Undulation week to week should also be discussed if you aren’t able to progress linearly week to week anymore on one element, while holding other elements steady. For example, you may doing something like this over a month-long span, for a particular workout:

Week 1: 75% 5×5

Week 2: 85% 4×3

Week 3: 80% 5×4

Week 4: 90% 3×2

However, you could also do the same set of workouts with a linear setup, and not need to undulate week to week. For example:

Week 1: 75% 5×5

Week 3: 80% 5×4

Week 2: 85% 4×3

Week 4: 90% 3×2

Both setups would probably work equally well, and would ultimately amount to a matter of preference. Degree of undulation within the training week is probably more important than degree of weekly undulation.

However, degree of undulation within the training week isn’t something that has clear guidelines either. On one hand, research has clearly shownthat small amounts of undulation within the training week can be very effective – ~10% fluctuations in intensity within a training week producing substantially better results than a purely linear approach. However, as the Westside approach of 100% max effort work with speed work in the 60-75% range within the same training week, and the oldschool “heavy day, light day” approach of heavy sets of 2-5 reps one day and “bodybuilding” work with sets of 8-15 reps have shown, many people can also be successful with much greater degrees of undulation within the training week as well.

As a general recommendation, however, degree of undulation day to day should probably decrease somewhat as you approach a competition, so you can increase training specificity. Using the examples above, the Westside approach does this by substituting regular speed days with “circa max” workouts, utilizing much heavier loads than would typically be used for speed day. The “heavy day, light day” approach also tended to increase loads on the light day as a meet approached, usually ending up with fairly heavy sets of 5-8 reps on the light day as a meet drew near.

10 weeks out from a meet, big swings in volume and 30% swings in intensity may be acceptable for building a general strength base via a broader array of stressors, but 2 weeks out from a meet, training specificity should have increased to match the immediate demands at hand – lifting as much weight as possible at the meet. You may be able to practice adequately to lift 100% loads utilizing 80% and 90% loads within the same training week, but that practice would be less specific to the task at hand utilizing 60% loads and 90% loads for your main lifts instead.


Conjugation is similar to undulation, in that the primary question isn’t “should I use some conjugate elements,” but rather “how much and on what time scale?”

And again, there’s not a clear cut answer, except that some variation tends to be better than none.

Even for untrained lifters, there’s evidence showing that a mixture of lower body exercises, including squats, leg press, deadlift, and split squats, can increase their squat more than squatting alone.

The exception might be for the most advanced lifters. Chad Wesley Smith alludes to this with his “pyramid of strength.” Someone like Ilya Ilin has a very bare-bones program of almost exclusively squats, front squats, clean&jerks, and snatches, but early in his training career he did a much broader array of exercises to build the general strength base necessary for him to take advantage of such an extreme degree of specificity. Andrey Malanichev is someone else who uses very few exercises in his training, but he is also an incredibly elite lifter.

The rest of us benefit from a somewhat broader array of exercises to build a generalized strength base.

Examples of successful programs run the gamut from switching out exercises weekly (Westside’s max effort work), to every macrocycle (sticking to competition lifts for a whole meet training cycle, then including more variety after the meet to bring up weaknesses). You can also employ conjugation by keeping the competition variants in your program all the time, while doing different exercises during the week – conjugating on different time scales. Sheiko is one such example – you’ll always be doing competition variety squats, benches, and deadlifts, but variants such as front squats, close grip bench press, and deadlifts from blocks are included from time to time.

Conjugation can take place across different time scales, and it can also take place to different degrees. For example, a high bar squat with a belt, or a low bar squat without a belt, are both pretty similar to a low bar squat with a belt. A high bar squat without a belt is less specific, so it represents a greater degree of conjugation. A paused, beltless front squat is less specific yet.

Similar to undulation, it’s generally wise to reduce conjugation (both the amount of exercise variation, and how different those exercises are compared to your competition lifts) somewhat the closer you get to a meet. Again, this is for purposes of training specificity and ensuring that your motor patterns are well-tuned so you can perform at your maximal level on the platform.


When thinking about periodization, stop thinking about it in terms of this or that specific program, or looking at elements of periodization as if they’re entire training programs in and of themselves.

There is no one-size-fits-all best training plan, but almost all successful training plans have all three of these elements – linearity, conjugation, and undulation – and I’m having a hard time thinking of a single program that’s been successful for a population of lifters other than complete newbies that doesn’t employ at least two of these elements.

Even the ruthlessly minimalistic Bulgarian program utilized undulation (more or less training volume depending on the lifter’s readiness and state of recovery) in addition to linearity (always trying to add more weight to the bar).

The key, then, isn’t to look for the one key to building a successful program, but rather to look for the traits that many successful programs for lifters with your goals and general level of experience have in common.

Observe how these elements are employed across different time scales – daily, weekly, monthly, or macrocycle to macrocycle, strive for measurable improvement at the fastest rate your body is capable, and decrease degree of conjugation and undulation to enhance training specificity as you get closer to a meet.

(This article was originally published here:  There is only one type of periodization: Part 2)


Now that we’ve managed to illustrate that all programs are simply composed of differing forms of training organization, that all programs use all of these forms to some extent, and now that we have defined these three primary forms of training organization, we have to ask a question that arises almost automatically from these conclusions.

The question is; “how much linearity, exercise variation (used from now on in place of the term ‘conjugation’) and volume-load undulation produces a BEST result in a program. Of course, there are multiple considerations to input, and the result will not (ever) point us to ONE OPTIMAL PROGRAM FOR ALL. But, by using the four-step filtering process below, we can narrow down the list of potential programs to the small fraction that are designed with the best features (or quantities, rather) of linearity, exercise variation, and undulation.

Imagine we have the potential to train in any kind of program we want. We survey the internet and find, let’s say, 100 programs in total to consider. These programs range from recommendations in backwater forums to the personalized programs written by Boris Sheiko himself.

Now, what’s the first step in concluding which programs are better and which likely won’t produce best results? The first filter we’ll apply is that of Sport Science research and the experience of the best coaches.


Sport Science has been formally practiced in the Eastern Bloc from the late 1950’s onward, and in the West shortly after that. Over a cumulative 50+ years of formal research, sport scientists have managed to draw some definitive conclusions about what programming features work well and in what quantities. The benefit of sport science has not only been to discover what works, but discover what likely does not work as well. It’s these “what’s not best” discoveries that are really important to us here, because they give us information with which to rule out extreme applications of program features (too much linearity or not enough, for example) and never bother making those costly mistakes ourselves.

The lessons of sport scientists (especially in the Eastern Bloc where science and coaching were closely connected) were parleyed into the practices of sport coaches. After decades of coaching application, some very serious and incredibly knowledgeable coaches literally “grew” out of their experiences, insofar as they adopted the best practices and abandoned the worst as they were introduced. These coaches directly applied the lessons of sport science and were able to add a vast amount of knowledge to the field, especially in the realm of “how much” of a program feature to apply. For example, sport scientists discovered that adding elements undulation worked definitively better than pure linearity, but it was not clear how much undulation was best for a particular sport or phase of training. Coaches, through decades of implementation, got the best idea of what level of undulation worked best, and how much was too little or too much.

Oftentimes, the best coaches would engage in practices that had not even yet been studied by sport scientists, and thus the relationship was reversed. However it tended to happen, what we have now is the sum total of all of that integrated knowledge.

So here’s the big hit of this first filter: if sport scientists and the best elite coaches through the times tend to shy away from a certain type of programming, it’s likely not going to work best. For example, you’d be VERY hard pressed to find elite coaches and top scientists that support a purely linear program. Just the same (aside from Louie), very few coaches recommend altering exercises every single session. Lastly, hardly any of the best coaches and scientists would recommend radical undulations in repetition ranges and weights within the week, as in sets of 15 reps and sets of 3 reps in the same week. This kind of undulation both violates an essential principle in sport science (directed adaptation) and is very rarely found in the programming of top coaches in sport around the world.

Next time you go program hunting or writing, check with the basic sport science texts and read about the programs of top coaches first. If it looks a bit extreme, maybe it’s not the best program.


Program feature inclusion is somewhat sport-specific. While the general principles from the first filter always apply, there is some variation within that range depending on the sport in question. For example, the primary overloading variable for short-distance sprint training is velocity. If peak velocity in training is down by just a small fraction, overload becomes difficult to present (You’ve gotta run fast to get faster.  You can’t half-sprint and expect the same results). Thus, fatigue management becomes much more important in basic sprint training than in the average sport.

Not by accident, good sprinting programs usually tend to have a higher degree of undulation. One way to do this is via fast sprints and heavy weights in the beginning of the week, then much lighter weights (and lower volumes of training) later in the week, paired with non-overloading technical work on the track. This arrangement of high undulation allows sprinters to carry low fatigue at the beginning of most training weeks, which allows them to have the kind of top-speed workouts that really push the greatest speed adaptations, never mind reduce the potential injury rate from trying to sprint while fatigued or very sore.

On the other end of the undulation spectrum is the sport of bodybuilding. The primary overloading variable for bodybuilders is the total volume of work they can accomplish in training and actually recover from, so long as the predominance of that work is above around 60% of the 1RM of the movement. Additionally, constantly trying to reduce volume loads to keep fatigue down greatly inhibits how much total work can be done in any unit of time, so that if you’re managing fatigue too much in bodybuilding, you end up always having great workouts but never really improving as fast as you could be, because you’re taking too many light days and not enough stimulus is actually being elicited.

So long as fatigue doesn’t get too crazy (and that’s what deloads every 4-5 weeks are for), bodybuilders are best served training with consistently high volumes. That means almost every bodybuilding workout will be of roughly the same volume (as close to maximal recoverable volume as possible), and the degree of undulation is very slim indeed. There will be SOME undulation to manage some local fatigue (rowing-heavy vs. vertical pulling-heavy back workout alterations, for example), but certainly not as much as we’d see in sprinter training.

Of course the same sport-specificity applies to linearity and exercise variation features. Your job as an intelligent programmer (or program shopper) is to make sure your program follows the general feature guidelines of that chosen sport. If your sprinter program has you squatting for 5×10 Mondays and Thursdays all season long, you may have a problem. Speaking of season length, that’s our next consideration for program feature selection!


Program features not only change with the sport itself, but with the phase of training being done for that sport. To give a simple example, as mentioned earlier in this article, the specificity of a program should likely increase as the competitive season (or single competition depending on the competitive schedule of the sport) draws nearer. The means exercise variation (aka conjugation) should be more prominent in the offseason (or general preparation phase) in most sports, and should dwindle down in magnitude as the competition phase or date approaches.

For example, hypertrophy work in powerlifting is best done far in the offseason, and can be performed using a wide variety of exercises that can be altered quite often. On the other hand, as competition nears, the athlete must become muscularly, neurally, and technically most familiar and adapted to the actual competition moves. This means that in a peaking phase right before a powerlifting meet, fancy board presses or cambered bar work is best replaced with a steady diet of heavy competition-standard lifts for best performances on the platform. As mentioned in Part 1, even the super-conjugate heavy Westside System began to recognize this need and altered programming to match.

After narrowing down the general recommendations of sport coaches and scientists, choosing the sport to be trained, and zooming in on a particular phase of sport training, we can (finally) consider the last variable of program feature selection: the individual athlete’s proclivities and declivities.


Not all humans are exactly the same, and certainly not all athletes are. For each of the program features (and certainly for the 3 discussed in this article), every individual will respond best to a particular magnitude of feature. For example, some athletes thrive on linearity. These tend to be athletes that both recover quickly and have limitations in athleticism (for example, technical execution of the lifts does not come easily to them, and technical consistency does not hold well in absence of continual practice). For such athletes, very linear programs are great, because they allow them to make consistent gains while getting better and better at executing the lifts or sport moves being training. For these athletes (in powerlifting, for example), too many lift variations and undulations can be technically overwhelming… and when they come back to, say, heavy squats, all kind of technical issues resurface after only a short layoff! More intermediate athletes tend to have a better technical basis for lifts and other sport moves, so they don’t have to be as linear as relative beginners, for which high linearity is usually much more effective. To paint an extreme counterexample, there have been 15 year old girls training in the Conjugate Method and getting into powerlifting equipment before they could even squat 1.5x bodyweight…. THAT is an example of poor feature selection.

On the other hand, more intermediate athletes can disrupt homeostasis to such a degree in training that they simply need more undulation to recover. Additionally, their technical proficiency in the basic lifts or sport moves is now high enough that it can be retained for long periods of training alteration. That means they can now benefit from a higher degree of exercise variation without sacrificing basic technical abilities.


When making a periodized plan for ANY particular athlete, all of the four considerations/filters in the section above must be taken into account. Every single time a good coach sits down to write a program, he considers every single pertinent feature of the athlete, training phase, sport, and general theory.

This is a process that has been followed around the world for decades by the best (usually national and Olympic team) coaches, and has been studied and refined by the international sport science community.

This process and the study of it has revealed a network of practical and theoretical principles which are used by coaches to organize training. And guess what? It’s even got a name: Modern Periodization. That’s right, the informed and filtered selection of programming features (including consideration of linearity, exercise variation, and undulation) utilized to draw up macrocycle plans that enhance training gains and competitive performance while reducing injury rates is called Modern Periodization. Phew, that was a long definition!

Modern Periodization is a close relative to block periodization and features linear, conjugate (exercise variation), and undulating elements throughout its design. Almost all current Olympic training centers around the world use it and sport scientists almost universally accept it.

So in fact, there is only ONE kind of periodization but the features of the programs within a periodized plan tend to vary considerably depending on the sport, phase, and athlete (just like evolution occurs by natural selection, bottlenecks, and genetic drift all at the same time).

Moral of the story? There is not a pure and perfect program, and there is not a competition between various programming features as to which one is best. There is a unified system of training, and it integrates ALL programming features in a way that promotes best results. How much study and practice does it take to master the system of Modern Periodization? No one yet knows, because the system is always being updated and improved per new discoveries, the best coaches and sport scientists all say that even with all of their understanding, they’re just scratching the surface.

(This article was originally published here: No-nonsense periodization for powerlifting)

The entire purpose of powerlifting is brutally simple; to get stronger. Getting stronger involves training heavy, controlling your diet, and taking the right supplements. But in the quest for PRs, the options can get complicated rather than simple. A quick look on any powerlifting website reveals that the variety of diets seems almost endless, as does the choice of supplement regimen. Included in this complexity is the approach to training. It seems as if everyone and their mother has their own training “method” nowadays. The diversity in training philosophy is so great it almost makes me nostalgic for the days of Westside dominance (almost). What’s a lifter to do?

Well, the good news is that there is quite a bit of a scientific and practical consensus on what constitutes the optimal approach to training. Through the combination of scientific principles and real-world application, a general template for raw powerlifting training can be described. And luckily, right in this very article!

First, let’s start with some definitions:

Periodization is the long-term sequence of training which allows for 3 distinct benefits to raw powerlifters:

1.)   Enhanced rate of gains

2.)   Reduced injury rates

3.)   Ability to peak for the meet (not one week before or 2 weeks after)

Meet periodization begins right after your last meet and ends with your next one, when it restarts again for the meet after. While the particulars of applying periodization can seem complex, basic raw powerlifting periodization is a result of the application of only 6 principles of training. These 6 training principles guide the training process by letting the lifter/coach know what to do, and often as important, what not to do. Here they are, with simple, no-nonsense definitions:

1.)   SRA (Stimulus-Recovery-Adaptation): You get better by training, but the gains are made when you rest. This is why you don’t squat heavy on Monday, front squat heavy on Tuesday, then take the rest of the week off. Train, rest and recover, repeat… that’s SRA.

2.)    Overload: If you want to become stronger, you’ve gotta lift heavier weights. Seems like a no-brainer, but you’d forget this principle if you looked at some programs. Plan to lift heavier gradually, and do it. There’s no dynamic effort workout to make you brutally strong.

3.)   Specificity: If you want to become good at something, practice that something. If you want to bench off of your chest, and the last 4 workouts before your meet have been to boards, you’re gonna have a problem. A subset of this principle is “directed adaptation.” It states that if you wanna get good at something, you have to do it IN SEQUENCE, not just every now and again. If you only do a low-bar squat once a month, you’re unlikely to be progressing as fast as if you did it for 4 weeks straight.

4.)   Variation: If you do the same things for too long, you’ll slow in gains. Novel exercises (at the right time) can spur new gains in size and strength. Front squats, dumbbell presses and stiff-legged deadlifts are great tools to use for certain periods of time.

5.)   Fatigue Management: As you train, you accumulate wear-and-tear, your fuel stores deplete, and your hormonal levels change for the worse. A planned reduction in training volume (and sometimes intensity) every so often reduces built-up fatigue and allows you to make gains faster while reducing injury rates.

6.)   Phase Potentiation: Training in a certain style one month can enhance the gains made with another style next month, so proper sequencing is key. If you do a strength phase first, then a hypertrophy phase at the end of the process, you’ll have lots of muscle, but you won’t be able to exert force as effectively as possible, since you’re used to doing sets of higher reps. However, if you do a hypertrophy phase and then follow that with a strength phase, you take the new muscle from the hypertrophy phase and make it stronger. The result is a more effective final product. Order matters.

With the training principles as our guides, we can now lay the foundation of a basic raw powerlifting periodization. Let’s take a 5 month meet prep and use that as an example. Since our goal is to total more at the end of the 5 months, we have several competing demands. In no particular order, we need to:

–        Add muscle

–        Peak for the meet

–        Get stronger

These are all valid goals, but unfortunately they can’t all be done at the same time. The sub-principle of directed adaptation tells us that if we want to get stronger or add size or peak, we have to train in that particular way for at least a couple of weeks, and we can’t bumble back and forth. Additionally, training in one way is not what’s best for all others. The volume of peak training is too low to add much strength or size, and the reps and volumes of hypertrophy interfere with strength adaptations. So, we need to find a way to sequence the training priorities, or “phases” in order to get the best final product. Remember, we don’t care about how strong we are on the 1RM lifts themselves any other day of the year except for meet day.

Let’s start with what we know for sure; peaking must come last, if for no other reason than it must come right before the meet! If you’re doing singles or triples 4 months out of the meet, that’s optional at best, but doing them the month before the meet is mandatory. Secondly, we know that before we train for strength, we’ve gotta have the muscle to train. Thus, we know that the hypertrophy phase must come before the strength phase. The strength phase will take that new muscle and pound it into a stronger functioning unit. Peaking is last, and hypertrophy comes before strength… well, sounds like we have a sequence already developing:

1.)   Hypertrophy (get more muscle)

2.)   Strength (make the new muscle stronger)

3.)   Peaking (learn to express that new strength maximally)

There are more reasons than the ones listed for structuring the phases in this manner. One quick one is that peaking phases are best attempted when you’re already used to lifting fairly heavy weights. Anyone who’s attempted singles or triples after several months of high rep training can attest to the utter and unpleasant shock of heavy weights. Thus, the strength phase should likely precede the peaking phase, etc… We could go on and on about the validity of this sequence, but I’d rather get to the nitty-gritty and give you some details about each phase.

Hypertrophy Phase

The hypertrophy phase is designed to add muscle, specifically muscle that will translate to bigger lifts. Thus, we already know what muscle groups to train and which ones are optional for vanity’s sake. Quad, hamstring, glute, and chest hypertrophy should take precedence for the raw powerlifter. Because some of the best exercises to build the muscles used in the powerlifts ARE the powerlifts themselves, we can certainly stick to the basics. However, because you just focused on the powerlifts for so long in your previous peaking phase they won’t be the most shocking and thus necessarily the best moves at this time.

What may work slightly better is to use modified versions of the powerlifts as the basis of hypertrophy training. The lifts are modified in such a way as to exaggerate the effects on a particular muscle, so as to more effectively grow that muscle. In large part, this can be based on particular weak points you may have in your lifting. For example, if your quads are your weakness in squatting, high bar squats and front squats may take precedence in this phase. If your chest is weaker but your triceps are stronger, wider benching and more dumbbell work may be in the cards, etc. If your sumo lockout is weaker than your pull off the floor, then perhaps some SLDLs and conventional deadlifts are on the horizon. In any case, you’ll notice that there are no fru-fru pansy exercises. No cable one-arm triceps extensions or band rear-laterals. Basic, compound moves for high volumes are the ticket, which means lots of sets of reps between 5 and 10 per set.

As in any phase, each week should see you adding between 5 and 10lbs to the lifts, while staying just shy enough of failure to be able to match your reps week after week, because there’s no way around the overload principle. Every 4-6 weeks, most lifters will benefit from a volume deload week (keep the weights heavy but bring the reps down by half) in order to bring down fatigue. After about 2 months of this, our hypothetical 5 month plan is ready for a shift.

Strength Phase

With our focus on hypertrophy in the previous months, we’re now bigger than ever, and it’s time to make that new muscle strong. Heavy strength training not only enhances the nervous system’s ability to use the new muscle to produce more force, it changes the alignment of that new muscle and further enhances its ability to allow for strength expression. With our set numbers still high, we bring down our reps into the 3-6 range, and as always, increase weights slowly week to week, staying just shy of failure.

When choosing our exercises, the principle of variation will inform us that our hypertrophy movements will now be pretty stale, but on the other hand, our competition moves will be very fresh again, and what better moves for strength gain than competition lifts? The sub-principle of directed adaptation will remind us that we need to train the competition lifts for quite some time in order to really get to be the best at them, so the strength phase is likely a good time to start.

Some assistance exercises are of course performed, and they’ll also be done for lower reps to continue to stimulate strength gains. Some of the moves we used in the hypertrophy phase (or even new ones we didn’t use last time) can work as assistance moves, but they should now be more related in movement pattern to the competition lifts, as the principle of specificity demands that we narrow our focus to muscles and movement patterns that enhance the 3 lifts in a direct way. For example, after training paused competition benching, some narrow or wide grip benches without a pause can be done, but standing barbell presses may be too much variation at this point, and won’t translate to bigger benches as directly.

After 2 months of strength training (and with 1-2 deloads in there as needed), we’re only one month away from the meet, and it’s time to start the final phase.

Peaking Phase

With the meet only one month away, our goal is two-fold. First, we need to make sure we are fully prepared for the specific task of lifting a 1-RM in competition. Secondly, we need to make sure we’re not just strong when we get to the meet, but low on fatigue as well.

Leading up to one week before the meet, we’ll be lifting heavier and heavier in the 1-3 rep range. Since the peaking phase is so short, it’s not very necessary to do too much assistance work, since muscle mass hangs in for weeks on end with very low volumes, especially if heavy weights are lifted frequently during that time. Thus, it’s all about getting into the gym and lifting HEAVY. Don’t blow your load and go overboard by missing attempts all the time, but do push it with heavy weights in the 1-3 rep range. While there is some difference between the lifts, you should be working up to your heaviest weights about 1.5 weeks before the day of the meet, with deadlifting being closer to 2 weeks and benching being closer to 1 week for most people.

In the final week before the meet, many lifters choose to rest completely, to reduce fatigue but others opt for a slightly more nuanced approach. It might be a good idea to get into the gym VERY EARLY in that last week, and just hit singles or doubles for a few sets with 30% or so of your max on only the competition lifts. There is research to suggest that doing so will simultaneously bring fatigue down faster than complete rest and keep your technique sharper on the lifts for meet time, which can mean the differences between a missed PR attempt and a good one.

Whether you choose to go for a week of full rest or throw in a day of easy training followed by full rest, come meet time you should be peaked EXACTLY for the heavy competition lifts, and that’s how your best performances are set up.

Better in the Long Term

Via phase potentiation, the hypertrophy phase makes the strength phase more productive with its added muscle, and the strength phase gives you the raw brute force to work with for the final peaking phase. At the end of every peaking phase is a meet, and after a week or so post-meet rest, the next hypertrophy phase begins. And so, the cycle repeats itself, propelling you into higher and higher strength levels and competition success.

As athletes get better and better at powerlifting, the time spent in each phase changes slightly. Because the biggest limiting factor for beginner lifters is their size (or rather, lack thereof), they should probably focus more on the hypertrophy phase than the other two phases, and because peaking won’t be much of an issue with lighter and moderately-light weights, the peaking phase can be shortened concomitantly. In a 5 month meet prep, perhaps 3 months of hypertrophy work, 1.5 months of strength work, and only 2 weeks of peaking may be optimal for beginner lifters.

Intermediate lifters are already starting to fill out their frames with muscle, but need to keep expanding their strength base. Thus, they may better spend their time equally between the hypertrophy and strength phases, exactly as mentioned in our primary example through this article. As they get better, they may lessen the hypertrophy commitment and expand their strength work to a 1:3:1 ratio of hypertrophy, strength, and peaking.

Advanced lifters will have most of the size they need for their weightclass, and will have an excellent strength base, but will need more time adjusting to the super-heavy weights they lift in competition. Thus, they will have shorter hypertrophy and strength phases, but longer peaking phases. Some advanced lifters may benefit from as many as 8 weeks of peaking, and only require about 2 weeks for re-gaining the size they lost in the week before and after the meet. Thus, they take 2 weeks of hypertrophy, 2.5 months of strength, and 2 months of peaking to prep for a meet.

What I have given you is a very basic outline of periodization for powerlifting. Use it wisely and you may find that you like the results!

(This article was originally published here:  Peaking for powerlifting)

When many people begin to mess around with weights for the first time, it seems like the entire goal of the endeavor is to max out; to see ‘how much you can lift.” This approach to lifting continues longer for some than others, and has even evolved into a set of training methodologies (Westside, with its emphasis on training maxes, comes to mind). Of course most people begin to understand at some point that the best way to actually get stronger over the longer term is to train and not just max out. Most will understand that the process of getting stronger is distinct from the process of showing off that new-found strength.

But even for more mature lifters that strive for long-term improvements and are not obsessed with continually testing their strength, the time comes when showing off is exactly the point. In fact, that’s the whole purpose of powerlifting competition; to be in your best possible shape to show off all of your strength gains. So the question of the article is; “how do we best prepare for the actual powerlifting competition?” How do we transition from training to get strong into training to show off our strength?


Isn’t showing off strength easy? Don’t you just take a regular training day to hit your maxes? Well, it turns out that things are a bit more complicated if maximal performance on meet day is your goal. As a matter of fact, there are two distinct reasons that training must change several weeks before your meet to maximize performance:

1.) Fatigue masks fitness.

– As you train, your muscles become bigger, their alignment changes, and your nervous system becomes more capable of activating your muscles to produce higher forces. All the while, the hard training required to stimulate these adaptations also produces some fatigue. The muscles run low on glycogen, their fiber types may temporarily alter to the weaker kind (type IIb to type IIa), they accumulate microtears and fray a bit. The nervous system experiences ion imbalances from continual high level activation and can become quite inefficient while its underlying capabilities expand.

Thus, while your machinery might be getting much stronger, your actual ability to express this new-found strength can be hidden by the fatigue that this very training generates.  In order to peak for a 1rm, fatigue must be addressed. We must find a way to lower fatigue while keeping our strength.

2.) Training and competition are different enough to matter.

– Basic understanding of strength training tells us that the best way to get strong is to handle heavy weights at concomitantly high volumes. Because VERY heavy weights (regularly in excess of 90% 1RM) cause a disproportionately high amount of fatigue and are thus not sustainable to train with, multiple sets of 3-5 repetitions seem best for most people looking to gain strength. The weights used can still be quite heavy, but not so heavy as to cause a prohibitive level of fatigue accumulation. Thus with multiple sets of 3-5 reps, high workloads with heavy weights can be performed and strength-based adaptations can be well stimulated. While this style of training enhances strength, it’s not completely specific to the actual display of this strength. Strength is displayed at 1 rep, not 5 reps, and there is a meaningful difference in technique, musculoskeletal forces, and nervous system activity between the two rep ranges. Thus, while training for strength is best done with multiple sets of 3-5 reps, training to peak your strength in a 1rm requires a more specific approach. Training in sets of 1-3 reps during the final prep for a meet may be part of the answer.

So now the question becomes, how do we change training to address these concerns and present the best possible performance on meet day?



Time for some sport science terminology to enter the picture. Attempting to manipulate training variables in order to express a high level of performance at a particular time is termed “peaking” in sport science. The underlying component of the ability to peak is one’s “preparedness,” which is the ability of the body to actually exert itself maximally. Preparedness can be further broken down into the sum of “fitness” (how well-developed your ability to move your body actually is, in this case your strength) and “fatigue” (the depletion of energy substrates and damage to the muscles, hormonal axes, and nervous system that impede fitness expression). Meanwhile, “specificity” is the degree to which you are prepared to exert yourself in a particular task, such as 1rm lifting. A quick definition guide so that you can come back and reference this later with some other important terms, in plain English and in powerlifting context:

Peaking: The process of maximizing preparedness at THE DESIRED TIME.

Preparedness: The sum of fitness and fatigue; how well you’re actually capable of performing.

Fitness: How well developed your body and mind are to lift the most weight possible.

Fatigue: How beat up you are, and how much this prevents you from being strong at a particular time.

Tapering: The process of reducing training volumes and intensities to bring down fatigue and express maximal strength.

Specificity: How good you are at doing 1rm attempts, rather than just being strong in general. Matters the most as you get closer to the meet. Specific training matches competition most closely.


From the above description of the basic science behind peaking, we can infer that our training in the final weeks leading up to a meet must do 3 distinct things if we’re to peak most effectively:

1.) Drop fatigue as much as possible.

2.) Elevate or at least maintain fitness as high as possible.

3.) Enhance specificity so that we’re actually ready to max out in the big 3.

Let’s look at how training changes from regular strength training into peaking and take each of the above variables one at a time.

Dropping fatigue:

  • A considerable amount of research has indicated that in most cases, volume (NOT intensity) is the primary contributor to fatigue. So, the first move in our attempt to drop fatigue to peak for the meet is to drop volume. Depending on several factors (lifter size and strength, mostly), between 1 and 4 weeks before the meet, training volume must be brought down. Volume reduction is probably the most fundamental component of peaking as not much fatigue will drop without it. Larger, stronger and more experienced (those that are closer to pushing the limits of their physiology) lifters disrupt homeostasis (the body’s stable maintenance of structures and functions) much more than smaller, less-strong and less-experienced lifters, so they need more time to bring down fatigue. This rule of size, strength, and experience applies to body structures as well as individuals, so that smaller lifts which use less of the body (bench vs. squat vs. deadlift, in that order) need less time at lower volumes to drop the same amount of fatigue. Thus, volume reduction for the deadlift of an elite 308lb competitor may begin as far as 4 weeks out from a meet, the squat volume of a master’s class 198lber may need to start dropping 2 weeks out from a meet, but the bench volume of a beginner 97lb lifter may be cut as late as only 1 week before the meet. What’s the best way to cut volume? Reduce the number of working sets… we’ll have examples later.

  • Intensity is not the dominant contributor to fatigue that volume is, but it does play an important role, especially for the larger, stronger and more experienced lifters and lifts/bodyparts. For fitness conservation reasons to be explained next, we want intensity to be as high as possible for as long as possible. Realistically, this means that intensity cutting usually trails volume cutting by a week or so for most individuals. The elite 308lb deadlifter may begin to take weight off the bar 3 weeks out from a meet, the 198lb squatter may reduce weights one week out, and the 97lb bench presser may take a light day mid-week on the week of her meet. There are many ways to cut intensity, but the most basic is to cut it (like volume, as we shall see in the examples) in an exponential fashion… a little at first, but more and more as the meet approaches, until the last training session before the meet is just a technical warmup with super light weights.

Elevating and Maintaining Fitness:

  • Bringing down fatigue is important, but the problem is that almost the same things that bring down fatigue also tend to bring down fitness. If JUST brining down fatigue was our concern, we’d just be able to take it easy and not train for 3 weeks before the meet! The good news is that we know that fitness can be kept high or even elevated through two ways:

  • 1.) Intensity conserves fitness better than volume. High intensity AND high volumes are needed to get stronger, but a lot of strength can be maintained with even very low volumes if intensity is kept high. Thus we cut volume first in our taper, and only cut intensity later. This conserves the maximal amount of strength while still allowing our fatigue to be reduced.

  • 2.) Intentional overreaching can be used to actually elevate fitness (strength in our case) during the course of a taper. By training harder than what is normally sustainable right before the taper in volumes and intensities begins, we can set into motion a “supercompensation” effect of training that allows adaptations to be expressed weeks after the hard training bout itself. Thus by training with crazy volumes and intensities in the week before the volume drop begins, fitness (strength) can actually reach its peak close to the meet itself. Combined with the drop in fatigue from the taper, intentional overreaching is a powerful tool for preparedness enhancement. Normally, this would be done by doubling the volume of work in the week before the volume reduction. For example, if a normal deadlift workout is 3 sets of heavy deads at 85% max, then the overreaching workout can be up to 6 sets of deads, at a similar intensity or even higher.

Enhancing Specificity:

  • Specificity enhancement allows us to further elevate our preparedness. Not generally, but exactly for the powerlifting meet itself. Nobody at the meet cares how well your overhead press is going (much to my chagrin, as it’s by far my best lift), and nobody cares how much you squatted for 5s (again, to my continual disappointment). What matters is the specific ability to perform THE powerlifts, and for a 1rm. Thus, training during the taper should reflect both demands, in three distinct ways:

  • 1.) First, the bulk of your training during the taper should be composed of the lifts themselves. All setups need to be competition-based techniques in the final weeks. If you squat sumo in competition, this is no time for close-stance squat work. “Train how you compete” applies here big time. Paused benches, squats to regulation depth, and fully-reset deadlifts are key. This also means wearing your PL belt, wrist wraps, knee wraps, and using chalk, just the same as in your meet. When volume begins to get cut during the taper, most of the early cuts are from the assistance moves, precisely to enhance training specificity.  Toward the end of your taper, the last training sessions are pretty much JUST the big 3 competition lifts and nothing, or almost nothing else.

  • 2.) General strength is the basis for your 1rm, but when the meet gets close, it’s time to start practicing for the game, so to speak. There are important physiological, psychological, and technical differences between 3-5rm weights and truly limit 1rm weights. In order to be the best on meet day, you must practice with super heavy weights for the very lowest reps. This means that during your overreach and during your volume taper, the weights on the bar must be heavy enough to be a stimulus in the 1-3 rep range. This is the time to for triples, doubles, and singles in your training. Because volume gets cut incrementally through the taper and intensity is conserved as highly as possible (intensity being weight on the bar), sets of 1-3 reps are the norm through most of the taper itself. The only things that change are the number of sets and the weight on the bar.

  • 3.) A more minor concern of specificity, but important nonetheless, is the maintenance of “maximal intent to move” through the entire taper. Move that bar with as much force as you can for all working weights (heavy or not), and you’ll enhance specificity as well as keep fitness elevated. Forceful movements not only allow you to practice the specific technique of PL competition, but also conserve more strength by allowing your nervous system and faster-twitch muscle fibers more stimulation.



Ok so we’ve learned some cool stuff, now let’s look at applying it to the real world. Let’s take three examples of the meet prep of power lifters that train 4x a week (for simplicity) with two lower body days and two upper body days. We’ll use our 308lb Elite lifter first, then our 198lb master-class lifter, and finally our 97lb beginner:

Elite 308lb Lifter:

From the above peaking routine for a 308lb elite lifter, you may notice several things:

– All training except for some of the early assistance work occurs in the 3 rep range. This is not a golden rule, as doubles and even some singles (in the highest intensity week particularly) are quite ok to use as well. I’ll stick to 3’s here because they work well and just to keep things constant.

– The overreaching phase occurs VERY far out from the meet, a whole 4 weeks.

– The overreaching phase has a TON of sets (8 total work sets of squats on Monday, for example) and all of the sets are very heavy. This will be the toughest training you’ll do all meet prep long.

– Volume is cut DRASTICALLY 3 weeks out, as it contributes heavily to fatigue. Intensity is still high. This week will be very tough, as you are being asked to lift the heaviest weights of the meet prep while under the highest levels of cumulative fatigue. Make sure your technique is excellent and you give it as much effort as you must to complete the reps.

– The last heavy deadlift occurs 2.5 weeks out, the last moderate-heavy squat occurs 2 weeks out, and the last heavy bench occurs about 1.5 weeks out… a good start for many lifters of this size and caliber. Some lifters will need more or less time for each lift to drop fatigue but retain fitness. A one-week window in each direction will cover most lifers.

– Two weeks out begins the volume AND intensity cut. This week will still present some weights that feel a bit heavy (especially in the overreached state), but the set numbers are so low that homeostasis is hardly disturbed. You’ll drop a lot of fatigue this week. Notice that the assistance moves have been cut almost completely. The muscle built and maintained by them hangs in for weeks after you stop training them (just with training the competition lifts), so you won’t lose any strength, but your fatigue drops profoundly.

– By the start of the last week, you’re gonna feel pretty good. The last week still has SOME training in it, because light training (vs. total rest) drops MORE fatigue, keeps your connective tissues more limber and preserves better technique.  By the end of this week, you’ll be completely healed and ready to break things and hurt people… exactly where you’re supposed to be before a powerlifting meet!


Master-Class 198lb Lifter:

Some differences to consider for this lifter vs. the 308er in the first example:

– The whole taper only takes 3 weeks vs. 4. Because of the lighter weights and lower volumes employed, smaller and less strong lifters usually don’t need as long of a taper. This means they can train to get stronger for one extra week before the taper begins, so it’s not a bad thing. Your favorite lifters may all do 4 week tapers, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for you at your current level of development.

– You’ll notice that the second week out and even the final week have some relatively heavier weights (especially early in the final week) than the 308lber was lifting. This is because the 198lber will drop fatigue faster, and can afford to keep a bit more fitness-stimulus in later with the heavier weights.


Novice 97lb Lifter:

Some differences to consider for this lifter vs. the 198er in the second example:

– Just a two week taper here. Smaller, less experienced and less strong lifters need less time to drop fatigue and peak, and REALLY small and relatively less strong lifters barely need a taper at all! Tapering must be personalized to the individual. Just because Andrey Malanichev stops heavy deadlifts 4 weeks out doesn’t meet a 95lb girl doing her first meet has to!

– You’ll notice that everything here is condensed. The overreach is only the first part of the second to last week, as volume begins to drop in the second half of the week. The last week is actually still quite heavy, as the recovery of smaller and less strong lifters is so powerful relative to their ability to disrupt homeostasis (cause cumulative fatigue), that mostly volume reductions are all it takes to peak. If you taper these lifters for too long, they just end up undertraining and get weaker! For smaller, less strong and experience lifters, the taper for a meet may end up actually looking much like a standard deload week for most lifters.

– The final workouts are not as light (relatively) as they would be for the stronger lifters, but this is still quite easy to recover from. You’ll also notice that the final training is done closer to the competition date… for the same reason as the above… not training novice lifters for too long can lead to more rapid fitness declines than for stronger, heavier, more experienced lifters.


A quick summary of the main recommendations in this article:

1.) Choose the right taper length based on the strength, size, and experience of the athlete.

2.) Train mostly for sets of 1-3 in the entire peaking phase, choose the competition lifts as your program core.

3.) Overreach by doubling training volume for one week before the taper begins.

4.) Taper by first reducing volume (number of sets), then reducing both volume and intensity (sets and weight on the bar).

5.) Cut volume by reducing the assistance moves first, then then main moves.

6.) Train very light during the beginning of the last week. This is even better than total rest.

This article only speaks in depth about the training-mediated ways to taper. Nutrition, supplementation, and lifestyle are also big concerns. Tapering changes when more or less food is eaten, when sports supplements are taken or avoided, and when lifestyle factors promote recovery or alternatively cause more stress. These factors are always going to play a role, so please consider them.

The above examples give a sort of maximum-medium-minimum view of the tapering process. Almost every reader of this article will be somewhere between the 97lb female beginner and the 308lb elite powerlifter. Individualization is very important to a proper program and certainly to a proper taper. The good news is that you have a cheat sheet to make your taper even better than any recommendation I give: YOURSELF!

By noting how you respond to volumes, intensities and tapers of various lengths and magnitudes, you can fine-tune your own tapering process over the course of several meets. But remember: bigger, stronger, and more experienced lifters need more profound tapers. So as you get more of all three of those things, make sure you make the adjustments needed BEFORE your next meet, because after is too late. Use the principles in this article to your advantage, and may the force (literally, the one you put into the barbell to move it) be with you!

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