Written by Dr. Mike Israetel
As a sport, powerlifting is perhaps one of the simplest. Only weightlifting, with its two lifts over 6 attempts can compete with the utter simplicity of Powerlifting’s 3 lifts and 9 attempts. Granted that the weightlifting movements (Snatch, Clean and Jerk) are much more complex than the powerlifts, powerlifting as a whole is likely even simpler than weightlifting and perhaps one of the most straightforward sports EVER.
How straightforward is it? Well, just about the only goal in powerlifting is to get as strong as possible. The technique needed to be proficient at the lifts is brutally simple, and is very stable after just a couple of months of training.
Powerlifting is about getting bigger muscles, making those big muscles strong, and showing that strength off in a meet. If a part of your training is not in some pretty direct way addressing one of those demands, then you might have some extra fluff in your training. Extra fluff in powerlifting training? No way, you say!
Yes way, and it’s gotten bad enough for me to write an article about!
The Biggest Problem with Fluff
In my classes I often go over the fundamental training principles. Concepts most of us are familiar with, such as Specificity, Overload, and Variation. A less well known principle, which is known by many names but I term “Stimulus-Recovery-Adaptation (SRA),” is of central importance in the discussion of fluff in powerlifting. The SRA principle merely states two very heavily confirmed observations:
1.) Training stimulates adaptation, but gains themselves are made during recovery (mostly during rest or very light training).
2.) Training during the recovery period has been shown to interfere with adaptations stimulated by earlier heavy training.
It is the SRA principle that presents the biggest problem for fluff. One of the most common “last lines of defense” for fluff training is to say “well, it doesn’t hurt, and if it helps just a little, it’s worth it!”
FALSE. Fluff training not only does nothing or close to it to help gains, but there is very good reason to believe it might actually INTERFERE with gains by presenting yet another stimulus when you’re supposed to be recovering!!! AHHH!!!!!
The Top Offenders
Ok, so I’m worked up about fluff training and there seem to be some theoretical underpinnings as to its drawbacks. But powerlifters don’t really do that much fluff training, do they? Well, they do… and here’s a list of the top offenders in fluff training for RAW Powerlifting. This is a list I generated sort of on the spot, so please feel free to add in the comments! Here we go:
Lat and Rear Delt Work for the Raw Bench
While the lats and rear delts are absolutely critical to develop for a big equipped bench, they are close to useless for a big raw bench. Why? Because they help the equipped bench presser pull the bar DOWN into the shirt, which means a gnarlier shirt can be used, and more carryover can be generated. But for a raw powerlifter, what good are super-developed rear delts and lats? Well, let’s see… how many raw guys do you know that have trouble bringing a loaded bar down to their chests? I’ll wait.
What makes bigger benches? GIANT pecs, MASSIVE front delts, and CRAZY triceps. Those are the muscles that PUSH the barbell from your chest to lockout. They are the only ones that provide the major forces needed for the movement to occur, and this fact has been confirmed by multiple formal studies on the matter. If you want a big bench, focus on strict flyes with the 80s and skull crushers with 185lbs… not how much you can cable face-pull.
Lat Work for the Deadlift
It seems that powerlifters love the lats so much that they just can’t leave them alone no matter how little they have to do with the sport. What’s next guys, calves and biceps for meet prep?
This needless obsession with the lats makes them double-offenders on this list. In this case, it’s for the deadlift. For some reason still alien to me, powerlifters think that big, strong lats result in a big, strong deadlifts. While the lats have some important stabilization function in the deadlift, they are by no means prime movers. Heck, they don’t even cross the hip joint and hardly help the spine stay upright (the spinal erectors do that).
You wanna pull big? Get the strongest hamstrings, glutes, and spinal erectors you can. THOSE are the muscles that determine deadlift strength. The lats should be worked, yes, but not with the hopes that they will up your deadlift to the extreme. I know I’m gonna get a lot of shit for this one. Bring it on.
A lot of powerlifters LOVE Kettlebells. And the rationalizations are as expansive as the love itself. Kettlebells supposedly help recovery, mobility, power, strength and solve world hunger too.
But there is a dirty little secret about the Kettlebell. It was actually out-competed and replaced by another invention about a century ago. That invention is called THE BARBELL. That’s right, the Kettlebell is a quirky Russian weight training tool that predates the barbell, and is inferior to its more advanced rival in almost every way. When Kettlebells made a comeback to the trendy training scene in the late 90s, this made them the king hipsters of training, which is possibly even worse than them not having any effect on results. “Barbells are soooo corporate! I train with Kettlebells and I was already training with them BEFORE IT WAS COOL.”
Whatever you think Kettlebells do well, barbells and dumbbells almost certainly do better. And whatever Kettlebells do better than barbells has almost certainly nothing to do with powerlifting. Do Kettlebells make you more muscular, stronger, or better at the lifts than barbells? Exactly.
Kettlebells can be good for light recovery work, but here again the barbell is an improvement. If you train with Kettlebells for light work, you’re speeding along recovery, but you’re learning a new movement too. If you use a barbell and do the powerlifts for light work, you not only recover but improve your technique on the competition lifts! Win-win!
Go away, Kettlebell, and take your PBR and flannel shirt with you.
Band Work for Triceps
People started doing band pushdowns or pull-aparts for triceps as a finishing move to set the final stimulus in place after a tough pushing workout. And that’s totally cool. But nowadays, it seems like some people are doing whole triceps workouts with these things!
What builds big, strong triceps? Dips, close grip benches, French presses and skull crushers of various kinds. The big, heavy, nasty compound basics that provide lots of homeostatic disruption, muscle damage, soreness, and GROWTH! That’s how dad did it, that’s how grandma did it.
But what’s the benefit of doing band work for triceps? Other than doing it on occasion for a new stimulus, it’s only guaranteed to help in one way: it’s far easier than compound heavy triceps work that actually helps you. So, next time you’re at the gym and it’s triceps time… do yourself a favor and do a whole workout of band pushdowns and pull-aparts. You don’t really need big, strong triceps anyway, right? And you’ve had a tough week. Just finish the workout nice and easy, and go home to some delicious post-workout food. You deserve it.
Warmups Gone Too Far
Warming up is a very important part of the training process. Its gets your body ready to perform, as well as enhances the safety of the movement being performed, especially if that movement is going to be heavy.
The warmup process actually has two distinct components. The first part of the warmup is the physical warming of the involved tissues, which results in higher bloodflow and muscle and tendon pliability and flexibility. The second part is the neural warmup (aka potentiation), which wakes up the nervous systems responsible for allowing you to lift heavy, and getting them fully online.
For the first part of the warmup, higher reps with light weight work best, because they enhance bloodflow but don’t cause too much fatigue. For the second part of the warmup, heavy weights are needed to get the nervous system used to them, but the reps must be low to prevent too much fatigue from accumulating and leading to crappy workouts.
So when warming up for a 4×8 squat with 405lbs, your sets and reps might look something like this:
Not rocket science, so what the hell am I even getting at? Well, some lifters in the powerlifting community seemed to have missed the whole idea that lots of reps at heavy weights lead to fatigue which can hurt your workout. Thus, we’ll occasionally see some warmup schemes like this:
I’m still not exactly sure why some people find the need to keep all sets to whatever reps they do that day. And I’m not sure what on earth the purpose is of doing 315 and 365 for 8 reps each is. It’s not enough weight to cause maximum strength or size gains, but it’s enough weight to be fatiguing and give you less energy for your ACTUAL WORKOUT. If you can breeze through 405 for 4×8 with the added fatigue of 315×8 and 365×8 you’re likely to be able to do 425 for 4×8 if you just stick to a couple reps with 315 and 365 each, and be that much better off for it. The heavier you can go in training, all other things being equal, the better the results will be for strength development. So please, stop shooting yourself in the foot and confusing your warmup for your workout. Get your warmup done in the most effective and least fatiguing way possible, and save your energy for the heavy work that actually makes you better.
For some special cases, mobility work is a very good thing. But for most people, it’s a total waste of time. Why do Olympic Weightlifters do so little (most none) mobility work? Cause they train through a full range of motion! What’s the best mobility work for a full squat? DOING FULL SQUATS. Can’t break depth reliably on your squat? GO DEEPER. It’s not rocket science. You’re a powerlifter, not a gymnast. Most 70 year olds have the requisite flexibility for our sport, people. Focus on doing the lifts through a full ROM with good technique, and do deep high bar squats and stiff-legged deadlifts for lower-body mobility work that ALSO gets you strong, and save the pulleys and contraptions for your dominatrix.
Back to What Works
Becuase of the SRA principle, powerlifting is split into the session-rest-session paradigm. Come in, hit it hard, and then recover so you can hit it even harder next time. Your recovery capacity is limited, so when you chose the movements to train, choose only the ones that make you big, strong, and good at the lifts. And guess what? That means 90% or more of your training will consist of the powerlifts and their close derivatives. Getting better at Powerlifting means doing the hardcore shit because… I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news… Powerlifting is a hardcore sport. You had to find out somehow.
Born in Moscow, Russia, Mike Israetel is a professor of Exercise Science at the University of Central Missouri. Additionally, he is a competitive powerlifter and bodybuilder, and has been the head sport nutrition consultant to the US Olympic training site in Johnson City, TN. Mike is currently the head science consultant for Renaissance Periodization, and the Author of “The Renaissance Diet.”