Written by Chad Wesley Smith
If you are a competitive athlete, what is the purpose of training? To improve your competition result.
Training is not for showing off, it is not necessarily for PRs, and it isn’t where your best performances should be happening. Training is the time to build your general and specific qualities that you will then test and express in competition. So with that in mind, the measure of a great training plan shouldn’t be how many PRs you produce within the training process, but rather how well it helps you perform on the competition platform (or mat or field or court).
For me, the process of building my lifts in training and successfully testing them on the platform is based on four primary factors: 1) training in a relatively fatigued state; 2) using exercise variations and accessory work correctly; 3) making lifts and building confidence; 4) approaching training with a calm and focused attitude.
Training in a Relatively Fatigued State
I am not concerned with setting all-time PRs in the course of training; I’m concerned with my training setting me up for all-time PRs in competition. Achieving this means that I’m performing relatively high workloads during the course of a week, workloads that will induce fatigue and, with proper recovery, will improve my fitness. It is this fitness-fatigue relationship that is critical to manage to maximize meet day performance. These levels of fitness and fatigue will vary throughout the course of the training cycle, but the important thing to understand is that you aren’t always going to feel good for training. You aren’t always going to be ready to set lifetime PRs, and having those feelings doesn’t mean that you’re overtraining – it just means you’re working hard, which is what has to happen for improved performance.
Learn more about programming for maximum performance in A Complete Guide To Putting Your PRs on the Platform, Peaking for Powerlifting, and Periodization for Powerlifting-The Definite Guide.
Using Exercise Variations and Accessory Work Correctly
When you’re selecting and performing exercise variations and accessory work, you need to constantly keep the question “How is this helping build my competitive lifts?” in your mind. If you can’t come up with a good answer to that question, you need to re-examine why you’re doing that exercise or why you’re doing it in that manner.
Exercise variations and accessory work’s role is to build the competitive lift. That means you need to strategically select them to build your specific weak points, and you need to perform the exercises in a manner to strengthen those areas without detracting from your energy to train for/recover from your primary work. Strategically selecting the exercises will mean that you have a good understanding of where you’re missing a lift, why you’re missing it, and which exercises can best be used to address that area (but that’s a topic for another article). The manner in which you perform these lifts is critical, because striving for PRs in things beside the competitive lift can actually be a negative for a more qualified lifter. Within the context of a meet training cycle (8-12 weeks leading up to a meet), you need to prioritize your work more and more toward the competitive lifts and make sure you’re using your other work to build them up. Doing this means that you’ll use exercise variations for primarily submaximal work in sets of 2-8 reps to build the specific musculature needed to improve your technique in the competitive lifts; that accessory work will be done for sets of 6-15 to further build hypertrophy there. I would encourage you to always leave 1-2 reps in the tank on exercise variations and accessory work, but the occasional burnout set on small exercises is fine.
Making Lifts and Building Confidence
Missing lifts doesn’t build strength; making them does. If you go an entire training cycle and make every single lift, what are you thinking when you get under the bar? That you’re going to make it, because that is all you know how to do.
It is imperative that you are smartly choosing your training weights so that you’re making lifts, building strength, and – equally important – building confidence. True maximal lifts, 100%, 10 RPE are the most stressful lifts to your body and nervous system; they are also the most likely to cause technical breakdown and chance of injury. Once you are experienced enough to know what it truly feels like to push to 100% or 10RPE and succeed, it isn’t something that you’ll need to include very frequently in your training. Conversely, if you are less experienced and haven’t felt this as much, you need to learn how to do it. This still won’t be an every-session thing or an every-week kind of thing, but you’ll need to do it every few weeks until you feel more comfortable with that strain.
Creating multiple ways to PR is a great way to build confidence as a lifter. You can PR by weight on the bar, number of reps, or quality of work being done. I’m sure you have weight and rep PRs, but understanding that doing the same weight and reps for more powerful, technically sound reps is also a way to indicate progress.
I am an advocate of taking 10 pounds off the bar and racking a weight 1 rep early to help save the lifter’s body and build confidence. If your PR is 380×3 in the squat, what is the difference in stimulus between doing 390×3 and 400×3? Probably pretty negligible, but the stress difference between doing 390×3 at a 9 RPE and 400×3 at a 10 RPE could be pretty significant as it relates to your recovery and performance in subsequent training sessions.
Training sessions do not exist within a vacuum, so your squats on Monday will have an impact on your bench training the next day and your deadlift training the day after (or however you organize your training). Having an understanding of this means that maybe going for absolute maximal effort and PRs every session isn’t in your best interest, because for every high you have in your training (high arousal, high stress, high intensity), there is likely to be a low that follows it. So while having high stress training is important, you have to consider all your training within the context of a bigger plan. Racking the bar 1 rep early on a max-reps set or taking 10 pounds off the bar can allow you to still have great, quality training while slightly reducing the stress and impact one session has on the next.
Doing this also helps me build confidence. When I can walk away from a set telling myself I had 10 more pounds or 2 more reps, it is a great feeling. For example, in September, I squatted what was a huge beltless PR of 705×3. I know that day I was capable of doing that weight for at least 4, probably 5 reps; but had I gone for a 4th rep, I could have found that I was only capable of 3 reps or that 4 was the absolute most I could have done. Walking away from that session telling myself that I’m good for 705×5 is a much more powerful, positive, confidence-boosting idea than knowing that 705×3 was the best I had, in the chance that I missed the 4th rep.
This PR set was a big confidence builder for me, in addition to being a strength builder:
Approaching Training with a Calm and Focused Attitude
Calm yourself down in training, and 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.
Hopefully these four tips will help you take a step back and critically think about what you’re doing in training and why you’re doing it. The best powerlifter, weightlifter, strongman, etc., is not the person with the coolest training videos and most likes; it is the person who performs the best in competition. Taking these four steps will help ensure you are building your lifts rather than constantly testing them without seeing results.
Why do people always say things like, “Of course his technique broke down, it’s a max lift” or “nobody’s technique looks perfect on a 1rm”?
“Good” technique is good not because it looks nice, but because it is the technique that produces the best result. Keeping that in mind, a max lift with a technical breakdown is not truly a maximal lift; if more efficient (aka, better) technique was used, you would have lifted more. Now of course, these technical breakdowns will occur, but don’t excuse them as just what happens when you do a 1rm. Rather, understand that whatever broke down is a weakness that needs to be addressed through strategically selected exercise variations and assistance work.
Practicing in the ranges where these technical breakdowns occur will not correct them; rather, it will just further ingrain them. To correct them, you need to find the weights that break down your technique (and I’m talking about a true breakdown, not your knee caving in 1/8 of an inch), and then do volumes of work at 65-85% of that weight with your perfect technique. (I say “your perfect” because we are built differently, and there isn’t a universal best technique. If there was, we would all do it.) Build up the strength to express your perfect technique on heavier and heavier weights. Then compliment that training with the accessory work that is right for you.
The best technique is the best because it allows you to most efficiently express your strength. Don’t become complacent in allowing technical flaws to limit your potential.
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