As with the last article, I'm going to start broad and work in. If you are a true beginner or someone who just lifts weights but wants to give the competing a go, the first thing you MUST do is compete. Right now, go sign up for a local meet and come back to this article later… Getting over the anxiety of competition as well as having a date set in place, and gives you something to structure training around (not that you need one, but it helps). There are tonnes of good articles/videos on how to prep for your first meet, here are a couple.
1. JTS' Video Guide
2. Strong First's write up
One thing that a lot of people overlook is having a handler on the day. Ideally someone with handling experience. If that isn't an option, just bring a friend and get them to find out when you've to be places, and who to give your attempts to.
I also like setting goals, especially for first comps. So, here's what I'd recommend to pretty much anyone going into their first comp.
1. Make 9/9 lift attempts
2. Talk to 3 new people.
3. Have fun.
For your first competition, making 9/9 is perfectly achievable. I do not encourage going for new personal bests on your first outing, since the added factor of weighing in, lifting to commands, even wearing a singlet, can throw you off your game. You are here for the experience, and having as few stressors as possible should make it a positive one.
The second goal might throw a few people off, I tend to make a point of chatting in some form to some new people every comp. It's good to get to know folk in the community, and you never know what you might learn.
The main thing we get from the comp is an official competition total, and you can do a needs analysis for your future training. That being where you look at your performance, and rate what you did well and what you need to improve. The former of those is very important, far too many beginners are super critical of themselves.
Let's assume you achieved all 3 of those goals, what follows is a needs analysis to help guide your training objectives to help you improve. I normally rank the aspects of where people fail in order of importance and ease of improvement.
Mental may seem out of place, but the other two generally help overcome most mental issues with regards to competition. Let's breakdown what constitutes each of these.
Technical: Any breakdown in lifting technique, determined not be muscular in nature. A failure of obeying the commands/rules of the sports. Or poor execution of form.
Physical: Muscular weakness causing a breakdown in optimal technique. This doesn't need to cause a failed lift to be an issue.
Mental: A failure to rationalise any anxiety associated with a specific lift, or an undue increase in comp day stress from worrying about uncontrollable variables.
From these, identify what you need to work on. They can then be planning factors in your future training. For example, if you looked at your squat and determined you have a muscular quad weakness, causing a hip shift out of the hole. Then planning some quad focused hypertrophy training cycles would be ideal.
How to plan training:
Normally beginners should be working towards optimal body composition for the most part. One, because beginners don't have substantial amounts of muscle. So, gaining a whole bunch of that is a great step to getting strong. On the other side of the coin, if you're carrying somewhere above 16% bodyfat for males and 26% for females. You should be focusing on dropping that.
Training wise, both of those mean volume. So, going for ideally 3 months and no more of volume training. As a beginner worrying about proximity of competition is irrelevant, you're too weak to merit a peak and should just focus on building a base.
So, volume training with the goal of gaining muscle, or maintaining muscle whilst dieting for fat loss or body recomposition.
Some terms to define,
MAV: Minimum adaptive volume. The least amount of working sets per muscle group you can do in a week and get better.
MRV: Maximum recoverable volume. The most amount of working sets per muscle group you can do in a week and manage to recover/survive, and train again the next week.
MV: Maintenance volume. The amount of working sets per muscle group you can do in a week and not get worse.
Working Set: Any set of resistance training that's around or over 60% of your 1 rep max.
X/Fail: X being a number. This represents the number of reps you should aim to be from TECHNICAL failure.
Technical Failure: Significant breakdown/compromise in lifting form.
With those terms defined, let's dive into some training planning. First off, how many days a week WILL you train? Not how many you'd like to, or how many you think would be optimal. How many do you know you can and will show up to? That is the real question.
As a beginner, you will make strides pretty much just looking at weights. You are in such a state of untrained, pretty much anything is an effective stimulus.
So, let's just make a safe assumption and say 4 days a week. Could you do it with less? Yes, would more training work better? Yes, to an extent. That isn't our concern right now, 4 days/week is plenty for a beginner.
For ease, let's assume you're training Monday/Tuesday/Thursday/Friday. You could train on another arrangement of days, the only thing to make sure is to minimise back to back days with zero rest in between.
With hypertrophy being our goal, the aim is to stimulate some muscle growth. Typically, you do that with sets of 8-15 reps, slightly dependant on body part trained. How many sets should you do? Let's refer to our terms from earlier. We want to start training around about our MAV. How do you know what that is?! As a beginner, you won't. A good guide is as many work sets in a week to get slightly sore. Again, as a beginner it will not be very much.
With that in mind, let's start small and aim for 8 sets per muscle group for the week. How do you decide what to do and on what day? A general rule, is to try and get 60% of your work sets done on a main lift, or close variant. 30% done on a further removed variant, and the last 10% on something another step removed.
For example, 8 sets of quads a week may look like
Monday: 5 sets of high bar squats (Main work)
Thursday: 1 sets of lunges (2 steps removed)
Friday: 2 sets of Leg press (1 step removed)
Why split it A-symmetrically? It fits better into planning, and keeping a large amount of your work, close enough to your competition lift (Squat) whilst keeping it varied enough not to cause issues with adaptive resistance later. It also lines up with your ability to recover, giving you a big dose early in the week. Followed by keeping things ticking over, then something reasonable. You don't need to be 100% fresh to do the leg extensions or lunges, but they cause enough disruption to keep things adapting.
With that said, what other muscle groups should be in our plan?
Let's go for:
Shoulders (all 3 heads)
With 8 sets each to train, we can start putting it all together. Making sure to count them if they are significantly involved in other movements. So, our week 1 might look like:
5 sets of Hi bar squats (quads)
2 sets of Dumbbell Bench (chest, shoulders, triceps)
2 sets of Dumbbell Rows (lats, shoulders, biceps)
2 sets of lateral delt raise
5 sets of Bench Press (chest, shoulders, triceps)
2 sets of Romanian Deadlifts (hamstrings)
2 sets of chin ups (lats, biceps)
2 sets of Lateral Delt raise (shoulders)
2 sets of lunges (quads)
2 sets of barbell rows (lats, biceps)
2 sets of lateral delt raise (soulders)
1 set of dips (chest, shoulders, triceps)
5 sets of deficit deadlifts/RDLs (hamstrings)
2 sets of chin ups (lats, biceps)
2 sets of Lateral delt raise
1 sets of leg extensions (quads)
You may notice there are a lot of shoulder moves in this. That's because the medial shoulder gets little stimulus from pressing and rowing. So, we added in specific isolation work for it. There is also no reps or weights recommended, we'll get into that now
If you are a beginner, building a solid base of muscle should be priority number 1. To that end, I'm going on as if you will be running as much consecutive volume as possible, namely 12 weeks, in 4-week blocks. With that in mind, and in the interest of variation, I like to use rep focuses of 12/10/8 respectively for the 3 back to back months of training.
So, month 1 the goal on every set of every exercise is 12 reps, month 2 is 10, month 3 is 8.
Awesome, how much weight do you use? We will determine that using a proximity to technical failure. Sometime this is annotated as RPE (Rate of perceived exertion) or RIR (reps in reserve). It boils down to how many reps you think you have left, before you can't do anymore. With the caveat that form isn't compromised.
Normally going from 3/Fail up to 1/Fail in the last week before deload. So, block 1 would look like
Week 1: 12 reps@ 3/Fail 10-12 Work sets
Week 2: 12 reps@ 3/Fail 12-14 Work sets
Week 3: 12 reps@ 2/Fail 14-16 Work sets
Week 4: 12 reps@ 1/Fail 18+ Work sets
Week 5 (Deload) 6 reps@ Week 1 weights. 6-8 Work sets
For subsequent blocks, you would just repeat the process. Changing up a few exercises and changing the rep goal to the next one down. You may have spotted already, that the combination of rep goal + X/Fail, will dictate the weight used. Since you must achieve both, 12 reps that aren't 3/Fail for example, won't count and you'll have to up the weight until it meets the proximity to failure. Similarly, as you go into the next block the lower rep goal will cause weights used to be heavier by default, since you can lift more weight for 10 than you can for 12.
With training covered, let's get into the other side of the coin, diet. As a beginner, it's the ideal time to work towards optimal body composition. You aren't good enough for it to affect your competition calendar or cause any serious competitive anxiety from any minor performance loss. That may sound harsh, but honestly if you can get this done now it will pay off ENORMOUSLY later.
Time for some more hurt feels. If you are over 15% bodyfat for guys, 25% for ladies, it's time to get cutting. Volume is the optimal time to get it done, the training is the most intensive on kcals, and it's far out of any competitive preparation where altering body comp could affect skill acquisition. Measure this number with calipers, do the largest number of sites you can find a calculator for, and do each site 3 times and take an average. Scales that you stand on are not accurate for measuring bf%. Obviously if you have a bod pod or DEXA scan available to you, use that.
Cutting- Aim to lose ~0.5kg of bodyweight a week. This number will vary depending on your weight. If your start weight is lower [sub 55kg for example], this number will come down. If it is higher [100kg+] it will go up.
Gaining- Similarly, but upward trending. Mainly track your kcals and protein intake, since you'll be pounding the other 2 just to make up the kcals.
To hammer the point home, it is much easier to adjust body composition early on. You're fresh to training, so stimulating adaptation will be super easy (nooby gains). It's much less likely you'll get fatter when gaining muscle if you start leaner. The entire end goal of powerlifting physiology is to have as much muscle on your bones whilst still in/slightly above your weight class as possible, so starting that way is a good idea. It sucks WAY more to have to take extended periods out of competition or realise that your main avenue for more progress is body recomposition when you're already established as a competitor. It's well worth doing early, that way any course correcting that needs to occur later will be minor at best.
Diet wise, whether you're going up or down. Track multiple variables, and factor in error margins. Keep track of visual landmarks, how many abs can you see? How vascular are you? Rather than doing a full bf test every month, just keep track of 1 or 2 sites you can easily measure yourself. Weight is the main one, track weight ideally 3 times a week. Measure it in the morning after WC use. If you are not moving in the direction you want, add/subtract another ~200kcal from the equation. Give it a week, see how the measurements come out. Similarly, to training you can't blast the same thing for months on end. 3 months is pretty much the upper limit I would recommend for either gaining or cutting. Followed by a maintenance phase at whatever new weight you are at. 3 months isn't mandatory, the ideal time is to stop juuuuust before you start going a bit stir crazy. You want to test out the limits of your willpower, not break it. It will break, everyone's does eventually. Funnily enough, the more practice and experience you have with it, the better yours will last.
Hopefully this has given you at the very least some direction of what to aim for and start looking to do with your training for powerlifting. We'll now delve into some FAQs, as always please leave all inflammatory remarks in the comments or @atsapproved on social media.
-Why so much volume?
Because, the level of homeostatic disruption (severity of training stress) is proportional to the adaption. So, the bigger the stress the bigger the gains. Obviously applied strategically, why would you not?
-Why deload so often?
On the back of the last answer, because it balances out the fact you'll be searching for your upper threshold of recoverable training. At some point you will find and exceed it, meaning that you won't be able to progressively train in the following week. So, it's convenient that the following week will be a deload anyway. Where you don't need to worry about progressive training performance.
-Something about fat shaming
Look, you're reading this because you want to get better at powerlifting. In a "sport" with almost 0 athletic application, there's really no reason not to be in shape if being competitive is your goal. Even in the super heavy classes for both genders, the goal is the same. As much muscle, as strong as possible.
Without weight class restrictions, you can get as fat as you like. But don't kid yourself, you don't 'need' to be that fat. Fat doesn't contract, it doesn't help you shift more Kgs. Do as you please, but don't be annoyed at objective assessments of sport performance.
-When do I do 5x5?
Generic programmes will work, for a fair amount of people. But the application is limited. The general idea behind dedicated volume training for powerlifting is
1. Having more muscle is a straightforward way to be stronger.
2. You can't train the competition lifts with zero variance, in the same rep ranges, all the time. (So, using more varied movements in your hypertrophy block, kills both those birds with one stone.)
3. The higher stress of the training lends itself better to body comp changing goals, which funnily enough should be done as far out of competition as possible. Similarly, to hypertrophy training, being the least specific to your competition, should be done as far out as plannable.