One thing I believe above all others is that if you want to be successful in powerlifting you need longevity. To get to your peak you need to train consistently for a long time. There are some exceptions to this of course, you’ll see the occasional lifter who blows up very quickly and reaches the pinnacle of the sport within a couple years. If you’re one of those rare athletes, congratulations, and if you’re not sure if that’s you…. it’s not. That being said, the very best lifters almost universally have long careers. A decade or more is not uncommon. You can’t expect to train for one or two (or even four or five) years and reach the peak of your physical potential.
Despite this, relatively few lifters manage careers long enough to accomplish this and, in my experience, there are two major culprits: injury and burnout.
Even a minor injury can limit training for months and in extreme cases an injury can be so bad that a full recovery isn’t possible, and the athlete is forced to cut their career short.
Burnout can be a little more complicated. Over 10+ year period every lifter is going to come up on lifestyle changes and in some cases the requirements of prioritizing work or family mean stepping away from lifting seriously. There’s no training fix in this situation. However, in other cases a lifter’s training will plateau, they may be working hard but they aren’t getting anything in return. Even the most stubborn athlete will eventually get discouraged if they put in months and years of effort with nothing to show for it. Sometimes this plateau goes hand in hand with injury, other times the training itself just isn’t very effective for what the athlete needs.
I think these kinds of plateaus can be mitigated by the judicious application of a transitional phase of training, or “off season”. This phase can last anywhere from several weeks to several months depending on the needs of the athlete but regardless of the timeframe the goal is to get the athlete’s body to a “trainable state”. In this condition a lifter’s body is healthy, moves well and responds strongly to training stimulus. What that means is you can begin a more conventional powerlifting plan and reap the biggest rewards, your body will respond positively to the workouts, you’ll thrive from session to session and pile on strength at an alarming rate.
A lot of times a great training cycle has as much to do with the quality of the athlete’s body heading into the cycle as the specifics of the training itself. Our goal with this training block is to get ourselves to that point.
So how do we set this up?
I like to use a variation of the performance pyramid by Gray Cook (with some slight adjustments to make it more relevant to powerlifting) as a model for structuring training during this phase.
For our purposes the pyramid is divided into 3 tiers. The bottom tier represents functional movement and symbolizes your movement quality, in other words your mobility, balance and coordination. Ideally you should be able to move through basic patterns like lunging, squatting, pressing and stepping effectively and without compensation.
The second tier is functional performance which looks at general athleticism; your strength, power and endurance in fundamental movement patterns that lay the groundwork for the powerlifts
The final tier is skill. In powerlifting this is very straightforward, we are looking at your ability to squat, bench press and deadlift. Most programs focus on the development of this tier to the exclusion of the bottom two, overtime this can lead to an unbalanced pyramid that puts you at an increased risk of injury or stagnation.
Instead, we want to use this offseason phase of training to develop the bottom two tiers and create the strong foundation of an optimal pyramid so when you return to more conventional training you can excel.
Tier One Drills
The emphasis of these drills is on movement quality, not on weight used or speed. There are literally hundreds of options for what you could do here, but I like to break them down into four categories. These “categories” aren’t official in any way and they aren’t hard and fast divisions, and there will be overlap with certain movements. This is just how I personally like to organize these drills in my head:
Stability/Mobility drills: These exercises focus on allowing your body to move effectively through space. They include soft tissue release, mobility drills for things like the hips, ankles, and shoulders, breathing and bracing drills for the midsection and rooting cues for the feet, among others. The goal with these should be to get your body moving through an adequate ROM without restriction and help teach you to control that movement.
Activation and movement drills: These exercises should help you activate smaller stabilizer muscles and challenge your movement coordination to help you control the strength you have. This includes activation drills like band walks, external rotations and clamshells as well as exercises that challenge stability and coordination like the single leg RDL, Cossack squat, hip airplane and bottoms up KB press
Basic bodyweight movements and (lightly) loaded movements: Here you’re taking your body through fundamental movement patterns and may use some form of load to challenge yourself. Even if external load is being used we’re not trying to build muscle with these movements, the emphasis here is on quality of movement not weight or speed. Loads should be heavy enough that you need to focus on what you’re doing but not so heavy you can’t feel your way through the movements.
This includes bodyweight movement staples like pushups, dips and chin ups, as well as loaded movements like goblet or sandbag squats, KB swings, and pull throughs. Depending on how comfortable you are with certain unilateral movements like split squats, single leg RDLs and single arm presses you could progress them with extra loading. Even basic jumping and throwing drills can be included here.
Conditioning: Things that get your heart rate up and blood moving, steady state work, intervals on the bike or rower, lighter strongman medleys, conditioning circuits, there are lots of options here. Conditioning is often joked about and given a bad rap in strength circles but you’re an athlete and if you want to be successful having at least a basic level of cardiovascular ability is important. Both for health and longevity and to have a base of athleticism to build upon
It’s worth noting that while I’ve provided some examples above, it is by no means an exhaustive list.
Tier Two Drills
The goal here is on developing all around strength in order to create durable and athletic foundation for the powerlifts. This will require hitting muscles from a variety of angles and using some diversity in movement selection.
Weighted Carries: I’m a huge fan of weighted carries and think they’re criminally underused by powerlifters. They can develop midsection stability, coordination, work capacity and have unilateral benefits. There are tons of options here, I love the yoke for building the structure needed to support a big squat, specifically the upper back, farmers walks are great for doing the same for the deadlift, particularly building the grip.
Overhead carries can be used to build shoulder stability and the sandbag or other front-loaded carries are phenomenal for improving conditioning, work capacity, and mental toughness. Single arm versions are a particularly humbling and challenging way to train trunk bracing.
In short, I think they’re great, and farther away from a competition are a fantastic addition to most powerlifter’s training. However, I think it’s important to remember the goal with these is to build the structure needed for heavy lifts, not prep for the worlds strongest man. I prefer to do them without a belt or other aids like knee wraps or straps, and while the weights should be challenging the emphasis should be on the quality of movement. I’d prefer athletes to use a moderate weight and be mindful of their movement instead of going super heavy and just stumbling along. Bracing properly, controlling the hips and rooting the feet on each step should be priorities.
Rope Pulls and Sleds: Other great but often overlooked tools. I like arm over arm rope pulls to build unilateral strength in the upper body and challenge the lats, biceps and grip.
Sled pushes and pulls do a similarly great job of working the lower body. Both can be done heavy for shorter intervals with timed rests or lighter for longer distances (or combined into a medley) for conditioning benefits.
One of the other benefits is because they’re primarily concentric movements they tend to cause less muscle soreness that could interfere with your barbell lifting.
Variation lifts and accessory exercises: This section will likely be the most familiar. Here we’re talking about selecting close variations of the contest lifts and then some targeted accessory movements to compliment them. This is fairly standard stuff but that’s because it’s effective. These exercises allow us to approach the lifts from different angles, produce some novelty stimulus and build muscle in key areas and bring up weak points.
Putting it all Together
Personally, I always find it easier to understand a concept once I see it put into practice. Below is a sample setup of how you could combine tier one and two drills to create the first 4 weeks of an offseason program, if you’d like to see the full 12 week version it’s available here: https://www.scorrybreacbarbell.com/product-category/ebooks/
SATURDAY or SUNDAY: COMPETITION
Training will be very easy this week to allow for recovery (both physical and mental). The focus will be on Tier One drills to emphasize mobility, general movement and blood flow
Training difficulty will increase from last week but will still be low. Movement quality is still emphasized but we’ll start incorporating some Tier Two drills via pressing, squatting and pulling variations, weighted carries and rope/sled work to start working on overall body strength, durability and athleticism.
WEEK THREE & FOUR
Similar in setup to week 2 but we start to develop a routine and push the intensity a little more.