Programming for strength training 5: Peaking for a powerlifting competition.

In our previous programming for strength articles we have covered all the main principles of training and things we should look out for that may impact our recovery and performance. This article relates to the more specific guidelines of peaking into a powerlifting meet, however these principles are actually applicable to many sports. Most powerlifting programs contain a volume phase, an intensity phase, de-load and a peaking cycle.

When we consider the volume aspect of training we are in effect looking to do two things; Firstly, build some muscle and secondly, work on power and technique. In the volume phase, we will be working at bodybuilder levels of intensity, focussing on repetition ranges of typically anywhere between 6-20 repetitions. The purpose of this phase is to develop muscle; more muscle equals more strength. When training our main lifts, we are looking to develop speed and good technique; this with extra muscle is going to equate to more strength. In this phase we might be doing more muscle isolation work in order to bring up weak areas. By weak areas we mean those points in our kinetic (movement) chain that break down at higher intensities. Many elite powerlifters follow bodybuilding type programs for large periods of their training, as once they have mastered the skill of each lift and the neural programming that goes with it, the only way they can get stronger is by developing more muscle. Of course many of the exercises will be compound, multi-joint exercises, but the idea that isolation of single muscle groups as ‘non-functional’ in this context is actually nonsensical! All exercise that has a performance benefit is functional, regardless if it is an isolation movement or not.

The length of the volume phase and whether it is used concomitantly with other training styles is really dependant on where you are on your journey and the training philosophy that you (or your coach) follow. For beginners, the likelihood is that there will need to be a combination of volume work, and at an intensity to develop muscle and program the body to efficiently and safely perform the lift, building the intensity slowly toward higher intensity in a linear fashion once technique and muscle has been developed. It is essential to remember in this phase that we need to be building volume in a progressive manner on a weekly basis in order to provide a stimulus for muscle growth.

For more experienced lifters, the length of the volume phase will depend on several factors including the rate at which they develop muscle and how much muscle they can practically carry if they are in a specific weight class. In this situation, training blocks may be in a block periodisation form and volume may last several months, perhaps with the occasional high intensity block of a few weeks… Remember, our training needs to be specific to our goals and our goal is to lift as heavy as possible.

The intensity phase in practical terms relates to the competition specific portion of a training program. In this phase, we are going to be focussing on intensities starting at of 85-90% of our previous maximum lifts. In other sports, this would be focussed on developing towards competition replication; for example, in rugby, the volume phase might be gym-based, strength conditioning and endurance sessions. The intensity phase might start with teams entering 20-minute controlled contact training games and then through pre-season developing into full contact, 80-minute pre-season games against other competitive teams.

In this phase, we will still be building volume but at higher intensity, helping to program (or reprogram) the specific movement patterns at close to competition intensity and building to surpass our previous best lifts. This phase will again be experience-dependant but would typically last around two to three months in a block periodised training program, although this might take longer if targets are not met and adjustment of the program to the individual’s needs is required. When a competition date has been set (and hopefully when the targets set for the intensity phase have been met), this is commonly where an overreaching phase would be used to force super-compensation and peak for the meet. This would at a minimum of 2-3 weeks out for most people. If you are a beginner and programming your own training, this phase might be worth avoiding for a first contest unless you have had the time to run a few full training phases and practiced this strategy. Two important things to figure out before using this strategy are firstly, what the sensible amount of volume is to cause overreaching and secondly, the amount of time it took to recover and most importantly, did this lead to an increase in performance from your final lifts during your intensity phase!

At around 2-3 weeks out, training wants to start tapering down. In this phase, training wants to be about half your maximum effort (note here, this is subjective rating of effort not intensity); this is a notion called rate of perceived exertion (RPE), with a ten out of ten being the hardest training you can imagine. In this case, we want sessions with an RPE of around five and intensity should not go above 85-90% with a focus being on quick singles, doubles and triples. This will include no maxing out, for both reps and no new maximal lifts. There should be a focus on technique and lower volume and intensity, and recovery between sessions should require virtually no time what so ever.

In the final week before the meet date, we need to de-load and ensure the body is fully recovered and ensure any super-compensation has taken place. This is often the most difficult period for people new to competition, as they often feel ‘more is more’ and want to make sure they can hit all of their lifts. If programming has been done correctly to this point then there should be confidence in the fact that the planned lifts are in the bag, and opening lifts are doable even with nerves of the big occasion. The focus here should be on visualisation and working at minimal intensity at 50% or less, with not lifting closer than 3 days out from the competition. The most important thing to consider in this phase is visualisation; thinking about the arena, mentally preparing yourself and when training, working with someone on your commands… It is amazing how often people fail lifts, even experienced people, because they do not listen to the judge’s commands!

Although powerlifting is the main focus of this piece, the principles can be swapped to many sports and we will be revisiting preparation for events in a number of different sports in future articles. Remember, these are just a guideline for how we would think about peaking into a meet, but one key factor that is missing is the concept of individualisation. It is therefore important to make sure that you have appropriately qualified or experienced people around you, especially when you first start to compete in order to give you feedback and keep your focus on the competition.

Believe us when we say the mind games of what to do and when become very real, especially in the last few weeks. Having an experienced guiding hand that you can trust is going to help remove a lot of stress in the last few weeks, and you can just concentrate on the mental and physical preparation, allowing you to remove any doubt from the situation. After your contest, a second de-load phase should take place for a week or two, then hopefully you can start your next training block having smashed some personal records and working with new baseline intensities of your new 1 rep maxes! If you’d like to know how we can help you if you are thinking about competing in any sports, then drop us a message and we’ll get back to you.