STOP! Being So Specific
Now how could I say to stop being so specific when it’s fairly agreed upon that specificity is the overriding priority when it comes to strength progression in powerlifting? Because, I also believe it is possible to be overly specific, especially when it relates to longevity within the sport.
Many current popular programs that are circulating online, and also just the general direction of raw powerlifting, have seen a 180 degree turn-a-round from the Westside days where conjugate was king. Performing the competition movements year round, many times only performing those, has become a popular trend, but I am recommending we all meet somewhere in the middle, dependent on the phases of our macrocycle that we currently in. If we are looking at the foundational phasic structure and periodization model for powerlifting, we can break down our macrocycles into hypertrophy/volume, strength, and peaking mesocycles or phases. Not just with powerlifting, but for most sport practice, it is well established that the further away from competition we are, the less specific our training needs to be. Now a certain level of specificity must remain, as a powerlifter should not spend a mesocycle putting emphasis on their 10 mile run time, but what I do mean is that we do not need to continually run high volume, high frequency, and highly specific programs year round. Low bar squatting, deadlifting, and competition bench pressing year round, multiple times a week for high volumes is a recipe for injury. While some may be genetically gifted to be able to sustain that type of training protocol, just as the Bulgarian weightlifting team survived their crazy system, for most this will not be the optimal approach for long term progress and health. Will your strength increase at a fast rate using these highly specific approaches? Probably, but that will only be short term. Long term, you will probably be lagging behind where you could have been because you are still nursing injuries that are halting your continued progress.
Now I am all for an evidence based approach, but if you will let me deviate from that for a minute, I find a couple good experiential examples that do a good job of proving this point.
For those that follow Pete Rubish, world record powerlifter, you may know that he rarely squats. It causes him pain, hurts his progress, so unless he is nearing competition he rarely back squats. Instead he uses Bulgarian Split Squats as his main knee flexion movement, while putting more emphasis on his deadlift. You may argue that his squat isn’t nearly up to par with his deadlift numbers, which is 100% true, but I’d argue Pete has found a way to produce the highest total he can while staying the healthiest possible, which seems to be working pretty darn well for him. If he spent a bit more time back squatting could he possibly have a higher total at his next meet? I’d say he very well could, but the issue isn’t his next meet, its long term. If he starts increasing his squat frequency, knowing historically it will cause injuries, he may get a short term boost to his total, but long term those injuries will hold him back from continued progress. So looking at the case of Pete Rubish, he has seemed to find a great happy medium for success. Take away what causes pain and stops progress, and instead find what helps him over the long term increase his total while staying healthy. Now I am not saying all of us need to take it to this extreme, but what we do need to do is individually find what is optimal for ourselves. Just like some of the Bulgarian lifters made great progress off that system and were able to maintain resilience against injury, there will be some that genetically can tolerate high specificity throughout the entire. Those like myself who are not so lucky though, need to optimize our training plan so that our yearly planning and long term progress is maximized, which means staying as healthy as possible.
Another complete non-evidence based example comes from bodybuilders. While there are very few lessons to be learned from the “bro” approach, I do find one thing to be valuable in translation to strength sports. You’ve probably heard, seen, or maybe done this yourself back in the day, but bodybuilders many times try to find ways to make exercises harder so they do not have to use as much weight, inherently decreasing the risk of injury. They will focus on the mind muscle connection (which actually has some scientific validity) to try and use just the primary muscle to move the weight, use tempos and eccentrics, isometric holds, pre-exhaustion, and shorter rest periods to be able to receive similar results as they would with heavier loads. I believe there is some validity to all those to a degree, as they are practices used by successful bodybuilders through decades of the sport, and even if research hasn’t proven everything they do as valid, I do believe that they have a point here. For powerlifters, especially away from competition during hypertrophy and volume phases, we might benefit from stealing some of this thought process and applying it to ourselves. Using variations such as tempos, pauses, bar placement, bar choice, etc., we can find ways to squat, bench, and deadlift to the same relative intensities, without using the same absolute intensities. While I am not aware of any study showing that using variations of these movements to decrease absolute intensity will in fact reduce injury risk, based on the thought process that less weight equals less risk for the most part, I would be confident is saying that it will. Also, on a current TSA (The Strength Athlete) podcast with Quinn Henoch, he made a very good point that we can “overuse” a movement or stance. To summarize and try to apply what he said, basically if we keep doing the same exact squat pattern over and over, we are stressing all of our tissues in the exact same manner every time, and that has a high likelihood of leading to overuse issues. Some slight variation though can help to provide the body with different stimulus so we are not just constantly drilling the exact same loaded movement pattern over and over. Another way of looking at this is the example of the tires on our car. We get them rotated for a reason, because if we just leave them in the same spot throughout the life of them, they will only wear in certain spots based on their positioning, which will lead to a decreased longevity of the tire. If we rotate them though, we can have a more even wear distribution, leading to a longer tire life. I believe the same applies to our soft tissues and joints as well.
So putting all this together, let’s look how the actual application of these theories and principles plays into designing a program that will promote long term progression and health. So looking at the how to program this, the amount variation is dependent on the phase you are in, as has been mentioned. The farther out from competition you are, the less specific you need to be, so the hypertrophy/volume phase is a good time to plug in variations based off of two things…
- How would you rate your injury resiliency?
- What are your individual weaknesses that need improvement, and what variations could help in strengthening these?
If your answer to number 1 is “low”, then my recommendation is that during the hypertrophy/volume phase, limit the amount of direct competition work you are doing per week to just 1 or 2 sets to just maintain skill practice. The growth, volume, and work capacity can be gained from variations instead at this point, and as we move through our phasic structure we can slowly increase our specificity. This can also be movement specific though. If you never have any issues with bench press, then you do not need not be as wary when it comes to programming for injury prevention. But if squats have historically caused you issues, that is where we can play around with our programming to try and increase our longevity.
After we have determined the movements that we must take a more conservative approach on, based on our past injury history and resiliency, we move to question 2, which is what are your individual weaknesses. It is best to choose variations that address your issues verses picking things you are already good at (as long as they are pain free and do not cause any issues), as now we can kill two birds with one stone, where we now can work around the competition lifts AND improve a strength deficiency. What variations you choose will need to be an entirely different article on its own, but to get a general idea you can shoot over to EliteFTS to check out my recent post on “Alternative Squat Training For The Injury Ridden Powerlifting” to get some ideas of variations based on your historical or current issues.
To wrap up, understand again that every program is individual, and the purpose of “STOP! Being So Specific” is to provide some alternative viewpoints, theories, and principles that can hopefully guide your own individual training. Training smart is the key, and health is the name of the game. The strongest lifters in the world typically are also the healthiest, as year after year they are able to make progress without injuries halting their training. To put this into perspective, lets even look at a worst case scenario of extremely slow progress due to conservative training. Choose one of the options below…..
- Add 50lbs. to your total in 3 months, equating to 16-17lbs a month on average, but know that the following 9 months will be injury plagued and your total will be stagnant, neither increasing or decreasing during that time.
- Add 50lbs. to your total over a year’s time, equating to around 4-5lbs. a month on average, yet you were healthy all year and were able to train all 3 lifts without pain.
I would expect almost everyone to pick option 2. We LOVE to train as powerlifters, but we HATE to have to struggle through workouts due to pain and injury. No progress is frustrating, so most of us would choose the slower progress but injury free training, because it will just be downright more enjoyable. So let’s be smart, have fun training, and stay injury free this year. I think we can all agree upon that.
If you have any further questions, always feel free to shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I would be happy to help!