How To Choose Variations In Powerlifting
There are endless variations of the powerlifting competition movements. Some good, some bad. Some that are common and some that are created just to get a couple more likes instagram. But when purposefully selected, variations can have a profound impact on our training. And while I want to touch on the reasons why we should be selecting variations, there is one main focus I want to eventually dive into, and that is a variation’s transfer of training effect. Transfer of training, popularized by world renown hammer throw coach Dr. Anatoliy Bondarchuk, in its simplest form is how a certain stimulus (in our case a competition lift variation) can improve our desired performance in sport (within powerlifting being the 1RM squat, bench press, and deadlift). Before getting into that deep though, let’s look at the different reasons to choose variations.
Target Weak Points In The Movement
Probably the main reason I see people choosing different competition lift variations is to attack a weak point, or sticking point, within the movement. We place a greater stress to that portion of the movement in hopes of strengthening that position, resulting in an increase in strength. And while this is a transfer of training effect, when I dive in deeper later on I think you will see that targeting a weak point is a tad different than picking a variation for its transfer of training effect.
Correcting Movement Patterns
Instead of going into detail too much on this, check out another one of my articles on EliteFTS where I dive into this topic
). In summary, variations can help to force us into positions that sometimes verbal cues cannot, in return helping us to fix faulty movement patterns and improve form.
“Newbie Gains” To Improve Enjoyment Of Training
Yes, I do believe this is a reason to implement variations. Enjoyment of training has shown to have a high correlation in relation to strength progress, and much of our enjoyment comes from seeing progress. So when we get to an advanced state where our competition movement progress is slow and sometimes unmotivating, adding in new variations that improve quickly can help reinvigorate a lifter and keep them engaged.
Transfer of Training
Getting to the main point of this article, a reason to choose competition lift variations is for the transfer of training effect. Everyone is different when it comes to what variations may transfer, but when you find those movements the effect can be profound. Many times I see variations having a 1 to 1 increase to the competition movements, meaning for every 1lb. added to the variation the lifter sees a 1lb. increase to their competition movement. I have seen as well, actually in the case of myself on my deadlift, that for some people training the competition movement has very little effect, but certain variations are the key to moving it forward. Using myself as an example, if I just train the deadlift I see very little progress. But if I train the pause deadlift and trap bar deadlift, with zero competition deadlift training at all, I can come back 4-5 weeks later with the competition deadlift and see significant progress.
So that sound great, we all want that effect, but how do we find those variations? While I do not have an exact answer, here are the things to look for that I have found to be correlated with find those variations that have a high transfer of training.
1.) The first thing to do is keep a detailed training log. Without a training log, finding these variations is about impossible. It takes time, many times months if not sometimes years, to really be able to string together enough data to see what variations have the highest transfer of training.
For example, I have an athlete I have been coaching now for 9 months. We have made good progress and are very happy with the results. But over time I have noticed something about his squat. Every training block that we programmed pin squats, his competition squat seemed to improved. It isn’t obvious at first, as there are just too many variables each training block to really know 100% what worked and what didn’t. But once you gather enough information and notice that over 6 different training blocks, the 3 that had pin squats all had the most improvement, you know something might be there. So what did I do? I wrote a training block that pushed pin squats hard, to where it was treated like the primary movement. Sure enough, this has been the most successful training block to date, and this athlete who I would consider an advanced lifter has added an estimated 15lbs. to his squat 1RM in 4 weeks. That is exceptional progress for a beginner, let alone an advanced lifter.
2.) So you have found a movement that has a high transfer of training! Let’s just hammer away endlessly and see infinite improvement! Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. That stimulus wears off and your body starts to adapt to that movement to where you no longer see the same progress.
This is similar to what you might see with a football player and their max squat strength. At first every pound added to their max squat shows a direct increase in performance on the field. Squatting 500lbs. now instead of 300lbs. has made a huge difference in performance. But then you start to notice that the transfer effect slows down. They now squat 550lbs., but their speed and power hasn’t really changed much from when they squatted 500lbs. Being strong only takes their performance so far.
This is the same with competition lift variations, and they need to be rotated out. For example, let’s say that every time you push pause deadlifts you notice that your competition deadlift improves. But after two 4 week training blocks that initial progress wears off and things are stagnant again. Does this mean the transfer of training from pause deadlifts has worn off and you need to find something different? No! Unlike football where strength eventually loses its transfer effect, in powerlifting you can come back to these variations later on and get a somewhat similar effect again.
How this breaks down is let’s say you have been pushing pause deadlifts for 8 weeks and you added 20lbs. to your competition deadlift. The goal is then to take 8 weeks or so off from pause deadlifts, maintain your competition deadlift during that time, and then come back and push pause deadlift hard again. What happens when you come back to a movement after an extended time off? It’s usually a bit weaker. So the pause deadlift now is comparatively weaker to your competition deadlift now than it was at the end of the initial 8 weeks. So as you now progress the pause deadlift again after it has been detrained, you start seeing that same increase again to your competition deadlift. Maybe not to the same degree as the first go around, but that transfer effect will still certainly be there.
3.) So going back to a statement I made earlier, choosing variations for the transfer of training is a bit different than just choosing them to attack weak points. What I mean by this is that a lot of times weak point training is about choosing variations we are really bad at, and trying to get better at them. We may never get great at that variation, but it still may very well help our weak point. With transfer of training, from my experience, one of the tells that an exercise is going to have a high transfer of training for someone is that it goes from being a weakness at first to quickly being something you are extremely strong at.
So why I see it as different is because that “weak” variation now all of a sudden is a strength of yours and a lift that you actually are pretty impressive at. Now this may not always be the case, but looking back at all the powerlifters I have coached, there is a common theme that if they have a competition lift variation that goes from weak to incredibly strong, almost always that variation is the one with the highest transfer effect. Now all variations chosen are still within the reasons I listed above and usually specific picked to attack weak points or form discrepancies, but if you see a weak variation that quickly gets really strong, it most likely is something to keep notes on as it has a high likelihood to give a desirable transfer effect.
While there is no exact science for choosing the correct variations and finding those with the highest transfer of training, it is something that can have dramatic impacts on your progress over time. The key takeaways should be to take detailed training notes, review past training blocks, and try and find correlations to when training progress is best and why that might be. When someone talks about individualizing training, this is what that means. Finding over time what works for someone, and then specifically developing a plan of attack based around that. If you have any further questions regarding choosing variations to achieve a high transfer of training, feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I would be happy to answer any questions you might have!