Think Big: How to Make the Perfect Powerlifting Program

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Think Big. If you'd like to know more about how to implement periodization in your own programming, stay tuned for upcoming videos, and check out the new ebook when it drops here on Elitefts.  If you're not into all the theory, don't worry: it also includes a full, 16-week power/hypertrophy program and macro guide.

When it comes to building muscle, nutrition is king, but if you want to look muscular and be strong, you’ll need to eat right and train smart. Periodization is the key to strength. Periodization guides every effective strength-training program. In fact, the "discovery" of periodization by Soviet scientist Lev Pavlovich Matveyev in the 1960s revolutionized training for nearly every sport. If you want to succeed as a lifter, you must understand at least the basics of periodization.

Basically, periodization describes how the body reacts to the stress of training in the medium- to long-term. (Remember, stress refers to progressive overload: lifting more weight than you did last time.) It's built on a theory called general adaptation syndrome.

Basically, when you train with progressive overload, your body freaks out a little. You might feel sore, tired, or sleepy for a day after lifting heavy or even for a week or more after competing — that's the alarm phase. During the alarm phase, your body is weaker than it was before you trained. If you push too hard during this phase, you make things worse. Your body can't recover, and you start down the road to overtraining. This is why, when you have a bad workout, it's important to back off and not keep pushing yourself even harder. Even though it might make you feel better mentally to persevere, it's only going to hurt your progress. (Keep in mind that, as a beginner, sometime it's tough to distinguish being in the alarm phase from just "not feeling it" on a particular day. In the latter situation, you do need to push through. This is where having a coach is helpful!)

The good news is, after the alarm phase passes, your body “supercompensates” for the stress you put it through, and you end up stronger than before the workout! Your next workout should be during the supercompensation phase, so that you can take advantage of that extra strength. (It doesn't last forever — if you stop stressing your body, you'll end up right back where you started.

All of this occurs in the short term — after one stressful event, like a workout or a competition. Periodization explains how the whole thing works in the long term, and it's a little different. Our long term goal is to string together as many workouts in the supercompensation phase as possible. To do that, we have to essentially repeat two things, over and over again:

1. Stress the body with progressive overload
2. Give the body enough time (but not too much time) to recover from that stress

There's one problem with that. If you've ever tried to, for example, add five pounds to your 10-rep squat PR every week, you know that (unless you're just beginning) you can't keep it up for very long before you only get 9 reps in a set, or even just 7 or 8. Say your 10-rep squat PR is 250 pounds. Maybe you push yourself really hard and manage 255x10. And the next week you do the same thing and get 260x10! But then on the third week, even though you gave it 100%, you can only squeak out 265x9. And that's super frustrating, so the next week after that you go for 270 anyway and this time only get 7 reps. Now you're really pissed off so the following week you try 275, even though your body isn't having it, and you only get 3. Now you're so discouraged you just say fuck it and decide to take up bodybuilding or video games instead.

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Here's the secret to strength: Matveyev explained that, with regard to stress on the body, there should be an inverse relationship between volume (the number of reps you do in a workout) and intensity (the percentage of your one-rep max that you use). So, like we saw with the squat example, as you add more weight and get closer to your one-rep max, you can perform fewer reps. But if you stay within a given level of volume for a while, when you decrease that level of volume, you'll be able to lift at a higher intensity than you would have otherwise.

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