Importance of Offseason
If you’ve been following my articles and coach’s log on elitefts for a while, then you already know that I’ve written a lot about meet prep: why yours sucks, ways to make it suck less, and the importance of having a support system. And it seems like no matter how often I write about meet prep, I come back to one big idea: it’s hard. It’s hard mentally, and it’s hard physically.
And you can’t go hard all the time. It’s the quickest way to burn out — to see your progress stall, to get injured, and to lose interest in your training. That’s why it’s so vital that you’re not just doing meet after meet after meet. You need to make time for the offseason. Here’s why:
Josh Bryant has a great description of what “offseason” means in powerlifting:
“Offseason refers to the time during your training year when you are not training for a specific contest. That time might be right after competing in a meet, or it could be up to 10 weeks before your next event. The intervals can last 4-12 weeks. If you want to be able to stay in the game for the long term, you should make sure you're ‘off’ for at least 16 weeks a year…[The offseason] is all about setting you up for great meet prep and, ultimately, a huge PR total. These are different goals requiring a different kind of training.”
Josh is right. The offseason is crucial to powerlifting success for a lot of reasons:
- It’s the only time you can get a lot stronger. During meet prep, you practice demonstrating strength by training at high percentages of your 1-rep max. But because this type of training demands a fairly low workload, while you might progress a little, you won’t add tons of muscle or strength.
- It gives your body and mind a rest from the demands of that kind of heavy, low-volume training.
- It allows you to experiment with new training methods when you don’t have a performance on the line. If you’ve recently struggled to improve, this can be crucial. Remember, everything works…but nothing works forever.
The trick, of course, is making the most out of your offseason—not just spinning your wheels.
Benefits of a Bodybuilding-Style Approach to the Offseason
That’s where bodybuilding comes in. A bodybuilding-style approach to the offseason has a ton of benefits for the powerlifter:
- High-volume training, as prescribed by most bodybuilding programs, provides the base for strength. Training with higher volume increases your work capacity. In other words, if you pay your dues by cranking out rep after rep and set after set, when it comes time to start working into heavier weights, you’ll be able to do so for longer than you would be had you avoided volume training entirely.
- Bodybuilding is a great way to address muscular weaknesses. Typically, a weak muscle or muscle group can’t handle heavy weights (because they’re weak). And if you try to train a weak muscle using a compound movement, chances are, a stronger muscle will end up doing a lot of the work. Instead, stick with light weights, high volume, and isolation work, and eventually, those weak muscles will catch up to the more developed counterparts.
- One of the pitfalls of offseason training is that it’s easy to lose motivation without an immediate goal or deadline in site. The intensity of bodybuilding-style training means that it’s mentally challenging, but in a different way than is training with heavy weights. So, by switching styles, you still get a break, but you won’t get bored.
Don’t Forget to Work Hard
Speaking of intensity: the offseason is a time to rest up, but it’s not a time to slack off. There’s a difference! If you’re not taking advantage of the time you have during the offseason, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
Fortunately, when you’re taking a bodybuilding-style approach to the offseason, you have a lot more flexibility here than you do when you’re training with 90% or more of your 1RM. When you’re training that heavy, usually, you can either make a lift or you can’t. There’s no “gray area.”
With higher volume training, however, you can take advantage of a number of different intensifying techniques to really push yourself to the limit without risking missing lifts or injuring yourself. John Meadows does this really well! In fact, he’s even developed his own system of rating perceived exertion to take advantage of that “gray area.” In John’s RPE system, a 10 isn’t absolute failure — it’s when you can’t do another rep with perfect form. If you break form just a little bit and keep going, that’s RPE 11. Incorporating drop sets, forced reps, and other intensifying techniques, and you’re training at RPE 12.
While I think going “beyond failure” should be done only very rarely, John’s system really highlights the fact that you have to train really hard to progress, even during the offseason. If the new guy in the gym doesn’t look at you and think, “Man, that guy is really pushing it,” then you need to step it up a bit.
My Offseason Bodybuilding Program: Days 1-4
Day 1: Squat Focus/Legs
Banded Leg Curl superset with Banded Leg Press. Start out with lying hamstring curls using a band. Hook the band behind your ankle and curl through a full range of motion, squeezing one second at the top of each rep.
Superset these with leg presses using an average band (and regular weights) for added resistance. Use a fairly close stance to put more emphasis on the quads, and don’t fully lock out between reps.
4 sets of 15 reps to failure on each movement with 90 seconds rest between supersets.
Yoke Bar Squat to Low Box. Again, use a fairly close stance to emphasize the quads. Unlike a typical box squat, I just want you to use the low box as a depth check so that you don’t cheat – in other words, stay tight on the box, touch lightly, and immediately reverse out of the hole.
3 sets of 10 reps with 4 minutes rest between sets using 60% of your best high-bar full squat. Over the course of the month, slowly increase to 70%.
Glute-Ham Raise. Make sure you’re doing these properly! 4 sets of maximum reps with 3 minutes rest between sets.
Day 2: Bench Focus/Shoulders & Triceps
Band Pull-Apart superset with Dumbbell Lateral Raise. Because the upper-body muscles tend to fatigue a little faster than the muscles used in squatting and deadlifting, I want you to stop short of failure here. When you’re doing the pull-aparts, focus on keeping the elbows high. On the lateral raise, it’s okay to cheat a little bit to initiate the movement, but do your best to hold the ‘bells at the top for a full second before slowly lowering them to the starting position.
4 sets of 15 reps with a weight (or band) you could use for 20 on each movement with 120 seconds rest between supersets. Use the same weight (or band) for all 4 supersets.
American Bar Close-Grip Bench Press. The American Bar is great for the offseason because it allows you to bench heavy without putting a lot of stress on your shoulders. I want you to use the inside grip (which simulates an index-finger-on-the-smooth close grip press).
Start with a light weight and perform 10 reps. Add weight, rest 2 minutes, and perform another set of 10 reps. Continue until you can’t perform 10 total reps. Shoot for 6-8 total sets.
Yoke Bar JM Press. Make sure you’re doing these right, and do 4 heavy sets of 10 with 3 minutes rest between sets.
Day 3: Deadlift Focus/Back
Lat Pulldown to Chest superset with Wide-Grip Seated Row. The trick here, on both movements, is to use a full range of motion. Arch your upper back slightly, as if you were doing a bench press, and keep your abs tight. Keep your arms loose, and pull with the lats all the way to your upper abs.
3 sets of 10 reps to failure on each movement with 90 seconds rest between supersets.
Here’s how these work:
- Start out doing strict bent-over barbell rows with a very light weight. Only do six reps, even if you could do many more.
- Add weight, and do another set of six.
- Keep repeating step two until you can’t maintain strict form on your barbell rows. At that point, continue to add weight and crank out sets of six, but use a little bit of body English to help you move the weight.
- When your rows start to get straight-up sloppy, keep adding weight and performing sets of six, but switch to wide-grip deadlifts instead of rows. You’ll probably want to use straps.
- When you can’t complete a full set of six on deadlift, hold your last set at the top, and perform a max-rep set of shrugs.
You’re shooting for 8-10 total sets here, so make sure you’re not resting more than 2 minutes between sets (or you could probably go forever).
You can watch me hit progressive pulls in this article.
Reverse Hyperextension. Noticing a theme? Make sure you’re doing these right! 4 sets of max reps with light weight and 3 minutes rest between sets.
Day 4: Upper Body Assistance (Optional)
This is a fun one. It’s more of a “catch-all” day than one where you need to get things perfect. If you feel like a particular body part is lagging, you can use this day to get some extra work in for it. Otherwise, I suggest you focus on the pressing muscles, particularly the pecs, using primarily isolation movements.
A few basic rules for this day:
- Don’t use fewer than 10 reps on any set.
- Don’t miss reps.
- Try to avoid barbell work if possible. Stick to dumbbells and machines.
- Spend at most 90 minutes training.
Originally published in December of 2018
Ben Pollack is a professional physical culturist. In 2017, he won first place at Reebok Record Breakers and became the strongest powerlifter in history in the 198-pound class with a 2039 raw total. He earned his Ph.D. studying the history of strength from the University of Texas in 2018. In 2019, Ben qualified to compete for his pro card in bodybuilding and became an IFBB pro in 2021.