“Alternate your heavy and light weeks…Do max effort work one week, something like a pull standing on a block or a board press. The next do rep work with the regular lifts. Train in six-week cycles that get heavier as you go. Don’t use that much assistance work. I might do some hamstring curls after squatting and some hammer curls after I bench.”
As a Westside devotee in my first year of powerlifting, these words came as quite a shock. Who they came from was an even bigger surprise: a former training partner of mine who eventually totaled 2,600 pounds single-ply and boasted prodigious raw strength.
“Wait, you mean you don’t speed bench? You don't use accommodating resistance? You don't perform extra workouts?”
“I speed benched a little bit…I didn’t think it did anything. I military press now. I don’t really like bands. Extra workouts? I have a day job. You know that, right kid?”
My certainty of the absolute and exclusive truth of The Book of Methods after a four score rereading melted like the coconut oil in my frying pan each morning, quickly and with a few hisses. But these hisses came from the machinery of my brain short-circuiting as everything I had based my pursuit of strength on was thrown into question.
After taking a moment for my eyes to refocus, I asked my training partner about his blasphemy concerning the nearest and dearest friend to my powerlifting journey, the reported key to success, the sacred cow I called assistance work.
“But, but, but…so, you don’t like do lots of assistance…but weak points and individuality...and snow flakes and stuff…”
“No, I’m usually pretty tired. I never found that that stuff did that much. This is what works for me.”
Pondering the Consequences
It's taken me years to understand that last part. And not just years but also scars, strains, stagnation, and a whole lot of showing up. My understanding is now base level like a snorkeler in the Mariana Trench. Still, I want to posit an important question that has struck me based off of continually wrestling toward this understanding. The question may seem unsophisticated. It may even upset any grammarians. It may take a second glance. Here it is—what lifts for you?
Now, before we get into a discussion debating geared versus raw lifting (which seems to be all but settled really…right?), I want to clarify. I'm not talking about adding 350 pounds to your squat with gear or even how much carryover you get from knee wraps. My meaning is far more individual, and you will spend the rest of your lifting career finding the answer.
What I mean is this—when do you feel strong? When do you feel like you're lifting the best that you can? What is going right, and what feels right? What is your key or your set of keys? For me, it is health. If my hips feel good, I’m not worried about this, that or the other weak point. I can just squat. If my left shoulder feels good, I can do what is necessary to perform my best in the bench. If my SI joint isn’t squealing at me like a disgruntled juvenile anteater...you get the point. (Fun fact: The sacrum looks like an anteater face from a posterior view. Second fun fact: According to Yahoo answers, only young anteaters really make noise. I didn't verify this using YouTube.)
Now, with the fact that my health is my number one consideration, I can plan accordingly. After a few years of hammering basics and being consistently banged up, I've switched back to a Westside-type approach. Interestingly, my body no longer hurts all the time, and I'm just as strong at about twenty pounds lighter. Consistent rotation of the main lifts and an inherent encouragement to attack my weak points has led to this progress. And by weak points, I mean poor hip stability and health, an achy low back and a lack of top end bench strength. The two latter items left me unable to view training on a more basic program as sustainable.
So what really lifts for me? Sustainability. The ability to show up with my hip tendinosis screaming and still get a productive squat workout in. How can you apply this to yourself? Think about your needs, not your desires or even the expectations of others.
An example of a want for many lifters and strength athletes is maximum hypertrophy. We know that it's supportive of strength gain, goes nicely with a nutritional program that optimizes recovery and just looks cool when you have your singlet on (that’s probably the most important point). However, the desire for maximum hypertrophy can inadvertently place your needs on the back burner.
Once again, I will use myself as an example. While following a program that was rigid and used lots of fives on the basic lifts, I attained great hypertrophy (relative to me). My legs and shoulders swelled. I looked like I lifted more than I do now. Placed side by side, you would have said, “That guy is the powerlifter. Does the other one swim?”
What were the issues then? My body constantly hurt. I broke into a cold sweat before every grueling squat workout hoping that my hip wouldn’t explode. At times, I would get looser with my technique than I should have. I did this with the understanding that more reps equals more work, which equals more muscle. This is true, and some may need this type of mentality in their pursuit of strength. It hindered mine, and as someone who should have been seeking my greatest level of relative strength (more on that in a future article), I was gaining size while not gaining a proportionate level of competitive strength.
Now, let’s look at the expectations of others. How do they influence your lifting? Do you ascribe to camp X or Y? Do they say that you can’t incorporate the ideas of others? I’m pretty sure that Louie doesn't recommend single-arm, single-leg deadlifts, toe touch progressions or breathing drills. However, I incorporate all these things within the basic framework of a conjugate program. These things address needs that allow me to continue training productively.
What am I saying? I'm saying that if you're a “heavy basics” kind of guy, don’t shun corrective exercise just because of how others perceive you. And if you think dynamic effort work is unproductive for you, don’t be afraid to drop it because you're afraid of being kicked out of the local box squat club. Keep an open mind. The individuals we all admire in the strength sports found what worked for them and/or their athletes. It's time for all of us to do the same.