elitefts™ Sunday Edition

Recently, there have been a few articles on block periodization/block training for powerlifters that have piqued my interest. As good as the information was, I was concerned that it didn't relate to the block training espoused by the former Soviets. According to Verkhoshansky (see back issues of the Fitness and Sports Review International), Bondarchuk (see volumes 1 and 2 of Transfer of Training), and Issurin (see Block Periodization, volumes 1 and 2), block periodization is used to perfect the performance of a high-level athlete and entails combining technique with strength.

Because of this, I feel that we should look at block training/periodization in more detail and somewhat differently in order to make better application of this type of training. It can be of great benefit, but it should be looked at in relation to the level and type of athlete being discussed. It is important to understand that the training for a low-level powerlifter or any other athlete should be very different from the training of a high-level powerlifter or other athlete.

We also need greater precision in what we mean by the different types of exercises. Exactly what does a general preparatory or a general developmental, supplementary, or assistive exercise mean? How are they determined? What are some examples? How do we know when and how to use them? Once we do this and delineate exactly what is meant by low and high level, we should be able to better recommend block or other types of training programs with the necessary modifications. In this way, we can develop more high-level and successful powerlifters and power athletes.

For example, assistive exercises are supposed to contribute to better performance in the main event, but I rarely, if ever, see assistive exercises such as the back raise or back raise with a twist even though they are the most effective for strengthening the lower back muscles as needed for the squat and deadlift. They are the only ones that work the muscles through the full range of motion. In addition, you can place emphasis on the latter portion of the exercise, which duplicates what occurs in the squat and deadlift. These exercises may also be of benefit in the bench press when the legs are used.

Rarely do I see the use of eccentric exercises for the actions involved in the squat, deadlift, or bench, nor do I see these exercises combined with the isometric, which are especially valuable when working through sticking points. Exercises such as the narrow stance squat in the preparatory period of training is a great assistive exercise to strengthen the quadriceps in leg extension. However, I do see a great deal of poor execution of the glute ham gastroc exercise. I know this because I'm the one who came up with this exercise.

In many articles that have appeared on this site, major focus appears to be on the development of strength with the use of high intensity training programs. High intensity programs, however, are known to be notorious for burning out the central nervous system. This, in turn, creates excessive fatigue and lethargy, which prevents continuous training. Maximum strength is the key quality to be developed, but it appears that we need additional methods for developing maximum strength. Continuous high intensity is very effective, but for the most part, it is very limited and potentially injurious, especially to low-level powerlifters, as well as athletes in various sports, particularly football. Thus, we should ask if the commonly used high-intensity programs for developing maximum strength are the best. Many of these programs are great for producing gains initially, but at what cost to low- and intermediate-level athletes? How long does one stay on such a program and with what results? If you read most of the articles carefully, you will see that most writers admit that the gains are relatively short-lived or that they would hope to get greater gains from the program. In other words, any of these high-intensity methods may not be as good as many hoped.

There are also scientifically-based and proven programs in practice that most strength coaches scoff at when first exposed to them. For example, we have found that using a 1 X 20 RM routine, which requires lower intensity, can be superior to a high-intensity program for improving strength in high school football players. Not only do the players gain more strength and mass overall in the 1 X 20 RM routine, but they develop more strength in specific exercises such as the squat and bench and in other related exercises. In addition, this program ensures better injury prevention. Practical experiences show that after being on a 1 X 20 RM program, football players hardly ever get injured, except when the injury is caused by some brutal physical contact. Even here, the number of such injuries is minimal.

The 1 X 20 RM method uses less intensity yet produces greater results for a specific segment of the athletic population. However, as a nation, we seem to be more obsessed with maximum intensity as though it were the only way to develop greater strength. It has become the Holy Grail of training. Maximum intensity as the main factor appears to be erroneous thinking though. For example, the use of only one set allows for greater use of supplementary or assistive local exercises to develop the entire body, not just the muscles involved in a specific exercise as when using a high-intensity program. Every exercise in a maximum intensity program can only emphasize the development of specific muscles. Involvement of other muscles is usually only in the form of stabilization, which isn't a very effective way of developing greater strength of the related muscles. It is only strength that is specific to partially ensuring the success of the main exercise.

Even the Russians found it more effective to use multiple intensity zones for the development of maximum strength instead of only one intensity zone, especially the high-intensity zone. In general, they found that intensities of 50–100 percent are all effective for gaining strength. Each intensity zone, such as 50–60 percent, 60–70 percent, or 70–80 percent, are all very effective for specific purposes. The key is to determine which intensity zone will give you the greatest return for what you are trying to accomplish. For example, the 70–80 percent of maximum intensity zone is very effective when doing multiple exercises for learning and perfecting the major lifts and the assistance exercises. In this intensity zone, you are capable of doing more work, which in many respects produces greater strength in time than if you only trained with a high-intensity program. In addition, it is less taxing on the central nervous system and thus does not create any negative changes in the body.

Many athletes and coaches use the Prilepin table to determine how much intensity to use. However, this, too, is very misleading. All Prilepin did was survey elite level weightlifters and summarize his findings in the chart. It was not meant to be a training program or a guide to what weightlifters should do. This would be analogous to someone doing a survey of collegiate football conditioning programs in regard to the exercises, intensity, volume, and periodization plans used. Would these results then mean that everyone should now train with these exercises, intensities, volumes, and periodization plans? All it does is present a picture of what is presently taking place. It does not imply that this is what everyone should do or that this is the best way to train or practice or anything along these lines.

It is interesting to note that when I talked with Vorobyev, the head coach of the Soviet national weightlifting team, he told me that they use more specialized (assistive) strength exercises and try to stay away from always doing the two events. Only (or mostly) doing the two events leads to a decrease in performance results. Instead, they use many local assistance exercises that duplicate aspects of each joint action. This, in turn, brings about greater improvement in results than when only doing the competitive events. In addition, they use plyometrics, which was beginning to take hold in the training of many athletes at that time. I’ve experimented with the use of plyometrics with powerlifters, and especially with athletes, and have had good success in improving the squat. Explosive or plyometric-type exercises have also been able to significantly improve the bench press.

High-level Russian weightlifters concentrated on the competitive events in the pre-competitive period to perfect technique, which then brought about an even greater increase in their performance. Their physical qualities at this time were already fully developed, and they did not spend time on increasing strength, especially general strength. However, we seem to be doing just the opposite. We use the Olympic lifts to improve performance without developing the key physical abilities and local assistive exercises specific to the performance.

As a result, I often wonder if performing the Olympic lifts in the training of football athletes, as well as other athletes, actually transfers to better playing on the field. It does not appear to be so. It seems that everyone assumes that this is what occurs, but nobody has proven this point. In addition, it appears that many powerlifting programs also utilize Olympic lifts in training. However, is this a wise idea? Has anyone proven that this truly benefits powerlifters or power athletes? If yes, in what phase of the training, or does it apply only to the competitive event?

In some of my private discussions with Bondarchuk and other top Russian coaches, they all wish that they could have been a coach of U.S. athletes. According to Bondarchuk, we have the greatest athletic talent pool in the world, but we don't turn out world record holders like we should be able to do. He believes that the reason for this is our obsession with maximum strength!