Training is a daily battle in which our will and desire are tested. It is more than just working out. It is more than a hobby. Those who have been successful in powerlifting have all approached the sport with an amazing will to conquer. This resolve is built through time spent approaching training not just as a lifter, but as a warrior.

The Art of War is the legendary book of military strategy thought to have been written by the Chinese general Sun Tzu in the fourth or fifth century. It is one of the most revered books on strategic thinking ever written and its principles have been applied to all different walks of life.

Whatever your goals, it’s time to start treating training as the battle that it is. But it takes more than just aggression to achieve victory in this sport. It takes calculated strategy. Take these ten principles from The Art of War and move a step closer to victory.

On preparation

1. Know your goals and train accordingly.

“Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.”

No matter what your goals are, you need to understand them and develop your training philosophy to suit them. With the large volume of training information out there, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and over-complicate things. If your primary goal is training for a powerlifting meet, don’t try and combine 5/3/1, Westside for Skinny Bastards, a program to improve your 40 time, and a “bigger guns in four weeks” program from a bodybuilding magazine. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s easy to find yourself trying to tailor your training to several very different goals. Know your goals, pick a proven program that suits them, and stick with it.

2. Secure your victory in your daily habits.

“To not prepare is the greatest of crimes; to be prepared beforehand for any contingency is the greatest of virtues.”

Never underestimate the importance of daily preparation in your training. In powerlifting, how you perform on the platform will be a direct result of how you spent every day of your training cycle leading up to the meet. This doesn’t just include your time in the gym. This includes all aspects of recovery—your sleep, nutrition, stress management, and mental focus. If you discipline yourself and devote your time to preparing for success, you will succeed on meet day.

On training strategy

3. Train smart.

“Thus those skilled in war subdue the enemy’s army without battle…they conquer by strategy.”

Any proven program is based on strategy and getting the most out of your time in the gym. The conjugate method, 5/3/1, the Cube—the list goes on. They are all developed on the basis of training optimally and efficiently to reach a goal. As a novice lifter, you may be able to go into the gym week after week and just go crazy for heavy singles, but before long, you'll need to be more calculated. You need to have a method to your madness in order to last long term in this sport. Just because you’re in a sweaty heap on the floor or puking doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re getting stronger.

4. Choose your battles.

“Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.”

In any good program, you'll be provided with some form of auto-regulation. This may be using a daily max, going for a subjective rep range, or changing your assistance work. You'll have days when you won't be at 100 percent and you must adapt accordingly. You aren’t always going to be able to go crazy and hit a PR.

Jim Wendler explains this in an excerpt from his program 5/3/1: “Life is filled with distractions and you’re going to get stressed out. Combine that with a bad night’s sleep or a lack of food and you’re looking at a lot of things that can potentially go wrong…When this happens, I recommend going into the weight room with one purpose: getting your prescribed weights and leaving. The weights may feel heavy, but every part of this program is designed to build on to every other part from one workout to the next and one wave to the next. This week 3×5 will earn you the right to move on to the next 3×5 week of the next wave.”

Good programming allows for these types of training sessions and uses them to build for the future.

5. But be ready to strike when the iron is hot.

“...though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays.”

You can have the best program in the world, but if you don’t work hard enough, you will fail. Along with the ability to pull back some days, every good program also gives you the necessary opportunity to push yourself to your limits. Whether it’s your max-effort exercise in conjugate training or your “three or more” set in 5/3/1, there will be times when you need to get in the zone and make a PR happen.

6. Don’t train afraid to fail.

“Opportunities multiply as they are seized.”

You don’t want to fail lifts regularly throughout training, but if fear of a certain weight or lift starts to control you, it’s time for that to change. If you can destroy a 490-pound deadlift, but 500 pounds barely moves off the floor, chances are you're letting that number get in your head and conquer you. Don’t let fear control you in a negative way. If you’re going for a tough attempt, don’t pace around for fifteen minutes talking yourself out of lifting it. You’ve been putting in the work. Now go execute and reap the rewards!

On competition

7. The battle is won or lost before you step on the platform.

“Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won. Whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.”

Don’t approach the platform on meet day just hoping that you’ll maybe, somehow be able to pull off a miracle and get your attempt. This seems common sense, but it’s incredibly easy to defeat ourselves mentally before we even step on the platform. As we discussed earlier, prepare mentally and physically so that on meet day, it’s just a matter of getting in the zone and making it happen.

8. Technique is everything.

“Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated.”

Mental preparedness in approaching the platform isn’t just a matter of confidence. Technique and the mental focus to execute it will make or break your performance. Countless lifters have discussed the importance of mental execution in training. Developing it starts right from the second you walk into the gym. Watch training videos of some of the top professional lifters. They train in such a way as to execute every rep exactly the same.

Kirk Karwoski, arguably the best squatter of all time, discussed the mental execution of stepping on the platform at a meet: “The lift starts as soon as you set your first foot on that platform and you’re going in to go to work. Everything needs to be the same every time...If you can manage to not screw up for 20 seconds, you will get the lift.”

Hone your technique mentally and physically in training, so at the meet, you’re just twenty seconds away from a sure victory.

9. When it’s go time, pull the trigger.

“Energy may be likened to the bending of a crossbow, decision to the releasing of a trigger.”

All the yelling and ammonia in the world won't get that deadlift bar off the ground if you don’t believe you can do it. Training yourself to be confident can be one of the toughest things to do, but it’s imperative for your success. Don’t let fear or doubt ruin the months of hard work that you’ve put in leading up to a meet. You’ve sweat, bled, sacrificed, and devoted yourself to training for something many will never do. Be confident in that and, when your name is called, go up to the platform and make the decision to pull the trigger.

Lastly and most importantly...

10. You learn the most from years in the trenches and under the bar.

“It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on.”

There are countless articles and resources that will greatly benefit your training, but nothing will ever replace years spent under the bar. The only way people like Dave Tate and the experts on this site were able to gain the knowledge that they share on a regular basis is through time spent overcoming adversity. They learned from both success and failure and devoted years to this sport. Read and research, but know that at the end of the day nothing can replace the lessons learned under a heavy barbell.


  • Ames R (1993) Sun-tzu: The art of warfare. (1st ed.). New York, NY: Random House Publishing.
  • Wendler Jim. 5/3/1: The Simplest and Most Effective Training System for Raw Strength.