elitefts™ Sunday Edition

In a previous article, I wrote about how a person’s strength training program has to change as he progresses and how I would like to see other top strength athletes write about how their programs have changed as they increased their strength levels. I figure I should listen to my own words and write an article on how and why my training has changed over the years. So in this article, I'll be writing about the top things that have changed the most over my years of training from the time that I started powerlifting until now and explain why I changed them.

I think the biggest and hardest change for me was learning to train less. In fact, this is something that I continually struggle with. About a year or two into my powerlifting career, I purchased a bench press DVD by George Halbert (it's worth getting to). One of the things he said was that as you get stronger, you won't be able to train as much. This was very profound and meaningful to me because even at that time I was struggling with overtraining. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense, but at the same time, my ego kept telling me that I needed to train more. It was and is a huge struggle between my brain, my heart, and my ego. Luckily for me, my brain won most of the battles, at least enough of them to allow me to become a pretty good powerlifter.

Even though I'm a very emotional lifter, I still realize that sometimes we need to leave our emotions out of it and think logically. If you think about training and getting stronger in a logical sense, you'll see it does make sense that you need more recovery time as you get stronger.

Let’s start with workload and how it increases just by being stronger. For example, say that you're doing a box squat for your max effort day and your best is around 400 pounds. So you probably warmed up with the bar for ten reps and then did 95 X 10, 135 X 8, 185 X 8, 225 X 5, 275 X 3, 315 X 2, 365 X 1, and 405 X 1. You just did a total workload of 7310 pounds in 48 reps. Now let’s say that your strength has increased and your best box squat is 800 pounds. Your reps may look like this—bar X 10, 135 X 10, 225 X 8, 315 X 8, 405 X 5, 495 X 5, 585 X 3, 675 X 1, 765 X 1, and 815 X 1. Even though you’re taking bigger jumps in your warm ups, your workload is now 14,630 pounds in 52 reps. That's roughly doubling the workload and doubling your max lift.

The same theory goes for all your supplemental work, too. Say that you're doing a close grip 4-board on triceps work for three sets of ten reps. If your strength increases from using 315 pounds to using 405 pounds, your workload is increased by 90 pounds with every rep. Over thirty reps, that’s a 2700-pound increase. I know that the examples I gave are huge gains, but I wanted to show how quickly the workload can add up with any strength gains. You also have to realize that this happens with every rep over the whole training session. Even a 10-pound jump on a dumbbell exercise (that's a five-pound increase in each hand) is a 300-pound increase in workload over 30 reps. So by the simple fact that we get stronger, we also increase our workload even if we're still doing the same program.

I feel that it has been pounded into our heads that the more we train, the more we can train and therefore the stronger we will get, which isn't totally true. What we need to focus on is the fact that we get stronger when we recover, and if our workload is too high for us to recover, we only get weaker. So as I got stronger, my workload increased a lot, and because of that, I had to allow more time off to give myself more time to recover in order to keep getting stronger.

Other contributing factors to me training less often as I advanced are that I have much better muscle control now and my technique is much more efficient. Basically, as you strength train, you should be developing a stronger central nervous system with better neural pathways to your muscles. Simply put, you will be able to contract your muscles harder and you will be able to contract more muscle fibers. You also increase muscle efficiency through regular training and learning better technique. Generally, your movements will become more controlled as you learn the movements of different exercises. As your technique also improves, you will be able to lift greater loads even without increasing strength.


So when you're just starting strength training, you'll think and feel like you're doing a full max or putting 100- percent into a lift, but you really aren't because your body hasn't developed the capacity to actually do that. For example, say that when you first started, your best squat was 400 pounds and it was a serious struggle. Well, I don't have any doubt that you were using as much energy as you could to get it up, but the simple fact is that 400 pounds isn't a true max for your strength level. If your technique was perfect, your muscle control was at a higher level, and your central nervous system was more developed, you would be squatting 100–200 pounds more. This is something that is more easily understood once you actually reach a more advanced level.

I often look back at my earlier training. I thought that I really busted my ass and that I was training hard, but now I fully understand what intense training is because I have the ability to push my body so much further. I used to think that I was drained or exhausted the next day, but that wasn't anything compared to how far I can push my body today and how exhausted I can be a few days after a hard training session. With the increased ability to push yourself further with better technique, more muscle control, more muscle fiber recruitment, and a stronger central nervous system, you'll need even more time to recover from each training session because of how much more you're getting out of your body.

Another big difference between when I first started and my training now is that I don't actually do the main lifts as much as I used to. The main reason for this is technique. When I first started powerlifting, my technique was horrible. With my squats, I used a narrow stance ass to the floor with knees way forward, and when it got heavy, my back rounded badly. My bench was pretty much a bodybuilding bench that wasn't at all conducive to lifting big weights, and my deadlift was pretty much a train wreck waiting to shoot some vertebral discs across the gym. Once I learned good technique, I understood that it was the foundation to everything I wanted to achieve. I realized that my number one goal at that time needed to be to make it as perfect as possible. Perfect technique takes patience, persistence, and thousand of reps.

In my case, I had to break years of bad habits and neural pathways in order to build new, strong pathways. Simply put, in order to get a good squat, you have to squat a lot with good technique. So in the beginning of my powerlifting career, I did a lot more of the main lifts. As my technique grew more solid, I was able to expand into more advanced lifts. Doing the main lifts a lot is kind of against the principle of the conjugate method, but it's also important to get your technique down first so that you can use the conjugate method with intelligence. I still did the conjugate method in the beginning, but it was with a lot more of the main lifts involved.

When I did different lifts, my training was based more on which ones would help my technique improve. For example, when I felt that I was full squatting too much, I did good mornings because I struggled with the beginning of my squat and needed to really work on sitting my ass back before bending my knees. On the bench, instead of full benching, I did a high board (3-, 4-, or 5-board) and really worked on lowering the bar to my feet before breaking my elbows. In the very beginning, most of my time was spent on full movements. Then, as technique began to improve, I wanted to go more to the conjugate method and choose my lifts around what I needed to improve in my technique. Once my technique was pretty damn good, I didn’t really do full movements all that much (except for dynamic days) and the exercises that I did do were chosen based around my weak muscle groups.

Let me also say that without good technique, it is very difficult to really see what your weak muscle groups are. No matter how long you train, you will always be chasing weak muscle groups. I have yet to ever reach a point where every muscle in my body grows in strength at the same rate. This is why my training evolved around building good technique, transferring more into conjugate method-based exercises around technical issues, and then basing my exercises around my weak points. Without the first step of getting good technique, you'll never get the full potential out of your training or lifts.

Lifting gear has also changed the amount of time that I spend on the main lifts. Once I started getting into gear or even when I switched to different gear, I ended up doing the main lifts more often. Geared lifting is very different from raw lifting, and both have their challenges. It takes awhile to get used to gear. Then you have to get good technique in it and find out how your lifts are in it. This must be done first so that you're comfortable in the gear (as comfortable as you can be).

With good technique, you can see where you're at as far as what kind of weights it takes to hit depth or touch. As I said before, you will also need to have good technique in the gear to be able to see your weak muscle groups and weak areas of the lift. Then you can start with more specialized movements to correct those problems and weak areas.

At this point in my lifting career, I'm pretty good in gear and don’t really have to wear it all that much or do full lifts in it. More or less, I'll spend more time in it getting ready for a competition, but I wear it more in specialized exercises going into competitions, not so much with full lifts.

Another very big thing that has changed for me from early in my powerlifting career to now is that I don't follow so much of a routine or program anymore. When I first started, I had a set program or developed set programs and did training logs of every session to track my progress. I think this is something all new and even intermediate lifters should do. It's actually a great way to track progress and help figure out what things work best for you.

This does have its limitations though. At some point, you really have to free your mind and body up with less unforgiving rigidity. You have to start training more by how your body feels and be able to adjust training around life, which I've stated many times has a huge outcome on our recovery. Most of the top lifters and strength athletes whom I've met all train differently and they all have confidence in their own training. They've all found what works for them as the individuals they are. They're also able to adapt their training at a moment's notice and they don’t stress about it or second guess themselves. I believe that this should be a goal for all strength athletes.

These days I do have a basic outline of what my training will look like and I have to do that because I have training partners, which is always a practice of finding middle ground so that everyone makes gains. All my partners have families and responsibilities, so we have set days for max effort and dynamic days but what those days will consist of is decided on those days. The exercises and intensity level and whether or not to deload or miss all together is all decided on a daily basis. So we have a basic outline of the type of training that we want to do and set days for those sessions, but for everything else, we go by how we feel or what we need at that time. I feel that this gives all of us the freedom to always be evaluating ourselves and the things we need to improve.

Personally, at this point in my training and if I were training alone, I would train with a very basic outline of training principles that I believe in without any schedule at all. Someday I may try this, but for now, my partners are very important for me in terms of me helping them and getting help from them, so it isn't worth trying right now. I would like to point out that even on the days when one of us won't be training, we almost always still come to the gym to help out each other. That's what good training partners do.

Overall, my training has changed over the years, but I've managed to always stay true to the principle of training that I believe in the most. Well, that is once I started training for powerlifting. The biggest and hardest thing to learn was to listen to my body and that is something I'm continually trying to perfect. Then there is basically not training as often, not doing the main lifts as much, and not being stuck in a rigid program. These are all things that take a while to learn. Although they shouldn’t be done by beginners or intermediate lifters, lifters at these levels need to be aware of these things because they will need to start leaning or transitioning toward them as they progress.

Never forget that strength sports are a journey that takes years and has many different steps in the middle that need to be learned. You need to be in it for the long haul. If you take short cuts, it will bite you in the ass eventually. If strength is a way of life like it is for me, you shouldn't have any problem with this. Always set short-term goals to improve every day, and in the long run, you'll achieve great things!