Triphasic Training for Powerlifting
Before I get into how I've used a triphasic template for powerlifting, first let me explain why I decided to use one.
At my facility in Memphis, Tenn., our powerlifting team used a typical "Westside" template for the first year and a half. We had two lower body days and two upper body days with both a maximal effort and dynamic effort method for each. We varied the movements, intensities, weights, tempos and rest periods to continue to see what worked best. I started to notice that on “speed” days, several of the lifters weren’t able to use the typical 50 percent intensity and still get decent bar speed. In fact, a few lifters had to drop down to around 25 percent to get the same bar speed as other lifters weren’t getting at 50%-70%.
Another thing I noticed was these same lifters weren’t able to get multiple sets above 90 percent on their max effort days. They got tired too quickly, and after about two heavy sets, they would have an epic fail missed lift. For example, if while doing yoke bar box squats with an estimated max of 400 pounds, they would hit 315, 365 and 385, all with relatively good speed and ease. Then as soon as 400 went on the bar, it killed them. They just fell to the box, got stuck on the box or fell forward. While one group of lifters was getting multiple sets above 90 percent on max effort days, moving the bar super fast on speed days and making great progress, another group was getting killed on max effort days, was super slow on dynamic effort days and wasn't making as much progress. (I should also mention that both groups had about the same amount of lifting experience.) So I started looking for common denominators.
One of the first things that jumped out at me was that the group that was doing best and that also had elite totals consisted of those who had played college athletics while the other group hadn’t. I felt like this had a major impact for several reasons. First, that group was used to the mental aspect of a sport. They showed up mentally ready every day and they didn’t miss training as often. Second, they were used to relatively frequent high neural outputs. They could come in and train hard several days a week and still recover. Third, they could better handle multiple high neural outputs in a single training session. They all played power sports like baseball, football and soccer.
I determined that the group needed some more work at a medium intensity to help build their strength instead of continually just “testing” it. They also needed to build a more explosive base so that they could develop more power into their lifts and weren’t grinding everything out. I also determined that overall, we as a group needed better aerobic conditioning and more work capacity. They were struggling to get through the max effort work in a timely fashion and dragged it out because they were struggling to recover between lifts. Then they were forced to leave early before they got their accessory work in. So my goals were simple: improve their aerobic capacity, get more work in at a medium intensity and build a more explosive base.
If you haven’t read Cal Dietz's book on triphasic training, the simplified version of it is that they use an undulating, block periodization scheme and separate phases within their blocks to develop strength in each of the muscular contractions: eccentric, isometric and concentric. While Cal uses these methods to prepare his athletes for the demands of the high velocity sports, I have found that it works great for powerlifting as well because the three phases of muscular contraction are incredibly distinct in this sport.
Here is how we programmed out our first triphasic template along with the reasoning behind the different parts of the program.
Weeks 1–3: Post-competition/Base Block (aerobic conditioning)
This was put into place immediately after the lifters' last competition. We use this time period as a chance to rest, recover and build an aerobic base back up. We stay away from weights and use a lot of body weight movements and conditioning tools. The lifters are instructed to do tissue work daily and see their chiropractors, massage therapists and physical therapists to get any issues that they're dealing with addressed and fixed. The workouts are short and they are in and out of the gym quickly.
Here is a sample day:
- 20-minute walk
- 40 tire flips
- 50 push-ups
- 50 inverted rows
- 100 kettlebell swings
- 5-minute jog
Each week, they increased their total volume by 10 percent on each exercise.
Weeks 4–8: Base Block (aerobic power)
During this block, they continued to build their aerobic conditioning through the use of mainly machines. We still stayed away from barbells and continued to fix any injuries or other issues they had from the previous meet cycle. Each day was full body, and they completed the exercises for one minute on and one minute off for three total work sets, exploding the weight up with each rep.
Here is a sample day:
- Backwards sled drag
- Neutral dumbbell bench
- Straight bar cable rows
- Reverse hypers
- Seated dumbbell front raise
Week 9: Test Week
During this week, we did a rep max test on several different exercises that we used later in the program. This gave us percentages to go off of. Because they hadn’t lifted in a while and because I didn’t want them to kill themselves going to failure on big exercises that they hadn’t done in a while, I had them work up to an estimated five rep maxes. They built up in weight doing five reps until they got to a weight that was difficult for 4–6 reps. They were instructed to leave 2–3 reps in the tank and estimate their total max reps. So if they used 400 pounds and it started to get difficult at four reps, they estimated that they had two reps left. Then we estimated their max based off of 400 pounds for reps. This isn’t the most accurate method for determining a max, but it worked well enough for us and it didn’t tax or injure anyone.
Here is a sample test week:
- Bench press
- Split squat
- Wide stance cambered bar box squat
- Neutral dumbbell bench press
- Close grip bench press
- Yoke bar box squat
- Standing barbell press
- Front squat
- Football bar bench press
Weeks 10–12: Triphasic Block (eccentric strength)
During this phase, we used a weekly undulating model for our intensity. Monday was medium intensity lower body, Tuesday was medium intensity upper body, Thursday was high intensity lower body, Friday was high intensity upper body and Saturday was low intensity full body.
During this phase, all the main movements on medium and low intensity days were done with a five- to seven-second eccentric. On the heavier intensity days, max speed on the eccentric and concentric phase were emphasized. Medium intensity was between 82.5 percent and 87.5 percent, high intensity was between 90 percent and 95 percent and low intensity was between 75 percent and 80 percent. On the medium intensity days, main movements were paired with explosive movements to utilize post-activation potential and help build some explosive capabilities in our lifters. Accessory work was done in circuit style fashion to give the muscles time to recover and to ensure that maximal weight could be used while still keeping the heart rate up and holding on to the aerobic base that we built. It also helped keep the workout from lasting too long. Tissue work and mobility drills were done in between sets of main movements to maintain tissue quality and mobility/flexibility to prevent injuries.
Here are the days from the eccentric block. Anything paired in a colored box was done as a circuit:
Weeks 13–15: Triphasic Block (isometric strength)
This was set up in the same fashion as the previous block. During this phase, isometric strength was emphasized through isometric holds and resisted isometrics.
Here are the days from the isometric block:
Weeks 16–18: Triphasic Block (concentric/dynamic strength)
This had the same setup as the previous two blocks, except that the primary focus was now concentric strength, specifically being as explosive as possible during the concentric phase. During this phase, we switched to the competition lifts for our main movements. We also utilized something known as the French contract method on our heavy days. The lifters performed a heavy set of their main movement (squats) followed by a loaded explosive movement (dumbbell squat jumps) followed by their main movement again with 50 percent of max and accommodating resistance with chains (squats with chains) and finally an assisted explosive movement (squat jumps with band assistance). This seemed to have a really positive effect on the lifters' explosive abilities, and they reported feeling much more powerful afterward.
Here are the days from the concentric block:
Weeks 19-21: Meet Prep Block
During this phase, the lifters prepared mentally and physically for their meet. I believe it is a good idea to train all three lifts in a day during this phase, as it prepares you for the rigors of a meet and really hammers in the technique during the last few weeks.
During this period, the lifters dropped from five days a week of training to three days a week. Each day, they would do one competition lift for a heavy single and the other two competition lifts for 6 X 3 at 50–60 percent with bands or chains in an explosive nature. Lifters were instructed to work up to a lift that felt around 95 percent on week 19, 97.5 percent on week 20 and 100 percent on week 21. However, they were instructed to not take any weights that they didn’t know they could hit and risk missing lifts. During this period, they go off of feel on their main lifts instead of actual percentages.
Here is a sample day:
- Squats, work up to a heavy single in the 95% range; use straps
- Bench, 6 X 3 with 50% bar weight and 20% chain weight
- Deadlift, 6 X 3 with 50% bar weight and 20% band tension
After going through this first triphasic training program, I really thought that the lifters got a lot out of breaking down the lifts into each specific muscular action. It helped them feel more control and build more speed into their descent; it gave them more control and a quicker, more concise stop in the hole for squats and bench presses; and it helped them build an explosive concentric action as they drove the weight up on all three lifts. Everyone had a great meet and hit PRs. Several guys and girls hit really good numbers and won their divisions. In the end, I think triphasic training is definitely worth utilizing in your program and it can be of benefit to all powerlifters, especially raw powerlifters. There are several changes that I made to the program afterward, but I'll go over those in a future article. Until then, try some of these methods and let me know what you think.