So you want to get strong? Then you need to prepare.
Welcome back to “The Map for Boundless Progress” series. Here we’re going to talk about the first and most important phase of any annual training plan: the Preparatory Period. We’ll be going over what this phase is, its aims, and finally, our take on it in relation to Q1 of Team JustLift’s Annual Plan. However, before we get going, we’ve got to go over just a few background details…
Periodization Basics: Preparatory and Competitive Phases
Periodization is the idea that the sequencing of meaningfully connected training periods is necessary for the optimal cultivation of an athlete’s potential. In other words, it makes sense to order specific objectives in training since you can’t accomplish everything at once and some training qualities build off of others.
There are a number of different approaches to periodization based on this fundamental principle of planning. One thing they all have in common is that they assume training can (generally) be considered to fall into two categories: Preparatory and Competitive. What’s the difference?
- Preparatory periods focus on building capacity in various, necessary traits.
- Competitive periods are for transforming that newfound capacity into performance.
Another way to think about it? Preparation periods focus on accumulating stress from different, but related kinds of work. Competition periods exist to integrate the adaptations acquired through the Preparatory phase, and specifies them through training that more closely simulates expected competitive performance(s). Here’s a programming example using the Bench Press to illustrate the delineation:
Our Preparatory phase uses numerous variations of the Bench Press as well as an extensive range of reps and intensities. On average we work with lighter loads using exercises very similar to the Bench Press that challenge specific phases of the lift. To support this we use a diverse array of supplemental exercises to increase our strength potential or keep us healthy and balanced. Our goal? Challenge multiple systems that affect Bench Press performance while getting lots of quality practice in.
In contrast, our Competition phase has us mostly doing the classic Bench Press with less overall work. However, this reduction in total work is to enable practice in the competition lift with loads closer to our absolute maximum. Likewise, our Wednesday workout is less about loading and more about staying practiced while recovering, so fatigue won’t get in the way of our upcoming 3 Rep Max (RM) attempt. Whereas in Preparation we were building our potential to Bench Press heavy loads, in our Competition phase we’re realizing it.
Make sense? Let’s take a look at what our Weightlifters and Powerlifters have been up to…
There’s a lot that goes into building impressive Snatches and Clean and Jerks: joint mobility, leg strength, pulling strength, overhead strength, power, technique… the list goes on. As convenient as it would be to be able to develop all of those qualities together, the simple reality is that, for the majority of us, you just can’t meaningfully build everything at once. Not without repeated injury, feeling exhausted, and normalizing a miserable training experience.
There are so many physical qualities that a Weightlifter must develop to be complete. We’ve found that breaking things down even further than the basic Preparation-Competition model is the easiest way to solve this problem. Instead of using one Preparatory period, why not two?
Before a Weightlifter can move a bar fast, they must be strong. If you’ve lifted for a while then you’ve seen at least one inexperienced but talented individual use shameful technique to muscle something heavy enough to irritate you (don’t worry, it’ll catch up to them). While we’ll never be the club that understates the value of good technique, the reality is that simple, brute strength matters. A lot more than we’d like it to.
Our Weightlifters’ training is channeling most of their efforts into Squats, Pulls, and Presses. We expect them to put up new records in the Back Squat, Front Squat, Push Press, Snatch and Clean Deadlifts at the end of this first phase. Additionally, we’re loading them up with plenty of accessory work to aid in the process.
The reason we’re starting with strength work first is two-fold. Firstly, the volume of training required to make a Squat or Deadlift go up by 10-15kg in a training cycle will hinder what we can accomplish in the Olympic lifts (and vice versa). Secondly, strength is among the most persistent of physical adaptations that can be derived from training. Even if we substantially reduce both the volume and intensity of strength work in the last 12 weeks of training, our athletes will retain all of their gains.
Organizing our training this way allows our athletes to expend the bulk of their adaptive potential on one, major objective at a time. This lone reason is why many Weightlifters, particularly on the North American continent, hit a wall in their progress after 2-3 years of generalized Weightlifting programming. They’re advanced enough that the quantity of work required to provoke the desired adaptations in all the relevant movements exceeds their total recovery ability. While we rarely want to be in a situation where we’re not doing the competition lifts (or their variants), we do need to rotate our training emphases to maintain balanced, consistent progress over the course of multiple years.
It can be brutally demoralizing putting yourself under the pressure to progress both competition lifts as well as the supporting movements all at the same time. This approach allows our athletes to give themselves fully to the task at hand with assurance that their gains will come. Our method can take a little longer, but our competitive results speak for themselves.
The Powerlifters are taking a similar approach to our Weightlifters, albeit we don’t need quite as complex a training model as they do. Why? Because Powerlifting is fundamentally about one thing: brutal strength. While it’s cool to be a barbell gymnast and fly under a Snatch, Powerlifting has something else. There’s something special about getting under a bar that’s 2.5x your body weight, bending your knees, and not getting folded in half.
Our Powerlifting cohort is younger (in training years) than our Weightlifting team, and so this group’s current emphasis is simple: transforming our members into indomitable lifters who possess unrelenting strength.
We began this year with a focused bout of hypertrophy work, keeping the weights submaximal. Once again, we have a two-fold reason for programming this way. The first one is practically intuitive: bigger muscles have greater potential to be strong muscles. The other reason? Work capacity. It isn’t just for athletes who like to breathe heavy. Powerlifters need it too, but the kind that allows them to handle lots of reps and recover quickly between sets.
By using loads in the 50-70% range for sets of 6-10, we can have our lifters complete a high quantity of total work while still recovering. Beyond that, it eases their transition to the second Preparatory phase where we focus on the bread and butter of Powerlifting: building strength in the Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift (SBD). Shifting gears from sets of 6-10 down to sets of 1-5 reps will inspire nothing but confidence in the Strength phase of this cycle’s Preparation period.
In this stage of the plan we’re doing lots of work with variations – offshoots of the core lifts like Pause Squats, Tempo Bench Presses, and Halting Deadlifts. Why? Although it’s possible to mostly train the competition movements themselves and progress for a long time, we’ve found that this approach just compounds weaknesses over the long haul. For instance, many Powerlifters miss Squats just before reaching parallel on the way up.
To remedy this, we program movements like Pause Squats in the Bottom and Front Squats. This concentrates our training stress on the stage of movement we’re having difficulty with via Pause Squats, as well as the primary muscles responsible for getting us out of it, the quadriceps, via Front Squats. If we were to only train with a competition-style Squat, this could be our sticking point for years!
When it comes time to peak and test our Powerlifters, they’ll not only have gained an immense amount of new strength, but the technical skill they built through the lift variations will shine. Maxing out is when movement and strength deficits are exposed. By taking a longer, more varied approach to development, our lifters will not only be assured of obtaining significant records, they’ll be balanced throughout their careers, avoiding specialized training periods where we’re forced to address glaring, specific weaknesses that are bottlenecking progress.
Why so much Preparatory work?
We probably spend more time in Preparatory mode than most. While we have many reasons for this (that we’ll talk about some other time), here we’re going to focus on the most salient: quality of practice.
A popular misnomer is that if you just put in work you’ll come out a great on the other side. Why spend time taking 4 seconds to lower yourself into a Squat with only 65% of your best when you could be hammering away at the big weights? As a master of the grind myself, let me be among the loudest voices to tell you, from experience, that this is a dangerously mistaken idea. Most cases where we’ve observed this have resulted in a promising lifter quitting entirely. We’ve seen too many motivated, but inexperienced athletes beat both their bodies and dreams into dust with this mindset, doing programs that were inappropriate at best, and dangerously stupid at worst.
You can’t rush excellence. Taking longer to develop ensures that our athletes are actually learning the skill of becoming a lifter. Not only does it give them the time to progress steadily, it gives them the room to fail. We stress to our athletes that quality of technique, practice, and even the enjoyment of the training experience, matters. A willingness to get things wrong – to be bad – is necessary to get good at anything. That’s why we don’t rely on progressions that are dependent on everything working as planned. Our message would be contradictory if we were to say what we do, but then expect our athletes, regardless of sport or experience, to grind away and put up records in everything on an 8-12 week schedule. Now, does that mean we only allow our athletes to test their lifts every 4-6 months? No way!
We expect our athletes’ maxes to improve over the course of each period of training. It’s actually quite likely that many of our Powerlifters will be doing their recent Personal Records (PR) for a new 2 or 3RM in the Strength phase of this first cycle. When our Weightlifters enter their second Preparatory period in Q2 of this year it’s quite likely they’ll set new Snatch and Clean and Jerk records before they even begin to peak. It’s not a new 1RM that tells you whether someone’s gotten stronger or not. All that aside, however, new 1RMs are just evidence of a successful peak. It’s the change in the average weight on the bar, across many lifts, that, with few exceptions, is the most reliable indicator of successful development.
That’s why we spend less time transmuting work into shiny, new 1RMs. The more total progress we can achieve over the course of a career, the better. Why? Because Competition phases, by definition, are not for development. The fewer times we go through distinct Competition segments the more time we have to build an athlete. In a year of training, the time we save might only amount to an extra 4-6 weeks of development time. Over the course of a few years, however, we’ve now added months of time spent on growth. Of course, we still do want to peak…
It’s just that when we do, we want to ensure that our lifters not only feel ready to, but are excited to, because nabbing a new max isn’t a question. It’s a question of how much they’ll improve it by. Testing and competition days shouldn’t feel like an exam you crammed for; they should feel like a celebration of your work!
So, what’s next?
We covered a lot today! If you didn’t quite grasp it before, I hope this sheds some light on the training process for you. While it can be a lot to take in, the better you understand the it the more you’ll get out of the programs you follow.
The next piece in this series will go over more of the nuances of the Preparatory Period concept by diving into the second half of the Preparatory phase of our Weightlifters’ Q1-Q2 training cycle. We’ll also be reviewing the shape our Powerlifters’ Strength phase took, and how it’ll inform the choices we make in their Competition Period.
Until next time!