Having coached many competitive powerlifters for the last 3-4 years, I've noticed common areas in the realm of training and recovery that many athletes (especially beginners and intermediates) neglect. In the past, I've written about how athletes coming into powerlifting should treat it like a sport and focus on a more well-rounded approach to athletic development. This means including a wider variety of exercises into one's training program, and covering foundational bases such as work capacity and recovery capabilities before progressing onto high-frequency and highly-specific powerlifting programs.
This article will expand on few of those details by highlighting the 3 most neglected areas of training and recovery I see in athletes of all levels. Either the importance of these areas have not been stressed enough by their coaches and the environment they lift in, or the athletes fail to see the impact it plays on their powerlifting performance. These tips will benefit everyone from the beginners, to the most elite athletes.
#1 Work Capacity and General Endurance
The number one goal of any beginner powerlifter is to improve work capacity and general endurance. Being able to handle higher volumes of work will be lead to faster technical improvements, more muscle hypertrophy and higher recovery capabilities; 3 important areas that are crucial for building maximum strength in powerlifting.
An interesting observation I've made over the last few years, is that female lifters I've coached have a higher tolerance for volume, and as a consequence, improve their powerlifting technique at a much faster rate than men. The higher capacity for recovery in between sets and the ability to perform more repetitions without fatigue means more quality time under the bar - leading to faster learning. This might be because females tend to have a different training background than men before starting powerlifting, performing more circuit-based training and more dedicated cardio sessions throughout their powerlifting programs.
Regardless of your training background, what can you do to improve work capacity and recovery capabilities in the realm of powerlifting?
- Higher Rep Sets - the most common way is to perform higher rep sets (8-12+ reps per set) for multiple mesocycles (weeks/months). Stay calm, and don't rush through the set - this will teach you how to breathe properly and build a higher tolerance to higher heart rates and lactic acid/lactate build up.
- Increase Training Density - Training density refers to the volume of work done within a certain time period. To increase training density, simply do more work in less time. You can achieve this by reducing the rest times in between sets, or set a time limit/goal for finishing your workout. Other methods include super setting your accessory exercises or performing some form of active rest in between sets. This will also take away the fluff from your training sessions: talking to your friends for too long, getting side tracked with music selection, etc. Anything that may be considered a distraction.
- Active Rest Days - Most novice powerlifting programs consist of 3-4 hard training days. That leaves another 3-4 days that can be dedicated to improving other physical attributes. This is where active rest days come in. The most common forms of active rest include mobility/range of motion training and low intensity steady state cardio (go for a walk, go for a bike ride, go for a swim). The point here is to keep the blood flowing, keep the muscles and joints warm without interfering with the recovery process of powerlifting. Low impact, low intensity cardiovascular training is a great way to build a strong aerobic system responsible for your recovery capabilities between sets and between training sessions.
- Prime Your Mindset For Higher Effort Work - Don't fall into the trap of "powerlifters don't do cardio". This is something I bring up time and time again: don't allow the destructive culture of demonizing cardiovascular training in strength sports to hinder your progress and athletic development. Embrace the volume, treat yourself like a well-rounded athlete.
2. Accessory Work - Attention To Detail
Powerlifters spend A LOT of time and effort making incremental improvements to their sport-specific lifts. Grip and stance width, leverages, joint and torso angles, internal and external cues; these are all modifiable components of the powerlifts that are experimented with in order to produce the heaviest, most efficient lift possible. However, accessory work often becomes an afterthought and the technical demands of those exercises are often neglected.
My philosophy for powerlifting performance is to put the same amount of effort into the accessory work as you do the competition lifts. If an accessory exercise is supposedly prescribed to address the weaknesses of a powerlifter such as strengthening a certain range of motion on a particular competition lift, or strengthening a particular muscle, technique on the accessory work must be held to a higher standard. Powerlifting for me is not only about the squat, bench press, and deadlift, but also about building physical literacy - knowing your way around your own body. The athletes that perform pull ups, lunges, and other movement patterns with a higher proficiency get MORE out of the exercises than those who don't. Great lifters maximizing the transfer effect of accessory exercises. 4 sets of 10 reps done with a full range of motion with the right joint and muscle angles beat 4x10 done with poor form; despite the volume load being the same on paper. Accessory work done with focus and intent transfers more to powerlifting performance then accessory work performed half-asses or with poor technique.
When you're considered an intermediate athlete, that's when glaring weaknesses start to show and you have to start addressing them. Don't get lazy, search up some Youtube videos of proper form just as you would with the powerlifts. Pay attention to the details.
Before supplements, ice baths, sauna sessions, and mobility routines were all the hype, there was sleep. Sleep is the greatest recovery modality and is the primary form of recovery you should be optimizing and focusing on.
I use a monitor/diary to keep track of my athlete's readiness and recovery and I've noticed a big correlation between low scores on sleep quality (2 to 3 out of 5) and poor training performance. Athlete's that consistently measure lower than 3 out of 5 on "Sleep Quality" record higher rates of perceived exertion (RPEs) per any given % of their 1RM and progress at a slower rate week to week. A lack of sleep or poor sleep quality cascades into higher stress levels throughout the day, more incidences of bad mood/irritability and can negatively affect an athlete's focus during training and everyday activities.
Here are some general recommendations to improve your sleeping quality and duration from years of experimenting and reading about sleep:
- Aim for 7-8 hours+ of sleep (everyone probably knows this one)
- Keep a consistent wake-sleep schedule
- Sleep in a comfortably cold, quiet and dark room, this is an important tip for those who find themselves waking up frequently in the middle of the night
- Considering using aids such as an air humidifier, ear plugs or eye mask/blindfold to improve sleep quality
- Avoid drinking large volumes of liquid/water before bed if you find yourself waking up several times in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom
- Turn off electronic devices 1-2 hours before bed (something I struggle with, god damn Reddit...)
- An alternative is to use a screen dimming app or an app that removes the bluelight from your devices (f.lux for Windows & iOS, Twilight for Android devices)
- Avoid caffeine consumption close to bed time (can affect people up to 6 hours between caffeine consumption and sleep)
- Practice good napping habits - this has shown to be beneficial for recovery and future performance
- Consider supplements like ZMA, Vitamin D, Melatonin and even Cannabis to improve your sleep quality (if legal in your state/province/country).
- Consider using a Sleep Tracking app which can promote higher quality sleep by making you more conscious about your sleep habits.
Below is a list of articles/podcasts/infographics that may help you:
"The Importance Of Sleep Quality and How To Improve It" - Examine.com
"Can Supplemental Vitamin D Improve Sleep?" - Examine.com
"Sleep Better: Practical Evidence-Based Recommendations" - Amy Bender on Sigma Nutrition Radio
"Recovery & Performance In Sport Infographics" - YLM Sports
No intricate periodizational methods or detailed technical breakdowns here, just foundational aspects of training and nutrition that I think are crucial for the long-term success of any strength athlete. Don't be afraid of performing training modalities outside of the big 3 lifts, and when you do, approach them with the same standard you would the competition lifts. Sleep well, eat well, train hard and recover harder.