Building Your Base In Powerlifting

A few of the powerlifters I coach have just finished competing this month at BCPA Provincials and many are entering their so-called "off-season", so I thought I would take this time to talk about base building in powerlifting. First off, what is base building? It's a term I like to use to describe the rudimentary steps a beginner or intermediate strength athlete has to take in order to become successful 1, 3, or even 10 years down the road. Think of it as a pyramid, widening the base to support a much higher peak. It can also be applicable for lifters that may have not had the best competition cycle and need to go back to the drawing board to improve their training.

So in practice, what does it mean to build or widen your base?

It means putting conscious effort into investing in proper technique acquisition and developing the right habits and mindset for you to excel in your athletic career. In my mind, there are 3 things that must be addressed to create an environment where you reap in the most benefits from your training. Technical mastery, habits and consistency, and mindset.


Technical Mastery In Powerlifting

Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.
— Vince Lombardi

In a closed-skill sport like powerlifting that does not depend on anyone else except for yourself and the bar, technical perfection is more in-reach than many other sports. Unfortunately, the ego often gets in the way, causing some people to lift with brutally poor form until they get injured or hit a plateau. If injury or a high risk of plateauing doesn't scare you off, I don't know what will!

I used to be an advocate of performing the competition lifts (Squat, Pause Bench Press, Deadlift) once a week if you were a beginner. My train of thought was, save the higher frequency competition lifts for when you become stronger and enter your intermediate/advanced stages. Performing the competition lifts 1x a week was a common recommendation, but it seemed to always come from experienced, drug-enhanced lifters, who were able to fit in much more training volume within any given session and recover much faster than natural athletes.

Fast forward to today, I'm a big believer that training the competition lifts more frequently makes more sense because it is in line with the principle of specificity, and can be done when fatigue is managed.

Competition lift frequency - more is better

Exposing a beginner to the competition lifts 1x a week is just not enough practice. With my athletes, I prescribe a minimum 2x a week squatting, 2x a week benching and 1x a week deadlifting with an additional hip hinge movement on another day - preferably another barbell deadlift variation like a Romanian deadlift. While this may seem overwhelming for a beginner, it can be done if intensity and effort is controlled.

The first session will be focused on high effort work, where sets are in the 8-9 RPE range. The second competition lift session must be dialed back to a 5-7 RPE range depending on the experience level of the athlete. Any of the programming variables (sets, reps, intensity) can be rearranged, but the theme is to reduce the effort - essentially making it an "easy" day.

A higher frequency of exposure and performing more reps per week will benefit motor learning.

Technical improvements can be made in the absence of high intensity and effort, simply exposing the athlete to the competition lifts 1 more time a week, can do wonders. Squatting, benching and deadlifting once a week can still be beneficial for general strength training. However, if you're an aspiring powerlifter, consider increasing the frequency for faster learning.

Even intermediate or more experienced lifters aren't necessarily exempt from base building. If you're struggling to make technical improvements, read this write up I did on improving technique and the idea of using a technical breakdown threshold (TBT), which is more geared towards experienced lifters.


Consistency

First we make our habits, and then our habits make us.
— John Dryden

You'll often hear adherence and consistency is everything. The most complex training programs will yield no results if you're not consistent with your training. Showing up to training sessions, completing training within a certain time frame, maintaining focus, good form and technique throughout the session, consistently consuming enough protein and calories.

In order to build successful lifting habits, you must create an environment where you can be consistent.

Consistency in regards to training frequency is one thing I want to talk about in particular. When deciding a training frequency (3 lifting sessions a week vs. 4x, 5x..), be conservative and pick the lowest one you're 100% sure you can maintain for the training cycle.

If you're on the edge about whether you should train 4x a week or 5x a week, pick 4x a week. Programs are designed to spread out training volume given a set training frequency. If you know your work schedule or other life commitments might get in the way of your training, missing a training session every week or other week can add up. You would be essentially missing a chunk of training load that could have been better distributed had you picked a training frequency of 4x a week. While a coach can modify training volume on the week-to-week basis, not all lifters have this luxury or access to a competent coach.


Mindset & persistence

What brings programming variables, technical mastery and consistency together? Mindset and persistence. 

Elite-level strength acquisition takes a long time.
There will likely be someone stronger than you.
Training is not life.
Injuries are inevitable. 

That's I would tell myself 3-4 years ago If I could time-travel. As an ex-powerlifting fanatic, I completely understand what it feels like to want to get as strong as possible in the shortest time frame possible, thinking "squat bench deadlift or die".

Elite level strength takes years and years to develop naturally (even when enhanced, actually). If you have good limb and spatial awareness or previous experience with weight training, you might be able to pick up the technique fairly fast. But being able to induce the physiological changes to your nervous system and muscles to tackle 2, 3, 4x of your bodyweight on your back or in your hands, takes time and patience. The earlier you come to terms with that, the better off you'll be when it comes to making decisions about jumping on a high-frequency program when you're not ready, or trying to peak and go heavy too often in your beginner and intermediate stages.

Mental persistence also plays a big role in athletic performance and success. Great athletes are able to face adversity, come back from injury, destroy their egos and doubts in order break through plateaus and have excellent performances. Try to see the positives in each situation, but be self-aware enough to know when you're overreaching when you shouldn't be. 

Coming Back From Injury

The best tip I can give you is regarding injury, specifically coming back from an injury.

Many lifters feel the need to play "catch-up" after coming off an injury, doing more than they can handle and putting themselves in a downward spiral. I'm not an advocate of training through injuries, it does not develop mental strength nor improve your likelihood of strength success in the future. The best course of action is to wait for the pain to subside, identify how the injury came to be (accumulation of volume - overuse?, poor technique?, freak accident?), address the weakness, and allow several weeks of training before returning back to pre-injury training volumes and intensities.

This is what I like to call athletic maturity. Being able to keep your eyes on the prize, on the long term goal, and realize every injury is an opportunity to fix a missing link, or improve a weakness. 

Just like strength itself, mental strength and persistence can have an innate or "natural" component, but of course can also be developed through repetition and hard work.