Most geniuses of lifting science err on the side of bodybuilding, these days. And I can understand why: hypertrophy is hard, especially when coupled with the attenuation of fat gain. But getting brutally strong is not just the realm of the meatheads who just deadlift, squat and bench heavy weights every day. You can get strong for a while with this no-frills approach to powerlifting, but eventually you will start going backwards or get injured. There is more to powerlifting training than doing nothing but the big three for singles and doubles… or rather: there is more to it than that if you want to be good at powerlifting.
Here are a few more pieces of the puzzle.
Strength is built in all rep ranges
If you continually test your maxes, you’re demonstrating strength, not building it. You’re also burning yourself out unnecessarily; maximal work really taxes the central nervous system. Periodise your training so that you get stronger in different rep ranges, returning to your lower-rep maxes periodically but not frequently. You will see them crawling up into obscene numbers – numbers you’ve never used before.
The obvious problem with spending a lot of time away from very low repetitions is that you get used to longer sets and the neural pathway for maximal contractions gets a little rusty. But this can easily be trained in time for peak performance and has no bearing on the actual strength that has been built.
Know the strength curve
The strength curve, in this context, refers to the variability in force production that occurs throughout a single concentric repetition of an exercise. You may have noticed, for example, that you struggle most at the bottom of your squats and bench presses, or that you can always pull a supramaximal deadlift load from the floor but can’t lock out, thus forcing you to use lighter loads for all your deadlift training. This is the strength curve in action. While there are some common patterns, it is an individual thing, affected by things like limb length, training/injury history and muscular balance. As it is individual, it must be targeted as such; identify your weakness and spend additional time and effort on it, until it becomes a strength.
For example, one of my strongest clients had always struggled with locking out on the bench. He had tried to remedy this by simply benching more often (not always a bad idea), but had never targeted the problematic area itself. We introduced board presses (placing a wedge of wood onto the chest to prevent the bar from reaching full depth and so emphasising the lock-out portion of the rep), bottom-up/concentric-only reps (preventing fatigue in the short and longer term and focusing on the end of the motion), and finally band-/chain-work (as the band lengthens, it makes the bar harder to press; more of the chain is lifted from the floor and thus supported by the bar, the harder the bar is to press; and both of these additional forces occur nearer the end of the concentric action). Within two months, he had broken his previous plateau of 180kg… I told you he was strong!
Focus on your weakness and don’t expect to make progress in your existing areas of strength for a while. Give them enough volume to prevent regression, but no more than that if you want your weakness eradicating!
Neglect different modalities and suffer the consequences
If you don’t work on speed and power, your “strength” means nothing because you can’t use it. If you don’t include mobility drills in your heavy training, you will never be truly strong. There is little more to say about those things. Without speed, you will fail on lifts that less strong competitors drive out of the hole. Without mobility, you will rely on the stretch reflex in your sticking points or work within a limited range of motion, both of which will score you exactly zero at a powerlifting meet. Programme in both speed work (real plyometrics, as well as literally doing your concentric reps faster, with lighter weights) and mobility work (foam rolling, resisted stretching, hard contractions of the antagonist muscle groups, etc.) and stop whining.
All your major lifts are reliant on a vice-like grip – most obviously the deadlift and any pulling assistance exercises you may do – so you’d better make sure that a weak grip doesn’t limit you from pulling up your next huge PB.
I like heavy farmers walks (incidentally, they do magical things for your shoulders), plate pinches (fingers straight, no curling) and supramaximal isometric holds (set the pins up for a very high, very heavy rack pull, lift the loaded bar the few necessary inches off the pins and hold onto it until you drop it, vomit or die). Grip work should be hard.
So there we have it, a near-complete puzzle of power lifting training, at whose centre is heavy lifting, but whose perimeter is guarded and unified by an army of specific assistance principles. Lift long and prosper.