Last (last) Saturday (this post took longer to finish than I thought), I competed in my first powerlifting meet with 100% Raw Powerlifting at Champlain Valley Crossfit in Burlington, VT. It was a two-day meet with Saturday night and Sunday lifters. I lifted on Saturday night. There were only two of us in the women’s open category in my weight class (132 lbs.). I got first place with an ending total of 617.5 lbs. I PRed in my squat and deadlift, but missed my last bench. I had previously gotten a fairly easy 1RM of 125 lbs on my bench, aimed for 133, and didn’t get it. I only missed one command (the first one, hahah, didnt miss another one after that!), had a ton of fun, and it was a relaxing and enjoyable weekend. A friend came down from New York and competed as well, and it’s always nice to hang out with other like-minded people and celebrate everyone’s attempts and successes.
Here is my experience leading up to my first powerlifting competition, as well as things I learned about trying new programming and improving my lifts. A couple of points that might be applicable to people depending on your personal situation include:
- I did not have a coach or training partner.
- I competed raw.
- I did not attempt to drop a weight class (which I feel will be feasible for me in the future).
So basically, for my first time I didn’t attempt any huge manipulations of training and diet; I just focused on getting as strong as possible and improving in the three lifts: squat, bench press, and deadlift. I used Sheiko program cycles for the two months leading up to it and will outline what I did and any changes I made. Each cycle lasted for 1 month. I used a preparatory cycle and then the peaking cycle. In researching a bit on Sheiko, one complaint I came across was that people are not sure how to implement it exactly. I can’t promise you any amazing insights into this, as my understanding of the program (and underlying principles) is still moderate at best. But in recounting my experience using it, maybe it will add to the overall pool of knowledge.
I decided to sign up for this competition at the end of July this year and started out with Wendler’s 5/3/1 initially as my program to increase my lifts. I have the book, and it’s a great training routine for increasing strength. The set-up is also very flexible, allowing plenty of personal variation depending on your goals.
I did 5/3/1 for approximately 6 weeks before switching to Sheiko. Something didn’t feel right to me, not so much with the program itself, but with the way I was doing it. I didn’t feel I was getting enough out of it! Again, I don’t think this was a problem with the program itself, but mostly because I didn’t feel it was allowing me to be specific and focused enough. I am a bit of an extremist, so I need to be kept in line and not get distracted. I was getting distracted on 5/3/1 and felt I needed to do more squatting and benching particularly. So a friend recommended that I try a Sheiko routine instead. Anything with the words Russian and Bulgarian and Eastern European in the program title gets everyone all excited. But either way, the European volume-style methods have been proven to work well, and results show for themselves in world championships in both powerlifting and weightlifting. (The caveat being that you have to support your training with good recovery – namely food and sleep.) So the usual warnings were in place. Don’t try to diet, don’t try to do extra stuff. Focus, and you can adapt. I didn’t realize how mediocre I was at squatting until I did it more! And not even THAT much more. I started squatting 2x per week for lots of sets at lower rep ranges.
At the same time, I came across Professor Mike Zourdos and read a bit more about his daily undulating periodization method, which is also similar to high volume programs like Sheiko and Smolov. Here he is squatting doing a daily squat max on day #49 in the research lab of his Uni.
Mike Zourdos Daily Squat Max: 495
Side note: If you haven’t watched his video outlining his Daily Undulating Periodization training model (sounds complicated, it’s not really) as well, I highly recommend it! One of the best videos explaining programming that I have come across so far.
So I decided to give it a go. I started with #29 for beginners, which is a preparatory phase to acclimate you to the volume. This had me squatting 2x a week, benching 2x a week, and deadlifting 1x a week. A total of 3 training days per week, but since there are so many sets, each session took me about 2-2.5 hours to complete including warmup and assistance work.
My 1RMs when I started:
I was basing these maxes off of my maximal training 1RM, not really my “best lift ever” 1RM, or what could be called a competition performance lift (if it had been a competition). The reason for this was that “competition” maxes (at my level), were not real maxes you can rely on, so to speak. You know, the iffy ones, that you barely get. Zatsiorsky explains the difference like this (in this article he is talking about the Olympic lifts):
“The difference between CFM (competition performance weight) and TFM (maximal training weight) is great. After an important competition, weight lifters are extremely tired, although they perform only six lifts in comparison to nearly 100 during a regular training session. The athletes have a feeling of “emptiness”and they cannot lift large volumes of weight. The athletes need about one week of rest and may compete in the next important competition only after one month of rest and training (compared with other sports in which athletes compete two to three times a week). The reason for this is the great emotional stress while lifting CFM, rather than the physical load itself. TFM can be lifted at each training session.“
Now, while I am not an elite athlete who only breathes to train, I think this is a basic principle for strength training. You aim to peak for a performance in competition (or if you train just to train, that’s usually a couple of times per year or so), but it’s not endless peaking. Two steps forward, one step back. Always. Yet the path is always in the direction of growth.
205 for squat was very comfortable for me, and I had previously gotten 220 once. So I set it at 215, which I had lifted a couple of times for a single. Same with deads. I had gotten 230 once, and got 215 regularly, 225 occasionally. Bench, I had 120 once and 105 very regularly. So I found a happy medium “….the magnitude of resistance (talking about calculating 1RMs for training) should be close to TFM while employing this training method. To avoid high emotional stress, CFM must be included into the training routine only intermittently.” Makes sense. Everyone knows you can’t be hitting true 1RMs that regularly unless you are a beginner. This is also similar to the common recommendation of working percentages off of 90% of your 1RM rather than a once-upon-a-time 1RM. Sometimes the factors that make a particular 1RM possible are not realistic variables for everyday training.
“The method of maximum effort should be used to bring forth the greatest strength increments. Central nervous system inhibition, if it exists, is reduced with this method (working off training maxes).” Your muscles can recover and adapt super fast. Your central nervous system – not as fast. You want to avoid burning out your CNS. Working off of your training max for high volume means you are working within parameters that will keep you training hard but not burning out. Very important.
My weekly training started off like this (reps x sets):
- 50% 5×1
- 60% 4×2
- 70% 3×2
- 75% 3×5
Dumbbell fly 10×5
Good morning (standing) 5×5
Deadlift up to knees
- 50% 3×1
- 60% 3×2
- 70% 3×2
- 75% 3×4
This is what a “deadlift up to knees” looks like. You just pause at the knees:
Incline Bench press 6×4
Deadlift from boxes (aka Rack Pull)
- 55% 4×1
- 65% 4×1
- 75% 4×2
- 85% 3×4
- 50% 5×1
- 60% 5×1
- 70% 4×1
- 75% 3×2
- 80% 2×2
- 75% 3×2
- 70% 4×1
- 60% 6×1
- 50% 8×1
Dumbbell fly 10×5
- 50% 5×1
- 60% 4×2
- 70% 3×2
- 75% 3×5
Good morning (sitting) 5×5
The month followed pretty much the same format with a couple of variations in assistance work. I didn’t switch out exercises except lunges. I did rear-elevated split squats and hip thrusts. The good mornings were good; I started lighter though and added more reps. You have to do them really right to make sure you are not screwing up your lower back. Since I have the tendency to over arch my lower back (hyperextend), I started light at 65lb and worked up to 125. I also added in some upper back and grip work, not lots though, mostly just heavy Kroc Rows and some Lat Pulldowns (lats and grip being a weak point for me).
The third week of this first month was the hardest. I hit a wall with tiredness, and started feeling doubtful about my training. I was questioning whether the program was going to do anything, whether I was doing it right, etc., etc.
To help this out, an exercise science student (who fancies himself a great trainer) started grilling me one day on my last workout of the week about why I was doing a high-volume program if I was training for a powerlifting competition.
“You should be testing your 1RM constantly and staying in the 2-3 set range,” he said.
It caught me by surprise having to explain my training to someone else and “defend” it, so to speak (which isn’t a bad thing per se); however, when you know someone is just picking on you, it makes you feel stupid and upset. I finished the workout (with him snickering). Afterwards, I decided that despite not knowing EVERY single advanced reason why Sheiko would increase my 1RM in my lifts, I knew that I had done my research, and it was working well so far. I decided I would stick with it, finish it out, and do it RIGHT. I would eat enough, not fiddle too much with the program, and complete everything on time. So I did. I wanted to answer this question:
Why do high-volume, medium intensity programs like Sheiko work so well to increase your 1RM? Why is the volume so high and what does this accomplish?
My first answer off the top of my head was:
“To get better at something, do more of it.” And at the base of it, that’s really what it is.
When it comes to weight lifting, you have to balance intensity and volume. With this type of program, you don’t add weight every week. It is not for beginners, but for people that have passed that hump and established a pretty accurate max. The rep ranges are not high, but you do a lot of sets/work. Why? This is so you can use good form with a higher speed/power output (load is heavyish) and accumulate more intense work in the upper percentages without compromising form. This increases the efficiency of your workout. You use shorter, more perfect reps, but longer sets and more “practicing” of those reps under a heavy-enough load. Ingraining that familiarity of the movement under load = motor coordination. Of course, you have to have a decent base in the lifts already, otherwise loading bad/unfamiliar movement patterns is a recipe for disaster. I have been squatting for awhile, but didn’t realize I wasn’t a very proficient squatter until I had to do much more of it! Squatting is my favorite lift, so I talk about it the most.
To further expound on why this style of training works, Boris Sheiko said:
“It is well known, that the modern achievements (the world championships of his lifters) cannot be done without using large loads. But they give effect only if they alternate between small and medium ones, thus creating conditions for over-recovery of the organism after large loads. Medium loads support the efficiency on a certain level, and small loads, which are done after large and medium ones, help the recovery, greatly increase sportsman’s organism efficiency during the workouts.”
In other words, you need enough volume (practice makes perfect!) to get efficient and proficient in the lifts, but you manipulate the intensity to avoid burn-out. Simple enough, eh? You can’t only practice the way you play (constantly trying to get a new 1RM). That’s not how you get better. Endless 1RM lifts will not make your lifts stronger in the long run, and neither will insufficient time doing the lifts themselves. It is a skill like anything else and it has to be practiced and learned.
You can’t think strictly about “the muscle” when you are training a lift (as opposed to a bodybuilding style, which is more about how a specific muscle looks). A lift is a movement as well as a series of muscular contractions, and many different things go into it. Moving under less load than your max (70-85%) with more sets and lower reps allows you to rack up volume under a decent intensity (heavy enough) without a) having a load too light so your body is not being required to adapt and lots of reps is not doing crap or, b) having a load too heavy that form breaks down after the first couple of reps.
Boris continues: “My workouts seem large to some trainers. But I want to note that for the last 10 years none of my sportsmen were over-trained. And once the result is shown on the meets, already other results do not get lower than it, only higher. You do not need a large mind to load the sportsman, the main thing is to recover him after large workouts, so that the over-strain will not set in.”
With a Sheiko program, the goal is to get the work in. Plenty of rest between sets, low rep ranges, and lots of sets.
In a review of the four most popular training methods for increasing the power lifts (bench was the focus), T-Nation author Jack Reape commented on the Eastern Euro volume style: “The central nervous system gets very efficient at the muscle firing patterns and the groove required for benching (or squatting). These workouts are done mostly in the range of 50-85% of 1RM, using waves of volume and intensity. This is simple, but brutally hard work.”
The second month, I did Sheiko #32, a peaking cycle for competition. You test your 1RMs the second day and then taper down to compete at the end of the cycle. Again, the cycle lasts a month. Come the second day, I was still feeling the “newness” of the volume so to speak, but wow, peaking day was so great. I guess everyone who lifts can relate to that feeling. I got PRs across the board, just on my own in the gym. But the best part was not just the PRs; it was how they felt. They felt strong! I felt like my skill at the lifts was increasing exponentially, and that was exciting! That day I got:
Squat 235 (+20 lb)
Dead 255 (+25-30)
Bench 125 (+10)
Leading up to the meet, I didn’t have to diet down to make weight. Obviously, I wasn’t going to try to diet while training for this, but at the same time, I had no desire to “blow up” just because I was powerlifting. My starting weight was 129.0-131.0 lbs. I upped my calories originally by about 200 a day, but soon realized (especially on that 3rd week) that that was not enough. After that, I averaged 2500 on rest days and 3500 on training days. Previously, I was eating around 1800/rest, 2400/train. I took a break from tracking religiously, but did keep an eye on it. Over the two months, my weight went up steadily but slowly. I only weighed myself once a week, with clothes, and tried to get the same time of day. You can’t be squeamish about eating more to train harder. Simple as that.
Here is an example of my weight fluctuations. During this time I continued IF’ing.
9/16 – 129.7
9/23 – 132
10/14 – 130.3
10/29 – 134.5
11/5 – 136.2
11/10 Comp Day – 132 on the dot
11/19 – 135.4
11/21 – 138
Come competition day, I stuck to protein the day before, weighed in at exactly 132, no water manipulations or anything, and wearing clothes. I weighed in at 3:30, fasted before then, and once the weigh-ins were done, I didn’t even care to pig out. I drank a quart of milk and ate half a jar of nutella and 2 scoops of protein powder. And then I had fun!
Video of me in ugly sweats eating nutella post-weigh-in >>>> Nutella
The meet was held at a CrossFit gym, so there were plenty of foam rollers, PVC pipes, and warmup spaces. That was really nice. The crowd was small, and there were only 14 lifters that night. I was previously nervous about being nervous, but once I was there, I just lifted like no one was looking and had fun!
My singlet though was WAAAAAAAAY too small and tight. Obviously, I didn’t make arrangements for leg growth. I never work out in short shorts without leggings, but what to do? I just had to do it, but I must have “adjusted” at least 50 times over the course of the night.
The only lifts that I didn’t get were the first squat because of the rack command I missed, and my last bench attempt. My bench is still weak, and I think that is in part due to some impingement in my left shoulder that I have been working on for awhile now. My final lifts were:
Bench 115 (missed 133)
I still have SO much to learn, but I am looking forward to my next meet and getting even better than ever. I can feel my body changing and practice really does make perfect! I am more in tune with my imbalances and weaknesses. This has made me even more aware of how important good movement is.
For more information on Sheiko, check out:
Elite FTS Newbie Guide
Elite FTS – Sheiko, the book
And if you want to know more about powerlifting, start looking up Dave Tate and Louie Simmons for a start. I leave you with a video of Konstantin Konstantinovs, a great powerlifter. He holds the highest raw deadlift without a belt of 939 lbs!
Konstantin Konstantinovs 2105 lb Raw Total 2011
I leave you with this thought from my best friend:
“When’s the last time you did something for the first time?” Oliver Vadnais
References for quotes:
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