Chris: Thanks for your time, Tim! Let’s jump straight in to the exciting stuff. Research suggests that one of the factors that drives strength gains is increased co-ordination, probably via the practice effect. To what extent do you think increased co-ordination plays a role in improving powerlifting performance?
Tim: I hugely agree that co-ordination, what I refer to as neuromuscular coordination (NMC), is crucial to strength. I drive this into my students’ heads all the time: the two most important factors in strength are neuromuscular coordination and muscle size (in that order). The good news is both of these things are changeable. We see this in real life all of the time. The biggest person (muscular wise) is not always the strongest, fastest, most powerful, best athlete, etc.
It is worth noting that there isn’t just one continuum of coordination for all people and you are either coordinated or not. It is activity specific. Michael Jordan was arguably the best basketball player ever and he may have had the best NMC for basketball related skills. He then tried to play baseball. He was good compared to normal people but he was not good compared to really good baseball players. I am reasonably coordinated in the powerlifts but it would be an error to assume because of that I am also reasonably coordinated in ballet, soccer, billiards or a host of other activities. This is where the principle of specificity comes in to play. Having a great motor pattern for one movement does not guarantee great movement for something requiring a different motor pattern.
To answer the second part of the question – I think NMC plays a gigantic role in powerlifting performance (as it does with essentially every sport) and you will have to put in serious training time to get close to your ultimate performance potential.
Chris: Indeed, I think the study of co-ordination is going to be a big area for research to look at in the future. What ways do you think we can structure workouts or training programs to maximize the gains that come from increasing co-ordination (e.g. frequency, volume, warm-ups, etc.)?
Tim: As referenced above, the two huge factors in strength are NMC and size. When most people workout they set up their training for size even if that isn’t their primary goal. Lifters know the adage – you go the gym, you break down your muscles, you rest, eat, sleep, and build them back up and they grow outside of the gym. That is fine for building size and one will of course build strength in that process. But if you want to maximize NMC then you will set up the workouts differently. Instead of thinking of it as “working out” or even “training” just think of it as “practice”. I am plenty strong enough to be good at shooting free throws in basketball, I don’t need more strength. I need more practice. And to learn this skill should I shoot free throws until my arms fall off on Monday, rest a week, and go back and do it again? Most likely no. It is better to work on perfecting my form, getting in a high volume of work, and stopping before fatigue really sets in as that can mess up the desired form.
For a more practical answer, to work on technique you want to train more frequently (2 or more times a week for most lifts), you want to keep the reps reasonably low (<8 and often in the 1-3 rep range), feel free to include more warm-up sets (maybe 4-6 warm-up sets for the main barbell lift of the day). The volume should start off moderate and then build up over time to become reasonably high. Adding sets is likely better than just adding weight. I am a big believer in what I call confidence building sets for those that need it (super advanced trainers usually don’t but certainly can still use them). Lift somewhere between 85-95% of your 1RM just for a single after your regular work sets. This keeps the body used to heavy weight and hopefully you smash that weight and build confidence for future heavy sets. More advanced lifters can perform doubles or repeats where you go back at the end of the workout and repeat the main lift, of course with much lighter weight. If you are so tired your form sucks don’t do this, but this can be a great way to add volume to a program. I believe that a big reason for Westside’s success was that the dynamic days, intended to improve power, really just were great “practice” days. I personally would think of them more as “technique” days than power days myself.
Chris: Do you recommend pursuing any types of recovery strategy for powerlifters (e.g. ice, compression garments, active recovery, extra light workouts) so that they can train more frequently?
Tim: I would not consider myself an expert on this topic but I do believe two things are very useful. Firstly, I think powerlifters should maintain a moderate base of aerobic fitness. This doesn’t mean you are dancing up and down with pink dumbbells for an hour, but you should be able to get through a challenging workout without getting that tired. I think walking is the ideal way to build up this base, walk at a brisk speed (3.5-4.5 mph) at an incline for 20-60 minutes a few times a week. Other conditioning tools like the prowler, sled, bodyweight exercises can certainly be included as well.
Secondly, I think that active recovery is usually better than passive recovery. Active recovery is when you do something to promote blood flow – walking once again works very well here so it really has a double impact. I also think it is great for general health so I am a big fan of walking, particularly as one gets older. Passive recovery is just sitting around watching Game of Thrones for hours on end – admittedly more fun but less ideal for recovery in most circumstances in my opinion.
Chris: Muscle mass is a major predictor of strength in any movement. But for natural trainees, there is a clear limit on how much muscle they can add. This leads to a couple of interesting questions. Firstly, should natural powerlifters focus on hypertrophy early in their lifting career?
Tim: Yes, I think they should although it is individual dependent. I would say one difference I see from the time I was coming up and now is that when I did it most people were influenced by the once a week bodybuilding splits (which is actually what the top PL’ers were doing as well) so there were a lot of pretty big guys but they weren’t as strong as they could be. Now I tend to see a lot of guys reasonably strong (say a 300lbs bench and a mid- 400lbs squat) that don’t really look like they lift – they put a T-shirt on and they look pretty normal. I do think for lifting – particularly powerlifting – to have optimal performance you need to be pretty big for your frame. This added muscle of course improves your ‘engine’, your ability to lift the weight, but it also improves joint stability just by packing the joint with additional tissue and this is very important for strength.
I like to use a very simply guideline when looking at this question on an individual level. Are you noticeably stronger than you look or are you not as strong as you look? If you are a lot stronger than you look it probably means your NMC is pretty good, you are using the tools you have available well, but you would likely benefit by increasing your muscle mass – adding horsepower to your engine. If you are not as strong as you look then you should likely train to learn how to use your muscles better – train to improve your NMC. That is a like a guy driving a corvette but still turning in crappy times at the track. He could go and boost the vette’s horsepower and he might do a tiny bit better, but in reality he should simply learn how to drive better and use what he already has more effectively. If you are big but comparatively weak this might be you.
As a side note, I think an exception to this rule is Olympic Lifting. I think you can get very good at Olympic lifting with adding much muscle mass (and sometimes additional mass is actually counterproductive to those lifts).
Chris: And secondly, should natural powerlifters change how they train once they reach their genetic limit for muscle mass? If so, how should they train once they have maximized their muscular potential?
Tim: After one has been training for a while, their rate of muscle gain is going to slow noticeably – this is the point of diminishing returns. It sucks but it is what it is. As you become more advanced you do need to modify how you train for the most part, although obviously lots of individual factors come into play. Chad Wesley Smith used what I thought was a good example here so I will simply repeat it instead of reinvent the wheel. He said look at your training like a pyramid. When you are a beginner you are at the base of the pyramid and almost everything you do will cause your strength to improve. As you progress you move up the pyramid and less and less assistance or auxiliary work will be effective for you. When you are really advanced you are likely just going to be spending time performing the main lifts and just a bare minimum assistance stuff that you feel is useful for you.
A few caveats to this statement. First you never really know what your natural genetic limit is so I am always hesitant using that term. I like to say the only way to know what your genetic limits are is to spend your life trying to find them. Second the max muscle you can carry is a dynamic thing based on age, hormones, total bodyweight, percentage bodyfat, etc. For example I usually walk around at about 200lbs give or take a few pounds. I had made it a lifetime goal to bench 400lbs but bench was always a struggle for me and I couldn’t figure out how to do it at that weight. I allowed myself to gain more fat, which in term allowed me to gain more muscle, and my bench went up noticeably. Adding 25lbs of mass (muscle and fat) put an extra 50lbs on my bench (which is 2lbs of strength per pound of bodyweight) and this was at a time when I had been lifting for a long time already and I wasn’t benching 2 x my bodyweight in the first place.
Lastly, even if you have been training for a while you might have a weak point muscle wise. For example I have been training a long time but I always found my triceps hard to hit and they lagged behind the rest of me, size and strength wise. If you have an area like that and you can find a way to add noticeable size to that area then that is probably a good idea. I am working on that as we speak…
Chris: Specificity has been demonstrated for many different aspects of strength, including the velocity of the movement. Despite this, high-velocity, low-load dynamic training has been popularised as an auxiliary method for powerlifting, possibly because it allows greater recruitment of high-threshold motor units at lower loads and may also increase RFD. To what extent do you think high-velocity, low-load training has a role in preparing for powerlifting?
Tim: This is an interesting question. First, I think we should clarify things a bit. I like to break all movements into 4 broad categories as follows based on speed and resistance used:
Category 1 – low speed, low resistance – this is a purely skill based movement (billiards, putting golf, painting, etc) and strength and power have essentially nothing to do with this ability.
Category 2 – high speed, low resistance – this would be throwing a punch, swinging a bat, a tee shot in golf, or pitching a baseball – this can be improved but this type of ability has little correlation with max strength or category 4 movements.
Category 3 – low speed, high resistance – here strength is king. This is simply lifting weights, powerlifting, tug of war, etc.
Category 4 – high speed, high resistance – this is the true definition of power. This is used in shot put, hammer throw, Olympic weight lifting, etc.
The reason I wanted to run through that is because when one says low load that concept needs to be clarified. Is low-load throwing a baseball or is it benching 70% of your 1RM as fast as possible? It makes a difference. I don’t think category 2 movements (true low load) and training that way would have much of a positive impact on one’s ability to lift weights (fast or slow). Think of the martial arts guy that can throw a decent punch but can’t bench 135 for one.
In contrast, category 4 movements involve high resistance and here is where the traditional dynamic training would fall. You are taking a lighter weight (but still heavy by our category definitions) and moving it as fast as possible. Light here is usually 40-75% of the 1RM.
Again I would ask a lifter to think about what their weakness is? Do they seem to be a slow lifter, the bar is just creeping along. Do they fail in the early phase of the press or the squat? Can they barely get the weight off the floor in deads? If yes then that lifter might be slow and I think the power work is more likely to beneficial for them. If the lifter is already explosive, if they fail more at the end of the ROM than in the beginning, then I think the power work will be less effective.
Even if we find out that generating lots of power with 60% of your 1RM doesn’t automatically mean you can generate lots of power with heavy weight in your hands, I still think this type of training can be useful because it is essentially extra practice. Speed or dynamic or technique training – whatever you want to call it – it tends not to beat the body up too bad and as you become stronger recovery becomes more of an issue. This allows you practice your technique (and it goes without saying that with submax weights technique should be good) so you get that extra volume in we were alluding to earlier. I don’t think true beginners really benefit from this type of training, they should just do more traditional moderate intensity workouts.
Chris: When interviewing other strength experts for your powerlifting book, were there any real surprises for you?
Tim: I don’t know if there was just one thing that blew me away – but 2 things certainly did stick out. One was that they all referenced at a certain level (unprompted by me) the importance of believing in yourself, believing you can do it. This sounds kind of catchy and cheesy at the same time but I think a lot of lifters put limits on themselves. You have to believe you can do it and believe in yourself. I personally feel that believing yourself can affect your own physiology. In short the body does what the brain tells it to do. Training should be set up to build this confidence, this belief. Unfortunately there are a lot of people out there that will be quick to shoot you down or impose limits on you. F the haters.
The second thing was that they all had to overcome some significant adversity to get to where they were. It wasn’t a quick success thing – they tried lifting, did it for a few years and were suddenly world champions. They pushed and pushed and pushed for a super long time. Jennifer Thompson, arguably the best female bench presser in the world (raw and pound for pound), started off and had a hard time benching 75 for 5. Now she can do 315 at 132, raw and drug free. With weights, unlike something like sprinting for example, you can start off pretty crappy and end up being really good. It just takes a lot of time, patience, hard work, consistency – and maybe some blood, sweat, and chalk.
Chris: The research regarding which type of periodization for improving strength is a bit conflicting. Do you have any strong preferences for how you periodise workouts leading up to a powerlifting meet? If so, what do you think they underlying drivers are for its success?
Tim: I like to break workouts into 3 very broad categories for a lifter: post-competition training, general strength training, and a peaking phase. Post-competition is just that, what you do after a meet. General strength training is where most lifters spend most of their training lives, and peaking is when you are 2-4 months out from a meet and your goal is to really maximize your potential for that one day.
There are tons of ways to peak, for sure. High frequency programs are popular now and they definitely work in the short term, I am not yet sold on their long term success. Low frequency or old school peaks like Ed Coan or Kirk Karworski used to follow can work too. I have used both with success. The number one thing I will do is I will think about a weight I want to hit in the meet. Let’s say someone has benched 365lbs in a meet and they want to set a PR? What is a good PR? 400lbs might be tempting to aim for but that is likely 2-3 meets away unless you hit on a great training cycle. 380lbs is more logical for a late intermediate or advanced lifter. Then you work backwards. How far away is the meet? Peaks are usually 6-12 weeks long. Then you simply create a program, a path so to speak, to walk yourself from where you are now to where you want to go. Here progressive overload, usually introduced in a weekly fashion, is key. The jumps should be small, logical, and sequential.
My final tip here (although the answer to this question to could easily be 20 pages long) is to start a bit light. Don’t assume your current bench is 365lbs just because you did that at your last meet, you might have peaked to hit that. Start off with something you know you can do, if you have an 8 week peaking plan and you fail somewhere on weeks 1-4 you are in serious trouble. I remember reading that Ed Coan would plan out his workouts and he would never miss a rep in his 12 week training cycle. People would be amazed at that but honestly that is how I would do it as well. I am not saying I have anywhere near the lifting ability of Ed Coan, I am simply saying that lower caliber lifters can indeed benefit from seeing how more advanced lifters plan it out and follow their lead. When I went and finally benched 400lbs I didn’t miss a rep in that training cycle and if memory serves I think I hit over 350 reps with more than 300lbs in that 10 week cycle.
Final final tip (I promise) – save a little something for the meet. That PR attempt should take place on the platform, not in the gym – unless your training is just going so great that you are hitting PR’s as a natural part of the cycle. I am proud to say that my best squat, my best bench, my best deadlift, my best curl – all were done in a competition under those standards. You don’t want to be a competitive lifter but be one of those guys that is talking about what they did in the gym because it is so much better than their best meet performance. When I started my career I was one of those guys as well. But that is like a field goal kicker bragging about knocking down a 65 yard kick in practice. That is nice and all, but nobody cares. Save your best lifts for the platform, where it really counts.
Chris: You likely trained very hard and smart to achieve your state records in the deadlift and your Federation Championship Belt in the strict curl. There is a lot of training information out there about the deadlift but much less about the curl. What tips can you offer people if they wanted to train for a strict curl event?
Tim: I have a full chapter in my book devoted to nothing but strict curls! So read the book. But for a few key points, I will try to keep this simple. There is a big correlation between the size and strength of muscles that tend to work in more isolation, so if you want strong arms think about getting them bigger as well. Practice the strict curl – simply curl up against the wall. You will be amazed at how much harder it is. As a quick reference take 20% off of what you curl standing up, even if you perform standing curls strictly. I think curls respond best to once a week intense training, 12-20 sets total for the workout works well. Use an EZ bar, it will save your wrists and it is what is used in competition. Weigh the EZ bar on the scale in the gym so you know what it actually weighs, you might be surprised to find out how much it weighs. Follow rep range progression which means pick a range of reps you want to train in, say it is 6-10. Start with a certain weight, say 100lbs x 6. Add a rep a week and work up to the top of the range, in this case 10, keeping the weight the same. Then increase the weight by 5lbs and start over, back at 6 reps. Adding just 5 lbs makes a big difference in the curl so don’t make big jumps in weight in a competition, you will usually be disappointed. My favorite exercises to build the strict curl are as follows:
- Strict curl
- Power curl (standing curl with a slight, controlled swing to go heavier)
- 1 arm dumbbell strict curl
- Hammer curl
- Wrist roller
- Pull-ups, heavy rows, etc. can help as well
The strict curl is easy to perform, super easy to judge, and it is a lift that almost everyone can relate to because everybody does some form of curls in their workout. It is also fun if you still like the idea of competing and supporting the sport of powerlifting but you have an injury or two that prevents you from doing some of the other lifts.
Chris: That was fantastic, thanks Tim! We really appreciate you taking so much time over all of these questions.
Tim Henriques is the Director for the National Personal Training Institute of VA/MD/DC, which is a school for people who want to become personal trainers. He was a Collegiate All-American Powerlifter and is the author of two books: All About Powerlifting and NPTI’s Fundamentals of Fitness and Personal Training
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