Coach Alastair explains how he modified the training plans of two similar people based on their unique needs.
“Don’t do what the best do now, do what they did to get there.”
That saying gets thrown around a lot in sports, and strength training in particular. The basic premise is that the training that works for a world champion isn’t appropriate for a novice or intermediate. Instead of copying the training of a world record holder a newer lifter would see better progress by using a training plan that is suited to their current level of qualification. Inherently this makes sense, but what exactly does this look like in practice?
In this article we’ll be using a case study to illustrate some practical examples of differences in programming between two athletes as they prepare to hit some maximal weights. These are real lifters and I’ll be examining the actual training plans they used.
Athletes & RESULTS
BW: 250 (competes @ 242)
Best Numbers: 1720 total (640sq in knee wraps, 425bp, 655dl)
Previous Athletic Background: former competitive cyclist, pro football practice squad, 1yr of powerlifting experience with 3 comps
Results After Training Phase: Justin finished his competition with 710sq, 435bp and 700dl for an 1845 total
BW: 225 (competes @ 220)
Best Numbers: 1200 total (385sq w/ belt, 275bp, 540dl) gym PRs 300bp, 550dl
Previous Athletic Background: rep and house league hockey, 1yr of powerlifting experience with 3 comps
Results after training block: PRs of 415sq, 315bp and 565dl for an accumulated 60 pounds of PR!
Comparing these two athletes we can notice some similarities and some differences. They’re both male, they’re the same age and are both middleweight competitors (220 vs. 242). They also have similar levels of experience in powerlifting. The main difference is their strength levels. Classifying lifters is always a difficult thing to do (experience, strength, training history/background all play a roll). There’s no perfect or foolproof way to say that lifter X is clearly a beginner, while lifter Y is an intermediate and lifter Z is advanced. It’s really more of a sliding scale, one that always has a degree of subjectivity to it.
Looking at our two athletes:
In terms of experience, they’ve both been in the sport for a year and have only stepped on a platform a couple times. They’re both beginners to powerlifting in this respect.
In terms of strength Justin @ 1720 is an advanced level lifter while Zack, with a 1200 is what I would consider an intermediate, he’s clearly put some time in at the gym but he’s not crushing monster lifts just yet and would place middle of the road at most local meets.
In terms of training history / experience, Justin as an internationally competitive cyclist and having been on a CFL practice squad has experience in high level elite athletic competition, while not powerlifting it’s enough for me to consider him a intermediate here. Zack, while he has years of hockey experience, doesn’t have the same previous athletic pedigree and I would consider him a beginner.
Again it’s worth noting that this is a subjective analysis but under these criteria we can say Justin is a more advanced athlete than Zack, how much more is up for debate but in terms of programming we’ll typically see a few things happen as an athlete improves
More emphasis on the compound lifts: just like any sport the more advanced an athlete becomes the more difficult it is to make progress and the fewer and fewer things will garner a positive training effect. In all sports, sport practice is king and powerlifting is no different. The squat, bench and deadlift ARE the sport and the better an athlete becomes the more of their training effort has to be directed towards the competition movements whereas a less advanced lifter has more holes in their game (technique, strength, muscle mass, etc) and needs a wider variety of exercises to make the best progress
Longer training blocks: beginners are able to make progress workout to workout, whereas the upper most elite lifters may take years to add weight to a lift. Almost all lifters fall somewhere in between, taking longer and longer periods of training to make improvements as they get better
Increased demand for recovery: bigger and stronger athletes will cause more trauma to their bodies as the training loads they need to handle increase and as they push closer to their genetic limit, this requires that recovery play a larger roll the more advanced an athlete is. This can take the form of rest days, deloads or longer planned periods of unloading / recovery
So what does this mean in terms of programming for our two athletes?
As a more advanced lifter a greater focus of Justin’s training was directed towards the contest lifts while Zack maintained more variety, however, the phase of training greatly affected the degree of specificity.
During the volume phase both lifters used a variety of exercises focused primarily around the contest lifts and close variations (based on their individual weaknesses) with accessory work to target key muscle groups (like pecs, triceps, hamstrings etc.). In this period both lifters were trying to develop a base of muscle and strength they could build off of to peak and the training looks fairly similar.
If we want to get picky we can say Justin has a little less variation and Zack had slightly more energy put into supplemental and assistance movements but it’s not a huge difference.
One of the major differences that isn’t noticeable from the tables is that the percentages they’re working at are based off of slightly different maxes. Justin’s numbers are based off a “training max” of 90-95% depending on the lift, while Zack’s numbers are based off his best lifts ever. See the section below on training maxes vs. real maxes for the reasoning here.
Zack Training during volume phase
Justin Training during volume phase (general strength block)
However during their intensity phases is when they start to divert heavily. As you can see Zack maintains a fairly large variety of exercises, including supplemental and assistance work. The volume is decreased on the secondary work and the intensity of his main lifts is increased. However, he’s not at a level yet where having just the contest lifts is enough stimulus so he needs to keep some secondary work in there to ensure the best progress.
Justin on the other hand shifts his focus almost exclusively to the contest lifts. He has very little supplementary work (and even those are very close variations of the contest movements), this allows him to put all his energy into the most specific exercises. This works for him because the weights he’s moving are very taxing and wasting energy on superfluous work would hamper his recovery and limit him more than help at this point.
Zack Training during intensity phase
Justin Training during intensity phase
Length of Training
Justin’s training plan consisted of 20 weeks to prepare him for his meet (the Arnold Sports festival), this included 13 weeks of accumulation or high volume / lower intensity work (further divided into a hypertrophy block and a general strength block) 4 weeks of transmutation or high intensity / lower volume work to build specific strength and a 3 week taper and deload to peak him for the competition.
Zack on the other hand was able to handle a reduced training period of 8 weeks, the first 4 of which focused on volume, the next 4 focused on intensity with the final week and a half being used to realize the results and hit some PRs
As a stronger lifter Justin’s program demanded a higher degree of emphasis be placed on recovery. Both lifters started with 5 days/week but while all of Zack’s days were challenging Justin’s 5th day was noticeably easier to allow for more recovery.
As Justin moved into the intensity phase he decreased from 5 training days to 4 to better facilitate recovery while Zack maintained 5 days of training for the entire training cycle. Justin’s training also became much more specialized at this point to allow him to recover from his very taxing contest lifts, Zack’s training maintained more movement variation so he could gain the benefits from the added variety.
Justin also had a planned deload week built in as he transitioned into his higher intensity training to shed fatigue and make sure he was fresh and ready to hit the heaviest weights possible, Zack on the other hand wasn’t carrying the same degree of fatigue going into his higher intensity training and was able to transition without having to implement a backdown week.
Finally it took more time to peak Justin, he needed 3 weeks to systematically drop volume and eventually intensity to ensure he was able to perform his best at the end of the cycle. His heaviest deadlift was taken just under 3 weeks out from the contest, his heaviest squat was taken 2 weeks out and his heaviest bench was 1 week out.
Zack was able to peak on a shorter timescale of only about 1.5 weeks, his heaviest deadlift was done in week 7 and his final heavy squat and bench press were taken in week 8.
Training Maxes vs. Real Maxes
Justin is stronger and more neurologically efficient. He’s peak strength is considerably above what he can hit on a day to day basis. Zack’s daily max and absolute max are closer to each other.
To accommodate for this Justin worked off a “training max” during his volume period, which was between 90-95% of his actual max (his deadlift and squat were around 90% while his bench was 95%) whereas Zack worked off 100% of his 1RM
The goal here isn’t to give you a program to copy but to illustrate some practical ways that training needs to be adjusted as you improve along your lifting journey.
Hopefully these practical examples can help you develop some tools that you can use to:
Critically examine popular lifting programs or the training of your favourite lifter and adapt it to your level of qualification
Implement some modifications to your own training to make it more optimal
Give you a better framework to understand why a certain style of training may work well for a lifter (including yourself) at one point in their career but not another
It’s very important to note that Zack would NOT be better off training like Justin, and similarly Justin would not make better progress imitating Zack. Both lifters have a lot of similarities (age, weight, gender) but have crucial differences that influence what makes training optimal for each one. By implementing training that’s appropriate for them each athlete managed to make some impressive PRs.