The Most Important Lesson I've Learned as a Competitive Powerlifter

by coach Alastair MacNicol

I’ve been involved in the iron game for a while now. Not as long as some, but I have been lifting weights for 15 years and competing in powerlifting for 7, so I’m not new to it either. In that time I’ve had the opportunity and pleasure of meeting, talking with and even training with some of the best lifters in the sport. These experiences have given me lots of great insight into what the best lifters do.

I want to share with you what I consider to be the most important piece of advice I’ve ever received. Let me paint a picture:

The year was 2009. I was 22 and had just competed in my first Powerlifting meet. I was feeling pretty good! To make matters even better I’d received an invite on an old powerlifting forum to come train at a local underground lifting club called “The Anvil”. I’d never heard of it, but I pictured it as the kind of dungeon gym I’d seen in "Pumping Iron."

The kind of gym that was dirty, where the music was loud, weights were being slammed, and the lifters were going balls to the wall every workout, nothing but 100% effort every time. In a word: hardcore.

The owner, Clint Harwood, was a bench specialist and a very good one. I looked him up to find out he was the National Record holder in the bench press, and the first Canadian to break the 800 pound barrier in the equipped bench. 

This dude had to be serious!

The big day came, I showed up at the address and put my game face on as I approached the single car garage. I didn’t want to seem weak in front of these folks. I was ready to go! I was approaching that gym like I was going to war.

What I got was… different. The place was dirty, the music was loud, weights were slammed and there were definitely some lifters there going all out. But Clint wasn’t one of them.

His workouts were unique, and dare I say it…almost lazy. His main bench work out was 4-5 warm-up sets followed by 1-3 heavy reps…and done. Literally that was it. I remember being in shock the first time I saw it.

“That’s it? No assistance work, nothing else?”

“Nope, that’s enough for the night.”

“Oh….”

Sometimes he didn’t even get that far. If the warmups weren’t going well, I'd watch him shut it down early. 

One night I tried to help the guy out. If it wasn’t feeling good maybe he could only add 25 instead of 50 pounds on the next set, make half the intended jump and work there. Or what about instead of stopping he could drop the weight down and warm up again. The second time around he might feel better and he could go on to his work sets. Or maybe he could take a little less weight and do some rep work? There’s definitely a way to make it a productive workout!

Clint wasn’t having it, he shut it down early that night.

I was pretty confused. How did this guy become so successful?

I’d always figured hardcore lifters would fight through anything, using pure willpower to force themselves into a good workout if their body just wasn’t cooperating! If you weren’t giving 100% every time, how could you expect to become the best?

So I asked him.

That’s when he gave me the best piece of advice I’ve ever received when it comes to lifting. He told me a story about how he’d been training out of town one time. He was having a serious “off” day, one of those training sessions where nothing seems to click and the weights just aren’t moving like they should. "Nothing felt right. I considered leaving, but I decided to tough it out,” he told me. “I couldn’t afford to skip a workout!”

Well obviously!

Then he tore his triceps. It was his only major injury in the sport (which is pretty damn impressive in a sport as rife with injuries as powerlifting) and it took him 6 months to recover to the point where he could resume his normal training.

“Nothing I could have done in the gym that day would have benefited me as much as the injury cost me” he said.

Being newer to the sport I didn’t immediately appreciate the wisdom in his words, but it’s stuck with me throughout my lifting career and the value of them has become more and more apparent to me over time.

In lifting the phrase “it’s a marathon not a sprint” gets thrown around a lot. We say it, but we don’t really think about what we’re saying.

In a marathon you have to pace yourself. If you tear out of the gate as fast as you can you’ll be very fast over the first couple hundred meters. You might even do well for a couple kilometers. but eventually you’ll burn out, you’ll slow down and you’ll end up doing much worse than if you’d moved a little slower but were more consistent.

Steadily putting one foot in front of the other is the key to success. Lifting’s a lot like that.

The old story of the tortoise and the hare, “slow and steady wins the race”, isn't a new concept, but it's important.

If your goal is to get as close to your genetic potential and lift the most weight possible the way to get there is to steadily and consistently put in work over years and eventually decades. What’s one bad or missed training session compared to 10 years? Hell, what’s one bad week or month? In the grand scheme of things it’s not important. 

Small steps over time will eventually lead to the biggest results, not trying to smash monster PRs in 4, 6 or 8 weeks.

This can be hard to wrap your head around. Inherently it makes sense that the harder I work the better I get. So it stands to reason that going as hard as possible all the time would lead to the best progress doesn’t it? 

The important thing to remember is that in lifting, consistent work for a long time beats super hard work for a short time.

A lot of lifters are infatuated with hard work, and I’m not saying working hard isn’t important but I think the mindset needs to be re-framed somewhat. You should be aspiring not to be “the hardest worker” be instead to be “the most consistent worker”.

Nothing sets back training faster than an injury. Just like Clint lost 6 months to his triceps tear I see lifters all the time hurt themselves, they then proceed to spend months or even years trying to rehab and rebuild to where they once were. If they’d gone a little easier and avoided that injury they could have spent that time actually making progress and would have ended up much stronger.

Injuries aren’t 100% avoidable, but if you try to push it to the limit every training session, eventually your body will give out. You can minimize this risk by backing off when you feel beat up instead of pushing through it, skipping a training session when things are off or taking a light week when you’re fatigued. These concepts aren’t sexy or hardcore, they don’t make good slogans like “beastmode” and “train past the pain” but they do go a long way towards keeping your body healthy, minimizing injury risk and allowing you to train productively for the longest period of time possible.

And ultimately, that’s what’s really important.

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Clint became the best bench presser in the country by avoiding injury and training consistently (because he wasn’t injured) for a long time. He didn’t concern himself with having the hardest, most hardcore workouts, outworking everybody else and he didn’t try to force his body when it didn’t want to cooperate.

Even though his workouts weren’t the most hardcore and didn’t have the most volume or intensity he was able to come in week after week and put work in. He never suffered an injury in the 5 years I trained with with him. Like a man running a marathon, every workout he put one foot in front of the other and steadily moved farther and farther along.

In the time I trained with Clint I watched him put 55 pounds on his bench press and break the Canadian Record twice more. 

His contemporaries back in 2009 have since disappeared from the lifting scene, injured or burned out. But Clint’s still going strong.

For newer lifters with aspirations of lifting heavy weights the take away is to keep things in perspective. Look at the big picture, the important thing is the accumulation of work over the next 10+ years. So don’t be afraid to back off when you need to so your next decade of lifting can be a consistent and productive one!

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Coach Alastair is one of the foremost authorities on Powerlifting training in Canada. He currently designs programs and gives detailed technique coaching to a stable of national level lifters and runs the Quantum Powerlifting Club.

If you want to work with Alastair, or have any questions, contact him here.

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