How Powerlifting Ruined Fitness
What a sport. Imagine it. You go to the local Marriott or high school gym. The announcer calls your name. You step up to the bar in front of a crowd numbering in the single digits. Maybe double digits, if your spouse or family came.
You walk through the smell of body odor, ointment, and baby powder and finally get set up. And by God, you lift that weight. One time.
If you did everything right, it counts.
Then, you repeat that process twice more for this lift.
After that, you repeat the process two more times for the next lift. And the next lift.
Now, your day is done.
If you’re lucky, you can be out of the venue by three, go out with your fellow lifters, eat a shit load of food and get hammered. But if you decide to do a big meet with raw and equipped lifters, you might make it out as late as nine or ten at night. You might even have to sweet talk the meet director into going first on the first flight of deadlifts so you don’t miss the opening of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert.
And the best thing of all? Unless you are elite and have sponsorships, you paid for all of this yourself.
You paid for those SBD knee sleeves.
And those stylish Inzer wrist wraps.
Yes, even that singlet, the one encasing you like the tightest of breakfast sausages.
Don’t forget about your squat shoes, your deadlift slippers (use ballet slippers, they’re cheaper), and those nifty little ammonia capsules so you can get super psyched for your lifts.
Congratulations. You managed to demonstrate that you’re excellent at an absurdly narrow metric of athletic achievement.
All my snark aside, I don’t hate the sport. If you compete and you hire a coach to compete, then this is what you are training for. To be the best in those three lifts. Fuck, even I have done it. And I loved it. So, it’s not the sport itself I take issue with.
Powerlifting Shouldn’t be the Focus of Everyone Else’s Training
Here is something to consider. The world has approximately 7 billion people in it. Almost 2% of the people in it have a gym membership. That’s approximately 132 million people. I couldn’t find the numbers for how many registered powerlifters there are in the world, but I think it’s a safe bet to say that 132 million people with gym memberships aren’t powerlifting. If I had to put a number to it, I would make a wide sweep and say there might be between 10 and 50 thousand powerlifters. I have no basis for this, but we can at least agree it doesn’t come close to the number of people with gym memberships. Therefore, powerlifters are a minority of a minority.
Delving further, powerlifting training is a smorgasbord of math and predictions—get better at the math, you’ll get better at predicting—and its purpose is to increase your one rep max in the bench press, the squat, and the deadlift. So with that in mind, the entirety of your training is based on percentages of your current one rep maximum. Whether you lift at Westside Barbell, whether you undulate your periodization daily, or whether you throw chicken entrails on the wall to read the hidden messages, it comes back to that. And if you’re competing, it’s entirely necessary.
But my question is this: when Jennifer decides it’s time to hire a coach, and she expresses no desire at all to compete, why the hell does her percentage of her one rep max matter in any way shape or form? It doesn’t unless she says “I want to increase the big three,” or “I want to sit in a hotel convention room smelling ointment all day and compete.”
So, what’s the problem?
Fitness, contrary to what most people think, is not a specific term. It’s a nebulous word, bereft of meaning if there is no context. Let’s look at it specifically. If your goal is to compete in powerlifting, and you train for that, then you are fit for that particular task. Specificity. You might not be able to wipe your own ass or climb up the stairs without huffing and puffing, but dammit, you’re fit to powerlift.
So when Jennifer says “I want to be fit,” you both have some assumptions to make. You have to ask questions:
- Does Jennifer want to be able to play with her kids?
- Does Jennifer want to be the type of person who can carry 385868 grocery bags in one trip?
- Does Jennifer want to walk a flight of stairs without collapsing at the top?
- Does Jennifer want to get toned? (So help me, do not nitpick over that word, you know what the fuck it means).
- Does Jennifer give a shit about increasing her max bench press strength?
And with these in mind, we can boil it down to a few general phrases. If someone wants to get toned (or whatever word they use) it almost always comes down to have more muscle and proportionately less fat mass. Not only that but increased overall strength. And finally, better cardiovascular endurance.
None of this means elite level.
And none of this means they have to follow a percentage based training plan.
What Does it Mean, Smart Ass?
Every good training program should follow the metrics of progressive overload. And while there are many metrics of that, I think the most important ones in order are
- Movement Quality – How good are you at doing this? The easier it feels, the better the quality
- Range of Motion – Can you increase how much your joints move based on your physical form? It will be different for everyone.
- Volume – How much weight you move in a workout. Increases over time are measurable degrees of progress. Your body reflects this.
- Density – How much volume you can do in a given time period. More density is a great measurable degree of progress.
- Intensity – Percentage of your one rep max is the technical term. But, since knowing your one rep max if you’re not competing is either a sign of bad coaching (unless it’s specifically requested) or gym masturbation, you can measure this by looking at how much weight you’re using in a given exercise. And if you can increase that over time, your intensity is getting measurably better.
How Else Can I do This?
In my opinion, based on my audience and my clientele, I would never bog them down with any mention of math, nor would I have them do any math. That’s why they pay me. Coincidentally, I don’t train powerlifters. However, you can measure progressive overload with a variety of different tools. My favorite is a pen and paper. Very easy to measure volume and density that way. In addition to that, the subjective stuff like Range of Motion and Movement Quality work well on video.
There is also a safety component to this. Not everyone trains with friends who are willing to spot them on super heavy lifts. But if you’re one of those types who needs percentages, perhaps maybe a five rep maximum is a better, safer alternative. Easier to bail early, easier to notice fatigue setting in during the set, and safer because of it.
Not only that, but you have to look at someone’s physiology. Not everyone has to back squat. Not everyone has to deadlift off the floor. And not everyone needs to bench press with a barbell, retracted and depressed scapulae. If you train someone, you have to figure out what they’re capable of doing and what they want to do. If you can’t figure it out yourself, hire a coach.
What About My Pet Lifts and Dogma?
It’s all very simple. It’s just movement. A squat starts with bent knees, ankles, and hips. You move to straighten them. Same with a deadlift, minus the lack of a negative portion of that lift. Benching is just horizontal pushing, like a push-up. You have a variety of tools at your disposal to help you do this. Your goal? find what works, move in all the ways you can, and get better at them. There will always be fads to replace the current trend, but improving your movement quality is a lifetime thing.
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