Ah, powerlifting. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
Ask any meathead or gym bro what they think of the so-called ‘Big 3’ lifts (squat, bench press, deadlift) and you’ll probably see half of them get all misty-eyed like they’re thinking about the day their first child was born. The other half will probably look more like they’re having a PTSD flashback. Such is the nature of heavy lifting. It’s a marmite sport – some love it, some hate it. I love it for a number of reasons but one of the main ones is that it’s so black and white. On competition day, either you lift the heavy thing or you don’t lift the heavy thing and it’s nobody’s fault but yours. That’s refreshing.
Regardless of what you may think about it, the fact remains that the squat/bench/deadlift combo is widely accepted as a classic test of absolute strength (I am a powerlifter so of course, I am heavily biased). The contents of this article are described in terms of my sport but the guiding principles are applicable to all sports.
For those who don’t already know, the sport of powerlifting involves 3 lifts, the squat, bench press and deadlift, performed in that order. The premise of the sport is pretty straightforward: you get three attempts at each lift and the aim is to successfully lift as much weight as possible. The person who has lifted the most weight from their combined 3 best lifts (i.e – best squat + best bench press + best deadlift = total) is the winner. Simple.
Except it isn’t simple. The truth is that powerlifting (and every other sport I can think of) is about intelligent application of training over time to maximise potential, followed by optimisation in the lead up to contest day to enable the best possible performance. But how can we know we’re doing the right things to get us where we want to be?
Passenger or Pilot – The Difference Between Exercising and Training
I first established the difference between exercising and training about a month after I started at my previous gym.
A very good friend of mine and some of his mates had been going there for a while and they were all in pretty good shape, so naturally, I wanted in. I started going down there in the mornings to join in with them and I saw the changes quickly. I was feeling good about myself.
I quickly realised however that although these guys were clearly fit and healthy, there was something missing. There was no plan. No direction. No end goal. No accountability beyond turning up in the morning and lifting heavy things until you were sweaty and it was time to go to work. They were exercising – not training – and while I loved the heavy lifting side of things, I knew that I wasn’t going to achieve anything more meaningful than staying fit if I carried on this way (not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just not what I want).
Training is different. It requires sacrifice, discipline, consistency, planning and accountability in pursuit of a higher goal and while you are not guaranteed to meet or exceed your goal, if you follow the principles correctly, you are guaranteed to become a better version of yourself than you were when you started. Let’s take a look at each of these key elements of training in turn:
Sacrifice – I have had to leave my friends at my old gym and move to a new facility which is better suited to training for my sport. This was not the path of least resistance by any means, as I had to leave the comfort of a health centre with its air conditioning, sauna and steam room and my group of training buddies to move to a much more spartan powerlifting and strongman gym in a draughty warehouse with a leaky roof where I didn’t know anyone. I also had to rearrange my schedule so I could train in the evening. I’ve also sacrificed plenty of booze and many a Saturday night because I train with my coach on a Sunday and I need to be on top form to benefit from it properly.
Planning & Accountability – I realised pretty quickly that I was in no position to make plans of my own with the extremely limited experience I had of powerlifting. Therefore, I enlisted the services of a good coach, someone specific to my sport with skin in the game, who has a lot of experience both in programming and hands-on training for powerlifting. I cannot speak highly enough of the value of having someone who knows what they are talking about on your side. Without a coach, it is easy to be a busy fool in any sport and no matter how smart you think you are, it will limit your progress. The other key element for anyone starting out in training is to track your workouts at the gym. Get a small diary and a biro, keep them in your gym bag and actually use them to write down your workouts. That way, you and your new coach can keep track of what is and isn’t working over time.
Discipline & Consistency – After deciding on my coach and agreeing on a program with him, I stuck to it. Now, this is easier said than done, as anyone who has ever tried to stick to a program for an appreciable length of time will know. When the boredom sets in after a couple of weeks, it is easy to think you know better than your coach and to abandon the plan. This, however, is a sure-fire way to make absolutely zero progress. Discipline also involves eating to meet my goals, making sure I’m getting adequate rest and recovery and getting my arse to the gym when I don’t really want to. Consistency is making sure that I’m doing all of these things every time, not just when I feel like it. In short, it’s the stuff that doesn’t get posted to instagram. Discipline is not sexy and it is sometimes boring but it’s essential to achieving any goals you have in mind.
The Goal – Arguably the most important part of this equation. Without a goal, you are not training; you’re exercising. It’s as simple as that. The target you aim for should be the determining factor in your training program (i.e – if your goal is to run a -3hr marathon, you probably shouldn’t be doing heavy sets of deadlifts 3 times a week, duh). If you pick your goal wisely, you can achieve and exceed it. If you pick your goal less wisely you might fail but you will be (at least) one step closer to achieving it if your training is spot on.
Since November, on the advice of my coach, I have been doing largely the same set of exercises week in, week out with ever increasing amounts of weight, slight varieties in reps and sets and the same frequency (number of days per week). In that time, my 3 lifts (squat, bench press and deadlift) have each improved by around 10% and I’ve hit numbers which seemed gigantic when I was first starting out. I know now that training with structure and purpose is guaranteed to lead to improvements and I will be using this method to get me to my next set of goals as well.
Learning the process of training was as transformative for me as the change from a sedentary lifestyle to an active one is for most people. If you’re serious about improving as an athlete, you have to bridge the gap between what you say you want and what you’re willing to do to get there. It is impossible to get everything you want without sacrifice and without embracing the necessary change. Some people don’t want to change (and that’s ok for them) but if you’ve read this far, chances are you’re not one of them, so perhaps it’s time to take the next step. Passenger or pilot. Sheep or wolf. Exercise or training. You decide.