Train Light, Compete Heavy

06/09/2010 20:52

Renowned American Powerlifter, Arthur “Superman” Jones once said “There is a difference between lifting more and actually getting stronger.” The point Jones was attempting to make was that lifting heavy weights in training does not actually mean that our pure strength will increase. Of course in Weightlifting and Powerlifting our strength is benchmarked by our performance in competition. Russian strength guru Pavel Tstatsouline says of this approach, “train light, compete heavy.”


In my experience of competitive Weightlifting in the UK and USA this approach is often overlooked or rejected in favour of an irrational obsession with intensity. Why is this the case? Perhaps it is a fascination with certain aspects of Eastern Bloc philosophy including the so-called ‘Bulgarian approach’; more on this in my article next month. It may also be the culture of ‘hard work’ which permeates through the culture of this sport as well as many other aspects of strength training and sports in general. Right from the teenage wannabe bodybuilder through to competitive track and field athletes one very frequently comes across the attitude that if hard and frequent is good, harder and more frequent will be better. Commendable but, I would argue, possibly naïve. Lastly, and this will be controversial, I feel that the sport of Weightlifting often places itself upon a pedestal and is incredibly introspective whereas if it were to take a more extrospective view it may learn something from other strength sports, particular the experiences of elite Powerlifters. It should be noted that one only has to read works on Powerlifting to realise that their sport is very outward looking and open minded to learning from other strength sports; most often, Weightlifting.


Examples in Powerlifting of success achieved through the “train light, compete heavy” approach are numerous. Andy Bolton, for example, pulled a ‘World Record’ 455kg deadlift having taken no more than 340kg for a triple in the preceeding 8-week training cycle (both lifts were suited but one should note that suits add little or nothing to a deadlift unlike the squat and bench press). Another one of the many such examples would be the bench press programme of Vladimir Volkov, the European bench press champion and master’s world champion in the 220lb class. In the 10 week cycle leading up to the Russian Bench Press championship of 2005 he trained the bench press an average of 3 1/3 times per week, i.e. relatively frequently, never took loads above 88% of his competition maximum and only attempted loads between 81% and 88% in 15% of his workouts and usually only for a single or, infrequently, a double. All other workouts used loads between 59 and 79%. He would take that championship with a bench press of 270kg.


It is this relatively frequent practice with light to moderate loads which Tsatsouline terms “greasing the groove.” He attributes the success of the approach to the improvements in intramuscular co-ordination which he contends it delivers. Russian Powerlifter, Sergey Pavlov adds, “when you are just thinking WHETHER you will lift the bar, you are not thinking about HOW to lift it.” As we said earlier, lifting heavy weights and getting stronger are not the same thing.


Tsatsouline believes that the optimal load for gaining strength is in the 70-80% 1RM range which is, he suggests “heavy enough to notice, yet light enough to pay attention to the technique and not need to psyche up.” It is interesting that the Russian guru proposes this range as it is also recommended by an American natural Strongman, Steve Justa. Justa is precisely the type of athlete the Weightlifting world would generally, I believe, pay little attention to, yet his works are thoughtful, intelligent and thought provoking. In his book, ‘Rock, Iron, Steel’ he details a program which he suggests is “very efficient and will build tremendous strength.” Justa even goes as far as to contend it to be excellent for developing “one lift you would like to practice and excel in and maybe set a world record in.” In brief the routing involves practicing the chosen lift every day, utilising only singles and always using loads between 70% and 80% of maximum. It is this percentage range which he calls “the target zone” and proposes that “this is the zone you must stay in when training to get stronger the fastest.” On the first Monday one would perform three singles with 70%, Tuesday would be five singles, Wednesday seven and so on up to fifteen on the Sunday. The following week the load increases to around 73.3%, the next to 76.6% and in the fourth the loads are at 80%, 1RM is then tested and the process repeated. When I ran this by friends and acquaintances within the Weightlifting world their response was practically unanimous, “I don’t think there’s enough intensity,” or words to that effect. The quote from American coach, John Coffee was “I’d be scared to experiment with it out of fear that it wouldn’t work.” Throughout my two month experiment on the programme my knees and quads felt fantastic, no aches or pains, I actually looked forward to my squat sessions rather than dreading them, my Olympic lifting sessions were better and, much to my delight, my incredibly stubborn squat max improved for the first time in a long time. A scientific experiment? Not at all. Did I care? Definitely not; it worked for me.


In his book Steve Justa relays a hypothetical to explain his thought process. This rings very true with me and also will with many of you:


"Let's say your max is 500lbs in the deadlift, and you've worked up to the point where you're pulling 450 for reps, say three reps, and you want to do four sets of three reps for your workout. Well this is fine for one workout. Even if you're tough mentally, as you start lifting and gut your way through the workout, because you're lifting so close to your max, every rep is hard and every set is hard. If you make it through this workout, when you finally make it, you say to yourself 'I'm on the verge of lifting too heavy, but I made it and I feel happy, but it will feel lighter next workout - it has to because I don't know how many more workouts like that last one I can endure.'


It's at this point your mind's already giving out on you because you're questioning yourself if you could work that hard again if you had to. Then, until your next workout, this feeling of dread sticks with you, and if you're going to use the same weight this time as last, you know you're in for trouble. You know you're out of your target zone but you want to push ahead rather than have to take weight off and start all over again.


For some reason, to the ambitious strength athlete, the thought of having to take weight off a lift you've already done is a fate worse than death itself. And this is a mentality you must not carry. Never be ashamed or embarrassed or feel let down because you have to take a little weight off a lift to keep training. If it feels too heavy, it probably IS too heavy for you to be training with.


But getting back to the story, you approach you next workout with dread because you know it's going to be a killer mentally and physically, but you're expecting it to be a little lighter than last time since you've already had one workout with this weight. So you hit the workout and for some reason it feels even heavier to you this time than it did last time. Well, now you've really got trouble mentally when this happens, and you really feel frustrated. But no, you think, I'm tough, I can handle it. So you gut your way through another backbreaking workout, carrying a sense of dread and destruction with you the whole time.”


Of course Weightlifting and Powerlifting are different sports and the style of lifting is also very different. For what it’s worth my gut feeling is that the way we get stronger in the explosive lifts may be very physiologically and neurologically different that in the slow, strength lifts. That said I also believe there is much that our sport can learn from these coaches and athletes who are succeeding in related sports. At the very least we may wish to experiment with such methodologies in our squats, presses and so forth. More than this, though, any experienced coach can surely see how this discussion relates to that lifter with a preoccupation with intensity, i.e. he/she who continually misses far, far more lifts in training than they catch due to regular use of loads which are too heavy and the associated breakdown in form. Why would anyone want to practice failure? Why would anyone want to think constantly about whether they will lift the bar and not how to lift it? Both will lead to deterioration and confusion of skill specific intramuscular coordination, mislearning, which in competition, under pressure and with heavy loads, will result in technical breakdown at the very moment it needs to be perfect.


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