Are you a Drug-Free lifter who often struggles with Plateaus?

As powerlifters it’s not in our nature to spend hours outside the gym researching what could be considered trivial data and science as it applies to other sports. We are of a more big picture and work harder mentality on average, and let’s face it, there’s not a lot of money in powerlifting and I can’t remember the last time I came across any research grants written specifically on our behalf. The fact is, however, the research has been done and the science is available, you just have to know where to look and how it applies. Track and field athletes, other than longer distance runners, perform in a very similar way. Sprinters, jumpers, and throwers must all be very explosive and powerful in order to be successful. Olympic style weightlifters are also very much the same. There is big money invested into track and field and most Olympic sports.

Here are some books that should be on your reading list:

  • Science of Sports Training by Thomas Kurz
  • Science and Practice of Strength Training by Vladimir M. Zatsiosky and William J. Kraemer
  • Transfer of Training in Sports Vol I by Anatoliy Bondarchuck
  • Transfer of Training in Sports Vol II Anatoliy Bondarchuck
Without getting too technical I would like to talk a little about the central nervous system and how important its function and health is to the Drug Free Powerlifter. There really isn’t much information out there, good or bad, that provides much direction with Drug Free lifters specifically in mind. If you have attempted to follow any of the popular programs advertised or found in forums you have learned that when you are Drug Free it’s too much to recover from. You might get away with it for a few weeks, but that’s about all. We are all aware that there is no direct correlation between size and strength when it comes to people. Yes, a much heavier lifter is often stronger than a lighter lifter, but this is not always the case, and two lifters the same size can vary drastically in strength. I can remember countless occasions in which the 82.5 and 90 Kilo class winners lifted enough to win the next two or three classes up. The point being that the amount of soft tissue you carry isn’t proportionate to the amount of weight you can lift, and that is because it’s actually the central nervous system that is largely responsible for the most notable performance differences. While it’s especially helpful to be aware of this it’s a real science in itself to learn to train and monitor it effectively. The biggest challenge is in that maintaining a healthy nervous system goes against most everything we stand for and enjoy, “Hard work and more of it”. What science actually teaches us is that less is more, and trying to get that through the thick head of a powerlifter is harder than getting the Detroit Lions to the Super Bowl. How many times have you complained about leaving your best lifts in the gym two to three weeks out of the competition? That same hyperactive nervous system that allows you to be very strong at times is the same system that is especially sensitive and susceptible to over-training and can be your biggest enemy. In other words your old school ideas about what a plateau actually is and how to “overcome” it needs to be forgotten. Working harder and trying to push through a plateau is actually the absolute worst thing you can do! When progress ceases in almost all cases it is actually your nervous system telling you it needs a break, or at least a change. Trying to push through will only further tax your nervous system and begin to take down other systems along with it. I’m positive many of you have experienced the effects of this.
How often have you felt run down just prior to or following hitting a plateau, but instead of taking a break or switching things up you decided that working harder was the answer and ended up catching whatever seasonal bug was going around or simply watched your lifts go backwards. This isn’t because you actually lost strength or ability, it’s a very direct response to a nervous system that is over taxed and not capable of or willing to communicate effectively with your other systems and muscle any longer. One way to avoid this is to incorporate very regular changes into your training. They don’t have to be drastic changes, but only enough to change the way the nervous system functions and fires.
For example: moving your grip one finger in or out on the bench, changing the angle of the bench five to ten degrees in either direction, slightly changing your stance on your squat, alternating your depth or stance on your deadlift, etc. Most of us alternate our assistance movements very regularly, but aren’t very good about working variation into our competitive lifts and movements. Very slight changes will still have a lot of benefit and carryover but will also help ensure that you keep your nervous system healthy in the process. Changing reps and weights in a systematic and progressive manner is also helpful but often not enough. In a future article I will address the lack of need for experienced lifters with a good foundation of strength to perform movements with a large degree of variation from your competitive lifts, but for now let’s just say that putting too much effort into your assistance movements with a high degree of variation is something else that can quickly tax your nervous system and stands to be a far greater risk than benefit in most cases. “Less is more”. The best and most contrary piece of advice I can give is “When things are at their best, take a break”.  I tell everyone I train that whenever you hit a PR it’s a good idea to move away from the lift as performed for a little while, or just take a little break from the gym all together for a few days. It’s extremely rare that we get to enjoy two great sessions back to back, yet we are all guilty of wanting to show off when we are having a great day or week and subsequently paying the price for it. When you hit a PR it’s because your nervous system was properly primed to give its all and did just that, so don’t ask for more when it’s already given you everything it had to give! Take a break instead of having to later use the patented complaint “I can’t understand how I hit that three weeks ago for a triple and can’t do it for even a single today”. It’s also important that you get comfortable with taking needed breaks in general. On any given day when you just aren’t feeling it or your lifts aren’t up to par you should just walk away and leave it alone for a day or two. Pushing through is not the answer, and the result of not hitting your numbers can become a mental hangup for time to come.
The general rule of thumb is wait three days from after you start feeling better when you have been sick or just not performing before attempting to train again.
Find other ways outside of the gym to physically challenge and stimulate yourself as it can also be a great way to actively recover from your training. For me it’s mountain biking. I’m very aware of the risks of over-training so it’s always on my mind. Our nature makes it hard to fully commit to anything physically challenging outside the gym. However, I often have my best days in the gym after and around difficult and challenging rides on my bike.
Eastern Block coaches learned the great benefits of this long ago and have used other recreational sports as a way to influence active recovery in their athletes for many years. I read about Olympic lifters and other athletes playing soccer and other sports collectively as part of their weekly schedule long ago. Your body appreciates different types of stimulation.
Life is about more than the gym and it’s good for us all to find other ways to apply ourselves physically for both now and later. We lose less of our identity and struggle less when overcoming some injuries that affect us in the gym that way as well. Almost all of us have experienced an injury that limits our training or keeps us completely out of the gym for a time. We can feel incredibly lost when we experience this and it can have an even greater impact on us mentally than physically. Finding other ways to stimulate ourselves is especially helpful when it comes to staying healthy both mentally and physically, and even though we most often focus on our physical health and training we all know how pivotal of a role the mental plays as well.

I hope this was helpful!

Ron Madison – International Relations Director

13 Time World Champion
90 Kilo Open-Raw World Bench Press Record Holder – 202.5 kg
82.5 Kilo Junior-Raw World Bench Press Record Holder
World Deadlift Champion and Record Breaker
Five Times “Best Lifter” at Worlds.
National Combined Total Record Breaker