Powerlifting Attempt Selection for Not Dummies

I recently coached seventeen lifters, the majority of whom had never competed before, through their first powerlifting meet at the Minnesota State Open. They all did very well, had a great time, no one got hurt, and most importantly to me completed more lifts than the rest of the field. This isn’t because they were necessarily stronger, which in most cases they weren’t, but because they chose their lifting attempts more wisely.

The successful lift rate for my lifters was ~82% versus 75% for the rest of the field.

JVB checks-in on her next attempt with me.TJ Turner

JVB checks-in on her next attempt with me.

Attempt selection is easily one of the biggest factors that will not only determine how well you perform overall in a meet but how much you enjoy the experience. Leaving a meet knowing you could have lifted a little more means you’ll be hungry and excited to do it again. Bombing out or missing a lot of lifts will make you feel like crap and ruin your experience. Missing that first squat opener will set the tone for the day.

Get to know your strength level intimately beforehand, and choose ALL your attempts before the day of the meet. This is critical. Don’t show up to the meet with a bunch of numbers in your head or even just your openers. During the meet decision fatigue will set in and you’ll find it harder to make smart decisions. Choose all your openers, and then “bracket” your choices for 2nd and 3rd based on if the previous lift went better or worse than expected. I cringe every time I see a lifter go up to the scoring table after their attempt and run their fingers up and down the conversion chart trying to decide what to do next.

Never, ever, ever miss your opener.

One of my lifters, Kate Gallagher, designed this super useful PDF template for laying out your lifts. Some of my lifters used a notebook, and some used this worksheet, but every single one of them had their lifts picked out before meet day.

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How Much to Lift

1st Attempt: Your opener should be a weight you can lift 10 times out of 10 with a cold and a headache. In most cases it will be a weight you could do for a triple, and not in a best-case-scenario PR in the gym kind of day. Think of it like your very last warm-up rep under the exact conditions you’ll be competing in when you go for your two attempts that actually count. There is no reason to go for a 1st attempt weight that you would be satisfied with in terms of your total. If you only make your opener and miss your second and third attempt you should go home and think about what you’ve done and not repeat that mistake in the future.

Specific heuristics for each lift:

Squat 1st: This is your very first lift of the day and will set the tone. Consider being cautious and conservative.

Bench 1st: The data shows that the bench press eats lifter’s totals. Many, especially new lifters, make technical mistakes on this attempt. Guys especially who haven’t practiced with a pause tend to exaggerate their strength and are surprised how much harder a bench in competition is.

Deadlift 1st: My recommendation is to open at about 80% of your expected max lift. This leaves more in the tank for this demanding lift at the end of a long day.

Misses here: If you miss your 1st attempt due to a technical failure (a rules violation, not a failure to complete the lift) you should take the same weight again or the smallest possible increase (2.5kg). Missing this lift means your whole plan is out the window. I have seen people who miss and go up to their planned 2nd attempt bomb out of the meet all too often.

2nd Attempt: This is your first money lift and should represent about 90% of your maximum potential for the day. Making this lift but missing your third should still leave you with a solid total, but should NOT be a PR attempt or close to your predicted max. Don’t make this mistake of thinking that this is your first crack at a PR and the 3rd attempt gives you a second shot if you miss. Plan for success, not failure. If you have competed before, this attempt could be your 3rd attempt from the previous meet, depending on your progress.

Misses here: A full miss here puts you in a bad position for the 3rd attempt and will be extremely costly to your total. I’d recommend re-trying the same weight and hoping for the best. A technical failure on a completed lift puts you to a decision. You can go up to your planned 3rd attempt if you feel absolutely confident that you’re going to make it, but in my opinion you haven’t earned the right to go up by making your lift, so I would consider taking the lower end of your planned 3rd attempt.

3rd Attempt: Here is where you maximize the potential you brought on game day. This might be a small personal record, or otherwise 100% to 102.5% of your max. It’s not the “go for broke” attempt or the “pray that the crowd pumps you up and you put 50lbs on your max” attempt. Making this lift is what wins meets and increases totals.

Specific heuristics for each lift:

Squat 3rd: At this point in the meet you do not know what the competition is doing relative to you so it’s most important to execute your plan and make your lift. Get some feedback on how your 2nd lift looked from your coach and watch video to inform your perception. Sometimes a lift that felt slow flew up and it’s important to know when choosing your 3rd attempt. When in doubt go with a smaller jump. A lower white-lights lift adds more to your total than a miss at any weight.

Bench 3rd: By now you may have some idea who you are going heads-up with. If you are closely matched with someone else then it might make sense to be more conservative with this lift to ensure a successful lift. 3rd attempt bench presses tend to fail at an astonishing rate, so whatever you think you can do it’s pretty safe to say it’s probably a little bit less than that. In the meet I analyzed that had a large sample of lifters, 33% of 3rd attempt bench presses were successful. Part of this is technical failure due to rules violations, but part of it is just people grossly overestimating their actual strength. Know that a more conservative lift is more likely to add to your total.

Deadlift 3rd: This is the most strategically significant lift of the entire meet. You should know exactly where other lifters in your class stand and how the attempts will play out in the overall results. “If they make this, I need to make this – if they miss, I only need to make this.” It can be the difference between winning and losing, and due to the high-arousal and low technical skill of the lift it’s possible to pull out something you otherwise wouldn’t be capable of especially if you’re a lifter who excels under pressure. That being said, it’s still important to recognize your limits and execute your plan. If this is your first meet, I’d argue that regardless of the difference between winning or losing you should go with the attempt that you’re 95% sure you can make. However, a more experienced lifter might go with a slightly higher attempt (no more than 5kg) if it means the difference between 1st and second place, or winning and losing.

Final Thoughts

Aside from training properly and consistently to prepare, I don’t think anything has a bigger effect on your meet enjoyment and success than attempt selection. Your goal for every meet should be to go 9 for 9 and consider anything other than that a mistake that you should do everything you can to fix next time.

Don’t forget to have fun.

Physically Cultured Challenge: Gripper for Reps

I posted on my Facebook page earlier in the week about how grippers are quite possibly the best way to improve your grip strength for deadlifting.

Now, when I talk about grippers what comes to mind for many people are those junk grippers you find at Target or generic sporting goods stores. As with most things you buy at big box stores, they are junk. If you want something productive, you have to get a real tool.1.0x0

Torsion spring grippers, like the famous IronMind Captains of Crush series are popular and convenient ways to train the crush grip motion of the hand. They consist of a stiff spring connecting two all-metal handles, usually with significant knurling to keep the handles from slipping.

In barbell lifts the main gripping motion is the crushing action of the fingers, as opposed to any direct involvement of the thumb. If you can’t hold on a the weight, even with a mixed grip, it’s because your fingers aren’t strong enough.

If you want a stronger crush grip, grippers are the ticket. Get a range of grippers from one that you can close easily to one that is more challenging and requires you to start from a parallel set. Learning how to set a gripper is imperative.

Captains_of_Crush

Recently I travelled to Phoenix, Arizona on a skydiving trip and I took the opportunity to grab a lift with my good friend Bret Contreras. After we lifted, I challenged him to an impromptu gripper for reps contest.

Multiple rep training is a great way to build both strength and strength endurance in the hands, which is especially applicable to keeping that hand closed around your favorite barbell. You want a gripper that you can close without too much effort so that you can rep it out. You’re not going to do this with a max effort gripper.

P.S. If you need some hardware to get started, I highly recommend my friend and neighbor Matt Cannon’s online gripper store. To the best of my knowledge there is nowhere else you can get your grippers and get them rated in one fell swoop – something I highly recommend so that you know exactly what you’re working with. I explain this a bit more in the video as well.

Checking The Price Tag

When I was a kid, my parents taught me that if you had to ask the price you couldn’t afford it. Through the years I’ve found this maxim to be overwhelmingly true.

But, sometimes you need to check the price tag because you have to make an informed decision, weighing the need or desire with the realities of your financial situation. 

This week one of my favorite athletes and coaches, Mike Tuchscherer, penned an article for Juggernaut about how he learned the hard way how to back off the throttle.

 Coincidentally almost the same day my wife, Jen Sinkler, wrote an article for her own site about the cost of risky fitness pursuits.

I think you should read both pieces because they’re both important and address slightly different angles, but I want to bring up a few points about Mike’s specifically.

If you don’t know who Mike Tuchscherer is he is one of the strongest powerlifters on the planet and is the founder of Reactive Training Systems, best known for advocating a method of training in which the effort of each set is taken into account to inform the rest of the training. RPE, or Rate of Perceived Exertion, is a protocol to rate each set on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being an all-out effort in which you couldn’t possibly have completed another rep.

There is more to it than that, obviously, but the important thing is that Mike is the creator of and chief advocate of a system that hinges on being acutely aware of how much effort you’re expending on what the cost of it is.

And he missed the warning signs to back off.

Mike certainly has the champion mindset locked down, but he didn’t stop to check the price tag and make sure he wasn’t paying too high of a price.

Part of the problem is a lack of awareness and a mindset of checking in on the cost of things to make sure they aren’t getting out of line. Most people probably need to show up to the gym more often and come up with fewer excuses, but this comes down to honestly assessing yourself and as Mike said, “if it gets to the point that you have to consistently force yourself to train, it’s time for a bit of introspection.”

But the other piece of the puzzle, in my not so humble opinion and now half-decade of experience in using it is not using biofeedback.

Your body can tell you what to do and what not to do – if you just pay attention. <- my free article on how to get started using biofeedback in your training.

And as with most things, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you can stop doing things that are likely to hurt you then you can skip recovering from the injury.

Physically Cultured Challenge: Two Hand Pinch

This week’s Physically Cultured Challenge is going to test how strong those opposable thumbs of yours really are.

There are two primary ways to train the strength of the thumb, which is often the limiting factor in overall hand strength.

You can either grip something very wide so that the fingers can’t wrap all the way around it – this is called support grip.

Or, you can train the pinch motion of the hand.

Pinch is when the fingers are extended and pressed flat on the object, and the thumb is used to press the object against the fingers.

One of the simplest ways to train the pinch is to squeeze a pair of plates and hold it for time, which is this week’s challenge.

Pinch is an incredibly important movement for overall strength of the hand, but even more so as a counter-balance or opposition movement to the flexion-of-the-fingers-heavy movements most lifters do a lot of. While it’s tempting to think that extending the fingers against resistance such as rubber bands is the opposition movement to finger flexion, and it may be technically correct from a strictly bio-mechanical perspective, it’s not correct physiologically.

This is something I learned from grip legend Adam T. Glass. Adam has always contended that the flexion-opposition movement of the fingers is not extension against resistance, but resistance IN extension of the fingers, such as in the pinch motion, because this is how the hand actually functions. The analogy he offers is that like an alligator’s jaw, the hand is very weak in creating force opening up but extremely strong in staying closed – even when the fingers are extended. This is the kind of thing you can only understand when you truly understand how the body functions in practice, rather than how a textbook suggests it should.

And the experience of grip athletes and rock climbers for whom band finger-extension work has never worked but pinch training has paid huge dividends confirms this theory.

Enough about that – let’s get to pinching.

See the video for details. If you can’t quite lift two 45 pound plates pinched together feel free to modify as appropriate. One thick rubber bumper plate may be a good option for some people.

I look forward to hearing what you can do!

Get Obsessed With Consistency

“Get obsessed with consistency.” The words hit me like the fastball that got me one of many rounds of stitches, right at the eyebrow.

I was reading a pre-release copy of my friend JC Deen’s Stay Leaner Longer, and while that is a fantastic book that I also think you should check out, that’s not entirely the point of this email.

The quote was from a perhaps well-known in small circles Dubai trained named Amir Siddiqui. Amir is known among other coaches for his irreverent take on training, but also his formidable physique and the results he gets with his fancy-pants Emirati clients.

Amir looks like what Batman would look like if he grew a beard and packed on forty pounds of muscle. This is a guy who walks the walk and doesn’t have to convince you because you can see it.

Amir-Consistency

This quote, this quote about consistency has been ringing in my ears for a couple months now since I read it. The problem, as I see it, is that people get obsessed with goals. Women imagine what it will look and feel like when they lose thirty pounds and they fit into their skinny jeans. Guys think about what they’re going to look like when they hit that 500 pound deadlift. Some literature on goals will even recommend this strategy and really encourage you to visualize down to the last detail what it will be like when you hit that goal.

And then reality sets in and you realize that the goal is months, if not years, away and you wonder if this one workout even really matters. If it makes any difference at all if you just go home and hit the couch tonight. You can always catch up tomorrow.

Except that it does matter, and you can’t catch up. Even if you could, realistically you won’t.

The consistency is what matters. Get obsessed with it. Be more obsessed with making it to your next training session than the end goal you have in mind. Be more obsessed with getting the most out of the training session that you’re in the midst of than how you’re going to feel when you achieve the goal.

When it comes to physical transformation, consistency trumps perfection every single time. In school I learned the hard way what it meant to my overall grade when I got a 0 on an assignment I didn’t do. My grade tanked. Even if I had turned in something half-assed and gotten 50%, I still would have had a better average final grade. At Juggernaut’s Become Unstoppable 3 some folks were talking to Mike Israetel and expressing some awe at just how god damn big he was. He said, “Look guys, there’s no secret. I never miss a training session, and I never miss meals.” I thought back to the previous day when everyone else was sitting around chatting and Mike was lifting. I don’t think he has missed a lift or a protein shake in a decade.

It’s not hopes and dreams that add up to big goals, it’s action.

Physically Cultured Challenge: 500 Push Presses

This challenge, something as close to cardio as I get except for the occasional Lift Weights Faster workout, is one of my favorite feats I’ve ever worked on. It’s deceptively simple which may have you looking at it and thinking “that’s it?” I probably had the same reaction when Adam T. Glass issued the challenge to me because I know it took several months to achieve it.

So, let’s see you give it a shot.

The challenge is 500 16kg (35lbs) push presses in 15 minutes for men, 12kg for women.

I personally prefer a kettlebell for this challenge, but you can do what you feel.

You may switch hands as often as you like, and you can rest or do whatever you want but I assure you there is little time for anything but push pressing.

Biofeedback By Any Other Name Would Be as Awesome

I don’t have a smart and allegorical or snarky and funny introduction for this piece, and I’m certainly not going to win a Pulitzer prize for it, but this topic has come up enough times to address it.

Every so often someone emails me or comments on the blog that I’m using the term “biofeedback” incorrectly. According to their experience, biofeedback is where you use a device (amusingly, some people have also asked how much the device costs to do the kind of training I advocate) that monitors some combination of heart rate, skin conductance, brain waves, or other physiological markers, and then make a continuous effort to manipulate those markers. What I recommend as a biofeedback-testing approach to training doesn’t use any of this hardware.

An example application of the traditional approach is the emwave system and protocol, which involves monitoring heart rate and attempting to bring conscious control over your heart rate to lower it and “smooth” it out or bring it into “coherence,” in their terminology.

I’m not going to discuss the efficacy or specific applications of these forms of biofeedback because it’s not my area of expertise.

Let’s instead unpack my version of the definition and the structure of the underlying approach to understand what it means.

The Wikipedia definition of biofeedback describes it as “is the process of gaining greater awareness of many physiological functions primarily using instruments that provide information on the activity of those same systems, with a goal of being able to manipulate them at will.” So, you’ve got a stimulus and a concomitant response, some way to gain awareness and quantify the response, and an attempt to manipulate it. Visually, it’s like this:

Presentation1

Can we fit biofeedback training (as I use the term) into that model?

Lo and behold, biofeedback training fits perfectly into the existing biofeedback training. You’re using range of motion (ROM) to gain insight into the physiological response to a specific movement and using that information to inform your next decision.

Presentation1

Besides just being a bit blinkered by their previous experience, I think folks who are confused by the use of the term biofeedback are missing an important point.

For example, when biofeedback is used clinically as a stress relief or relaxation technique the explicit goal may be to consciously manipulate and lower the heart rate. But you’re not using biofeedback to the end of lowering heart rate, you’re using it as a proxy to relax or, if you want to get technical (which I don’t), effect a change in the autonomic nervous system to push it more parasympathetic.

Similarly, in biofeedback training the apparent goal is to get a positive change in range of motion, but ultimately that is only a proxy for the broader goal, which is to influence the body in such a way that it exhibits a positive physiological response (as determined by the increase in ROM) that over the long term seems to produce the best training results.

Let me be crystal clear on this point:

Doing things in the short term that result in a positive changes in range of motion seems to translate to positive results in the long term.

Biotrainforcerize™

I don’t doubt that it may be better from a marketing standpoint to have a proprietary term exclusive to me and the ideas and protocol I espouse. Sadly, that would violate the simple and pragmatic approach I prefer to use in general.

So for now I’m going to keep calling it biofeedback.

Effort, How Much is Too Much

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If I could wave my magic wand and change one thing about how people approach strength training, or training in general for that matter, it would be their perspective on and application of effort.

That’s right, biofeedback testing wouldn’t be the first place I would start. (Don’t get me wrong, I think you should test, too, since this hypothetical mutually exclusive scenario doesn’t exist—but testing wouldn’t be The One Weird Trick™ I’d lead with.)

In general, if you ask someone how much effort they apply in their training they’ll give you the answer they think you want to hear which is: ALL OF IT. But I think there’s a problem in the way most people define “effort.”

Effort as it applies to training is strenuous physical or mental exertion. Effort implies straining or probing the limits.

And yet, you can get better, more consistent results without straining.

The Elements of Effort

The very first topic I teach in my workshops is the concept of excessive effort to clarify exactly how we should navigate this term. Excessive effort is anything more than the minimal effective amount of effort, or anything that involves the elements of effort. All credit goes to my mentor Frankie Faires for outlining this spectrum of effort:

  1. Speed: When reps slow down
  2. Tension: When “poop face” occurs
  3. Breathing: When respiration gets ragged
  4. Alignment: When your form changes
  5. Failure: Missing a rep
  6. Pain: Shit starts to hurt
  7. Damage: Shit breaks

Can we agree that when things go south on a lift, you generally exhibit changes in these characteristics? Whether or not it happens in this exact order, you usually have a change (loss) of bar speed, which coincides with an increase in tension (usually not directly related to moving the weight, such as gritting your teeth or grimacing), that changes your breathing (i.e., going from not holding your breath to holding it), and results in a shift in your alignment (which hopefully doesn’t cause injury) as you struggle to complete the lift or ultimately fail it.

These elements of effort consistently show up when shit gets ugly.

Now, there’s a bit of a divide between trained and untrained individuals. Usually people with no training background find it perfectly reasonable to stop before excessive effort is applied. Trained individuals, on the other hand, have typically been indoctrinated with this special brand of “beast-mode thinking” that doesn’t benefit them and often leaves them with a laundry list of pains and injuries to show for it. They’re the ones who stand to benefit the most by stopping before effort shows up.

Say you don’t believe me and you remain utterly convinced that grinding to the limit is a prerequisite for improvement. Let me ask a few questions:

Have you ever watched the Olympics? How often do they exhibit the elements of excessive effort when they’re competing at the absolute top of their game?

Watch this video of IPF world-record holder and one of the strongest raw powerlifters alive Mike Tuchscherer pulling 755×4. With the order of the reps shuffled would you even be able to tell which rep is first and last?

Have you ever heard someone exclaim with admiration, “Wow, nice job! You really made that look hard!”?

Mastery is when you can make hard things look easy. If we believe that the SAID principle (specific adaptations to imposed demands) governs our training, then doesn’t it make more sense to specifically train the way we want it to eventually look: easy?

Embrace Effortless 

At first it may seem that this approach is either exceedingly simple and can’t make much difference, or you may think it’s just flat-out wrong. As with anything I write or speak about, the ultimate test is up to you to perform, but it requires action, not thinking, on your part. I believe you will find that this makes a profound difference in your training experience and will be transformative in your practice.

I mentioned briefly earlier that this is the first topic I cover in my workshops. This year we’ll be kicking off our workshop circuit at EQ Fitness near San Mateo, California. This particular workshop workshop, a 3-for-1 smorgasboard of fitness awesomeness, is a joint venture between myself, Jen Sinkler, and Pat Flynn. If you want to learn what comes after this topic, as well as a ton of cool kettlebell and bodyweight stuff from masters like Jen and Pat, then you’d be a fool to miss this one.

 

 

 

Physically Cultured Challenge: One Hand Deadlift Test

This post kicks off a series of challenges of the physical culture variety that myself and Dellanavich are putting to you.

It’s one of my core beliefs that the more adaptable you are, the more useful you are. That doesn’t mean you need to be a generalist and be good at everything, but that you can adapt to the widest variety of situations. A huge part of that is physically being able to withstand the widest range of possible insults. I’m going to dig into my bag of tricks to pull out challenges that are both worthy tests of mettle as well as ways to hone your own metal.

This challenge is a classic. Two minutes, as many reps as you can with a fixed weight. The fat handle is key here, so get yourself some Fat Gripz if you don’t have a fat dumbbell.

Share your weight and your reps in the comments!

How to be a Great Training Partner

Training Part Feat

Good training partners are perhaps the most underestimated piece of the training equation. You can have all of the best possible equipment, the ultimate training plan, and all the potent gains-inducing supplements in the world and you’re still going to miss out on a host of benefits that good training partners provide. For some people the training partner is the lynchpin, because without one, they won’t show up to train at all.

Here’s how you can be a great training partner:

 1. Show Up

A training partner who cancels or doesn’t show up to train is worse than not having one at all. At least if you’re used to flying solo you’re not doing anything different than usual, but when you’re expecting a partner it is totally demotivating to have them skip their workout and have to do it on your lonesome. Being someone’s training partner is a duty you accept and you have responsibilities that go with that. Show up.

2. Know When to Encourage and When to STFU

A good training partner is not an incessant cheerleader constantly hyping you up and telling you that you can do it no matter what. Sometimes some encouragement and hype is appropriate. Sometimes it’s best to shut the fuck up and let someone focus on what they’re doing. Know when to do each and pay attention to social cues.

3. Challenge by Asking

One of the most powerful phrases you can use is “Can I do that?” This simple question has transformed the training of many people. But almost as powerful is “Can you do that?” The best training partner I ever had was someone who had such an intimate knowledge of the spectrum of difficulty in strength feats that he was always able to ask “can you do that?” of the next progression I was capable, or almost capable of. This drove my training forward in a way that I’ve never before or since experienced. Challenging your training partners to perform new feats or reach new PRs by asking the question of them is one of the very best ways a partner can improve the training environment.

4. Leave Your Partner Better

This one is a little nebulous and vague, but stay with me. Ultimately your goal needs to be that when your training partner(s) leave the gym they are better than when they came, and not just from the strength session. If they leave burdened with or annoyed by your life problems that you foisted onto them during the training session, well, you screwed up. That’s not to say you can’t hash out issues during your lift, just make sure you’re respectful about it and that they leave better because they were able to help or because you canned it before things got out of control. Another example would be when training partners have major discrepancies in strength levels. You don’t have to be at the same level of strength or ability, but you don’t get to gloat about it or be a dick – everyone has to leave better. Manners go a long way in this department, such as pick up after yourself  and not leaving it to your partner. Offer words of encouragement or praise, make them feel better.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” -Maya Angelou

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Training partners can make or break your training. Do your part to be a great training partner and you’ll reap the benefits many times over.

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