You set your feet, body, and mind as you approach the bar for the god-knows-how-many-th time. Taking a deep breath, you fill up your abdomen and chest cavity with air, creating intra-abdominal pressure that pushes against your tightly secured belt. With your rough, flaky chalked hands, you bend down to grab the bar, and like a pilot preparing for take-off, you take out your mental checklist, and rehearse a set of mental cues – load the glutes, flex your lats, drop the shoulders, visualize the pull – one that you’ve been practicing constantly for as long as you can remember.
You grab the bar tight as the knurling seems to be a set of miniature teeth, biting deeper and deeper into your palms, gripping onto your skin tighter and tighter.
You load tension onto your posterior chain, activate your lats to pull the bar towards you, and yourself into the bar, removing slack in the system.
With one smooth coordinated movement, you pull.
“Rep one”, you mutter to yourself.
Powerlifting is a competitive sport whereby you compete by lifting the most amount of weight in types of 3 lifts – squat, bench, and deadlift for 1 repetition. There’re 3 attempts for each lift, and the highest of each gets added to the total. The competitor with the highest total to bodyweight ratio wins.
To me, it’s way more than that.
Powerlifting is probably my first introduction to proper, programmed training. Ever since young, I’d never quite been an athletic one in the family. But still, I’ve done my fair share of sports before I’d powerlifted – some jogging here and there, and even bodybuilding when I was around 15 years old. However, none of them really gave me a real sense of structure. It’s always – “Push, push and push. When you think you’ve hit your limit, push more”, or “Pain is temporary; pride is forever” etc. You know, the common motivational quotes that fires up your ass, making you to want to hit the gym every minute of every day, and before you know it, your “every day” winds up towards the end of the week. I used to be the guy who ate horrible tasting oatmeal pancakes every morning and does leg workouts that nearly made me puke every session. Here and there again, I’ll switch up my routine every month or two because the old one was getting too damn boring. However, I couldn’t really seem to maintain my habits for anymore longer than a month or two, simply because I couldn’t quite maintain the level of motivation I guess. This cycle continued for about a year or two, and that’s when I stumbled upon powerlifting.
Don’t get me wrong. Powerlifting is no less “hardcore” than any other athletic sports out there. Search up Youtube clips of people training for powerlifting, and I bet, you would’ve started having doubts about Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. However, clearing off the fog and hype a little bit, and you’ll begin to see that behind every training session of a powerlifter, is a program. A good solid program, that takes into account progressive overload, which is just another term to express an increase in load over time. It also takes into account some fair share of autoregulation, which is just a fancy word for adjusting the difficulty level based off how you feel on that particular day. In other words, a good program puts you in a sweet spot where you’re just uncomfortable enough to grow; yet not so much that you burn out. That, to me, is one of the most valuable things powerlifting had taught me – balance.
I remembered my very first powerlifting training cycle. It was a rustic program that I’d written for myself, to prep myself for my high school’s upcoming sports day, which I’m looking forward to joining the 100m sprints.
It was a simple program. Very leg dominant, and progression was simple. Let’s say the exercise in context was deadlifts. I’ll set a certain volume for it, e.g. 4 sets of 5, and start off with a weight that I think would allow me to hit all of the required reps. Week after week, I’ll just start adding weights (2.5kg at a time) slowly, till I couldn’t finish all reps. Say for example in a particular week, I only managed to do 3 sets of 5, and only hit 3 reps for my 4th set. For upcoming weeks, I’ll keep the weights the same, till I manage to hit all 4 sets of 5. At that point, progression continues.
It was a pretty linear style programming, but it opened my eyes to the world of structured training. Though the workout was the same week after week, it wasn’t brain-dead boring because I had a specific, measurable, and achievable goal every training session. Every session, I have something to look forward to as I was tying up my shoe laces and reading up my journal. Things weren’t repetitive. Every session was unique. Best of all, I’m able to track my progress with black and white clarity as my performance was written down on a piece of paper. Week after week, I could visualize the performance graph in my head as I flipped back the pages of my training journal.
It wasn’t just psychological. My lifts, especially my deadlifts and bench, finally broke through their plateaus. I struggled to hit even one plate on the bench for a long, long time. I was close. 57.5kg was a huge grind, but 60kg is just absolutely no. After running the simple homemade program for a couple months, I’m proud to say my current bench max holds around 85kg – a huge 25kg increase. Deadlifts, on the other hand, was a combination of better programming, and also better form execution. Because I know I have a limited amount of reps per session, I might as well make each of them count. With only about 20 reps of deadlifts per session, I know the goal is no longer about hitting the most amount of reps with the highest possible RPE, but to make the most out of each rep, one at a time. Back in summer 2016, after 2 years since my first rep of deadlifts, I was finally able to hit 4 plates (180kg) at a bodyweight of about 65kg – an achievement I would proudly attribute to programming.
In a nutshell, powerlifting had taught me possibly one of the most important lessons in life – being patient. Set a good starting point to begin the race, and once that’s done, stick to the course you’re headed on thoroughly. Have faith in the process. That being said, I’m only beginning scratch the very surface of what powerlifting IS. There’s sooo much more out there, and I can’t wait to get my feet wet.
– Just another dude