Powerlifting Methodologies for 2021

Introduction

At the end of every year, I write down all my goals for the upcoming year. This is a holistic list, encompassing my career, relationships, hobbies, health, and fitness. After I list out my goals for the year, I then start researching. The difference between a goal and a wish is action. I don’t want my goals to be wishes, once I have a target in place, I figure out a basic roadmap to put me on course to achieve my goals. Last year, my fitness goals were to hit a 405 lb. deadlift, 315 lb. squat, and a 225 lb. benchpress. Unfortunately, Covid context got in the way. I ended the year hitting two of those three goals, but missed my deadlift goal by 50 pounds. Adding complexity to the problem, I hurt my back in October of last year and required months of PT to recover. So, my fitness goal for 2021 is single focused. I will hit a 405 deadlift by the end of the year. All of my fitness programming is focused on this single goal.

Recovering from 2020

I learned a lot from my injury in 2020. I learned that diet is complex. I learned that muscular imbalances compound over time. I learned that strength is multi-faceted. My injury was caused by a major mineral imbalance. Potassium is an essential mineral, and insufficient potassium causes a host of medical issues. During 2020, I tried out the Keto diet as a symptoms management tool for my Crohns disease. Keto is a hard diet, but an effective one. It essentially fixed all of my residual symptoms and functioned as an effective complement for my biologic maintenance medication. Obviously, I am not a doctor, but I recommend giving it a try if you want to see positive results managing an auto-immune disease. Unfortunately, Keto also requires a careful eye for mineral intake. Because the diet is so restrictive, eating the right amounts and types of vegetables to hit each mineral requirement is non-trivial. Well, I completely forgot to track my potassium intake while on Keto, which in turn caused me to black out while performing a warmup front squat with 185 pounds on my shoulders.

I remember lifting the weight off the rack, bracing my core for the lift, and then bang! My lights went out. The next thing I remember is looking up at the safety pins where the barbell had landed. I couldn’t stand up or move my legs for about a minute, due to my state of shock. Once I was able to move again, I promptly racked the weights, cleaned up and went to the hospital.

After a thorough physical returned no abnormalities (Besides a mild increase in blood pressure), blood work was taken (I passed out again during the blood draw… it was bad) and my potassium deficiency was discovered. I promptly stopped my Keto diet and started a new, less restrictive diet which I am on now. This new diet completely resolved my deficiency and I have not passed out again since that fateful day.

The fall I took in the gym also managed to sprain my upper right back, an injury which took months of physical therapy to recover from. I will address this component in my training overview.

Diet & Meal Prepping

My training program is intense. In order to maintain and gain weight within this cycle, I have had to completely rethink my diet. Nutrition, Volume, and Density are the corner stones of my nutritional plan. Every day I eat for meal prepped meals with the following contents:

  • 2 chicken thighs
  • 1/2 of a zucchini
  • 3 heads of cauliflower
  • 1 fistful of spinach
  • 1/4 Avocado
  • 4 tablespoons of salad dressing
  • 1 cup of cooked brown rice

I have estimated every meal contains approximately 900-1100 calories. The primary challenge of this diet is the meal prepping. I am blessed with the ability to eat the same meal every day forever, so long as it does not taste bad. My meals are not amazing, but the salad dressing helps it from becoming dry and provides flavor. But, the 3 hours I have to invest in prepping these meals every Sunday night is a non-trivial commitment. Even though it’s hard work, this commitment is so worth the effort. Meal prepping provides me with a profound level of freedom. I don’t have to think about food for the entire rest of the week, because I know that I have 26 meals waiting for me in the freezer. If at any point I get tired of the flavor of my food, I can simply change out my dressing. It’s not exciting, but most disciplines are not worthy of cinema. Below are a few tips which have really helped me streamline the meal prepping process:

  • Maintain double the amount of meal prep containers necessary for your meal plan. If you have 10 meals prepped per week, own 20 meal prep containers. This will cut down on time looking for available containers when prepping the cooked food.
  • Start small. Don’t try to meal prep every meal to start. Just meal prep lunch for a week. That will give you the chance to experiment without any severe repercussions.
  • Buy an Instant Pot. Then buy a second Instant Pot. Cook your rice in one while cooking your chicken in the other. Then cook your veggies in the oven.
  • Chicken Breasts are hard to cook correctly. Chicken thighs are easy to cook correctly. Chicken thighs are also cheaper. They just take a bit more time to eat.
  • Vegetables are cheap.
  • Don’t mix and match your meal prep containers. Find a brand that will last a while (I buy Tupperware) and then buy in bulk.
  • Don’t buy big meal prep containers. Meal prep containers take up space. The more meals you have, the more space you will need.

Training

Disclaimer: My workout plan is highly personalized by myself and my physical therapist. Ive been lifting for a long time, and what works well for me will not necessarily work well for you.

My current training schedule is firmly focused on building core and back strength. While my injury in 2020 was directly caused by me dropping weight on myself when I passed out, there were pre-existing imbalances which needed to be resolved before I could begin to rehab my back. After my fall, I was unable to back squat without intense pain in my upper right back. Any weight above 225 pounds would cause back spasms and force me out of the gym for multiple days. Oddly, if I kept the weight below 185 pounds, the pain was minimal. After consulting with my physical therapist, we discovered that on heavy squats, I transition away from using my core for stability, and instead use my upper and lower back to push the weight up from the hole at the bottom of my squat. This transition causes a lot of unproductive tension in my upper and lower back. Because of my injury, that tension translated directly into terrible pain.

To resolve the issue, we decided add multiple core and back focussed exercises to my training schedule to help remediate the issue. By golly, it has worked wonders. As my core strength has improved, my squat, bench and deadlift have all improved drastically. I don’t have pain anymore, and I am lifting with better form, much higher volume, and soon, I’ll begin transitioning into heavier ranges. Someone once told me that squats would provide all of the core work I needed, and that dedicated core exercises were not useful. They were wrong. Below is my current training schedule, where WxRxS = (Weight as a percentage of Single Rep Maximum) x (Reps) x (Sets) :

Monday
My general goal for Monday is to perform volume push oriented work. None of any of these individual lifts should be difficult. The goal is that I am only grinding out the last 2 or three reps of the last set. If the last reps become easy, then it’s time to add 5 pounds.

  • Benchpress: 70% X 10 X 4 (Goal is to perfect form and activate back, core, and leg drive)
  • Dumbbell Bench Press: 70% X 10 X 3 (Goal is to be as explosive as possible)
  • Dumbbell Fly: 50% X 10 X 3 (Goal is to do this slow so it burns)
  • Barbell Front Squat: 70% X 10 X 4
  • Cable Triceps Pushdown: 70% X 10 X 3
  • Medicine Ball Planks: Bodyweight X 65s X 3

Tuesday
As with Monday, my Tuesday workout is aimed at pushing myself to failure through volume work, while keeping weight ranges within the 70% range. The primary difference being that Tuesday is my pull day whereas Monday is my push day.

  • Cable Lat Pulldowns: 70% X 10 X 3 (Going for slow reps which activate my back as much as possible)
  • Pull ups: Bodyweight X 8 X 4 (As I gain more weight, these get harder and harder. I often break up the last two sets of 8 into multiple sets of 4)
  • Barbell Deadlift: 50% X 8 X 2, 70% X 6 X 3, 85% X 4 X 3 (My goal is to work on the initial phase of my deadlift, breaking it off the ground. I don’t want to do lots of large sets, but rather smaller more frequent sets so that I can focus on getting the weight off the ground, as that is my main sticking point).
  • EZ-Bar Preacher Bicep Curls: 70% X 10 X 3 (Because the Wife wants me to have big arms)
  • Dumbbell Bicep Curls: 70% X 10 X 3 (Again, for the wife)
  • Seated Cable Rows: 65% X 12 X 3 (Slow and steady wins the race and builds those wings)

Wednesday
Ohhhh Wednesdays. I hate them so much. I do core and cardio on Wednesdays. I also do more back, because I like training back, and I don’t hit my lats enough on Tuesdays because I don’t have enough time to fit them into my Tuesday workout.

  • Step Machine: 15 Minutes, Pyramid
  • Decline Weighted Situps: 70% X 10 X 3 (Try not to puke, don’t crunch your upper back, and focus on activating your core, and not using your legs as leavers)
  • Hanging Leg Raise: Bodyweight X 10 X 3
  • Decline Oblique Situps: Bodyweight X 10 X 3
  • Cable Shrug: 70% X 10 X 3 (I focus on using ONLY my traps, not my neck… or else I suffer from a tension headache later)
  • Barbell Row: 50% X 10 X 3

Thursday
Push Day Part 2!

  • Benchpress – Narrow Grip: 60% X 10 X 4 (I focus on activating chest and triceps, and avoid shoulder impingement)
  • Barbell Shoulder Press: 70% X 10 X 3 (I focus on speed and form)
  • Barbell Squat: 50% X 10 X 1, 60% X 8 X 2, 75% X 6 X 2, 85% X 4 X 2 (Survive. Focus on breathing. Focus on Core Stability. I will re-rack if my core stability starts transitioning to back tension)
  • Dumbbell Tricep Extensions: 70% X 10 X 3 (Focus on feeling the burn in your triceps. Its easy for me to shift the focus to my lats on this one)
  • Dips: Bodyweight X 10 X 3
  • Medicine Ball Planks: Bodyweight X 60s X 3

Friday
Pull Day Part 2!

  • Cable Lat Pulldowns: 70% X 10 X 3 (Same as Tuesdays)
  • Pull ups: Bodyweight X 8 X 4 (Same as Tuesdays)
  • Barbell Deadlift: 40% X 10 X 2, 60% X 7 X 3 (I am not as peppy on Friday as I am on Tuesday, so Im not trying to hurt myself on these sets, therefore I have lower volume and lower weight)
  • Dumbbell Row – Cross Body Stance: 70% X 10 X 3 (If I have my left hand on the bench, my right leg will be on the bench. This acts as both a back exercise as well as a core and balance movement)
  • Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 70% X 10 X 3
  • EZ-Bar Straight Arm Front Raise: 70% X 10 X 3
  • Cable Bicep Curl: 70% X 10 X 3

Saturday
This is my dedicated Cardio and Core day. I usually go pretty fast through this workout.

  • Running: 20 Minutes
  • Situps with Weight Above Head: 85% X 5 X 4
  • Cable Woodchoppers: 70% X 10 X 3
  • Medicine Ball Planks: Bodyweight X 60s X 3
  • Burpees: Bodyweight X 10 X 3

Recovery

My workout schedule is intense. I do not recommend it for a beginner, and it kicks my butt every week. I am constantly on the lookout for burnout/overtraining symptoms. If I start to feel like I might be overtraining my body, I still go to the gym, but I reduce my workload or sets to accommodate what my body is telling me. Injury avoidance is about half of the workload I perform within the gym, and its just as important outside the gym. None of my schedule would be possible without my sleep schedule. I try to be asleep by 9:30 every night (try being the key word). At worst, I am always asleep by 10 PM. And I always wake up between 4:45 and 5:10 AM to get ready for the gym. This schedule provides me with ample time to sleep and recover from the work of the day. Without my sleep, I would never be able to perform.

Results

Bodyweight 01/01/2021: 202 lbs
Bodyweight 06/21/2021: 222 lbs (gained both fat and muscle)

Pain Levels 01/01/2021: Unable to back squat above 225 lbs without severe and lasting pain
Pain Levels 06/21/2021: Back Squatted 275 lbs without pain (Mildly tender later in the day)

Strength 01/01/2021: Deadlift: 315 lbs, Bench: 135 lbs, Squat: 225 lbs (Bench and Squat restricted by pain)
Strength 06/21/2021: Deadlift: 325 lbs, Bench: 225 lbs, Squat, 305 lbs (Pain is not totally gone, but is completely manageable)

TLDR

Working out is fun, but working out safely is important. Incorporating nutrition, sleep, and core stability has allowed me to drastically improve my performance and overall health.

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