Every time I step onto the powerlifting platform, I feel invincible! The world slows down, the crowd goes mute, and I am a heat-seeking missile that destroys any weight loaded on the barbell. That's why it's so easy to get caught up in competition after competition, always chasing the next PR. Powerlifting transports you to a Superman-like state of mind that's as addictive as any drug. But, like any addiction, you need to know the downside.
The problem with chasing your powerlifting PR all the time is that it can land you in a state of muscular fatigue, mental burnout, and overtraining—and lead to career-ending injuries.
How, as a powerlifter, can you minimize the risk of burnout and severe injury while still prepping for the season to come? You do it by getting serious about regular off-season powerlifting training.
Prepping for the prep
Too many powerlifters ignore off-season training, mistakenly thinking people do it just to stay loose and avoid injury, not to build muscle. Hell, no! Even if you don't care about your long-term health, I guarantee you'll be much stronger by continuing to practice year-round.
"Off-season" refers to the time during your training year when you are not training for a specific contest. That time might be right after competing in a meet, or it could be up to 10 weeks before your next event. The intervals can last 4-12 weeks. If you want to be able to stay in the game for the long term, you should make sure you're "off" for at least 16 weeks a year.
During the season, you spend your time prepping for the next meet. As you train, you have one objective: Prepare yourself to demonstrate your greatest strength on one single day. This kind of prep requires very heavy weights and extremely specific workouts.
Your off-season prep, on the other hand, is all about setting you up for great meet prep and, ultimately, a huge PR total. These are different goals requiring a different kind of training.
A chance to switch out your usual program
A lot of powerlifters think that their current competition weight class is the class they'll be in until they hang up their trunks. With diligent off-season training, though, you can add muscle mass, increase your strength potential, and have a good shot at moving up a rung or two.
You increase muscle mass by increasing training volume. That's why seasoned veterans use the off-season to take a break from the big three, increase their volume, and focus on exercise variants that will provide new muscle stimulus, prevent overuse injuries, and strengthen weak points.
For example, if you were in meet prep, you might lift 90 percent of your 1RM for a couple sets of 3 squat reps with an 8-minute rest between sets. During the off season, the idea is to use about 70 percent of your 1RM, but then do 5 sets of 10 reps of front squats or belt squats with a 2-minute rest.
In addition to the hypertrophic benefits of this greater volume, you also get a chance to improve your technique and increase your work capacity.
Slight variations can lead to big gains
After pushing the big three lifts aside for the off season, many powerlifters jump on exercise variety too enthusiastically. The idea is to stick with the main exercises you'll do onstage, but do variations of them. Here are some of my favorite variations:
- Squats: Olympic pause squats, front squats, Hatfield overload squats, safety squats, belt squats, cambered bar squats
- Bench Press: Close-grip bench press, wide-grip bench press, neutral-grip bench press barbell, dumbbell bench press, incline press, decline press
- Deadlifts: Strong opposite-stance deadlifts (i.e., if you normally go sumo, go conventional, and vice versa), trap bar deadlifts, deficit deadlifts, block pulls, Romanian deadlifts
The off-season also provides an opportunity to include strongman training, which can help you build explosive strength, powerful hip extensors, grip strength, work capacity, and mental toughness. Strongman training carries over greatly to squats and deadlifts. Some of the most effective transferable events include farmer's walks, yokes, sled drags, and just about any carrying exercise.
Build work capacity now to serve yourself later
Because it doesn't involve training at 90 percent of your 1RM, week in, week out, the off-season gives your body a much-needed break—even as you increase your work capacity. It's a time to ease up a bit on your neuromuscular system while still building strength.
By cutting back on the big weights in the off-season, you'll properly position yourself to peak for a powerlifting meet. A powerlifting peaking cycle starts with a focus on higher volume and more general movement and ends at the meet with low volume and very specific movement. With good off-season training, you're ready to blow right past the high-volume stage of the cycle and focus on proper lift execution.
The perfect time to strengthen your weak points
Meet prep is about hitting your best lifts on a preplanned date. As such, it's not the best time to take a step back and focus on correcting weaknesses. The off-season, on the other hand, is tailor-made to help you bring up those weaknesses while retaining your strengths.
If you have any of these weaknesses, try these primary and/or accessory exercises:
- Weak quads: front squats, Hatfield overload squats, backwards sled drag, leg presses
- Weak chest: dumbbell press variations (decline, flat, incline), chain flyes, cable work, wide-grip benches
- Weak shoulders: overhead press variations, all sorts of dumbbell raises, cable work
- Weak upper back: any chest-supported row variation, lat pull-downs, chin-up variations
- Weak triceps: close-grip benches, dips, extension variations
- Weak biceps: hammer curls, incline dumbbell curls, Gironda perfect curls
- Weak posterior chain: deadlift hypers, Romanian deadlifts
- Weak grip: farmer's walks, overhand deadlift holds
Guidelines for off-season training
Off-season breaks from competition are a golden opportunity for you to lower the load and up the reps, hone your technique, and use exercise variations to provide new stimulus for new muscle growth. In general, during the off-season you want to:
- Keep rest intervals on heavy compound movements to less than 3 minutes.
- Keep rest intervals on accessory movements to less than 90 seconds.
- Increase repetitions on core lifts to 5 or more.
- Work on your weak points.
- Work on those areas that you tend to neglect during meet prep.
This stuff is for real!
Before I started working with James Strickland in 2016, he missed 600 pounds on the bench press for eight meets in a row. Fast forward to 2017. Strickland had the biggest bench press in the world for his weight class. He hit 661 pounds then, and is now well on his way to setting the all-time world record for the 308-pound weight class. What changed? I got him started on off-season training.
Strickland isn't the only powerlifter who's seen improvements like this. I've worked with a lot of guys who went from average to good, and then from good to great, after I implemented an off-season program for them.
So what are you waiting for? Get on the gains train by implementing an off-season powerlifting program of your own.