Powerlifting Preparation: Off-Season vs. Competition
Powerlifting is a sport that tests an individual's strength using three different barbell lifts: the squat, bench press, and deadlift. While these lifts may seem simplistic, much goes into preparing athletes for powerlifting competitions. For many years, Westside Barbell has used the Conjugate Method to prepare athletes successfully for the rigors of powerlifting competition.
Unlike most sports, where a wide variety of strengths and athletic abilities are necessary, powerlifting focuses on developing a high level of absolute strength. However, despite the competition being a test of absolute strength, a powerlifter must also develop explosive strength and work capacity while improving physical composition.
Fortunately, the Conjugate Method provides the blueprint for improving an athlete's absolute strength while also developing all other aspects of strength and conditioning necessary for powerlifting success. Whether competing raw or equipped, the Conjugate Method allows an athlete to become bigger, stronger, and faster. In terms of effectiveness and efficiency, no training method can compare.
What makes the Conjugate Method so effective is how the methods can be tuned based on an athlete's current training goals. Whether an athlete is preparing for a meet, just returning from a meet, or focusing on improving their abilities with an off-season training cycle, the Conjugate Method can be molded to fit the athlete's training needs. There is no one-size-fits-all approach with Conjugate; we manipulate the methods to address the demands of sport.
Below, we will discuss how to use the Conjugate Method year-round to improve strength and prepare for competition.
Conjugate Method Training Cycles
If an athlete is new to the Conjugate Method, one of the first things they will notice is that training phases are nonexistent. No matter the time of year, we will utilize max, dynamic, and repeated effort methods to improve strength and athletic performance. However, depending on the current training cycle, we modify training to match the athlete's needs.
When training powerlifters, we utilize off-season and competition training cycles. These training cycles have many similarities but will differ to some extent. For example, off-season training will use various exercises to address as many identified weaknesses as possible. However, a competition-focused training cycle will become more specific, with many main exercises being competition-relevant.
No matter the current training cycle, the goal is always to get as strong as possible when executing a powerlifting training routine. When performing an off-season training cycle, we aim to improve strength while closing gaps in weaknesses and technical skills. We do so by selecting exercises specific to the athlete's needs. When we perform a competition training cycle, we aim to improve strength while refining our competition-relevant abilities. We accomplish this by selecting movements relevant to the competition setting.
While the competition training cycle is important, off-season training is just as necessary. Even if an athlete is the best in the world, there is always room for improvement. These two training cycles complement each other, and a successful off-season training cycle will almost always make for an even more successful competition training cycle.
Off-Season Training: Building a Strong Foundation
The off-season training cycle is the training cycle that will lay the foundation and dictate the success an athlete will have once training becomes competition-focused. Off-season training aims to continue improving absolute strength while focusing on the aspects of strength or conditioning that are currently limiting success.
This could mean an athlete is dealing with a particular weakness in their squat, bench, or deadlift. It could also mean an issue caused by overall fitness or technical mastery of the competition lifts. No matter the issue, we can devise a Conjugate Method-based training plan to solve it.
If the issue is muscle weakness-related, we will use special exercises to target identified weaknesses. Instead of worrying about competition-relevant movements, we are more concerned with coming up with movements that address identified weaknesses specifically.
When thinking of off-season training, think of it as weakness-specific training. Just like a ship goes into dry dock to repair and ensure it is sea-worthy, a powerlifter must perform optimized off-season training cycles to ensure strength, conditioning, and skill development are all up to par with the demands placed on an athlete during a competition-focused training cycle. This training not only helps to improve competition performance but also helps to reduce the chance of injury during competition.
A successful off-season powerlifting training plan should improve identified weaknesses, improve absolute strength, and raise conditioning levels so that competition-focused training can begin without issue. Simply put, an off-season training cycle is intended to increase an athlete's strength and capabilities while physically preparing them for the transition to a competition training cycle.
Off-Season Nutrition and Recovery
During the off-season, it is vital to ensure you remain disciplined in your diet and recovery regimen. All athletes must maintain a diet that provides optimal calories and macronutrients. The caloric and macronutrient requirements will differ depending on the athlete. If an athlete struggles to plan a diet independently, we highly recommend finding an expert to help construct a competent plan.
Maintaining an adequate and predictable recovery schedule is also essential during the off-season. While off-season training is more forgiving when mistakes are made with diet or recovery, these mistakes only disrupt and reduce the overall effectiveness of off-season training. Training efficiency is reduced to some degree if an athlete lacks the proper fuel or energy to complete a workout.
Our goal during off-season training is to establish a diet and recovery plan that allows an athlete to make significant improvements in the off-season while also setting the athlete up for success as they transition into a competition-focused training cycle. This means the athlete has a surplus of energy, remains appropriately hydrated, and can perform all exercises as planned.
One major thing we want to avoid during off-season training is excessive weight gain. Excessive weight gain caused by poor dietary choices will reduce the athlete's overall fitness and disrupt the transition to the competition cycle. Gaining weight is not bad, especially if an athlete is between weight classes.
However, if a 220 lb lifter bulks up to 300 lbs in just a few months, you can bet conditioning has dwindled, and the health risks have increased significantly. During the off-season, it is normal for an athlete to gain 5-15 lbs of additional weight. However, the weight gained should never be so much that it cannot be reduced safely and healthily during the competition cycle.
Competition Preparation: Sharpening the Blade
Once an athlete has completed an off-season powerlifting training plan, it becomes time to select a meet and begin a competition-focused training cycle. The competition-focused training cycle is where we continue developing strength and refining skills to allow the athlete to show up on meet day as prepared as possible.
While our off-season training focuses on improving weaknesses and skills, our competition training focuses on reaching peak absolute strength while refining competition-relevant movement skills. This means that instead of a diverse group of exercises, we will combine a mix of special exercises with competition-relevant main exercises.
Competition-relevant exercises include any movement that uses a barbell and rack setup similar to competition conditions, with the movement performed to competition standard. The special exercises will include any movement that addresses any identified weakness during the competition training cycle. Our max effort main exercises will typically consist of four competition-relevant exercises and four special exercises each month.
As for accessory exercises, these movements should always address identified weaknesses. During a competition training cycle, our main exercises must become competition-specific to some degree, so accessory exercises play an even more significant role in resolving these identified weaknesses.
In the off-season, we can use both main and accessory exercises to solve weaknesses at will; during competition training cycles, we must become more creative with our accessory exercise selections.
While off-season training has no limits in terms of length of time, competition training cycles typically begin 12-16 weeks out from a competition. This provides an appropriate timeline that allows strength and skill to peak and includes plenty of time for any issues with body weight or fitness to be addressed before the competition. While 12-16 weeks is preferred, an athlete can execute a successful competition training cycle with as little as eight weeks until the meet.
By the end of the competition training cycle, an athlete should be at peak performance. This means that both strength and technical proficiency are on point, and the athlete possesses the fitness level necessary to complete the meet without issue. While a powerlifting competition only includes nine total lifts, these lifts are above 90% and performed over an extended period.
No matter what anyone says, a great powerlifter is a properly conditioned powerlifter. If a powerlifter has excess body fat or inadequate levels of conditioning, they will always fall short of their true potential.
Weight Management for Competition
When preparing for a competition, it is essential to ensure that an athlete can make their weight class without issue. One thing that can complicate a competition training cycle is an issue with body weight. During the competition training cycle, an athlete must ensure that they either maintain, gain, or lose weight to compete in their desired weight class.
Ideally, an athlete will maintain their competition bodyweight both near competition and during the off-season. As mentioned earlier, a 5-15 lb weight gain can happen during an off-season training cycle. However, with a normal 12-16 week training cycle, it is no issue to bring the weight down over time without worrying about negatively affecting energy levels during training.
However, if an athlete is dealing with weight issues, the success of a competition training cycle can be limited. Not only will the need for weight loss affect energy levels, but it can also impact leverages and how an athlete feels under the barbell. This is why it is crucial to maintain a disciplined diet, no matter the training cycle. A disciplined off-season training cycle only leads to a more successful competition training cycle.
Some athletes may choose to remain 15-20 lbs above their weight class throughout the duration of an off-season and competition training cycle. Once the competition date is close, these athletes will perform complex and risky weight cuts to make their desired weight class. Then, these athletes will weigh in before trying to gain as much weight as possible before the meet.
While this can give an athlete an advantage, the risks are often too significant for anyone outside of professional-level powerlifters. These athletes are typically at the top of their game and perform these weight cuts to break records in a specific weight class.
Either way, it makes more sense to train near the weight you will compete at during the off-season and gradually reduce overall body weight throughout a competition training cycle. An athlete will feel better overall, and the health risks will be reduced significantly. There are already enough variables during a competition training cycle; why add another to the mix?
The Psychological Dimension: Preparing the Mind for Competition
While powerlifting is a physical activity, there is no doubt a significant psychological aspect to the sport. Whether in the gym or competition, approaching training with the correct mindset will help an athlete achieve a higher level of performance. A focused athlete with the proper mindset will deal with the stresses of sport and remain capable of executing under pressure.
As an athlete, it is crucial to understand the correct mindset regarding powerlifting. The correct mindset would be best described as controlled intensity. When attempting to lift the heaviest weight possible, there will be a level of intensity an athlete must bring to the table. However, this intensity should not manifest as useless yelling and screaming.
If an athlete uselessly yells and screams, a considerable amount of energy will be wasted for nothing. Ideally, an athlete should remain calm in outward appearance and expression but highly intense in the mind. If we had to think of an athlete's mindset that would be best to mimic, it would be that of mixed martial arts legend Fedor Emelianenko.
In terms of building confidence, one of the best ways for an athlete to build confidence is to execute their training plan properly and with strict dedication. When an athlete knows they showed up to every training day and gave 100% each workout, there is no doubt the athlete will walk into the competition with high confidence.
Knowing that the work has been done correctly always builds confidence.
Transitioning Between Phases: Dos and Don'ts
Typically, most athletes will begin in what would be considered an off-season training cycle. This means that no competition has been scheduled, and the current training goals are more broadly focused. During this time, athletes should take advantage of the opportunity to get stronger and improve their technical proficiency.
During the year, it is typical for most athletes to spend 6-8 months performing what would be considered an off-season training cycle. However, we will transition to a competition-specific training focus once a competition is scheduled. One thing we want to avoid is forgoing necessary work due to an upcoming competition.
Too often, athletes will be eager to compete and go into competitions unprepared. We always want to avoid setting ourselves up for failure, so it is important to ensure that an athlete has reached a capable level of performance before signing up for a competition. This helps reduce the risk of injury or embarrassment and sets the athlete up for success in the next training cycle.
Powerlifting is a momentum sport. Once an athlete gets the ball rolling, staying disciplined and maintaining strength and performance is essential. However, getting the ball rolling calls for proper time spent building foundational strengths and becoming competent with competitive barbell lifts. When a solid foundation is built, an athlete can escalate performance year after year.
Additionally, we want to ensure our competitions are properly spaced apart. Typically, we will perform a 16-20 week off-season plan, followed by a 12-16 week competition training plan. We often follow up the competition with another 12-20 weeks of off-season training. However, there are times when an athlete will opt to go back into a competition training cycle to compete again in the near future.
When this occurs, we will give the athlete 3-7 days of rest following the initial competition, then begin preparing for the next competition. Ideally, we will have at least 12-16 weeks before the next competition. However, if an athlete is already in competitive shape, we can return to competition in as little as 6-8 weeks.
We typically want to avoid turnaround times under six weeks when preparing for competition. Unless an athlete had an unexpected failure at their last competition and wants to redeem themselves quickly, limiting an athlete to less than six weeks of competition preparation almost never makes sense.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Compared to competition prep, how long should an off-season training phase last?
A: Off-season training typically lasts 16-20 weeks, with competition prep lasting 8-16 weeks.
Q: What are the most effective training strategies during competition peaking?
A: Maintaining competition-relevant max effort exercise selections during competition training cycles will provide the most effective training.
Q: How can I avoid overtraining when transitioning between the two phases?
A: Provided the athlete is in decent condition and the programming is correctly organized, there is typically little risk of overtraining. However, if overtraining does become an issue, a 3-7 day rest period will typically solve the problem.
Q: How do elite powerlifters structure their year for optimal performance?
A: At Westside, we typically perform 12-16 weeks of off-season training. Then, we will typically compete twice yearly, using 8-16 week training cycles to prepare for each competition.
Q: When will I know if I am ready to compete?
A: If you have developed competitive strength on a local level and become proficient at competition lifts, you are ready to compete. You don't have to be competing for a world record to enjoy the sport of powerlifting.
One of the most critical aspects of barbell training is the ability to remain disciplined. Not only must we stay disciplined in our adherence to the training schedule and plan, but we must also discipline our minds to stay on the path and make the correct decisions. When executing a Conjugate Method plan, success or failure is determined by the athlete's discipline.
During max effort training, we must remain disciplined and make the correct calls when it comes to exercise selection, and top set working weights. Max effort training is tremendously beneficial but must be managed correctly. Discipline also plays a vital role in exercise execution, which is necessary when dealing with high-intensity training weights.
When performing dynamic effort training, we must remain disciplined and execute each exercise with proper form and intent. Since dynamic training is performed with submaximal weights, it can be easy to become lazy and go through the motions. A disciplined athlete performs each rep using proper form, focusing on barbell velocity. Lazy movement turns dynamic effort work into repeated effort work.
Finally, during our accessory exercise, we want to be disciplined in our execution and adherence to set and rep schemes. This means no cutting corners, using poor form, or skipping sets or reps. As we mentioned above, when you know all of the work has been done correctly, you develop a high level of confidence. Always take accessory exercises seriously.
A disciplined mindset and approach to training will never fail you.
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Verkhoshansky, Y., & Siff, M. C. (2009). Supertraining. Verkhoshansky.
Zatsiorsky, V. M., & Kraemer, W. J. (2006). Science and Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics