If you have paid any attention, you have likely noticed over the past ~4-5 years that there has been a dramatically increasing trend for physique-focused athletes taking a more progressive strength-based approach to their off-season programming. Before I go any further, for the purposes of this article “physique-focused athlete” refers to any athlete that requires a fake tan come competition day (bodybuilders, figure, bikini, fitness, physique, etc).
The concept of strength focused progression for this demographic of athlete is commonly met with both acceptance by some and criticism by others. The common refute: “strength doesn’t matter on stage” rebuttal. While this is certainly correct, it ignores the process of going from point A to point B and the significance getting stronger can have on the outcome.
DEFINING POINT B
Point B is typically a more developed, proportionate, and often more conditioned version of their previous showing. So while conditioning is more related to prep itself, being a mature athlete in the off-season goes a long way in setting themselves up for success when prep commences. But as far as overall development, it is well known that the off-season is where the progress is made. An off-season programming plan is essential soon after stepping off the stage, and it goes well beyond mimicking the workout posted by your favourite pro on social media.
So in the quest for a structured off-season approach, why are more physique focused athletes turning to a plan focused around increasing strength and even pursuing competitive powerlifting? Let’s examine the behavioural aspect first.
STRENGTH PROGRESSION IS A FUN WAY TO QUANTIFY PROGRESS.
This is especially true when body fat levels reach more or less their set point (or above), when gains in muscularity become more “masked”. Its numerical nature of progression can provide that motivation to stay consistent. This is a topic for another article, but you should enjoy the process – it is what got you lifting to begin with. For many, an extended off-season filled with progress based around chasing pumps, perceived effort, and vomiting for #gainz only sounds appealing to a point.
POWERLIFTING CAN SERVE TO FUEL THE COMPETITIVE FLAME THAT WE HAVE AS ATHLETES.
Many physique athletes (especially natural athletes) go 2-4 years between competitive seasons. Powerlifting can help establish short term goals and objectives to keep the ship aimed in the right direction. Gradually adding a couple hundred pounds to your total is likely going to be reflected on your physique the next time you step on stage.
NO DIETING IS REQUIRED.
Outside of dropping a few pounds to make a weight class, or intentionally dropping a weight class, no dieting is necessary to compete at your best and be competitive. This obviously cannot be said with regards to competitive bodybuilding, figure, etc.
Behavioural perks aside, the athlete still wants to progress towards Point B in an optimal manner. What good is the programming if it doesn’t help us optimize our outcome?
EMPHASIS ON POSTERIOR CHAIN
Fortunately (and unfortunately for some), the nature and demand of the squat and deadlift place a lot of emphasis on areas that set apart winning physiques. They say shows are won from the back. A well-developed posterior chain is an outcome that often displays time under the bar and time spent moving heavy loads. I have yet to see an athlete’s posterior chain not completely transform after they begin focusing on strength progression within these lifts.
While the debate and research examining sarcoplasmic vs myofibrillar hypertrophy is still not cut and dry, there seems to be an anecdotal improvement in “muscular density” that these dual athletes display once they diet down.
Like just about everything in iron sports, however, things are often taken too far to an extreme and the ship may get bumped off course. There seems to be a tendency for many physique focused athletes playing powerlifter to lose sight of their primary objective, assuming the primary objective is still physique progression.
NEGLECTING WEAK BODYPARTS
If you have lagging arms then squatting even more isn’t going to help (guilty). We have a limited amount of adaptive reserves. Spending the whole bank on bringing up your squat is going to likely be sacrificing overall development.
SACRIFICING OVERALL TRAINING VOLUME
Not only is recovery capacity limited, time is often a limiting factor. Completely ignoring rep ranges conducive for efficiently accumulating volume within the time allotted is not beneficial for point B long term.
If an athlete is trying to rack up hypertrophic volumes strictly with higher intensities then joint health can be compromised. This is very individual but its easy to see how this can become an issue.
Balance can and should still be maintained, and that the right balance will optimize both strength AND hypertrophy outcomes (will be expanded later in this series). It’s entirely possible to peak for a powerlifting meet while still being a physique-focused athlete. It’s entirely possible to steadily improve your 1 RM on the “Big 3” while improving substantially all aspects of your physique.
So how can these athletes accomplish both and use powerlifting to their benefit, without pulling emphasis off of their long term objective? As readers of this website, I’m sure you understand the importance of periodizing one’s training. A properly designed off-season training approach can allow athletes to compete in powerlifting while still optimizing their development. That’s what this series will examine and strive to fine tune.
Unfortunately, properly periodized programming seems more or less absent in the mainstream bodybuilding world to begin with. We are an outcome-driven society, so if we see a positive effect our beliefs gravitate towards what got us there. Was it really those triple banded drop sets with the isometric squeeze and the angled pinkies that led to the hypertrophy? Or was it merely an adaptation to the overall volume of training that occurred? Results by proxy not by design. That seems to be a common theme in bodybuilding circles. I believe as a whole we need to be more objective in the sport of bodybuilding and put more stock in foundational principles.
While I’m not bashing hard work by any means, we should strive for efficiency. We want to build the foundation of our programming on proven concepts and when appropriate, discard the rest as wasted motion.
Aspire to Inspire.