We all remember what it was like when we first started going to the gym and reading fitness articles: if someone was stronger than you, then you listened to them.
When you’re starting out, that’s all the proof you need — stronger people must be doing everything right, right? But trust us, if we could talk to any beginner powerlifter, we’d tell them not to believe everything they hear. Break these powerlifting “rules” that won’t go away.
1) If You Can Lift More than 5 Reps, The Weight Is Too Light
“High rep sets are nothing but cardio.”
A lot of people associate medium to high rep sets with bodybuilding, not strength. We get that some folks see a rivalry between bodybuilders and powerlifters (“They’re all show and no go!”) but there’s no reason to dismiss this kind of training.
First of all, there are a lot of reasons a powerlifter might want to focus on hypertrophy now and then. Larger muscles can lead to higher amounts of muscle tension and more explosive strength and power capacity in the lower extremities.
Second, higher reps do more than give your muscles some stimulus to grow. Particularly when used with assistance exercises, they increase strength in the tendons and ligaments, and varying rep and set schemes can be a very useful way to bust through training plateaus.
“Don’t be afraid of volume,” says Paulie Steinman, the head coach and owner of South Brooklyn Weightlifting Club. “I’m tired of hearing that any movement above three reps is cardio. The only reason it’s cardio is because you are out of shape!”
2) Don’t Waste Time On Accessories
“Squat, bench, dead, repeat.”
The big three are great markers of overall strength, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only exercises you need to do.
“The newer kind of powerlifting crowd is only concerned with doing the compound lifts,” says John Gaglione, a strength coach based in New York state and owner of Gaglione Strength. “Dave Tate liked saying if your chest, shoulders, and back can all bench 315 but your triceps can only bench 275, then you can only bench 275. If you’re only doing compound lifts, you’re always gonna favor your strong muscle groups and not target those weak points unless you’re doing an isolation movement where you’re targeting your triceps, in that instance.”
Isolation exercises can also be super important for avoiding injury and muscle imbalances. Rear delt flies, for instance, can be very useful for rounding out shoulder strength and attenuating strain caused by the bench. Hamstring curls can be just what the doctor ordered to help connect the chain in a lagging deadlift. Even the widely-mocked bicep curl can help to improve pulling power and tricep lockout performance and reduce bicep injuries from deadlifts.
3) Arching During the Bench Is Bad for You
“You’re cruising for a lumbar injury, bro.”
“A myth is that you should not have an arch, therefore, that arching on a bench will hurt your back,” says Jennifer Thompson, the IPF World Record Holder in the Bench Press in the 63kg class. “In reality, getting an arch lets you use your pec muscles. Having no arch makes you use your shoulders more, often causing injury.”
The reality is that if you don’t have a pre-existing back condition, a moderate arch is unlikely to cause problems, is healthier for the shoulders, and can activate more of the lower pectoral muscle. There is some force exerted on the lower back, but it’s roughly equivalent to the force produced by lightweight squatting.
4) Don’t Bench Press More Than Once a Week
“The body can only handle one muscle group being trained per day each week.”
The 1990s called, they want their programming back.
“Why do you think you have a poverty bench?” asks Steinman. “Oh, it’s because you are only bench pressing once a week. Bench press more often! At SBWC, we have our lifters bench press up to four times per week.”
Hitting the bench once per week at super high intensity is one way to progress, but again, varying your workouts — be it sets, reps, or frequency — can be a really useful way to get stronger. Exposing your muscles to a stimulus more often can result in faster adaptation, plus it can help ingrain technique and improve neurological efficiency.
Sure, going to failure on every set, every day, every week is a likely to strain your pecs and shoulders, but it’s not as taxing a movement as a deadlift — you can experiment with higher frequency benching.
5) Don’t Do Steady State Cardio
“It eats your gains! Don’t you want to gain muscle!?”
Steady state cardio has been getting a serious beating lately. Most fitness gurus have dropped it in favor of super intense interval training, metcons, or simply dieting to lose fat without doing any cardio at all.
“A lot of people think they should only do HIIT if they’re a lifter, but a lot of the time i think the opposite is true,” says Gaglione. “If you’re working that energy system that’s really high intensity, I think it’s a good idea to do some aerobic work, because then you’re not tapping into that pathway. As you approach a competition, four to six weeks out, you can probably cut it.”
“The aerobic energy system dictates your ability to recover between high intensity efforts,” adds James de Lacey, a strength and conditioning coach at Dime Performance. “Ignoring aerobic work in favor of high intensity cardio is just hampering your recovery and stacking more stress on your body. When aerobic work is done at a low enough intensity and is spent off feet, it can also double as a recovery session decreasing soreness and promoting blood flow.”
Cardiovascular exercise has heart health benefits that your standard “heavy sets and four minutes of rest” powerlifting doesn’t: it can improve blood flow, heart health, it’ll help you train longer and stay healthier, it can improve recovery between sets, and it won’t tax your muscles to the same degree as a bodyweight or functional fitness-style metcon will.
“I’m a really good example of someone who use to think lower intensity cardio was useless,” says Gaglione. “The last time i competed multiply, I squatted 900 and ended up kinda bombing out on the bench, and one of the reasons was I didn’t have enough general fitness to recover from that big squat. One of the things that’s been helping me a lot lately with my own training has been low intensity cardio. I like a low incline on the treadmill, with my heart rate at 120 to 140 beats per minute for twenty to thirty minutes.”
What other lifting rules have you learned you need to break? Let us know in the comments below!